Paul Krugman, Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future (2020)
On his way to the public forum, a mild-mannered economist grew increasingly troubled. He became distraught over the “American carnage” that he witnessed daily, which threatened the nation’s already deeply flawed democratic foundations. The damage, he eventually concluded, was caused by a powerful national institution, namely, one of the two main political parties of the land. The heretofore reticent academic decided to raise the alarm. Or, at least, that’s the slightly grandiose description of the arc of one public intellectual’s career.
A closer-to-the-ground version of that story is somewhat more pedestrian. In Arguing with Zombies, Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist alluded to above — he writes a twice-weekly op-ed for The New York Times — offers an anthology of his columns from 2004 to the present. They’re a timely reminder of what we’ve been arguing about for the past decade and a half, from attempts to privatize Social Security pensions in the U.S., to the global economic crash of 2008-09, to the debate about healthcare as a citizenly right rather than a consumer choice, all the way to the more than occasionally bizarre behaviour of the current occupant of the American presidency.
Among those of us who have worked in journalism, and have had to put one sentence after another in coherent fashion (a trickier proposition than appears at first sight), Krugman is rightly considered one of the premier columnists in the U.S. I say that not because I mostly agree with his views (though I do), but simply on technical, journalistic grounds. Whatever one thinks of Krugman’s economic and political ideas, he’s recognized within the trade as a master of the op-ed form. The ability to turn out a high-quality regular opinion column is a kind of literary art in itself, like the ability of some poets to write a sonnet or a villanelle, or even the once ordinary knack of penning a lively letter to a friend (to recall another now almost-lost art). Actually, a cross between a lively letter to a friend and a villanelle (the most well-kn0wn of which, by Dylan Thomas, advises, “Do not go gently into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light”) might be a pretty good working definition of an op-ed column.
Though Krugman periodically publishes conventional full-length books, it’s clear that his real passion is for the column form. The Albany, New York-born economist, now 67, did extended teaching stints at MIT and Princeton, and is currently attached to City University of New York’s Grad Center. I don’t know what he’s like in his academic natural habitat of classrooms and conferences, but on TV, he’s rather shy, and not much given to the zinger soundbites and belligerent shouting that characterize talkshow punditry. Admittedly, collections of columns don’t have the immediacy provided by opening the NYTimes website at daybreak , and getting a fresh answer to the question, “I wonder what’s on Krugman’s mind this morning?” Still, such gatherings-up provide an eyewitness guide to the ideological landscape of recent decades, right up to the present (im)perfect storm of Donald Trump, a virus pandemic, and global economic peril.
As Krugman says at the outset, “Punditry was never part of the plan.” When he began his professional career at the end of the 1970s, Krugman’s goal was simply to be a technocratic economist who produced the apolitical professional papers that eventually earned him a Nobel Prize in 2008. Along the way, however, Krugman not only became a “public intellectual,” but an increasingly radicalised one in the face of a bellicose conservative movement in the U.S.
“In 21st century America, everything is political,” Krugman notes today. Even “accepting what the evidence says about an economic question will be seen as a partisan act.” Indeed, “simply recognizing reality became seen as a liberal position… If you ask what is happening to income inequality, quite a few conservatives will denounce you as un-American” or a purveyer of “Marxist talk.” And economists, Krugman admits, have it pretty easy compared to, say, scientists battling climate crisis denial. In almost every field of endeavour, as well as on the street, the American public has become ever more deeply polarized.
The central, eponymous metaphor of Arguing with Zombies is the notion of “zombie ideas” – “ideas that should have been killed by contrary evidence, but instead keep shambling along, eating people’s brains.” You can think of those pernicious ideas as the policy proposals of the Living Dead (to recall the creepy protagonists of director George Romero’s 1968 horror film, Night of the Living Dead, the first of the modern zombie movies).
What Krugman means by zombie ideas, to cite an instance of “the most persistent such zombie,” is “the insistence that taxing the wealthy is hugely destructive to the economy as a whole, so that cutting taxes on high incomes will produce miraculous economic growth.” The most recent incarnation of this zombie notion was the Trump administration’s trillion dollar corporate tax cut of 2017, most of whose benefits went to the already wealthy – all in the name of boosting American economic growth. “This doctrine keeps failing in practice,” as Krugman documents in successive dispatches, “but if anything, [it] has gained an ever-stronger hold over the Republican Party,” the aforementioned “national institution” whose policies are eroding democracy. There’s no evidence that tax cuts for the wealthy – the Republicans’ preferred economic panacea — produce “miraculous economic growth,” but there are repeated and tenacious claims that the zombie idea is true.
