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Paul Krugman: Why Do Right-Wingers Mock Attempts to Care for Other People?

Paul Krugman talks about his new book, <i>Conscience of a Liberal</i>, and the almost lethal refusal among some conservatives to consider the problems of suffering of others.
 
 
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"... [Y]ou can't have gross economic inequality and still have a functional democracy. You can't really have a society with broad equality without having a political democracy. So it is all about having basically a shared society. -- Paul Krugman, Economist, Columnist, Author of The Conscience of a Liberal

In a sea of media transcribers and mediocrity, Paul Krugman has held a longstanding spot as one of the most popular liberal columnists in the media.

But actually, although a New York Times columnist, Krugman is not a journalist. In fact, when I spoke with him for this interview, he was preparing a lecture for one of his economics classes at Princeton.

Maybe, that's one of the reasons that he pens such "spot on" commentaries. He's not a professional pundit. He doesn't live in NYC or D.C. He's a professor first. Yet, Krugman is skillful at making his case in cogent columns that are both compelling and accessible.

I recently interviewed him about his new book, The Conscience of a Liberal to talk about the different approaches liberals and conservatives have to the idea of a greater good.

Mark Karlin: Getting to your great book, The Conscience of a Liberal, let's start at the end of it. Let me just read the last paragraph:

"For now, in other words, being an active liberal means being a progressive. And being a progressive means being partisan. But the end goal isn't one-party rule. It's the re-establishment of a truly vital, competitive democracy. For in the end, democracy is what being liberal is all about."

That's how you conclude the book. It is, in large part, a historical perspective on liberal politics in America. Obviously the "L word" has been cast as a stereotype by the right-wing movement for many years. It was stated in terms of right-wing stereotypes. Reagan used the welfare mom in the pink Cadillac sort of thing -- peaceniks, people who were against capitalism, people who were against the values issues, pro-choice, bla-bla-bla. You redefine liberals here -- and the whole book is about liberalism. That was your goal. In essence, the implication here is that liberalism can best be defined by equating it to the promotion of democracy.

Krugman: That's actually where the term came from originally. We talked about the Manchester liberals, who were pro-business, pro-bourgeois, pro-democracy, back at a time when the relevant enemy was the hereditary aristocracy. At this point, what it means is having a society in which everybody shares, and partly that's about economics, because you can't have gross economic inequality and still have a functional democracy. You can't really have a society with broad equality without having a political democracy. So it is all about having basically a shared society.

Karlin: The right wing has again fostered this connotation among its followers, but it also seeps into the mainstream media, that somehow the "L word" is something that's un-American. Yet, isn't it a basic American value to have a solid middle class where people who work hard can keep up with the rate of inflation, and if there's increased productivity, their wages will increase, not stagnate or fall? You promote a diverse economy that gives people their due and is not tilted as far as it is toward the very wealthy. How does the right-wing get away with making it seem that if you call yourself a liberal, you're somehow un-American? Those seem to me like the American values that we were found on.

Krugman: Yes. There is a funny thing. If you look at the polls that ask if you consider yourself a liberal, it's a relatively small minority. If you ask people do you think that the government should guarantee health insurance to every American, a huge majority says yes. So people think they're not liberals, but they're in favor of quintessentially liberal policies.

A lot of the usual things people say that are identified with cultural liberalism they're identified with. Cultural liberalism, which is supposed to be something we as Americans don't like -- well, that's less and less true. It got identified with being soft on crime and so on. But very, very largely, if you ask how did liberal get to be a bad word, it's the theme that runs through a lot of the book, which is race. Liberal became somebody who was in favor of being permissive towards bad behavior by you-know-who. And that's been a problem. But I think the answer is not to run away from liberal and say, oh, I'm not one of those people. This is being used to distract and exploit working families all across the country of whatever color. So it's both politically impractical and just wrong to run away and say, oh, I'm not one of those liberals, because that's not the problem.

Karlin: I recall seeing a comedian a couple years after 9/11, an African American comedian saying, you know, 9/11 wasn't wasn't completely bad for black Americans, because now there's someone else for the right-wing to scapegoat. In a sense, the Islamic world has become the international black people.

Krugman: Except what you see is, on the right, these things get bizarrely conflated. Immigrants become lumped in with black people. Then, in turn, immigrants get lumped in with terrorists. You have all of this stuff about we have to close the border with Mexico because of the terrorist threat. And, gee, there haven't actually been any Mexican suicide bombers. But a certain segment of the population, egged on by the right-wing media, conflates all of that.

Karlin: We don't generally hear the same argument that we have to close the border with Canada because of terrorists.

Krugman: Yet, just because of the demographic roots, we're more likely to have a terrorist come in from Canada than from Mexico.

