Arguing With Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future by Paul Krugman W. W. Norton
illustration
Kelsey Dake

Strangely, and unexpectedly, the big reveal in Paul Krugman’s new anthology comes right at the end. All through the book, the reader wonders how so talented and fortunate an author came to develop such a furious and bitter voice. What drives a dazzling academic—the winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics, no less—to turn his New York Times column into an undiscriminating guillotine for conservative foes? Krugman is substantively correct on just about every topic he addresses. He writes amusingly and fluently. His combination of analytic brilliance and linguistic facility recalls Milton Friedman or John Maynard Keynes. But Krugman can also sound like a cross between a bloodthirsty Robespierre and a rebarbative GIF. Week after week, he shakes his fist righteously at Republicans and anyone who defends them: You’re shilling for the fat cats. You’re shilling for the fat cats. Over and over. Again and again.

We will get to the essence of that big reveal presently, but first we should consider Krugman’s own explanation for his tone. As he acknowledges, it does invite questions. For most of his career, Krugman was not a partisan. Emerging from graduate school in 1977, he assumed that if he ever got mixed up in policy debates, he would occupy the role of a technocrat—“someone dispassionately providing policymakers with information about what worked.” For a brief stint in the 1980s, he served this function in Ronald Reagan’s White House, and in the mid-’90s a Newsweek profile pronounced him “ideologically colorblind.” During these decades, Krugman was as likely to whack Democrats for their suspicion of markets as he was to denounce Republicans for their magical unrealism about the growth effects of tax cuts. But then, in 1999, Krugman became a Times columnist. Almost immediately—and long before Donald Trump became president—technocratic dispassion gave way to polemics.

In the introduction to this collection of mostly journalistic writings, Krugman contends that he didn’t change. Rather, politics did. Republicans lost respect for facts and data, turning politically neutral technocrats into involuntary foes. “In 21st-century America,” Krugman writes, “accepting what the evidence says about an economic question will be seen as a partisan act.” He began to feel this viscerally before the period covered in this volume: George W. Bush anticipated the revolt against experts when he sold his tax-cut proposal dishonestly during the 2000 election campaign. But since then Krugman’s frustration has only grown deeper.

In the Obama years, technocrats determined that the Federal Reserve’s bond-buying in a depressed economy wouldn’t generate dangerous inflation, but “the official Republican view,” Krugman tells us, was that the Fed was being irresponsible. In the Trump presidency, technocrats have pointed out the lack of support for the claim that tax cuts for high earners will generate prosperity, but Republicans have preached this gospel regardless. Commentators in this post-evidence, post-truth environment find themselves “arguing with zombies,” to cite Krugman’s book title. They confront “ideas that should have been killed by contrary evidence, but instead keep shambling along, eating people’s brains.”

Faced with these alarming undead adversaries, Krugman has concluded that politically neutral truth telling is not merely impossible. It is morally inadequate. He duly sets out four rules for engaged public intellectuals. First, they should “stay with the easy stuff,” meaning subjects on which experts have achieved consensus: This is where an authoritative commentator can improve public understanding by delivering a clear message. Second, they should communicate in plain English—no controversy there. Third, and a bit more edgily, Krugman insists that commentators should “be honest about dishonesty.” If politicians deny clear evidence, they should be called out for arguing in bad faith. Finally, Krugman proclaims a rule that flies in the face of traditional journalistic tradecraft: “Don’t be afraid to talk about motives.”

To see what Krugman means in practice, let’s apply his rules to the topic that best suits his approach. As he rightly maintains, Republican leaders have repeatedly ignored the solid expert consensus on climate change. Given that this consensus has been clear for more than a decade, it is fair to conclude that Republican leaders are consciously making false statements—in other words, that they are liars. Guessing at their motives seems risky but not totally unreasonable. Conceivably, they might be lying because they don’t want to irk voters with the news that hamburgers and pickup trucks are cooking the planet. But Krugman is basically right that “almost all prominent climate deniers are on the fossil-fuel take.” To state the matter plainly, conservatives lie about this issue because they are paid to lie. Or, in Krugman’s broad and snarling formulation: “Republicans don’t just have bad ideas; at this point, they are, necessarily, bad people.”

Krugman’s blunt approach has powerful attractions. For one thing, it delights his liberal readers, and may inspire some of them to advocate for better policy. For another, his willingness to ascribe motive may reveal the real drivers of political struggles. In one of this book’s punchy and persuasive sections, he goes after the media’s cowardly tendency to give both sides of a debate equal treatment, even when one side is clearly lying. At his best, he is the lucid antidote to this sort of false equivalence. But the Krugmanite approach also has drawbacks. By branding Republicans as “bad people,” he reduces the chances of swaying them. By sweeping all Republicans into the same basket—often without specifying whether he means party leaders or the rank and file—Krugman may obscure more of reality than he manages to expose.

His answer to these objections is characteristically forthright. The way he sees things, sweeping “Republicans,” the “right,” or sometimes “conservatives” into one basket isn’t a mistake, because he believes that nearly all Republicans belong in there. Insulting large categories of opponents has no cost; all are more or less dishonest, in hock to special interests, and therefore impossible to influence by means of reasoned argument. “If you’re having a real, good-faith debate, impugning the other side’s motives is a bad thing,” Krugman explains at one point. “If you’re debating bad-faith opponents, acknowledging their motives is just a matter of being honest about what’s going on.” By ignoring evidence and lying, Republicans are signaling that they cannot be reasoned with. In Krugman’s summation,“the mendacity is the message.”

