Tag Archives: Krugman

Magic Astericks

Paul Krugman shines a light on the antics of the not-ready-for-prime-time party:

By now it’s a Republican Party tradition: Every year the party produces a budget that allegedly slashes deficits, but which turns out to contain a trillion-dollar “magic asterisk” — a line that promises huge spending cuts and/or revenue increases, but without explaining where the money is supposed to come from.

But the just-released budgets from the House and Senate majorities break new ground. Each contains not one but two trillion-dollar magic asterisks: one on spending, one on revenue. And that’s actually an understatement. If either budget were to become law, it would leave the federal government several trillion dollars deeper in debt than claimed, and that’s just in the first decade.

Krugman details the spending cuts that are specified–“savage” cuts in food stamps, Medicare and other programs upon which millions of Americans have come to rely. And of course, repeal of the hated “Obamacare.” Read through his column, and you have a picture of the priorities of people who have lost touch not just with reality, but with decency.

And that brings Krugman to his most important point, and one we should all ponder–especially those of us who called the GOP home before the party became a collection of radicalized, resentful inhabitants of an alternate reality.

It’s very important to realize that this isn’t normal political behavior. The George W. Bush administration was no slouch when it came to deceptive presentation of tax plans, but it was never this blatant. And the Obama administration has been remarkably scrupulous in its fiscal pronouncements.

O.K., I can already hear the snickering, but it’s the simple truth. Remember all the ridicule heaped on the spending projections in the Affordable Care Act? Actual spending is coming in well below expectations, and the Congressional Budget Office has marked its forecast for the next decade down by 20 percent. Remember the jeering when President Obama declared that he would cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term? Well, a sluggish economy delayed things, but only by a year. The deficit in calendar 2013 was less than half its 2009 level, and it has continued to fall.

Krugman can be fact-checked; his numbers are accurate. But as a scroll through Facebook or the comments section of your favorite news source will confirm, facts don’t matter. Evidence doesn’t matter.

Crazy rules. And it’s terrifying, because you can’t talk to crazy.




Faith-Based Realities

A comment to yesterday’s blog on “fact rejection” referenced a similar meditation by Paul Krugman. Krugman, as one might expect, focused upon the phenomenon in the context of economic dogma versus performance.

You might wonder why monetary theory gets treated like evolution or climate change. Isn’t the question of how to manage the money supply a technical issue, not a matter of theological doctrine?

Can anything reverse this descent into dogma? A few conservative intellectuals have been trying to persuade their movement to embrace monetary activism, but they’re ever more marginalized. And that’s just what Mr. Nyhan’s article would lead us to expect. When faith — including faith-based economics — meets evidence, evidence doesn’t stand a chance.

Seven years ago, I wrote a book titled God and Country: America in Red and Blue (still available through Amazon if anyone is interested), in which I explored–among other things–the effect of America’s early Calvinism on present-day social welfare and poverty policies.

My research confirmed that several of our ostensibly secular policy preferences have decidedly religious roots. From poverty to foreign policy to the environment, religious world views are far more potent than most of us realize.

Our everyday experiences with “reality rejection” tend to reinforce the prevalence of the phenomenon.  At least mine do.

Several years ago, I was the guest on a call-in radio program in Charleston, South Carolina, and the discussion turned to what was then a hot issue: posting the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms. A caller who favored doing so “quoted” James Madison to the effect that the Bill of Rights could only be entrusted to people who lived by the Ten Commandments. The quote had been previously circulated by an extremist organization and thoroughly discredited; Madison had not only never said anything of the sort, but the sentiment was contrary to everything he did say.

I politely informed the caller that his information was incorrect, and referred him to a Madison scholar for verification, whereupon he yelled “Well, I think it’s true!” and hung up.

Those of us who try to live in the “reality-based community” have our jobs cut out for us.


Choosing our Authorities

I was going to blog about the Reinhart-Rogoff thesis this morning, but Paul Krugman not only beat me to it, he (unsurprisingly) said it better.

What–you aren’t familiar with Reinhart-Rogoff? The term is shorthand for a paper circulated by two Harvard economists, Reinhart and Rogoff, in 2010. (It evidently wasn’t even a peer reviewed article–just a working paper.) The paper purported “to identify a critical “threshold,” a tipping point, for government indebtedness. Once debt exceeds 90 percent of gross domestic product, they claimed, economic growth drops off sharply.”

The paper was immediately seized on by proponents of austerity, despite the fact that other economists criticized the methodology, and still others tried but couldn’t replicate the findings. It became the basis of policy decisions throughout Europe. It was a justification for Paul Ryan’s budget. And then, when the authors finally shared their calculations, it turned out that a coding error–in lay language, a mistake in their use of the Excel computer program–invalidated their results.

There is a moral to this story, and it has nothing to do with economics, or the importance of peer review, or the tendency of a Harvard pedigree to lend unearned credibility to a scholarly product. This fiasco is another example of a growing phenomenon: ideologically-driven choices of reality. In today’s America, too many of us read everything selectively; we comb the news for evidence that supports our pre-existing beliefs. We read the bible and the Constitution selectively, conveniently ignoring the parts that conflict with our worldviews. We dismiss evidence that confuses us. Ambiguity and complexity become enemies.