Karlin: You do discuss race a lot in your book, and we totally agree the conservatives have exploited racism. Nixon had his Southern strategy, in large part developed by Kevin Phillips, who now has come around and is a great articulate critic of the economic tax structure that the Bush administration has created, and of the Bush dynasty. Ronald Reagan began his campaign at the scene of where three civil rights workers were murdered. And this was not a forgotten symbolism to the whites of the South, who heard Ronald Reagan talking about states' rights. I mean, that's all coded language. So race has been the subtext of so much going on. And in the immigration reform movement, we constantly see the right wing come up with the fear of the other. They called it immigration reform, but really it was close-the-Mexican-border reform.

Krugman: It is interesting. Both the terminology that the anti-immigrant forces use and the people are pretty much the same as was used in the anti-black backlash. The anti-immigrant Republican base is very much the same as the anti-black Republican base, which is becoming a problem for the Republican Party, because they can't actually separate the two. One of the optimistic themes, towards the end of the book, is that because the country is actually becoming more diverse, these tactics are turning from assets into a liability.

Karlin: In The Conscience of a Liberal , you give a wonderfully broad historical context on what that means. But is part of what the right wing has such contempt for in so-called liberals like ourselves is that we do have a conscience? In other words, they see something wrong with not being out for your own self-interest. There's a certain contempt, as though this was a football game. Why would you care if a guy is injured on the other team, you know?

Krugman: Yes, that's actually something I touch on in the book, and I've been thinking about doing a column to enlarge on it for The New York Times. In some sense, the meanness is the message. On the right, there's an almost lethal refusal to consider the problems of suffering of others. And it goes right back through time. Ronald Reagan has this line, in the famous speech in 1964 that launched his political career, in which he said, "They told us that 17 million people in America go to bed hungry every night. Well, that was probably true. They were all on a diet." The problem of malnutrition in America was and is a serious problem. But to Reagan, from the beginning, it was all a big joke. And Bush remarked, "Well, I mean, everybody's got access to health care in America. You just go to an emergency room." It's just this complete lack of empathy for people who aren't as lucky as yourself.

Karlin: As Jon Stewart said about that particular comment, "There's only one problem, Mr. President. People who don't have health insurance don't have a doctor."

Krugman: Well, and it goes on. If you go to the emergency room, you will be billed. It's just -- maybe you can declare bankruptcy, and not pay it. It's a complete lack of understanding. Last weekend, I think, Bill Kristol made some joke about how he wants Bush to veto SCHIP, because anything that hurts children is a good thing. Of course, it's a joke, but the underlying premise of the joke is, only wimps actually care about the suffering of others.

Karlin: And Dana Perino, the new White House Press Secretary, said it was madness for Congress to pass this bill because it taxed the people who most heavily used tobacco, which are the poor. So it was a tax on the poor.

Krugman: Right.

Karlin: -- in a way, implying that it was the Congress now that was imposing a regressive tax on poor people. One could say, maybe the reason Bush is so adamant about this is not that he's concerned about "federalization" of health insurance, but that the tobacco lobby is upset that there'd be a higher tax.

Krugman: The reason that Bush is so opposed to SCHIP, is the same reason he was so determined to privatize Social Security, which is that they're both programs that work. You have to understand, that is the point of view of somebody who really wants to undo the New Deal -- and if possible -- I quote Grover Norquist in the book -- get things back to the way they were before Teddy Roosevelt and the "Socialists" came in. The worst thing is a government program that actually does help people. So the SCHIP is a really bad thing, from Bush's point of view, because it works so well. It might lead people to say, well, if we can do this for lower-income children, why can't we do it for lots of other people who need guaranteed health care? So it's the determination, on his part, to do this veto, even though there's a short-term political cost, because they're deathly afraid that people will look at SCHIP and say, gee, actually the government can do some good.

Karlin: In your chapter on "The Politics of Inequality," you say the modern Republican Party has been taken over by radicals. People want to undo the twentieth century. Going back to Grover Norquist, he also said, in an infamous, often-repeated quote, that he wanted to take the federal government and drown it in a bathtub. If we look at what happened with Katrina -- is this mismanagement, or is there the intention to let government fail, and then say that only the private sector can fill in the gap, because the government is so inefficient?

Krugman: To what extent was total failure to respond to Katrina deliberate? To what extent was it incompetence? It's some mix of the two. But the Bush administration dismantled FEMA, which was one of the most admired agencies in the US government under Clinton. It did so partly because FEMA was turning into a place to reward cronies, and then it also tried to privatize its operations. So that's one motive. It did it partly because Bush doesn't care about good government, because he basically believes the government is always the problem. You don't care. Failure of government is not such a bad thing, because, although you may take political heat for it, the failures also can be used to make your point - well, government doesn't work. So it's all this mixture of things. But it all comes back to essentially not believing in the role of government as something that can help people.

