By Joe Campbell
June 3rd, 2009
Last night taking the train home, I started reading Brink Lindsey’s essay in Reason countering Paul Krugman’s analysis of inequality in American history – and specifically what has caused inequality to worsen.
Now – my head was a bit fuzzy as I have a pretty bad head cold at the moment – but I found Lindsey’s argument was rather persuasive. Surprisingly so – as I’ve cited Krugman’s arguments on this issue many times on this blog (including here and here). I also recognize Lindsey’s phrase describing Krugman’s view holds an essential truth about this progressive understanding. I myself tried to express this – in a way to diffuse the charges of socialism during the campaign – “Leave It To Beaver Socialism.” Here’s my description of the goal of Obamanomics:
Obama’s economic plan is not about socialism or revolution or any such radicalism. He’s not that type of politician. The goal of his Obamanomics (if you will) is not a socialist paradise or a European-style market socialism but a restoration of the economic justice that made 1950s and 1960s America so stable. Unless you think Leave It To Beaver took place in a socialist nation, then Obama’s economic plans shouldn’t strike you as far left.
At the time, I both recognized the power of postulating an ideal past which we should hearken back to – and understood that this is the root of reactionary politics. There is a proper way to understand history – and to try to achieve a balance that once existed. But very easily, with a slight misstep, you find you are trying to recreate a now defunct world – which is the founding myth that every reactionary subscribes to.
Lindsey concludes his essay:
[R]easonable people disagree hotly about what ought to be done to ensure that our prosperity is widely shared. But the caricature of postwar history put forward by Krugman and other purveyors of nostalgianomics won’t lead us anywhere. Reactionary fantasies never do.
Powerful stuff, true or not. And it is certainly making me reevaluate my understanding of the historical causes of inequality in 20th century America. I’ll have to read the essay again with a more clear mind. I tried looking for a progressive debunking of the essay – but all I found were attacks on Lindsey or Reason or libertarianism.
To be clear though – I haven’t abandoned my Krugman-inspired view of the economic history of 20th century America yet – and Lindsey’s argument was better at poking holes in the story offered by Krugman than giving a convincing portrait of its own. I suspect the truth may be found by accepting that liberal and conservative policies together led to the growing inequality we are experiencing today.