October 7, 2020

Krugman, Porter Look to Election and Beyond In Virtual Paul Robeson House Benefit Event

By Donald Gilpin

Paul Krugman and Eduardo Porter, colleagues at The New York Times where Krugman is a columnist and Porter is an economics reporter, put their heads together virtually  on October 4 to speculate on the future of America and its economy in an online event sponsored by the Paul Robeson House of Princeton.

Krugman, Nobel Prize-winning economist, Princeton University professor emeritus, and currently professor at City University of New York, has recently in his Times columns been making the case for Vice President Joe Biden’s economic proposals, “Bidenomics.”  Krugman said that he was “relatively hopeful about serious movement to combat inequality, if democracy survives the next month” and Biden wins the election.    

“The Biden health care plan is a pretty big deal, even though it’s not single payer,” he said. “If you’re a Bernie Sanders person and it’s single payer or bust, then you’re going to be very disappointed, but if you actually look at how much it would expand the number of people receiving subsidies and how much it would cut the amount of out-of-pocket payments, it’s a big deal. Fifteen to 20 million more people will be getting health insurance — not quite universal coverage, but a long way towards it.”

Krugman added that with a Biden presidency and a Democratic House and Senate, he would be hopeful that the Democratic Party would be willing and able to implement legislation to promote necessary social programs. “The intelligentsia of the Democratic Party has moved substantially to the left, not just different people, but the same people who now realize that we need bigger budget deficits to fund programs.”

Porter, author of American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise published earlier this year, was, along with Krugman, cautiously optimistic about a Democratic victory next month, but described himself as “not very hopeful” that such a victory would lead to change in the serious problem of economic inequality.

“I think the big movement that might install Joe Biden in the White House is a movement of ‘Let’s get over the craziness. Let’s get back to something that feels normal, where people make rational choices,’” he said. “I don’t see it as a great progression leap. While the Democratic Party because of demography has moved to the left, I don’t think that the fulcrum has really moved to the left. I think the fulcrum is still in places like Virginia and in privileged places of the U.S.”

Expressing doubt that a new administration would bring in a burst of public spending and greater equality, he continued, “I do hope that we’ll backtrack on some of the most inegalitarian aspects of the current administration, such as tax reform, but I am not super-confident because I also think that the part of the Democratic Party that Biden comes from is not really that convinced that we need bold steps. I don’t see a lot of boldness out there.”

Krugman, whose latest book Arguing With Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future also came out this year, discussed his theory of “zombie ideas that should be dead but just keep shambling along eating people’s brains.”  The most important zombie ideas, he noted are “the belief that low taxes are magical” and “that enormous opposition to programs to help less fortunate people.”

Noting that Arguing With Zombies and Porter’s American Poison are “very much complementary,” Krugman described a graduate seminar on economics of the welfare state that he teaches at CUNY, a comparative course focusing on technologically sophisticated, wealthy countries that made very different choices in their policies. “The United States really stands out, the only one that’s very different. It’s the only advanced country without universal health care and with much less in the way of other social programs.” 

In his first class this year, where only about three of his 15 students were born in America, the students asked, ‘Why does the U.S. look so different?’ And the answer I always give is race,” Krugman said. “It always comes down to racial hostility, which is Eduardo’s theme. Racial hostility is essential to understanding a lot of what America does.”

Porter discussed some of the sources of that hostility and President Trump’s appeal “to a tribal feeling of grievance and vulnerability of white Americans who look into the future and see that the hold on power that they’ve had forever in American history is not going to continue forever into the future. Ten or 20 years from now they will no longer be the majority of the population.”

He continued, “Trump’s entire political campaign in 2016 was about magnifying this feeling and creating this tribal ‘Yes, we’ve got to protect our privileges, our political power, our economic standing.’”

Looking ahead to the possibility of a Biden presidency, Porter remained skeptical of significant progress. “The 40-50 million guys who voted for Trump are still going to be there, and they’re probably still going to be thinking the same stuff that they’re thinking now,” he said. “So whatever kind of political movement or set of movements or chaos this brings about is going to be important to keep an eye on.”

On a more hopeful note, Krugman pointed out how surprising it was that recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations and protests have won much more sympathy than hostility. “Certainly Trump was betting on being able to ride a huge backlash, and I was afraid,” he said. “One of the weird things has been how muted that has been.”

“It’s heartening,” Porter added. “It inspires some hope. My book is pessimistic, but maybe there’s some hope. Trump is going full Nixon, right? Warning the people of the suburbs that poor people of color are coming to live in their neighborhood, threaten their livelihood.”

Porter pointed out that the Nixon approach is not working because the country is more diverse now than it was 50 years ago. He described going out to some of the recent Black Lives Matter protests in Brooklyn, where he lives, and seeing large numbers of whites, Asian Americans, and Latinos, along with African Americans. “Somehow, maybe the urban young who have more experience of living together offer us an opportunity to rethink our racial divisions and perhaps make them less salient, less defining of policy,” he said.

Krugman, noting that places in the country where there are many immigrants generally have the most favorable attitudes towards immigrants, described himself as “the king of hate mail,” which arrives abundantly in response to his New York Times op-eds.  “And some of it is kind of funny,” he said.  “A supporter of Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona wrote, ‘You people just don’t get it, what it’s like to have these immigrants coming in. How would you feel if New York City was full of immigrants?’”

Denyse Leslie, vice president of the board of directors of the Paul Robeson House of Princeton, whose “mission is to promote social justice consistent with the values and actions of Princeton’s native son, Paul Robeson,” moderated the proceedings. The admission fee to the event will support the renovation of the house and the development of local social justice programs.