There are plenty of other zombies through whose heart Krugman attempts to drive an argumentative stake. “If you want a low-tax, low-benefit state,” Krugman observes, then “you want to claim that safety-net programs” – from social security, healthcare, and education, all the way to minimum wages, job security, and paid sick leave – “are harmful and unworkable. So a lot of effort goes into insisting that providing universal health coverage is impossible, even though every advanced country besides the U.S. somehow manages to achieve just that.” But there’s also something about zombie ideas that goes beyond obvious class interests. “Even billionaires need a livable planet,” Krugman points out, “so why has climate change become such a left-right issue?” Or, “why are racial attitudes so closely correlated with taxing and spending?”
At a deeper level, Krugman argues, there’s a linkage of ideas about the very nature of government that explains how we’ve developed the left-right spectrum that constitutes our political landscape, as well as how we’ve become so polarized. If you know what someone believes about issue X, you can pretty much predict where they stand on issues Y and Z, irrespective of whether those positions are logically connected. “If people are persuaded that we need a public policy to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, they become more receptive to the idea that we need public policies to reduce inequality,” Krugman says. And, unfortunately, vice-versa.
The ideological divide in the U.S. is marked not only by its left-right axis, but also by “a racial equality / segregation axis” that is distinctively particular to the political history of the U.S. “So racial tolerance, and other forms of social liberalism like gender equality and LGBTQ rights, have been caught up in the same political divide as everything else,” Krugman says. One of the results of this situation is that in a “post-truth” era, there is less and less shared philosophical ground, but instead a sense that society is divided into separate “worlds,” on the brink of possible civil war. Notwithstanding the old caution that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” Krugman sadly concedes that “in modern America a lot of people do believe that they’re entitled to their own facts.” Hence, the difficulties of doing punditry in a time of polarization.
I probably should say a word about where Krugman landed on the political spectrum in super-polarized America, before I take a look at how he approaches punditry. Although Krugman is the author of The Conscience of a Liberal (2007), he’s probably more recognizably described as a social democrat. As an economist, Krugman is an inheritor of the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, who, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, argued that capitalist markets, left to their own devices, would not cure the global slump. Instead, Keynes advocated fiscal intervention by the state, such as deficit-funded economic stimulus policies and social welfare programs. Building on those economic notions, Krugman as a social democrat supports significant regulation of capitalist markets, an increasing role for public sector policies in healthcare, energy, education and the like, fairer taxation of the wealthy to reduce inequality, and he opposes “austerity” policies during recessions (such as occurred in various nations during the major 2008-09 crash). All that adds up to an unexceptional social democratic position, but it’s still fairly rare to hear that social democratic voice in mainstream media, consistently present over the nearly two decades that Arguing With Zombies encompasses.
Krugman considers how to effectively play the role of a public intellectual in such conditions. He has “four rules for punditry” (and by extension, for writing op-ed columns): 1) Stay with the easy stuff; 2) write in Engish; 3) be honest about dishonesty; and 4) don’t be afraid to talk about motives.
The first two are relatively non-controversial. While there are many hard economic questions that provoke honest disagreements among the professionals, the larger “truth is that the vast majority of real-world economic disputes are about easy questions – questions for which there is a clearly right answer, but one that powerful interests don’t want to accept.” You can improve public discourse by sticking to the easy stuff. The hard questions remain, “but the op-ed page isn’t a good place to argue about them.”
So, if there’s a dispute about government debt, for example, “what the public needs to know is that trying to balance the budget in a depressed economy makes the depression deeper, and that fears of a runaway debt spiral are vastly exaggerated.” Sure, there are harder questions, but the easy ones “provide plenty of material to write about,” more than enough in fact. When Krugman advises us to “write in English,” naturally, he doesn’t intend that literally. He means that “you have to use plain language and not presume that people already understand unfamiliar concepts.” Krugman’s advice is close to the transparent writing George Orwell advocated in his renowned essay, “Politics and the English Language” (1946).
