Rip Van Krugman

January 23, 2016 § 1 Comment

A Bad Day

Yesterday was a bad day for me.  My favorite columnist, Paul Krugman, posted a condescending essay claiming that our political system is incapable of fundamental change.  He sat me on his knee and gently but firmly told me to forget about any elected leader accomplishing any significant shift in the American power structure.  It was like, “No, Virginia, I’m sorry to tell you, but there is no Santa Claus.”  He didn’t go so far as to conclude by endorsing Hillary Clinton but his message was crystal:  If Bernie is elected, the result will be four years of deadlock without any meaningful improvement in the lives of working class Americans.  Here is a link to that doleful message:

Some Literary Antecedents

The political system described by Krugman resembles Oceania, the imaginary country created by George Orwell in 1984.  Just as mock political struggles occurred between the Inner Party, the Outer Party and The Brotherhood, all of whom were controlled by Big Brother,  Krugman claims that the “centrists” actually govern America while naive and misguided “extremists” at both ends of the political spectrum flail away in pointless delusional exercises.

Krugman’s gloomy scenario reminded me of what an old friend of mine, now long dead, once described to me as “an old Commie joke”:

“There once was a society of mice.  Once a year, they met and elected a leader for the ensuing year. They always elected a cat.  And, during the cat’s term, he gorged himself on mice without mercy or restraint.

So, the next year, when the mice met,  a spirited debate would occur.  A mouse would declaim, ‘Last year we elected a black cat and he proved to be a terrible mistake.  I propose that we never again elect a black cat.’  This was met with loud applause and the mice elected a white cat.  And, during that cat’s term, the result was the same:  Many mice were devoured without mercy.

This process continued, year after year.  Brindle cats, brown cats, Persian cats – they were all tried without any improvement.

Finally, during an annual meeting, a skinny, scrawny ugly cat in the back row, stood up and yelled, “I’m tired of this. Why don’t we elect a mouse?”  And all of the assembled mice rose in fury, turned on him and yelled, ‘Throw that Bolshevik out of here!'”

I have entitled this effort “Rip Van Krugman” because I believe his analysis is like Washington Irving’s story of the disgruntled New Yorker who fled from his unhappy home life and fell asleep on a  hillside.  There, with a musket rusting by his side, he slept through the Revolutionary War and awoke to find a world fundamentally changed.  I believe Krugman has lived through multiple revolutions, apparently without noticing them.

The LGBT Revolution

Prevailing attitudes toward gay, lesbian and trans-gender sexuality has fundamentally changed and that change has been reflected in the political and legal system of our country.

The Tea Party Revolution

In January 2009, as the Obama presidency began, Rick Santelli’s rant sparked a grass roots rightwing revolution that ultimately led to a government shutdown and drove the Speaker of the House of Representatives out of office.  Some say it has been “discredited”, but the rhetoric of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump seems hauntingly familiar to me.  It seems to me that the growth of income and wealth inequality during the last seven years, while it did not start then, was protected and nurtured by the rhetoric of the Tea Party.

The Civil Rights Revolution

The social and legal status of African Americans has fundamentally changed during the past fifty years.  Yes, there is still racism in America, but it has lost its political appeal.  Racial equality now is part of our legal system and no major political party brags about its Jim Crow credentials or segregation policies any more.

The New Deal

One of the most astonishing features of Krugman’s essay is his dismissive assessment of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  He derides the establishment of Social Security because it failed to cover African Americans.  He dismisses FDR’s political dominance because it relied on racist southern political organizations.  In other words, he would rate the New Deal as nothing but incrementalism because it preceded the civil rights revolution.

I believe Rip Van Krugman does’t believe in political revolutions because he doesn’t recognize one when it happens.  The TVA, the Wagner Act, Glass Steagall, the WPA, the NRA – These political accomplishments changed the role of government in the electric power industry; changed the relationship between labor and management and directly led to the creation of the CIO; restructured the American banking system; established the propriety of government direct intervention to rescue businesses from the casino fluctuations of unregulated capitalism – maybe these changes were not “revolutions” but they surely made some permanent changes in the balance of power between government and private enterprise capitalism.  It’s true that the NRA did not survive an assault in the Supreme Court.  That does not change the fact that the people’s elected representatives adopted it and made it part of a political revolution in the 1930’s.

I have not mentioned the adoption of the Twenty First Amendment, ending Prohibition, which changed forever the relationship between criminal justice and society.

I know it is fashionable to say that the New Deal didn’t really change anything until WWII caused a massive injection of money into the economy.  That is true with respect to some aspects of wage rates and employment rates.  It, however, does not explain or detract from the importance of the above-listed measures.  They had nothing to do with WWII.


I don’t know who will be the opposing candidates for the presidency this year.  Contrary to Paul Krugman, however, I believe there is a good chance that we have reached the kind of “paradigm shift” described by Thomas Kuhn in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”.  Free market capitalism has been tried for decades since Ronald Reagan launched it in 1981.  It has swept everything in its path like a political road grader.  Our unions are impotent; our taxation system is rigged; our international trade policies accommodate the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the working class; economic inequality has created a new “Gilded Age”; the insurance and pharmaseutical industries have free reign to make health care a luxury beyond the reach of a large segment of our population – by any measure the time is ripe for a radical change.

Instead of Rip Van Krugman’s gloomy forecast, I prefer FDR’s grito from his first inaugural address:  “First of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

We have halved the loaf so many times, there is nothing left except, as the Chicanos in South Texas say, “migajas de la mesa”.



§ One Response to Rip Van Krugman

  • kentanthropology says:

    We agree a bit too much to have a real discussion, but I think you are dead on here. Change is never easy, and cumulatively many progressive dreams have become, if not reality, with the wind to their sails. Change is also not unidirectional, as we see in the decline and then rise of inequality in the USA over the past century. But the forces promoting inequality now are no more formidable, and most likely less so, than the momentum against race equality, gender equality, and sexual orientation equality. Of course, these are all ongoing, but momentum is strongly in the opposite direction from 50 years ago. Indeed, economic inequality has been among the main indicators of continuing de facto social inequality. Reversing again the trend of economic inequality is the most obvious way forward to build on past successes.

    Anyway, thanks for the shot of optimism.


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