Review Of The
Conscience Of A Liberal, by Paul Krugman
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/27/08
In reading Paul Krugman’s 2007 book, The Conscience Of A Liberal, I wanted to be able to speak of his writing style, as much as of his opinions, politically and economically. This is because I simply get tired of books being criticized simply for their arguments and not how they are presented. In the last year or so, as example, I got two books that exemplified this approach. The first was psychologist Steven Pinker’s The Stuff Of Thought. It’s a book suffused in science, but as I detailed in this review, it also showed off Pinker’s chops as a great prose stylist, regardless of what one thought of his theories. On the other hand, I also reviewed Michael Shermer’s The Mind Of The Market, a well written book (although Shermer is not the wordsmith Pinker is) but one’s whose Libertarian beliefs so clouded his judgment as to make the book almost laughable in its assertions.
As a side note, as fair as I was in detailing Shermer’s book’s writing strengths, my systematic debunking of his poorly thought out ideas caused Shermer to huffily renege on an agreement he had to be interviewed by me. Such are the woes of dealing with books that are written by non-experts, well outside their fields of expertise (Shermer is a debunker of things supernatural by trade, not an economist), and do not feature creative writings, but contest a battle of wills and ideas to maintain their bona fides as ‘good books.’ And, on a related minor note to the writing style in The Conscience Of A Liberal, while there is not much to discuss stylistically about the writing, there was some very poor editing. As example, there are some poorly punctuated sentences in the book, where clauses are not delineated by commas nor semi-colons to set off appositives, introductory elements, or even simple clarification. I lost count after a few dozen examples of this. However, the blame lies not with Krugman, but his editor. While this is not something unusual to today’s book publishing industry, it does highlight the serious decline in simple quality standards over the last few decades.
The Conscience Of A Liberal falls somewhere between Shermer’s and Pinker’s books. On the one hand, Krugman’s straightforward, non-flowery prose shows he’s no match for Pinker as a pure writer. That stated, he’s about on par with Shermer’s prose. On the field of ideas, Krugman does not display the brilliance of a Pinker- mainly because his book is soberingly middle of the road in its tack (yes, he’s a liberal, but William Jennings Bryan he’s not), but he’s light years ahead of Shermer as an economist and social critic. His style is designed to appeal to a wide audience, and this likely accounts for the thankful absence of graphs and pie charts. The book has only a few of those attention killers. That stated, despite his background as an economist, Krugman (whose day job is as a columnist for The New York Times) spends very little ink on detailed economic theory. This, doubtlessly, is the columnist in him; for Krugman writes his book so the middlebrow reader can understand the basics of what his book is about. Yet, although the book deals with the basics of economics in America over the last 120 years or more, Krugman takes such a large overview that instead of bogging down in niggling details, which too many books on assorted social theorizing- from economics to culturata- do, his large sweep invigorates a reader to see whole trends, not mere moments, as being important. Another positive in the book is that it sticks to the economic impact of assorted decisions, and does not stray too far afield into culture wars, even if it occasionally tackles subjects such as racism, and its role in the economics of the last few decades.
In short, Krugman discourses on how the aftermath of the Stock Market Crash of 1929- which ended what he calls the Long Gilded Age, of the 1870s thru 1920s, impacted Americans via the Great Depression, which saw the rise of Liberalism, through what he calls the Great Compression, after the Second World War, when higher tax rates and governmental policies squeezed incomes from top and bottom, creating a more egalitarian and stronger economy- and one that has yet to be equaled. Krugman posits that the post-war economic boom, and the rise of the suburban middle class (using the example of Levittown), was not a result of the free market, which he rightly acknowledges ended, for all intents and purposes, with the Great Depression, but with direct government intervention. He then charts the rise of Movement Conservatism’s early and naked biases, how it learnt its lessons, and emerged to wage a stealth politics of class division (which they often accuse their counterparts on the Left of doing) to seize power, and begin a decades long assault on social gains instituted by the New Deal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Krugman also details how they overplayed their hand, and why he feels the 2006 election was a turning point back to more Liberal control of national politics, or, at the very least, a return to 1950s and 1960s moderation of the two major political parties, when, Krugman quotes President Eisenhower, on the radical Right Wing, who wanted to dismantle the New Deal, abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm subsidies, as their ‘number is negligible and they are stupid.’ The President was wrong on their size, and he shows how and why they let the accordion expand again, economically, undoing the Great Compression, and bringing on the income stagnation of recent decades. Krugman cleverly shows that in no other period of American history was there even an argument over whether a younger generation would do better than an older one. The very fact that there is debate is proof of the poor policies of Right Wing agenda-driven governance.
