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I'm Not a Sadist, You Sadists!

Anti-austerians: Probably wrong about the debt, certainly wrong about me

Oliver Morin/AFP/Getty Images

Last week I wrote two unrelated articles for The New Republic. One was a defense of people’s right to oppose gay marriage. It charged that dissident voices on this subject were being suppressed (although I myself am very much in favor). I was expecting a hailstorm, but the reaction was almost disappointingly calm and reasonable.

The other article was the latest chapter in my ongoing discussion with Paul Krugman and his disciples about the economy and what we now call “austerity.” I hoped this article would be regarded as a useful contribution to the debate, but I had no great aspirations for it beyond that. It’s this one, though, that has produced one of those flattering but scary web hailstorms. People I don’t know are calling me things I don’t know either.

There are two possible explanations. First, it might be that I am not just wrong (in saying that the national debt remains a serious problem and we’d be well advised to worry about it) but just so spectacularly and obviously wrong that there is no point in further discussion. Or second, to bring up the national debt at all in such discussions has become politically incorrect. To disagree is not just wrong but offensive. Such views do exist. Racism for example. I just didn’t realize that the national debt was one of them.

I’ve always been dubious of people claiming to be victims of political correctness. They generally exaggerate, and I don’t care for the self-congratulatory element. It requires no courage to say almost anything in this country. But the reaction to my piece—or really to my side of the whole debate—has that “how dare you” element that is associated with political correctness. Never mind the argument—this is something you just don’t say. Instead, let’s go straight to the impugning of motives.

The austerity debate has taken an odd shape. Large deficits are associated with “the left,” and frugality is associated with “the right.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can shrink the deficit by raising taxes as well as by cutting spending. And if you think more stimulus is needed, you can cut taxes as well as raising spending. As I noted in TNR a couple weeks ago, it is just a few years since Republicans sneered at the idea of worrying about the deficit. They called it “Rubinomics,” and vice president Cheney said, “Deficits don’t matter.”

So there are actually four plausible positions in the austerity debate, not just two. You can be a right-wing Austerian, a left-wing Austerian, a right-wing Keynesian, or a left-wing Keynesian. And (as I also noted last week) the differences are not so great. All of them say we eventually will have to turn off the spigot. None of them wants to do it right away. The question is when and how much. Even Krugman now says that what worries him is “premature” fiscal responsibility.

Krugman himself started this round by saying (May 18) that he was going to stay out of it and let his attack dogs like Brad DeLong handle this one. But apparently he couldn’t resist (that’s OK—I know the feeling). Soon he was piling on and calling me all sorts of names. He said I suffered from “lack of compassion, sure; an inability to imagine what it must be like for someone less fortunate than oneself and one’s friends, definitely. “ He considers briefly, but seriously, that the problem might be simple “sadism,” but retreats from that daring charge to an only slightly more plausible conspiracy theory: that austerians don’t want the economy to recover until they’ve had the chance to use bad times as an opportunity to shred the social safety net. Either that or a psychological variant: they need bad times to continue in order to justify their status and their speaking fees. Amidst these far-fetched possibilities, let me propose one more: maybe austerians really, sincerely want what’s best for America and the world, and really believe that theirs is the better path than Krugman’s. Maybe austerians—poor, deluded creatures that we are—actually think that their path will result in less pain, not more.

I was particularly intrigued by this idea of purposely holding back a recovery until you can take credit for it. Why wait for that? Paul Krugman takes credit for good economic news whenever it happens. On Krugman’s blog site (“The Conscience of a Liberal”) last week were two bits of prose side-by-side. One was an ad for his latest book, End This Depression Now! “How bad have things gotten?” the ad asks rhetorically.” How did we get stuck in what now can only be called a depression?” Right next door is Krugman’s gloat about the recent pretty-good economic news. “So where are the celebrations,” he asks, “now that the debt issue looks, if not solved, at least greatly mitigated?” Greatly mitigated? By what? Certainly not by anyone taking Paul Krugman’s advice. He has been, in his own self-estimate, a lone, ignored voice for reason crying out in an unreasoning universe.

As for compassion and empathy for my suffering fellow citizens: it depends on how you define and demonstrate these fine qualities. If Paul Krugman wants to get into a contest about who has spent more time in a comfortable, air-conditioned office dreaming up new ways for the government to spend someone else’s money on programs to help a third party, I’m pretty sure I would win that one. I’ve been at this liberal game for a long time (an Atlantic blogger, who thinks he’s going to live forever, had the bad manners to point out that I’m over 60). I supported Hillarycare and Obamacare. I supported Obama’s tax increase on upper brackets (though I think the line should be far lower than $250,000). I believe the government ought to do much, much more to reverse the growth of inequality (though I have no brilliant insights about what that should be). I don’t appreciate being called a neo-con any more than Paul Krugman would. And I think the label would be just about as inaccurate.

On the other hand, if Krugman means by “lack of compassion” that I don’t devote nearly as much of myself as I should to helping others directly, he’s absolutely right. I assume from the way he writes that he is out there most Sunday mornings painting poor people’s houses, serving up soup and making sandwiches. And I congratulate him for it.

Krugman also suggests, charmingly, that many austerians take the position they do because it is their ticket of admission into the world of “professional deficit scolds…with a lucrative and ego-satisfying business of going around the country delivering ominous talks about The Deficit.” It’s true, as Krugman obviously knows well, that if you’re considered a Washington “insider,” you can make a handsome living giving speeches to trade organizations or the clients of some investment bank at a fancy resort. Mix in some consulting (aka lobbying) and you’ve got yourself a nice lifestyle. But his implicit charge—that such joys are reserved for austerians—is wildly off the mark. What does he himself get for a speech? (What do I get? I don’t do paid speeches. But I think there’s nothing wrong with them.)

And while we’re impugning motives, what about the motives of the anti-austerians like Krugman? Are they purposely keeping the economy sputtering until they can take power and take credit? Krugman treats this ludicrous idea seriously when the other side stands accused.

Early in this whatever-it-is, back in 2010, I wrote in Atlantic Wire: “I have been waiting for Paul Krugman to tell me how we are going to handle the debt, once we get this recession out of the way. No, really. There’s no economist whose judgment I trust more (about economics, that is)." That’s still true, even if he is 60.

Michael Kinsley is editor-at-large at The New Republic.