Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Notes on Krugman's Nobel

When the Nobel Committee gave the top economics prize in the world to Paul Krugman, few people were more surprised than me. Not because I think little of Krugman's academic work. The embarrassing truth is I don't know enough about that to think little of it. No, it was because as a regular reader of Krugman's blog, I felt like I knew the guy, and I had no idea he was Nobel material. It's like finding out your neighbor was once a choreographer for Madonna, or that your eighth-grade English teacher anonymously penned Suite Francaise.

Over the course of this essay, I came to realize how little I knew about the columnist I thought I knew. Interestingly enough, Krugman and I come from similar backgrounds (perhaps this isn't interesting, at least a million kids come from the same suburban, science-fiction reading background these days). I didn't like the Foundation trilogy, but I was equivalently socially inept. When boys asked me to dance at school events, I ran away and hid in the bleachers. More than once.

I wish I could say I've outgrown all that, but that's not the point. In college, economics was my second major, but I didn't really discover the field until my junior year. In fact, I was on the verge of dropping it when I took a course in international developmental economics. For a future wonk, stumbling upon this class was like finally finding the wardrobe that led to Narnia. For the first time I felt passionately about the models, and like Krugman, I conceived a senior thesis. My professor loved the subject. She went so far as to tell me, at our first meeting, that "this is the stuff that changes economics." She promised to call her agricultural economist friends to help me get the data I needed, data that would require a journey "to hell and back" in order to trace.

I was intimidated but fired up. And then the proposal imploded. I became afraid. I had spent my entire life up until that moment passionately pursuing the most difficult academic subjects. But I didn't have a lot of friends. I abandoned the project without telling my advisor. I let my research lapse, I focused on finding an apartment for senior year, I applied for a creative writing program that fell through.

I told myself I needed that summer to concentrate on journalism, and it was true. Without the writing experience I got that summer, I wouldn't be working as a writer today. Maybe.

Life cannot be predicted. We all wonder what might have been, and the road not taken is a human reality. This much I do know: I walked away from that option, and I've questioned it ever since. When Krugman writes about how deeply the subject fulfills him, I remember how heady it was for me to immerse myself briefly in the world of ideas. The world of making ideas, I should say, since journalism is its own world of ideas. And I wonder if I made a mistake.

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