Karlin: We should point out that the first head of FEMA under Bush, and one of his aides and political campaign directors was Joe Allbaugh. He left FEMA and then, as Katrina happened, he was heading a firm that brokered many of the private contracts.

Krugman: Well, Allbaugh's agenda was to privatize as much as possible of what FEMA does. Privatization was his first agenda. And then he left, actually, to form a company that was supposed to take advantage of all the great opportunities for contracting in Iraq. That didn't work out so well, but then he got tons of contracting in the post-Katrina environment. So it's a classic Bush era career path.

Karlin: We want to challenge you a little on some language. Again, your "The Politics of Inequality" chapter, you wrote:

The nature of the hold movement conservativism has on the Republican Party may be summed up very simply: Yes, Virginia, there is a vast right-wing conspiracy. That is, there is an interlocking set of institutions ultimately answering to a small group of people that collectively reward loyalists and punish dissenters.

You used of the word "conservatism," though you switch and say there's a right-wing conspiracy. But there are many conservatives now -- John Dean, formerly of the Nixon administration, and Kevin Philips, and many others -- even Pat Buchanan, in his own bizarre way -- who say that this administration is radical, it's not conservative.

Krugman: I actually always try to use the two-word description of "movement conservatism," to describe the views of those involved in the "vast right-wing conspiracy." It certainly isn't classical conservatism. If you're going back to Burke or something like that, it's not what a conservative of the nineteenth or early twentieth century would have recognized.

But to just say this isn't true conservatism -- well, this is what conservatism has been in America for over forty years. It may not be what people would like. There are some people who may consider themselves conservative who don't recognize themselves in these people, but this is what the movement is. One of the things that I think is important to say is that we tend to sanitize and romanticize the early members of this movement. So people say, well, Ronald Reagan wasn't like Bush. Actually, he was, a lot. Ronald Reagan was, in fact, a race-baiting, slander-using, perfectly modern movement conservative, way back in the 1960s It's not that there was this idealistic, noble movement that turned mysteriously into what's in the White House right now. It's been the same thing all along. In the book, I talk about the National Review and William Buckley in the 1950s. If you think that there were once these high-minded conservatives who had these good ideas about how we can have freedom, and maybe they're impractical, but they're not bad guys, then go back and read the National Review. You have these paeons of praise for Generalissimo Franco, and others exulting in the continuing ability of white Southerners to disenfranchise their black fellow citizens, with this kind of dismissive reference to a catalog of the rights of American citizens created equal as being about silly stuff. Of course, they're talking about the Constitution. This is what being a conservative in America was, for at least forty years, and maybe half a century.

Karlin: We would argue that Antonin Scalia, who says he's a strict constructionist, is really a Constitutional revisionist of an extraordinary kind. You may recall, he made a statement to a synagogue implying no nation should fear a Christian country. Minorities would be treated very well -- and he seemed not to remember Adolph Hitler. It just is extraordinary he doesn't believe in the separation of church and state, which is a Constitutional guarantee. He's really a radical revisionist. How does the right wing get away with this terminology that puts them in a position of saviors of tradition and the Constitution, when, really, they're involved in a very extreme, radical experiment?

Krugman: Well, it's a number of things. A lot of it is that a very effective network pushes their views. We've become accustomed to hearing views that are, in fact, very radical, but there's so much power behind it that they become an accepted part of the political landscape. Look at what's happening with Rush Limbaugh right now. The whole movement -- the vast right-wing conspiracy -- is rallying around him over the "phony" soldiers comment. You've got Fox News producing edited versions of what he actually said, to make him look better. Not one Republican in Congress has been willing to sign a letter condemning him for the remark. This is the kind of cohesion that has made these people so effective.

Karlin: Is that because the liberal model is the inclusive model of democracy, whereas the radical experiment is an authoritarian model?

Krugman: Again, a small-scale version of it that you can see right now is this new organization, "Freedom's Watch."

Karlin: Yes, Ari Fleischer is the head of it.

Krugman: Right. They're saying this is the conservative answer to Move On. But Move On is, in fact, a grassroots organization. It really did bubble up from the bottom. Whether you approve of everything they say or not, it's not something that was engineered by a handful of people. Freedom's Watch is a handful of big-money donors, and it's pretty obviously directed from Vice President Cheney's office. There's a top-down structure that is there throughout the movement.

Karlin: Their main goal is to raise $200 million and to shape media frames for their messaging.

