The Longitudinal Lesson of Paul Krugman’s
"The Conscience of a Liberal"
Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
I spent about ten days out of the country in mid and late October, after having read Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal. (There was no cause and effect relationship. One wonders, however, whether perhaps there should be.) I did not read Krugman’s book with the painstaking care, the repetition, the note making, the eventual outline that are de rigueur when an author will be interviewed on the one hour long television program I host, Books Of Our Time. Nor have I yet read the book with such care because for over a month neither Krugman, nor his office, nor his publisher have had the courtesy to respond one way or the other to repeated inquiries as to whether he would be willing to be interviewed on the program. Someone once said of Woodrow Wilson that he loved humanity but hated people. One too often tends to find this or analogies to it to be true of liberals.
So, not having read the book painstakingly, I did not and do not now feel I know Krugman’s book even a third as well as it is my duty to know a book when the author will be interviewed on the program. But I nonetheless know it well enough to believe that Krugman has explained where this country had been for a long period after the Civil War -- when the party of Lincoln and the idea of free labor morphed quickly and permanently, shortly after Lincoln’s assassination, into the party of oppressing fat cats; where the country had been from about 1932 until roughly the late 1960s; and what the country thereafter became and remains. Krugman’s work, I believe, is roughly analogous to a map that show an entire nation when other maps had previously shown only individual cities, particular mountainous, individual rivers. Krugman gives an overall picture timewise -- he has in a sense given us a longitudinal historical study -- of where this nation has been and is, and thereby makes it possible to know where we might want to go by understanding where we’ve been and are.
After returning to the States, I found that the Stanford historian David Kennedy had written a review of Krugman’s book for the October 21st New York Times Book Review. The review was fairly savage -- as sometimes seems almost de rigueur for book reviews -- to the point where the Sunday Times Book Review of November 4th carried three letters castigating Kennedy, largely deservedly I should think. (The historian Sean Wilentz said at the conclusion of his letter that “A reasonable person might conclude that Kennedy had his hatchet out for Krugman. His attack did not do us historians and reviewers proud.” Other letters treated Kennedy even more severely in my judgment.)
Then, in the issue of The New York Review of Books dated November 22, Michael Tomasky, Editor of The Guardian’s American website, wrote a three page review of The Conscience of a Liberal. To a greater extent than Kennedy’s, it detailed what Krugman has to say, and for this reason among others, it is, I think, a fairer review. Indeed, as is true of many pieces in NYRB, it far more closely than most reviews elsewhere fulfills a main function for which many rely on reviews in the first place. That is, it tells you a lot about what the author has to say. This is quite an important function because even those who read books incessantly can read only a small percentage of the books they would like to read. Too many reviews are too brief to fulfill the needed function. As well, far too many, maybe even most, seem to be written on the premise that book reviews, like theater and music reviews, exist to give the review’s author a chance to show how waspishly clever he or she is in putting down, in cleverly making fun of or crapping on, whatever work (or actor or singer) happens to be the victim.
I am, as well, partly taken with, yet also partly put off by, another aspect of Tomasky’s piece. Tomasky thinks Krugman is “a liberal polemicist.” To call someone a polemicist is prejorative, for it indicates one sidedness, a failure to recognize opposing facts or arguments, overwrought writing, a screed. (I suppose Tom Paine was a polemicist.) On the other hand, Tomasky thinks it good that Krugman has become what Tomasky says is called “partisan” in Washington. For
. . . 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.
It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog or this writer’s other works that for over 40 years I have often been accused, defacto, of being intemperate, or one sided, or polemical, or partisan, or tendentious, or some other word that indicates what these words indicate. To the amazement (and consternation) of friends, colleagues and my wife, I reject all such characterizations. For if you have considered the opposing facts and arguments, and reject them as being untrue, of lesser import, or (in the case of certain alleged facts, like WMDs in Iraq) nonexistent, it is not in my judgment intemperate, partisan, one sided, polemical, or tendentious to insist on the side you believe in.
Why, then, do others feel differently? Well, as terrible as it is to say, as arrogant as some (incorrectly in my judgment) will think it to say, my view is that most often people feel differently, as people’s views toward Krugman exemplified, because they are unaware of or refuse to recognize or fail to accept the facts and arguments contrary to their positions. One is reminded of Sir Lewis Namier’s story (I believe his original surname was Bernstein) of coming back to college in England (Oxford or Cambridge, I think) after visiting his home in Mitteleuropa (Austria? Poland?) in the summer of 1914, and upon his return telling young Englishmen on campus that there would soon be a general European war because armies were massing across the border from his father’s lands. The young Englishmen hooted at him because they were ignorant of rivalries and events in Mitteleuropa and were derisive of the idea that events there could involve England in a major European war. One year later, those young Englishmen were mainly, or all, dead. One is also reminded of the scene in the movie “Gettysburg” in which George Pickett vigorously denies the Darwinian theory that man could be descended from “a ape,” and as his trump argument asserts that maybe his opponent is descended from “a ape,” and maybe even he himself is descended from “a ape,” but nobody there would say that (the sainted) Robert E. Lee is descended from “a ape.”