Then comes the harder part of punditry. Krugman’s pointed stance involves the overlapping dicta to “be honest about dishonesty, and don’t be afraid to talk about motives.” As a result of the politicization of everything (and the consequent “weaponization” of ideas and policies), “many public arguments… are being made in bad faith,” Krugman contends.
To take the obvious example, “people arguing that we should cut taxes on the rich may pretend to have arrived at that position by looking at the evidence, but that’s not true.” Further, there is no evidence you could provide that would change their minds. How do you deal with the claims of such people? The temptation is to pretend that everyone is acting in good faith, to go over the evidence once more, to explain the standards by which to determine who’s right and who’s wrong, and leave it at that.
As you might expect by now, that isn’t Krugman’s view. “When you’re confrontng bad-faith arguments, the public should be informed not just that these arguments are wrong, but that they are in fact being made in bad faith.” Perhaps the most notorious example of bad faith arguments occurred during and after the introduction of President Barack Obama’s healthcare scheme, the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (better known as “Obamacare), which provided health insurance for over 20 million people who hadn’t previously been protected, required insurance firms to provide coverage irrespective of pre-existing medical conditions, and extended benefits to keep children on a family’s plan into their mid-20s.
It was resisted along strictly partisan party lines, and for years afterward Republican-dominated congresses promised to completely “repeal and replace” Obamacare. Despite it being a politically moderate scheme, according to most informed observers, it was denounced in strident and extreme terms by its Republican opponents. As it turned out there was no viable “replacement” plan, and even when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, as of 2017, they were unable to legislate a replacement scheme. The arguments that such repeal and replacement would provide better health care for Americans was a classic bad faith argument; the Republican policy merely would have led to 20 million people losing their insurance and being thrown back upon the not-so-tender mercies of the private market. And of course, when “repeal and replace” failed, none of the advocates of destroying “Obamacare” came forward to admit they were wrong.
Krugman advocates honesty about the “dishonesty that pervades political debate. Often, the mendacity is the message.” And that brings Krugman to his final rule – the one about not being afraid to talk about motives. It’s not enough to let readers know that “extravagant claims about the power of tax cuts are false”; you also have to reveal when “those making such claims are knowingly being dishonest.” Revealing motives, for Krugman, means talking about the big picture, which requires discussion of modern U.S. conservatism, and “the interlocking network of media organizations and think tanks that serves the interest of right-wing billionaires” and has taken over the Republican Party.
It’s the rules about bad faith, dishonesty, and motives that of course most excite Krugman’s critics, and sends them into paroxysms of rage and rivulets of vitriol (I’ll get to examples of the critics’ complaints in a minute).
At the beginning of this review, I invoked the image of “American Carnage.” The term comes from Donald Trump’s grim inaugural address in January 2017, his first speech as American president. What Trump meant by that sinister-sounding phrase was a picture of the U.S. as a land rife with crime-afflicted inner cities, a political elite that had left ordinary people behind, and a landscape of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones.” Trump, who had set the tone of his campaign, from the very anouncement of his candidacy for president, by attacking Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” drug dealers and alien invaders, now proposed himself as the “only one” who could fix the woes of the benighted land. “The American carnage stops right here, right now,” Trump told his inauguration audience. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.” Trump seemed unaware that “America First” referred to a 1940s proto-fascist and anti-semitic movement that opposed U.S. intervention in World War II.
For someone like Krugman, the notion of American carnage means something quite different. The carnage he’s observed and dissected, especially during the current U.S. presidency, is a mixture of policies and deregulation edicts. Together, they undercut the social welfare safety net, endanger the environment, give free rein to a form of unrestrained “cowboy” capitalism, cast aside the norms and guardrails of democracy and, as Krugman frequently notes of late, openly stir up racial hatred against African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims and Jews.
The phrase has also been used as a book title. Tim Alberta’s American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump (2019) is an eminently readable account of how the Republican Party insistently moved rightward in the course of the last decade. Alberta, presently a correspondent for Politico, writes from the fairly rare perspective of a “Never Trump” Republican moderate. His 700-page, solidly researched narrative covers only the period spanning the birth of the “Tea Party,” c. 2010, to the present Trump phenomenon. Obviously, the party’s tilting political direction has a far longer historical lineage than that, one that can be traced to the “limited government” and tax-cuts-for-the-rich policies propounded by Ronald Reagan at the beginning of the 1980s, and even further back to the self-declared “extremism in the defence of liberty” of Republican presidential contender Barry Goldwater in the mid-1960s. The reason I point to Alberta’s book here is that it’s a reliable account written by someone who can hardly be accused of promoting the Democratic agenda. As such, it tends to strongly, if tacitly, support the open advocacy of Krugman, confirming a good many of his claims of fact, and it implicitly challenges those critics who chastise Krugman for insufficient nuance and unjustified anger.
