Commentary Magazine


What an Economist Thinks Poetry Is

There’s an eye-opening profile of Paul Krugman, the economist and lickspittle New York Times columnist, in the New Yorker this week. (Among its revelations: He became an economist owing to a character in an Isaac Asimov novel; his future wife was so angry when Ronald Reagan was elected president that she left the country for England; and he thought his life was in danger because people wrote him angry e-mails about some columns after 9/11.)

The most interesting detail in the piece has to do with Krugman’s academic work, which won him a Nobel Prize. Evidently, it is actually entirely commonsensical and not all that surprising in its exploration of the reasons why some businesses develop in certain places — but it was outside the norm for academic economists and so it blew them away. His particular gift, according to the piece, was his ability to translate lucid ideas into mathematical formulae; you would think the reverse would be the case for a genuinely significant contribution to the world of ideas, but never mind. Here is the Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff describing Krugman’s accomplishment:

“It’s poetry,” Kenneth Rogoff, an economist at Harvard, says. “I mean, you go back to his first book and there was this beautiful chart about what the Volcker contraction did to output that swept aside so much—he just drew this little graph which really cleared the air. I’ve heard economists use the word ‘poet’ in describing him for decades.”

Yes. A beautiful chart about the Volcker contraction. That’s just what I think of when I see the word poetry.