The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century
by Paul Krugman
Norton, 426 pp., $25.95
When The New York Times tempted Paul Krugman to try daily journalism, no one, including Krugman, could have anticipated what was to come. Krugman was an Ivy League professor of economics, a scholar acclaimed for his youthful brilliance, and an author of learned books and occasional commentary on international money crises. All clues pointed to a master of the tedious. One suspected the Times wanted someone to be boring in a genteel, scholarly way twice a week on its Op-Ed page. Krugman himself may have thought so. In The Great Unraveling he says he intended to write about globalization, world financial problems, and sometimes the “vagaries” of the domestic economy.
Before anyone could say “narcolepsy,” politics intruded, and it quickly became obvious that Krugman was incapable of being either boring or genteel, but was highly gifted at writing political journalism. Starting in January of the election year 2000, he rapidly acquired a large, adoring readership which treasured his column as an antidote for the curiously polite treatment President Bush was receiving from most of the mainstream media.
At his most polite, Krugman was irreverent, but much of the time he seemed to think irreverence was much too good for the President, the people around him, and almost everything he stood for. In The Great Unraveling he commits the ultimate rudeness: Bush, he says, is surreptitiously leading a radical right-wing political movement against American government as it has developed in the past century. The words “radical” and “right-wing” are bad words in the political lexicon of mainstream American journalism. Normally they are simply not used to describe presidents, except by the kind of people who write for funky little out-of-the-mainstream journals.
As a Times columnist, Krugman is as mainstream as it gets. His readiness to apply disapproved words to the President helps to explain why his column quickly became catnip to so many who had voted for Al Gore and were still angry about the bizarre manner of Bush’s elevation. For them, to have the Bush presidency so relentlessly and expertly savaged was a consolation of sorts.
From the White House viewpoint criticism itself was bad enough—Bush people are famous for thin skin—but the really troublesome problem was that Krugman seemed to know what he was talking about. This is not entirely unheard of among political columnists, but the typical Washington pundit is stupefyingly uninformed about economics, a field in which Krugman is exceedingly well informed. He had the professional skills needed to tell when the political rhetoric was nonsense and he took a short-tempered professor’s sadistic delight in holding oafs up to ridicule.
The vocabulary Krugman applied to the President bristled with words such as “dishonesty,” “lying,” “mendacity,” and “fraud.” Among political pundits such language verges on the taboo. As a class, political columnists do not shrink from the occasional well poisoning, but on matters of etiquette they are conservative to the verge of stuffiness, and they tend to view plain speech as the mark of the ill-mannered bumpkin.
The good opinion of his colleagues does not seem to concern Krugman. His indifference toward journalism’s conventional etiquette may even contribute to his success. By speaking rudely about the President and his policies he gave loud voice to what many of his readers had been wishing somebody important would say ever since Bush was created president by Supreme Court fiat. In some measure Krugman helped satisfy a hunger for political opposition, a longing which, not surprisingly, became acute after the election of 2000 turned out to be a nonelection.
It is hard to imagine the Republicans, had the Supreme Court appointed a Democrat to the White House, accepting the decision as meekly as the Democrats accepted the Court’s anointing of Bush. Republicans thrive on combat and have a passion for opposing, which is rooted in all those years of opposing the New and Fair Deals, not to mention Theodore Roosevelt’s “square deal” a century ago. Theirs is a party so dedicated to opposition that it opposes government itself and often seeks power mainly to dismantle a great deal of it. A favorite Republican battle cry is: “Government is the problem!”
Democrats have a flabbier tradition. Congressional Democrats, who might have been the natural source of an opposition to Bush, chose instead to be good sports about the aborted election. They promptly joined the President in granting lavish tax cuts to the richest part of the population, then moved en masse to endorse his request for authority to make the war he wanted in Iraq. After managing to lose the off-year congressional elections of 2002, they settled into a torpor so restful that they are still vexed with Howard Dean for disturbing their peace.
As for the press and television, so tigerish when Bill Clinton presided, except for a few audacious malcontents (notable among them the artful female columnists Molly Ivins, Mary McGrory, and Maureen Dowd) they mostly turned into tim’rous beasties. Krugman is hard on the print and TV people and sometimes openly contemptuous. In his view the mainstream media gave Bush a free pass in the campaign and let the public down by neglecting to focus on what the candidates were saying, preferring instead to dither about the style in which they said it, their wardrobes, their performance skills, and their physical appearance.
