Paul Krugman changed my life. But I am now disappointed.
In my last year of studies at Sciences Po back in 2001-2002, disillusioned with almost everything I had studied – history, politics, international law, a bit of sociology – I took an economics course. It was taught in English by a Columbia University-trained woman economist. The basic textbook was everybody’s Krugman and Obstfeld. Lights went on, “Eureka!” I cried inside. Light! Pieces coming together! Finally! A few years later I read Krugman’s famous Pop Internationalism and thought: “Wow, we need more of those clever economists who know how to communicate and debunk the usual demagoguery on trade and globalization”. Now I even work in economics, or rather: political economy.
I forgot a bit about Krugman and haven’t been following too closely his career as a columnist at the New York Times. Recently, however, I started worrying about his new “revisionist” tendencies on trade and inequality. During a recent trip to the United States, where I landed in a neoconservative gathering hosted by the Heritage Foundation the reality of the neoconservative movement was thrown harshly into my face. The meeting hosted was held in a very symbolic US-American city, Atlanta, Georgia: the city of Martin Luther King, and capital of the now vibrant Black Middle class successful in business. It is also the city of Coca Cola, and the city of CNN: symbols per se of America triumphant.
Back to the meeting: honestly, it really is a different thing to read about it or watch a few crazy people on TV and sit there with several hundred of them, some of them evangelist and National Rifle Association radicals. There were no Black US citizens in the room. A vocal chap from the National Review presented his new book there on “Liberal fascism” [Liberal in the American sense, i.e. from the Left] outlining the parallels between socialism, even its milder social-democratic forms, and fascism in the 20th century: eugenic, racist, asf. Which is right. Indeed, Mussolini started off as a socialist. But he blends out the conservatism of the 20th century the reality of which is the following: racist, anti-Semitic, nationalistic, militaristic, colonialist, sexist, authoritarian… and even in many cases socialistic when it comes to controlling the economy. The 20th Centry was for most of its part an non-liberal century (in the classic European sense given by Smith, Tocqueville asf).
Another keynote speech at a dinner I found hard to eat was by Sirico, the Director of the Acton Institute: mixing an evangelical faith in free trade with theological statements on abortion, on the superiority of the Judeo-Christian civilisation on the rest, especially Islam. This spiced up with a quite open and uncritical support of G.W. Bush and his choice to go to war. Is this America today, I thought? The land of freedom? To compensate for this culture shock, I thought I would read something a bit more reasonable and bought the latest book by Paul Krugman with my remaining US$. I am “Always late in my readings”, so most readers of this blog might already know about its title: “The Conscience of a Liberal.” Krugman even runs a blog with this title.
A disappointment. It is a book presenting an “conspiracy theory” (a section on page 163 is called “A Vast Conspiracy”) of the conservative backlash that culminated with Ronald Reagan’s crack-down on the welfare state and George W. Bush’s attempts to privatize Social Security. Underlying message: Reagan did that because Whites did not want to be charitable to Blacks (there is certainly a some truth to the fact that many of the voters supporting Reagan had such type of views). And, oh horror, Neocons believe in market fundamentalism. Conspiracy theories rarely hold when put under scrutiny. Therefore, reality check: 1) The Democrats were overtaken by the Neocons in putting black people in power (Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice). 2) Democrats failed making the case for reforming Social security in the 1990s. 3) Neocons in power raise subsidies to agriculture, and raise tariffs on steel. Along with Democrats, they try to stop smart Arab investors from taking over an American port management company. This is not compatible with evangelical faith in free trade, but it is definitely compatible with the belief in the superiority of the Judeo-Christian faith over Islam. The latter belief, however, is not the monopoly of the neocons, unfortunately. And is probably also pervasive among Democrats.
Anyway: Krugman’s fundamental anger is with the rise of inequality. More precisely, with the fact the United States is still not capable of providing healthcare to all. He even proposes solutions that can be both efficient and fair (yep, he’s a good economist). But the political analysis around this is dubious. He displays an irrational nostalgia for the welfare state set up under the New Deal in the 1930s and which blossomed in the 1950s and 1960s. He dresses a portrait of a fair and rather equal America with good democratic values. But it was so for Whites only. He knows it and says it. But: what is Equality then? What equal society is this when you have segregation? And what chances do you give Blacks if you create a system that fosters inflation. Inflaction is bad for the poor, especially those who live off welfare benefits, mostly Blacks. And with a system that also creates no jobs? All these were the backdrop to Reaganomics. Hard to say, but US society is probably in many aspects fairer then before the 1980s, even if one accepts the fact that income inequality has risen. How and under which conditions this is really problematic is another question. 4) The Democrats in Power under Clinton didn’t go back to the old system, and they certainly knew why. They had learnt the lesson. They had good economic advisors, not neocons stopping them.
The United States needs a solid critique of the neoconservative movement coming from within the country (the rest of the world is already aware of its shortcomings….). But it needs to be done by people with a more solid and nuanced grasp of both history, sociology and political science. Krugman is an economist. He thinks in a static way. He should stick to economics, where he certainly is good. When venturing into politics, however, the result is unhelpful. Pop Politics doesn’t serve his cause.