New York Magazine: What’s Left of the Left April 29, 2011Posted by jaldenh in News & Views.
Paul Krugman’s lonely crusade.
If you are looking not only for clues into Barack Obama’s character but for a definition of what his presidency will mean to the country, then the speech on fiscal policy that he delivered at George Washington University the Wednesday before last is the most significant one he has ever given. It is, in its own way, an astonishing document, alive with the themes that undergirded his Philadelphia speech on race and his Nobel Prize acceptance, on the tragic enmeshment of American limitations and American strength. Obama was responding mostly to the Republican budget plan, and he understood exactly what its author, Representative Paul Ryan, had in his sights: “This vision,” Obama said, “is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America.”
And yet, having defined the fight so starkly, Obama delivered a plea for compromise. He ended a stirring defense of the welfare state by explaining his plans to gut it. Then he said that even this proposed $2 trillion cut in government spending was only a starting point for negotiation: “I don’t expect the details in any final agreement to look exactly like the approach I laid out today,” he said. “This is a democracy; that’s not how things work.” There were notes of deference, and passivity: If Obama believed that his vision of society was at stake, why place it so squarely on the partisan bargaining table—or why not at least begin with a stronger gambit? This was, at any rate, the point of view of one particular strain of liberal reaction, whose position was summed up with poignant resignation by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. “I could live with this as an end result,” he wrote. “If this becomes the left pole, and the center is halfway between this and Ryan, then no.”
For the first two years of the Obama administration, Krugman has been building, in his columns and on hisblog, not just a critique of this presidency but something grander and more expansively detailed, something closer to an alternate architecture for what Obamaism might be. The project has remade Krugman’s public image, as if he had spent years becoming a chemically isolate form of himself—first a moderate, then an anti-Bush partisan, and now the leading exponent of a kind of liberal purism against which the compromises of the White House might be judged. Krugman’s counterfactual Obama would have provided far more stimulus money and would have nationalized Citigroup and Bank of America. He would have written off Republicans and worked only with Democrats to fashion a health-care reform bill that included a so-called public option. The president of Krugman’s dreams would have made his singular long-term goal the preservation of the welfare state and the middle-class society it was designed to create.
This purism is not a role Krugman is altogether comfortable with, but it is one he has sought: His blog is titled The Conscience of a Liberal. He uses it as a kind of workroom for his column, and it is now, according to Technorati, the most popular single-author blog online—a more statistically rigorous counterpart to Rachel Maddow’s show and the Huffington Post. The comment section has become a repository for a certain form of liberal anguish, and a community unto itself: “His campaign promised a better, more equitable America. Those who believed him feel betrayed,” wrote one commenter in regard to a recent column titled “The President Is Missing.”And another: “Come on, Professor Krugman, will you lead the people out?”
In December, Krugman and five other liberal economic thinkers (Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich, Jeffrey Sachs, Alan Blinder, and Larry Mishel) were invited to the Oval Office for a 90-minute off-the-record audience with the president. It was a month after the midterms, and many progressives were worried that even the modified liberalism of the administration’s first two years would dissolve in a new spirit of conciliation with the ascendant right. The economists present understood the meeting, one of them says, as the moment when Obama “talked to the left.”
The economists sat ringing Obama—two Nobelists, a former Labor secretary, and a former vice-chairman of the Fed. Not a Gentile among them, Krugman noticed, but “an amazingly high proportion of beards.” To begin the meeting, Obama asked each of his guests to identify the most pressing economic issue. Five of the economists emphasized the same problem. Unemployment, they said, was so high that the recovery might never get out of first gear. It was not the time for austerity; the president should focus on short-term job creation and turn to the deficit later. But the other economist, Sachs, the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia, held out. Concentrate on the long-term outlook, he told the president.
