Paul Krugman on Fighting Zombies, How He Works and Writes, and Where the United States Is Headed

January 28, 2020

The distinguished professor, Nobel laureate, and Times columnist has a new book. He shares his writing tips and his predictions.

Paul Krugman (Credit: Fred R. Conrad New York Times) and his new book, Arguing With Zombies.
Paul Krugman (Credit: Fred R. Conrad New York Times) and his new book, Arguing With Zombies.

Distinguished Professor Paul Krugman (Economics) received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on international trade theory, but he is best known to the general public — and to his 4.5 million Twitter followers — as an op-ed columnist and blogger for The New York Times.
The very best of those columns, along with other essays, are now available in his latest book: Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future. Krugman, who is also a core faculty member of the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality, will be speaking about his book at The Graduate Center on March 12. As he prepares for his book tour, he took the time to answer a few questions about Zombies:
The Graduate Center: One of the pieces included at the end of your book is your essay “How I Work,” published in Sage in 1993. How has the way you work changed in the last 27 years?
Krugman: Along with economics in general, I’ve become a lot more data driven. In 1990 you could describe a general phenomenon in qualitative terms, offer a model that made sense of it, and call your work done. These days pretty much everyone expects quite a bit of data analysis, even if it’s very simple. So I do a lot more number-crunching.
GC: In that same 1993 piece, you mention a few regrets, including that you hadn't engaged in heavy empirical work and hadn’t yet generated “a string of really fine students, the kind that reflect glory on their teacher.” Do you still have those regrets?
Krugman: Since then I’ve seen several of my students do great things — people like Richard Baldwin and Gordon Hanson, who’ve done important work on globalization, or Catherine Mann, who was a terrific chief economist at the OECD. So that’s less of a regret. I still wish I’d done some bigger empirical projects.
GC: What is your writing process for your Times column? Do you have any advice for researchers who hope to reach a wider audience yet struggle with writing in an accessible, nonacademic style?
Krugman: I’m more or less constantly looking for interesting news items and data that might make for a good column, and archiving it. On the day one is due, I look at the news to see what might make an impact that day, sketch out a rough outline of how the argument should go, and just start writing.
The most important advice I have to give is to think about what your readers know — and what they don’t. There are a lot of simple points that can be revelatory to even well-informed readers, but you have to convey them without either jargon or condescension.
Oh, and you need some entertainment value — a hook to reel them in at the beginning, a stinger at the end so they know what they’ve learned.
GC: You say you’re not sure that the fight for truth and justice — basically, the fight against zombies — can ever be truly won, but it can be lost. Where do you think we're headed? 
Krugman: Honestly, I think it’s 50-50. I’m deeply worried that America may be going down a Hungary-type path, with the formal institutions of democracy but muzzled media and de facto one-party rule.