Thursday, January 24, 2002

SULLIVAN UNRAVELS (1): By the time I finally had a chance to collect my thoughts, volumes enough had already been written about Andrew Sullivan's eagerness to discover (or imagine) ethical lapses on the part of Paul Krugman, for taking money from Enron before he was hired by the New York Times. Nevertheless, I am still compelled to weigh in, even at this late date.

Despite much head-shaking and tsk-tsking by the usually-sensible Virginia Postrel (you still need to provide an easy way to link to specific entries, dollink!), Glenn Reynolds and others, it now seems apparent to me that Sullivan was either being wholly disingenuous or atypically naive in leveling such damning accusations at Krugman. Otherwise, what exactly was the point of this exercise?

The facts: Krugman did some consulting work for Enron and wrote a puff piece about them for Fortune Magazine in 1999, shortly before becoming a Times columnist. In the course of things, he disclosed this fact in his Times column a year ago. More recently, he disclosed the amount of money he was paid. Fifty grand. Nice work if you can get it!

Okay, that's not exactly walking-around money. But what, exactly, was Sullivan trying to argue? That Krugman should have taken only a Sullivan-sized ($7,500) honorarium to avoid the stench of corruption? That he should have been fired from the Times for having written endlessly about Enron's troubling ethical lapses despite being fairly well-paid for his short consulting stint with them? We should all be so conflicted!

In other words -- as best as I can figure it -- Krugman merely failed to repeat his previous disclosures ad nauseam, and his editors elected to not make explicit a couple of little details which were, by any standard, either self-evident or largely irrelevant. I'm shocked. Shocked.

Where, exactly, is the conflict of interest? Where, even, is the appearance of conflict? If Sullivan could have cited a single instance in which Times columnist Krugman appeared to be unduly generous to his former employer, he certainly managed to keep that scoop under wraps. Should Krugman be disqualified from writing for the Times in perpetuity, solely because he was an admitted Rent-An-Economist in an earlier life? Is there no statute of limitations on the corrupting influence of monies earned prior to becoming a journalist?

The worst fault James Taranto could find was the appearance of defensiveness: "Krugman does look quite silly thumping his chest about "crony capitalism" when he himself has benefited from it and was cheering for today's villains less than three years ago." (Krugman himself remarks that the piece "looks a bit naive now, but it's a love letter to markets, not to Enron.") But Taranto concedes that Krugman "does seem to have complied with the rules of journalistic ethics," and that his failure to disclose the amount of his consulting fee "seems an exceedingly picayune point."

As Times readers well know, Krugman has a long history of railing against the cozy relationship between the entire Bush cabinet and administration senior officials, and various large corporate donors to the Republican party -- including, obviously, Enron. So in what way, then, does Sullivan imagine that cashing Enron's check has permanently corrupted Krugman? Being their paid crony, must Krugman have known -- and failed to warn his readers with sufficient vigor, before the scandals broke wide open -- that Enron would shortly be run into the ground by crooks and scoundrels? Gosh, did Sullivan's portfolio take a pounding in the wake of Enron's bankruptcy? I can only speculate.

Which, in the end, is all that Sullivan has done here: Speculate. I mean, really -- what's his beef? What's eatin' him? What was this tirade about -- if not merely to crap on a liberal-leaning anti-Bush Times columnist for the sheer joy of it?

Andrew Sullivan may well feel that his website is the only outlet where he can really kick back and say what's on his mind, free of editorial constraints -- and no question about it, shrill personal vendettas are loads of fun to read -- but this exercise has added little of value to the public discourse. Sullivan is arguably one of the three or four the most visible (and unarguably one of the most literate and persuasive) representatives of the online punditry community. As such, I would humbly suggest that he has a greater responsibility to temper his opinions with facts -- all available facts, not just the most convenient or spectacular-sounding ones.

(If you happen to read this, Andrew: Rather than merely dissing or casually dismissing him, how about debating Krugman's actual, specific beefs with Bush's economic policy sometime? Isn't that where your real grievances lie?)

Mark Steyn bashes Krugman here.
Jack Shafer of Slate trashes Sullivan here.
Josh Marshall mildly supports Krugman here.
Stromata hammers Krugman (and amplifies many of Sullivan's false accusations) here.
Virginia Postrel -- who originally wrote that "...Sullivan's research will be fatal to Krugman's NYT career" gradually offers Krugman the benefit of her earlier doubt here. (scroll through the entire past week for several relevant entries).
Kevin Deenihan explains what's really wrong with Krugman's columns here.
Andrew Sullivan continues to insist here that, disclosure or no disclosure, he takes it as an article of faith that -- as long as the cash remains in his pocket -- Krugman is permanently tainted by Enron's three-year-old bribe, even without a single concrete example of this taint manifesting itself in Krugman's writings.
Andrew Sullivan's readers weigh in here.
Paul Krugman answers his critics here, here and here.


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