Krugman, slayer of Presidents

Paul Krugman visited us. In the days of yore, liberals gave public lectures when they were campaigning. Today liberals go on speaking tours to promote their books. In the event this sounds too cynical, let me correct and say maybe books are just good excuses to get invited to speak. Either way, there was a book involved: The Conscience of a Liberal. (I have not read or bought the book, but remain hopeful that father Xmas will give it to me.)

The Conscience of … is a much abused title. One finds besides liberals, christians, conservationists, pharmacists, statisticians and even lawyers (twice), all have a conscience. Krugman acknowledges Barry Goldwater’s 1960, The Conscience of a Conservative for his choice. I recently read J.K. Galbraith’s 1972 review of Chester Bowles’s biography and he made the lamenting remark that Bowles had been unduly marginalized by the Democratic Party. Bowles had a set of essays collected into the 1962 volume: The Conscience of a Liberal, of which Krugman made no mention. It seems Galbraith was right.

Krugman spoke to a packed foyer, people crowned the open staircases trying to catch a glimpse of his beard. Krugman’s thesis appears to be that the Republican Party’s electoral success has been due to a cultural divide in America. The white South, has been lost to the Democrats because of the fear of race. Krugman sees this changing as the South becomes less white and the American people more liberal in practical policy issues: health care.

I have no thoughts about this argument. I was at the lecture to see the public intellectual of economics. What made him distinctive? And how effective was he? He did not read a speech. He does not have a clear or pleasant voice and by the end sounded tired. He knew when to drop a joke to keep the audience’s attention. But he is not charismatic and his speaking ranks behind his writing. What is striking is that he argues (and thinks) like a social scientist. Rhetorically, he drops definitive numbers, statistics, dates, always appearing exact. Over and above this “trust in numbers,” he speaks through comparisons: labor market trends in US and Canada, cost of health care in US and France, now and the 1970s tax burdens.

For Krugman to convince is not to describe but to compare. Maybe that is why he mentions Goldwater and not Bowles, he favors the comparison.


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