Henry Farrell: Count Me In With the Unsophisticated Six Year Olds:
Starts by quoting a Kindred Winecoff attack on Krugman, arguing that
things like the Bush tax cuts, the Medicare D program, and the housing
bubble were actually cases of popular will at work in a democracy, not
(as Krugman argues) the results of intense lobbying by self-interested
elites. Farrell writes:
However, actual work on how policy gets made suggests that this
doesn't work. On many important policy issues, the public has no
preferences whatsoever. On others, it has preferences that largely
maps onto partisan identifications rather than actual interests, and
that reflect claims made by political elites (e.g. global warming).
On others yet, the public has a set of contradictory preferences
that politicians can pick and choose from. In some broad sense,
public opinion does provide a brake on elite policy making --
but the boundaries are both relatively loose and weakly defined.
Policy elites can get away with a hell of a lot if they want to.
The Medicare D example is worth exploring a bit. Adding some sort of
drug perscription coverage to Medicare was a very popular proposition.
Most health insurance plans provide some sort of coverage. Originally
it was a relatively cheap benefit, but under its cover pharmaceutical
companies were able to push prices way up, which made the omission all
the more glaring in Medicare. It was one issue that Democrats seemed
to have some traction with, which is basically why Karl Rove felt the
need to sweep the issue away. Once Rove and the Republicans decided to
do something, the actual legislation was pure giveaway to the industry.
So popular demand wanted the benefit, but not the law as written. In
particular, the prohibition against the government negotiating drug
prices had no popular benefit -- it greatly increased costs, some of
which were passed to seniors in forms like the "donut hole" and the
rest fobbed onto taxpayers. The law was clearly an inside deal, but
it is true that if the benefit hadn't had such broad popular support
it wouldn't have been pushed or passed. So in that sense Medicare D
wasn't purely the work of ensconsed elites. On the other hand, the
Iraq War was.
No one denies that popular opinion limits what elites can do, nor
that it can provide a wedge for one set of elites to campaign against
another. However, the latter happens very infrequently, in large part
because there are rarely serious splits between elite opinion. One
finds, for instance, that both parties hire Treasury officials from
the same sets of Citibank and Goldman-Sachs executives. The defense
and foreign policy establishments are nearly as integrated. For some
30 years now the US relationship with Israel has been hamstrung by
the Dennis Ross-Elliot Abrams tag team, who are nothing more than
foreign agents, yet they've managed to pin down what we like to think
of as a popular democracy.
When popular opinion demands health care reform, Obama consults with
the usual industry lobbyists and comes up with a right-wing think tank
plan. The Democrats response to global warming, which quite a few people
are seriously worried about, is yet another right-wing think tank scheme.
The right then abandons both plans to move the debate even further right,
even further away from the issues people actually care about. Working
through these charades you wind up with a disaffected populace that
doesn't even bother to vote -- it's not like there are any candidates
: Later on I see Henry quoting Krugman on this:
In fact, the only budget-busting measure undertaken in recent
memory that was driven by popular demand as opposed to the agenda of a
small number of powerful people was Medicare Part D. And even there, the
plan was needlessly expensive, not because that's the way the public
wanted it -- it could easily have been simply an addition to traditional
Medicare -- but to please the drug lobby and the anti-government
Emphasis added. The other budget-busters were sold to the public,
and you can cite some polls showing that the selling was successful,
but not ones that show that the people who were sold to understood
what they were buying.
Winecoff later argues that most Americans don't want a healthcare
system run by the government, then tries to broaden "anti-government
ideologues" to include those masses. In fact, very few Americans have
any major problems with the healthcare systems that are actually run
by the US government -- Medicare, Medicaid, the Veterans Adminstration.
It's only imaginary ones they object to, which makes you wonder if they
really know what they are opining about.
This, in turn, is followed by 262 comments. Some are worth quoting.
Is this an example of "an extremely weak understanding" or is it an
example of lying? I cannot imagine how honest person could say that the
tax cuts and the Iraq war took place because they were "supported by
majorities." The Bush administration was the passive conduit for the
will of the people, is that the idea? [ . . . ]
Sometimes people say things that reveal that they are genuinely not
worth debating. They are simply lying sacks of shit and they need to be
opposed, not reasoned with.
An examination of the character of Karl Rove is all that is required
to support Krugman's thesis of irresponsible and incompetent elites.
This "Mayberry Machiavelli" could in no way be described as a public
servant. He was a cynical manipulator of public opinion relentlessly
pursuing the the political agendas of his patron(s). To suppose that
a creature like Rove was simply responding to the wishes of the public
"If there is a housing bubble, maybe it's because public
policy was skewed in ways that home ownership attractive, because that's
what people want." [Kindred Winecoff]
It's amazing to me that alleged scholars will say unbelievably stupid
shit like this. You can knock Krugman for being rude if you like, but what
are you supposed to say about this? I promise you that very few people
actually supported -- or even understood -- the predatory lending,
unregulated derivatives, etc. that caused the housing bubble.
