Ed Driscoll

Krugman's Lament

Ever since the president championed so aggressively by the New York Times took office in early 2009, Paul Krugman has frequently seemed strangely nostalgic, whether it’s for the Big Government of FDR, or even the Big Government of Richard Nixon (no, really). At the Corner, Jim Manzi spots everyone’s favorite economist-turned-far-left-bomb thrower rediscovering his inner child, via a profile of Krugman in New York Magazine:

Back in 2006, when he was writing The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman found himself searching for a way to describe his own political Eden, his vision of America before the Fall. He knew the moment that he wanted to describe: the fifties and early sixties, when prosperity was not only broad but broadly shared. Wells, looking over a draft, thought his account was too numerical, too cold. She suggested that he describe his own childhood, in the ­middle-class suburb of Merrick, Long Island. And so Krugman began writing with an almost choking nostalgia, the sort of feeling that he usually despises: “The political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost, an exceptional moment in our nation’s history …”

Krugman remembers Merrick in these terms, as a place that provoked in him “amazingly little alienation.” “All the mothers waiting to pick up the fathers at the train station in the evening,” he says, remembering. “You were in an area where there were a lot of quiet streets, and it was possible to take bike rides all over Long Island. We used to ride up to Sagamore Hill, the old Teddy Roosevelt estate.” The Krugmans lived in a less lush part of Merrick, full of small ranch ­houses each containing the promise of social ascent. “I remember there was often a typical conversational thing about how well the plumbers—basically the unionized blue-collar occupations—were doing, as opposed to white-collar middle managers like my father.”

A week and a half ago, when John Cleese was feeling nostalgic for the London of his salad days, long after Monty Python relentlessly mocked it into the dust, I wrote that his lament was reminiscent of those interviews that Woody Allen gives whenever he shoots a film that’s set in New York in the first half of the 20th century. The Woodman just can’t seem to understand how Manhattan went off the rails beginning in the mid-1960s. (As opposed to TV’s Mad Men, which is nothing if not a self-conscious victory lap for the societal rapaciousness of the boomers of the late 1960s and ’70s.)

Manzi’s post is well worth a read; he and I both got to experience the last vestiges of traditional small town America in the early to mid-’70s. As Manzi writes:

I’m somewhat younger than Krugman, but as they say, the future arrives unevenly. I grew up in a small town with an experience not unlike this. I’m very sympathetic to Krugman’s choking nostalgia. It’s difficult to convey the almost unbearable sweetness of this kind of American childhood to anybody who didn’t live it.

But Yuval Levin turns a follow-up post linking to Manzi into a longer-than-average blog post well worth your time as well. “Nostalgia is the reigning sentiment of the left in America, and the project of the left is fundamentally reactionary,” Levin writes. He’s not the first to note this of course, but he does have some intriguing insights into what makes the left so nostalgic these days:

At first glance, it might seem odd to find the left so nostalgic. We tend to expect conservatives to be the backward looking bunch. But it isn’t all that peculiar, really. The modern left began as a project to recapture a lost innocence corrupted by greed and power. That’s how Rousseau understood the human story. It’s how the French revolutionaries understood what they were doing. And many subsequent projects of the radical left (from Maoist agrarianism to the anti-globalization riots of the 1990s) have been fundamentally anti-progressive, and so have been in some tension with both the more nihilistic elements and the more technocratic elements of the left. (The right, of course, has its own share of similar tensions, especially between libertarians and traditionalists.) The American left, like every other movement in American politics, has always been less radical than its foreign counterparts, so its nostalgic streaks have been less nuts, but they have been no less prominent—from Jefferson’s agrarianism right through contemporary environmentalism, with its naïve yearning for a simpler time.

This helps to explain the left’s attitude toward the increasingly obvious fiscal implosion of the welfare state. Liberals have so far responded almost exclusively with reactionary denial and with a doubling down on the very ways of thinking that created the problem. They yearn for the glorious energy of the Great Society era, unwilling to see that its consequences are the very source of our troubles. They really seem to believe that leaving Medicare just as we have it is essential to guarding the American dream. And to oppose conservative attempts at reforms of various programs, they appeal to an almost blind fear of change, and to the segments of our population most inclined to such fear—ignoring the plain fact that the status quo is unsustainable and the question is only what kind of change will come.

To understand how we got here, check out David Frum’s book of the same title on the 1970s. The magisterial first volume of Steve Hayward’s Age of Reagan series also documents just how tumultuous the two decades leading up to President Reagan’s landmark election in 1980 truly were. James Piereson’s Camelot and the Cultural Revolution places into context the moment when nostalgia began creeping into an ideology that had once called itself “Progressive.” And this long City Journal essay by Fred Siegel explores another landmark period that caused a similar mix of eschatology and nostalgie de la boue to blend. Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism also places all of this into a century’s worth of context. I might modestly suggest a couple of videos on the same topic as well.

Incidentally, at the conclusion of the passage quoted above, Levin wrote:

Of course, a defensive and wistful left is better than an assertive revolutionary left, out to dismantle the family, the market, and the other instruments of bourgeois oppression. Things could be worse, and they have been.

Considering the events of the last two years, I’d hate to see firsthand what “worse” looks like, as my parents did. But still, as I said, don’t miss both Levin and Manzi’s posts.

Oh and speaking of Krugman and nostalgia for a simpler past, to end a post full of melancholia on a more upbeat note, let’s flashback to this 2009 Daily Show skit hosted by the New York Times’ latest successor to Morrow. Sample question: “Why is aged news better than real news?” Of course, that begs a question of its own: Define “real.”