Ignorance, and unwillingness to accept facts or reasonable arguments, were in Pickett’s day and before, are now, and no doubt in future will be the major reason that people have and will reject the views of people like Krugman and will call persons like him polemicists, partisans, intemperate, tendentious or what have you -- even though he has so often been proven right in the fullness of time. One is really not tendentious, intemperate, etc., unless one himself refuses to recognize facts or reasonable arguments rather than having thoughtfully rejected them as untrue or insufficient, and it is the rejecters of Krugman’s views who are all more likely to be polemical, partisan, tendentious, etc. even though the nearly always wrong conventional wisdom -- as exemplified in their own statements -- proclaims them moderates.
If one wants additional proof of this, remember that Krugman’s dislike and intellectual fire are directed at George Bush and the Bushites, while fire is directed at Krugman by the people who hold Bushian views. So, call Krugman, and those of us who hold similar views, a polemicist, or intemperate, or tendentious or whatever you like, but the chances are often pretty good that you are not correct, and this writer objects to the incorrect appellation.
Which -- perhaps contradictorily – is not to say that Krugman is right about everything and has left out nothing which could oppose his views. (It may have been Niels Bohr who said a great truth is an idea which is opposed by another great truth.) I think there are some things Krugman should have paid more attention to, as will be mentioned below, but his book is nonetheless filled with truths, and, as said in the Hebrew prayer, is in part “a signpost before thine eyes.” I shall discuss a few of his points, though this emphatically is not a book review and there is here no attempt, absolutely none, to describe all or even more than a very small fraction of the views in Krugman’s book.
To me, the most major point Krugman makes is his “longitudinal” description of American history. To put the matter very briefly, he says we had a long Gilded Age in which the rich got ever richer, the poor and the working class were tromped on and remained poor and lower class, and equity was largely unknown. This Gilded Age ran, he says, up until the New Deal.
During the New Deal and until about the late 1960s or early 1970s, we had a period of growing equality. For various reasons -- the philosophy of the New Deal, the necessities of the War, the refusal of those who had been put down to stay down, taxation, etc., labor and the working class did better economically than before, the incomes and wealth of the superrich declined (taxation played a major role in this), electoral and civil rights burgeoned because political and civil rights followed in train of more widespread economic equality, and the general culture -- the prevailing ideas, the weltanschauung, call it what you will -- favored greater economic and political parity.
Then in the late 1960s and early 1970s the kind of conservatism that had ruled in the Gilded Age was brought back and financed with a vengeance by those who wanted to turn the clock back to the days before Theodore Roosevelt. The very rich financed think tanks, scholars, willing and acquiescent politicians like Reagan, and the like to create a regressive, now ascendant culture that again glorified enormous wealth, huge disparities in income and wealth, political inequality (and, one might add, foreign military adventures that made the rich ever richer).
I know enough American history, both from books and from having lived for about half the period under discussion, to know that Krugman’s basic outline is right. Fundamentally, in what Krugman calls our long Gilded Age, the rich got richer and the poor were kept down for about sixty years. Oh yes, there were the Progressives and Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, but the basic story was of a vastly unequal country. The New Deal began before I was born (a few days after Hitler invaded Poland), but not just books, but also living life and the history of my own nuclear and extended families tell me Krugman is right about the middle period. We started out as a poor immigrant family and because of changes in this country were middle class by the mid to late ’50s. Because of the sea change that, as Krugman says, occurred in a very short period because of the policies of FDR and Truman, some of my first cousins who were much older than I, an age disparity that often occurred in old country and/or poor families, went to college in their late ’20s while they held full time working class jobs (taxi drivers, photoengravers), and became professionals instead of working class. (Though it is not widely known, in 1940 only about 40 or 45 percent of the population even had high school degrees. Today about a quarter or a third, I believe, have college degrees.) And, starting in the late ’60s and early ’70s, one has seen the transition from a society whose culture favored equality to a society whose culture favors truly vast inequality -- a country where it is regarded as appropriate for CEOs to make 300 and 400 times what the average workers in their companies make and for hedge fund managers to make 1.7 billion dollars a year and pay tax at only a 15 percent rate, a country where the salary of the average guy hasn’t improved much, if at all, in constant dollars for 30 years, a country where all our politicians are owned by the rich as in the first Gilded Age and where the mass media is in thrall to the rich and powerful.
And seeing what has happened longitudinally, it is obvious to those of decent views -- a major qualification, unfortunately -- where we should want to go in the next longitudinal phase of the nation’s life. We should want to go back to, we should want to improve upon and further, the fundamental idea that permeated the country from 1932 through the late 1960s: greater equality economically, politically and legally. That is the fundamental idea, and it is really that simple.
