In a fascinating and sprawling interview with Bill Moyers, airing this weekend on the PBS show, Moyers & Company, New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman explained why he didn’t want to be nominated to the post of Treasury secretary, even after 235,000 people signed an online petition urging the president to appoint him, and offers his take on Jack Lew, the president’s nominee:

PAUL KRUGMAN: …I probably have more influence…, doing what I do now, than I would if I were inside trying to, you know, do the court power games that come with any White House — even the best — which I don’t think I’d be any good at. So no, this is fine. And what the president needs right now is he needs a hardnosed negotiator. And rumor has it that’s what he’s got, so.


PAUL KRUGMAN: That’s right. The president can’t pass major new legislation. He can’t formulate major new programs right now. What he has to do now is bargain down or ride over these crazy people in the Republican Party. And we what we need now is not deep thinking from the treasury secretary. If the president wants deep thinkers, he can call Joe Stiglitz, he can call other people. What he needs from the Treasury secretary is somebody who’s going to be very effective at dealing with these wild men and making sure that nothing terrible happens.

But that’s not the most interesting part of the interview. Believe it or not, where it gets really fascinating is in Moyers’ discussion with Krugman on the difference between a recession and a depression. (As the title of Krugman’s new book, End This Depression Now!, he thinks what we’re in is the latter.)

While he concedes that the current depression, as he sees it, is not as horrific as the Great Depression of the 1930s, Krugman asserts that it’s likely worse than we perceive, because things that once made a depression obvious to all — breadlines, “will work for food” signs and the like — have take new forms in the the electronic age, and at a time when some public welfare, however meager, is available, and all acting in concert to hide widespread suffering from view:

KRUGMAN: Somebody said that food stamps are the soup kitchens of the modern depression. That there’re a lot of people who would be standing in line to get that soup, who are instead, and it’s a good thing, who are instead getting — I guess it’s now called SNAP, Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program — but who are getting those debit cards, and are getting essential food stuffs. And they’re at the grocery store and they look like anybody else. But the fact of the matter is they are still as desperate, they’re getting by day to day with the aid of a trickle of government aid, just like the people who were standing in line at the soup kitchens in the ’30s, but they’re not visible. They, we don’t have guys selling apples in street corners partly because, you know, the city licensing wouldn’t allow that anymore.

I totally buy that. I know lots of people of all generations who consider themselves middle-class, but are living hand to mouth. The young people working marginal jobs with no prospects and an unimaginable pile of college debt. The middle-aged people short-selling homes that were theirs for years. The old people who never earned enough to invest in mutual funds.

I know them. Don’t you?