Tag Archives: Paul Krugman

Behind the Misleading Labels

One of my pet peeves–okay, one of the aspects of American political debate that absolutely drives me up the wall–is the substitution of labels for adult argumentation. We see the use of labels to dismiss factual disputes from all parts of the political spectrum, with right-wingers accusing Democrats–and even moderate Republicans– of being “socialists” and”Marxists” and left-wingers calling everyone to the right of Bernie Sanders   “fascists.”

In fact, I just did that too–I labeled by using the terms “left” and “right”–terms that aren’t remotely accurate. What passes for the far left in the U.S. is middle-of-the-road in Europe and elsewhere, and while we have definitely seen a growing number of American fascists, most of the screamers on what we think of as the political right are just our usual, garden-variety racists and White Nationalists.

These right and left labels are especially misleading, because what constitutes left and right in American politics has shifted. Dramatically.

I’m an excellent example. When I ran for Congress in 1980, as a (pro-choice, pro-gay-rights) Republican, I was routinely labeled “too conservative.” Today, I’m just as routinely accused of being a lefty/ socialist,  although I haven’t changed my political philosophy. (I have changed my positions on a couple of issues, as a result of learning more about them, but I haven’t changed my underlying approach to issues of liberty and the role of government.)

In other words, while I stood philosophically still, the popular definitions of “left” and “right” changed. The Overton Window shifted.

In a recent column, Paul Krugman considered how–and why– that change occurred.

As anyone with a living braincell has observed, today’s GOP bears little to no resemblance to the party I once belonged to, and its transformation from a respectable center-right political party to the irrational and frightening cult it has become is a vivid illustration of how misleading those labels really are.

Krugman reminds us that the change occurred over many years; Trump was just the most recent manifestation. He rquoted congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, who warned us in 2016 that the GOP had become “an insurgent outlier” that rejected “facts, evidence and science” and didn’t accept the legitimacy of political opposition. And he noted a 2019 survey of international political parties intended to determine their commitment to basic democratic principles and minority rights. The G.O.P., the survey found, “looks nothing like center-right parties in other Western countries. What it resembles, instead, are authoritarian parties like Hungary’s Fidesz or Turkey’s A.K.P.”

Such analyses have frequently been dismissed as over the top and alarmist. Even now, with Republicans expressing open admiration for Viktor Orban’s one-party rule, I encounter people insisting that the G.O.P. isn’t comparable to Fidesz. (Why not? Republicans have been gerrymandering state legislatures to lock in control no matter how badly they lose the popular vote, which is right out of Orban’s playbook.) Yet as Edward Luce of The Financial Times recently pointed out, “at every juncture over last 20 years the America ‘alarmists’ have been right.”

Why has this happened?

Krugman compared the GOP transformation to populist emergences in Europe, and found those comparisons unhelpful. His ultimate conclusion was persuasive.

It’s a puzzle. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately looking for historical precursors — cases in which right-wing extremism rose even in the face of peace and prosperity. And I think I’ve found one: the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

It’s important to realize that while this organization took the name of the post-Civil War group, it was actually a new movement — a white nationalist movement to be sure, but far more widely accepted, and less of a pure terrorist organization. And it reached the height of its power — it effectively controlled several states — amid peace and an economic boom.

What was this new K.K.K. about? I’ve been reading Linda Gordon’s “The Second Coming of the K.K.K.: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition,” which portrays a “politics of resentment” driven by the backlash of white, rural and small-town Americans against a changing nation. The K.K.K. hated immigrants and “urban elites”; it was characterized by “suspicion of science” and “a larger anti-intellectualism.” Sound familiar?

OK, the modern G.O.P. isn’t as bad as the second K.K.K. But Republican extremism clearly draws much of its energy from the same sources.

And because G.O.P. extremism is fed by resentment against the very things that, as I see it, truly make America great — our diversity, our tolerance for difference — it cannot be appeased or compromised with. It can only be defeated.

It’s hard to argue with Krugman’s diagnosis. It’s even harder to see just how the rest of us can recapture our governing institutions. If we don’t, however, in short order that “fascist” label will become horrifyingly accurate.

 

 

 

 

It’s Not Just Putin

Most Americans think of the United States as  different from the rest of the world, with a very distinct political and social culture. That perspective far too often limits our preoccupations to issues within our borders. Academics may engage in comparative studies, but most of America’s “chattering class” confines its chatter to American politics and institutions.

