The Country

Somewhere there is a country that has two factions. One of the factions is large, comprising most of the people. The other faction is small. The positions of the larger faction are based on facts, reason, and compassion. Every belief of the smaller faction is motivated by gain, politics, and outright hatred. The smaller faction holds undue power, illegally and immorally.

The larger faction loves the chief executive because of the content of his character. The smaller faction hates him because of the color of his skin. Their hatred is so great that they will even oppose things that they’ve supported simply because the chief executive likes them.

Somewhere there is such a country. This is not that country. I do believe, however, that this is the country of Paul Krugman’s and his supporters’ imagination and it is that imagination that Clive Crook criticizes in his recent column:

A line has been crossed when the principal spokesmen for contending opinions have no curiosity whatsoever about their opponents’ ideas and radiate cold, steady contempt for each other. That’s dangerous. Civil society depends on a minimum threshold of tolerance and mutual respect. Fall too far below it, and the seething paralysis you see in Washington could soon be the least of your concerns. This is America’s biggest political problem — and Krugman’s not part of the solution.

Meanwhile, for the side that thinks it has the better arguments, naked contempt for dissenters is plain bad tactics. That isn’t how you change people’s minds. Better to fire up the base with a little demagoguery (such as calling conservatives racist, as Krugman is wont to do) than reach out to the uncommitted? I don’t think so. The enthusiasm you inspire on your side is canceled out by an equal and opposite reaction on the other. Krugman stirs up the right in much the same way that Rush Limbaugh, for instance, inflames the left. Granted, if you’re going to have a spokesman, better a Nobel laureate than a talk-radio clown. The fact remains that Krugman’s weary disdain for roughly half the country is self-defeating.

Really, I just wish he’d meet a wider range of people. It’s true that the modern Republican Party includes a growing number of extremists who have no interest in the kind of discussion I’m recommending. In their case, attempts at outreach would be so much wasted breath. But if Krugman got out of his bubble a bit more, he’d find that the other half of the country contains no more than its fair share of knaves, fools and lunatics — and a lot of thoughtful, public-spirited Americans whose views on the proper scale and scope of government are different from his, yet worthy of respect.

Let me give just two examples of that view of the country in operation: the ARRA fiscal stimulus package and the recent gun control legislation that failed in the Congress.

According to that view a large enough stimulus package would have jolted the country out of the economic doldrums in which we’ve settled, Democrats championed a much larger fiscal stimulus, a larger stimulus wasn’t enacted solely because Republicans opposed it, Republicans opposed it solely because they hate Barack Obama, and they hate Barack Obama solely because he’s black.

That view assumes far too much, is empirically suspect, and drastically over-simplified.

There are good theoretical reasons to think that all other things being equal a fiscal stimulus with the right size, timing, and construction could have that effect. Unfortunately, in the real world things are never equal and, especially in a liberal democracy, no bill enacted into law ever has or will have the right size, timing, or construction. That includes the ARRA. The empirical evidence that the stimulus packages that actually get enacted into law have the desired effect is to say the least ambiguous.

Democrats never championed a larger stimulus package. That is a lie. You will search in vain for any public statement by a White House official that they did. They may have privately supported one, it might have been talked about casually among the president’s White House economic advisors, but, at least according to the best evidence we have, such a bill was never seriously entertained. The largest bill that Democrats would pass was the one that got enacted into law. Any reasonable reading of the actual bill suggests it was not properly timed, its implementation spread out over too long a period, and too much of it consisted of projects that were too much a Democratic political wishlist, payoffs to constituencies, contributors, bundlers, and so on.

It might be true that every single Republican hated Barack Obama and voted against the ARRA for that reason alone. I doubt it but I can’t read their hearts or minds. The Greeks had a word for it. Frene, I think.

With respect to the recent gun control legislation, its advocates proclaim that 90% of the American people supported it and the Republicans prevented it from passing nonetheless, presumably because of their hatred of Barack Obama or their love of the NRA. There is some evidence that 90% of Americans support universal background checks for purchasing firearms. It’s possible that was just a snapshot. I know of no evidence that even a simple majority of Americans supported everything that was in the actual bill that failed to be enacted.

It might also be true that every single Congressional Republicans continues to hate Barack Obama and refused to vote for the bill solely for that reason. Again, I can’t read their hearts or minds. I don’t think you need to resort to that explanation. Constituent service is probably enough.

I think the real United States is actually quite a bit different from that imaginary country. It has two major political parties consisting of many, many more factions than just two but for simplicity let’s say the country has three approximately equal-sized factions. One of the those factions consists of yellow dog Democrats who will vote for anybody with a D next to their name, another Republican equivalent of that group, and a third faction whose members may lean one way or another but have no permanent loyalty to either side.

Either Democrats or Republicans will leap on science and evidence that supports their preconceived views and reject the science or evidence that contradicts those views.

Both Democratic and Republican politicians have one overwhelming, dominating priority: election or re-election. They may have other values as well but their hierarchy of values is such that those are lost in the drive to achieve and retain office.

