Disagreeing with Paul Krugman ? 1
I have long been embarrassed by the fact that I almost always agree with Paul Krugman — I fear that I am not an independent thinker. I eagerly look for chances to disagree and see two promising possibilities at his blog.
He has a negative view of Bernie Sanders “Why I Haven’t Felt the Bern “ which links to his column on insulting Dixie
The post is brief and a bit odd — Krugman criticizes Sanders for
… the casual adoption, with no visible effort to check the premises, of a story line that sounds good. It’s all about the big banks; single-payer is there for the taking if only we want it; government spending will yield huge payoffs — not the more modest payoffs conventional Keynesian analysis suggests; Republican support will vanish if we take on corporate media.
In each case the story runs into big trouble if you do a bit of homework; if not completely wrong, it needs a lot of qualification.
Which paragraph + 1 sentence do seem to describe themselves don’t they ? In general I quite seriously think that one shouldn’t paraphrase when criticizing the alleged absence of necessary qualifications. Sanders’s statements are not as brief as the summaries, so it is not sound analysis to argue that the summaries are too brief to be properly qualified.
Also two of Krugman’s criticisms invoke the limits of the politically possible “there for the taking” and “Republican support”. I think one very simple rule about what is politically possible is that more is politically possible if one has a story line that sounds good than if one is careful to add all qualifiers which are necessary for one’s statements to be true. The criticism of a political campaign seems to be criticism of effective campaign tactics. A nomination contest isn’t a seminar. Here the totally unexpected level of success of the Sanders campaign (while not enough so far to win the nomination) is evidence that statements which displease Krugman (and me) by being too close to simplistic slogans are just what a campaign needs.
Krugman’s concern is that Sanders may not be dumbing it down for people who are rationally focused more on their lives than on public policy debates, but might really think that way. I think it is very hard to evaluate this based on Sanders’s record as a senator.
Then Krugman complains
the all-purpose response to anyone who raises questions is that she or he is a member of the establishment, personally corrupt, etc.. Ad hominem attacks aren’t a final line of defense, they’re argument #1.
The voice used is passive. Who makes those all-purpose responses ? I can name some people in my Twitter feed, but Sanders isn’t responsible for them. This is relevant to the choice of a candidate if this is the approach taken by Sanders, people Sanders has hired for his campaign, and surrogates whom Sanders has recognized.
I’m not convinced (I am convinced enough that it is wiser to vote for Clinton to have voted for her in the Massachusetts primary). Krugman’s post is way to brief to be a convincing argument (and indeed it was not meant to be one, being an explanation of his feelings and attitude).
Krugman is in the right box, which has cornered the democratic party.
The party box is so far right that a Cruz or Trump presidency does not scare this progressive.
Robert, you quoted two seminal sentences from Krugman’s blog post, but you failed to quote the preceding paragraph and therefore missed Krugman’s real point: that he possesses powers of clairvoyance and knew last spring that eventually some economist not connected with Sanders’ campaign would publish erroneous findings about economic gains from the government spending on some of Sanders’ policy proposals and that a couple of top people in the campaign would announce those findings, and that Sanders would make no inroads with elderly and middle-aged African-Americans in the South and then make dumb claims that Southern primary results shouldn’t have the impact they have due to their frontload in the primary and caucuses schedule since those states are mostly very Republican ones.
That said, you did zero in on Krugman’s mystifying claims, first, that Sanders is saying that single-payer is there for the taking if only we want it—an assertion by Krugman that is both flatly false or represents a deep understanding by Krugman of Sanders’ actual statements—and, second, that it is dishonest and improper for a serious candidate for the Democratic nomination for president to propose single-payer. Or, for that matter, to propose ANYTHING that isn’t simply a tweaking of the status quo.
And then there’s the issue of why Krugman hasn’t noticed, or pretends not to have noticed, that at the heart of Sanders’ break-up-the-big-banks argument is that those few financial institutions—including those like Goldman Sachs and Morgan-Stanley that do not accept ordinary deposits and make ordinary business and personal loans, but that do do things such as buy and sell mortgage-backed securities banks—control vast amounts of wealth and correspondingly have vast amounts of economic and political power. And you do address that.
It really IS outright dishonest of Krugman to claim, again and again and again, that Sanders’ single concern about the size of the big banks is that they could again trigger a financial and economic meltdown unless they are bailed out by the federal government. It is by no means the only issue that Sanders mentions with respect to those institutions. But is an important one. And the head of the FDIC is in agreement with that, which you would think Krugman would acknowledge when he criticizes Sanders, but doesn’t.
And I downright love your questioning of the basis for Krugman’s obsession with accusations by some Sanders supporters that Krugman, etc., are members of the establishment, personally corrupt, and such—and his odd passive phrasing of it there.
