Difficult as it is to remember now, there was a time in the United States, as recently as fifteen or so years ago, when we were not engaged in constant political warfare. In those days Senator Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in a war, would not have been visually equated with Saddam Hussein in a television ad, something the Republicans did to him in 2002. The release of a declaration by, for example, the National Academy of Sciences was for the most part acknowledged as legitimate, and not attacked as a product of so-called liberal bias as its 2005 report on global warming was.1
We can regret, as it is customary to do, the loss of civility in political discourse (although such laments tend to assume a golden era that wasn’t quite as civil in reality as it is in the memories of those who mourn its passing). But the nakedness of the modern right’s drive for political power and of the Bush administration’s politicization of so many aspects of governance and civic life has, paradoxically, given us one thing to be grateful for. Liberals and Democrats now understand much more plainly the nature of the fight they’re in. Some recognized this early on: many of those who worked on the Clinton administration’s health care plan recognized back in 1994, as Paul Starr, one veteran of that effort, puts it, that the Republicans would not compromise on the plan under any circumstances because “if it succeeded, it might renew New Deal beliefs in the efficacy of government, whereas a defeat of the health plan could set liberalism back for years.”2
Others realized what was happening only much later, after the impeachment of Clinton, the foreshortened election in Florida, and the administration’s post–September 11 policies, including its brutal violations of civil liberties and its invasion and occupation of Iraq. Why it took such people so long to recognize reality is an interesting question; but now, in plenty of time for next year’s presidential election, Democrats and liberals seem more prepared than usual to put up a fight.
Many liberals would name Paul Krugman of The New York Times as perhaps the most consistent and courageous—and unapologetic—liberal partisan in American journalism. He has made his perspective on the Bush administration and the contemporary right, and on the need to see politics as a battle, manifestly clear in column after incendiary column. Indeed, of all the ways he could have concluded The Conscience of a Liberal, he chose to do so with a short essay that appears under the headline “On Being Partisan,” which notes:
The central fact of modern American political life is the control of the Republican Party by movement conservatives, whose vision of what America should be is completely antithetical to that of the progressive movement. Because of that control, the notion, beloved of political pundits, that we can make progress through bipartisan consensus is simply foolish….
To be a progressive, then, means being a partisan—at least for now. The only way a progressive agenda can be enacted is if Democrats have both the presidency and a large enough majority in Congress to overcome Republican opposition.
From the Krugman we’ve come to know through his New York Times columns, this assertion is hardly surprising. But the pre-Bush Krugman was a quite different person. He was in those days far more prominently an economist than a polemicist, and an illustrious one—in 1991 he won the John Bates Clark medal from the American Economic Association, an award for economists under forty said to be perhaps harder to win (or at least given out more sparingly) than the Nobel Prize in economics. As such, he was not much involved in partisan politics. He was always a liberal, to be sure, and highly critical of supply-side economics. But he also disparaged economists to his left, especially opponents of free trade (a view he defends less staunchly now than then). In his 1994 book, Peddling Prosperity, Krugman had harsh words for liberal economists such as Robert Reich and Lester Thurow, who advocated selective protection from foreign competition, particularly from countries in which poor workers were harshly exploited. Reviewing Peddling Prosperity in these pages,3 Benjamin M. Friedman took note of Krugman’s disdain for such “strategic traders” and their attempts to exert influence within the Clinton administration in favor of protectionism and subsidies for selected domestic industries. If you were a radical economist in those days, or a labor movement intellectual, or a left-leaning social scientist, chances are you weren’t a big fan of Paul Krugman.
On the strength of his academic work and his attention-getting columns in Slate, Krugman started writing in the Times on January 2, 2000. He made a point of challenging antiglobalization activists in his very first column. (“It is a sad irony that the cause that has finally awakened the long-dormant American left is that of—yes!—denying opportunity to third-world workers.”) During that election year, he regularly and strongly criticized George W. Bush’s tax-cut proposal and his opaque statements about Social Security. But he limited his critiques to economic policy and, compared to his Op-Ed-page colleagues, didn’t write about politics all that often, emphasizing such topics as the power of Microsoft, the future of Amazon.com, the policies of the Federal Reserve Bank, and Japan’s economic woes.
