Saturday, 14 February 2009

“The Conscience of a Liberal”, by Paul Krugman (Penguin)


An unapologetically liberal manifesto for how to approach the ailing US economy, and reclaim politics from the Right

In Conscience of a Liberal, Nobel-Prize-winning economist/journalist Paul Krugman proposes that the United States is ready for, and in desperate need of a “new New Deal”. After an introduction that comments on the changing political and economic situation between the two editions of this book, Krugman turns his attention to writing a progressive prescription for fixing much of what is wrong with the United States (in the author’s eyes at least, but also a growing percentage of Americans).

Moving through a historical progression of the US economy, Krugman explains how wealth and equality have changed through the ages, from the Long Gilded Age (1870s-1930s) to the rise of movement conservatism since the 1980s. As an economist, Krugman has an affinity with statistics and data, which he uses extensively to back up his arguments, though not so much as to bore the reader. As a journalist, he is able to convey complex arguments in simplified terms – a boon for many readers, including myself.

The bulk of the book is comprised of Krugman’s chronological analysis of the shifting themes and issues of America’s political economy. The Conscience of a Liberal is written with a keen eye for social and political commentary and analysis, with a particular (though not overwhelming) focus on the importance of race and how “racial antagonism has had a pervasive and malign effect on American politics, largely to conservative advantage”. Krugman is particularly good when describing the evolution of the American economy and politics, how “FDR’s mission in office was to show that government activism works”, only for the right-ward shift in politics to bring this view to an end. Conservative political addictions to tax cuts for the rich, and opposition to social programs and labour unions have all resulted, Krugman argues, in growing inequality. Though, while it is clear that the author believes (maybe a little too fervently) the majority of blame should be laid at the feet of those on the right, the role of technology is unquestionable, and Krugman describes and explains both the positive and negative effects of modernization, and how they have exacerbated the changing economic and political norms.

Rather than a stuffy history of America’s economy, Krugman writes with a discerning eye, excellent analysis, and yet also a lighter touch, sprinkling the occasional, amusing observation about (especially, but not solely) movement conservatism, and its obsession with other people’s sex-lives, or the hypocrisies inherent in certain conservative political platforms, and the strange acceptance of supply-side economics (promoted by Irving Kristol in The Public Interest, all but saying he did so solely for political reasons to help the right win elections). As an economist, it is refreshing that Krugman suggests that the invisible hand of the market is not infallible, and that, from time to time, there is good reason (even a need) for government to intervene in the markets.

Lacking the stridence of an ideologue, Krugman acknowledges the limitations of his data and arguments (how often does that happen?), though defends them well, without falling back on typical or tired liberal tropes or sound-bites. His extensive use of data also makes it difficult to argue with many of his statements and suggestions (though many still do).

The Conscience of a Liberal is an excellent, accessibly-written, liberal case for revitalising US public institutions. Krugman should be applauded for writing an overtly liberal case, where many have become afraid to do so. Recommended reading.

Also try: Thomas Frank’s The Wrecking Crew (2008), John W. Dean’s “Broken Government” (2008), Robert Kuttner’s “The Squandering of America” (2008)

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