These days, there are numerous articles, books and columns  devoted to the American Right, for example (especially about its current control of the GOP), but aside from a throwaway sentence here and there, there are relatively few efforts to tie that paternalistic, theocratic, nationalist movement to the broader, worldwide culture war that is pitting people who are embracing–or at least accepting– modernity against those hysterically trying to stop the (emerging) world so that they can get off.

Despite the lack of attention to similar movements elsewhere, there are significant similarities–and since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a couple of recent columns have traced the connections between our homegrown cultural Luddites and their fellow resisters around the world.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine prompted Paul Krugman to consider the roots of Putin’s appeal to the American Right.

Krugman locates the sources of the right’s infatuation with a brutal dictator–an infatuation that he reminds us began even before Trump’s rise–to Putin’s championing of  “antiwokeness “— Putin is someone who (to quote Tucker Carlson’s recent defense of his pro-Russian propaganda)  “wouldn’t accuse you of being a racist, who denounced cancel culture and ‘gay propaganda.'”

Some of it reflected a creepy fascination with Putin’s alleged masculinity — Sarah Palin declared that he wrestled bears while President Barack Obama wore “mom jeans” — and the apparent toughness of Putin’s people. Just last year Senator Ted Cruz contrasted footage of a shaven-headed Russian soldier with a U.S. Army recruiting ad to mock our “woke, emasculated” military.

Finally, many on the right simply like the idea of authoritarian rule. Just a few days ago Trump, who has dialed back his praise for Putin, chose instead to express admiration for North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Kim’s generals and aides, he noted, “cowered” when the dictator spoke, adding that “I want my people to act like that.”

In one of his more perceptive columns, David Brooks also delved into the mind-set of the pro-Putin Right. According to Brooks, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the continuation of identity politics by other means.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found the writings of conventional international relations experts to be not very helpful in understanding what this whole crisis is about. But I’ve found the writing of experts in social psychology to be enormously helpful.

That is because–as Brooks points out–the war in Ukraine is primarily about status. “Putin invaded so Russians could feel they are a great nation once again and so Putin himself could feel that he’s a world historical figure along the lines of Peter the Great.” Along the way, Putin has increasingly portrayed himself as not just a national leader “but a civilizational leader, leading the forces of traditional morality against the moral depravity of the West.”

Right-wing populism hasn’t been confined to the United States and Russia; these movements can be found throughout the Western world –and for that matter, probably in every country that is experiencing significant modernization and liberalization, which are seen as undermining “traditional values.”

Populist movements are generally associated with rejection of science, particularly the science underlying environmentalism, with nationalism and nativism, and with anti-globalization fervor. (Trump’s protectionism fit right in.) As Wikipedia defines the European variant of the populist movement,

 In Europe, the term is often used to describe groups, politicians, and political parties that are generally known for their opposition to immigration, especially from the Muslim world, and for Euroscepticism. Right-wing populists may support expanding the welfare state, but only for those they deem are fit to receive it; this concept has been referred to as “welfare chauvinism.” 

Here in the United States, research confirms that our homegrown populists cling to the belief that only White Christians can be “real” Americans. These people–terrified of losing cultural hegemony– have their analogues around the globe. (It’s one more way in which we aren’t “exceptional.”)

What’s scary is recognition of how widespread that terror is–and how powerfully motivating. Obama’s  much-criticized observation that frightened, disoriented people “cling to their guns and their bibles” may have been politically unwise, but it wasn’t wrong–and the phenomenon isn’t limited to the U.S. Islamic fundamentalist cling to their Korans and bombs…

Global populism is just one more reminder that–despite different geographies and cultures– humans are essentially similar mammals…

 

 

 

 

 

If It’s The Economy…

The “Big Lie” has worked so well with the GOP base (polls show some 58% of Republicans believe that Trump really won the election) that they’ve extended the tactic. If James Carville’s famous 1992 motto–“It’s the Economy, Stupid” was right, then lying to an astonishingly credulous  base  about the economic performance of the Biden Administration should be a no-brainer.

Granted, the criticism bears virtually no relationship to reality, as a slew of economists routinely document and as Jennifer Rubin recently pointed out in the Washington Post. But facts are clearly irrelevant to Republican party “leaders” who insist–in the face of millions of deaths worldwide– that COVID is a hoax. Also that California’s wildfires were set by Jewish space lasers, and that Democrats eat small children.

The 64-Thousand-Dollar question, of course (young people, Google the reference…) is whether Carville’s insight was right. Do verifiable economic facts on the ground influence voters, or is misinformation being sold by politicians with an ax to grind a more potent motivator?

