In light of the recent imposition of capital controls in Greece and the looming prospect of a Grexit, now seems like as good a time as any to talk about economists punching one another.
Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, New York Times columnist, and co-author of an excellent International Economics textbook (amongst others), has the mien of a vituperative hobgoblin. Judging by the picture next to his byline, he wants to punch someone in the face. (And considering the state of the economy, can you blame him?) Luckily for Krugman and members of the public who aren’t big Hayek fans, the fine folks at Bloomberg Business have created a side-scrolling feature, “Krugman Battles the Austerians,” that turns the dismal science into a boxing match without risking any actual injuries.
Like a macroeconomic version of the seminal Japanese arcade game Kung-Fu Master, “Krugman Battles the Austerians” chronicles its namesake’s public beefs, of which there have been many. Bloomberg’s Jeremy Kahn notes that Krugman once accused “Sweden’s Riksbank of ‘sadomenatrism’.” The Riksbank’s Deputy Governor—a man surely known for his ferocious ripostes—later asked, “has he ever had a look at the data?” If these sorts of exchanges don’t fill your heart with glee, that’s what the fighting is for. Between side-scrolling blocks of text, Krugman is shown raising his fists, deflecting his adversaries’ punches, lifting foes over his head using just his fists, and emerging victorious. Those adversaries, including British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, are identified with traditional videogame power meters.
Major conflicts in economic thought have recently proven to be surprisingly good fodder for tongue-in-cheek interpretation. Leading the charge is EconStories, a “media channel” that has produced an array of videos that integrate cultural references with major economic debates. EconStories’ biggest hit is a trilogy devoted to the conflict between Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes. In one of the videos, their ideas are explained by way of a rap. Krugman, who broadly sides with Keynes’ writing on these matters, is engaged in a modern day version of this debate.
Although “Krugman Battles the Austerians” is amusing, it is also a depressing reflection of what now passes as public discourse. “Thinking ‘economistically’, as we have done now for thirty years, is not intrinsic to humans,” the historian Tony Judt wrote in Ill Fares the Land. Treating every issue as a mere battle amongst economists discounts social, political, and—dare I say—moral considerations. Yet if society insists on handing over the first and last words to the economists, it would at least be nice to let them offer more than a few bon mots. “Krugman Battles the Austerians” captures this strange moment in time where Paul Krugman serves roughly the same cultural role as John Oliver: a public figure who can be counted on to ‘destroy’ and ‘tear apart’ and do whatever else the Gods of clickbait requires. The lo-fi punching is indeed fun but after scrolling through all the pith and choice quotes, it’s hard not to feel like you’re the one who has been repeatedly punched in the face.