Paul Krugman and the Unbearable Lameness of Partisanship

In a recent appearance on with Mark Schmitt, I expressed disdain for the current spate of conservative-bashing books by Jonathan Chait, Greg Anrig, and Paul Krugman. Now don’t get me wrong: conservativism deserves some fairly spirited bashing these days. But what I objected to about these books was their crude partisanship – specifically, their grossly distorted, black-hats-versus-white-hats version of recent American political history.

I didn’t get a chance there to flesh out my criticisms in any detail, so I’d like to do a little bit of that here. And thanks again to (if you’re not familiar with it, it’s really a terrific site), I’ve got an excellent jumping-off point: an interview of Paul Krugman by none other than Mario Cuomo. Cuomo, it turns out, is an excellent interviewer, carefully drawing out Krugman’s views and gently challenging him at a number of points. And the picture of Krugman that emerges is one of a man completely besotted with ideological enthusiasm.

You have to remember who Paul Krugman is, or at least who he was: an immensely talented economist, winner of the John Bates Clark medal, capable of analytical ingenuity at the most rarefied level and simultaneously a gifted popularizer of complex economic ideas. So how can someone with so much brainpower, with such talent for subtlety and insight, say something like this? Or this?

Let’s focus on these two snippets. In the first, Krugman says that the middle-class society he grew up in (i.e., the American political economy of the quarter-century after World War II) did not evolve by the invisible hand of the market; it was created by FDR and the New Deal. Meanwhile, the “second Gilded Age” we now live in (i.e., the American political economy of the past quarter-century) was created by Reagan and other right-wing politicians.

And in the second clip, Krugman defines liberalism as the idea that we are our brothers’ keepers, and that government needs to ensure a basic minimum for all citizens. Conservatives, on the other hand, believe “you’re on your own.”

In these clips we see, not subtlety or insight or analytical ingenuity, but the Manichean worldview of the true believer: one mass political movement, defined by its noble intentions, accomplishes unalloyed good, while a rival mass political movement, motivated by base and selfish values, works to undo that good.

For an alternative to Krugman’s stick-figure morality play, you can read my book on the coming of mass prosperity and its cultural and political consequences. For present purposes, though, note just a few things that Krugman’s FDR worship/Reagan demonization skips over:

  • the extent to which widespread prosperity was the result of impersonal market competition rather than benevolent politicians
  • the extent to which the “great compression” of the early postwar decades was created by the cataclysms of depression and total war
  • the extent to which the New Deal included policies that most economists today of whatever ideological persuasion would regard as utterly wrongheaded (e.g., the farm subsidies regime of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and the industrial cartelization attempted by the National Industrial Recovery Act)
  • the heavy reliance of the New Deal political coalition on support from southern segregationists, and the consequences of that reliance for the shape of many New Deal policies
  • the fact that the postwar system of political economy led after a couple of decades to stagflation and a breakdown in productivity growth
  • the fact that one after another unionized American industry proved incapable of keeping pace with foreign competition during the ’70s and ’80s, and thus that business as usual was unsustainable
  • the fact that Great Society social programs were followed, not entirely coincidentally, by an explosion of crime, urban riots, family breakdown, and welfare dependency
  • the fact that Cold War liberal internationalism produced the Vietnam debacle
  • the fact that the New Left and the ’60s counterculture exerted powerful influences on reshaping the character of American liberalism, with important consequences for the appeal of that liberalism to traditionally Democratic working-class constituencies
  • the fact that the sweeping economic deregulation of the ’70s and ’80s enjoyed bipartisan support (much of it occurred during the Carter administration)
  • the extent to which the increase in measured income inequality reflects demographic rather than economic or public policy changes (e.g., more single-parent households, more dual-earner households, more immigration, older population, better-educated population)
  • the fact that, according to virtually every conceivable physical indicator, material living standards for Americans across the board have risen dramatically over the past quarter-century (i.e., the so-called “second Gilded Age”)

How can someone as intelligent and informed as Krugman concoct an interpretation of the post-World War II era that does such violence to the facts? How can someone so familiar with the intricate complexities of social processes convince himself that history is a simple matter of good guys versus bad guys? Because, for whatever reason, he has swapped disinterested analysis and scholarship for ideological partisanship. Here, in a revealing choice of phrase, he paraphrases Barry Goldwater’s notorious line: “Partisanship in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

To be a partisan is, by definition, to see the world partially rather than objectively: to identify wholeheartedly with the perspectives of one particular group and, at the extreme, to discount all rival perspectives as symptoms of intellectual or moral corruption. And the perspective Krugman has chosen to identify with is the philosophically incoherent, historically contingent grab bag of intellectual, interest group, and regional perspectives known as postwar American liberalism.

Of course, over the period that Krugman is addressing, the contents of that grab bag have changed fairly dramatically: from internationalist hawkishness in World War II and the early Cold War to a profound discomfort with American power in the ’70s and ’80s to a jumble of rival views today; from cynical acquiescence in Jim Crow to heroic embrace of the civil rights movement to the excesses of identity group politics to a more centrist line today; from sympathy for working-class economic hardship to hostility to working-class culture and back again. Yet with a naive zeal that leaves even Cuomo visibly nonplussed at several points in the interview, Krugman embraces the shifting contents of this grab bag as the one true path of virtue.

I understand the us-versus-them pleasures of ideological partisanship. In my younger days, I indulged in them with gusto. But at some point, ideology joined Santa Claus and the tooth fairy in my attic of discarded beliefs. Firm values, yes; definite points of view on contested empirical questions, to be sure – but to see a country as diverse, yet blessedly prosperous and stable, as this one as an ongoing war between angels and devils is to live in a fantasy world.

[cross-posted from]