Pop culture, née mass culture, once possessed a dual meaning: the shared experience of mass-produced cultural commodities, and persisting folk traditions. These senses pitted mass culture as a populist bulwark against both high culture's gleaming exclusions and the alienations of industrial development.
This chain of meaning swiftly contradicts itself: one can scarcely celebrate mass production while denouncing the assembly line. Riven by such inconsistencies, pop culture has forfeited its birthrights, structuring antagonisms long since collapsed. Today every artwork belongs to the market, while the market appears as a kind of mass spectacle. In the sharpest formulation on offer, culture has become economic and the economic has itself become cultural.
Inevitably, then, even an economist can become a pop star. Consider the phenomenon of Paul Krugman, of late taking a curious turn. Krugman's credibility rests on a Nobel-punctuated passel of prizes bestowed largely for refashioning trade theories relating comparative and geographical advantage. In parallel, he has contributed popular writing in various venues, eventually debuting a New York Times column in 2000 and later an accompanying blog. His ardor for scolding George W. Bush, not limited to matters economic, drew both admiration and antipathy. Critics intimated that he should stick to his specialty and remove his snout from politics. This merely underscores Krugman's advantageous positioning as a public intellectual famously handy with hard data and rigorous analyses. Ask Thomas Friedman: anyone can be a blowhard on matters global. Few can do the math.
A peculiar dynamic has transfixed our moment: true opinion-makers must speak to the "general public," but in the language of expertise audible to the technocratic cadres. A veneer of social conscience adds the final touch of mass appeal. Behold Krugman: as a star economist, his historical role has been to reinvigorate the duel between liberal Keynesians and the recently regnant monetarists of various stripes.
This opposition is surely very complicated, as professional obfuscators remind us. Fortunately, pop suffers simplification gladly. During the long boom after World War II, government's modulation of the market was meant to balance inflation and unemployment, understood to be inversely correlated. "Stagflation," wherein neither variable could be tamed, undermined this belief in the 1970s. Monetary policy thus turned entirely to controlling inflation, along the way striving to renounce the deficit spending Keynes recommended for restarting stalled economies.
Monetarism ran the table until our Great Recession, with its persistently high unemployment—at which point Krugman's adjusted Keynesianism recovered its sympathetic cast, even while defamed as socialism by market fundamentalists. There economics stands today, divided against itself no less vitriolically than the two governing parties. A charming video dramatizing the Manichaean struggle, "Fear the Boom and Bust: A Hayek vs. Keynes Rap Anthem," has more than 4 million views. This is how we live now. We jam econopop.