About Bush v. Gore, he had little to say. After Bush took office, he savaged the administration’s regressive tax cuts. But it wasn’t really until the fall of 2002, as the marketing of the Iraq war began in earnest, that he began broadening his criticism beyond economics to the war and the threats to civil liberties, extending his critique to the larger conservative movement and its modus operandi, and discussing the mainstream press’s failure to report what was really going on right in front of their noses. It was around then that Krugman began producing with regularity the kinds of columns that whiz their way around the liberal blogosphere. Aficionados may even remember certain columns, like the one headlined “Dead Parrot Society,” from October 25, 2002, in which Krugman cited some typical Orwellian phrases from the press, as when a reporter wrote that President Bush’s statements on such matters as “Iraq’s military capability” were “dubious if not wrong” and that Bush had “taken some flights of fancy.” Krugman wrote:
Reading all these euphemisms, I was reminded of Monty Python’s parrot: he’s pushing up the daisies, his metabolic processes are history, he’s joined the choir invisible. That is, he’s dead. And the Bush administration lies a lot.4
So Krugman came a bit late to the political trenches—and perhaps a bit reluctantly. Just as Arnold Schoenberg said of himself, when asked by a stranger if he was indeed the controversial composer, that “nobody wanted to be, someone had to be, so I let it be me,” so I suspect Krugman might say that virtually no one on the leading Op-Ed pages was saying the things that so obviously needed to be said as the Iraq war approached, so he let it be himself who said them.
And now, after years of twice-weekly deadlines, he appears to have decided that there’s no turning back: The Conscience of a Liberal, with its title so clearly aping and answering Barry Goldwater’s from forty-seven years ago, represents Krugman’s fullest embrace of his polemicist identity. He has written some twenty books, popular and scholarly; this is the first that chiefly sees economics through the lens of politics rather than the other way around.
He makes this clear in the first chapter, with an argument that seems self-evident to people who see the world in political terms but will surely strike some of his fellow economists as an apostasy. Krugman begins by observing that he was born (in 1953) at a time when expanding prosperity was a given and inequality was on the decline, and when political polarization was at a comparative low. Noting that both of those conditions changed starting in the 1970s and asking what happened, he observes that two narratives define the march of history, one political and one economic. The normal economist’s view is that economic changes drive political changes. Thus, the Depression led to the New Deal, for example. In our time, global competition, the IT revolution, and the demand for high skills led to higher inequality, which in turn meant a shrinking constituency for a populist politics and a larger constituency, among the winners, for the kind of top-down, class-warfare politics that today’s GOP engages in.
Krugman had always believed—even “when I began working on this book”—that this was how things unfolded. “Yet,” he writes of our era:
I’ve become increasingly convinced that much of the causation runs the other way—that political change in the form of rising polarization has been a major cause of rising inequality. That is, I’d suggest an alternative story for the last thirty years that runs like this: Over the course of the 1970s, radicals of the right determined to roll back the achievements of the New Deal took over the Republican Party, opening a partisan gap with the Democrats…. The empowerment of the hard right emboldened business to launch an all-out attack on the union movement, drastically reducing workers’ bargaining power; freed business executives from the political and social constraints that had previously placed limits on runaway executive paychecks; sharply reduced tax rates on high incomes; and in a variety of other ways promoted rising inequality.
Elsewhere in the book, he explicitly, and in more detail, rebuts the view that market forces like technological change, immigration, and growing trade could possibly account for today’s dramatic levels of inequality. He argues that what has happened is
largely due to changes in institutions, such as the strength of labor unions, and norms, such as the once powerful but now weak belief that having the boss make vastly more than the workers is bad for morale.
This concern about institutions and norms is at the heart of Krugman’s argument.
The earlier chapters trace roughly the last one hundred years of American history from one gilded age to an era of general prosperity to a time of tumult (the 1970s) and finally back to a new gilded age. The arguments are brief, clearly organized, and crisply to the point. Each chapter ends with a little one- or two-paragraph cliffhanger that sets up the next:
Why have advocates of a smaller welfare state and regressive tax politics been able to win elections, even as growing income inequality should have made the welfare state more popular? That’s the subject of the next chapter.
Chapters three and four are the crucial ones in Krugman’s historical overview of the American economy since the Depression, since they describe how an aggressively liberal politics of an earlier time spelled the end of a long age of inequality and how those liberal policies, once thought to be radical, became mainstream. Chapter three, the New Deal chapter, explains—one gets the feeling that his real intended audience here is today’s Democrats—how it was the political choices made by Roosevelt and his colleagues, and not impersonal economic forces, that lifted the country out of depression and poverty and built the middle class. The result was, in the phrase of two economic historians he cites, “the Great Compression,” the narrowing of the gap between the rich and the rest, and the reduction in wage differentials among workers.
Three decisions by the government stood out. The first was raising taxes on the rich. The wealthiest Americans went from paying a top rate of 24 percent in the 1920s to 63 percent during FDR’s first term and 79 by his second. By the mid-1950s, it was 91 percent (today’s top rate is 35 percent). Corporate and estate taxes went up as well. The second decision was to make it easier for workers to unionize: in consequence, union membership tripled from 1933 to 1938, and then almost doubled again by 1947. The third decision was made after Pearl Harbor to use the National War Labor Board to encourage employers to raise the wages of the lowest-paid workers. And after the war ended, “the amazing thing is that the changes stuck.”
