Among the Intellectualoids

Chains of Austerity

Paul Krugman and friends struggle to take back the American Dream.

By 6.20.12

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The professional left has a new word to symbolize all that is bad and wrong with contemporary politics. Joining such past and present favorites as "Nixonian," "neocon," "crypto-fascist," "lock-step" and "Koch," we now have… "austerity."

Anybody who attended the Take Back the American Dream conference in D.C. this week, a left-wing version of the right's annual CPAC event, could not miss the disgust and fear that the mere mention of the "A" word caused.

It was ruining Europe, speaker after speaker said, and the rapid debt reduction the word implied would be ruination of the U.S. too. Getting the public to understand this has to be a top priority of the progressive movement.

"Austerity is exactly what happened in Europe in the 1930s… that gave us fascism and communism," said AFL-CIO policy director Damon Silvers.

Now it is true that the word has made a comeback in politics. But this is no nefarious plot of the right. Anybody who paid attention during the George W. Bush administration knows that. Republicans would just as soon spend like Democrats, if for no other reason than it's the path of least (political) resistance.

But as the saying goes: a billion here, a billion there and pretty soon you're talking about real money. And real debt. Trillions of it -- $1.5 trillion this year alone, the Congressional Budget Office warns.

Most of it is in the very entitlement programs the left loves so much. And as the case of Europe shows, the welfare state just cannot grow indefinitely. Eventually that tab either has to be paid or the spending has to be cut back. Not even confiscatory tax rates on the rich would change this fact.

And yet the wise men of the left persist in telling their acolytes that this is not so. That all that is needed is to spend further. To -- yes -- spend ourselves into prosperity.

"The problem with the economy is there is not enough spending," said New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who was greeted at the conference as a kind of philosopher-king. He literally insisted that there was indeed such a thing as a "free lunch."

As an aside, he added, "Nobody on the left is saying they want big government."

No, no, no that was a myth, Krugman said. They just want a "government big enough to do certain things."

The Nobel-prizing winning economist did not give any sense of how big that government would be or how we would know when we got there.

For the left this is an existential dilemma. Those entitlement programs are among their proudest political achievements. Defending them against any cutbacks is, they are convinced, the sharpest tool in their political arsenal. Admitting that those same programs may also be undermining the country as a whole is to make too big a concession to their critics.

In this setting, even President Obama's own bipartisan commission on reducing the debt, which did include tax increases, was treated with scorn. "The Bowles-Simpson plan, or as I call it B.S…," mocked Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.

On this, she was at least following the lead of the president, who himself abandoned his own commission, opting to instead damn the Republicans for refusing to hike taxes on the rich.

As far as many were concerned, the U.S. had already tried the politics of austerity and they had only made things worse. As the fine folks at Reason magazine and others have pointed out, this is patent nonsense as the country has never stopped spending.

But try explaining this to the people who used to refer to themselves as the "reality-based community". Instead they'll argue with you that regulations create jobs and that the only problem with the stimulus bill is that it was too small. The collapse in Europe to them is in no way proof that the welfare state model is wrong.

At one point in his speech, Krugman confessed that he had a fantasy that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke kept a "secret diary" in which he would scribble: "Krugman and all these people are right."

Ladies and gentlemen, the left's leading economic intellectual.

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About the Author

Thirsty McWormwood is the nom de cyber of a writer in Washington, D.C.