Ten Miles Square


August 13, 2011 11:59 AM For Crying Out Loud, Krugman

By Andrew Sabl

I’m the process of moving house, and admit that I got to Friday morning’s Krugman column 24 hours after every other blogger. But I couldn’t let this go.

Quoth Krugman:

For more than a year and a half — ever since President Obama chose to make deficits, not jobs, the central focus of the 2010 State of the Union address — we’ve had a public conversation that has been dominated by budget concerns, while almost ignoring unemployment.

Krugman should turn off the rage long enough to read the damn speech. Except for the parts that defended the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act, practically the whole thing was about job creation, and to some extent about the difficulty of getting things done in today’s hyper-partisan Washington—a problem that Krugman one of these years might do well to consider taking seriously.

To the extent that we’ve forgotten Obama’s jobs agenda, it’s because Republicans and conservative Democrats in the Senate killed all most of the jobs programs that Obama proposed over and over again (most of which the House passed). True, the amount of the President’s speech devoted to the deficit was non-zero, whereas Krugman would have preferred zero. But the claim that the deficit was the speech’s “main focus” is pure fantasy.

Don’t believe me? I pulled from Lexis-Nexis some headlines from the next day. The New York Times: “Health Care Gives Way To Economy And Jobs” and “A Populist Promise To Press On With Goals.” The Hill: “Obama: ‘Jobs must be our No. 1 focus in 2010.” Even the Washington Times, which of course didn’t like the speech: “Obama vows to fight for his agenda; President calls for spending freezes, jobs programs.”

If pundits want to claim that the speech caused “the public conversation” to be about deficits, they should look at a mirror, not at the podium. Maybe they decided in the days and weeks following the speech that the spending freeze gimmick was the only “news” the speech contained. But their preference for paying attention to gimmicks and sound bites, not proposed legislation and its fate, is their fault, not Obama’s.

Yes, this was just one speech. Yes, Obama has done too much after that speech to give aid and comfort to the deficit buzzards—though as Obama’s critics tend to gloss over, most of his rhetorical transgressions happened after Democrats lost the House and the chance of serious stimulus was about zero. In the near future I’ll have more to say about how the President’s critics can usefully challenge their partly legitimate anger. (Hint: “Don’t like Obama? Re-elect Pelosi.”)

But facts are stubborn things. And those who decry the shallowness of public debate have a special duty to be what Mark Danner calls “empiricists of the word.” Krugman is being something else.

And if one can define a fanatic as someone who’d rather have enemies than friends, Krugman is fast becoming a caricature of that type.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Andrew Sabl is a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.


  • sapient on August 13, 2011 12:32 PM:

    Thank you, Andrew Sabl. It's hard to know what Krugman is trying to accomplish with this. I really wish the "disappointed" people (such as Krugman) would make a few suggestions that would actually pass Congress.

  • yellowdog on August 13, 2011 12:47 PM:

    Alas, we have both a jobs problem AND a deficit problem. See Robert Greenstein's July 26 testimony before the Senate Finance Committee for a very clear synopsis.

  • James Lee on August 13, 2011 4:54 PM:

    No, I think Dr. Krugman is right here. Perhaps Obama wasn't as focused on deficit hawkery as Krugman's article makes it seem, but two things need to be noted. First, President Obama gave a pass to Republican extremism by still acting as if they were a credible contribution to the legislative process (i.e. pretending as if they really cared about the economy and pretending as if they were willing to compromise). This in effect means that he boxed himself into a corner by forcing himself to adopt the Republican narrative. Second, how can you reconcile the need for government spending/investment with focusing on getting the country's fiscal house in order? This is a sure sign that the amount the government chooses to spend will be chump change rather than the full amount that is necessary to affect any real change. It's is the same mistake that he made in 2008 resulting in a stimulus that was far too small to affect an economic rebound.

  • gone_west on August 13, 2011 5:59 PM:

    For crying out loud, Sabl, you should read the damn speech. Krugman is on the mark. Obama thought he had a robust recovery and could move the discussion away from the short term needs for government spending and job creation to long term budgetary requirements. Your failure to understand the argument and mischaracterizing it, warrant an F grade.