The problem is, the clarity we achieve with our chosen authorities often conflicts with messy, ambiguous reality. And that makes matters worse.

Bartlett’s Oddyssey

Bruce Bartlett has written a rather sad article in the American Conservative , detailing his estrangement from the conservative movement–or at least, the folks who have current ownership of that title. He begins by listing his past service to the Republican party and conservative causes, service that should have earned him the right to dissent from orthodoxy without being shunned.

Of course, it didn’t. When your economic and political beliefs take on the character of religious dogma–when they become matters of faith rather than opinions grounded in experience and evidence–dissent becomes blasphemy.

As Bartlett describes his journey into the “reality-based world” (his own description), he makes some discoveries that startle him.

For the record, no one has been more correct in his analysis and prescriptions for the economy’s problems than Paul Krugman. The blind hatred for him on the right simply pushed me further away from my old allies and comrades.

The final line for me to cross in complete alienation from the right was my recognition that Obama is not a leftist. In fact, he’s barely a liberal—and only because the political spectrum has moved so far to the right that moderate Republicans from the past are now considered hardcore leftists by right-wing standards today. Viewed in historical context, I see Obama as actually being on the center-right.

Of course, Bartlett is correct about Obama’s centrism. It drives the left wing of the Democratic party nuts.

When I read “The Audacity of Hope,” I remarked that Obama’s philosophy as described in that volume was virtually identical to that of a moderate Republican–at least, as moderate Republicans defined ourselves in the 1980s. His positions were pretty much the positions I’d espoused in my run for Congress back then, when I was actually considered part of the conservative wing of the party.

When I left the GOP in 2000, the party had already left me. It had shifted dramatically to the Right, and it has continued its radical transformation. That so many thoughtful people fail to recognize how different today’s GOP is from the party of Goldwater and even Reagan is something of a statement on our very human tendency to resist recognition of change.

It’s like looking in the mirror every morning for years without noticing that your formerly black hair has been slowly turning  grey, that your once-rosy complexion is becoming a bit more wrinkled each day…and then somehow, suddenly and without warning, actually seeing that you’ve aged thirty years. When did that happen?

Bartlett looked in the mirror. It’s a sad article, but well worth the read.

Age and Perspective

One of the (very few) benefits of growing old is that you gain perspective. Sometimes, that also leads to a modicum of wisdom, sometimes not–but it does mean that one’s frame of reference is larger and longer. To use a very common example, you can’t truly appreciate how dramatically the internet has changed society if you were born after the invention of the world wide web.

This morning’s Paul Krugman column reminded me again that those of us born in the mid-twentieth century have a vantage point to assess political change that younger folks don’t have.

My students are frequently aghast when they learn that I was a Republican for most of my life–that I even ran for Congress as a fairly conservative Republican, and won a primary. But as Krugman points out, and as I try to explain to my students, the positions that made me “conservative” in 1980 make me a pinko/socialist/liberal today. Most of my students grew up in an environment where conservative Republicans reject evolution and the science of climate change, talk a lot about fiscal prudence, but practice “borrow and spend” economic policies, and are totally without compassion for the less fortunate. The only Republicans they’ve known are those who preach limited government while insisting on their right to control women’s reproduction and their right to discriminate against gays. They are shocked to learn that I was pro-choice and pro-gay rights and still was able to win a GOP primary.

Krugman explains the change with his usual clarity, beginning with the example of the Tea Party’s “let ’em die” eruption at the recent GOP Presidential debate:

“In the past, conservatives accepted the need for a government-provided safety net on humanitarian grounds. Don’t take it from me, take it from Friedrich Hayek, the conservative intellectual hero, who specifically declared in “The Road to Serfdom” his support for “a comprehensive system of social insurance” to protect citizens against “the common hazards of life,” and singled out health in particular.

Given the agreed-upon desirability of protecting citizens against the worst, the question then became one of costs and benefits — and health care was one of those areas where even conservatives used to be willing to accept government intervention in the name of compassion, given the clear evidence that covering the uninsured would not, in fact, cost very much money. As many observers have pointed out, the Obama health care plan was largely based on past Republican plans, and is virtually identical to Mitt Romney’s health reform in Massachusetts.

Now, however, compassion is out of fashion — indeed, lack of compassion has become a matter of principle, at least among the G.O.P.’s base.

And what this means is that modern conservatism is actually a deeply radical movement, one that is hostile to the kind of society we’ve had for the past three generations — that is, a society that, acting through the government, tries to mitigate some of the “common hazards of life” through such programs as Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.”

What Krugman fails to note, and these radicals fail to understand, is that if they actually are successful in their frantic efforts to keep government from “stealing” even a penny in taxes to be distributed (in their fevered imaginations) to the “less deserving,” they would also be impoverished. What Hayek understood–and what those who invoke his name without reading his arguments do not-is that, just as a rising tide lifts all boats, an ebbing tide lowers all boats. They remind me of a two-year-old snatching a toy from a playmate while screaming “mine, mine, mine.”

What we are seeing from this radical fringe is not a political shift. It’s a tantrum.