Professor Krugman’s Nervous Tic?

By Joe Firestone

Paul Krugman’s recent post makes some good points about the myth of the undeserving poor. But does he have a nervous tic? When criticizing conservative economic views, doesn’t he always seem to genuflect slightly to conservative opinion in order to appear “reasonable”? In this post he says:

“I’ve noted before that conservatives seem fixated on the notion that poverty is basically the result of character problems among the poor. This may once have had a grain of truth to it, but for the past three decades and more the main obstacle facing the poor has been the lack of jobs paying decent wages. But the myth of the undeserving poor persists, and so does a counterpart myth, that of the deserving rich.”

What “grain of truth” ever existed in this story? Where is the empirical evidence that the poor were ever more “lazy” than the rich or had other “character defects” (Not K’s words) that the rich don’t have in abundance, as well? I don’t think there is any. What the conservatives believe is pure BS. Some people are certainly “lazier” than others. But there’s no evidence that this aspect of character is class-based. It’s just prejudice, myth, and conservative fairy tales, which they embrace in place of authentic religion, run rampant.

Many of our most visible and celebrated “liberals” or “progressives” seem to share this nervous tic with Professor Krugman. Bernie Sanders, for example, seems always to begin any comment he makes about fiscal policy by genuflecting to the idea that, of course, “. . . the US has a long-term debt problem, and we must have a plan for long-term deficit reduction, but . . .” Bloggers at the Campaign for the American Future are careful to mention that in order to implement progressive spending policies, of course we need to raise taxes on the rich, because the spending must be consistent with the goal of long-term deficit reduction. And while raising taxes is certainly not genuflecting to conservative religion, the idea that we need deficit reduction is.

I’m sure my readers can easily multiply examples. But the larger point here is that genuflecting just reinforces the conservative framing and we don’t need that. What we do need are full-throated statements of progressive ideas that make no full or partial validations of the myths and shibboleths of the neoliberal and conservative past.

What we need is the unvarnished truth as we see it. That is the only way to move on and away from the sad place of emerging global feudalism in which we find ourselves.

20 responses to “Professor Krugman’s Nervous Tic?

  1. Well said, Joe.

  2. Why does somebody like Krugman, a very well-compensated individual worry about poor people and unemployment? How many people do he and his similarly affluent spouse employ?

    “For example, how are children of the poor, or even the working class, supposed to get a good education in an era of declining support for and sharply rising tuition at public universities?”

    Krugman, and his Princeton salary, are part of the problem with rising tuition. Is there a Krugman scholarship fund for the deserving poor at Princeton?

    “You can find the inflation-corrected number in the same Census Bureau table; it shows incomes for the bottom fifth actually falling. ”

    According to the government, inflation is what we want. What’s the advantage of inflation if wages have to go up, too.

    “nothing takes a toll on family values like lack of employment opportunities.”

    No, what really takes a toll on families and their values is the government paying women to kick their men out of the house.

  3. It’s a testament to our political, educational, and institutional systems in general that MMT and the principles behind it (which as far as I can tell are just facts ma’am) doesn’t get any recognition at all. When Bernie Sanders says “long term debt problem” he just might not be aware of MMT. It’s a narrative that’s gets trod out in Washington and I wish politicians wouldn’t fall for such things but it happens. I don’t know, Bernie Sanders isn’t a bad guy and alot of what he fights for I agree with but theirs a huge hurdle to overcome. In part it’s because they spend so much time lobbying for money to get re-elected they either don’t have time or are unwilling to to do research.

  4. One of the most common examples of this phenomenon is the idea that the federal government spends “our” money. Chris Hayes (who seems to be quite MMT-friendly) invoked this in reference to federal Sandy relief. I suppose there’s a sense in which it is “our” money, in that it was created by our government in furtherance of a legitimate public purpose. But framing it as “our” money perpetuates the idea that federal spending comes from tax receipts.

  5. I believe the “grain of truth” that Krugman is speaking of depends on how the term “character problems” is defined and although conservatives and liberals would have very different definitions their might be enough of an overlap – at least in good economic times – over the continuum to constitute a “grain of truth.”


  6. Excellent post, Joe. These mainstreamers are clowns. They regularly make fools of themselves. They’re stuck in their ideology and they allow themselves to be distracted. The sole focus should be on lifting up the poor.

    Krugman should be ashamed of himself. This guy knows damn well that federal taxes don’t fund federal spending, yet he has not advocated a payroll tax holiday, a policy that would have a chance of passing the House.

