Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 July 2011

Krugman, Reason and Culture

UPDATE: Boehner Backs Down

Today, Sunday July 10, 2011, John Boehner backed down. He reportedly decided not to seek a significant debt reduction of $4 trillion or more, but instead to accept a less-than-$2 trillion reduction. That’s essentially what was already on the table when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor walked out last week.

What does this mean? Three things. First, the Boehner Bunch are not so stupid or crazy as to hit the “nuclear button“ of a US default. Perhaps the only remaining sane GOP pundit, David Brooks, pushed them into this reasonable position when he pronounced them “not fit to govern” if they did. Here Brooks has performed a signal duty for country and economic sanity.

Second, by backing down, the Boehner Bunch and the GOP generally have revealed themselves as hypocrites. For nearly a year they have been banging the only unbroken drum they could find in the GOP’s empty shed of ideas: the notion that our national deficits and debt are the two greatest threats to our collective future. Now, when the chips are down and they have a real chance to make a more-than-token reduction, they balk.

Two trillion dollars over ten years is $200 billion per year. That’s just a little over half of the interest on our national debt, which this year will amount to $385 billion. So by today’s standards, a reduction $200 billion per year is less than a serious effort to address a supposedly existential problem.

The third point is the clincher. The Boehner Bunch have revealed their real priorities plain as day. They had a chance to make a really serious reduction in our deficit and debt. No deal. They even had a chance to negotiate reductions in spending on Social Security and Medicare, which they claim are bankrupting us. No deal.

The deal breaker was this: the Boehner Bunch were just not prepared to accept anything that would even look like a tax increase, such as eliminating tax loopholes and unfair tax subsidies. As it turns out, keeping taxes low on the richest Americans and the corporations they control—even on the very least deserving, like oil companies swimming in profits, rich farmers who get paid for not farming, and hedge-fund managers—is the GOP’s number-one priority.

Watch what they do, not what they say. The Boehner Bunch have now shown by deeds what their real goal is. In so doing, they gave the lie to all their high-flown rhetoric about “living within one’s means” and avoiding so-called “generational theft.” Their sole priority is now self-evident: keeping taxes low on those who can most afford to pay them.

Sooner or later, even the slowest Fox zombie will figure that out. The likelihood of that happening in eighteen months entirely justifies my conclusions about the President’s political skill in the essay below.

Once again (see 1, 2, 3 and 4), I find myself at odds with a man whom I admire. With Bob Herbert and Frank Rich gone, Paul Krugman may be the last remaining reliable voice of reason on the New York Times’ opinion pages. His biweekly column is the one I now read first, and the only one I read regularly.

Not only is Krugman a Nobel laureate in economics and a brilliant analytic thinker. He is also a superb writer. He has a rare ability, unmatched in the mainstream media, to cut to the heart of an issue and explain complex economic theory in simple, common-sense terms.

But he has a blind spot. The blind spot, I believe, has led him to profound error in assessing the President’s performance, capabilities and motivation. Although he has made the same error often before, it and its source are most apparent in his column today.

Krugman is not alone. Many others have replicated his error, with and without his leadership and encouragement. But if it continues, its practical consequences could be catastrophic.

Krugman’s blind spot is easy to describe, for it is also his most attractive quality. He is a man of reason.

A gifted economic scientist, he knows what’s right and wrong in economic policy. Over and over, he has reminded us that we need jobs, not debt reduction, a stronger safety net, not a weaker one, and more stimulus, not less. He has also explained that “trickle down” doesn’t work and never will, that you can’t raise revenue by lowering tax rates, and that Social Security and Medicare are not the source of our national debt.

In all these things, he is right as rain. Who would know better than he? Who can explain it better? And who has a bigger and more vocal coterie of admirers than his army of like-minded readers of the New York Times?

Based on his own experience, Krugman naturally concludes that the President could do likewise. If only the President would use his own refined skills of reason and persuasion on the nation, he could convince the electorate, if not the opposition, of the error of its ways and set our nation aright.

That fact that the President has not done so, Krugman infers, suggests a weakness of will, a failure of strategy, an inability to bargain, or even a sellout. The vast majority of commenters to Krugman’s several columns on this same theme agree.

