A Response to Krugman's Sanders Skepticism: Politics, Policy, and Ideology

A few weeks ago I attended a talk between Mayor de Blasio and Paul Krugman at CUNY Graduate Center, and it really was a wonderful event. (You can see the video here.) I don’t live in NYC, but de Blasio would certainly have my vote. He talked about his universal pre-K policy with justifiable pride; Krugman nodded approvingly and gave some economic data to support the value of such a policy. de Blasio lamented the fact that Albany was dragging its feet on his plans to extend affordable housing and redoubled his commitment to creating a quarter of a million new units; Krugman echoed de Blasio’s concerns and described the NIMBY movements that limit housing as an economic externality that needs to be overcome. The two seemed to overlap politically and economically, which lent a coherence to their political and economic views, and their agreement is reflected in the fact that both either explicitly or implicitly support Clinton for presidency.

For me, the most valuable moment came when Krugman and de Blasio discussed the push for a $15 minimum wage. de Blasio noted that NY is a rich and productive city that could easily require a $15 minimum wage without putting excessive pressure on businesses. Krugman followed this up with new economic data — ‘as close as one can get to economic experiments’ — from places like the border towns between NJ and Pennsylvania, in which one state raised the minimum wage, while the other kept it the original rate. The fact that unemployment remained about the same on either side of the border suggests that there is room for wages to rise. Beyond this, however, de Blasio made an incredibly uplifting and visionary appeal to the true meaning of the minimum wage. ‘We forget that a minimum wage used to mean a living wage,’ de Blasio claimed [paraphrasing], ‘and the time has come for us to ensure that everyone who works is paid enough to live above the poverty line; in the middle class.’ I took from this the deeper point that progressives need to appeal not just to the economic expediency of a policy, but must also reaffirm their commitment to fundamental values and ideals, like the evil of poverty and the achievable aspiration that no one in this country should be exploited or left behind while the economy grows. We need more than prudent and appropriate policy, we need a value-laden vision for the country.

This distinction came to a head when an audience member asked why neither of the two panelists were supporting Bernie Sanders, even though — cheekily — “he is clearly the superior candidate.” I can understand why de Blasio would tie himself to the ‘mainstream’ democratic candidate and thereby not alienate himself from the person (and party institutions) that will help him to realize his agenda and gain reelection. Krugman, by contrast, I have a little more trouble following. As far as I can tell, the strongest argument he has made is that commitment to the facts is exactly what separates Democratic from Republican candidates. Acceptance of climate change, repudiation of discredited tax-cuts for the rich, and openness to increasing the national debt by engaging in economic stimulus in order to grow the economy are all signs of a party that is not gripped by ideology and beholden to party shibboleths, and is therefore willing and able to respond to the nuances and exigencies of governing. As I recall he made this claim that Democrats are the party of facts in Conscience of a Liberal, and he reiterated it in the debate. In regards to Sanders, I can understand the skepticism towards the claim by some of his supporters that his economic program will lead to economic growth over 5% per year, and, indeed, there seem to be some errors in the calculations leading to these projections. Similarly, Sanders can claim that we should have single-payer healthcare, medicare for all, or free university, but there are real economic trade-offs that have to be made, and limitations that will circumscribe the possible. To be sure, we can point to the UK and other other advanced countries with universal healthcare, and say, ‘if they can do it, we can.’ But, I think slightly more sober-minded analysis is likely to conclude that, if we created universal healthcare in the US in the mid-twentieth century, then, yes, we could be like the UK. But, as we’ve hobbled along with the current system for decades, there is a certain path dependency that will limit our policy outcomes.

To this extent, then, it seems like I share Krugman’s skepticism and applaud his wonk-like focus on the facts of the matter. That being said, is it appropriate to conclude with Krugman — as he reiterates in today's NYT column — that Sanders is an ideologue? 

