Krugman, DeLong and Radical Centrism

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, a correspondent and editor for the Economist and a senior editor at the Atlantic. He previously served as an official in the British finance ministry and the Government Economic Service.
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Brad DeLong has commented on my beef with Paul Krugman. I'm reluctant to engage, to be honest, because his post exemplifies the intemperance I'm addressing. Once an admirer, I gave up on his commentary a long time ago. You get a sense of the problem from his post about me. He illustrates it with a picture of a clown. He also wants me fired. "Bloomberg has some house-cleaning to do," he says -- charming, and from a tenured academic, to boot.

DeLong's fine under the supervision of a competent adult, as here (an excellent paper, which I praised at the time). But as an unattended blogger he regresses to intellectual adolescence, light on thinking and exhaustingly heavy on peevish belligerence. Not just uncivil, he actually disapproves of civility -- today, as you see, I'm trying to meet him halfway.

The substance of DeLong's complaint about my column and post appears to be that they lack supporting documentation. I asserted (thinking it self-evident) that many Republicans are thoughtful and public-spirited. DeLong is incredulous and finds it revealing that I failed to give examples. I also accused Krugman of letting partisan politics taint his analysis and said he cared as much about undoing the Bush tax cuts as about expanding and extending the fiscal stimulus. At this, DeLong is aghast. He demands to see my evidence.

Will this do? From Krugman's column, Let's Not Make a Deal, in December 2010.

Back in 2001, former President George W. Bush pulled a fast one. He wanted to enact an irresponsible tax cut, largely for the benefit of the wealthiest Americans. But there were Senate rules in place designed to prevent that kind of irresponsibility. So Mr. Bush evaded the rules by making the tax cut temporary, with the whole thing scheduled to expire on the last day of 2010.

The plan, of course, was to come back later and make the thing permanent, never mind the impact on the deficit. But that never happened. And so here we are, with 2010 almost over and nothing resolved.

Democrats have tried to push a compromise: let tax cuts for the wealthy expire, but extend tax cuts for the middle class. Republicans, however, are having none of it. They have been filibustering Democratic attempts to separate tax cuts that mainly benefit a tiny group of wealthy Americans from those that mainly help the middle class. It's all or nothing, they say: all the Bush tax cuts must be extended. What should Democrats do?

The answer is that they should just say no. If GOP intransigence means that taxes rise at the end of this month, so be it.

Krugman proposed raising taxes on all Americans while the recovery was still very weak. He recognized this as a fiscal tightening that would put people out of work. He advocated it because the alternative of retaining the Bush tax cuts would have handed the Republicans a victory, and because -- get this -- he was worried about the long-term deficit implications. There you have it: Krugman the apolitical Keynesian.

Krugman has another post on all this too. He repeats that I falsely accused him of politicizing fiscal policy. I've nothing to add on this. But I'd like to comment on his accusation that I'm afflicted with "pathological centrism."

I've been accused of worse things, so I probably shouldn't complain. But there's a distinction to be made between different kinds of centrism. Split-the-difference centrism is often necessary in a democracy, and not to be despised, but that isn't how I think about issues. I've supported a bigger and longer lasting stimulus, a view usually associated with the left. I've supported Obamacare (flaws notwithstanding), a view usually associated with the left. I'm for higher taxes on investment income, a view usually associated with the left. I see public-sector unions as opposed to the public interest and would like to see their power curbed, a view usually associated with the right. I'm for partial privatization of social security, because I'd like to advance the ownership society, a view usually associated with the right. I think the federal government has taken on too much and that the balance of political power should be pushed back to the states, a view usually associated with the right. I could go on.

Neither party wants anything to do with me, obviously. Perhaps that makes me a centrist -- but not a split-the-difference centrist. I prefer to think of myself as a radical centrist. Big difference.

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