I doubt that either Democrats or Republicans know or care much about President Obama’s character. I think they’re both acutely aware of his race which I find rather sad. I wish that the president, his advisors, and supporters did not feel the need to go out of their way to alienate those who disagree with them. Like Mr. Crook, I don’t think it’s healthy for a liberal democracy or productive of the sorts of agreements we need to reach for our society to work.

28 comments… add one
  • jan

    Good commentary.

    IMO, the country is being run more by ideological hyperbole than wisdom. Flaming the other side has become political sport. Prodding votes with short term promises is the strategy. Like what was inferred, extremes rule, and everyone else is caught in the middle. Will people revolt? Or, will they simply become dolts, docilely accepting the by-products from such irrational/unreasonable governance as the ‘new normal?’

  • PD Shaw

    I thing Krugman needs to consider the thoughts of a well-intenioned economist that were speaking out on a stimulus package in December of 2008.

    I would like him to meet Paul Krugman of the NYTimes, who was asked on a Sunday show about his proposal for a $600 billion recovery package:

    “PAUL KRUGMAN, NEW YORK TIMES: My number will be going up. My problem is that the actual constraint is not going to be political will. No. The actual constraint is going to be finding enough stuff to spend on. Try to find that much (laughter from panel)…No. The words here are shovel ready. Now, how much is shovel ready? How much can you actually get going in time to help this year and this coming year?

    GWEN IFILL, PBS: The governors came to town to Philadelphia and they met with the president-elect and they say we have a lot of shovel ready projects.

    KRUGMAN: Yeah, but again, what’s a lot? I mean, even with their full wish list you have trouble getting up to 100 billion. So now you start doing other stuff, and you start saying, well, you know, but it’s, it is not that easy, believe it or not, even Washington can’t spend $600 billion in a year very easily. So, to push north of that is hard to do. ”

    You can argue that this economist is indecisive because he’s changing the amount, but he is operating within the framework of needing to spend additional amounts in a short-time. I wonder if Krugman has ever run into him at conferences?

  • As I’ve said, the only practical way I can see to implement enough stimulus in the necessary timeframe would be by suspending both sides of FICA. That suggestion has received a certain amount of derision, particularly from those who believe that Republicans would vote down a stimulus package that consisted solely of tax cuts just to thwart the president.

  • I might add that it was a lot easier to maintain a reputation for omniscience, as his acolytes have claimed for him, before the Internet maintained its paper trail. If you throw enough conflicting predictions against the wall, some of them are sure to stick and there will always be those who only look at what you got right.

    Those who only look at what you got right are guided by science, data, and reason. Those who only look at what you got wrong are driven by ideology, prejudice, and selfish interests. Those who look at both what you got right and what you got wrong don’t exist.

  • PD Shaw

    OTOH, when I’ve seen Krugman on talk shows, at least centrist/establishment ones, he can be quite modest and recognize that he could be wrong. He said as much a few weeks ago when Fareed Zakaria quizzed him on Japan’s experience with construction project stimulus. (He distinguishes Japan because its spending was in dribs and drabs and because Japan has a demographic restraining in declining working adults) The internet gives him a medium that need only be responsive to those he wishes.

  • Andy

    My issue with Krugman is that I often find it very difficult to tell Krugman the Nobel economist from Krugman the liberal advocate and polemicist. I also agree completely with Cook on tactics.

  • Roy Lofquist

    “There are good theoretical reasons to think that all other things being equal a fiscal stimulus with the right size, timing, and construction could have that effect.”

    As love of money is the root of all evil so, also, is love of theory the root of all folly.

  • steve

    I live in a red area of a purple state. The conservatives I know and work with are good, decent people. I have no need or desire to denigrate them or conservatives/libertarians in general. I love to argue my points and will do so aggressively sometimes, but I know I am wrong some time, I just dont know when. I wish this need to view the opposition as cartoons rather than real people would go away. It used to just be on the internet, but it is expanding. One of my better friends at work is a bit liberal. His wife is an arch conservative. He asks me to take care of her sometimes. He told me, then she told me, that if I start any liberal talk (workers of the world unite?) she will not see me again. This is all nuts. I bet that somewhere there is a conservative doc seeing liberal pts going through the same thing. I hope not.

    Then I have my family, most of whom would consider Drew and jan flaming liberals. From them, and some friends, I receive every bit of right wing conspiracy theory that exists. There is bunches. Now, the federal govt is buying up all of the world’s ammunition so US gun owners cant have any. Just whacky.

    So, while I agree that it would be great if Krugman got out more (I bet he does, but he maintains his position by being shrill so it really doesnt matter), I think it will get worse before it gets better. What incentives do the pundits of the GOP, Limbaugh et al, have to change? What incentive does Krugman have to change?

    Steve

  • What incentive does Krugman have to change?

    That’s right, fuck intellectual honesty…fuck it in the ass just for the sake of earning partisan brownie points.

    Krugman of about 15-20 years ago was awesome. Now he is just another fucking talking head.

  • jan

    Then I have my family, most of whom would consider Drew and jan flaming liberals.

    You must have some intense holiday dinners!