But the nation’s leaders and voters are neither Krugman’s elite students at Princeton nor the generally erudite readers of the Times. They include people like John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Jon Kyl, John Cornyn, the Tea Mob, and the millions of Fox zombies who support them.

You can express the difference in several ways. You can say that the President’s opponents rely on faith, not reason. You can say they trust in ideology, not facts or evidence. You can say that dealing with them requires emotional, not analytical, intelligence. You can say that they have been brainwashed.

All these things are true. But for me the most helpful meme in seeing the blind spot is that of culture.

For most people, and especially ordinary voters, culture trumps reason every time. Increasingly, it is trumping law and even our Constitution.

Everyone grows up and is educated in a unseen sea of culture. For us Americans, culture includes the notions that we are “exceptional,” that all the world looks to our “city on the hill” for inspiration and leadership, that our Constitution is the acme of law and government not just for past human history, but until the end of time, and that our industry, innovation and health care are second to none. Whether or not we shout “USA! USA! USA!” at football games, we all live surrounded by these memes in virtually every waking moment, from our birth. And since 9/11, our culture also includes harsh elements of fear and self-doubt.

That’s our culture. These memes permeate our education, our upbringing and our reflection of ourselves in all our public media, from the Internet to the Times itself.

For some of us, education, reason, healthy skepticism and a probing curiosity manage to overcome these memes and mute this self-congratulation as we mature. But for most of us they do not. For most of us these things are matters of faith that we no more question than Catholics do the divinity of Christ or the virginity of Mary.

And that in truth is the best analogy: religion. If you’ve ever tried to convince a Christian fundamentalist (or a member of the Taliban) that there is no God, or that the scripture he holds dear (the Bible or the Qu’ran) is not the literal and absolute truth, you know what I mean.

Some things are beyond reason. Unfortunately, today they include not just fundamentalist religion but Republican ideology as well.

That may seem surprising, but it shouldn’t be. Our national culture has experienced an astoundingly profound decline in my lifetime alone. When I was a child, Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer had just saved our nation in war by applying reason and science. They were national heroes. A now unknown author, George Gamow, explained their obscure theories, plus a bit of higher mathematics, to laypeople in simple terms. His books were best sellers. One of them had the title, “One, Two, Three . . . Infinity.”

Believe it or not, these three people then were celebrities. They were universally admired and constantly sought for interviews in the mass media. Today, their counterparts are Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, and a slew of actors and actresses, some good, most not so much.

The only similarly profound shift in culture of which I’m aware is the advent of Nazism in Germany. In the early years of the twentieth century, Germany was at the absolute pinnacle of human civilization. It was supreme in music (Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler), literature and poetry (Goethe, Heine, and Schiller), science (Einstein, Schroedinger, Planck) and mathematics (Euler, Gauss, and Lorenz). Yet in less than two generations, Nazi storm troopers were marching in goose-step and shouting “Sieg Heil” at Nuremberg.

I do not mean to say we have or will become fascists, although that terrible outcome is possible. But in two generations we Americans have gone from a “can do” culture imbued with respect for education, facts, evidence and science to a culture in which scant few of us can write a coherent paragraph, follow a simple flow of logic, or do simple arithmetic. And few of us even care.

Krugman would know this better if he had time to read the many daily comments to articles and editorials in the Wall Street Journal. There he would find an alternative universe to the one he inhabits at Princeton and the Times. There on-line commenters know beyond question that rich people paying low or no taxes create jobs, that government stimulus is wasted and never works, that government, not private greed, caused the Crash of 2008, that the lowest and meanest petit bourgeois is superior in character and intelligence to the most highly educated and distinguished government doctor or scientist, and that the President is a fraud, an “empty suit,” and a socialist who wants to take their hard-earned money and give it to freeloaders, mostly blacks and Hispanics.

These memes are not simply mistakes in arithmetic, like an error in calculating a sum of money due. There are not to be dispelled by facts or logical argument. They reflect a fundamental world view and deeply engrained elements of a sick modern culture, for which their owners will argue and, if it comes to that, probably fight to the death. They have been deliberately inculcated by human history’s most horribly effective propaganda machine, Fox and its talk-radio counterparts. They are reinforced by our mass media—sometimes even including the Times—every day. Think of the South and its engrained culture of white racial superiority and you get a faint idea.

