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Sierra Magazine

Sierra's January/February 2004 Let's Talk book selection:
The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century
by Paul Krugman

The Great Unraveling What it's about
Economists are supposed to be boring. Paul Krugman is anything but. A Princeton professor, twice-weekly columnist for the New York Times, and author of 18 books, he's been labeled an "enfant terrible," "America's most controversial economist," and a shoo-in for the Nobel Prize. In The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century (W. W. Norton), a collection of his Times columns between 2000 and mid-2003, Krugman's gift for plain English demystifies complex political and economic policies and, to the detriment of the Bush administration, shows many of those policies to be absurd. From the bankrupting of the federal treasury to backpedaling on the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, The Great Unraveling rips into those who would compromise future generations for short-term gain.

By his own admission, Krugman didn't expect to devote much of his Times column to domestic politics, "since everyone assumed that American policy would remain sensible and responsible." It didn't, and Krugman quickly saw that in the Bush administration we were dealing with a "world-class mendacity" that outraged him. "When you learn that the official now in charge of forest policy is a former timber-industry lobbyist," Krugman writes in a typical column, "you can surmise that the 'healthy forests' initiative, under which logging companies will be allowed to cut down more trees, isn't about preventing forest fires." Essays in chapters 12 and 13 are focused on environmental issues, but the entire book--which chronicles the Bush administration's failure of governance and its "rise and growing dominance [as] a radical political movement"--is well worth the read.

Where to get it
Try your local library or your favorite bookstore. Or order direct from the publisher at To get a taste of what's on offer, you can read "Bush on Fire" from The Great Unraveling; it's free at

About the author
"I sometimes find it necessary to name names—to illustrate a particular bad idea by citing an actual example of a prominent person who espouses that idea," says Paul Krugman, 50. But the economic iconoclast (who jokes that he's just "poorly socialized") is an equal-opportunity debunker: Anti-globalization activists vilified him after he published his pro-free-trade tome Pop Internationalism (MIT Press, 1996), while Rush Limbaugh blames him for leading the New York Times into left-wing perdition with his twice-weekly column on current affairs. The author of hundreds of articles and 18 books, including Peddling Prosperity (W. W. Norton, 1994), The Accidental Theorist (W. W. Norton, 1999), and the current New York Times bestseller The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century (W. W. Norton, 2003), Krugman obtained his B.A. from Yale in 1974 and his doctorate in 1977 from MIT. He's taught economics at Yale, Stanford, MIT, and now Princeton, and was a senior economist at the Council of Economic Advisers from 1982 to '83. Rumor has it that Krugman lost out on a place in the Clinton administration because he was too attitudinal. Perhaps. But independent and clear-headed thinking—as well as a disinterest in becoming a beltway insider—have helped Krugman fearlessly hit (and usually demolish) just about every hot-button idea that the Bush administration brings forth.

Discussion questions Printable version of questions

  • The Bush administration says it wants to make environmental policy smarter, but Krugman argues that what it really wants is less regulation of any kind. Is the administration anti-environmental? What are some examples and what do you think influences the administration's thinking and actions when it comes to the environment?

  • Are free markets and environmental protection inherently incompatible?
  • Krugman notes that Cheney's energy task force was convened in the midst of California's 2001 energy crisis. "It concluded, in brief, that the energy crisis was a long-term problem caused by meddling bureaucrats and pesky environmentalists, who weren't letting big companies do what needed to be done. The solution? Scrap environmental rules, and give the energy industry multibillion-dollar subsidies." What do you think was behind the energy crisis? Was Cheney right or were other influences at work?
  • Krugman uses the term "incestuous amplification" to explain what happened when Cheney packed his energy task force with like-minded men, mostly energy executives. Incestuous amplification is a military term, defined as "a condition in warfare where one only listens to those who are already in lockstep agreement, reinforcing set beliefs and creating a situation ripe for miscalculation." Is that what happened with the task force? Who would have been on your energy task force? Are there other examples of incestuous amplification in Bush administration policies?
  • Did conservation have anything to do with improving California's energy situation? How? Is conservation just a "sign of personal virtue" as Cheney called it, or does it have a place in a national energy policy?
  • In response to rising energy and gasoline prices, how has the Bush administration used market-based arguments for its pro-drilling policies? Do these arguments hold water?
  • Do SUVs get an unfair rap from environmentalists, or has their proliferation really had a disproportionate impact on both air quality and the price of gas?
  • Krugman says that "on environmental issues the administration is clearly out of step with the public. Its indifference to the fate of the planet would be quite unpopular if it were generally appreciated." Do you think this is true? If so, why don't more people know about the administration's environmental policies? How can the environment and what the Bush administration is doing to it become a priority issue in the 2004 presidential campaign? What issues are most important to bring to the fore?
  • In discussing Bush's "Healthy Forests Initiative," Krugman says that the "plan reads like a parody of his administration's standard operating procedure: . . . environmentalists cause forest fires, and those nice corporations will solve the problem if we get out of the way." Is Krugman being too harsh, or do initiatives like Healthy Forests or Clear Skies do the opposite of what the Bush administration says they do--protect forests and clean up polluted air? What would [I]your[/I] Healthy Forests and Clear Skies initiatives look like?
  • Do you think Krugman has compromised his intellectual influence by taking off the gloves and going after the Bush administration so relentlessly on issues from the environment to the war in Iraq?
  • Links
    Paul Krugman has two official Web sites. The newer one,, is under development as he transfers files from the older one, at

    Krugman's New York Times columns can be read at

    The unofficial Paul Krugman archive,, is a fan site with many of Krugman's articles, as well as links to other information about him.

    For interviews of Krugman, visit,, and Krugman also recommends that people read the Allan Sloan column "The Brainteaser of Deficit Math" in Newsweek, at

    For more information on SUVs and fuel efficiency, try or For the Sierra Club's take on SUVs, check out

    For more information about the California energy crisis and Cheney's Energy Task Force, see the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at Also, visit the Natural Resources Defense Council's breakdown of the task force's actions at or Judicial Watch at offers the EPA's take on the so-called Clear Skies Initiative, while the Sierra Club's view can be found at

    For U.S. Department of Agriculture information on Bush's ill-conceived forests initiative, visit The Sierra Club's perspective can be found at

    Take action
    To take action on issues from healthy forests to clean energy, visit

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