When you stop and think about this line of argument, you begin to get a handle on why Krugman sounds so furious. For the past two decades, he has poured his prolific talents into a torrent of Times commentary, yet he doubts whether his writings can bring people around. If a large chunk of the 21st-century Republican Party is guilty of disparaging the truth, the flip side is that Krugman himself has lost confidence in the efficacy of the truth, at least in forging policy consensus. This is a dispiriting conclusion, especially for a truth-seeking professor. The more important question is whether it is justified. Are Republicans really so undifferentiated? Will none of them ever listen to a Krugman-type message, perhaps cleansed of its bile?

Go back to the example of climate change—a topic chosen, remember, because it fits relatively easily into Krugman’s Manichaean worldview. Contrary to Krugman’s assumption, not all Republicans have the same outlook. President Trump has mocked climate science, but Republican senators such as Lamar Alexander and Lisa Murkowski are at least willing to acknowledge global warming and to call for extra research into renewable energy sources. Senator Lindsey Graham, usually an abject Trump defender, recently urged the president “to look at the science, admit that climate change is real, and come up with solutions.” In April, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, another Trumpy Republican, tweeted, “I didn’t come to Congress to argue with a thermometer, and I think that more of my colleagues need to realize that the science of global warming is irrefutable.”

Talk is cheap, of course, and Krugman might note that small pinpricks of reason don’t change the big picture. The most striking fact about the congressional Republicans is not that they disagree with the president occasionally, but rather that they abase themselves grotesquely by defending his conduct. Yet what’s revealing about Graham’s and Gaetz’s statements is that the men’s consciences are still flickering. Writing the lawmakers off as “bad people” is too simple. Some part of them does respect science. And even if Krugman concludes that congressional Republicans are evil anyway, does he really want to imply the same about the broad mass of Republican voters? At one point Krugman writes that the Republican Party is “completely dominated by climate deniers.” But the Pew Research Center reports that 19 percent of conservative Republicans, and fully 43 percent of moderate and liberal Republicans, regard climate change as a major threat. They are not all the demons that Krugman imagines.

On other issues, Krugman’s caricature of Republicans is even further off the mark. He accuses the party, with reason, of catering to racial animosity—only to then go too far. It isn’t just some Republicans who take this position, in his telling. Rather, the vast majority do. He dismisses the idea that many Republicans might favor small government while rejecting racial intolerance, writing that this combination “is logically coherent, but doesn’t seem to have any supporters beyond a few dozen guys in bow ties.” Yet Pew tells a more mixed story: 53 percent of white Republicans say that America’s efforts to extend equal rights to black people have been about sufficient, and an additional 15 percent say that these efforts have not gone far enough. On taxes, Pew reports that 42 percent of Republicans say that some corporations don’t pay their fair share. And despite Krugman’s assertion that “Republicans almost universally advocate low taxes on the wealthy,” 37 percent of Republicans believe that some of the wealthy should pay more.

In short, Krugman is suffering from an especially public case of what’s come to be known as Trump Derangement Syndrome. Appalled by the Republican Party’s most bigoted leaders, whose rise he traces at least as far back as the George W. Bush administration, he has allowed himself to believe that nearly all Republicans are corrupt and evil, and therefore that reasoned argument is futile. “The modern G.O.P. doesn’t do policy analysis,” he pronounces. Yet the reality is subtler. Republicans are more open to reason than Krugman allows.

All of which brings us to that big reveal at the end of Krugman’s book. If the author’s own justification for his angry tone is not quite satisfying, we must seek an alternative explanation, and it comes in an essay titled “How I Work,” first published in 1993. In it, Krugman reflects on his approach to academic research and emphasizes his facility with simple mathematical models that necessarily incorporated “obviously unrealistic assumptions.” For example, his work on trade theory, which helped win him the Nobel Prize, assumed countries of precisely equal economic size. “Why, people will ask, should they be interested in a model with such silly assumptions?” Krugman writes. The answer, as he tells us, is that minimalism yielded insight. His contribution to economics, in his own estimation, was “ridiculous simplicity.”

That same contribution distinguishes his journalism, and might well also win him a Pulitzer Prize, given that Krugman has pushed the boundaries of what it means to be a Times commentator—arrogantly or bravely, or both. Many passages of his book underscore how thunderingly right he’s been on the big questions of the past 15 years or so: on the overriding postcrisis need for maximum economic stimulus; on the political (as opposed to technological) causes of wealth concentration; on the commonsensical proposition that all Americans should have access to affordable health care. But Krugman should surely be the first to admit that his journalism, like his research, is founded on radical simplification. Like those economic models that assume people are perfectly rational, he presumes that his adversaries are perfectly corruptible. This is elegantly clarifying. But, to borrow one of Krugman’s own phrases, it may mistake beauty for truth.

In the end, one’s judgment about Krugman the columnist depends on the test that he applies to economic models: Their assumptions are allowed to be reductive, but they must yield a persuasive story. If you accept that almost all conservatives are impervious to reason, you will celebrate Krugman’s writings for laying bare reality. But the evidence from the Pew surveys counsels more charity and caution. Most people cannot be pigeonholed as purely good or purely evil. Their motives are mixed, confused, and mutable. Sometimes conservatives will be venal, but other times they will respond to evidence; like Representative Gaetz, they do not want to argue with thermometers. Krugman’s “ridiculous simplicity” produces writing that is fluent, compelling, and yet profoundly wrong in its understanding of human nature. And the mistake is consequential. For the sake of our democracy, a supremely gifted commentator should at least try to unite citizens around common understandings. Merely demonizing adversaries is the sort of thing that Trump does.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.