Good Gig

07.19.13

Paul Krugman’s Nasty and Inane Attack on ‘Libertarian Populism’

The Times columnist no longer bothers to engage with his opponents, writes Nick Gillespie, but simply calls names and makes sweeping declarations.

It’s got to be a pretty good gig to be Paul Krugman. He’s rich enough to bitch to The New Yorker about not being able to afford a home in St. John so, sigh, St. Croix has to do. He’s got tenure at the second-best college in New Jersey, an equally secure gig at the second-best newspaper in New York, and he’s even copped a Nobel Prize (economics, but still). He’s asked for his opinion on pop bands in a way that I’m pretty sure Milton Friedman or John Kenneth Galbraith never experienced (thank god for small favors). “The New Pornographers are probably technically better than Arcade Fire,” he’s solemnly sworn to Playboy. “But what the hell? It’s all good.”

The man also known as Krugtron the Invincible is able to utter such fallacious conventional deep thoughts as “the Great Depression ended largely thanks to a guy named Adolf Hitler” and that the 9/11 attacks were just the ticket to goose the soft early-’00s economy in lower Manhattan (“All of a sudden, we need some new office buildings,” he actually wrote in the Times on September 14, 2001) and still be taken seriously. He’s repeatedly called for a a bogus alien invasion that occasions even more super-stimulative spending than we’ve seen already in this awful 21st century—an idea presumably lifted, unacknowledged, from the Watchmen comic books.

Best of all, Krugman has attained that rare level of eminence where he doesn’t even have to engage the very opponents he dismisses as beneath contempt. Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, he just needs to wave his hand, mumble vague abjurations, and rest assured his devoted minions will finish his work for him.

Krugman’s latest target is “libertarian populism,” which he summarizes thus: “The idea here is that there exists a pool of disaffected working-class white voters who failed to turn out last year but can be mobilized again with the right kind of conservative economic program—and that this remobilization can restore the Republican Party’s electoral fortunes.”

This ain’t gonna happen, chuffs Krugman, because ... because ... because ... Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)! Despite the fact that the former Republican vice-presidential nominee and marathon-time amnesiac is nobody’s idea of a libertarian or a populist, Krugman insists that libertarian populism is doomed precisely because  to “the extent that there was any substance to the Ryan [budget] plan, it mainly involved savage cuts in aid to the poor. And while many nonwhite Americans depend on these safety-net programs, so do many less-well-off whites—the very voters libertarian populism is supposed to reach.”

Had Colonel Krugman ventured outside his ideological compound, he might have happened upon the writings of Tim Carney of The Washington Examiner. To the extent that libertarian populism has a policy agenda, it’s mostly thanks to Carney, who likes to write books attacking right- and left-wing crony capitalists. He’s libertarian in that he consistently believes that freer markets function more fairly and more efficiently, and he generally thinks people should be left alone when it comes to economic and personal freedom (he’s not an absolutist on most things). He’s populist in that he is basically obsessed with what he sees as concentrations of power and wealth among elites who rig markets, status, and more against the little guy.

Unsurprisingly, Carney’s libertarian-populist policy agenda has precious little to do with starving poor people to death or stoking white working-class resentment against dusky hordes (Carney is pro-immigration). Unless by dusky hordes, you mean Wall Street banksters and well-tanned pols such as Speaker John Boehner.

For better or for worse, it’s filled with prescriptions such as “cut or eliminate the payroll tax” (that’s the one that hurts low-wage earners the most); “break up the big banks and/or place stricter safety and soundness rules on them” (hmm, how does that help the Rothschilds again?); and “end corporate welfare” (Carney specifically name-checks the awful Export-Import Bank and subsidies to Big Sugar, which both receive bipartisan congressional support).

You can take or leave some or all of Carney’s libertarian populism—what sort of crazy, pie-eyed dreamer not only thinks that “second homes shouldn’t get a mortgage deduction” but that the deduction for first homes “should be capped at $500,000” and then reduced more in the future?!?!—but to confuse it with Paul Ryan’s Path to Prosperity is a sign that Krugman needs to get out more often. Intellectual shut-ins are a dime a dozen these days, and they all stink just as bad as the next one.

Krugman has attained that rare level of eminence where he doesn’t even have to engage the very opponents he dismisses as beneath contempt.

Earlier this year, in fact, Krugman managed to offend some of his staunchest ideological confreres. In a blog post meditating on why he is always right (a curse, really, I’m sure), Krugman briefly considered the remote possibility that he was stacking the deck by either unfairly cherry-picking data or opponents to his own advantage. Naw, the super-scientist concluded, before offering up this irrefutable hypothesis: “Maybe I actually am right, and maybe the other side actually does contain a remarkable number of knaves and fools.”

Such pompous jackassery moved one of Krugman’s biggest fans, Bloomberg’s Clive Crook, to declare, “A line has been crossed when the principal spokesmen for contending opinions have no curiosity whatsoever about their opponents’ ideas and radiate cold, steady contempt for each other ... This is America’s biggest political problem—and Krugman’s not part of the solution.”

I think Crook is a being a bit melodramatic (especially for a Britisher), but he’s on to something that Krugman exemplifies perfectly when it comes libertarian populism, the possible benefits of a fake alien invasion, and, to be honest, the relative merits of Arcade Fire. In opting out of engaged conversation in favor of an extended monologue in the theater of his mind, Krugman and all other similarly self-blinkered public intellectuals of whatever bent or camp or ideology do us all a real insult.