Election 2016

Paul Krugman Is Wrong: Why His Case Against Bernie Sanders Misses the Point

The New York Times columnist's defenses of wonkery are well-intentioned. But politics and policy are not the same.

Photo Credit: Prolineserver / Wikimedia Commons

For the first time since his strident defenses of globalization ruffled some fair trade feathers in the 1990s, Paul Krugman is in a protracted debate with the American left.

On the surface, they’re fighting about whether it matters that many centrist and center-left economists are uncomfortable with some of the promises Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has made about how his policies will improve the economy. On a deeper level, however, they’re fighting about what it means to be a Democrat, and whether the party should behave more like a left-wing version of the GOP.

This is an important conversation, and the fact that it’s even happening should make lefties smile. They’re already on Nicholas Klein’s third step! For my part, I think both the “wonks” and their leftist critics are making vital points (annoying of me, I know). But they’re talking past one another, too. Leftists believe what’s important right now is politics, not policy. Krugman believes there should be no distinction.

With all due respect to the New York Times columnist, who has been an invaluable ally for the liberal movement for much of the past 16 years, there is a distinction. Good policy does not always make for good politics. There are positive lessons to be learned from the conservative movement’s example. And, right now, it’s politics — not policy — that matters the most.

Before I make make my case, though, here’s a recap of the debate thus far.

The catalyzing event happened in late January, when University of Massachusetts at Amherst economist Gerald Friedman — who says he has “almost no relationship” with Sanders, and who supports Clinton — released an eyebrow-raising analysis of Sanders’ economic platform. Under Bernienomics, Friedman found, the economy would boom in a way it hasn’t since the immediate postwar era. And unlike the current recovery, its fruits would be relatively equitably distributed. More growth, more equality; a win-win.

If that was all that happened, I doubt Friedman’s paper would’ve inspired so much controversy. But what moved the document from the world of economics into the world of politics was the way the Sanders campaign responded to its release. The campaign’s policy director, Warren Gunnels, said it was “outstanding work.” Just like that, it became fair game to hang Friedman’s work around Sanders’ neck — which three former economic advisers to Democratic presidents proceeded to do via an open letter.

It was this analysis, and the campaign’s refusal to back down from endorsing it, that got Krugman so exercised. “It’s a rough time for progressives who don’t believe in magic,” he lamented in a blog post that described Sanders’ policies as “unicorns” (i.e., make-believe). He granted that all candidate platforms “are better seen as aspirational than as programs at all likely to happen.” Still, if we’re gonna aspire, he says, we should do so within reason. This is where his argument is at its least persuasive.

Even though it’s just as likely to be DOA in a GOP-controlled House as Sanders’ plan, Hillary Clinton’s platform, Krugman says, is better. He offers two reasons. First, because Clinton’s plan could “be a useful guide relatively soon, while a program that requires a political revolution won’t.” Second, because the media, if Sanders were the Dems’ candidate, would “portray … as symmetric” his unrealism with that of his Republican opponent. (Which Krugman thinks would be unfair, despite his Sanders skepticism.)

In another post a few days later, Krugman tried to explain why he sees Democrats’ reputation for wonkery as both good in itself and as a political asset. “[T]he reason the joke about facts having a liberal bias rings so true,” he writes, “is that this really has become a defining difference between the two sides of our political chasm.” Whereas the right is beholden to anti-tax extremism, in the progressive movement, Krugman says, “real policy research and political positions have marched hand in hand.”

Elias Isquith is a daily columnist at Salon who focuses on politics and inequality. He tweets at @eliasisquith.

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