Indeed, what the Sanders movement, with its demands for purity and contempt for compromise and half-measures, most nearly resembles is not the Trump insurgency but the ideologues who took over the G.O.P., becoming the establishment Mr. Trump is challenging. And yes, we’re starting to see hints from that movement of the ugliness that has long been standard operating procedure on the right: bitter personal attacks on anyone who questions the campaign’s premises, an increasing amount of demagogy from the campaign itself. Compare the Sanders and Clinton Twitter feeds to see what I mean. (Krugman, NYT March 14th 2015)

In response to this, I wonder: where does the line between policy, economics, and politics blur? And is there not a pertinent difference between ideology and value-oriented policy? As one learns in philosophy of science classes, one necessarily employs a worldview and implicit premises and biases when both conducting research and interpreting results. Similarly, when making economic projections, constructing models, and researching certain topics rather than others, the researcher brings with her a political and economic worldview that will shape the research conducted. Consider the fact that, as Krugman noted in the talk, economic research into inequality was a moribund field in the 1970s, 1980s, and even when inequality was really growing in the 1990s, it still remained undeveloped because the economic boom of the time made concerns about inequality faintly quaint. All boats were being lifted by the rising tide and the neoliberal political arguments for deregulation and open markets explained the great success. Of course, that changed in the 2000s, especially in the wake of the the Great Recession, and now some of the most interesting, important, and broadly cited work covers exactly this topic. Now we have new models explaining the rise of inequality, like Thomas Piketty’s blockbuster best seller, and new data revealing the precise contours of inequality in the twenty-first century, including Gabriel Zucman’s The Hidden Wealth of Nations. With this new information, new approaches to limit inequality and tax avoidance can such as the 2011 Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act have been developed, with both good and unintended consequences. The point being that the realm of the politically possible and contours of academic and policy research are influenced by social and political developments, such as the growth of inequality and the diminishing force of political and philosophical arguments justifying inequality from the 1980s.

Where does this leave Sanders? As I noted in a previous post, “Reagan shifted the US political climate not by creating specific new programs (or, more accurately, the termination of existing programs), but instead by altering the framework within which he and other politicians argued and justified their respective political programs.” Sanders can do the same from the other direction, and appeals to idealized (if possibly unrealizable) outcomes like universal healthcare and free university are a legitimate component of this program to change the US political climate. This isn’t ideology, it’s a policy vision, and it’s important not to confuse the two: to be sure, Sanders is railing agains the ‘big banks,’ but is this fact-intensive ideology in the Republican vein, or is it instead part of a broader political vision that is used politically to reflect skepticism of monied interests, the financialization of the economy, and the inequality that concurrently emerged? Is Sanders’ call for single-payer healthcare really analogous to the seemingly purposeful blindness to the evidence exhibited in the persistent Republican assertion that Obamacare has or will imminently crash the economy and put millions out of work? No, because the former is part of a political vision of the country in which, as de Blasio suggested, Democrats search for practicable policies that reflect fundamental values, rather than a fact-insensitive adherence to ideology. 

I agree that progressives should skeptically approach pie-in-the-sky estimates of economic growth remarkably above historical norms. In the first place we should assume that 5% yearly growth is the equivalent of a “magic asterisk,” and look for reasons why this projection likely to be wrong, rather than uncritically grasp on to it as evidence for the economic virtue of our political values. But, this doesn’t mean that it’s not correct to put these political values first when imagining and then constructing policy. There is of course the threat that these values will ossify into ideology, or that in practice the policies proposed will fail to be sufficiently sensitive to facts of our actual political condition and thereby demand more than is practicable. But we face that risk on the other side as well. Is it possible that Obama was overly-sensitive to the perceived facts of the political situation when hashing out Obamacare, and therefore achieved less he could have, and therefore fell shorter of his political ideals than he needed to? The question then is, are Democrats policies — generally speaking — too close to the Obama side of not pushing for enough and thereby falling short of fundamental ideals, or are they too close to the Republican problem of demanding too much (or the wrong things) because that is what their ideology demands? In broad terms, I’m inclined to think the former is the larger problem, and so the appropriate antidote to this is a Sanders-like policy vision. But, more than this, I agree with William Greider’s conclusion in recent piece at The Nation, “The nation’s circumstances cry out for bold and radical departures from the past.” In this new era of Trump-politics, the need to aspire towards a progressive vision of politics is even greater, and so a Sanders-like approach is all the more appropriate, even if following it risks eventually degenerating into a Democratic ideology.