For Krugman, the path forward was perfectly clear: The only way to avert a deepening crisis was massive Keynesian stimulus. During the nineties in Japan, he had seen the nightmare alternative. Officials in Tokyo, faced with a very similar scenario, had done too little to stimulate the economy, again and again, and as their nation’s recovery stumbled, they found they were toggling an unplugged joystick. And yet now, after more than two years of economic calamity at home, the liberal solution again wasn’t getting through: Krugman couldn’t even build a consensus among six like-minded economists, let alone convince a Democratic president. “I have no idea what Jeff was talking about,” he says.
The previous day, the president had announced a deal with congressional Republicans, agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts in exchange for middle-class tax relief and an extension of unemployment benefits. Now, in the Oval Office, he told his guests that this effort had been his “last chance to move the dial” on jobs, as one economist present recalls, and that, with the exception of smaller initiatives (he mentioned infrastructure spending), the politics had now made further stimulus impossible. Soon, each of the economists was pushing “his own thing,” Krugman says. The official photograph the White House sent the participants could be read as a document of the moment of realization: Blinder sitting rigid and intent, Stiglitz’s face wry and unsurprised, as if he had expected the whole thing. Krugman alone seems to be surging out of his seat, his eyebrows arched, a roused alarm.
Even then, these economists recognized what a paltry, bowdlerized proxy for the left they were: six academics, and by any broad ideological standard a pretty moderate group, comfortable with markets and free trade. But liberals had long ago ceased to rally around class. “In the United States,” Blinder told me weeks later, a little bleakly, a little apologetically, “there is no left left.” Krugman, looking back, diagnoses two problems. First, the progressive economists had been too disorganized. And then they had been too late.
For a century, liberals have been chasing the same organizing idea: to perfect the welfare state—the soaringly aspirational, deeply flawed apparatus of Social Security, public health insurance, and progressive taxation designed to guarantee a secure middle class—and to extend its protections to every American. A year ago, after Obama’s health-care reforms became law, that project looked closer to completion. Now we are debating the terms of its erosion—with Republican proposals to cut the benefits of Medicare and Medicaid, conservative efforts to repeal protections for labor unions, and an emerging Washington consensus that the costs of a broad welfare state may be beyond what Americans will willingly pay. The White House meeting this past December, viewed in retrospect, seemed to mark the end of the expansive first part of Obama’s administration and the beginning of an austere second phase. Krugman, departing, found himself left in the position that every purist fears, holding blueprints for impossible buildings.
“I think what people like Paul Ryan are trying to do is set us on a glide path to a much harsher society,” Krugman now says. “A country in which, step by step, more and more people are cast out into a situation of not having health insurance and poverty, and so we slide back to a Victorian notion that life is full of evils and that’s too bad but that’s the way that God made the world. That large numbers of the poor, large numbers of the elderly just live in dire poverty and don’t have health care because life is tough.” For two years, Krugman has been arguing that this trajectory might have been averted if only Obama had been a little less deferential, a little more demanding, a little more alarmed. And so Krugman has given the debate on the left its shape: whether the president could have mounted a more effective defense of the welfare state, and whether liberalism’s tragic flaw is Obama’s instinct for conciliation or his leading critic’s naïveté.
Paul Krugman is a lonely man. That he is comfortable in his solitude, that he emphasizes its virtues, that his intelligence gives it a poetic gloss, none of this diminishes the poignancy of his isolation. Krugman grew up an only child and is deeply self-conscious. He will list his shortcomings as though he’d been preparing for the chance: “Loner. Ordinarily shy. Shy with individuals.” He is married but has no children nor—rare for a Nobelist—many protégés. When I asked him if there were any friends of his I could talk to in order to understand him better, he hesitated, then said, “That’s going to be hard.” One colleague at Princeton, where Krugman has taught since 2000, says the economist will avert his eyes when circumstance places the two of them alone in an elevator, his nose stuck in the corner, so as to avoid conversation. Krugman’s wife, Robin Wells, an academic economist herself, was recently reading the Ian McEwan novel Solar, whose protagonist is a Nobel Prize–winning physicist who has been married five times, and she found the scenario implausible. “You could never win the Nobel Prize with that kind of personal life,” she says. “It’s too distracting.”
