The Great Unravelling by Paul Krugman

The greed and cynicism of George Bush
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The Independent Culture

This is a collection of columns written in the past three years by a world famous economists. It's a period we recognise as a turning-point in the world of business and American politics. Events such as the dotcom boom and bust, corporate scandals, the election of George Bush, 9/11 and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have conspired to turn Paul Krugman into the most prominent and scathing of President Bush's critics, thanks to his platform on the opinion pages of The New York Times.

It's a surprising role for a stereotypically absent-minded, mild-mannered economics professor. But as Krugman himself points out, nobody else much in the US is criticising the administration; certainly not the political press. Krugman takes journalists to task for their pretence of balance when they should know better: "Shape of Earth: Views Differ," as he describes this approach.

It is this accidental role as unofficial opposition to the Bush administration, rather than his brilliance as an academic economist, that has rocketed Krugman to fame. He has become a hate figure for many Republican commentators - not surprising, given statements such as this: "It is a simple fact that George W Bush and Dick Cheney got rich through pretty much the same tricks, albeit on a smaller scale, as those that enriched executives at Enron and other scandal-ridden corporations."

The merit of this collection of columns - a format which can sometimes feel stale when events are moving fast - is the relentless accumulation of detail documenting such claims. As the author says, it is hard for Americans to believe their elected leaders are using the machinery of government to enrich themselves and their cronies, and to undermine the democratic system. He argues that the radical right is "a movement whose leaders do not accept the legitimacy of our current political system."

It's difficult to believe this can be true, but it is equally hard to fault the evidence that Krugman amasses. He brings to his columns the great virtues of a good economist - analytical clarity and profound respect for facts - and combines a stellar intellect with a wonderfully fluent style. After all, how many economists cite Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Congressional Budget Office? Despite its alarming message, this book is a pleasure to read.

Although most columns are about US politics, plenty also illustrate why Krugman is the most admired economist of his generation. He has almost X-ray powers of vision into the heart of complex problems and, whether writing about the Californian energy crisis or the World Trade Organisation, he makes the analysis crystal-clear. Krugman joins a handful of outstanding economists, such as John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman, in combining academic brilliance and passionate engagement with public policy.

I hope he's wrong about the greed and cynicism of President Bush and his circle, but fear he may be right. After all, this matters a great deal to the rest of us. Read the book, and you can never say you weren't warned.

Diane Coyle's latest book is 'Sex, Drugs and Economics' (Texere)

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