I spent a lot of time in this Crooked Timber comment thread discussing my previous two posts and the reactions to them. I think it's safe to say that I convinced exactly no one, and it's now devolved well past the original point of contention, so I want to clarify a few things and then I'm letting this go. I suspect that in terms of actual views of politics there’s less disagreement than first appears, but I could be wrong. The first point is related to the initial context of Krugman, and why I reacted the way I did to him. The other points are more general, and mostly refer to specific arguments brought up by commenters at CT. Drezner has additional thoughts. Phil Arena had a good post too. And Michael Flynn adds some important points. Dan Nexon jumps back in, and I agree completely with him that politics is almost entirely about rent-seeking and redistribution, but interest groups are part of the public and elite opinion is only one component of political competition. I expound on this below.
1. (NOTE: After I wrote this, but while Blogger was down so I couldn’t post it, Krugman himself took note, although he tries to rise above it by not offering comment. Too bad… he might’ve used the opportunity to express what it is, exactly, I’m “creatively misreading” by saying how much responsibility he believes the public bears. Since he says my accusation – that he’s trying to exculpate the public – is a misreading, I’ll take that to mean that he agrees that the public does deserve some blame. This makes his column, as written, very odd. It also makes many of the criticisms of me in the CT thread criticisms of Krugman as well. Anyway, I’m leaving this in the post because it gets at the reading I originally had, and the reasons I had it, which is the most interesting thing from the perspective of argument rather than piss-contest.) A lot of people think I misread Krugman, or was otherwise uncharitable. I was definitely uncharitable, because I have a pretty strong distaste for Krugman's predilection towards a "good vs evil" characterization of politics. CTers, who all seem to like Krugman quite a bit more than me, were much more charitable. That's fine with me. But I don't think I misread him. [Ed.: I accept that I did, now that he says I did. I stand by my general argument, which may be knocking down a straw man in Krugman's case, but as I learned at CT there are certainly others who hold a view close to this.] The point of his op-ed was to place responsibility for policy disasters on policy elites (at least the ones he disagrees with). To do that, he felt he needed to exculpate the public. So he argued that these were "top-down" policies, not "responses to public demand". Only once in his column (Greece) does he mention that the public had any role in this ("So who was to blame for these budget busters? It wasn't the man in the street")*. There wasn’t any sort of “and the public went along with it” or even “and the public was gullible enough to buy Dubya’s lies hook, line, and sinker” or anything like that. A lot of time in CT comments was spent dissecting exactly what was meant by "responses to public demand", and no agreement was reached, but my definition (and Drezner's) included "doing things that the public broadly supports so that you get elected". The modal CT commenter seemed to prefer a stricter definition of "demand", and perhaps a lot of our disagreement stems from that semantic question, but short of election results and polling data I'm not really sure what they could mean by that and none of them was able to say. Krugman’s “top-down policies” implies, to me, that the bottom-up public had nothing to do with it.
My argument against what Krugman is saying now is actually congruent with what Krugman has written previously. Not just on Medicare Part D, as Henry Farrell pointed out, but more generally. When it comes to enacting policies that Krugman prefers, he has no problem at all citing poll data or election results as evidence of public demand, so I remain unconvinced that I was misreading him [Ed.: Caveat above applies here too.]. To drive this point home, here's what Krugman wrote a few weeks ago:
Eventually, of course, America must choose between these differing visions [from competing elites]. And we have a way of doing that. It’s called democracy. ...
For what it’s worth, polls suggest that the public’s priorities are nothing like those embodied in the Republican budget. Large majorities support higher, not lower, taxes on the wealthy. Large majorities — including a majority of Republicans — also oppose major changes to Medicare. Of course, the poll that matters is the one on Election Day. But that’s all the more reason to make the 2012 election a clear choice between visions. ...
So let’s not be civil. Instead, let’s have a frank discussion of our differences. In particular, if Democrats believe that Republicans are talking cruel nonsense, they should say so — and take their case to the voters.
This is the same evidence -- polls and election results -- that Drezner and I cited when arguing that the macro polity supported Bush's policies while Krugman says they didn't (or didn't "demand" them). So Krugman is trying to have it both ways: public demand as measured by polls and elections matters when it agrees with him, but does not when it doesn't. If the Democrats take their case to the voters and win, Krugman will claim a public mandate; If the Republicans win, he will claim elite manipulation by Very Serious People. How is this not a double-standard?
And I agree; let's not be civil. When an elite "pundit in good standing" plays intellectual three-card monty, let's call it what it is: "Unwisdom", to borrow Krugman's expression. Krugman is a partisan, and that's fine, but that shouldn't give him license to be this selective in evidence.
2. I very much believe that elites (and interest groups) play a huge role in creating policy, particularly in the details (i.e. where the devil is). In fact, the conclusion of my post previous to the one that started all this was:
It's no secret that investors will try to move markets in ways that are advantageous to them, nor that political elites will try to turn public opinion through the media. But in this case basically everyone agrees that Greece is insolvent, and that some form of restructuring is all but inevitable. That doesn't mean that the terms of that restructuring, nor the political implications for the eurozone, are assured. These might be examples of certain investors, government officials, or policy entrepreneurs [trying] to influence the timing of the restructuring, as well as the political response to it.