While he does not come right out and state it, Krugman fairly convincingly shows that Adam Smith’s mythic Invisible Hand is just that- mythic and invisible, but invisible because it’s nonexistent. In this, he is clearly a Keynesian. But, even the current Bush Administration embraces its own interventionism in matters economic. The question of Keynesian triumph is settled- only the details of when, why, and where to apply it is left to battle over by Left and Right. With that as a given, Krugman then details that Liberals, when they get power, can best keep it by finishing what the New Deal started, for Krugman also blames the failed promise of the New Deal as its ultimate undoing. The cornerstone to this plan is to make national heath insurance the centerpiece of the Newer Deal.
Krugman’s only misstep, philosophically, is when he tries to argue that Ralph Nader was wrong, in 2000, when he said there was little difference between the two parties. Krugman denies this, stating, ‘There hasn’t been any corresponding radicalization of the Democratic Party, so the right-wing takeover of the G.O.P. is the underlying cause of today’s bitter partisanship,’ and uses his whole thesis over decades as proof. Unfortunately, this is one of the occasions where a long view is the wrong view, because Nader was talking specifically about recent events, and the two major candidates, as well as a broad slate, not just a narrow domestic agenda. In fact, the whole capitulation of the Democratic Party to fall in lockstep behind President Bush on the march to war with Iraq, as well as that of the oft-demonized Liberal Media (including, most infamously, Krugman’s newspaper employer), showed just how right Nader was- at least pre-Barack Obama, as well as convincingly showing the claim of a Liberal Media to be bogus. The modern Democratic Party is not the ‘party of ideas’ that Krugman claims, but the party of the idealess and spineless. And while Krugman is correct about the lack of radicalization of the Democratic Party, he overlooks their lobotomization. Well, not quite. While he never details it and names it as such, he does give a number of examples of it, including quoting FDR’s famed speech, in 1936, just before the election, where he rails against the malefactors of wealth who hate him, and that he welcomes their hatred. Krugman, in effect, notes the tree, but not the forest, when he acknowledges that no Democratic politician today would ever state such so boldly, for they would not want to be even accused of the class warfare the Right Wing relishes in undertaking. Say what you will about Newt Gingrich, but he was filled with ideas. Most were bad and fundamentally deleterious to the American Dream, but he and his kind churned them out. In short, the reason Democrats lose elections is because they lost their soul. The Republicans may well be evil (rhetorically speaking), but the Democrats have been nihil- an utter black hole. Voters, faced with a choice, will always choose something over nothing- even a bad something.
Thus, while I agree with most of the book’s premises, and acknowledge the historical verity of the facts and claims, it does take two to watusi, and the fact that Krugman places almost no blame on the Democrats for caving in on questions of economics, race baiting, voter fraud and suppression, nor a litany of other areas where they willingly ceded ground to Republicans, the book is sort of a social and economic incompleteness theorem. Whether or not this is so do to willful forest watching or the very timidity of the Democratic Party recapitulated within Krugman (whose columns, it should be noted, have much more bite), is debatable. But, simply because the problem may not be totally dealt with does not mean the conclusions drawn are wrong. They are mostly correct, and conveyed with an ease that non-economists will be drawn to. The Conscience Of A Liberal is not a book that will be read in fifty years, as a seminal work, but it is a very good explication of the last fifty years, and then some. It does deserve a good reading, especially before this year’s Presidential election. Here’s hoping, though, that his next book does not see Krugman tackling UFOlogy.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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