The fact that this perverted culture was born and grew to encompass a substantial minority of Americans in the mere 31 years since Ronald Reagan came to office is fascinating and terrifying, but of little consequence today. The rapidity of its rise is not the issue before us. Its strength is. And if you look around with open eyes and get off your high horse of Reason, you will recognize its strength as both self-evident and terrifying.

So the problem before the President is not which economic theory or course of action is best to pursue. Of course he knows. In his very first speech on health care as a candidate, long before his election, for example, he confessed a predilection for single-payer but recognized its political impossibility.

The problem is not, as was said in an iconic Paul Newman movie, the President’s “failure to communicate.” The problem is that a sizable minority of our entire population, including many members of Congress and powerful business leaders, don’t want to listen because they have firmly and irrevocably made up their minds. They stand adamantly and unreasoningly in his way.

The President can solve this problem only with emotional intelligence, not analysis. He has to cajole, entice, inveigle, startle, scare or cow the huge minority of Fox zombies into awakening from their cultural blindness. He cannot persuade them directly because they are immune to reason and evidence.

To say this task is not easy is an understatement worthy of the President himself. Many observers, myself included, think it may take an economic catastrophe, such as Uncle Sam’s default or a full-blown economic depression, to do the trick. The best American analogy that I can conjure up is trying to persuade the South to give up slavery before the Civil War.

So when Krugman complains of the President adopting counterfactual GOP rhetoric in “bargaining” over a potential default, he is missing the point. It is impossible, at least for me, to believe that the President actually credits the substance of that rhetoric. He is simply not that stupid or ill informed.

So what is he up to?

It’s hard to know precisely unless your own emotional and political intelligence is as high as the President’s. I know mine is not. He’s been two or three steps ahead of me ever since he announced his presidential campaign.

But a few possibilities come readily to mind. One is that independents and undecided voters might see the President’s willingness to compromise and look from the other side’s point of view as good traits, sympathize, and reluctantly support him and his policies. A second is that the President fears a default caused by GOP intransigence and wants to be sure the GOP will get the blame as fully as it deserves. So he wants to come as close to its position as he can without bending over backwards, in order that no one blame his own intransigence for the coming catastrophe.

A third possibility is that, when the inevitable catastrophe comes—whether in the form of another derivatives debacle, another oil-price shock, another crash worse than 2008, or Uncle Sam’s own default—he can sympathize and empathize with the idiots, saying “gee, we were wrong, weren’t we?” With his high emotional intelligence, he knows he’s not going to get these sworn enemies on his side by preaching to them, lecturing them, or saying “I told you so!”

A fourth possibility is that, by using a bit of the enemy’s own rhetoric and still losing their support, the President wants to demonstrate that they are driven by hatred and unreason and so get normal, rational people to abandon them in disgust. He seems to have gotten GOP pundit David Brooks to go almost that far. So this approach may have merit.

What other choice has he got? To expect reason to change minds stuck in concrete, or even to change enough still-open minds (are there any?) to make a difference, is folly. There is nothing reasonable about the Tea Party or the economic fairy tales that the GOP has been telling itself for thirty years. They are part of our culture, just as extreme Islam is part of the culture in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In short, they are matters of politics, not economics, and therefore outside Krugman’s expertise.

It is hard to overstate how bad a hand the President was dealt when he took office. Not only did he have two unnecessary wars, which he didn’t start, to wind down. Not only did he have to save the nation and the world from the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, with which he had nothing to do. Not only did he have to reassure the world that our “city on the hill” was not devolving into a gunslinger’s tavern in West Texas. He had to do all these things over the figurative dead bodies of millions of people inculcated with a culture of extreme disrespect for progressive ideas, for people who look like the President, and for facts, evidence, education, expertise and reason themselves.

The Tea Party, after all, is nothing really new. It is just the reductio ad absurdum and culmination of a process of deep cultural putrefaction that has been going on for thirty years.

That’s why Krugman’s implications that the President has “sold out” are so dangerous. Our country is as close to civil war or dissolution as I have ever seen it in my 66 years. And I lived through every month of the Vietnam War as an adult. For at least two years now, the extreme right has been talking about its “Second-Amendment solution.” The left blithely ignores this trend, but it could be as dangerous as Hitler’s Brown Shirts. The right has all the guns in this country, at least the private ones.

