Laniel on Krugman on Bernie — April 15, 2016

Laniel on Krugman on Bernie

What annoys me about Krugman’s Bernie take is that he’s not even said, “Yeah, I’m a real supporter of single-payer health care, but Bernie is just going about it the wrong way. If he’d change x, y, and z, it would be a realistic plan.”

The positive approach to addressing Bernie would be to offer him constructive policy ideas. If Krugman felt like Democrats needed to be realist in their policy proposals, he’d try to work out realistic numbers for Bernie’s single-payer and college-education plans. But Krugman isn’t doing that. Instead he’s just pointing to every bit of anti-Bernie writing that comes his way, taking it as conclusive, and shutting down the debate there. Worse, Petulant Krugman is coming out, as when — in this latest column — he writes:

But never mind. As you know, I’m only saying these things because I’m a corporate whore and want a job with Hillary.

My problem with his anti-Bernie columns isn’t that I think he’s a corporate shill. My problems are twofold. First, his mind seems made up. And second, look through Krugman’s older blog posts for times when he’s mentioned single payer. Clearly he supports single payer. I assume he supports universal college education. Well then, why not push for those things? If he believes that Bernie is an unelectable, impractical candidate, and hence that he’s going to support Hillary, why not do what he can to bring Hillary more toward the left? Bernie has clearly pulled Hillary leftward; maybe now Bernie needs to be pulled in the direction of realism. Why isn’t Krugman acting as the agent of realism here? Instead he’s acted, since the beginning, as someone whose mind is made up against Bernie. I don’t get it.

(For the record: I voted for Hillary in the primary, but I’m still conflicted about that decision. I believe that any liberal who’s thought about this Democratic primary should also be conflicted. These are both strong candidates, both with obvious weaknesses, and I’d be happy with either of them in the White House.)

Krugman’s beef seems to be that Bernie’s campaign is irremediably flawed by the same sort of unreality that plagues the Republican candidates’ tax plans. (Krugman has also accused the Sanders campaign of having gone off the rails. I blame this on the ludicrous length of the election season, which eventually causes everyone to lose his mind. And again, I think Krugman is grasping at whatever straw he can find. Matt Taibbi responds appropriately.) But here’s a question: is reality in campaign proposals really all that important? The Obama campaign in 2008 advanced a health-insurance plan that lacked an individual mandate, which we know now — and which Hillary knew then — is unworkable because of adverse selection. What virtue does reality have here? The man got into office and fought for what he promised us he’d fight for. Does it matter that he couldn’t make the numbers work out during the campaign? I’m really not convinced by realism as a virtue during a campaign. When it comes time to produce an actual budget that gets scored by the CBO: yes, I want realism then. At that time, Bernie will have a staff whose full-time job is to put together a budget that makes sense. I hope he chooses appropriate staff. But during a campaign? What I want to know is that my guy is fighting for what I care about.

(To the extent that it’s unrealistic, people have criticized Bernie’s plans for costing more than he says. I am willing to pay a lot to get a Northern European social-insurance state here. That is, even if he were more realistic about what it costs, I’d still support him.)

And again: if realism in fact does matter, it seems to me that it’s Krugman’s job to point out what could make Bernie’s numbers more realistic. Does Krugman want single-payer in his lifetime? Does he want us to return to a world where we provide free world-class tax-financed college education? If not now, when? I’m not asking that question rhetorically; I assume that Krugman really believes that now is not the time for single-payer health care, that getting single-payer would require Congressional action, that Congressional action is not plausible, and that only a Clinton presidency which will achieve incremental reform through executive action will succeed in attaining anything. But clearly Krugman’s heart is with Bernie; so why doesn’t Krugman act that way?

And let’s address head-on that point about the need for Congressional action: yes, it’s true. But I think people have a static picture of U.S. government. They envision that Sanders will inherit a Republican majority in both houses of Congress and a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. But things change. Maybe the Trump candidacy will bring liberals to the polls. Maybe we’ll replace Scalia with a more-liberal justice; maybe Kennedy will leave the Court and be replaced by someone liberal. There’s a not-implausible political theory by which Sanders stands some chance of passing real progressive legislation. And in either case, I think Krugman is obliged to lay out his political theory. Because it seems pretty clear that Krugman made up his mind about Bernie well before former CEA chiefs declared Bernie’s budget unrealistic. So it seems to me that Krugman needs to declare what his actual problem is.