But now that he has challenged assertions that he is a member of the establishment, he might care to address the larger issue of whether he thinks Clinton is—and if he does, whether he thinks she should stop playing cutesy games about the meaning of the word and stop denying that she is indeed, rather obviously, a longtime, high-profile member of it.
Which as I mentioned in my post just below yours, she did again claim at Thursday’s debate: http://angrybearblog.strategydemo.com/2016/04/a-question-looming-before-the-debate-last-night-was-which-of-two-mutually-exclusive-positions-clinton-has-taken-recently-on-dodd-franks-too-big-to-fail-provision-would-she-take-in-the-debate.html
When it comes to decoding PK, I think it’s important to consider the whole record and not just the past few months of Hillary-Bernie. In particular, his fangs came out for the left in the 1990s even more aggressively than what we’re seeing now. When I look for the common denominator, I see a hostility to what he regards as amateurism: making large political claims without the expertise (as PK sees it) to back it up. If I don his glasses for a moment, I see a realm of expertise in applied economics that extends as far to the left as EPI and no farther. That’s my terrain of legitimate political argument. Anything outside that is just huffing and puffing. And that’s where he places Sanders.
The problem, as you’ll know if you remember where I came down on the Jerry Friedman affair (or if you even care about this, and why should you?), is that I think he’s half right. A large part of the left grossly undervalues skepticism and careful empiricism. Of course, a large part of the non-left is in the same epistemological camp, but PK is troubled by what he sees as the complete absence of a proper analytical community on the left side of the fence.
My view is that there is no intrinsic reason why the left needs to be more amateurish than the center. It’s about power and resources. Throw a few million at lefty economists and we’ll have our own Brookings in no time. And if Sanders were elected president there would be a renaissance of applied policy research on his issues. PK surveys the landscape and sees fixed political boundaries imposed by expertise; I see hegemony.
The other underpinning of the statement you quote is rather familiar and boring, the disillusionment trope that has been central to US liberals since the end of the New Deal and the rise of the Cold War. “We” have learned that fundamental change is impossible and that true wisdom means scaling back your ambitions to what is actually possible. This is what my ancient 60s generation rebelled against, and, what do you know, it’s still there, even flowing from the mouths of disillusioned soixante-huiters.
But the part of me that half agrees with PK thinks that the left has over-adapted to being in the political wasteland. If you don’t think you’ll ever have to implement a policy you don’t have to worry if the policy is coherent or implementable. Every time a left political force has come to power in a developed country in the past few decades — the NDP in Canada, Syriza in Greece, etc. — it has been radically underprepared and unable to learn quickly enough on the job. In that sense PK is right: we do need to take our political claims seriously and examine their consequences with an open, analytical mind.
Taking a page from the Republicans (values, virtues, vagueness) may indeed lead to successful elections, but will it lead to successful governing? Has it for them?
Sanders is actually right that single payer is there for the taking. If enough people want it and are willing to vote for it, there is no reason we can’t have it. One of the major barriers is that there are not all that many politicians pointing this out and admitting that single payer health care would be a good thing. Krugman is arguing that single payer is somehow impossible. Perhaps there is an explicit constitutional amendment that I am unaware of or perhaps it violates something about the speed of light somehow. Otherwise, it is just a matter of politicians and voters, and right now it is easier to find a voter in favor of single payer than a politician in favor of it.
Krugman has argued himself into a box, and he feels comfortable there. He has reasons to believe that increased government spending could only have a limited effect on economic growth. His argument is based on some model or another, though it seems that the choice of model seems to make a big difference. This is a technical argument then. There are those who use models to argue that increased government spending decreases growth, though Krugman is not in that camp to his credit. Historically, we do know that our economy can grow more quickly. We also know that in the past it did. We also know that there was a lot more government spending back then aimed at improving the general welfare. We also know that it was paid for with much higher taxes on the wealthy and large corporations. Krugman is making a technical argument here, but he has yet to refute the historical argument that others like Sanders have made. Economic models are at best rather weak, so ruling out an entire approach to economic growth, one which has been demonstrated to work, on such a technical basis strikes me as rather doctrinaire.
We seem to have found ourselves in the same situation as the Soviet Union in the 1980s. We have a comfortable political doctrine that does not seem to be working, but we cannot afford to jettison this doctrine to try something else that might work.
Krugman is arguing that single payer is not there for the taking because there are not enough people who want it and are willing to vote for it. I’m sure he knows of polls which show majority support for single payer and thinks a majority is not enough.
He made his views quite clear during the ACA debate — single payer would be better than Obamacare but it won’t be adopted, because of politics.
Krugman was right, then. But a lot has happened since then, politically and on the relevant facts. Among them that there’s an ongoing generational change that matters a lot. But Krugman hasn’t noticed.
There is no majority in Congress yet for single payer which you should define so everyone knows what you mean by it. Ongoing generational change has not yet translated into a congressional change.