Sunday, December 02, 2007

Book Review: The Conscience of a Liberal

I am a big fan of Paul Krugman, and consider him the most honest and accurate thinkers of our day. Many have called him shrill and partisan, but his record is impeccable: he predicted the bankruptcy of Bush's ideas even during the 2000 elections, and correctly called Iraq a fiasco even when it was unpopular to do so. And those who think he is partisan forget his earlier books, such as Peddling Prosperity, where he attacked the Clinton administration for what we now see as laughable minor inconsistencies on trade policy.

The Conscience of a Liberal tells a story as compelling as any fiction. Once upon a time, there was an incredible inequality upon the land. The rich were getting richer, and the poor were truly miserable. Yet the nation could not move from that ideological driven fixed point --- policies and political machines disenfranchised poor voters, and the wealthy used their wealth to buy the media to call any kind of social insurance plan communist and persuade Americans that any change to the laissez -faire economy would create doom for everyone.

Then, a massive economic crisis happened, discrediting the wealthy plutocrats and some courageous politicians created what would become known later as the Great Compression. Social insurance plans allowed everyone to be assured that they would not die poor. Medicare ensured that the elderly would have health care. Politicians, aware that corruption could undermine this plan, made government so squeaky clean that not a single blot could be found in the implementation of both plans. To everyone's surprise, the resultant, more equal society ushered in an economic boom that would last more than 30 years.

But the forces of darkness were not vanquished --- they only retreated for a while, and by the 1970s, the civil rights movement created a gap that they learned to exploit to appropriate power for themselves. The result is growing inequality, a reduction of the middle class, and many of the ills you can find out for yourself if you bother reading the news. But such ill-gotten power can only be maintained by distracting the public with wars and with the coalition of racists and religious extremists that is the modern Republican party.

Ok, that's my summary of the economic history that Krugman supplies, only he tells it in a much less fanciful way, and the facts and figures that you would expect from an economist of his stature. Krugman's prediction is that the American public is finally waking up to the bankruptcy of Republican and libertarian ideas --- even if the internet and the youth seem particularly susceptible to libertarian theology (if Salon.com's interview with Ron Paul doesn't scare you, then you've already drunk the kool aid and are no longer a member of the reality-based community).

Krugman thinks that once the Democrats/progressive movement regains power, the most important item on the agenda is to fix the health-care system and provide universal health-care. Properly administered, this will increase the public's confidence in government (after the fiascos of the Bush administration), and much as social security and Medicare secured the terms of the new deal for a whole generation, this ought to enable public discussion on what kind of society we ought to have. His explanation of what the problems in providing universal health care is as good as anything I've read, and a good exposition for those who have not seen these arguments and economic analysis before.

Krugman at the end of book discusses what a progressive government can do about inequality. He points out that family status is now so important in America that a rich dumb kid is more likely to finish college than students who finish in the top 25% of their classes but whose parents are in the bottom 25% of the economic ladder --- economic mobility is now higher in Scandinavian countries than it is in the U.S. If the Democratic party had an institutional system of think-tanks and policy apparatus, this piece of data would be all over the news and be pounded into you 24/7, but that will wait for a happier time.

Krugman ends with a declaration of what being a liberal means and why he's proud of it. I am definitely very proud to be on the political side of people as smart and diverse as Paul Krugman or Brad Delong.

Is the future that Krugman envisions possible? The piece that gives me the most hope is on page 159 of this book: By 2004, however, 76 percent of Americans saw significant differenes between the parties, up from 46 percent in 1972. Obviously, we cannot take a Democratic victory for granted --- the right-wing and libertarians still have an unrelenting grip on the media --- Fox News, the New York Times, and even CNN still pander to the Republicans. But as more Americans realize that they've been hood-winked by the Right, I have hope that even Fox News cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

This is an incredibly good book, well worth the time reading. I borrowed the library's copy but I think I should buy a copy for myself, to support Professor Krugman if nothing else. Highly recommended, and well worth buying at full price.
Post a Comment