Tuesday, May 10, 2011

There Will Be Politics

. Tuesday, May 10, 2011

UPDATE: Henry Farrell and Dan Nexon have taken their shots at me, at least partly deserved, but I didn't say the things I said. A more fleshed out version of my thought is here.

Paul Krugman thinks that democratic politics does not exist:

Well, what I’ve been hearing with growing frequency from members of the policy elite — self-appointed wise men, officials, and pundits in good standing — is the claim that it’s mostly the public’s fault. The idea is that we got into this mess because voters wanted something for nothing, and weak-minded politicians catered to the electorate’s foolishness.

So this seems like a good time to point out that this blame-the-public view isn’t just self-serving, it’s dead wrong.

The fact is that what we’re experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. The policies that got us into this mess weren’t responses to public demand. They were, with few exceptions, policies championed by small groups of influential people — in many cases, the same people now lecturing the rest of us on the need to get serious. And by trying to shift the blame to the general populace, elites are ducking some much-needed reflection on their own catastrophic mistakes.

If Greenspan's "with notably rare exceptions" deserves internet infamy, and it does, then surely Krugman's less notable exceptions should too. As Drezner notes, Krugman's examples -- the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq war, mainly -- were supported by majorities of the population. Bush campaigned on a platform of tax cuts too, so it's not as if he tricked the public once elected.

What interests me about this isn't that Krugman is playing fast and loose with his factual claims, or even stacking the deck in a blatantly partisan way. That's par for his course. It's that he thinks that a simple political explanation is just not feasible. Instead, some moral lesson is needed. If something bad happens, it must be because bad people are doing it. This is the political sophistication of a six year old. The specific bad people in this case -- "self-appointed wise men, officials, and pundits in good standing" -- are less interesting than his usual coterie of sado-masochists, mythical creatures, and conspirators, but at least this time Krugman manages to indict a category of people that includes himself.

Occam's Razor can help us here. If there are tax cuts, maybe it's because people wanted tax cuts. If there is Medicare Part D, maybe it's because people wanted Medicare Part D. If there is a housing bubble, maybe it's because public policy was skewed in ways that home ownership attractive, because that's what people want*. This might not work all the time, but as a first approximation this sort of thinking holds up fairly well. In the examples Krugman gives, it's batting 1.000**. Saying that democratic polities have problems with time inconsistency and preference aggregation isn't exactly a new insight.

Krugman closes with this:

But the larger answer, I’d argue, is that by making up stories about our current predicament that absolve the people who put us here there, we cut off any chance to learn from the crisis. We need to place the blame where it belongs, to chasten our policy elites. Otherwise, they’ll do even more damage in the years ahead.

Amen, I suppose, but there's plenty of blame to go around. We all played a role in this crisis. Not an equal role of course, but a part nonetheless. Might as well own up to it.

*Mortgage interest tax deductions, subsidized subprime (and prime) loans, lower capital requirements for MBS, etc.

**Drezner wonders about public support for financial deregulation. I challenge Krugman to name the deregulatory act that led to the financial crisis. If he can't, and he hasn't, then his example fails and Drezner doesn't have to worry about it.


Phil said...


I was going to chime in, but I'm not sure what I have to add to what you two have already said.

This line:

"This is the political sophistication of a six year old."

sums up my reaction perfectly.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Sometimes I get sick of harping on Kroog, but he keeps writing unbelievably stupid stuff. Sad thing is, according to the recent NYMag profile of him, he's friends with Larry Bartels, and supposedly learned a lot about politics from him.

Evidently not.

fifthfiend said...

"Bush's tax cuts were past because people wanted tax cuts" certainly reaches the level of political sophistication you'd expect of at least a seven year old. Maybe even as much as eight.

PHB said...

Bush also promised to balance the budget, which his tax cuts made impossible. Almost no serious economist accepted the claim made that the tax cuts would pay for themselves. Yet the people were told that the tax cuts would not cause a return to deficits.

When people are lied to, they support the policies that are promoted under the false pretenses. That hardly counts as genuine support.

The US public wanted to avenge 9/11. They were lied to and Bush diverted the resources from the pursuit of Bin Laden to the Invasion of Iraq.