Even in the halls of Congress, unreason prevails. The right’s small minds from small states can block any legislation in the Senate through mere threatened filibusters and Senate holds, and they now own a majority in the House.

Analogies to Lincoln are increasingly apt. A recent PBS feature on Lincoln reminded us just how much his lot then resembled the President’s today. Before his election as president and the Civil War, much of Lincoln’s own North hated him because he refused to support outright abolition in the slave states. The most he would support seemed tepid: refusing to give new territories a chance to vote whether to be slave or free. That fact alone was a clear signal how he felt about slavery as an institution: even democratic choice itself could not purge its stench of sin. The South understood well and, immediately after his close election in a split field, seceded and triggered our Civil War. But both sides continued to misunderstand Lincoln’s “centrism” and its motivation, even after the War’s end.

Like Krugman, I’m a professor. Like him, I take pride in analytical intelligence and reason. But I can see that analytical intelligence is helpless here, at least for the foreseeable future. The only thing that can bring us home is emotional intelligence—some trick of psychic jujitsu that gets the fools to feel what they cannot see. They must feel the error of their ways in their gut, not what’s left of their minds. If reason alone could do the job, Krugman’s own brilliant columns would already have gotten us halfway there.

Only politics, not reason, has a chance of finding a solution before our national decline becomes exponentially steep, or before we experience another catastrophe, like a national default, from which we may not soon recover. Avoiding those twin pitfalls will require finesse, skill, indirection, and perhaps deceit and trickery. A successful gambit may not be apparent until after it succeeds, especially to folks like us professors inculcated with reason.

The President is no stranger to such gambits. He has pulled the rabbit out of the hat at least three times already. An African-American, he won the Presidency when no one, including the most hardened and experienced African-American political leaders, gave him a chance. He beat the Clinton Dynasty despite its solid record of job creation and fiscal surplus, Bill’s still enormous popularity, and the unfulfilled desire of a clear majority of the nation’s electorate for a female chief executive. And he got a form of near-universal health care passed where his predecessors had tried and failed for almost a century.

So if anyone can make a political miracle, the President can. But the divisions are so deep and the GOP’s perverted culture so strong that even his odds are probably less than fifty-fifty. That’s why all his supporters, reluctant or otherwise, need to chill out. We should know that his task is far harder than a simple matter of communication, or using his “bully pulpit.”

We must give him all the support we can. The odds against him are long, many powerful forces and people want him to fail, and nothing less than our future as a nation is at stake.

Just to be clear, I should say that I, like most economists, do not consider our deficit or debt to be anywhere near our most important national problem, especially in the near term. There will be plenty of time to address deficits and debt once we get our economy moving again, for example, by investing massively in national infrastructure and alternative energy and the good, non-outsourceable jobs that go with them.

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  • At Mon Jul 11, 01:02:00 AM EDT, Blogger seanseamour said…

    After reading Jeff Sharlett’s book The Family, watching the actions of individuals the likes of Kock, Murdoch, certain Supreme Court Justices to name but a few, I was jolted by the notion “corporate bonds” in lieu of sovereign you articulated.. There is little doubt the contents of the book as well as the few individuals referenced above are in part and parcel of a collusion of some form; but your notion has me wondering how deep.
    In this globalizing world, considering the wealth of assets at the hand of corporate America, what could be better than a weak currency and a far more long term depressed competitive labour market. I am wondering if current right wing extremism supported by many other interests would not seek to have the United States default under a black democratic President’ watch, clearing the playing field for the next three to five mandates! No doubts they could bring the jobs back on-shore.

  • At Mon Jul 11, 06:17:00 PM EDT, Blogger jay said…

    Dear Sean,

    This is an interesting comment, and thank you for it.

    I think your reference to "corporate bonds" is not to this post, but to the last paragraph of Point 2 of my post of a week ago, entitled "Flirting with the Devil" and discussing the disasters that even a near-default by Uncle Sam would cause.

    To answer your question directly: no, I don't think this is all some sort of big conspiracy. If it were a conspiracy, it would probably be far better managed. After all, the principals are all fairly smart, at least when acting in their own interest. Otherwise, they wouldn't have made all the money that helps them subvert our democracy.