In an age of the diminishment of reading, I suppose it isn’t terribly surprising that three months after its publication, apart from trade journal notices, Krugman’s book has only received a handful of reviews, and that the author has been left to do the TV circuit to attract whatever attention he’s received. While Arguing with Zombies gets the occasional respectful notice (“It showcases the range of Krugman’s intellect… and his gift for clear, accessible writing,” says the Washington Post), it’s the hostile readings that stand out for their tone of acerbic antagonism. (Stephanie Mehta, “Paul Krugman battles conservative ‘zombies’,” Washington Post, Feb. 7, 2020.)
For example, Forbes magazine, a prominent business publication, brought in a health economist to review Krugman. The reviewer advertises himself as someone who “offer[s] market-based health solutions” (i.e., he has an ideological agenda diametrically opposed to everything Krugman believes and advocates) and he delivers his unrelenting screed under the not-so-subtle heading of, “Paul Krugman Is Selling Snake Oil.” (John Goodman, “Paul Krugman Is Selling Snake Oil,” Forbes, March 2, 2020.)
Just to get a taste of this sort of critical evaluatiion: Goodman begins by having difficulty locating the subject of Krugman’s book. “Where do you find these zombies?” he asks. “You can’t. They don’t exist… Krugman delights in creating straw men… But wait a minute. Aren’t there serious public policy issues over which economists disagree? Isn’t Krugman outside the mainstream of many of them? And on some issues, hasn’t Krugman been embarrassingly wrong?” One isn’t kept waiting long for the answers to these pressing questions. “The answers are, yes, yes and yes. But you won’t learn any of that by reading Krugman’s columns. Or by reading his book.”
What follows are the lengthy particulars of a bill of attainder which finds Krugman guilty on all counts. “What you will learn” by reading Krugman’s book “is that Krugman hates Republicans and hates economists who advise them… He doesn’t just disagree with people… he attacks their character, their motives, their honesty, and their morality.” Goodman never quite grasps that the subject matter of Krugman’s book is “zombie ideas” more than it is the soulless proponents of such thoughts. But, yes, Krugman does think it cruel to try to take away health coverage from 20 million people. And yes, he is suspicious of the motives of officeholders who have been appointed to protect the environment, having just come from lobbying jobs or executive suites of the fossil fuel industry. And yes, he doubts the character of reckless corporate bosses seeking bailouts and tax cuts.
Well, if it’s hard to take the Forbes’ indictment very seriously, there’s the usually sensible and well-written pages of The Atlantic magazine, which engaged Sebastian Mallaby, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and biographer of former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, to assess the zombie ideas afloat in the land. “Cool It, Krugman,” advises the review title, with a sub-head lamenting “The self-sabotaging rage of the New York Times columnist.” Mallaby finds Krugman to be fatally intemperate. (Sebastian Mallaby, “Cool it, Krugman” The Atlantic, Jan./Feb. 2020.)
Mallaby wonders “how so talented and fortunate an author came to develop such a furious and bitter voice,” and yet he cheerfully admits that “Krugman is substantively correct on just about every topic he addresses.” What’s more, Krugman “writes amusingly and fluently. His combination of analytic brilliance and linguistic facility recalls Milton Friedman or John Maynard Keynes.” So, what’s not to like, as the line in stand-up schtick goes? Well, that damned anger.
Mallaby notes that Krugman “has concluded that politically neutral truth telling is not merely impossible. It is morally inadequate.” To test this claim, his critic applies it “to the topic that best suits [Krugman’s] approach,” namely, climate change. Mallaby concedes, “As he rightly maintains, Republicans leaders have repeatedly ignored the solid expert consensus on climate change… it is fair to conclude that Republican leaders are consciously making false statements – in other words, that they are liars.” Mallaby goes further. Though he’s critical of Krugman probing motives for the lies, he admits that the Times op-ed writer “is basically right that ‘almost all prominent deniers are on the fossil-fuel take.’” So, what’s the problem? What is Mallaby’s complaint, exactly?
