By Special To The Washington Post · Stephanie Mehta · BOOKWORLD
A U.S. president with slipping approval ratings moves to shore up his conservative bona fides by pledging to reform a crucial government safety net program. He and his surrogates breathlessly insist that the current system is in crisis. Broadcast news outlets provide little in the way of context and economic analysis of the claims.
Sounds a lot like President Trump's attacks on the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, but as Paul Krugman reminds us in his new book, "Arguing With Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future," conservatives' use of misleading or inaccurate information to justify cuts to assistance and entitlement programs dates back years, most notably to George W. Bush's failed 2004 effort to privatize Social Security.
Loyal readers of Krugman's twice-weekly column in the New York Times will not be surprised by the central themes of the book, which includes and expands on his Times writings. He forcefully and repeatedly contends that Republican lawmakers are carrying water for corporations and the wealthiest Americans by rolling back regulations and cutting taxes for the rich on the basis of the fake or "zombie" theory that what's good for the 1 percent is good for everybody. (In Krugman's vivid language, zombie ideas are those "that should have been killed by contrary evidence, but instead keep shambling along, eating people's brains.")
Still, the book is a revelation. It showcases the range of Krugman's intellect - he can toggle authoritatively from climate change and the Green New Deal to the Maastricht Treaty and currency crises - and his gift for clear, accessible writing. He neatly mixes pop cultural references and economic data; one column calling for 1950s-era tax policies (back then the marginal tax rate on top incomes was more than 90 percent) is whimsically titled "The Twinkie Manifesto."
But Krugman's real superpower may be his longevity. He began contributing to the Times in 2000, and he has chronicled numerous economic policies and proposals that have been promoted or propped up by zombie claims. He opens his book with a chapter on the push to privatize Social Security - by turning it over to financial services companies - with a series of columns showing that, contrary to Bush administration reports, the program is highly functional. He proceeds to dismantle other corporate and conservative talking points in vogue over the years: The Trump tax cut will pay for itself! (In fact, federal tax receipts on corporate income have plunged, and the budget deficit is now more than $1 trillion.) Government needs to be more fiscally responsible! (See aforementioned tax cut, which didn't come with concomitant spending cuts.) A disciple of John Maynard Keynes, Krugman eviscerates lawmakers in the United States for wringing their hands, post-financial crisis, over budget deficits caused by stimulus spending, which actually keep an economy from ruinous contraction. Without, say, unemployment benefits, families cut their spending, which in turn hurts vendors of goods and services.
Taken together, all these arguments with zombies reveal much about the electorate and the Republican Party of today. Krugman writes: "I see Trump not as a departure from the past so much as the culmination of where movement conservatism" - an elitist dogma wrapped in populist rhetoric - "has been taking us for decades."
Krugman doesn't shy from calling out the mean-spiritedness that underlies much of the conservative agenda. One new essay is titled "The Cruelty Caucus." Indeed, there's little economic rationale for cutting food stamps for work-eligible adults, as the Trump administration has; Krugman notes that the United States actually spends very little helping low-income Americans. Nor is there a financial rationale for opting out of Medicaid expansion, as 14 states have. "Refusing free money that would help the poor is something else - it's cruelty for its own sake," Krugman writes.
The book is unexpectedly light on the topic of trade, for which he won what he calls the "Swedish thingie." (Krugman won his Nobel Prize for an analysis of trade patterns.) In the introduction to his 13-page chapter on trade wars, Krugman notes that "international trade and international trade policy aren't as important as people think they are," as if to justify the glossing over of what's (not) to come. But I would have loved more insight into his thinking on the flavor of free trade that has become commonplace among liberal elites in business, even as the rise of populists on the left and the right has exposed the shortcomings of globalization.
Krugman's critics on the right will surely take issue with his writings on Trump's economic policies by pointing to record-high stock prices and the 11-year expansion of the U.S. gross domestic product. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to quibble with Krugman's underlying message that the current system is hurting the poor to the benefit of the rich and corporations. According to the Census Bureau, a key index that measures the gap between the wealthiest and poorest Americans is the highest it has been in 50 years.
The problem is so acute that some businesses - the very beneficiaries of many of Trump's policies - have proactively embraced the notion of inclusive capitalism, essentially acknowledging that the system is broken if it doesn't work for everyone. Companies such as Bank of America are voluntarily raising their minimum wages; others, such as Mastercard, are enhancing their retirement plans. The Business Roundtable, which represents the chief executives of some of the country's biggest corporations, last year adopted a new statement of purpose, acknowledging that Americans are struggling, and modernizing its principles to invest in employees and support the communities where its members operate.
Krugman probably wouldn't object to these measures, but he might offer another suggestion. Corporations have entire teams dedicated to finding ways to reduce their payments to the federal government. Maybe in addition to being more benevolent to their workers, they could just pay their taxes.