"There is not even any doubt that neither the tax
cuts, nor the Iraq war, would have happened if they weren't pushed
by political, business, and media elites."
Exactly right. All of these policies were pushed relentlessly by
the media at every opportunity. It also should be noted that both
the tax cuts and the Iraq war were pushed with lies. The Bush
administration repeatedly claimed that the majority of the tax
cuts were aimed at the middle class and the poor, which we all
know was false, and they also claimed that Iraq had WMDs, which
we now also know was false.
Kindred Winecoff :
Hitting too hard, Henry. I was protesting Krugman's moralism, and
suggesting that even the most simplistic view of politics suggests an
interest-based explanation works better. I disagree with little that
you wrote (I'd go further on some points), but I have no idea why
you're sticking up for Krugman here.
I pretty much gave up on Winecoff's frequent comments after here.
At one point he argues that elite opinion is divided then gives Krugman
as an example of an elite who disagrees with various Bush policies.
In fact, I wound up stopping near the point where Winecoff wrote,
"The consensus here seems to be that I should shut up."
Oh no Kindred, that won't fly. You persistently read Krugman in
the most uncharitable way possible and now ask for a charitable
reading of your own posts?
Let me summarize:
- Brooks: It's the stupid electorate that's gotten us into this mess,
we really need smart elites to get us out.
- Krugman: Are you kidding me? Those policies were elite driven and
not due to some stupid electorate.
- Winecoff: But public opinion favored those policies! It was the
public after all!
- Farrell: Dude, that's not how policy is made.
- Winecoff: Yeah, I agree, but that doesn't matter and I hate Krugman.
- Readers: ????
The rich got their tax cuts in America because they paid for them
with political donations and retainers to lying thugs like Karl Rove.
There are "malefactors of great wealth" and Krugman is right to
denounce their cynical political flunkies on moral grounds.
Kindred makes three fundamental theoretical mistakes: One, he mistakes
the result of an opinion poll for the complex reality that is the opinion
of the masses; two, he mistakes correlation for causality; and three, he
ignores completely the way ruling class ideology as transmitted by media,
entertainment, the organization of daily life, impacts on and shapes
public opinion. Maybe this is a feature of IPE rather than Winecoff, but
I always find it fascinating when liberal social scientists write as if
150 years of Marxist thought did not exist; although of course in the
case of the Bush tax cuts or the Iraq war one doesn't have to be a Marxist
to recognize that whatever public support they may have had was obviously
the product of massive propaganda unleashed by elites intent on forming
the very public support needed as an excuse to implement these policies.
What about the invasion of Grenada? Did that happen because the
people wanted it? 'Cause polls taken after it'd begun showed a lot
of public support.
The public opinion poll is, for Winecoff, like the provocative dress
that implicitly sanctions the violators designs.
Area Man :
"If there is a housing bubble, maybe it's because
public policy was skewed in ways that home ownership attractive, because
that's what people want." [Kindred Winecoff]
You can't be serious.
Having public policy skewed in favor of home ownership cannot cause
a housing bubble. The whole idea of a bubble is that constantly rising
valuations are unsustainable; in other words, buying becomes irrational,
but it keeps paying as long as other people keep buying. If public policy
makes home ownership more attractive, this by itself will not cause an
irrational buying spree, it will at most cause a one-time increase in
home values, after which they level off. This is assuming you believe
there were massive changes in public policy starting in the late 90s
that encouraged people to buy houses that weren't in place before, which
as far as I can tell, there weren't.
Another way to think about this is to ask precisely how public policy
changed in 2007-2009 to make home ownership massively less attractive,
since this is why you seem to think that people overbought homes to begin
with. I am not aware of any such changes, and many to the contrary.
Martin Bento :
Occasionally, you can have a policy that is popularly-driven.
Legalization of medical marijuana is probably the best recent example.
Most states that have passed it have done so by ballot initiative,
usually over the opposition of most of the elected representatives.
There was little elite agitation for it beforehand. There was some --
from libertarians, including people like Milton Friedman -- but it was
scattered and limited to the occasional Op Ed. Milty like to talk this
way to seem consistent, but he didn't actually do much to push for it.
There was also support on the Left, but not from people credibly
regarded as part of the political elite. The Iraq War and tax cuts
were nothing at all like this.
I don't see what is so difficult about this. Why on earth would
donors pour millions and millions of dollars into candidates' war
chests if all they were going to do once elected was reflect public
opinion (whatever that means)?
