Nostalgianomics: If the Shoe Fits…

In a recent post commenting on my new Cato paper, Matt Yglesias just doesn’t get why I would accuse Paul Krugman of peddling nostalgia for the good old days of his boyhood. Indeed, Matt says my whole argument is “kind of silly.” Here’s the gist of Matt’s critique:

In his paper, Lindsey takes the unusual-for-a-libertarian tack of agreeing with Krugman (and others) that public policy changes have played an important role [in increasing inequality]. But he argues that the changes have mostly been changes that, on net, are positive. So it’s wrong of Krugman to espouse nostalgianomics and support a return to the policies of the 1950s. Which is fine, except I read almost every Krugman column and I’ve read Conscience of a Liberal (and, indeed, other works of Krugmanania such as Pop Internationalism and Peddling Prosperity) and it’s not as if the book ends with a call for the return of comprehensive regulation of airline fares or the re-establishment of the AT&T monopoly. To observe that the growth of inequality has policy roots isn’t to say that the right response to it is to methodically reverse every policy change of the past thirty years. It’s simply to deny the previous conventional wisdom – that it would be impossible to reverse the growing inequality of our society.

I think Matt misunderstands both my argument and what Krugman has been doing. I quite agree that Krugman doesn’t want a full-scale reinstatement of the corporatist, cartelistic policies of yesteryear. I say as much in the paper. What Krugman does want, however, is to portray the economic policies of the early postwar decades as an inspiration for progressives today – an example of how activist, interventionist government can simultaneously promote growth and reduce inequality. To quote Krugman’s Conscience of a Liberal: “During the thirties and forties, liberals managed to achieve a remarkable reduction in income inequality, with almost entirely positive effects on the economy as a whole. The men and women behind that achievement offer today’s liberals an object lesson in the difference leadership can make.”

To get to that ideologically convenient punch line, Krugman is forced to systematically misrepresent the policies and culture of the early postwar decades. He has to leave out all the things he doesn’t like, all the things that virtually all his fellow economists and fellow progressives don’t like, about the supposedly good old days – for example, the widespread cartelization efforts of the thirties, farm supports, price and entry controls on large sectors of the economy, restrictions on retail competition, high trade barriers, racist immigration laws, and the sexist confinement of working women to a pink collar ghetto. All of these contributed to the compression of incomes, yet they don’t serve Krugman’s ideological purposes. So he ignores them. That’s nostalgia-mongering, plain and simple: the selective recall of the past to make it seem better than it really was.

The relevance of all this to today’s situation is both real and important. Progressives have returned to power, and because of the current economic crisis the policymaking environment is incredibly fluid. Big changes are possible, indeed almost inevitable. In particular, proposals to substitute government control for market competition on a massive scale are now on the table: large-scale industrial policy in the name of creating “green” jobs, a full-court press to restore the power of private-sector unions, a qualitative increase in government’s role in health care, and “temporary” (such a dangerous word in Washington) government control of large parts of the financial system. We run the risk right now of making disastrous mistakes that will haunt us for many years to come. And that risk is exacerbated by the nostalgic fantasy, peddled by Krugman and others, that the record of the early postwar decades shows that Big Government and Big Labor are actually good for the economy.