The question of why the media slept is open to several speculations. One is that they simply missed a very big story. Bush had hardly settled in at Washington when he began to carry out the right wing’s long-stalled agenda. This should have been startling to political reporters. The election numbers, after all, showed a country so evenly divided that neither party could win. Yet here was Bush bolting toward the right after the country had just voted to stay at dead center.
Though he had actually lost the election in the popular vote (he finished 540,520 votes behind Gore), he was governing as if he had been elected by a landslide. It was an outrageously bold political gamble or an act of preposterous gall, depending on your politics. But the media either failed to find it very significant news or, lacking Democratic cries of alarm to justify headlines, found the ideological nature of the story too difficult to cover in its conventional he-said-she-said storytelling style.
There is also the theory that the press has been so successfully bullied by the right that it has lost its spunk and after Bush’s ascension instinctively chose not to call attention to itself by covering Bush as aggressively as it had gone after Clinton. The charge here is cowardice, but Krugman does not include it in his own extensive bill of complaints against the press. He seems to think it was institutional listlessness and intellectual sloth that made them miss the story.
Even Krugman, however, seems to have been slow to grasp the fact that Bush’s rightward move might be a very big story indeed. The Great Unraveling includes a generous batch of his columns which show how his view of the Bush era developed between 2000 and the present; there is no hint in the early pieces that Krugman senses a shifting of the ideological tides. At first he seems merely irritated by Bush’s use of “bogus” numbers to justify his tax-cut, Social Security, and Medicare proposals, but he seems to accept these as the usual political flimflammery of campaigning politicians, not to be taken too seriously.
He tweaks Alan Greenspan for adjusting his economic analysis to fit the political needs of the new president; he has fun showing how Bush’s selling his Harken Energy stock just before the price collapsed compares with the nick-of-time stock sale that got Martha Stewart into trouble; he argues that the California electricity crisis of 2001 (“a $30 billion robbery”) was created by power corporations manipulating the market, and is proven right a year later.
It is late in the day, however, before Krugman sees the details begin fitting together to form a larger picture. His big picture of what was going on is developed not in his columns, but here in an introduction and a series of essays written for his book.
Though “ahead of the curve in realizing that something radical was happening” in the government, he writes, it took time for him to realize how hard the right was pressing its agenda. One result of its aggressiveness was a form of class warfare created “by the efforts of an economic elite to expand its privileges.” Other ideas which had once been “beyond the pale” were being openly supported: that “inherited privilege is good,” for example, and that “poor people don’t pay enough taxes.”
He saw a “crusade against the welfare state” driven by “an ideology that denigrates almost everything, other than national defense, that the government does.” The administration was working to end government roles in environmental protection, securities regulation, and air traffic control.
The Krugman indictment makes no concessions to the idea of Bush as pillar of strength after September 11:
Few things I have written have generated as much hate mail as the columns in which I accused the administration of exploiting September 11 for political gain, of wrapping itself in the flag while it sought weakened environmental regulation, tax cuts for corporations and the rich, and above all an upper hand in the midterm elections…. We had some very unscrupulous people running the country. Every administration contains its share of cynical political operators…. But this administration seems to have nothing but cynical political operators, who use national tragedy for politi-cal gain, don’t even try to come to grips with real problems, and figure that someone else will clean up the mess they leave behind.
And how did they come to power? Through “the increasing manipulation of the media and the political process by lavishly funded right-wing groups. Yes, Virginia, there is a vast right-wing conspiracy,” he concludes.
Krugman says the alarm went off for him while reading Henry Kissinger’s reflections on the French Revolution in his 1957 doctoral dissertation on the age of Metternich and Castlereagh. Reading Kissinger’s first three pages “sent chills down my spine,” he writes. In them Kissinger “describes the problems confronting a heretofore stable diplomatic system when it is faced with a ‘revolutionary power’—a power that does not accept that system’s legitimacy.”
…The revolutionary power he had in mind was the France of Robespierre and Napoleon, though he clearly if implicitly drew parallels with the failure of diplomacy to effectively confront totalitarian regimes in the 1930s…. It seems clear to me that one should regard America’s right-wing movement—which now in effect controls the administration, both houses of Congress, much of the judiciary, and a good slice of the media—as a revolutionary power in Kissinger’s sense. That is, it is a movement that does not accept the legitimacy of our current political system.