Paul Krugman is wrong; Obama DOES need to discuss Keynesian economics in his State of the Union address. Here’s why.
Paul Krugman is my hero. I credit him–him alone, really–with ending, finally, the Peterson Foundation’s capture of almost all of the mainstream news media as their PR outfit. Just as I credit Occupy Wall Street, also alone, with finally ending the decades-long political prohibition of class warfare by any group but the hedge fund/CEO crowd. Krugman, unlike other liberal economists, thanks to his New York Times column and blog, is not relegated by the news and political worlds to tree-falling-in-a-forest status. His writings penetrate the barriers–consciousness–that no other liberal economist can. And he has, single-handledly, removed from the big-name propogandists the freedom to sell their snake oil, unrebutted in any broadly-read forum, as news and fact-based commentary. Krugman bats down this stuff, daily.
The economic/fiscal right is similar to the conservative-legal-movement right, best as I can tell, in its perversion– its Orwellian redefinition–of common language terms and its out-of-the-blue proclamations of false fact. In law, it is words, phrases and concepts such as freedom, liberty, viewpoint coercion, matters of public concern, First Amendment rights to free speech and free association and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, that are now regularly removed from their ordinary meaning to strip or fabricate constitutional rights, depending upon which outcome advances what is at bottom the Reagan-era-right’s legislative agenda. There is, it is by now clear, no redefinition or fabrication of fact too shamelessly politically opportunistic, or too whiplash-inducing in light of their own recent aggressive rulings to the contrary, that four or five justices won’t adopt, and certainly no limit to the bald silliness that their legal-movement apparatus won’t offer with a straight face.
Freedom means imprisonment. Or, more precisely, it means being denied access to the federal habeas corpus process after conviction of felonies and sentenced to a long prison term, however rampant the violations of federal constitutional rights, as long as the conviction was in state court, because states, or more accurately, state judicial branches are sovereigns whose dignity must not be offended by the shackles of having to comply with the Constitution’s dictates and prohibitions. Yes, and work will make you free, as long as the work occurs inside a concentration camp, within a sovereign state. Or at least it will if you’re a public-sector employee in a unionized job and you are ideologically opposed to big government but not so strongly against it that you will quit your job and ask that your position not be filled upon your departure. Or if you’re a physician who accepts Medicare patients. But not if you’re a prosecutor whose discovered bald misconduct on the part of the part of the police in a prosecution, and your own office looks the other way and you complain, since the phrase “big government” does not include within its meaning police misconduct and therefore is not a matter of public concern.
I wish there were a Krugman-equivalent for legal issues. Without one, these folks dramatically rewrite the Constitution and federal statutes, with rare exceptions entirely off the public’s radar screen. But there’s not.
But I digress. I come not just to praise Paul Krugman but also to refute him. Well, actually to refute his argument today that it’s okay if Obama doesn’t address Keynesian economics in his State of the Union address next week, as long as he addresses, at length, issues of dramatically unequal income and wealth distribution and access to the means of economic mobility. Krugman recognizes, of course, the relationship between the two, but concludes, citing FDR’s inability to do so in 1937, that the former is almost impossible to accomplish while the latter is easy to do because the public is now very aware of the basic facts and, by large majorities, concerned about it.
Krugman’s purpose is largely to dispute the claim by some liberals that a focus on inequality distracts from an argument for a jobs-creation agenda–that is, an argument for a new economic-stimulus fiscal policy. He’s right that that is wrong; issues of inequality of income and wealth are anything but a distraction from the sluggish economy. And, separately, they’re of essential concern.
But a threshold to progress on either of these fronts is victory in this year’s congressional and state-government elections. And therefore, a refutation of the Republican “Obama economy” mantra.
Two weeks ago, in a post I titled “Yes, Speaker Boehner, But WHOSE Policies of the Present Are to Blame?”, I expressed my deep desire to see Obama use his State of the Union Address to point out the dramatic decline in government employment at every level of government–federal, state, local–throughout his presidency, and to show, using charts, how that differs from every economic downturn since the early 1930s. This is different than a Keynesian argument for economic stimulus. This is easy to explain–both the facts and the economic effects. If a teacher, firefighter or police officer is laid off, he or she and his or family is spending far less money in the community and the larger economy. And the layoff may mean the loss of the family’s home. Federal funds to states and localities has been dramatically reduced since the Tea Party gained control of Congress–a majority in the House, a veto-by-filibuster in the Senate. Compare that to, say, the recession in the early 2000s.
It’s their fiscal policy–and their economy. And by no means just because of a failure to enact further stimulus programs. The public needs to be told–and shown–this. I think it’s important not to conflate stimulus with dramatic reductions in spending. And, with all the respect that Krugman is due notwithstanding, I think that’s what he’s doing.
As for FDR, it seems to me likely that he reversed fiscal course in 1937 not because of public opinion poll results but instead because he, like the public, bought into deficit fears. But the experience of the 1930s’ double-dip depression, along with the current experience here and in Europe, is not that hard to explain to the public. FDR’s problem was that Keynesian economics was pretty new territory then, and he wasn’t clairvoyant. He made the same mistake that Obama made. He bought the wrong sales pitch. Understandable in 1937, but not so much these days.