Media Blog

Paul Krugman’s Endless Clinton Apologia

The redeeming quality of Paul Krugman’s column, if there is one, is that he is by most accounts an economist’s economist, with interesting things to say about his area of expertise. Agree with him or not, Krugman is worth reading on subjects like trade because he knows more about the subject than do most people walking the face of the earth.

He’s sort of the Noam Chomsky of economics. Krugman isn’t as significant a figure in economics as Chomsky is in linguistics, but the two have in common that their transitions from scholarship to politics remind us that expertise is not transferable.
Krugman’s column today is a maddening hit-and-miss grab-bag. He’s pretty solid in his analysis of why Obama failed in Pennsylvania:

The attacks from the Clinton campaign have been badminton compared with the hardball Republicans will play this fall. If the relatively mild rough and tumble of the Democratic fight has been enough to knock Mr. Obama off his pedestal, what hope did he ever have of staying on it through the general election?
Let me offer an alternative suggestion: maybe his transformational campaign isn’t winning over working-class voters because transformation isn’t what they’re looking for.

Krugman, who did more than his share in helping Bill Clinton get elected president, is in a fine position to appreciate that Clinton’s nickel-and-dime approach to politics — a little something for you, a little something for you, and a little something for you – is marvelously effective, if comprehensively cynical. Give him that much. But then he writes:

Democrats can justly portray themselves as the party of economic security, the party that created Social Security and Medicare and defended those programs against Republican attacks — and the party that can bring assured health coverage to all Americans.
They can also portray themselves as the party of prosperity: the contrast between the Clinton economy and the Bush economy is the best free advertisement that Democrats have had since Herbert Hoover.

This is the raw ore from which refined buffoonery is smelted. Does anybody really believe that the big teetering entitlement programs — which account for about half of federal spending — are the model of “economic security”? More young Americans believe in UFOs than believe that they will ever cash a Social Security check; this is unlikely to inspire them to regard those federal entitlements as a source of economic security. We will endure even more insecurity when those programs go deeply into the red as the Baby Boomers continue their lifelong quest to bankrupt the country.
As for the Clinton economy vs. the Bush economy: Setting aside the voodoo-like belief that occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue exercise some sort of priest-king authority over the nation’s prosperity (this is one of the great American superstitions), things like unemployment and income growth under Bush compare well to the same indicators under Clinton. With the benefit of hindsight — appreciating, like mature adults must, that the tech boom contained within itself the seeds of the tech bust — the Clinton years look quite a bit less rosy. If we’re to assume that there is a close relationship between presidents and prosperity, we should at least assess the economic eras honestly. Democrats and their media enablers like to treat the bubble and the subsequent bust as though they are separate phenomena, assigning credit for the boom to Clinton and blame for the bust on Bush. This is silly, and one suspects that Krugman knows better.
But it pays to keep in mind Krugman’s formidable history as an economic propagandist. The August 1992 edition of National Review, a blockbuster dedicated to “The Real Reagan Record,” remains illuminating all these years later. In that issue, Alan Reynolds reported:

The Economic policies presided over by Ronald Reagan were stunningly successful — except to informed opinion, as represented by the academy and the major media. The principal charge against Reagan has become almost a chant: The rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and the middle class was squeezed out of existence.
A key player in the campaign to popularize this view has been Sylvia Nasar of the New York Times, who relied on statistics concocted by Paul Krugman of MIT, who, in turn, garbled some already disreputable estimates from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

The purpose of the crusade was obvious. Mr. Krugman has been advocating that we somehow double tax collections from those earning over $200,000, so as to greatly increase federal spending. Miss Nasar openly boasted about “supplying fresh ammunition for those . . . searching for new ways to raise government revenue.”

(You can real the entire “Real Reagan Record” symposium here. It’s worth the time.) Krugman’s questionable statistics helped get Clinton elected, and his subsequent association with the Clintons helped propel him to the Olympian heights of the New York Times, if not to the Council of Economic Advisers chairmanship he was said to covet. Happily for the Clintons, Krugman no longer has to go through the medium of Sylvia Nasar to plead their case in the New York Times. At least Pinch keeps him on the op-ed page.