    What incentives do the pundits of the GOP, Limbaugh et al, have to change? What incentive does Krugman have to change?

    I don’t know if incentives will do it. However, people usually forget their differences when something, like a crisis, happens which reprioritizes the really important things in life, putting partisan issues on a back burner. 911 was an example of that — at least for a short time.

  • sam

    “However, people usually forget their differences when something, like a crisis, happens which reprioritizes the really important things in life, putting partisan issues on a back burner”

    You got that right. See, Air Traffic Controllers, Recent History and Congress Critters Travel Plans.

  • Andy

    People like Limbaugh and, to a lesser extent, Krugman, rely on an audience of true believers and sycophants. The only way to incentivize them to change is via their audience which is, quite obviously, a huge challenge.

  • michael reynolds

    With the greatest possible respect, Dave, I think you’re blind on this. Krugman’s essentially right. And yes, the Republican Party is now, in large degree, a party motivated by hatred and fear.

    I used to write a blog called the Mighty Middle, as you know, and I sincerely believed there could be a middle ground. But there is no middle with this GOP, and I’m no longer interested in pretending that there is. We’ve played that game for almost five years now and it’s bullshit. It’s a lie. The only solution now is to do to the GOP nationally what we’ve done to them in California: reduce them to impotence and irrelevance.

    Is that the best answer? Of course not. We need dialog. We need a Hegelian dialectic, to use a phrase I heard today for the first time in a while. (I’m in Dublin, so…) But that is not possible with this GOP. It just isn’t. And you’re kidding yourself if you think it is. This is the GOP of Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity, and they do not dialog, they just hate.

    I think trapped in Chicago, land of the eternally corrupt Democrats, you see this all through that prism. But the national dynamic is not the Chicago dynamic. And pretending that the GOP today is anything other than rich assholes and racists is nothing but nostalgia.

  • Ben Wolf

    The empirical evidence that the stimulus packages that actually get enacted into law have the desired effect is to say the least ambiguous.

    How could it? Krugman was as clueless as the administration in 2009; even if, as he later suggested, an increase in stimulus to $1.4 trillion had been enacted it would not have achieved the stated goal. The private sector went from borrowing 4.8% GDP in 2008 to saving 8.7% GDP in 2010. That’s a demand drain of 13.5% GDP, and in response we spent . . . 1.5% GDP for three years.

    Oh, that’s right. Private sector debt can’t be a factor, because Krugman is one of the few who hasn’t caught on to endogenous money. So he spent the 1990’s assuring everyone that credit expanding at 7% per year was perfectly sustainable. At this point I think a lot of his efforts since the GFC have gone into diverting as much attention as possible from his own horrid track record.

  • PD Shaw

    Wait, michael is coming to the defense of Krugman calling his ideological opponents racists. Did nobody see this coming?

  • Cannons Call

    Economists are dinosaurs. Krugman is irrelevant. Life is short. Move on.

  • Michael,

    Bullshit. That is nonsense. You don’t want dialogue, you want to revel in your own superiority. All this crap about how you and your fellow liberals are creatives and superior. And your constant belittling and insulting those who disagree with you.

    BTW, it isn’t just Clive Crook, here is Don Boudreaux,

    if you ask a liberal or a saltwater economist, “What would somebody on the other side of this divide say here? What would their version of it be?” A liberal can do that. A liberal can talk coherently about what the conservative view is because people like me actually do listen. We don’t think it’s right, but we pay enough attention to see what the other person is trying to get at.–Paul Krugman

    Look at the hubris and condescension there. He knows, right off, that his opponents are wrong. But he patiently listens to them so they’ll feel good. It is breathtaking. What a fucking asshole. Sure he maybe brilliant, he is also an asshole.

    Krugman is also being hugely dishonest. He is comparing himself to boobs like Limbaugh and Beck. That is like shooting fish in a barrel. Notice he is not comparing himself to guys like Hayek, Friedman, Buchanan, or Coase. All are world class economists, all of them won the Nobel. All of them disagreed that Keynesianism is “right”. Granted they are all dead, how about Dierdre McClosky, Arnold Kling (classmate of Krugman’s are MIT), Tyler Cowen, Vernon Smith? We already know that Krugman thinks Greg Mankiw is evil*.

    *No joke. Why? Because Mankiw suggested the Great Recession might have a “unit root problem” and as such, big fat deficit spending might not do what its proponents suggest.

  • To translate what Steve V. just said by “unit root problem” I presume he means whether production necessarily returns to trend. If there’s drift in production, it’s possible that no amount of fiscal stimulus will cause a return to trend in production.

  • Red Barchetta

    I just about fell out of my chair with “the big one.”

    jan and drew, er that would be Red, big time liberals? Now THAT would worthy of big time discussion…….

  • Red Barchetta

    Cannons Call

    I have no use for Krugman. Yes, a dinosaur. Correct me if I’m wrong……..but I think the Paleozic era has passed. I’m a Friedman guy. Chicago guy. But I’m not sure they have it all down right.

    Time to rethink all assumptions and notions.

    But this Obammy guy? Holy crap.

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