    Specific to Krugman's thesis, Obama naively, or cynically, in any event stupidly, compared government budgets and expenditures to a household budget and the need for government to live within its means. He claimed he would put into place the steps that would recover the one trillion dollars spent to stimulate the economy in 2009. He bragged about a three year freeze in government expenditures to address the deficit. He announced he was creating a bipartisan fiscal commission, not to address jobs and economic recovery, but to address deficit and debt.

    In the end, you accuse Krugman of your own bad behavior of ignoring the written words in Obama's speech to curry your own fantasies into the public domain as though they are fact. For that, hopefully, you are expelled from blogging on this otherwise, mostly fine website.

  • sapient on August 13, 2011 6:22 PM:

    "Second, how can you reconcile the need for government spending/investment with focusing on getting the country's fiscal house in order?"

    Easy. We need to think about stimulative efforts in the short term, while bringing down debt in the longer term. Taxpayers spending money on the national debt is anti-stimulative. As yellowdog suggested, you should read some suggestions by people who have real solutions to addressing the problem, such as Greenstein's testimony to which I've provided a link (suggestions which, of course, include letting the Bush tax cuts expire, which is something still on the agenda). What "progressive" critics of Obama have missed is that the "grand bargain" had a timing component.

  • DiTurno on August 13, 2011 8:54 PM:

    Andrew, this is a truly silly post. Some time ago, the Obama administration realized that, because of the opposition of Republicans and Blue Dogs, they couldn't do anything substantial about jobs. Rather than pointing that out, they made a decision to instead fight for short term deficit reduction, which (as you certainly know) both endorses the GOP's position and will present a substantial drag on the economy. It was a stupid, cowardly decision, and he has painted himself into a corner: while the speech occasionally talked about jobs, none of his proposals (even if passed) will do much to reduce unemployment. Obama rolled over. Period.

  • Alli on August 13, 2011 8:58 PM:

    Krugman's personal dislike of Obama is seeping into his work. You wanna talk about Obots? Krugman gets quoted every damn where and poisons the discourse. Common sense, listening be damned.

  • TK421 on August 13, 2011 9:36 PM:

    "Except for the parts that defended the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act, practically the whole thing was about job creation"

    Oh so that's why the president has spent so much time since them emphasizing the need for more jobs...

    No, wait, actually he's spent the time since then emphasizing the need to cut federal spending, even if it means fewer jobs. Then, once he signed the debt ceiling deal, he said he was going to change focus to jobs--until the stock market nosedived, when he said he was going to concentrate on looking for more ways to cut federal spending.

  • Crissa on August 14, 2011 7:30 AM:

    We need to get Samuel L Jackson to read Krugman's columns about what we need to do for the economy, and get it published and out there.

    Tho Krugman's political chops are a bit weak, I think it has to do with having your issues ignored by the media. The President could talk about stimulus till the cows came home and no one would rebroadcast it.

    So you need to get it into a voice people will listen to.

  • robert on August 14, 2011 12:07 PM:

    Well maybe the words were as you say Andrew but as today's NYT article on WH debate makes clear that has not really been the President's policy:

    "Playing it safe is not going to cut it,” said Ms. Romer, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley. “Not proposing anything bold and not trying to do something to definitively deal with our problems would mean that we’re going to have another year and a half like the last year and a half — and then it’s awfully hard to get re-elected.”

    But there is little support for such an approach inside the administration. A series of departures has left few economists among Mr. Obama’s senior advisers. Several of his political advisers are skeptical about the merits of stimulus spending, and they are certain about the politics: voters do not like it.

    Mr. Plouffe and Mr. Daley share the view that a focus on deficit reduction is an economic and political imperative, according to people who have spoken with them. Voters believe that paying down the debt will help the economy, and the White House agrees, although it wants to avoid cutting too much spending while the economy remains weak.

    As part of this appeal to centrist voters, the president intends to continue his push for a so-called grand bargain on deficit reduction — a deal with Republicans to make even larger spending cuts, including to the social safety net, in exchange for some revenue increases — despite the strong opposition of Congressional Democrats who want to use the issue to draw contrasts with Republicans."

