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Paul Krugman vs. Jon Stewart: The grudge match over a $1 trillion coin

For liberals, it's the ideological equivalent of watching your parents fight

During the Bush administration, perhaps no two personalities captured the torment of the liberal psyche better than Paul Krugman and Jon Stewart. Writing in The New York Times, the Nobel Prize-winning economist represented the kind of ardent, white-knuckled fury that resulted in outbursts — "This world is going crazy!" — at the breakfast table. The comedian, on the other hand, used satire and a can-you-believe-this stare to induce amused head-shaking — "The world is going crazy!" — in the television den. They were the alpha and omega, the yin and the yang, of the liberal coping mechanism.

So the past week has been tough for liberals. Stewart and Krugman have been going after each other with their respective weapons of choice (a lot of righteous fire on one side, a lot of irreverent ribbing on the other), which for liberals is the ideological equivalent of watching your parents fight. It all began, as so many arguments do these days, with the $1 trillion coin. On The Daily Show last Thursday, Stewart fell firmly on the side of the argument that thinks the $1 trillion coin is a pretty ridiculous idea. "I’m not an economist, but if we're just going to make shit up, I say go big or go home," he said. "How about a $20 trillion coin?"

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Krugman — who has knocked heads with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, Republican pundits, and the entire nation of Estonia — was not pleased with Stewart's drive-by depiction of the coin, which many liberal writers, including Krugman, see as a serious policy option to prevent a U.S. debt default. "What went wrong here is a lack of professionalism on the part of Stewart and his staff," Krugman wrote on his blog. "Yes, it's a comedy show — but the jokes are supposed to be (and usually are) knowing jokes, which are funny and powerful precisely because the Daily Show people have done their homework and understand the real issues better than the alleged leaders spouting nonsense." Later, on ABC News, Krugman claimed that Stewart was "ruining his own brand."

Stewart, not one to take criticism lying down, shot back in a follow-up episode. "If somebody is ruining their brand, with a $1 trillion coin idea," Stewart said, "I don't think it's the non-economist."

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Krugman wasn't the only liberal criticizing Stewart's cavalier attitude toward the coin. "Jon Stewart flunks econ," said Jonathan Chait at New York. "Shame on you, Jon Stewart," said Ryan Cooper at Washington Monthly.

However, it would be fair to say that Stewart was actually channeling a political argument against the coin — the idea is so absurd, so cartoonish, that there's no point in considering it seriously. And that political calculation, for better and worse, surely played a role in the White House's decision to dismiss the idea.

So who's the winner of the great Jon Stewart-Paul Krugman cage match? We'll wimp out in classically liberal fashion: Everybody wins!

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