The policy elites knew the likely outcomes of both policies. The tax cuts were certain to lead to deficits and the occupation of Iraq was almost certain to be a disaster. That is why Bush I raised taxes and did not occupy Iraq when he had the forces on the ground and a genuine UN mandate.

What people will support on the basis of lies does not seem to be a very good argument to me.

Kindred Winecoff said...

fifthfiend, I did invoke Occam's Razor. I never said this was a deep explanation. I updated this post with a link to fuller thoughts, since people have taken a weird interest in this.

PHB, Nothing I wrote contradicts that. I never said publics weren't lied to, or otherwise manipulated. I just said they broadly supported tax cuts and military invasions. *Why* they supported those policies is open to whatever interpretation you like.

Unsympathetic said...

The policy Krugman is referring to is Bush's Ownership Society. This was not public demand in any way. It was Bush and Greenspan and Wall Street lying to make a buck. You can't increase home ownership without increasing jobs and salaries.. because someone has to buy the house that you're selling at a profit, and if salaries aren't increasing across the country, people aren't buying houses.

Medicare part D and the Bush taxcuts are not a crisis.. the unemployment rate is a crisis.

Mitchell J. Freedman said...

Professor, Bush and Cheney marketed the Iraq War for many months, and there was strong public skepticism regarding that war. And you are old enough like me to recall it was called marketing by those guys themselves. They finally won their marketing campaign on the basis that there was a mushroom cloud of nuclear attack approaching and that taking out Saddam would be short and easy.

The public manages to get confused, or manipulated by propagandistic corporate media for one day--Election Day--and then poll after poll shows throughout the rest of the year that they don't want what they elected. For years, the public wants out of Iraq, and the power of corporate media is to confuse distinctions and drive us into other issues at different moments that are above all distracting. It would probably work less effectively in this Internet Age had there been a draft instead of a volunteer military...at least I think so.

We see the disconnect between how people vote on Election Day and after at the town hall meetings Republican freshmen and Paul Ryan have endured. Mostly white seniors got scared into voting Republican in 2010 through scare tactics about Dems destroying Medicare to help the "non-deserving poor (and minority) and now, they realize the guys who really want to destroy Medicare and Social Security are the guys they elected.

We can attack people for their being manipulated, but Krugman's point as I understood it was that the bad policies of income tax cuts for the rich and imperial wars are elite created and elite driven.

Also, I'd like to make clear that people are manipulated not because they are dumb, but because their interest in politics is not deep enough to cause them to delve deeply into policy arguments pro and con as to various issues, nor is there anyone on television outside of a Jon Stewart to connect dots and begin (and I mean only begin) to analyze policy and rhetoric.

I mean, really, who is reading you, Matt Yglesias (where I came from), or me for that matter? A handful compared to the 300 million people in this country. Sad, but we have to understand that, too...

Mitchell J. Freedman said...

Sorry, came from Henry at Crooked Timber, not Matt Y....My bad...:-)

Kindred Winecoff said...

Mitchell -

I agree with all of that. And yet there are elections. Yet politicians spend huge amounts of time trying to convince the public that what they're doing is good. Yet people do polling and take the results seriously.

If you look at the concluding paragraph of the post right below this one (or almost anything else I've written over the past few years), you'll see that I take the role of elites very seriously. But the public matters too, and when things go wrong it's not improper to look at the public's role.

Anyway, given the way things have gone over at CT, I'm rather glad nobody's listening.

Mitchell J. Freedman said...

I'm definitely on board with blaming us too. I read my Pogo when I was a teen!

Anonymous said...

What an amazingly stupid article! And as usual, the stupid one accuses the smart one of being stupid. Kindred, if I use your logic, a 4 year old would understand issues better than you. Just looking at Dr. Krugman's pieces for the last several years it is easy to see that he is quite often right. His analysis andforecasts for the US, world economy and related have been second to none. He does that by using rigorous analysis, something that Kindred obviously does not do.
The record is there. Just look at what Krugman was foreseeing two or more years ago and see if it matches our current reality. Current inflation scenario?. Look at Krugman's notes from long ago and you will see it there, nicely and clearly explained.
Many people do not like Krugman just because their political dogma does not agree with his analysis. Unfortunately it is not easy to convince people when they only believe in their own false truths. The weight of dogmas is so heavy!

There Will Be Politics
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