Krugman is short and has a very round, very full belly; he is both generally agreeable and chronically rushed, and this gives him a myopic, distracted air. When he talks about himself, his ideas always arise only from his scholarship, as if once, long ago, he had erected a wall between his immersion in the world and his study of it. At Yale, he says, he formed no impression of the aspiring New York bankers and Washington lawyers who were his peers. Later, though he traveled frequently to Japan and met often with government ministers in the years when the country slipped into its lost decade, he says those meetings did nothing to shape his analysis. He has wondered often about why Larry Summers chose to support a smaller stimulus, but though he and Summers spoke every month or two when Summers was in the White House, Krugman never asked him. “He’s not oblivious to human nature; he will have conversations about this person or that and their motivations,” Wells says. “But he does keep it separate.”
Krugman had begun the work that would eventually win him the Nobel Prize—an aggressive revision of international trade theory—by the time he was in his mid-twenties, and so for nearly all of his adult life he has had good evidence for the proposition that he is smarter than just about everyone else around him, and capable of seeing things more clearly. Krugman is gleeful about being right, joyous in the revelation of his correctness, and many of his most visible early fights were with free-trade skeptics on the left. Of Robert Reich, for instance, Krugman wrote: “talented writer, too bad he never gets anything right.” He was a liberal and a Democrat, but even in 1999, when he was hired by Howell Raines to write his Times column, “I still saw equivalent craziness on both sides.”
This evenhandedness began to disappear almost immediately. Four months after his first column, Krugman began studying the economic proposals of the Bush campaign and found, somewhat to his astonishment, that they were deeply disingenuous. “That was a radicalizing experience. Not just that the presidential candidate of one of America’s major political parties could say something that was demonstrably false, but that nobody was willing to say so,” Krugman says. “That was pretty awesome.” The Iraq War seemed insane to him, and he said so, forcefully. In 2003, these were sometimes unpopular positions, and Krugman and Wells found themselves turning to the progressive blogs; at times it felt as if it were the economist, his wife, and the Internet against the world.
But Krugman’s writing voice—sarcastic, data-driven, flecked with just a little bit of maybe-there’s-a-bomb-in-the-wastebasket zeal—was perfect for the Internet. His self-certain empiricism matched liberal vanities as precisely as Rush Limbaugh’s stagy authenticity matches conservative ones, and he became a vehicle for the concentrating energies of the progressive generation of 2006. “What I think Krugman got intuitively is that liberals understand politics as a policy argument,” says Ezra Klein, now a Washington Post columnist and then an influential political blogger. “On the right, there’s something of a cultural underlay to the worldview: We are the real Americans, and they are not. Liberals want to say, We are correct on the evidence, and they are not.”
In the aftermath of the 2006 election, the assumption was that the new progressive converts of the Bush era had simply become Democrats. But as the liberal dissatisfaction with the present White House has grown, it has become possible to think that their alienation was not limited to the Bush administration. The language Krugman uses to describe the Establishment still has the pitched, outsider intensity of liberalism during the Bush years—mocking the Very Serious People who he believes form conventional wisdom in Washington.
What Krugman and others have been documenting is a disillusionment that extends beyond politics: the moral absenteeism of Wall Street, the acquiescence of the foreign-policy Establishment during Iraq, Enron, the steroid crisis in Major League Baseball. “If you’re a bewildered suburban teacher or software-company middle manager or law-firm partner and you’ve had this sense that the entire governing institutions of the country are flawed, it’s very unsettling,” says Christopher Hayes, who is the Washington editor of The Nation and is writing a book about the crisis of authority in American life.
