Politics & Policy

An Examination of Conscience

Paul Krugman's latest work lacks serious analysis.

“Movement conservatism is in its last throes,” announced Paul Krugman from the dais at the Center for American Progress in downtown Washington. The line, impressive and heartening as it must have been to the progressive audience in attendance, received only an austere silence. The reaction is indicative of the left’s reverence for their prognosticator, rather than of a lack of enthusiasm for his words.

This bleak assessment of conservative prospects is largely the summation of Krugman’s latest book, The Conscience of a Liberal. In promoting the book, the Center for American Progress declared, “it will transform the debate about American social policy in much the same way as did John Kenneth Galbraith’s deeply influential book, The Affluent Society.”

While it would be nice to cast Krugman as the heir apparent to Galbraith, the title of Krugman’s new book revealingly suggests his more blatant political motivations. The Conscience of a Liberal is an obvious jab at Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, the 1960 book that in many ways marked the ascendancy of the American conservative movement.

Krugman’s declaration of himself as the Godfather of a new Liberal Progressive movement is perfectly in keeping with his persona. The New York Times columnist and Princeton professor is undisputedly an acclaimed academic economist. However, enthusiastic supporters tend to forget that academic awards do not earn a man political infallibility; while he can slice and dice health care statistics with ease, Krugman is, at his core, an emphatic ideologue.

Observers of Krugman’s supposed intellectual firepower who remain objective tend to regard him as just another partisan trying to make his case — and with wildly varying degrees of success

The Conscience of a Liberal was recently panned in a book review in Krugman’s own paper. Krugman responded by bitterly dredging up the fact that his previous book The Great Unraveling, was also panned by the Times, essentially accusing his employer of irrationally making this a “tradition.” (Never noting that The Great Unraveling had been reviewed by The New Republic’s Peter Beinart, a noted liberal.)

The critique of the more recent book centered on Krugman’s interpretation of political history The reviewer — David Kennedy (a Stanford professor of history that presumably knows something about, well, history) — objected to Krugman’s insistence that Democrats have been historically maligned on national-security matters:

As for national security — well, as Krugman sees things, it was not Democratic bungling in the Iranian hostage crisis or humiliation in Somalia or feeble responses to the first bombing attack on the World Trade Center or the assault on the U.S.S. Cole, but the runaway popularity of the Rambo films (I’m not making this up) that hoodwinked the public into believing that the party of Carter and Clinton (not to mention McGovern and Kucinich) might not be the most steadfast guardian of the Republic’s safety.

Along with two minor factual disputes with Kennedy, Krugman objected on his blog to Kennedy’s criticism of his flimsy claim that Rambo changed the national-security perception of Democrats. “I presented polling evidence about the timing and role of the perception that Democrats are weak on national security; he just waves it away.” Krugman’s polling evidence is a single citation of a poll commissioned in October of 1979 that shows Democrats and Republicans equally trusted on national security. A paragraph after Krugman cites this poll, he writes,

If there was a moment when these theories went mainstream, it was with the success of the 1982 film First Blood, the first Rambo film, in which Rambo declares [regarding Vietnam] ‘I did what I had to do to win. But somebody wouldn’t let us win.’

To be fair, in making this point Krugman bolsters his case by also citing Chuck Norris’s cinematic masterpiece Missing In Action and the overlooked Gene Hackman/Patrick Swayze vehicle Uncommon Valor.

What happened between October 1979 and the release of First Blood that might have undermined confidence in the Democrats on national security, making voters susceptible, as Krugman puts it, to the “Ramboification of history?” Conveniently, the Iranian hostage crisis — along with Democratic president Jimmy Carter’s inept handling of the situation — began on November 4, 1979, barely after the ink on Krugman’s poll was dry.

Kennedy mentioned the Iranian hostage crisis; Krugman, however, just waved it away. One hopes that the economic research that won him the John Bates Clark Medal is more airtight than his political history or film criticism.

However, listening to Krugman speak to at the Center for American Progress, it’s obvious the peer review process for Krugman’s political views is far more lax, practically encouraging such ideological blind spots; audience members can barely ask a question without gushing, “I’d like to thank you for your columns because over the last six and a half years going on seven years your columns have been a lifeline for me and many of my friends.”

Such fawning for “America’s most widely read economist,” means he can make almost embarrassing revelations that go largely unnoticed. When asked what the most surprising thing he discovered in writing The Conscience of a Liberal was, Krugman responded “First is the centrality of race [in shaping electoral forces]. I didn’t think about it.” One doesn’t have to buy into the modern liberal political narrative to realize that Krugman’s admission to a roomful of progressives is akin to telling a room full of physicists you’d never really considered the implications of gravity.

Perhaps more approvingly, Krugman used the occasion to gleefully trash the economic legacy of “St. Ronald Reagan” who got elected through “red-baiting” and “race-baiting.” Krugman doesn’t explain to his audience that he had no problems going to work enacting the economic policy of a such a racist when he worked for the Reagan White House’s Council of Economic Advisors. (In 2004, a hysterical Krugman wrongly accused the Bush CEA of corruption.)

After declaring, “Yes Virginia, there is a vast right-wing conspiracy,” he finally strained credulity with his audience. Liberal patrons have made a very deliberate attempt to mirror the policy and advocacy groups on the Right. In spite of this, Krugman scoffs that conservatives think “it’s all a big conspiracy funded by George Soros, because well that’s the way their movement works.” At this, a nearby audience member loudly whispered, “Soros funds this place.” Indeed, not only does Soros continue to fund the Center for American Progress — he provided the seed money for the organization.

Krugman’s appearance at the Center for American Progress suggests that he knows precious little about his own vast conspiracy, let alone that he is knowledgeable enough to pronounce the death of the dominant political force of the last thirty years. But despite his myopic political perspective, Krugman continues to focus on writings that at best ignore his primary expertise and at worst allow his prejudices to put the dismal in the dismal science. Books like The Conscience of a Liberal may have won Krugman an adoring audience, but they do so at the expense of any serious analysis.

– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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