Is this the face of inequality? Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg 
Is this the face of inequality? Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg 

In the winner-take-all competition for money, status and, scarcest of all, attention, economist-turned-New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is a big winner. Now he’s reaping one of the rewards of sitting atop that slippery pole. Like Michael Jordan, Charlize Theron and Kim Kardashian, he’s gotten a well-paid gig as a brand ambassador.

That’s not the official title, of course. He’s been hired as a “distinguished professor” at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, attached to its Luxembourg Income Study Center. He’ll be paid a nine-month salary of $225,000, or what a horrified Gawker writer describes as $25,000 a month or “more than quadruple New York City’s median household income.” He won’t have to teach the first year and will only have a single seminar after that.

“You will not be expected to teach or supervise students,” says an offer letter obtained by Gawker through a freedom-of-information request. “Instead you will be asked to contribute to our build-up of LIS and the inequality initiative and to play a modest role in our public events.”

To Krugman haters, that sounds like a publicly funded do-nothing job. Even to sympathizers, it seems awfully ironic coming from a center studying inequality.

But it’s just the talent market at work. Krugman has something valuable to offer, and it isn’t his big brain. CUNY isn’t paying for his Nobel-winning research on trade theory any more than J’Adore hired Theron because of her Oscar-winning turn as a serial killer in "Monster." They’re buying his image and the attention he brings.

In short, they’re hoping Krugman will do for them what Scarlett Johansson did for SodaStream: get their obscure brand into the public consciousness (preferably without the messy boycott stuff). And so far it’s working.

To contact the writer of this article: Virginia Postrel at vp@vpostrel.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.