Americans had lost faith in what Hayes began to think of as “elites”—bankers, pundits, the Washington Establishment. For liberals, Krugman stood for a separate authority, which could be considered “expertise”—the scientists and academics who could measure how society was shifting, how the climate was warming, the degree of violence regressive social policies had inflicted on the middle class. What Krugman represented, Hayes believes, was that the experts themselves had given up on the elites. “Krugman embodies what you might call expert militancy,” Hayes says. “It’s a kind of pugnaciousness and ability to say, ‘The whole thing is rigged, this person is a liar, this person is stupid.’ ”
Being a progressive during the Bush years imposed a certain kind of loneliness. Krugman helped relieve the loneliness. “You think, how could that be?” Hayes says. “And then Paul Krugman’s like, ‘No. It is rigged. You are right.’ ”
Each Thursday this semester, Krugman has been teaching a course on the economics of the welfare state to a dozen Princeton undergraduates and one octogenarian emeritus type, who is auditing. When he first started teaching, Krugman says, he was “absolutely scared out of my mind,” but now, more than 30 years on, the classroom is where he seems most at ease. There is something admirably unglamorous about the way Krugman has dealt with his fame: When I first tried to reach Joseph Stiglitz, he was in Mauritius, meeting with a head of state; when I first contacted Jeffrey Sachs, he was traveling through Senegal; and when I first called Krugman, he was schlepping home on New Jersey Transit.
The topics of Krugman’s weekly seminar are sometimes adjusted to follow current events and the demands of his column, and so one Thursday in early April, the class was considering Paul Ryan’s plan to balance the budget, which the House would later approve by an extremely partisan vote. Krugman had prepared slides, but after a sustained five-minute assault on the projection technology, he gave up. “Never mind,” he said, abandoning the projection screen. “I can just sketch it on the board myself.” And he began, as he often does these days, with a graph, the y-axis measuring portion of GDP, the x-axis showing change over time.
These simple little graphs are in some ways the source of Krugman’s academic reputation—he has the ability to distill knotty theories into perfectly contained models. This clarity is the house style of MIT, where Krugman went to graduate school. Some economists refer derisively to “MIT toy models,” arguing that they can elide as much as they reveal, but still it is Krugman’s elegance that is most impressive to those in the field: a mind so precise that it can reduce society to its mathematical essence and reveal its truths on a graph.
At the board, Krugman started sketching the American government’s expenditures, projected into the future and divided into three subgroups—Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and “everything else,” which means defense, education, foreign aid, and much more. In 2010, “everything else” required 12 percent of GDP. By 2030, under the Ryan plan, it would get only 5.25 percent, and by 2050, 3.5. Krugman had run the numbers, and he said that the last time that figure had even approached 3.5 percent was during the Coolidge administration, when the country looked radically different—when, for instance, it had effectively no standing military. The Ryan plan made other policy choices that were to Krugman socially corrosive: It would, for instance, effectively end Medicare as we know it. But it was the reduction of “everything else” to a third of its current share that seemed simply impossible. There was a long silence in the classroom. “This is a pretty amazing number,” Krugman said. “I try to present both sides, but this is pretty hard to understand.”
A few years ago, Krugman, having decided that he was going to be writing about politics and so he should know more about it, did a very Krugman thing. He didn’t talk to people who worked in Washington. Instead, he started to read the political-science literature. Krugman had never understood the press coverage of politics, which seemed to emphasize its most irrelevant aspects. Why dwell on a presidential candidate’s psychology when the trends in unemployment would tell you who would win an election? But viewed through the prism of political science, politics began to seem much more familiar to him. There was a mathematics to it—you could assemble data, draw correlations, understand what was essential and what was noise. The underlying shape of politics came sweeping into view: If you arranged members of Congress from left to right based on how they voted on welfare-state issues—Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance—it turned out that this left-to-right axis could predict every other vote: On Iraq expenditures, on abortion, whatever. “When you realize the fundamental divide in U.S. politics is just this one-dimensional thing, and that is how you feel about the welfare state,” Krugman says, “that changes things.”
You could see something else in the data, too. From 1979 to 2004, the income of the richest one percent of Americans grew by 176 percent, that of the richest one fifth of the country by 69 percent, and that of everyone else by less than 25 percent. Working through the numbers, Krugman came to believe that “only a fraction” of the change was compelled by global forces, which had been the standard explanation. The rest, he concluded, was political.