You are giving Winecoff too much credit. I've read his original post
and his responses here and all I've gotten from his writing is that he
is a disingenuous, dissembling mouthpiece for the anti-Krugman portion
of the political elite.
He is doing exactly what a modern day trench soldier for the conservative
movement does; he puts out a poorly researched political hit job and when
challenged on facts, he dissembles, when taken to task with his own words,
he builds strawmen. He is not naive, he didn't read Krugman incorrectly,
he is just playing by the modern conservative playbook.
Conservative Playbook -- 7 easy steps
- support crappy policy (e.g. Paul Ryan's budget plan)
- when challenged -- dissemble (we're not killing Medicaid)
- scream liberal media (standard)
- when challenged again -- build strawman (budget mess was created
by housing and medical aid for poor people)
- scream liberal media (standard)
- when challenged again -- lie (the public wanted tax cuts for the
rich and the Iraq war/the public wants us to cut medical care for the
poor and elderly)
- scream liberal media (standard)
Mr. Winecoff seems intent on diffusing responsibility for bad policy
outcomes by laying down a smokescreen of generalities regarding explicit
and implicit voter "approval" of bad policy. But there are sharp distinctions
of motives and methods between powerful individuals energetically pursuing
an agenda and a vast aggregation of poorly informed voters tolerating faits
accompli. This asymmetry does not seem to interest him, because he wants
to spread blame so evenly that nobody can be blamed.
Brooks is possibly the worst of the VSP pundits because of his
indefatigable chutzpah abetted by junk sociology. Every few days he
emits an unsubstantiated "insight" that consistently supports
aggrandizement of the rich and the pauperization of everyone else.
Ever since Brooks saw that the Buckleys ate off silver plates, he
has been a loyal servant of the fortunate, and there is no slimy
sophistry that he will not stoop to to please his patrons.
That Brooks, a shameless sophist, occupies equal column space
across the page from a rigorously honest Nobel Prize winning economist
is a sad commentary on the swamp of "balanced" commentary that the
NYT has become under the dysfunctional Bill Keller.
Jim Harrison :
Winecoff is perfectly correct that our system has some democratic
features, which is the reason that our conservative elites have to
lie so much. [ . . . ]
Much shorter version: Of course Krugman is accusing elites of
immorality. "Why do I call you a pig fucker? Because, first of all,
you fuck pigs."
If Krugman is saying, as plainly as plainly can be, that Medicare
Part D was driven by public demand, then why do you [Winecoff]
keep on reiterating that he is saying quite the opposite of what he
does in fact say? Let me repeat that again. He says -- as unequivocally,
plainly and simply as someone could possibly say it -- that the initial
impetus for Medicare Part D was driven by popular demand. This presents
broad problems for your general claim that Krugman has a one dimensional
account of politics in which the public plays no role whatsoever.
For several decades, I've noticed that the elites that the 10 or 20
companies owing the U.S. media put on regularly spout lies and bullshit.
Has it become so bad that they now believe their nonsense and are now,
like Winecoff, at best, extremely stupid? [ . . . ]
I'm not sure if I'd like to think that for a society to continue, its
ruling class must have some idea of how things work.
Regarding the presence of evil in political leadership, there is a simple
test. Knowingly making false representations to achieve goals that are
harmful to the general electorate, but beneficial to one's patrons, is
evil. People who regularly do this to advance their political careers are
evil. [ . . . ]
Many Republicans (and Tea Party partisans) are bluntly claiming that
further concentration of wealth in America is good for the nation, despite
abundant evidence that this is false. If they do not know that this is a
false proposition, then they are simply stupid. If they do know it, they
are evil. To the degree that Democratic politicians exhibit the same
behavior, the same conclusions must be drawn.
There is a valid criticism of Krugman to be made in particular as regards
the financial crash -- while it was of course made possible by deregulation,
that deregulation was a necessary component of the financialisation of modern
capitalism that in turn is a response to the problems of the tendency of the
rate of profit to fall and the surplus absorption problem. Seen this way, it
IS indeed simplistic to blame the actions of elites, as in, individual
members of the elite, for it.
This is one that could use some unpacking, but even if you regard
financialization as an inexorable law of capitalism -- David Harvey
wrote a Marxist take on this, and Kevin Phillips wrote a non-Marxist
one -- it still comes down to actual, well-moneyed elites to grease
the wheels and make it happen. If it was just surplus absorption,
one could find plenty of poor workers to distribute that to -- but
the bankers had other ideas.
