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The Dishonesty of Paul Krugman

Returning from vacation means that one is hit over the head with reality. A brief two weeks away, and our nation went through a collective trauma after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the tragic death in particular of 9-year-old Christina Green. I was able to watch the reaction by tuning in to both CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, although I was not able to have a reliable or quick internet connection.

So everyone seems to be saying that civility must be restored, and even Roger Ailes told his Fox News people to “tone down” the rhetoric. But what seems to be happening is that to many on the left or liberal side of the spectrum, toning down means denying that there are any substantive differences about how our country is to handle its problems, and accusing those who want a real debate over the issues of being divisive.

In particular, Friday’s New York Times ran its chief liberal commentator Paul Krugman’s “A Tale of Two Moralities,” in which the Nobel laureate economist began by telling his readers how President Obama’s speech “spoke to our desire for reconciliation.” Then he said, correctly, that “the truth is that we are deeply divided nation and are likely to remain one for a long time.” So far, so good. Krugman is certainly correct about that, unlike many other commentators who want to pretend we all agree about the basics.

But then Krugman gets to his main point: that in the national debate, his side is that of morality, justice, and reason -- while his opponents on the conservative side are immoral, uncaring, and actually want the poor to die or disappear. Here are Krugman’s own words about how he perceives the differences between the two sides:

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

Let us dissect that second paragraph about the would-be views of his conservative opponents. All conservatives, he argues, oppose taxes since they do not want their wealth to help others. Secondly, that position leads them to adopt violent rhetoric, since they believe taxation is tyranny.  And unlike those of his persuasion, they oppose any social safety net and want to return to the bad old days of no regulation and cut-throat competition -- “tooth and claw,” as he puts it -- and let the less well-off depend entirely on their own resources.

As Krugman has it, there is no serious discussion about health reform. His side favors a “moral imperative” to give everyone universal free health care; the other side wants only those who can afford health care to have access to good care. This is, he writes, a “deep divide in American political morality.” Ah, for those wonderful days when even Republicans “accepted the legitimacy of the welfare state.” But today, Republicans see any government programs as “illegitimate,” while Democrats do not.

I do not know whom Krugman is talking about. Does he not, for example, read his colleague David Brooks’ columns? Brooks, a rather moderate among conservatives, is generally the self-styled conservative most liberals always cite as proof that they respect conservatives who are serious and moderate. He is the conservative liberals always seem to quote and to love. Yet a few days earlier, Brooks himself pointed out sharply and eloquently the serious negative effects of ObamaCare.