    Mr. 'Fluff' and Mr. 'Doodle' are clearly wrong on the economics, but think they are right on the politics. They are not the sort of Democrats we voted for in 2008 and they are about to screw up 2012.

  • ClearEye on August 14, 2011 12:38 PM:

    The ''art of the possible'' changed for Obama when the 2010 electorate was whiter, older, more conservative and 30% smaller than the 2008 electorate.

    Having noted that ''elections have consequences'' to Republicans early in his term, Republicans returned the compliment by taking back the House majority.

    Obama has been fighting a rear guard action ever since, able, for example, to win extension of unemployment insurance and the payroll tax holiday only by going along with a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts.

    Republicans, who showed immense discipline in resisting every Obama initiative even when he had majorities in both the House and Senate, now know they can stop any proposal he makes that requires legislation. For their part, Republicans have failed to exercise their own legitimate Constitutional power to reshape spending through appropriations and legislation in the House committees they now control.

    Republicans captured the attention of an America that has not yet felt much benefit from Obama policies and found the simplistic anti-debt narrative motivating. Republicans overstepped during the debt ceiling debacle, and have lost ground, but still think they have the winning story.

    Democrats have not helped themselves politically by arguing that ''it's complicated'', neither do pundits like Krugman help by prescribing textbook solutions, insensate to political realities.

    What's needed is a coherent, compelling narrative that convinces the public that more government activity is warranted. Failing that, we get Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann on the right up against progressives on the left who seem not to grasp the impact of elections.

  • hagofhelp on August 14, 2011 3:16 PM:

    Thanks for bringing some much needed reality into these fantasy-lives of pundits.

    The President is not your Magic Pony, Krugman. Learn how government works before discussing politics.

  • Texas Aggie on August 14, 2011 3:42 PM:

    About the only part of this column that really made a lot of sense was the part about “Don’t like Obama? Re-elect Pelosi.”

    And not just as Speaker, but two steps up.

  • Oneonta Kevin on August 14, 2011 7:29 PM:

    I think many people are misunderstanding Paul Krugman, his views and his intentions. What Krugman is saying isn't incorrect. Mr. Obama has repeatedly spoke out in detail about deficit reduction but on the topic of boosting the economy he has been vague at best. His opinions are never very clear and as for specific proposals on the economy, completely non-existant. Stagnation is what Krugman has repeatedly warned about since the recession began in 2008 and stagnation is all we have recieved. So before we criticize Krugman we should also at least acknowledge where he has been correct. The economy was never properly spurred and now what we have is crawling job growth and a rising extremist right wing sect that now controls the flow of politics. On a more personal level I strongly believe Obama bears enormous responsibility for not stemmying this movement in any way he could. Instead he has become a backround figure with an obscure political agenda, not the man of leadership we elected him to be. he gives in and gives in and we swallow blow after blow making excuses for the man instead of holding him responsible for letting these radicals stroll into town and rearrange our entire system. Krugman shouldn't be the focus. It should be Obama for not staying strong when we needed im most.

  • EJS on August 14, 2011 10:16 PM:

    So what, exactly, is Obama's "jobs agenda?" He's talked about jobs, but what has he actually proposed or done? I know he's completely hamstrung and stymied now by Republican obstructionism, but he had all kinds of momentum at the start of his Presidency and he did close to nothing with it. A stimulus package was passed, but it was about half the necessary size and was heavily tilted toward tax cuts, which are not very efficient in creating jobs. There's been nothing really done to put Americans directly back to work, nothing done to reverse offshoring, nothing done to establish a national economic strategy, nothing done to strengthen unions, nothing done to start to "buy American," not much done to start repairing and renewing our crumbling national infrastructure. Supposedly, the richest country in the world can't even "afford" to change the light bulbs at our national parks. My sympathies are all with Krugman. I think Obama has been a big disappointment. Obama seems to prefer rubbing shoulders with and accepting campaign contributions from those "savvy businessmen" who precipitated our great recession much more than interacting with normal Americans.