Emotional Onanism

If I have learned anything over the past few years in my part-time employment as The New Criterion’s theater critic, it is that unless it is articulated with great skill and artistry, there is nothing so boring as a display of human emotion. Ideas, even mistaken ones, have a great potential to be interesting; sentiment less so. But of course you could learn as much reading the op-ed page of the New York Times or the comments section of any website publishing disputatious content.

I was put in mind of that fact reading two books recommended by left-leaning friends: The first was Paul Krugman’s End This Depression Now! (I am generally skeptical of policy books with exclamation points in their titles, and Professor Krugman’s book has fortified my skepticism.) The second was the late Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land. To the existing criticism of Professor Krugman’s policy preferences I have little to add except to reiterate my belief that while I can see the overall logic of Keynesian stimulus-spending arguments, I do not share the Keynesians’ belief that it does not matter what we spend that money on. To Professor Judt’s policy prescriptions I have nothing at all to add, inasmuch as his platform is almost entirely content-free, consisting in the main of an incontinent fondness for railroad stations. (I am not exaggerating — please do read the book if you doubt me.)

What struck me most about the two books, and about Professor Krugman’s recent journalism, is the constant exhortation to anger. End This Depression Now! begins and ends with such exhortation, and, writing in the New York Times, Professor Krugman is forever going on about the necessity of being “angry at the right people.” Among those people he believes it is right to be angry at are academic economists who do not share his views, and who therefore must be, in his analysis, acting out of bad faith in order to pursue ends that are “cruel and wasteful.” Professor Judt likewise fills his little book with demands that we be enraged at the alleged malefactors he identifies, and similar demands that we regard post offices and train stations with sucrotic sentimentality.

The problem with being enraged is that it prevents thinking, and causes one to write dumb things, e.g.:

For the alleged productivity surge never actually happened. In fact, overall business productivity in America grew faster in the postwar generation, an era in which banks were tightly regulated and private equity barely existed, than it has since our political system decided that greed was good.

What about international competition? We now think of America as a nation doomed to perpetual trade deficits, but it was not always thus. From the 1950s through the 1970s, we generally had more or less balanced trade, exporting about as much as we imported. The big trade deficits only started in the Reagan years, that is, during the era of runaway finance.

And what about that trickle-down? It never took place. There have been significant productivity gains these past three decades, although not on the scale that Wall Street’s self-serving legend would have you believe. 

So there is the obvious: Professor Krugman writes that the productivity surge “never actually happened,” and then a few sentences later concedes that there were “significant productivity gains,” but they didn’t work out the way he’d have liked. But the main problem with the paragraphs above is that they entirely ignore the uniqueness of the post-war economic situation. In short, it is easy to be a trade-balancing industrial powerhouse when a cataclysmic war has cleared the economic playing field of competitors. The economic conditions that prevailed from the late 1940s to the middle 1970s were not the result of ingenious industrial policy at home but the result of the destruction of the rest of the world’s economic infrastructure. Dead men make no widgets, and the factories and shipyards of Nagasaki weren’t doing a hell of a lot of business after getting nuked. Real incomes for American men 25 and over began to decline in 1973, not after the ascent of high finance in the 1980s. One minute’s thinking would reveal that the story is much more complicated than Professor Krugman suggests, but thinking is not on his agenda, at least so far as his New York Times work is concerned. And he is not alone in that: Have a look at William Cohan’s “Don’t let go of the anger” for further evidence.

Josef Joffe, writing in the New York Times, noted that Professor Judt’s book is “a cri de coeur – an outburst of rage and sorrow in equal parts,” but then added the critical qualifier that “unless the reader belongs to the choir to which Tony Judt preaches — call it the Europhile liberal left, who would rather sell their Prius than forgo their New York Review of Books — he or she may ask: Where have we heard this before? A pugnacious reader might stab a felt pen at every other paragraph and scribble: ‘Caricature!’ or ‘What about . . . ?’” Which is correct. But Professor Judt’s book is not an invitation to think; it is an invitation to feel. Like Rachel Maddow, Professor Judt has very warm feelings about large-scale public-works projects such as the Hoover Dam, which, while indeed majestic, was obsolete before it ever came on line and generates about one-third the electricity of a typical nuclear power plant. Our aesthetic appreciation of such enterprises should not stop us from asking the relevant questions: Does it work? It is the best use of our scarce resources? I admire New Deal–era post offices and Paul Cret’s fascist architectural vibe as much as the next guy, but we should probably fire a great number of the people who work in those buildings, because they do not produce much of value.

I have written about the surfeit of emotion on the right from time to time, and it is, needless to say, no more useful or interesting than the perpetual emotional adolescence on the left. We have extraordinarily difficult problems in front of us. And we are not alone: I have just returned from Spain, where the unemployment rate among the young is 50 percent and where public finances are probably unsalvageable. (My report will appear in the next issue of National Review.) We need clear thinking and cold-eyed analysis, not wishful thinking or blinkered emotionalism. Getting righteously angry is an exercise in self-gratification, a fruitless indulgence.


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