Maybe the influence of elites has grown [Kindred
Have you heard of the Citizens United decision? Are you aware of the
demise of the Fairness Doctrine in broadcasting? Do you understand that
five corporations dominate news media in the USA? Have you heard of the
Koch brothers? Do you know that 44% of US congressional representatives
"Krugman concedes the point on Part D." [Kindred
This is through the looking glass. The entire point of this thread
is that Krugman didn't make the argument you ascribed to him in the
first place. You can't belatedly recognise that fact and then score
it in favour of your position.
There are two substantive points here. One is that Krugman quite
demonstrably never said -- and there are no good reasons to read him
as implying -- that public opinion has no influence over policies
such as health care reform, Iraq, tax cuts usw. (You could start by
conceding that one, it would clear the air.) The other is that, for a
whole host of reasons, some of which go back to the Founding Fathers
(try talking to them about 'democracy'), anyone who talks about
public opinion in the US as an independent force which drives government
policy is going to have to do an awful lot of work to make this view
stand up. Either that or engage in a lot of bait-and-switchery with
words like 'approve'.
You know, that's enough for today. Only got to the 193rd comment,
one from Henry, which sent me off on a tangent. This comment was mostly
a quote from Banjamin Wallace-Wells' New York profile
What's Left of the Left: Paul Krugman's Lonely Crusade. We
can close on this quote, which says something about Krugman's
contention that his politics is driven by his understanding of
A few years ago, Krugman, having decided that he was going to be
writing about politics and so he should know more about it, did a
very Krugman thing. He didn't talk to people who worked in Washington.
Instead, he started to read the political-science literature. Krugman
had never understood the press coverage of politics, which seemed to
emphasize its most irrelevant aspects. Why dwell on a presidential
candidate's psychology when the trends in unemployment would tell you
who would win an election? But viewed through the prism of political
science, politics began to seem much more familiar to him. There was
a mathematics to it -- you could assemble data, draw correlations,
understand what was essential and what was noise. The underlying
shape of politics came sweeping into view: If you arranged members
of Congress from left to right based on how they voted on welfare-state
issues -- Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance -- it
turned out that this left-to-right axis could predict every other
vote: On Iraq expenditures, on abortion, whatever. "When you realize
the fundamental divide in U.S. politics is just this one-dimensional
thing, and that is how you feel about the welfare state," Krugman
says, "that changes things."
You could see something else in the data, too. From 1979 to 2004,
the income of the richest one percent of Americans grew by 176 percent,
that of the richest one fifth of the country by 69 percent, and that
of everyone else by less than 25 percent. Working through the numbers,
Krugman came to believe that "only a fraction" of the change was
compelled by global forces, which had been the standard explanation.
The rest, he concluded, was political.
It was Krugman's Princeton colleague Larry Bartels who made the
critical connection, in research Krugman devoured and still cites.
Perhaps the most important influence on income inequality, Bartels
argued, was something economists had not emphasized: whether a
Democrat or a Republican was in the White House. Since World War II,
Bartels found, wealthy families in the 95th percentile in income
had seen identical income growth under both parties. But for families
in the 20th percentile, the difference was astonishing: Under
Democratic presidents, their income grew at six times the rate it
did under Republican ones. There was, for Krugman, a kind of
radicalization implied in this.
A lot of things fall out of this observation. One, for instance,
is why Krugman regards Ron Paul as an ultra-rightist instead of as
someone who has some very favorable traits, especially his steadfast
opposition to using American military force abroad. It also shows
why Krugman is always able to find a rationale to favor a Democrat
over a Republican, even if he can say nothing else nice about the
Democrat. Also helps explain why he consistently views Clinton as
better than Obama -- there's even a bizarre section where he imagines
the Democratic Party revolting to nominate Clinton in 2012 (he gives
that the same odds as Michele Bachmann winning the election).
Not as good a profile as one might hope for. Still worth quoting
the best line, in a back-and-forth section on Larry Summers:
Krugman's sense of humor is built upon self-deprecation, and
sometimes Summers's sense of humor is built upon deprecating
One more, an insightful lesson from Argentina that many others
[Domingo] Cavallo liberalized the [Argentine] economy and drew overseas
capital to Buenos Aires -- "lionized by the financial press, the maestro of
the Argentine miracle," as Krugman recalls. But when the Argentine economy
slowed, international investors withdrew, unemployment grew to 25 percent,
and by 2003 an estimated 30,000 people in Greater Buenos Aires were surviving
by scrounging for cardboard to sell to recycling plants.
[ . . . ] If Domingo Cavallo, one of the elect, could
preside over this collapse, then perhaps there but for the grace of God
went Alan Greenspan. What Krugman took from Argentina -- and what he thinks
even liberals in Washington missed -- was "a certain level of understanding,"
he says, "that important people have no idea what they're doing."