It was Krugman’s Princeton colleague Larry Bartels who made the critical connection, in research Krugman devoured and still cites. Perhaps the most important influence on income inequality, Bartels argued, was something economists had not emphasized: whether a Democrat or a Republican was in the White House. Since World War II, Bartels found, wealthy families in the 95th percentile in income had seen identical income growth under both parties. But for families in the 20th percentile, the difference was astonishing: Under Democratic presidents, their income grew at six times the rate it did under Republican ones. There was, for Krugman, a kind of radicalization implied in this.
What is so riveting about the present moment, Krugman told his class, is that “there are wild possibilities.” Perhaps there was a one percent chance, he mused, growing excited, that a Draft Hillary movement would emerge on the left, throwing out the president in favor of the secretary of State; there was probably an equal chance, he said, that the next president would be Michele Bachmann. Society seemed at a precipice: If health-care reform truly takes effect, then popular inertia might take over and “we become an ordinary advanced country, where it’s taken for granted that of course society is going to make sure everybody has basic health care.” But it was easy to see how inertia could also invert into “erosion that eventually swallows Medicare and Medicaid.” Class was ending, the students picking up their books, and Krugman lingered, seeming to want to say something broad about the current political moment. What he settled on was a quiet awe. “God knows,” he said. “It’s amazing.”
Krugman has always been alert to the possibility of the extreme; perhaps it is the science-fiction fan in him. But he was also deeply influenced by what he observed in the nineties, when he was studying crises in international economics—in Japan, mostly, but also in Argentina, whose minister of the economy at the time was a man named Domingo Cavallo. Krugman knew of him—Cavallo was a star graduate student at Harvard when Krugman was at MIT—and had followed his career as he rose through the Argentine government. Cavallo liberalized the economy and drew overseas capital to Buenos Aires—“lionized by the financial press, the maestro of the Argentine miracle,” as Krugman recalls. But when the Argentine economy slowed, international investors withdrew, unemployment grew to 25 percent, and by 2003 an estimated 30,000 people in Greater Buenos Aires were surviving by scrounging for cardboard to sell to recycling plants.
If you were looking at the American economy during the eighties and nineties, you could enjoy a certain measure of serenity. Economists celebrated the Great Moderation—recessions were muted, fluctuations less pronounced—and economic science seemed sophisticated enough to permit policy-makers to predict and avoid catastrophe. “If you were domestic, the image you had was Alan Greenspan heroically fighting off all problems,” Krugman says. But if your focus was international, you saw crisis everywhere: Mexico, Asia, Russia, Brazil, Japan. And then there was Argentina, where the state stepped back just when it was needed most. If Domingo Cavallo, one of the elect, could preside over this collapse, then perhaps there but for the grace of God went Alan Greenspan. What Krugman took from Argentina—and what he thinks even liberals in Washington missed—was “a certain level of understanding,” he says, “that important people have no idea what they’re doing.”
“This is absurd,” says Larry Summers. “Excuse me, I think I’m the guy who pushed President Clinton and the IMF to commit $40 billion to Mexico—the largest piece of assistance since the Marshall Plan. I think I’m a guy who was central in concerting all the banks with respect to the Korean crisis. You can argue the merits of the choices we advocated, but the idea that somehow I’m unaware of the fact that there are international crises? Ludicrous.” Some problems, Summers says, can’t be best understood only from afar. “Tim Geithner was the U.S. Treasury’s man in Japan during the crisis in the late eighties and early nineties while Paul was doing trade theory.
“Paul hasn’t liked any president or any Treasury secretary,” Summers continues. “He always gravitates to opposition and dramatic policy because it’s much more interesting than agreement when you’re involved in commenting on rather than making policy. He savaged the early Clinton administration from the right, blistering Laura Tyson and Bob Reich, and then moved to savage the more liberal Obama administration from the left. He liked the Bush administration least of all. The only politician I remember him praising in the last sixteen years is John Edwards.”
