THE WASHINGTON POST – A United States (US) President with slipping approval ratings moves to shore up his conservative bona fides by pledging to reform a crucial government safety net programme. He and his surrogates breathlessly insist that the current system is in crisis. Broadcast news outlets provide little in the way of context and economic analysis of the claims.
Sounds a lot like President Trump’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, but as Paul Krugman reminds us in his new book, Arguing With Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future, conservatives’ use of misleading or inaccurate information to justify cuts to assistance and entitlement programmes dates back years, most notably to George W Bush’s failed 2004 effort to privatize Social Security.
Loyal readers of Krugman’s twice-weekly column in the New York Times will not be surprised by the central themes of the book, which includes and expands on his Times writings.
He forcefully and repeatedly contends that Republican lawmakers are carrying water for corporations and the wealthiest Americans by rolling back regulations and cutting taxes for the rich on the basis of the fake or “zombie” theory that what’s good for the one per cent is good for everybody.
Still, the book is a revelation. It showcases the range of Krugman’s intellect – he can toggle authoritatively from climate change and the Green New Deal to the Maastricht Treaty and currency crises – and his gift for clear, accessible writing. He neatly mixes pop cultural references and economic data; one column calling for 1950s-era tax policies (back then the marginal tax rate on top incomes was more than 90 per cent) is whimsically titled The Twinkie Manifesto.
But Krugman’s real superpower may be his longevity. He began contributing to the Times in 2000, and he has chronicled numerous economic policies and proposals that have been promoted or propped up by zombie claims. He opens his book with a chapter on the push to privatise social security – by turning it over to financial services companies – with a series of columns showing that, contrary to Bush administration reports, the programme is highly functional. He proceeds to dismantle other corporate and conservative talking points in vogue over the years: The Trump tax cut will pay for itself! Government needs to be more fiscally responsible!
A disciple of John Maynard Keynes, Krugman eviscerates lawmakers in the US for wringing their hands, post-financial crisis, over budget deficits caused by stimulus spending, which actually keep an economy from ruinous contraction. Without, say, unemployment benefits, families cut their spending, which in turn hurts vendors of goods and services. Taken together, all these arguments with zombies reveal much about the electorate and the Republican Party of today. Krugman writes, “I see Trump not as a departure from the past so much as the culmination of where movement conservatism” – an elitist dogma wrapped in populist rhetoric – “has been taking us for decades.” Krugman doesn’t shy from calling out the mean-spiritedness that underlies much of the conservative agenda. One new essay is titled The Cruelty Caucus. Indeed, there’s little economic rationale for cutting food stamps for work-eligible adults, as the Trump administration has; Krugman notes that the US actually spends very little helping low-income Americans. Nor is there a financial rationale for opting out of Medicaid expansion, as 14 states have. “Refusing free money that would help the poor is something else – it’s cruelty for its own sake,” Krugman writes.
The book is unexpectedly light on the topic of trade. In the introduction to his 13-page chapter on trade wars, Krugman notes that “international trade and international trade policy aren’t as important as people think they are,” as if to justify the glossing over of what’s (not) to come. But I would have loved more insight into his thinking on the flavour of free trade that has become commonplace among liberal elites in business, even as the rise of populists on the left and the right has exposed the shortcomings of globalization.