Rubin begins by reminding readers of the success of the stimulus.

Quite simply, stimulus packages kept the economy and workers afloat during the pandemic, setting the stage for an economic surge when employees could return to work. The Post reports, “The U.S. economic recovery from the covid pandemic was the strongest of any of the big Western economies. That is in large part thanks to the multiple rounds of government stimulus that totaled at least $5.2 trillion.”

Without a single Republican vote, Biden passed an economic plan that, coupled with the Federal Reserve’s near-zero interest rate policy, proved to be precisely the recipe needed to help stave off a long-term recession. The Post reports, “The Biden stimulus pushed the bank accounts of even the lowest-income Americans to unexpected heights. On average, they had more than twice as much in their savings accounts as they did when the pandemic began.”

The effects of the stimulus are only a part of the story. The job market–responding to pent-up demand–is more favorable than it has been in a long time. Unemployment is 4.2 percent, and according to The Wall Street Journal, applications for unemployment benefits, a proxy for layoffs, have trended near five-decade lows. Jobless claims are at the lowest level since 1969.

Perhaps the best news is that workers — especially low-wage workers — have been the biggest beneficiaries of this surprisingly robust economy. Rubin quotes Steven Ratner, who noted that, as the economy rebounded from the pandemic,

the size of wage increases began to recover, especially for less-well-off Americans, in part because of increases by some states in their minimum wages. The many Covid-related federal stimulus programs helped push the growth rates in pay for many workers to levels not seen since the early 2000s. Thanks in part to these programs, wages are growing fastest for the bottom 25 percent of workers.

Rubin notes that this data contradicts Republican’s longtime insistence that wage increases mean fewer jobs–an insistence increasingly at odds with that pesky thing called “evidence.” Not only that,  the past year has seen some notable successes in unionizing, allowing American workers to demand both higher wages and better working conditions.

If Rubin and multiple economists are correct, what accounts for the evidently widespread belief that economic times are bad? Paul Krugman asks–and answers–that question.

Overall the economic picture looks pretty good — indeed, in many ways this looks like the best economic recovery in many decades.

Yet consumers appear to be feeling very downbeat — or at least that’s what they tell surveys like the famous Michigan Survey of Consumers. And this perception of a bad economy is clearly weighing on President Biden’s approval rating. Which raises the question: Are consumers right? Is this a bad economy despite data showing it as very good? And if it really isn’t a bad economy, why does the public say it is?…

One clue is that there’s an incredible amount of partisan skew in the responses. Republicans say, bizarrely, that current economic conditions are much worse than they were in March 2009, when the economy was losing 800,000 jobs a month…

Another clue is that you get very different answers when you ask people “How are you doing?” rather than “How is the economy doing?” The Langer Consumer Confidence Index asks people separately about the national economy — where their assessment is dismal — and about their personal financial situation, where their rating is high by historical standards.

So–the midterm elections will give us a clue to the proper interpretation of Carville’s axiom. Will people vote their personal economic situations? Or will they vote the faux reality peddled by their political cult?

I guess we’ll find out.

 

 

The Great Compression

In a recent newsletter, Paul Krugman referenced a 1991 economics paper in glowing terms. He said that he’s read many economics papers during his career, but very few that changed the way he sees the world.

This one, evidently, did.

Krugman began his discussion by reminiscing; as a Baby Boomer, he’d grown up at a time when extremes of wealth and poverty were far less pronounced than they are these days–a time when middle managers and better-paid blue-collar workers were more or less  financial equals. It was a time, as he reminds us, when  C.E.O.s of major companies were paid “around 20 times as much as the average worker, compared with more than 200 to 1 today.”

Although female and Black workers certainly weren’t equal, the extremes of wealth we see today–the enormous gap between the rich and the rest– were inconceivable, and the middle class was substantial. (I still remember a long-ago political science class that attributed national stability to the existence of a sizable middle-class, among other things.)

And we took it for granted. A more or less middle-class society, almost everyone assumed, was the state toward which an advanced economy naturally evolved.

Not so much, we learned as the boomers turned middle-aged. The future of inequality wasn’t what we expected it to be; America today has more or less returned to Gilded Age disparities in income and wealth.

The question, of course, is “why did this happen? Why isn’t the future of inequality what we expected?

The paper he was praising–“The Great Compression”– was written by Claudia Goldin and Robert Margo, and it showed that,  as Krugman put it,  America had gone to bed in 1939 in the Gilded Age and woke up in 1945 as the middle-class nation of his childhood, where wages were–as the paper labeled them–“compressed.”

