There’s no surer sign that someone has achieved pop star status than that they are the target of a satire. And so it is with Paul Krugman.
But, according to Joshua Clover, pop has its particular tensions and contradictions:
In December, Krugman wrote two blog entries in swift succession: “Rise of the Robots” and “Human Versus Physical Capital.” Inequality, his charts informed him, was itself a consequence of the opposition between capital and labor—specifically the increasing domination of capital in the form of machines—as labor is expelled from the production process. That ratio turns out to be basically the same measure as productivity, sine qua non of economic progress.
Moreover, in a development Krugman couldn’t quite bring himself to declare, his charts suggest that a generally declining labor share since the 1970s has also spelled bad news for overall profitability outside the finance sector. The productivity race wasn’t just unfortunate for the unemployed; it was for capital a poison pill of its own making. Thus Krugman’s comedy: always on the verge of discovering the arguments of a 150-year-old book; always turning away at the last second. In Krugman’s words, “I think our eyes have been averted from the capital/labor dimension of inequality, for several reasons. It didn’t seem crucial back in the 1990s, and not enough people (me included!) have looked up to notice that things have changed. It has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism—which shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts, but too often is. And it has really uncomfortable implications.”
Does it? I suppose so. And that uncomfort is what pop, for all its pleasures, must defer. Pop must affirm the way things are, no matter how often it choruses the word “change.” You cannot be Paul Krugman, Pop Star, and at the same time discover that capital is built to break us, and itself—even if your charts so testify. So you will not be shocked to discover Krugman stepped back from this realization and continued about his business, scarcely speaking of it again. There are some things you do not say. They are not popular.