    More seriously, I think many see conspiracies where there are none. People in the category you mentioned don't have to conspire. Why? Because they all have roughly the same interests. And so if they have no social conscience, they will all act and react about the same way. They can predict (roughly) how each other will act, and what each other will support and oppose, without ever conspiring explicitly.

    Anti-trust law recognizes this point. If people in a free market get together in a smoke-filled room and rig bids, that's a criminal and civil offense.

    But suppose they don't ever have to meet or agree. That can happen in an oligopoly, when each member knows that, if it just matches the other's prices, the small group of oligopolists can split their excess profits from monopolizing the market collectively.

    Antitrust law calls this "conscious parallelism," and it's not illegal. Why? Because the law thinks that penalizing people for acting separately (albeit in the same way) in their own self-interest would go too far.

    Although he doesn't use this legal term, the historian Howard Zinn develops the same concept in his famous book, A People's History of the United States. There he describes how industrialists exploited and inflamed racial and ethnic tension among various groups of workers to retard, and sometimes to crush, the labor movement and collective bargaining.

    As Zinn describes it, the plant owners just "fell into" this "divide and conquer" strategy because it worked for them. They never got together in a group to plan it, but they copied each other's actions. This strategy is still going on, of course, in all the racism thrown at the President and never explicitly disclaimed by GOP leaders.

    To put it another way, the people who are in the ruling class today are more like a fraternity party than a gang. There's little central control and not much explicit coordination. It's much too big a group to meet or even communicate regularly.

    But when a chop, jibe or bit of hazing works, all members copy it pronto. Thus arose the enduring myths of the last few years, of which "trickle down," "job-killing taxes," and "death panels" were only some of the most successful.

    It doesn't matter whether it's true, whether it's moral, or (least of all) whether it impedes the general welfare. If it works for them and makes them richer, they all do it. It may look like a conspiracy or collusion from the outside, but I think it's just the conscious parallelism of sociopathic (and rather short-sighted) alpha males.

    That said, I do think sometimes the "brothers in fraternity" help each other beyond the call of mere self-interest. To me, that's the only possible explanation of the enormous help that someone like Rupert Murdoch gives the fossil fuel industry though deliberate propaganda every day, when, as far as I know, he has no direct interest in that industry. In that respect, the ruling class acts like a fraternity, in which an attack on one is an attack on all, as long as repelling it doesn't impair one's own interests.



  • At Mon Jul 11, 08:55:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Jay - as usual you pretty much nailed. My huge concern is that voice of the professional (and wannabe) "left" will join the babble from all the right (and it's minions in the press) to leave the average low information voter that swings elections with the thought that Obama is a failure. "After all both the left and right think he is bad. " I agree that Obama has been dealt a near disaster of a hand that he has mostly played with great skill. Keep up your great writing!


  • At Fri Jul 15, 01:54:00 AM EDT, Blogger jay said…

    Dear Doug,

    Thank you for your comment and validation.

    I must confess that I, too, was starting to lose faith in the President. The constant drumbeat of criticism from both right and left took their toll on even this skeptical thinker! Imagine what a toll it must have taken on people not trained in three demanding careers, all requiring skeptical analysis.

    Two real things brought me out of it. The first was bin Laden's death---a success for the President where everyone else had failed. As I described in a recent essay, that feat may have had a far deeper and broader impact on public perception of the President than anyone has yet acknowledged.

    The second thing was the runup to the coming default "crisis." The President managed to maneuver Boehner, McConnell and their Tea Mob crazies into making crystal clear what their aims are: (1) to make the President, the economy and our nation fail; and (2) if necessary, to cause a US default---all so they can take control and continue to lower taxes on the richest of us. Doing that while taking constant flack from his base took consummate political skill, great patience and endurance.

    The President's main obstacle is that so many people who otherwise like and respect him want instant solutions to problems that have developed over three decades. That desire is childish and short-sighted. But if I, too, can share it, even temporarily, what about people with less disciplined minds?

    All you have to do to know which side you should be on is to watch Mitch's extortion interview on PBS, which I analyzed recently. I cannot adequately describe my own feelings after watching it, except to say that it was like watching a gangster movie and finding that the fictional head mobster had become Senate Minority Leader.

    With bin Laden dead and Mitch and John on the ropes, the President is looking like a winner. And my own analysis of his hapless opponents suggests that, despite the usual right-wing chest-beating, we don't really have much to worry about in 2012.




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