Krugman versus Sanders
from Peter Radford
Paul Krugman seems to be spending an awful lot of his time nowadays trying to discredit Bernie Sanders. The last two of his blog entries at the New York Times are devoted to explaining why Sander’s extravagant claims are wrong and potentially damaging to the Democratic cause.
I can understand why Krugman is so vexed. What I don’t understand is why he seems so unable to understand why so many people are embracing Sander’s message.
To me it is obvious: the so-called “wonkery” that Krugman loves both to indulge in and to explain to us lesser souls is precisely what has created the world in which we live. So if we are dissatisfied with that world we, to put it mildly, are being consistent if we want to toss overboard that jargon laden, leaden souled, wonkish stuff.
Now, I am equally sure that Krugman will retort that his version of the wonkery is not the cause of our woes. He would, I am sure, point to the right wing economics of that part of the mainstream currently exerting influence, and explain that it’s all the fault of those who advocate the mysticism of markets to be found in that part of the mainstream.
Except, of course, that Krugman is hardly an outsider. He has taken great pains to explain to us all in the past few years that what he calls “textbook” economics is perfectly capable of both diagnosing and curing what ails the economy. It’s just that, according to him, right wing politicians apparently haven’t read the textbook. Krugman is thus more an apologist for a tweaked version of the mainstream than he is an advocate of a more radical revision of it.
In this regard he is hardly alone. Last week’s revelation that four recent so-called left of center economists, all of whom have lead the Council of Economic Advisors to the President [CEA], wrote an open letter to the Sanders campaign decrying the heresy of Sanders with respect to conventional economic thought added fuel to Krugman’s fire. See, he told us, it isn’t just me, these other people are serious economists and they agree with me.
Krugman is someone who has made quite a reputation debunking the wisdom of what he calls “serious people” who are those advocating policies he disagrees with, but who are seen as expert by the Washington establishment and its media critics. All through the Obama era Krugman has lambasted such serious people – think, for example, of Simpson and Bowles – for proffering advice based upon their accumulated wisdom, but which Krugman disagrees with. And, more often or not, Krugman has opposed that advice based upon what he calls “macro 101” or the “textbook”.
In other words, throughout the recent intellectual and political conflicts over economic policy, Krugman has steadfastly defended what he sees as textbook economics. Which in his case is a much watered down version of Keynes via John Hicks.
Somehow, though, Bernie Sanders has hit upon something. A controversial something. He has energized a whole slew of Democrats with a much more radical version of the Democratic vision, one that harkens back to a pre-Reagan New Deal era.
Let me quote Obama on Reagan:
“I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that … Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.”
Obama said this back in 2008 in an interview in Nevada.
It is an indisputable truth. Reagan did change America. Radically. Profoundly. And he eviscerated the Democrats by so doing. His legacy is as much the loss of the New Deal basis for the left in America as it is the modern Republican party. More to the point for us: Reagan’s rise coincided with the dramatic loss of direction in economics. It was the moment that the ascendancy of market magic and all the mysticism associated with it seduced a generation of economists and sent the bulk of the profession off into irrelevancy. Lost in that tide were a few, like Krugman, who clung to a slightly more useful version of economics. And it was these few who then emerged as the core advisory group to the newly neutered and reoriented Democratic party. Hence the letter I mentioned above.
Now the befuddlement of Krugman-like analysts comes into focus: they, like Hillary Clinton, have dedicated their lives to tinkering with the Reagan era and in modest disagreement with its right wing economist enablers. So overwhelmed were they by the radical success of Reaganism and that of its right wing economics, and so difficult has it been for them to mount even a modest counter-attack on them, that they have become unable to conceive of a more radical line of attack. They have become so bogged down in eking out tiny nudges here and there, in endless battles over minor fine details, and in the expenditure of enormous amounts of energy to take back a single yard of lost ground, that they can no longer think in grand terms.
Indeed the very thought of a radical move to the left is anathema to them. They see everything through the lens of their initial epic defeat. They have been absorbed by the very thing they espouse opposition to, and now justify their ineffective opposition by retreating into ultra-pragmatism.
Their attacks on Sanders are not based on ideological difference so much as on practicality. Bernie Sanders, we are told, cannot execute on his proposals because they will stir up such a reaction on the right that we will lurch along in ever greater gridlock and no progress will be made at all. It is thus better, so they tell us, to nudge around a little more and be content with a few scraps of progress. ‘A half loaf is better than no loaf’ has become their favorite phrase.
Except it isn’t a half loaf. It is more like a single percent of a loaf. It is hopelessly inadequate.
To the shock of the Clinton/Krugman wing of the Democratic party a very large number of people, and especially young people, are saying that the appeasement of the Reaganites and their right wing economist advisors is no longer sufficient. There has to be a more radical way to achieve progress. After all progressives are supposed to, well, progress.
As I see it the Clinton/Krugman generation has spent its energy buried in policy formation and in policy tweaking. It hasn’t spent its energy articulating politics. By which I mean that since the 1980’s the entire left-of-center establishment has devoted itself to making accommodations to Reaganism and not in developing an alternative. The American political economy has been dominated by right wing thinking for over three decades. The results of that domination are clear and are expressed in the form of the economy around us. All the nudging and tweaking have had no noticeable effect. Other, perhaps, than to soften temporarily the steady descent in living standards experienced by an ever increasing percentage of the population.
But we have now reached a moment when enough people have noticed and and are rejecting that descent. They want a break with the past, not a continuation of it. Such a break cannot be provided by pragmatism. Before the pragmatists get busy installing the new order and making it work in a practical way, someone has to imagine it. Someone has to articulate it.
And that is what Sanders is doing. And that, apparently, is what confuses Krugman.