Tuesday, December 31, 2019

More Power to Dr. Krugman!

Pensacola, May 2014, via Washington Post.
Don't know exactly what the program is in this polemic in the Atlantic by Sebastian Mallaby disguised as a review of a new collection of Dr. Krugman's newspaper journalism, Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future. But it's kind of peculiar, a review that can't make up its mind, lurching between extravagant praise and angry blame—as in, Krugman "writes amusingly and fluently" but has a "furious and bitter voice". Serially or in parallel? He's a "dazzling academic" but also an "undiscriminating guillotine".
His combination of analytic brilliance and linguistic facility recalls Milton Friedman or John Maynard Keynes. But Krugman can also sound like a cross between a bloodthirsty Robespierre and a rebarbative GIF. Week after week, he shakes his fist righteously at Republicans and anyone who defends them: You’re shilling for the fat cats. You’re shilling for the fat cats. Over and over. Again and again.
Oh, I get it: Dr. K. is uncivil. He's ought to be a perfect member of the neutral party, the team of the scholarly, with his Nobel and his urbanity. How could he demean themselves by taking some kind of political "side" as if one were better than the other?

Unlike that charming Milton Friedman (whom Krugman always mentions with extravagant respect), whose famous 1970 New York Times Magazine article on businessmen with the gall to talk about the "social responsibility" of corporations says

In fact they are—or would be if they or anyone else took them seriously— preaching pure and unadulterated socialism. Businessmen who talk this way are unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.
IOKIYAR. It's OK to use violently dismissive language if you represent the forces of restraint and small government, but if you care about social justice you should tread more lightly. Not that it's necessarily wrong
Krugman is basically right that “almost all prominent climate deniers are on the fossil-fuel take.” To state the matter plainly, conservatives lie about this issue because they are paid to lie. Or, in Krugman’s broad and snarling formulation: “Republicans don’t just have bad ideas; at this point, they are, necessarily, bad people.”
but when you're saying how corrupt Republicans are you shouldn't say it in a snarly way, apparently because you could lose an opportunity to convert some rightwinger to a better understanding:
By branding Republicans as “bad people,” he reduces the chances of swaying them. By sweeping all Republicans into the same basket—often without specifying whether he means party leaders or the rank and file—Krugman may obscure more of reality than he manages to expose.
For instance there's a bunch of Republican senators who aren't necessarily opposed to climate change research, and even the vile Matt Gaetz can talk that talk:
In April, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, another Trumpy Republican, tweeted, “I didn’t come to Congress to argue with a thermometer, and I think that more of my colleagues need to realize that the science of global warming is irrefutable.”

Actually he did pretty much come to argue with a thermometer, though he may have changed his mind since then

But it seems with April's proposals as if he's adopted a new set of beliefs to confirm the same old prescriptions: no regulation.
Called the “Green Real Deal” – a play on Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal” – Gaetz’s resolution lays out a package of proposals to combat climate change. It includes calls for tax incentives for energy efficient technologies, investments in the nation’s electric grid and in clean energy, deregulating energy markets and opening federal lands to energy development.
Gaetz called it a “love letter” to the American innovator — and mocked what he called Democrats’ regulatory approach to addressing climate change.
Gaetz hasn't shown that he's more amenable than he was three years ago to science, he's shown that he understands his voters have (his district, in the Panhandle, includes Pensacola, which has seen some incredible flooding in recent years), and he's trying to see if he can keep bamboozling them on that understanding. He still wants to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency.

Republican voters, in fact, are something more like a different story, as Mallaby points out:
19 percent of conservative Republicans, and fully 43 percent of moderate and liberal Republicans, regard climate change as a major threat. They are not all the demons that Krugman imagines.
And that mixed story, for what it's worth (which depends on how many "moderate and liberal Republicans" exist, which was probably not too many in the Pew study Mallaby is citing, given that 21% of Republicans overall had the view of 19% of the conservative ones), extends to many issues:
53 percent of white Republicans say that America’s efforts to extend equal rights to black people have been about sufficient, and an additional 15 percent say that these efforts have not gone far enough. On taxes, Pew reports that 42 percent of Republicans say that some corporations don’t pay their fair share. And despite Krugman’s assertion that “Republicans almost universally advocate low taxes on the wealthy,” 37 percent of Republicans believe that some of the wealthy should pay more.
I don't know, but America's efforts to extend equal rights to black people have not been sufficient, and those same Republicans also overwhelmingly approve of the Trump tax cuts, and if they really care about the regressive tax system and the need to protect against climate change, why the hell are they voting Republican? I don't think Mallaby is right to accuse Krugman of "sweeping all Republicans into the same basket without specifying whether he means party leaders or the rank and file"—it's more that he's not interested in the rank and file, which doesn't seem to have any idea what the party is up to, or care, presumably so locked onto its own specific issues, gun rights, abortion, or hating black people, that it can't see the rest. And they don't read the op-ed page of The Times, either: hold on to that thought.
In short, Krugman is suffering from an especially public case of what’s come to be known as Trump Derangement Syndrome. Appalled by the Republican Party’s most bigoted leaders, whose rise he traces at least as far back as the George W. Bush administration, he has allowed himself to believe that nearly all Republicans are corrupt and evil, and therefore that reasoned argument is futile.
If it's Trump Derangement Syndrome, how come it goes back to 1999, when Krugman took the Times gig?