I ask Summers what he thinks is Krugman’s underlying complaint with the Obama administration. “Paul may be the smartest and most creative applied economic thinker of this era,” he says, “but there is some element of him that is like the guy in the bleachers who always demands the fake kick, the triple-reverse, the long bomb, or the big trade.”
The two economists have known each other since the late seventies, when they were both graduate students in Cambridge, and there were moments in conversation with Krugman that I began to suspect he viewed Summers as a one-man control group for his study of himself. They each share a high assessment of the other’s intellect (“Larry’s extremely smart—ask him and he’ll tell you,” Krugman says). Krugman’s sense of humor is built upon self-deprecation, and sometimes Summers’s sense of humor is built upon deprecating Krugman, too. In the early eighties, when the two worked together in the Reagan administration, Krugman realized that Summers had a talent for effectiveness—winning meetings, organizing subordinates, convincing economic novices of his point of view—that he himself could not hope to match. Summers became the insider and Krugman the outsider.
Krugman has been arguing with Summers about policy, he says, for most of their adult lives, and their arguments have often followed the same line: “Let’s put it this way,” Krugman says. “When things go crazy, my instinct is to go radical on policy, and Larry’s is to be a little more cautious.”
Summers concedes that a bigger stimulus would have been the optimal policy in 2009. “The Obama administration asked for less than all that it recognized pure macroeconomic analysis would have called for, and it only got 75 cents on the dollar. But political constraints and practical problems with moving spending quickly constrained us. The president’s political advisers felt, and history bears them out on this since the bill only passed by a whisker, that asking for even more would have put rapid passage at risk.” But Krugman also wanted a radical government takeover of the floundering banks, and even many liberal economists now believe this was a panicked response to a moment of crisis. The banks soon recovered without it. Here, “the Obama administration’s somewhat messier confrontation with reality averted the disaster that would have come with nationalization,” Summers says.
Krugman has been suspicious of Obama since the beginning of the campaign, and his early doubts have remained. “It’s not so much—it’s not a values difference. I think Obama was and is committed to the welfare state.” What has always troubled him, Krugman says, is Obama’s conviction “that we can find the center and work with these people.” This seems to Krugman a deeply naïve view of politics, though one that is pervasive in Washington. “There are really very, very few things, very few values issues on which both sides of our political divide agree,” he says. “You may in the end get an agreement that involves both parties but is not bi-partisan in any positive sense of the word.”
And so perhaps this is part of the political legacy of the Bush years: a subtle shift in what makes you a progressive, and how liberal lines are drawn. The debates among Democrats in the nineties mostly followed established ideological lines—some believed that Clinton’s centrism was whitewashing liberalism, others that he was modernizing it. But there is less ideological divergence among Democrats now. The deep liberal disappointment with the president has a different source: He believes in politics more than they do. If you believe, like Obama, that politics is what brings the social compact to life, then the only way to build an equitable society is to make sure everyone has an equal say. Or if you believe, like Krugman, that the data can show you the shape that the fairest society should take, then politics might not always make good on the social compact. Politics, instead, might make it impossible.
Krugman’s purism is partly tactical, his way of correcting for the inevitable dilutions of legislative negotiation. “You want to have a pretty clear vision of what it is you want even though you know what you’re going to get is only a small fraction of that,” he says. When he pushed for a stimulus so large that it seemed implausible it would pass Congress, “I was making a political calculation of my own, that a policy that only did half of what was necessary would lead to political disaster.” His online commenters are more absolute, and they have sometimes turned on him when he has acquiesced to political realities (when, for instance, he eventually endorsed Obama’s health-care reform after having attacked its compromises). But Krugman insists he is playing a more sophisticated game than his supporters and critics give him credit for. “Do we know that if they’d really gone bigger in their proposals, they would have gotten more and it would have worked out better? Of course we don’t,” he says. “But I don’t think it was just me being an outsider and not having a grasp of the realities. I think in some ways I had a better grasp than the insiders had.”