These decisions dramatically reduced inequality and, far from having the cataclysmic effects on the economy predicted by conservatives at the time, they led to the postwar boom. (He emphasizes that the rich then were far less rich than they are today, a point to which he returns several times throughout the book.) And then, because they were so successful, the decisions he describes became widely accepted after the war.
This is the subject of Krugman’s fourth chapter—how the decline in inequality led to a decline in political polarization. When Harry Truman won the 1948 election, the GOP dropped its project of trying to repeal the New Deal. After that election, “the Republican Party survived—but it did so by moving toward the new political center.” He cites the work of three political scientists—Keith Poole, Howard Rosenthal, and Nolan McCarty—who have studied the different degrees of polarization and cooperation in every Congress since the nineteenth century and who found, sure enough, that the Congresses of the 1950s saw far more ideological overlap between the parties than did the Congresses of the 1920s or the current decade. Things were looking almost too good:
In sum, between 1948 and sometime in the 1970s both parties accepted the changes that had taken place during the Great Compression [of inequality]. To a large extent the New Deal had created the political conditions that sustained this consensus. A highly progressive tax system limited wealth at the top, and the rich were too weak politically to protest. Social Security and unemployment insurance were untouchable programs, and Medicare eventually achieved the same status. Strong unions were an accepted part of the national scene.
The story, as we know, takes a dark turn from this point. Chapters follow on the social turmoil of the 1960s (still a bucolic time economically, Krugman points out); the rise of “movement conservatism” in the 1970s, against the backdrop of the oil crisis and defeat in Vietnam; the emergence of Ronald Reagan and the push toward a new inequality; the right-wing war against unions and the collapse of the 1949 “Treaty of Detroit” that ensured good wages and benefits and labor peace in the auto industry; and the “weapons of mass distraction,” i.e., the racial demagoguery and the social issues that Republicans have used to such triumphal effect, as for example in Reagan’s “thinly disguised appeals to segregationist sentiment” to win Southern states in 1980; and, more recently, the Bush administration’s effective use of coded language to address the Christian right.
This story, of course, has been told many times with different emphases. Krugman’s version is well worth reading, for two reasons. First, his embrace of the idea that politics rather than economics has created our present-day inequality gives us a sense of political agency. If politics created this mess, then better politics may be able to do something about it. Krugman suspects “that the 2006 election wasn’t an aberration, [and] that the US public is actually ready for something different—a new politics of equality.” This is the subject of the book’s last three chapters, which discuss inequality and health care and flesh out his ideas for “an unabashedly liberal program of expanding the social safety net and reducing inequality—a new New Deal.”
The chapter on health care is probably the moral core of The Conscience of a Liberal—the one chapter above all the others that he would wish readers and policymakers to take to heart. That this is so is perhaps a further sign of the ascendancy of Krugman the polemicist (also the fact, which will undoubtedly seem strange to some economists, that the book barely discusses trade and globalization at all, thus omitting comment on highly contentious political issues among liberals). He lays out the weaknesses of the American system compared to the systems of other advanced countries, describes the way the health care crisis has built up in America since 1965, when Medicare and Medicaid became law, and analyzes the obstacles to reform during those forty years. The need for universal health care may seem obvious, but he makes the case for it with great clarity. He supports a competition between public and private insurers to offer affordable care, with mandated coverage, subsidies for low- income families, and a so-called “community rating” system to control the cost of premiums. This plan would resemble to some extent the German system of providing health insurance through regulated “sickness funds” and would look a lot like what John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton have proposed (Obama’s plan would not mandate coverage for all, at least at the beginning).
But Krugman doesn’t want health care only for health care’s sake:
There is, however, another important reason for health care reform. It’s the same reason movement conservatives were so anxious to kill [Bill] Clinton’s plan. That plan’s success, said [William] Kristol, “would signal the rebirth of centralized welfare-state policy”—by which he really meant that universal health care would give new life to the New Deal idea that society should help its less fortunate members. Indeed it would—and that’s a big argument in its favor.
Health care is the key to the better politics that Krugman demands. Will the time be right for a new system, in early 2009, if we have a Democratic president and Democratic majorities in Congress? The opposition will be intense, for the reasons that both Krugman and Paul Starr lay out. But it does seem that Democrats and advocates have learned most of the right lessons from the debacle of Hillary Clinton’s plan in 1994 and have regained some courage for a fight. And certainly, as larger numbers reach retirement, the crisis for people who lack the care they should have is deeper than it was then. So the opportunity should be greater, and public support stronger, than it was when the Clintons’ efforts were defeated.
