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What’s Left of the Left

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The previous day, the president had announced a deal with congressional Republicans, agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts in exchange for middle-class tax relief and an extension of unemployment benefits. Now, in the Oval Office, he told his guests that this effort had been his “last chance to move the dial” on jobs, as one economist present recalls, and that, with the exception of smaller initiatives (he mentioned infrastructure spending), the politics had now made further stimulus impossible. Soon, each of the economists was pushing “his own thing,” Krugman says. The official photograph the White House sent the participants could be read as a document of the moment of realization: Blinder sitting rigid and intent, Stiglitz’s face wry and unsurprised, as if he had expected the whole thing. Krugman alone seems to be surging out of his seat, his eyebrows arched, a roused alarm.

Even then, these economists recognized what a paltry, bowdlerized proxy for the left they were: six academics, and by any broad ideological standard a pretty moderate group, comfortable with markets and free trade. But liberals had long ago ceased to rally around class. “In the United States,” Blinder told me weeks later, a little bleakly, a little apologetically, “there is no left left.” Krugman, looking back, diagnoses two problems. First, the progressive economists had been too disorganized. And then they had been too late.

For a century, liberals have been chasing the same organizing idea: to perfect the welfare state—the soaringly aspirational, deeply flawed apparatus of Social Security, public health insurance, and progressive taxation designed to guarantee a secure middle class—and to extend its protections to every American. A year ago, after Obama’s health-care reforms became law, that project looked closer to completion. Now we are debating the terms of its erosion—with Republican proposals to cut the benefits of Medicare and Medicaid, conservative efforts to repeal protections for labor unions, and an emerging Washington consensus that the costs of a broad welfare state may be beyond what Americans will willingly pay. The White House meeting this past December, viewed in retrospect, seemed to mark the end of the expansive first part of Obama’s administration and the beginning of an austere second phase. Krugman, departing, found himself left in the position that every purist fears, holding blueprints for impossible buildings.

“I think what people like Paul Ryan are trying to do is set us on a glide path to a much harsher society,” Krugman now says. “A country in which, step by step, more and more people are cast out into a situation of not having health insurance and poverty, and so we slide back to a Victorian notion that life is full of evils and that’s too bad but that’s the way that God made the world. That large numbers of the poor, large numbers of the elderly just live in dire poverty and don’t have health care because life is tough.” For two years, Krugman has been arguing that this trajectory might have been averted if only Obama had been a little less deferential, a little more demanding, a little more alarmed. And so Krugman has given the debate on the left its shape: whether the president could have mounted a more effective defense of the welfare state, and whether liberalism’s tragic flaw is Obama’s instinct for conciliation or his leading critic’s naïveté.

Paul Krugman is a lonely man. That he is comfortable in his solitude, that he emphasizes its virtues, that his intelligence gives it a poetic gloss, none of this diminishes the poignancy of his isolation. Krugman grew up an only child and is deeply self-conscious. He will list his shortcomings as though he’d been preparing for the chance: “Loner. Ordinarily shy. Shy with individuals.” He is married but has no children nor—rare for a Nobelist—many protégés. When I asked him if there were any friends of his I could talk to in order to understand him better, he hesitated, then said, “That’s going to be hard.” One colleague at Princeton, where Krugman has taught since 2000, says the economist will avert his eyes when circumstance places the two of them alone in an elevator, his nose stuck in the corner, so as to avoid conversation. Krugman’s wife, Robin Wells, an academic economist herself, was recently reading the Ian McEwan novel Solar, whose protagonist is a Nobel Prize–winning physicist who has been married five times, and she found the scenario implausible. “You could never win the Nobel Prize with that kind of personal life,” she says. “It’s too distracting.”

Krugman is short and has a very round, very full belly; he is both generally agreeable and chronically rushed, and this gives him a myopic, distracted air. When he talks about himself, his ideas always arise only from his scholarship, as if once, long ago, he had erected a wall between his immersion in the world and his study of it. At Yale, he says, he formed no impression of the aspiring New York bankers and Washington lawyers who were his peers. Later, though he traveled frequently to Japan and met often with government ministers in the years when the country slipped into its lost decade, he says those meetings did nothing to shape his analysis. He has wondered often about why Larry Summers chose to support a smaller stimulus, but though he and Summers spoke every month or two when Summers was in the White House, Krugman never asked him. “He’s not oblivious to human nature; he will have conversations about this person or that and their motivations,” Wells says. “But he does keep it separate.”


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