Krugman Tells AlterNet: Progressives Worry Too Much About Being 'Respectable'

At an event hosted by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, the Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist held forth on mistakes progressives make when talking about the economy.

In the realm of media elites, Paul Krugman, New York Times columnist and winner of the Nobel Prize for economics, occupies a rare position: that of progressive hero -- the guy who speaks truth to power. I met up with Krugman at an event at the national headquarters of the AFL-CIO, hosted by Richard Trumka, the federation’s president.

It was just a day after Krugman’s debate with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough on the Charlie Rose show had media, social and otherwise, abuzz, especially after Krugman blogged that he wasn’t quite as sharp as he’d like to have been, unprepared, he said, for “the blizzard of misleading factoids and diversionary stuff” uttered by the cock-sure, blown-dry, blustery congressman-turned-TV-host.

While the right has legions of mouthpieces reading from the same economic playbook, Krugman has emerged as the go-to guy for mainstream shows when they seek a progressive voice. So I asked him to assess, as a communicator, what progressives need to do to even up the score. Here’s his reply:

I will say, [conservatives] have a remarkable shortage of guys who are actually competent on the economics...

First thing: You do need a network and, obviously, progressives are never going to have the kind of lavishly funded, Koch-fueled media operation that the right has, and we’re never going to have the same kind of message discipline. That said, it’s actually gotten a lot better [on the progressive side]. I look at the extent to which the pushback against nonsense stuff takes place, and the way a coherent message comes out on behalf of good stuff; it’s much better now. I’ve been in my second career now since 2000, and it was hopeless 10 years ago; it’s now much more evenly balanced.

One thing that’s really true, though, is that progressives, they still spend a lot of time trying to appease, trying to sound moderate and reasonable. I’ll give you a case that’s actually interesting: Larry Summers -- Larry Summers -- is actually on the substance, at this point, indistinguishable from me on macro-policy. And he may be a bit to the left, because he’s even more certain than I am -- I believe it’s true, but he’s definite that some extra spending now will actually help us more in fiscal terms. So Larry’s come out.

So he published a piece in the Financial Times that was meant to be a big statement about this. But before he got to that, he spend three paragraphs about the importance of dealing with the deficit in the medium term -- which was all, I think, to establish that ‘I am a respectable person; I am not like that rabble-rouser, Krugman.’ And then I watched the reactions, and nobody inside the Beltway -- you’re inside the Beltway, so you know who I mean -- none of the usual suspects got past those first three paragraphs. Larry was just clearing his throat, and that wound up drowning out the message. And that’s very typical.

Look at the president...Since the fall of 2011, the administration’s been on the side of the angels here. The American Jobs Act didn’t go anywhere, but it was definitely bolder than we expected; it was the right kind of thing. What they pushed for, relative to what I’d like to be hearing from them, it’s nothing, but relative to what the other side is saying, it’s very much on the right side -- but they are stuck in the language of deficits. It would be great if the president could just say: ‘This is not the time for spending cuts,’ instead of saying: ‘I want to replace the sequester with a smarter package.’ This is a ‘progressive lite.’

I understand where this comes from: It comes from many years of electoral defeats and always feeling that, going all the way back to Ronald Reagan, always finding that you needed to appeal to conservative voters -- and the quest for respectability. At the higher levels, you find yourself in rooms full of bankers -- a lot...It’s very hard to stand up to them, and not just because they have power but because they’re, by and large, actually pretty smart. They have fantastic tailors. And to get over that and say, ‘Look, you’re just wrong,’ and, ‘My side is right’ -- that’s something that progressives still have a hard time learning to do.

So my advice has , obviously been -- part of it is that we need infrastructure, and there’s not enough people -- but also, yeah, you need to take a look at the way people express things. I you think it’s really stupid to be cutting spending now, you should start your article by saying, ‘It’s really stupid to be cutting spending now’ instead of saying, ‘the deficit is a significant problem over the medium term, and then, four paragraphs in, say, ‘I do not think it is a good idea to be cutting spending now.’

Lesson concluded.

Adele M. Stan is a weekly columnist for The American Prospect. Follow her on Twitter @addiestan.

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