Now, there are some things that can impinge on this goal that Krugman doesn’t mention, but which his opponents can have a field day with. Krugman, I believe, thinks that government works, that government regulations and programs can accomplish what must be done and can do so efficiently. I don’t necessarily think this because, in my experience, and in my reading, government is too often incompetent, slothful, slow and corrupt. What we need is a sea change in culture, in animating ideas. On the private side, people have to begin to believe in decent ideas instead of Gilded Age ideas. And maybe government can establish goals ala those enforced by the SEC and the Antitrust Division when they were still effective bodies, as in the ’60s. There are other advanced countries in Europe and Asia that do not share the devil take the hindmost, the poor be damned ideas that have animated this country for years - - there are countries where there is more of a culture of everyone is in it together, and that are doing at least as well as we are. So our ideas are not ones ineluctably thrust upon corrupt human nature by a misnamed providence. Other countries are different -- and we should look for and vote for politicians who understand and speak for a culture that supports what is needed, rather than the self-glorifying, self-interested political hacks who fill our halls today.
In addition to Krugman’s longitudinal argument, he makes another point that moves me greatly, one I myself have previously made to some extent. We should stop worshipping at the shrine of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. These were not the avuncular, or wise, fellows that what Krugman calls “movement conservatism” wants us to think and that it has now become popular to think and say. These were guys, as Krugman says, who would turn back the drive toward economic and political equality and a more just society, and who contributed extensively to exactly that result. As well, Goldwater (an Air Force General) was a warmonger and anti civil rights. (Reagan was not dumb enough to be a warmonger.) Also, as Krugman points out, Reagan deliberately fanned the fires of racism in order to get elected. He deliberately started his presidential campaign just outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi -- who the hell ever heard of starting a presidential campaign just outside of a small redneck southern town in Mississippi? But when you realize that Philadelphia, Mississippi is where Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were murdered, you know everything you need to know -- and you will not be surprised, either, that Reagan went to the cemetery in Bitburg, where SS men are buried.
I do not know whether Goldwater and Reagan were bad human beings, although I have some antagonistic suspicions, but I do know they favored bad policies. We should stop letting conservatives get away with worshipping and promoting worship of these characters, and with relying on them, with impunity. If the right wishes to tar itself by relying on these guys, then it should flat out be said that that is precisely what it is doing: it is tarring itself.
Two final points. One relates to the South. It has been said here many times that the one party South is the root of our problems. Krugman seems to agree and says that race is the cause. The South, he says, was part of the New Deal so long as it was the sick man of the United States, because it had so much to gain from the New Deal’s redistribution of wealth, and so long as the North did not assail Jim Crow. But once things got economically better for the South and civil rights became a Democratic Party policy, the South deserted en masse to the Republicans because of its hatred of racial equality. That surely seems right, and its switch to the Republican Party after 1965 has enabled the right wing to take over much of the country and our institutions. This will not improve much unless and until the power of the one party, right wing south to run our nation is broken. There are ways to break it; some of them have been discussed here before.
Finally, Krugman made a very disturbing point early on in his book (on p. 12). I quote:
A few months after the 2004 election I was placed under some pressure by journalistic colleagues, who said I should stop spending so much time criticizing the Bush adminis- tration and conservatives more generally. “The election settled some things,” I was told.
On its face it is hard to imagine sentences more confirmatory than these of the rightness of the widespread anger at the mass media for being incompetent, one sided shills for the Republican Party and George Bush. This is only the more true because the corruption and incompetence of the Administration and its ideas began to become clear no later than early to mid 2004, long before the 2004 election, so that “journalistic colleagues” of any perception or integrity should have known something was wrong. Yet, if Krugman truly means what his sentences say, some of these obviously unpercipient and/or venal colleagues were not only arguing against what he was doing, but were in some way pressuring him to stop it -- to stop it even though he has proven right. So . . . . who were these “journalistic colleagues?” Were they colleagues at or even editors or the publisher of the Times itself? -- who but editors or the publisher could truly place Krugman “under pressure,” the pressure, one supposes, of possibly losing his column. If it were editors, or the publisher, this is another nail in the cross of enormous New York Times mistakes that contributed extensively to the fix this country is in, mistakes such as parroting Administration lies about WMDs and refusing to break the story of the NSA spying before the 2004 election, when the story could have changed the result of the election.
But maybe the pressure Krugman speaks of was only the kind of social pressure that could flow from any colleague. If that is what it was, were the colleagues who applied pressure some of the conservative imbeciles from the Times op ed page? If so, did they do this because Krugman was making them look bad, or even stupid, as history now has, so they wanted him to stop his criticisms of positions and people they supported? Were the colleagues people on other media and, if so, were they trying to stop a dissenting voice, one which opposed them, made them look bad, and has now proven right?
Whoever and whatever the colleagues and their reasons, it is hard to imagine a more anti-free speech, more dangerous attitude -- and one now proven wrong -- than the one sought to be imposed on Krugman. The people who did it should figuratively be shot as traitors to their profession and to the freedom of the press that journalists so often, and apparently hypocritically, vaunt. No doubt Krugman does not want to and will not voluntarily disclose who they were. That conforms to tenets of confidentiality, and to the American ethos of don’t rat on somebody. Yet it is nonetheless a shame. If there really was pressure, and Krugman says there was, those who applied it should be treated as traitors to their profession and to free speech who should be drummed out of respectable journalism -- of which, sad to say, there already is too little left, and of which there would have been even less had their pressure succeeded.
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