Krugman: Of course, one of the things that's been very, very clear to me, having been in the middle of this myself, is the intimidation of the media. You can say anything, including something that's completely false, about a liberal or a Democrat, and you will not be held accountable. If you say something that's unflattering but true about a right winger, there will be people calling your premise, or demanding that you be fired. There will be people going out there, trying to find anything they can to smear you as a journalist. And this affects the coverage. You can just see that when something happens on the right, the media pull their punches.

Karlin: In fact, you've written on this before. But you recently wrote a column bringing this issue up -- that there's a tremendous push-back on journalists from the right-wing grassroots and echo chamber, and that there's nothing comparable on the liberal side.

Krugman: That's right.

Karlin: If you're a journalist, it's just safer not to get into character analysis of Republicans. Whereas, we saw Gore portrayed as a Pinocchio, and we had the whole thing about Edwards' hairstyle and Hillary's cleavage.

Krugman: Compare the number of articles written about Hillary's flap versus Bush's smirk. You would never, ever have major analysis pieces about the facial expressions or mannerisms of somebody on the right. And it's done all the time, and often on the basis of nothing, about people on the left.

Karlin: Two final questions, both relating to the New Deal. You have a section in your book called, "What the Sixties Wrought." You see that as a pivotal point. Certainly, the civil rights movement was a key area in terms of the Republican Southern strategy, and in terms of Republican strategy since then. But you say what really mattered most in the long run was the fracturing of the New Deal coalition over race. Can you explain that a little more, just briefly? You explained it quite thoroughly in the book.

Krugman: Sure. We can trace what happened to U.S. politics over the forty years that followed the Sixties, Even as the Republican Party moved to the right, even as it became increasing the policy of economic relief, it continued to win elections. In fact, for awhile, it was clearly the dominant party in U.S. politics, and really embarrassingly, almost.

It's very simple. Southern whites started voting Republican. You can look for other things. There were some other factors going on. There was some other shift in the voting behavior of other groups. But overwhelmingly, it's just that thing. And if you ask, what changed, the answer, of course, is the civil rights movement. The deal with the devil that the New Deal made, where it basically accepted segregation as the price of Southern support, came apart in the Sixties. Instead of something that was put to the side, race became a key way in which the right was able to attract voters who were, in many cases, voting against their economic interests.

Anything else fades into insignificance. I was really surprised, for example, to find that the story you hear all the time -- that the Democrats were punished for having been right about Vietnam, basically, that they lost their credibility on national security -- really doesn't show up as an important determinant of voting. If you look at the values issues, those have a tendency to melt away once you take account of the race factor. It's just really very much about race.

Karlin: If you listen to someone like Rush Limbaugh or Grover Norquist talk, and most of the radical right-wingers, FDR's the devil incarnate. The New Deal was simply the downfall of America to them. On the other hand, after a stock market crash of catastrophic proportions led to a national depression, we see Roosevelt elected. In essence, you could argue that Roosevelt saved capitalism. And yet the right wing dismisses him as some sort of radical person who destroyed the country by implementing these programs that had saved America from perhaps going to some sort of radical economic experiment -- the Russian model, or perhaps another model. How could that happen, that a guy who basically saved capitalism is now that the scourge of the radical right movement?

Krugman: Well, what Roosevelt wrought was actually bad for you if you were in the top 1% or top 10% of income distribution. It is actually true that the rich got poorer as a result of the New Deal.

Karlin: Or less rich.

Krugman: That's right -- less rich, if you prefer that. At the time, many of them did not appreciate that Roosevelt was maybe hurting their fortunes but saving their heads. As the memory of the crisis fades into the past, people just start to say why should I be paying taxes to support social insurance that I'm never going to need? And, not everybody who's rich takes that attitude, but enough of them do to basically fund their movement.

It is amazing how not just the memory of what Roosevelt accomplished, but what followed, has been expunged. Again and again I've seen statements like, well, the U.S. economy has never been as successful as it was before the New Deal, and it was successful under Reagan, but it was terrible in between them. People completely miss the thirty-year era of incredible prosperity after World War II. The greatest equalization that ever took place in the United States was, in fact, followed by the greatest economic boom that ever took place in the United States. But it has really gone away.

Of course, some people like Norquist or Marvin Olasky, are saying I want things back to the way they were before Teddy Roosevelt. So Norquist doesn't just want to undo the New Deal, he wants to undo the progressive era, too. And someone like Marvin Olasky, who's actually the originator of "compassionate conservatism," is a guy who says we really need to go back to the nineteenth century, when there was no public assistance to the poor. The only way they could get it was through faith-based organizations, which made sure they were morally upright before they could get any aid. It's amazing, but people on the right just really wish that the twentieth century had never happened.

 
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