A great profile on Paul Krugman by Larissa Mac Farquhar in the March 1 New Yorker: The Deflationist. How Paul Krugman found politics. Every part of this is interesting.
Why economics? And especially international economics?
Krugman explained that he’d become an economist because of science fiction. When he was a boy, he’d read Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy and become obsessed with the central character, Hari Seldon. Seldon was a “psychohistorian”—a scientist with such a precise understanding of the mechanics of society that he could predict the course of events thousands of years into the future... He couldn’t predict individual behavior—that was too hard—but it didn’t matter, because history was determined not by individuals but by laws and hidden forces. “If you read other genres of fiction, you can learn about the way people are and the way society is,” Krugman said to the audience, “but you don’t get very much thinking about why are things the way they are, or what might make them different. What would happen if ?”
With Hari Seldon in mind, Krugman went to Yale, in 1970, intending to study history, but he felt that history was too much about what and not enough about why, so he ended up in economics. Economics, he found, examined the same infinitely complicated social reality that history did but, instead of elucidating its complexity, looked for patterns and rules that made the complexity seem simple. Why did some societies have serfs or slaves and others not? You could talk about culture and national character and climate and changing mores and heroes and revolts and the history of agriculture and the Romans and the Christians and the Middle Ages and all the rest of it; or, like Krugman’s economics teacher Evsey Domar, you could argue that if peasants are barely surviving there’s no point in enslaving them, because they have nothing to give you, but if good new land becomes available it makes sense to enslave them, because you can skim off the difference between their output and what it takes to keep them alive. Suddenly, a simple story made sense of a huge and baffling swath of reality, and Krugman found that enormously satisfying....Krugman went to graduate school at M.I.T. “M.I.T. in the mid-seventies was a sort of Athens of economics—everybody was there,” he says. “And it was a golden age for clever little models.” Krugman took a class with Rudiger Dornbusch and became interested in international macroeconomics. Bretton Woods—the international system of monetary control established by the Allies during the Second World War—had just collapsed a few years earlier, floating exchange rates had turned out to be much more volatile than anybody expected, and figuring out why turned out to be a fantastically interesting puzzle.
Krugman wrote his thesis on exchange rates, but another class, on international trade, inspired him. “There was this kind of platonic beauty to the whole thing,” he says. “I remember going through the two-by-two-by-two model—two goods, two countries, two factors of production. The way all these pieces fitted together into a Swiss-watch-like mechanism was beautiful. I loved it.”...
There's lots of other stuff here: biographical and personal details (how he does his laundry on the road), how his political perspective has evolved, the evolution of his major economic contributions, how mathematical models can mislead, reflections on his professional productivity trajectory, and more.
Edits, March 3, 2010.