Sunday, April 29, 2007

When the news came that the stock market had broken 13,000 last Wednesday, I thought I heard the strangest sound in the background: quiet sobbing.

Of course. That had to be the New York Times’ man in the economy and all-around pundit, Paul Krugman, crying in his beer. Though, given today’s economy, he is probably drinking the best single-malt Scotch on the market.

But nothing seems to depress this expert like good news. Here the stock market is at an all-time high, the unemployment rate keeps dropping below low, but our expert keeps warning that The End Is Near. It’s kind of funny in an unintended way. Think Woody Allen doing Shakespearean tragedy.

For just a moment there, when the stock market had its big hiccup so long ago — back in February, which now seems the Middle Ages — Mr. Krugman could scarcely contain his glee. He was Mr. Happiness himself. For at last his hour had come. Hot dawg. All those sinners would see the error of their ways now.

Exulting in the coming woe, our own academic Eeyore dashed off a fantasy dated Feb. 27, 2008, in which he looked back — with ill-concealed satisfaction — at the dire fate he had long foreseen for the American economy. His cheery vision began: “The great market meltdown of 2007 began exactly a year ago, with a 9 percent fall in the Shanghai market, followed by a 416-point slide in the Dow.”

That classic of a column foresaw the disaster that would surely be under way by now, like a gathering economic tsunami: “For a couple of months after the shock of Feb. 27, markets oscillated wildly, soaring on bits of apparent good news, then plunging again. But by late spring, it was clear that the self-reinforcing cycle of complacency had given way to a self-reinforcing cycle of anxiety.” Translation: Come on, Catastrophe. After all, this is a guy who lives for a repeat of 1929.

Not till the end of that column did Mr. Krugman hedge his doomsday scenario in case the American economy rebounded. And rebound it did — fast but not furious; just steadily. Prosperity has become almost routine. And poor Paul Krugman has lapsed into a resentful funk. He seems to have fallen silent on the Great Meltdown of 2007 — much like a professional mourner ever waiting for the big funeral that never comes.

Not since Stan Laurel has sadness been so funny. Here our expert — he teaches economics somewhere in the Ivy League, doesn’t he? — was fully expecting to be followed by a whole herd of bears into the biggest sell-off since the dot-com bubble burst, and what happened was… pretty much nothing. Just another undramatic recovery. Dang.

It is not just Mr. Krugman’s recurrent prophecies of another Crash that impress — he has been making those since memories runneth not to the contrary — but the uncanny effect he has on the market. He no sooner predicts disaster than the dawgone thing goes sky-high again, setting new records. Like the hoofer who is told to play Sophocles but can’t stop breaking into musical comedy.

Surely another dip in the market is bound to come — so long as there’s a business cycle — but Paul Krugman’s magic touch keeps delaying it, turning every down into still another unstoppable up. It’s positively unnatural. The man is a kind of walking, talking, and, best of all, writing version of Al Capp’s poor little jinx of a character, Joe Btfsplk — only in reverse, leaving not disaster but good fortune wherever he goes. The New York Stock Exchange ought to put him on retainer. If only Paul Krugman would just keep writing about the coming End of It All, prosperity might be assured.

Then there’s the language in which Mr. Krugman sends out his jeremiads. It is, in a word, hilarious — if unintentionally so. He has to be the country’s leading practitioner of purple-as-a-bad-bruise prose. Mrs. Malaprop might have spoken like that if only she’d had a Ph.D. in the dismal science.

I’ve saved my favorite Krugmanism of all time for those occasions when I may need a bit of cheering up: “And when the chickens that didn’t hatch come home to roost, we will rue the days when, misled by sloppy accounting and rosy scenarios, we gave away the national nest egg.”

As prose, that’s a lot of poultry. Try to visualize those chickens that didn’t hatch coming home to roost, if you can stop laughing. Why, that’s almost Zen, like the sound of one hand clapping. His reference to the national nest egg is just lagniappe.

I can’t wait to read the professor’s next jeremiad about the imminent Crash; the economy can always use a little help, and so can the nation’s sense of humor.


Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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