Peacetime hopelessness and Bernie — March 29, 2016

Peacetime hopelessness and Bernie

I don’t have time to expand on this idea as fully as I’d like, but just some quick notes:

  1. During World War II, the federal government managed the U.S. economy to an unprecedented extent, including price and wage controls, and (I just learned) limits on the production of durable goods. The durable-goods limits were so intense that the spread of television was delayed until the war ended.
  2. After the war, millions of Americans were able to go to college through the G.I. Bill.
  3. Clearly, when we want to make something happen, we can make it happen.
  4. It’s equally clear that we only believe we can achieve the impossible during wartime.
  5. I’ve seen no reason for this belief.
  6. It may be the case that World War II was singular and irreplicable. But I’ve not seen this argued. We have every reason to believe that if the country needed to gear up for total war, it could do so. All economic slack would be removed and the unemployment rate would effectively drop to zero.
  7. It seems clear that society has reached a point in its development where macroeconomic outcomes are all a choice. We choose to tolerate involuntary unemployment. We choose not to use the government as an employer of last resort. We choose not to build good mass transit, choose not to house the homeless, choose not to feed the hungry.
  8. American economic ideology is stuck in an earlier mindset, wherein these are not choices. If we don’t feed the hungry, it’s because we can’t afford it, and/or because of the moral failings of the hungry.
  9. People probably believe this ideology sincerely. It just happens that this ideology is convenient for those who don’t want to feed the hungry.
  10. The chink in the armor for those who support this ideology is the nearly instantaneous availability of cash whenever war calls for it. War is a choice we make available to ourselves; improving our society is not.
  11. The Sanders campaign has been attacked for the unreality of its economic plans. I’ve not investigated very deeply, but if Sanders’s plans are unrealistic, they’re probably unrealistic in not saying all of the above: that the money is available, and we spend it on wars without hesitation, and that we just need to turn our society’s focus from the violent destruction of life to the improvement of life. Sanders’s presentation (“millionaires and billionaires”) has been narrow and monotonous, and hasn’t really approached the full scope of what’s available to a modern society. If we wanted a Manhattan Project to give every child a college education, we could do it. If it were a Manhattan Project for bombs, we could do it. There’s no reason to believe that a Manhattan Project for college is more difficult.
  12. The argument against Sanders is essentially an argument for hopelessness.
  13. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way, actually. Who knows: it may in fact be hopeless to dream of achieving Sanders-like outcomes. But what makes it hopeless is not a fact about reality or a fact about economics, but rather a fact about politics.
  14. So if you’re going to argue against the Sanders campaign, don’t argue it on the basis of economic reality or fiscal plausibility. Argue it on the basis of political reality. Because that’s the only real ground on which this opposition stands.
  15. If political reality stands between us and Sanders-like outcomes, and if we desire those outcomes, then it seems that the top question on everyone’s mind ought to be how to change political outcomes.
  16. By “changing political outcomes” I mean something like “making the results of our collective decisionmaking match the results of our collective desires.” If we, as a society, would prefer to have a tax-financed system of public universities that leave our students debt-free, but our political system doesn’t make that outcome feasible, then there’s something wrong with the way that our policy desires are translated into political outcomes.
  17. Which candidate is more likely to change political outcomes? The typical argument for Hillary is that we’re never going to change political outcomes if a Republican is elected, and that Hillary is the only electable one. The typical argument for Bernie and against Hillary is that Hillary wouldn’t do the right things if elected — that she’s too comfortable with the system as it is — and that she’d aim in the direction of the right policies without fundamentally changing the political structure. The argument against Bernie here is that he would be one man among many, and that his noble intentions would be crushed by the system. Bernie’s argument for himself is that his election would signal a political revolution; this would mean that the very organization of political life had changed.
  18. There’s a certain fashionable pessimism these days: our children will live worse lives than ours, globalization is destroying the American economy, and we need to settle for smaller dreams. These are all choices. If we, as a society, decide that we deserve better, and we choose to not achieve better, we are making a moral choice rather than succumbing to economic necessity.