Elites matter, but within the context of public opinion plus institutional and other constraints. The relative weight of each of those -- public, elites, institutional constraints -- will vary by issue, but for high salience issues like tax policy and wars the public will play a large role in shaping the policy space.
One example (of several) I gave in comments at CT to illustrate this fact is that in addition to tax cuts that largely benefitted the wealthy, Bush also wanted to privatize Social Security. Many of the same elites that Krugman is attacking supported both policies. One of those became policy. The other didn't. Reference to "elites" in the way we've been discussing them doesn't tell us anything about why there were divergent outcomes in these cases. What we do know is that the public supported one, and not the other. Therefore, is it really so unreasonable to conclude that public opinion might be a relevant variable? And if it is, then shouldn't the public share some (not all) of the blame when things go wrong?
3. What we mean by "elites" isn't clear. As I pointed out in CT, and as Drezner mentioned too, by the definition Krugman uses -- "self-appointed wise men, officials, and pundits in good standing" -- Krugman himself qualifies as an elite. As does practically everyone else with a recognizable name. Elites often have different preferences, so ex post it will always be easy to find some that supported any particular policy, and then blame them for any bad outcomes following from it. While this might be cathartic, it doesn't help us understand which elites got their way and why. For example, many elites (including Greenspan and the whole Republican party) wanted the Bush tax cuts. Many others (including Krugman and the whole Democratic party) did not. If that's all we knew, and we start from the assumption that only elites matter, how could we understand outcomes? And if elites aren't the only thing that matters, why should they be the only ones to take the blame when things go wrong?
Similarly, the “public” does not refer to 100% of everyone. Krugman’s definition of an elite – “self-appointed wise men, officials, and pundits in good standing" – actually excludes the sort of interest groups that we generally think are involved in rent-seeking political behavior: industry groups (e.g. Wall Street), trade unions, religious organizations, farm associations, AARP, etc. According to Krugman’s definition, those would all be included in the “public” that had little-to-nothing to do with this. Instead, it’s all David Brooks’ fault.
The modal CT commenter surely thinks that the people who voted for George W. Bush made a big mistake, borne of ignorance, stupidity, or a view of politics that they completely disagree with. What’s wrong with saying that people who make mistakes deserve some portion of blame? (This is Krugman’s primary thesis, just applied to elites rather than voters.) If folks wish to exempt themselves from that slice of the public they are free to do so, without complaint from me. For my part, I never voted for Bush, actively campaigned against him in 2000 (I sat out 2004), and did not support any of the policies under discussion at the time they were put in place. So I’m more than happy to criticize those that did.
I didn’t highlight the role of interest groups within the public in my first post. That was a mistake. I think about politics is as interest group competition, and since (I believe) Krugman does too it didn’t occur to me that such a clarification was necessary. Sometimes interest groups coalesce around certain policies – tax cuts, wars – in sufficient numbers that referring to a macro polity as if it was unified makes sense (to me, at least), but that’s not to imply that interest groups are homogenous.
To reiterate and close: I'm fine with blaming elites for bad outcomes. I do it all the time. It's fun, they deserve a lot of scorn, and are rightly punished at the polls when they screw up. The thing I like most about Krugman, and basically the only constant thread in his popular writings from the 1990s until now, is that he's great at punching holes in bad numbers and illogic that pundits and politicians often use. But some blame is surely left over for an electorate that prefers low taxes and high spending, and rewards politicians that give them both, when those policies lead to a budget mess.
My next post will about something I really like about Krugman.
P.S. Farrell suggests I read Pepper Culpepper's book. It's been at the top of my Amazon wish list since I first heard of it (I believe via Farrell) six months or so ago. I hope to get to it later this summer. But as I understand it, the book is about "quiet politics", i.e. issues that the public knows and hears little or nothing about. I don't think that accurately characterizes the public debates over tax cuts, wars, or health care. (It probably does with regard to financial regulation, in the late-1990s and early-2000s at least.) Salience with the public is important, and these are the most salient issues in American politics. I'm not sure why we should expect case studies of some of the least salient issues (in other countries) to map on to this discussion very well. In fact, if David Soskice's blurb -- "Culpepper argues with detailed empirical plausibility that democracy can only impose change in technical policy debates if they are of high salience" -- is accurate, then if anything we should take the opposite view in these high salience cases. There's appears to be a huge generalizability problem. So while I'm willing to accept Farrell's chiding on how to do IPE better, we need to make sure that we're not going off too far in the other direction of extrapolating too much from limited cases.
*He doesn't mention Medicare Part D in his column, but does toss off "with few exceptions" which is possibly a reference to that, and as Farrell pointed out to me, Krugman mentions Part D in a separate blog post as being a response to public demand. The fact that he was this selective with his examples in his column indicates to me that a charitable reading isn't the right one. He's stacking the deck on purpose. And of course I think that the tax cuts, Iraq war, and euro-adoption are about as much "exceptions" as Part D. But I've already said that I'm not inclined to give Krugman a charitable reading, so YMMV, of course.