Monday, April 9, 2012

Paul "Ellsworth Toohey" Krugman and the rhetoric of radicals

I was more than a little bit struck by the title of Paul Krugman’s op-ed today in the New York Times, “The Ryan Cult.” Without trying to claim any moral high ground here, and doing my best not to be overly cynical re: Krugman, some days I come away from his column genuinely feeling like he’s the Ellsworth Toohey of the real world. A quick Google search suggests I’m not the first to feel this way. Let me explain.
I believe that Ryan’s budget proposal, for all its imperfections, is a genuine good faith effort by the congressman to address our fiscal future responsibly. It acknowledges – like the overwhelming majority on both the left and right – that the current structure of entitlement spending is unsustainable, and that the tax code is unnecessarily complex, cumbersome, and inherently unfair. His budget offers reasonable – though debatable – solutions to these problems. If nothing else, it begins an intelligent and intellectually open conversation about what we must do moving forward.
Despite all this, on the heels of Obama calling his proposal a “Trojan Horse” (even though Obama’s own proposal failed to garner a single vote in congress), Krugman flippantly reduces Ryan’s proposal and those who would support his general framework to a “cult.” Seriously?
It’s exactly this sort of divisive rhetoric that continues to shape the sentiments of our body politic. In this column, Krugman not only trashes Ryan but anyone else who might stand up for centrism, moderation, or compromise. He basically charges that (1) claims of centrism are nothing but a professional “selling point,” (2) that reasonable people don’t exist, and that (3) the center is “gullible” if not politically agnostic. This is the sort of rhetoric which keeps jamming a partisan wedge between the American people and allows the partisan machines to continue steamrolling ahead.
Well I have to draw a line in the sand and disagree with Ellsworth…errmm, I mean Krugman. The center does exist and it does hold. And the true cultists are the ones who continue to undermine reasonable progress with fancy wordsmith-ing and caricature. If we can’t address entitlements spending and the tax code collectively, neither the Republicans or the Democrats can save us now. 


  1. Hey Paul. Interesting post, Krugman is certainly a lightening rod. Two questions that come to mind after reading:

    1) Can you provide any facts/figures from the Ryan budget that would rebut the facts/figures Krugman uses in his post to argue that the budget doesn't deserve to be embraced by centrists?

    2) Are you being ironic in critiquing Krugman for divisive rhetoric in a post with a title that compares him to Ayn Rand's personification of collectivist evil?

    I'm writing a longer response with my take on this column for my next post. Would be interested to hear your response.

  2. I think this is a really interesting point. It's definitely worth noting that neither Obama nor Krugman seems willing to take Mr. Ryan's proposal's seriously, regardless of whether or not its proposals actually carry weight. Still more troubling, though, is that fact that people feel qualified to jump in on one side or the other, even though there's no informed consensus on what exact effect it would have on different areas of the budget.

    As a result, we're left with nothing but generalized, inflammatory statements, allowing partisans on both sides of the aisle to believe exactly what they want to about the proposals at hand. Similarly, "centrist" is a generally positive term that is vague enough such that Paul (Jordan, that is), and others can consider the Ryan budget to be centrist, while Krugman, Blake and others can associate the same term just as strongly with Obama's plan.

    My biggest problem with Krugman's op-ed, then, is that he attempts to discuss an ill-defined economic plan in terms of its relationship to an ill-defined political platform. It's no wonder there's controversy about what he's actually saying. As long as our approach to these issues involves name-calling and making quick assumptions, the dialogue can't focus on the substantive policy differences at hand.

  3. Also, I just read this article and thought it was a pretty interesting perspective on this topic.

  4. Mr. Jordan -- The following is the text of a comment I posted to Mr. Holt; I am re-posting it here as a courtesy, since it refers to you by name within the discussion:

    Mr. Holt -- I appreciate the robustly prosecuted point-counterpoint which characterizes your recent exchanges with Mr. Jordan regarding Representative Ryan’s proffered economic blueprints; the entire intellectual community profits when opposed positions are parsed, dissected, and elucidated with skill (“As iron sharpeneth iron, so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend” – Proverbs 27:17, KJV). Sadly however, the civility which characterizes your local discussions within the Duke community no longer appears to be a recognized dialect on the banks of the Potomac, having become – like Latin – a moribund language.

    I would argue that the economic problems confronting the U.S. – daunting as they may be – are potentially less divisive than the inflammatory rhetoric which has come to typify our national discourse. The use of the term “Trojan Horse” by Mr. Obama – with its presumptive implications of calculated deception -- neither edifies nor elevates the national discourse, and risks demeaning the office of the Presidency, as well as the occupant. Sadly as well, Mr. Krugman – a man of substantial intellectual capacity and possessed of considerable professional acumen – has devolved into a disappointing caricature of himself. As evidence of this unfortunate devolution, I offer Mr. Krugman’s own self-satisfied self-portrait (NYT, September 23, 2010, 3:34 PM): “The best line I’ve ever heard about Ayn Rand’s influence: ‘There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.’ ” Mr. Krugman’s smug rhetorical delight in equating conservative economic voices with the terms “childish, obsession, unbelievable, stunted, and crippled” is a disappointing retreat into schoolyard name-calling, entirely unbefitting of the pedestal voice which Mr. Krugman once deserved to command. Res ipsa loquitur.

    Glenn D. Jordan
    BSE, Biomedical Engineering, Duke University, Class of ’73
    MD, University of Virginia, Class of ’82