There are times, however, when the consequences of Krugman’s perspective, the darkness of his view of American politics, come into view. In the health-care-reform debate, he saw evidence of “racial hate-mongering.” When the crazed assassin Jared Loughner shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords in January, Krugman saw intimations of a broader disorder to come. “The harshness and the incipient violence are very real,” he told me. The liberal historian Michael Kazin, of Georgetown, told me he thought Krugman’s account of the right succumbed to the old Marxist flaw of false consciousness: “Unlike what Krugman says, conservatism is not some kind of smoke screen for another agenda.” In his 2007 book The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman was plainer still: “Yes, Virginia,” he wrote, “there is a vast right-wing conspiracy.”
The first time I interviewed Krugman, we were sitting in the lobby of the Hilton in midtown, talking about Giffords and Loughner. “I really do think it’s been true,” Krugman said, “that for the past ten years, making sure that you spend a lot of time hanging out with people who are in the mainstream has been really detrimental to seeing what is happening.”
I brought up the work of the legal scholar Cass Sunstein, now with the Obama administration, who has studied the radicalizing effects of ideological isolation—the idea, born from studies of three-judge panels, that if you are not in regular conversation with people who differ from you, you can become far more extreme. It is a very Obama idea, and I asked Krugman if he ever worried that he might succumb to that tendency. “It could happen,” he says. “But I work a lot from data; that’s enough of an anchor. I have a good sense when a claim has gone too far.”
This is the claim of a supreme self-confidence. To say “I am anchored in the data” is really to say “I understand exactly what the data mean.” But it is also the logical extension of a particular view of human nature, one equipped with such a clear view of the way society should be arranged that it can’t comprehend the greed, weakness, and compromise that forestall it. There is society, beautifully. And then there are people.
Back in 2006, when he was writing The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman found himself searching for a way to describe his own political Eden, his vision of America before the Fall. He knew the moment that he wanted to describe: the fifties and early sixties, when prosperity was not only broad but broadly shared. Wells, looking over a draft, thought his account was too numerical, too cold. She suggested that he describe his own childhood, in the middle-class suburb of Merrick, Long Island. And so Krugman began writing with an almost choking nostalgia, the sort of feeling that he usually despises: “The political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost, an exceptional moment in our nation’s history …”
Krugman remembers Merrick in these terms, as a place that provoked in him “amazingly little alienation.” “All the mothers waiting to pick up the fathers at the train station in the evening,” he says, remembering. “You were in an area where there were a lot of quiet streets, and it was possible to take bike rides all over Long Island. We used to ride up to Sagamore Hill, the old Teddy Roosevelt estate.” The Krugmans lived in a less lush part of Merrick, full of small ranch houses each containing the promise of social ascent. “I remember there was often a typical conversational thing about how well the plumbers—basically the unionized blue-collar occupations—were doing, as opposed to white-collar middle managers like my father.”
This Edenic Merrick has long since evaporated, giving way to something more socially distended and bizarre. (Amy Fisher, for instance, attended Krugman’s high school.) Would he prefer Merrick in the sixties to his current life? “Knowing that I am in fact me, this is a much better society for me to live in. And not because of the money but because it’s more open, more tolerant,” Krugman says. The food, he says, musing, is “a lot better.” You can get really good coffee just about anywhere.
But talking about Merrick prompts Krugman to think about how that moment might have been extended. “Suppose an alternative history in which big-box stores, Wal-Mart and others, were unionized,” he says. “You could easily imagine that you could have a large number of service-sector workers who were, if not like autoworkers, like manufacturing-sector union workers in the golden age of private-sector unions.” He thinks for another minute. It might not have been Utopia, he says, but it could have been France. But now these possibilities seem further away than ever. Part of the basic loneliness of economic study is that you are always looking back, at data sets that are already completed. And so you realize your vision of a perfect society just as it disappears from view.