The second element of Krugman’s account that gives it special value is its commitment to accurate history even when some fudging might be in order for the sake of political expediency. For example, it is in my recent experience not at all unusual to hear liberals say that, compared to Bush, Ronald Reagan wasn’t really all that bad; this willingness to keep alive the image of Reagan as an avuncular and well-meaning sort—wrong but not at all malevolent—is somehow seen, I think, as strengthening the case against Bush. It is the language of persuasion, intended to have a mollifying effect on people wary of Democrats.
But Krugman is unimpressed. He detests Reagan. He notes, more than once, that Reagan officially opened his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had been murdered in 1964, avowing his support for states’ rights. (I suppose it’s progress of a sort that such an act of reactionary symbolism seems inconceivable for a national candidate in today’s America.) He discusses Reagan’s “remarkable callousness” in joking, in a famous speech, also in 1964, that “we were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry each night…. Well, that was probably true. They were all on a diet.” And most egregious of all, he quotes Reagan on his promise to repeal California’s fair housing act when he was running for governor in 1966: “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, he has a right to do so.”
Similarly William F. Buckley Jr., who has renounced the Iraq war and was host to many liberals during his Firing Line days, is regarded as one of the more “reasonable” conservatives. But Krugman finds, in an early issue of Buckley’s National Review, editorial conclusions about race that went beyond the public views of right-wing politicians. Krugman writes:
Today leading figures on the American right are masters of what the British call “dog-whistle politics”: They say things that appeal to certain groups in a way that only the targeted groups can hear—and thereby avoid having the extremism of their positions become generally obvious…. Reagan was able to signal sympathy for racism without ever saying anything overtly racist…. George W. Bush consistently uses language that sounds at worst slightly stilted to most Americans, but is fraught with meaning to the most extreme, end-of-days religious extremists. But in the early days of the National Review positions were stated more openly.
Thus in 1957 the magazine published an editorial celebrating a Senate vote that, it believed, would help the South continue the disenfranchisement of blacks.
“The central question that emerges—and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal—is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”
Krugman introduces the information about Reagan and the National Review as evidence for his argument, made at length in The Conscience of a Liberal, that modern movement conservatism is at its deepest core most fundamentally about, and built on, race. For example, comparing northern and southern states with similar characteristics, such as Massachusetts and Virginia, he writes that “in most though not all cases the more southerly, blacker state is far more conservative. It’s hard not to conclude that race is the difference.”
Whatever one concludes about this thesis—Krugman himself refers to the very recent “blueing” of Virginia and other signs of a decrease in racism—the intensity of his discussion of race suggests something about the ways he has moved, in the last fifteen or so years, from being a center-left scholar to being a liberal polemicist. Those may seem like different identities. But perhaps also there is a consistency at work here. From what I have read of his economic writings, they are not unlike his columns, or his attacks on Reagan and the National Review in his book, in the sense that persuasion of people with very different views is at best of secondary interest to him. What is of interest to him is describing things as he believes they are.
In Washington, this earns one the epithet—as Washington prefers to think of it—“partisan.” But too many people who are also granted valuable journalistic space spent the early Bush years in denial about the evidence that was accumulating right before their eyes, whether about official lies, or executive overreach, or rampant class warfare waged on behalf of the richest one percent against the rest of us. Mildly deploring some of these excesses while accepting others is what is meant by bipartisanship today, and Krugman is right to have none of it. As a result he has left us a much more accurate record of the Bush years than, say, The Washington Post’s David S. Broder, or some of his more celebrated New York Times colleagues.
There may again someday be a time when bipartisanship can flourish as it did in the mid-twentieth century. As Krugman writes,
The great age of bipartisanship wasn’t a reflection of the gentlemanly character of an earlier generation of politicians. Rather, it reflected the subdued nature of political conflict in an era when the parties weren’t that far apart on basic issues.
If movement conservatism is marginalized, and hard-line conservatives become once again no more than a faction in a more heterogeneous GOP, liberals should welcome consensus politics. In the meantime, the reality Krugman describes is the one that matters.
November 22, 2007
I refer specifically to the June 2005 declaration, signed by the national academies of the G8 nations and three others, that the science of global warming is real enough to merit prompt action on reduction of greenhouse gases. Amid intense conservative criticism, the White House began the next month to retreat from the declaration’s language. ↩
See Paul Starr, “The Hillarycare Mythology,” The American Prospect, October 2007, an excellent analysis of how the plan was constructed and sold (for better and worse), and of the forces that worked to defeat it. ↩
Every Krugman column is collected at the Unofficial Paul Krugman Archive, at www.pkarchive.org. ↩