Wayne O'Leary

The Krugman Chronicles

One of the persistent narratives of the 2016 presidential campaign is that, while Republicans are consumed by nasty internecine warfare, Democrats are generally satisfied with their contending candidates; indeed, goes the refrain, they love them to death. Most of this happy nonsense appears to emanate from the Clinton camp, which, because of its candidate’s high negatives (second only to Donald Trump), needs whatever warm feelings it can corral.

The kumbaya memo, however, appears not to have reached all the Clinton partisans, especially in the establishment media, where editorial and op-ed commentary has been regularly demonizing Bernie Sanders — witness, in particular, the pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times. There is certainly strong anti-Hillary sentiment out there as well, albeit less institutionally directed; a quarter to a third of Sanders supporters, according to polls, are averse to voting for the former secretary of state in November, should she get the nomination.

Nevertheless, anti-Clinton rhetoric intended for public dissemination has thus far been largely limited to the alternative press and isolated social-media sites, whereas the national mainstream press, engaged in organized groupthink, has been virtually unified (the “liberal” portion at least) in its editorial disparagement of Senator Sanders and unstinting in its praise of Secretary Clinton.

Many years ago, journalist A.J. Liebling made the trenchant observation that “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Perhaps what we’re seeing is an effort by those owners, recognizing the side on which their corporate bread is buttered, to use their immense editorial power in the service of what most benefits them, which (human nature being what it is) they conflate with the maximum public good.

The hired hands who do the actual pontificating reflect the owners’ biases; they wouldn’t be there otherwise. So in a time when the Democratic party is convulsed by a subtle, undeclared class war, as well as an agonizing reappraisal of what it means to be a “progressive” political organization, it shouldn’t be surprising to see an ideological choosing up of sides at America’s leading liberal organ, the New York Times.

How else to explain the recent behavior of columnist Paul Krugman, long regarded as a progressive journalistic icon, who is unapologetically employing his twice-weekly Times column and its associated blog as weapons against the Sanders campaign? A glance at his recent columns indicates the prevailing theme.

On Sanders’ single-payer health proposal: a risky and expensive change for those Americans with good insurance motivated by irrational outrage against private insurers. On Sanders’ opposition to free-trade deals: a demagogic, protectionist attack that exaggerates the adverse effects of trade liberalization. On Sanders’ overall spending plans: an embarrassing example of “fuzzy math from the left” bordering on budget voodoo. On Sanders’ suggested financial reforms: the substitution of easy slogans for substantive hard thinking.

Finally, in a column entitled “Sanders Over the Edge” (4/8/16), Krugman summed it all up. “From the beginning,” he asserted, “many and probably most liberal policy wonks were skeptical about Bernie Sanders.” The populist senator was exhibiting “petulant self-righteousness,” his campaign style was raising “serious character and values issues,” and his campaign had “lost its ethical moorings.” Then, the pièce de résistance: “Bernie is becoming a ‘Bernie Bro” — an unwarranted reference to the supposed legions of misogynistic Sanders backers who oppose Clinton on gender grounds.

It’s sad that Krugman feels obliged to indulge in tasteless name-calling, while at the same time ignoring the many knowledgeable public figures on the left who endorse aspects of the Sanders critique and share many of his proposed solutions - notably Jared Bernstein, Robert Reich, James K. Galbraith, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. They don’t apparently meet Krugman’s exacting standards.

Regarding the two centerpieces of the Sanders financial-reform package, breaking up the monopolistic too-big-to-fail banks and reinstating a modernized Glass-Steagall law to separate speculative investment banking from commercial banking, Sen. Warren is an unimpeachable source entirely in agreement with her colleague from Vermont. Presumably, that will make her next on the Krugman hit list.

A self-described liberal, Krugman appears, ironically, to delight in skewering those on the political left, past and present, whom he considers “policy entrepreneurs”; objects of his scorn have included John Kenneth Galbraith, Lester Thurow, and Robert Reich. In fact, Krugman is not that much of a liberal and has always been difficult to pigeonhole ideologically. His early career included a stint in the Reagan White House as assistant to presidential advisor Martin Feldstein. In the 1990s, he was an advocate of Bill Clinton’s centrist economic policies, a Milton Friedman monetarist, a free trader, and (amazingly) an apologist for Third World sweatshops.

It was only after 2000 that Krugman’s liberal reputation was established, when he devoted his time to attacks on George W. Bush and Republican tax-cutting policies. By the Obama years, Krugman was a full-fledged supporter of public investment over austerity, who criticized the 2009 Obama stimulus as woefully inadequate — the phrase “a failure of nerve” was used, if memory serves. This from someone who now demeans Bernie Sanders’ spending proposals as irresponsible.

Although I hesitate to ascribe ulterior motives, there does seem to be a direct connection between Krugman’s Sanders animus and his emergence as a highly compensated celebrity columnist. Like all prominent Times op-ed scribes, he earns in the mid-six figures. Add to that several hundred thousand dollars more per annum from a university research appointment, speaking engagements, and appearances on network television. Throw in royalty payments for his numerous books on economics, and you have total earnings estimated by some at $1 million or more a year, comfortably in the One Percent and enough to afford a getaway condo in St. Croix.

Based on his income level, Krugman’s marginal tax rate would increase from its current 39.6% to 43% under Bernie Sanders’ proposed new federal tax plan. (Sanders’ top rate, reserved for those in the $10 million-plus bracket, would be 52%, still substantially less than in pre-Reagan years.) Perhaps that’s the reason he and Times wingman David Brooks have been so inordinately concerned in their columns with the cost of Sanders’ single-payer health program, which, they lament, would necessitate higher taxes, including a 2.2% health-care premium on salaried income that would hit high earners hardest. Where you stand is often where you sit.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2016


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