That’s All a Nobel Prize Winner Gets Paid?

The only thing hypocritical about acclaimed economist Paul Krugman’s CUNY salary is the right-wingers suddenly begrudging someone his free-market value.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters

When I first read those articles Wednesday about Paul Krugman’s new City University of New York salary, I didn’t even understand what the “story” was supposed to be. I don’t mind admitting that I had to have it explained to me that the $225,000 figure was supposed to mark some kind of hypocrisy on Krugman’s part. Oh, please. The only hypocrisy on display here, as usual, is that of his right-wing critics, suddenly begrudging someone his free-market value.

Actually, not even. Paul Krugman is one of the most distinguished and accomplished economists in the United States. In the world. In economics, there are two great prizes: the John Bates Clark Medal, which goes to the outstanding American economist under 40; and of course the Nobel Prize. Since the Clark Medal has been awarded, starting in 1947, 12 winners have gone on to win Nobels. That’s your economics Dream Tream of the past half-century: Robert Solow, Joseph Stiglitz, James Heckman, and yes, conservatives, Milton Friedman. Krugman is on it.

Do you truly mean to tell me that someone who’s accomplished such notoriety is worth only $225,000 a year to his academic institution? Sure, that’s a lot of cabbage to your average American. But in the kind of precincts we’re talking about here, it’s modest. Almost absurdly modest. Krugman, who is leaving Princeton, is easily worth twice that to CUNY. And while Princeton salaries are private, it would be shocking, to me anyway, if he wasn’t making far more than that in Joisey. The average full professor’s salary at Princeton—average!—is $206,200. You wish me to believe that a Nobel Prize is worth only a $19,000 per year premium? Right.

I don’t know what people think superstar academics make. But let me tell you: They make a lot. Another Nobel-winning economist, Thomas Sargent, won the prize in 2011. The next year, he was lured to a university in Seoul for $1 million a year. And loads of top faculty around the country—loads—make more than Krugman will. While researching something else, I took a glance at the salaries given to faculty at the University of Michigan Law School. Nearly three-dozen faculty members there make more than Krugman’s $225,000. Fourteen are north of $500,000. Well, that’s law school, you might argue, they have to pay more. Maybe. But I can promise you you’ve never heard of them (except maybe Catharine MacKinnon, at $297,000). I next searched the University of California system for faculty and staff making between $250,000 and $500,000. Now of course, some of these are administrators, others doctors and medical personnel. But even so, would you have guessed that 2,783 employees of the Cal system make between a quarter and half a mil?

Oh, but it’s not just the amount, they say. It’s that he’s getting the money to study inequality. So that’s somehow ironic and hypocritical.

Spare me. So that’s how society should be organized—that one’s own pay should reflect the general wage milieu of one’s area of study? That’s totally and obviously preposterous. Should an avowed Marxist professor whose field of study is the 0.01 percent therefore be paid $15,000,000 a year? Well, if Krugman should be making only $90,000, or whatever these chowderheads think he should be making, then the answer to my Marxist question is an obvious yes. And hey, what if I decide to write a book about Warren Buffett—how large an advance should I get? This is just ridiculous on its face.

As for the hypocrisy charge, this is nothing more than an attempt by conservatives to impose what I call a “conscience penalty” on liberals, which has the added benefit of letting the conservatives off scot-free.

It goes like this. Liberals, conservatives say, purport to care about the poor. Therefore, if a liberal makes too much money advocating on behalf of the poor, she or he becomes a hypocrite. Conservatives, however, who don’t give a flying fig about the poor and openly admire the rich, are not burdened by conscience and should therefore be assessed no hypocrisy penalty, and can make as much as they damn well please.

It’s utter crap. We live in a capitalist system. I don’t hear conservatives complaining about that too often, or about the crazy compensation earned by hedge-fund people or top corporate officers, whether they’re creating jobs or destroying them. If those people deserve to make what the market will pay them, why doesn’t Paul Krugman? You don’t have to sacrifice personal income just because you care about poor people. Many thousands of liberals do, by the way: Thousands of people who toil away in Washington and elsewhere for underfunded advocacy causes—for consumers and against the banks, say—make a third or a quarter or a fifth or a twentieth of what the people sitting across the negotiating table from them make. God bless them all. But just because they sacrifice income hardly means that those who’ve chosen more potentially lucrative fields and reached the very tip-top of their professions have to.

What conservatives really don’t like, of course, is that Paul Krugman is dangerous. He’s amazingly good at what he does. His Times columns run stakes through the heart of these idiotic right-wing claims on a regular basis. They can’t refute his facts, so they take nuggets like this, and rely on the general public’s profound naiveté about what people in Krugman’s category in life earn, and try to give him a little black eye. Don’t buy it. The only hypocrites here are the self-proclaimed lovers of capitalism who think a man who’s obviously earned it should be penalized for his belief system while their friends at the big banks who nearly ruined the country should continue to skate away.

I’ll tell you what. If the idea is that people should discuss only those in their general income bracket, I’ll be happy to press Krugman to accept $40,000 from CUNY (he’ll still draw his Times salary, after all) if my counterparts on the right will press the 1 percenters, from David Koch to Wall Street Journal editorial writers to virtually everyone who appears on the Sunday talk shows, to shut up about poor people. I bet he’d take that trade in a City University of New York minute.