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The Awful Truth

Krugman sees Bush as a stealth revolutionary, a Robespierre in George Bush clothing, relentlessly pushing a revolutionary right-wing agenda, a true radical bent on dismantling America’s ancien regime and replacing it with one that is even more ancien—perhaps the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover model which was scrapped by the New Deal, possibly even the Mark Hanna model. Many a Republican alive today has still not forgiven Teddy Roosevelt for trading in McKinley’s good old Hanna for the twentieth century’s “progressive” styling. In Kissinger’s formulation the revolutionaries confounded the incredulous defenders of the status quo by the force of their determination to “smash the existing framework” and carry their principles to “their ultimate conclusion.” The established powers, lulled by a long age of stability and old habits of political thought, were baffled when the revolutionaries turned out to be revolutionary.

This history, Krugman says, has a modern parallel in the way the American political system and the media have “responded to the radicalism of the Bush administration,” allowing it to “push radical policies through, with remarkably little scrutiny or effective opposition.”

The relentless push for cutting the taxes of the well-to-do seems to Krugman to illustrate Bush’s “revolutionary” determination to push a principle to its ultimate conclusion over all sensible opposition. The tax cut was concocted in 1999 when the Clinton budget was running a large surplus, and it was sold in the 2000 campaign as a way to reduce an excessive surplus: money would be given back to the middle class. When the economy faltered and the surplus shrank, the reason for the tax cut had to be adjusted, and it was sold as a short-term stimulant for the economy. Then, as the economy continued to stagnate, it was promoted as essential to long-term growth and job creation. Nor did the start of the war on terror and a record-setting rise in the deficit dampen White House enthusiasm for it.

These “ever-shifting rationales for its unchanging policy,” Krugman writes, suggest “an obsession in search of a justification.” Whatever the various reasons used to justify its tax policy, Krugman contends that the administration’s real purpose is to end taxation on capital income and, perhaps, abolish the progressive income tax for a system in which “poor people pay a higher share of their income than rich people.”

Oddly, Krugman makes no effort to identify the leaders of his radical right-wing revolutionary movement, or even to insist that Bush is anything much more than a first among equals, a dependable member of the movement, a useful tool who was chosen because he seemed to be the most electable.

Most political columnists, given Krugman’s belief in the movement, would have some sport speculating on personalities. Is Karl Rove really its Machiavelli directing Bush’s moves? Are Supreme Court Justices Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas members of the leadership circle or merely pro bono legal supporters? And what of the mystifying Cheney? It’s said that in the 2000 campaign it was Cheney’s job to interview potential vice-presidents and recommend the very best man for the job. Did Cheney recommend himself on his own initiative, or did someone order him to do so? And if so, who gave the order? Karl Rove? Justices Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas sitting en banc? Krugman is not a hardened political pundit, so he shuns such trifling and leaves us to speculate for ourselves about the anatomy of the right.

Among the privileges enjoyed by rich, fat, superpower America is the power to invent public reality. Politicians and the mass media do much of the inventing for us by telling us stories which purport to unfold a relatively simple reality. As our tribal storytellers, they shape our knowledge and ignorance of the world, not only producing ideas and emotions which influence the way we lead our lives, but also leaving us dangerously unaware of the difference between stories and reality. Walter Cronkite used to sign off his nightly CBS television news show by saying, “And that’s the way it is….” I once heard Senator Eugene McCarthy say he always wanted to reply, “No, Walter, that’s not the way it is at all.”

Krugman entered the journalism scene at a moment when most of the big newspapers and networks and the Bush political group were harmoniously telling the same story. The narrative line held that though Clinton may have left the economy in good shape, he was not to be trusted, especially not with other men’s wives and daughters, so the nation was now fortunate to enjoy the governance of good, honest, born-again George W. Bush.

Their story line “had it that George W. Bush was dumb but honest,” Krugman notes. After September 11 that was no longer good enough for a nation under attack. And so “the new story was that he was a tough-minded hero, all determination and moral clarity,” he writes. “The overwhelming evidence that neither of these pictures bore any resemblance to reality was simply brushed aside.”

From the beginning Krugman was persuaded that the story presented by press and television was false. He has spent the past three years “providing a picture of the world that differs greatly from the vision of most other mainstream pundits,” he writes. “At a time when most pundits were celebrating the bold vision, skill, and moral clarity of our leaders, I saw confusion, ineffectuality, and dishonesty.”

Why was he able to detect “the outrageous dishonesty of the Bush administration long before most of the rest of the punditocracy”? Well, for one thing, because his training as an economist enabled him to see what most journalists couldn’t. He did his own arithmetic—“or, where necessary, got hold of real economists who could educate me on subjects I wrote about—and quickly realized we were dealing with real mendacity, right here in the U.S.A.”

As Krugman saw it, the nation was obviously not fortunate to have Bush in charge. Then what made so many reporters in the press and television persist in a happy story line? His explanations, scattered throughout his book, are not much different from the self-criticism journalists enjoy heaping on themselves. This will not make them more palatable to media people, for Krugman is still a greenhorn in the business, speaks with a very sharp tongue, and obviously thinks most of them were pathetically inept during the first years of Bush and during the run-up to the Iraqi war. Why, he wonders, did most mainstream journalists remain so calm, so uninterested, while he grew increasingly alarmed?

When criticizing the press and television he suggests a terrible-tempered professor heaping scorn on the doltish freshmen of Economics 101. Their failures, he says, resulted from intellectual laziness and not doing their homework. Mainstream journalists, he thinks, are easily gulled by politicians and their press agents because they are captives of Washington “groupthink.” He sees them as a group of Washington insiders, all attending the same dinner parties, all attuned to a common story line.

