“Boy, do I get hate mail,” Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman told "Off The Cuff." “There’s a lot of people who really, really hate what I say. I get a lot of stuff calling me a communist, a liar, and actually, various misspellings.”
And that’s just the family-friendly version.
Krugman is a professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University. He’s the author or co-author of seven books, but it’s his work as an op-ed columnist for the New York Times that draws the ire of his correspondents. He’s been criticized Left, and Right. To some, he’s a liberal polemicist and East Coast elitist; to others, he's a doomsayer who’s been overly critical of the Obama administration.
“It's shocking when you first encounter it. It’s ‘Oh my God, they hate me,’” he said. "I think that most people doing journalistic commentary stuff, they encounter that first wave of hate and they back down. I've been through that to the other side, where I actually almost enjoy it.”
He delights in the crank calls. “I have fun now, particularly on my office phone, because people leave voice mails, and we now have speech recognition which is pretty terrible,” he said. “I get a wildly obscene rant on my office phone, and then I get the transcript of what the software thinks the person said. And it’s often hilarious.”
Then, there are the fans. “I have clearly have a lot of really fanatical supporters—most of them over the age of 70. So … groupies is not something that happens,” he said. “I don't wander around in a cloud of paparazzi. It doesn't change the ordinariness of life, which is good, because I'm an ordinary type of person.”
He claimed he keeps his Nobel prize “stuffed in a plastic bin with a bunch of papers.”
He’s described himself as “a loner". “I’m not pathologically shy,” he told "Off The Cuff." “I'm ready to open up full on why I think that the deficit obsession is a really bad idea. I'm a lot less prepared to open up full on private life. I'm really not good at all at making small talk about last night's game.”
Krugman's accidental celebrity seems to have taken him by surprise. After all, the path from dismal scientist to polarizing-public-figure-with-fan-base is not a common one. “When I was doing my differential equations in grad school, I never thought that I'd have to learn how to take makeup off after TV appearances, but it's turned out that that's something I have to do now and then.”
Krugman funded his studies by working as a letter carrier in Queens, N.Y. , in the early 1970’s. “In terms of the actual, hour-to-hour experience, that may have been the best job I ever had. Everybody likes the mailman, right? You wander around, saying ‘hello’ to people.”
He grew up on Long Island, N.Y., and was inspired to study economics by a childhood fantasy. “Oh, that's a funny story. When I was a teenager, I got into science fiction. Isaac Asimov had this classic set of novels, the Foundation novels, which were about how the ‘psycho-historians,' social scientists with a mathematical theory of human behavior, saved galactic civilization. I wanted to be one of those guys, and this was as close as I could get.”
Krugman lives in Princeton, N.J., with his wife Robin Wells, an economist and yoga teacher who has co-authored several books with her husband. So, who’s in charge of the family finances? “Oh, Robin, of course, the Nobel prize winner said. "I mean, I'm good at thinking about big macroeconomic issues, but balancing a checkbook—boy, no.”
His advice to the amateur investor “is just to be very conservative. Don't try to outsmart the market. You know, if you're going be in stocks, do it with an index fund. The stock market is volatile. Basically, the whole financial speculation, that's a game for people with deep pockets. And most people should just be living a cautious financial lifestyle.”
Krugman’s outlook on the future is equally guarded. “I am fairly optimistic about the next five years or so,” he said. "I think we actually are probably seeing the U.S. economy is—much too slowly—but it is recovering. Beyond that, wow. There’s all these things going on in the world. There are technologies which are not necessarily particularly friendly to human beings. There's the environmental issues, which are scary as anything. So I don't know. I try to be optimistic. But I'm certainly not full of reassurance that things are going be fine. They might very well not be.”