Some of the reasons for that compression of wages are obvious:  World War II required a controlled economy. Wage increases were regulated– and the rules tended to be more generous to less well-paid workers. But those rules, and the economic controls, were lifted after the war.

Why didn’t things spring back to where they had been before once wage and price controls had been lifted?

One answer, as Krugman demonstrates, was the emergence of unions.

A strong union movement, it seems, was able to lock in the new wage norms created by the war for several decades after the war was over. And the rise of unions was clearly linked to politics: first the New Deal, then the war, created favorable environments for union organizing.

Another important element was public policy. Policy, as Krugman and many other economists can attest, can shape a fairer, flatter, more inclusive economy.

What does this tell us about the future of inequality? On one side, it’s encouraging: high inequality isn’t something unavoidable, the necessary consequence of implacable technological forces: political action can create a much less unequal society. On the other side, both the politics of the New Deal and, even more so, the policy environment of World War II, were pretty unique. Progressives are, in general, delighted with how activist the Biden administration is proving; but despite Republican cries of “socialism,” its actions are far more modest than what happened in the ’30s and ’40s.

The big question is how much of the Great Compression we can achieve through less dramatic policies, in a political environment where spending one percent of G.D.P. on infrastructure seems radical. No, I don’t know the answer.

Our ability to fashion public policies that reinvigorate and regrow that all-important, stabilizing middle class depends significantly on a widespread recognition of the economic reality that everyone does better when everyone does better.

Even the most creative entrepreneur cannot innovate and profit in the absence of a supportive physical and social infrastructure and enough people with the wherewithal to pay for his product.

An Intriguing Analysis

Paul Krugman recently had a column that–almost incidentally–amplified the findings I reported on yesterday from Democracy Corp’s focus groups.

He began by noting that Biden simply doesn’t arouse the same degree of animosity that Obama did. Krugman leaves it there, but the reason for the moderation of vituperation is pretty obvious: Biden’s a White guy. Yes, he’s a hated Democrat/Socialist/Leftie/Whatever, but at least he’s not Black.

Krugman focused on the lower level of animus and hostility aimed at Biden by Republicans, and speculated over what that “low energy” opposition might mean for the prospects of upcoming legislative proposals.

Just about every analyst I follow asserted, almost until the last moment, that $1.9 trillion was an opening bid for the rescue plan and that the eventual bill would be substantially smaller. Instead, Democrats — who, by standard media convention, are always supposed to be in “disarray” — held together and did virtually everything they had promised. How did that happen?

Much of the post-stimulus commentary emphasizes the lessons Democrats learned from the Obama years, when softening policies in an attempt to win bipartisan support achieved nothing but a weaker-than-needed economic recovery. But my sense is that this is only part of the story. There has also been a change on the other side of the aisle: namely, Republicans have lost their knack for demonizing progressive policies.

Krugman is careful to note that the decrease in demonization applies to policies (after all, lots of Republicans still believe that Democrats managed to steal a federal election at the same time they were sexually exploiting and then feasting on small children…) But as he notes, there’s been an absence of “bloodcurdling warnings about runaway inflation and currency debasement, not to mention death panels.”

True, every once in a while some G.O.P. legislator mumbles one of the usual catchphrases — “job-killing left-wing policies,” “budget-busting,” “socialism.” But there has been no concerted effort to get the message out. In fact, the partisan policy critique has been so muted that almost a third of the Republican rank and file believe that the party supports the plan, even though it didn’t receive a single Republican vote in Congress.

Krugman notes a number of possible explanations: the obvious hypocrisy of screaming about deficits under Obama and then incurring huge ones via tax cuts for the rich; the fact that none of their past, dire warnings of inflation under Obama–or their rosy predictions of a boom under Trump–materialized (although, as he points out ” inconvenient facts haven’t bothered them much in the past.”)

Or perhaps Republicans no longer know how to govern. They are trapped in a culture war of their own creation. As Krugman notes, while the Democrats were fashioning legislation and hammering out policy compromises, Republicans were screaming about Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head.

In short, the prospects for a big spend-and-tax bill are quite good, because Democrats know what they want to achieve and are willing to put in the work to make it happen — while Republicans don’t and aren’t.

I have been extremely happy with what the Biden Administration has done–and failed to do–thus far. This is a highly competent operation. What is undoubtedly true, however, is that one reason the path has been smoother for Joe Biden is simply because his skin is white.

And that is an incredibly sad commentary on the current state of America.