Krugman is that rare bird among political pundits—a Washington outsider. He teaches at Princeton and lives in New Jersey. This, he says, meant he was never “part of the gang” and so could not be “bullied” or “seduced” into into seeing things the administration’s way. With characteristic immodesty he states that he was doing a first-rate job of exposing Bushian flimflam while his colleagues were letting the public down. Thus: When the first Bush budget appeared, “it was obvious to me that…he and his people were simply lying about all the important numbers.”

As for the tax-cut plan which Bush the campaigner presented as a boon to the middle class and one which would easily fit into a sound budget, “It took only a bit of homework to show that both claims were just plain untrue—but for some reason almost nobody in the media was willing to do that homework.”

Krugman was flabbergasted:

I had trouble believing what was happening. Was the presidential candidate of a major political party really lying, blatantly, about the content of his own program? Were the media really letting him get away with it? He was, and they were.

The Bush plan for Social Security reform “was a fraud from the start,” he writes. “The mendacity in the administration’s Medicare plans was subtler, but equally stark.” Few in the media seemed to notice.

Though Krugman’s unblushing display of self-esteem sometimes makes his book read like a job application, events have proven him correct about much of what he has said during the past three years. Most notably, the tax cuts for the most affluent have not been paid for by an expanding economy. Instead they have helped convert the Clinton administration’s $230 billion surplus into a $500 billion deficit. Krugman also foresaw the likelihood of a “jobless recovery,” which now appears to be in progress as the economy fails to create new jobs.

Probably his most provocative writing appeared after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center when it took courage to speak sharply about the administration. Ten weeks after the attack he wrote that an honest picture would show “politicians and businessmen behaving badly” and getting by with it because “these days selfishness comes tightly wrapped in the flag.”

This referred to Congress’s voting $15 billion in aid and loan guarantees for airline companies “but not a penny for laid-off airline workers”; to a House-passed “stimulus” bill which provided $25 billion in retroactive tax cuts for corporations but almost nothing for the unemployed; and to efforts to open public lands to oil and logging interests “under cover of the national emergency.”

September 11, Krugman writes, actually helped the President execute “the largest bait-and-switch operation in history”:

First he described a budget-busting tax cut, which delivered the bulk of its benefits to the very affluent, as a modest plan to return unneeded revenue to ordinary families. Then, when the red ink began flowing in torrents, he wrapped himself and his policies in the flag, blaming deficits on evil terrorists and forces beyond his control.

Krugman’s analysis of journalism’s limp coverage during Bush’s first three years overlooks some potentially interesting explanations. One has to do with political journalism’s heavy dependence on polling. Incessant polls make it tempting to do easy horse-race journalism and ignore what candidates stand for. Since polling doesn’t require going far from the office and social centers where professionals chat about polls, it has tended to make political journalism a stultifying kind of work. There is no longer much fresh air blowing through the political columns, but a great deal of deadly dull inside-baseball stuff that sounds like Washington insiders talking among themselves.

The healthy income of top Washington-based political writers may also have an effect. For those with a foot or two in television, the income is very healthy indeed. Six-figure incomes are the rule, and those seen frequently as TV performers may be millionaires. We are talking of people who may well be in that top bracket so generously favored by the Bush tax cuts. Self-interest almost always begets a little prudence.

Krugman’s column is remarkable for its single-minded concentration on the President’s economic policy. There is very little of the mock ideological posturing about “conservatism” and “liberalism” which most pundits churn out on dull days. He rarely deals with foreign policy except as it affects the economy. He has not said much about the Bush administration’s astonishing switch to a unilateral policy of making preemptive war against nations the President considers dangerous, and there has been virtually none of the conventional pundit’s bread-and-butter material: information about what insiders are saying, meditations on the small-town virtues of New Hampshire, startling scoops on what the next usually reliable poll will reveal about public outrage, contentment, or utter indifference.

Most pundits dwell on such stuff because they started out as political reporters or were politicians themselves when they were hired into journalism. They grew to maturity talking this shop talk, and they come to the work with a somewhat limited intellectual reach, as well as a repressive sense of dignity.

Few are equipped to challenge the mathematics and economic theory underlying the Bush budget, and though Krugman may scold them for not doing their homework, doing so would involve prodigious feats of reeducation. Even then it’s doubtful that many would be willing to attack a president with charges of deceit, as Krugman has done. A sense of propriety, of dignity, sits heavily on the “commentariat,” as Krugman calls it. In the code language of the trade, a colleague like Krugman is said to be “shrill” or “strident,” words commonly used to caution a colleague that he is being crude and undignified.

In the higher levels of journalism there is a curious uneasiness about dealing candidly with the quite natural relationship between various money interests and government. All politics is to a great extent about who gets the lion’s share of the money at a government’s disposal, and a public that realized this might be less insouciant about elections than today’s American nonvoter.

Journalism is reluctant, however, to make much of an effort to find out who will benefit if a given candidate wins, and who will lose out. Instead of providing this valuable information, the media tend to explain politics in terms of high-sounding ideological piffle about a “conservatism” and a “liberalism” which have very little pertinence to anything of consequence to the voter. The result is to deaden public interest in politics by diverting the mind from the fact that there is real money at stake.

It seems slightly scandalous that Krugman has persisted in noting that the present administration has been moving the lion’s share of the money to an array of corporate interests distinguished by the greed of their CEOs, an indifference toward their workers, and boardroom conviction that it is the welfare state that is ruining the country. Krugman has been strident. He has been shrill. He has lowered the dignity of the commentariat. How refreshing.

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