I have an idea of what Krugman has been up to, suggested by Mallaby's most serious complaint:
If a large chunk of the 21st-century Republican Party is guilty of disparaging the truth, the flip side is that Krugman himself has lost confidence in the efficacy of the truth, at least in forging policy consensus....
Though it might be more useful to say he's lost confidence in the project of forging policy consensus, if you see what I mean.
Krugman reflects on his approach to academic research and emphasizes his facility with simple mathematical models that necessarily incorporated “obviously unrealistic assumptions.” For example, his work on trade theory, which helped win him the Nobel Prize, assumed countries of precisely equal economic size. “Why, people will ask, should they be interested in a model with such silly assumptions?” Krugman writes. The answer, as he tells us, is that minimalism yielded insight. His contribution to economics, in his own estimation, was “ridiculous simplicity.”
That same contribution distinguishes his journalism, and might well also win him a Pulitzer Prize, given that Krugman has pushed the boundaries of what it means to be a Times commentator—arrogantly or bravely, or both. Many passages of his book underscore how thunderingly right he’s been on the big questions of the past 15 years or so: on the overriding postcrisis need for maximum economic stimulus; on the political (as opposed to technological) causes of wealth concentration; on the commonsensical proposition that all Americans should have access to affordable health care. But Krugman should surely be the first to admit that his journalism, like his research, is founded on radical simplification. Like those economic models that assume people are perfectly rational, he presumes that his adversaries are perfectly corruptible. This is elegantly clarifying. But, to borrow one of Krugman’s own phrases, it may mistake beauty for truth.
Simplification hasn't stopped him from being "thunderingly right", and you might as well admit that by the same token it clearly hasn't interfered with his commitment to truth. On the contrary! Simplification has permitted him to not bother with the pious pretense that Lindsey Graham or Matt Gaetz (or David Brooks or Bret Stephens sharing the page where he appears) might be arguing in good faith. Why should he? Matt Gaetz is not going to slap his thigh and exclaim, "By God! Krugman is right!"

My thought is that Krugman is up to something so revolutionary he could be doing it in 1774, writing for his audience, which consists basically of smart liberals and radicals with a high literacy level and an emotional commitment to progressive ideas but maybe not much sophistication about economics. That's you and me, brothers and sisters! We read the op-ed page of The Times! Matt Gaetz, and my gun-toting friends in the Catskill foothills, don't, and they'll never know whether Krugman is insulting them or not!

He's not working for the imaginary audience of dispassionate policy makers to which David Brooks addresses himself, who already know everything as well as Brooks thinks he knows it; he's working for the people who actually read his column, and his simplifications serve a didactic purpose. He's teaching us the best current thinking about the relationship between economics and public policy, and he's not wasting class time saying nice things about those other guys, who won't read it in any case.

We're so used to the concept of the magisterially nonpartisan op-ed writer like Nicholas Kristof throwing the rightwingers a bone in every paragraph. Or the ghettoized intersectional writer like Michelle Goldberg or Jamelle Bouie who somebody like Mallaby feels entitled to ignore altogether. We don't expect anything to happen to us when we read a newspaper column, beyond a sense of the social rightness of our position. Mallaby's pissed off with Krugman because Krugman's in the club, as Drifty would say, but tries to make something happen to you, and acts like a human being with a temper and an agenda.

Krugman is educating us with his column, which we're not used to at all, and probably enhancing our ability to argue with our Trumpy neighbors, who are almost certainly not as stupid and dishonest as Lindsey Graham and Matt Gaetz but are never in a million years going to look at Krugman's column. The fact that he doesn't speak to Gaetz, or subtweets Brooks, is of no importance. He's creating a better-informed and more effective party. More power to him! And I mean that in every sense.

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