Well, it turns out (a long way into the review), Krugman’s myopic failure is that he doesn’t notice that “not all Republicans have the same outlook.” Sure, Trump dismisses climate science as mostly hoax, but there are a couple of Republican senators who “are at least willing to acknowledge global warming” and maybe even vote for research into renewable energy. Is that the best Mallaby can do?
Not a word about Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord, or the abject acquiesence to this move by his Republican Party reps and underlings? Mallaby might as well cite the late Senator John McCain’s lone dissent against the Republican attempt to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, or Senator Mitt Romney’s solo Republican vote for the impeachment of Donald Trump as evidence of diversity of views among the ruling party. True, not all Republicans are alike. And anyway, “even if Krugman concludes that congressional Republicans are evil… does he really want to imply the same about the broad mass of Republican voters?” Mallaby asks. Is Mallaby talking about the 88% (or is it 94% this week?) of Republicans who fully support their leader? Is this his idea of a clincher argument? Really? Maybe this should be called “zombie criticism.”
Actually, that’s pretty much it for Mallaby’s critique. Krugman is too angry, insufficiently nuanced, simplistic. Yes, it’s admitted, Krugman’s right about almost everything, but he goes too far, doesn’t he? I’m not sure that Mallaby’s complaints really justify the headline advice to Krugman to “cool it” or the reference to the economist’s “self-sabotaging rage.” Perhaps Mallaby’s fairest observation is that “Krugman contends that he didn’t change. Rather, politics did. Republicans lost respect for facts and data, turning politically neutral technocrats into involuntary foes.” Unless you’ve been dozing for the last three years-plus (or maybe longer), that strikes me as a reasonable assessment.
The reason for making a bit of a fuss about tone-deaf criticism is that I think it would be a shame for readers to be dissuaded from encountering one of the best op-ed writers in the country, as well as someone who makes the often arcane subject of economics accessible to the public. The antidote to such criticism, both the over-the-top sputtering and the measured tut-tutting, is simply to turn to a Krugman column. You can practically choose one at random, given that Arguing with Zombies covers such a gamut of topics.
But perhaps the relevant piece here is one in which Krugman makes clear why he eschews a stance of false neutrality. He notes in a section called “Beyond Fake News,” that since the 2016 election, there’s been “a lot of talk about the role of ‘fake news’ – conspiracy theories and false claims spreading through social media.” An example was “Pizzagate,” “the claim, based on nothing,” that high ranking Democratic officials were running a child sex ring out of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria. The original fake news was a combination of ludicrous fantasy crossed with real death threats and the occasional armed nomad.
“But the times being what they are, Trump and his followers quickly hijacked the term ‘fake news’ to mean any reporting, no matter how factual, that reflected badly on the Trump administration. And a lot of people have bought in,” Krugman notes, grimly observing the sharp decline in the number of people who consider major news outlets credible, especially among Republicans. “The truth is that major media outlets… are pretty careful about getting their facts right, and the constant attacks they face for doing their job should scare you,” Krugman adds. That’s especially the case when the leading attacker, Trump himself, wades into the fray under the banner that the press is “the enemy of the people.”
Krugman doesn’t pretend that the media are unbiased. But he’s not talking about news agenda biases or even the leanings of political bias, liberal or conservatve, which are often easy enough to identify. “Instead, I’m talking about things like false equivalence – giving two sides of a dispute equal treatment even when one is clearly telling lies.” For fear of being accused of partisanship, reporters have let public figures get away with outrageous misstatements. As Krugman wrote as far back as 2000, “If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline, ‘Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.’ After all, the earth isn’t perfectly spherical.”
A couple decades later, he adds, “On the rare occasions when the media [doesn’t] engage in bothsidesism, it tends to be because the Very Serious People all agree on something – which happens to be wrong.” Just as bad is “the tendency to replace policy discussion with theater criticism – focusing on how candidates supposedly come across rather than on what they’re actually proposing.” Those, Krugman asserts, are “the real failings of the news media, and how they have contributed to our political descent.” In the midst of all this, the courage not to be dishonest about dishonesty seems to me exactly what to look for in a political writer worth reading week after week, at a time when democracy itself seems more imperilled than usual
Berlin, April 27, 2020.