  7. It’s really easy to understand that govt deficit is non-govt surplus and govt debt is non-govt net savings, yet, is it really realistic to get the general public to understand that? The idea that the govt debt is a bad thing is just so deeply ingrained, it’s across the spectrum.

  8. I’ve always considered Krugman a farce and a fraud, whether it was back in 2008, when the banksters were obviously (together w/their oil corps) speculating up the prices of oil/energy futures to up the price of oil (along with speculating up the prices of those chemical substances involved in the oil refining process, as well as the transport of oil by speculating up the price of oil tanker rentals/railroad transport by their manipulation of Freight Forward futures, etc.), and Krugman publicly stated “ was simple supply and demand” — riiiiigggghhht!

    Krugman is Group of Thirty, and all those fellows always speak on behalf of the central banks and speculators. It is a done deal.

    Great article.

    And speaking of the poor, articles of interest:

  9. Shouldn’t be too harsh. The MMT message is extremely abstract, counterintuitive and a political live wire. No matter how many times Stephanie declares the federal government is not like a household, there is a vast silo of incorrect intuition that seems almost impossible to overcome. There is a phenomena where a small cadre of “experts” can sabotage a large body of scientific evidence – we see it today with the climate change deniers. In this case we have it much worse, a huge army of experts who are programmed to exclude new truths.

    I was watching the MMT forum when the question was asked, why doesn’t something so logical as MMT register with politicians? An anecdote was given where a liberal politician admitted that the theory was very persuasive but he could never say so in public.

    My belief is that the nature of the true battle is beginning to surface. Its not about the money, the reasonableness of MMT notwithstanding. its about the power. Its about the resources, human and natural, and who gets to decided what to do with them. Placing artificial constraints on the medium of exchange gives immense power to those who accumulate wealth – they get to decide in the current system. Any other option can be falsely branded as communism. Bernie Sanders declares himself a socialist, but even he fears the communist label. And so the equivocation creeps in – a little disclaimer ( as in “some of my best friends are…”) Any politician who seriously claims that deficits are not the problem, will be immediately dismissed and marginalized. Cheney could get away with it – just the rantings of an arrogant bastard.

    I believe there is a way to make the case – but it will take those of us who do understand the nature of money to get outside this bubble.

  10. Deficit Reduction is only on the conservative agenda when Democrats are in power. How can any one forget that it was Cheney who said that deficits do not matter.

  11. There is some important psychology here. Most humans are incapable of changing their minds without an opportunity to save face.
    Ideally you engage them in discourse gradually convince them they are wrong and give them a chance to add something to your hypothesis or explanation; this allows them to feel part of the victory and makes abandoning flawed opinions a lot easier.
    Krugman’s stance of trying to concede some points to the conservatives in order to get them to listen to him at all is dishonest but may be more likely to work. Conservatives (or main stream economists) will simply ignore or dismiss sites like NEP but often give Krugman a glance. I think that partially because they can read him without the crippling Ego blow which would come from reading NEP and realising just how wrong they really are.
    Being right isn’t enough in politics. Have to convince people and that means employing some psychology or compromise even if it’s academically dubious. We need someone to speak unadulterated truth but I think we might need our Krugman’s as well.

  12. My guess is that the “grain of truth” relates to the bygone hey-day of welfare rights in America. Old folks like me can still remember the bi-partisan resignation of an earlier generation of politicians – who at least conceded that *children* should not go hungry for the sins of their parents. Those were such innocent times. Soon enough, we began to hear that the kids went hungry anyway because the moochers just spent the money on booze and drugs. It’s so easy to kick someone when they’re already down. And so easy to extend a stereotype when it’s already there. And so easy to profit from it politically when joining the elite is your only real agenda.

    If there is an afterlife, I hope Bill Clinton gets to spend it chatting with every last mom he put out on the street or into a homeless shelter because he wanted to give bi-partisanship a whole other meaning.

    As for Paul Krugman, I think we need a more nuanced approach. Economists who want to help poor children don’t grow on trees – unless you count the ones who think that an empty belly fosters initiative and self-reliance. I suspect that Krugman’s tic was professional, not cultural or moral. I vaguely remember that, at some earlier point, he did work that confirmed a link between better unemployment benefits and pickier job searches. As if there was something morally, or even economically, wrong with that.

    What I agree with is that when a prominent person makes a reference like that they should explain it.

    Good catch / thanks, Joe.

  13. The myth of the deserving rich and the underserving poor is very difficult to eradicate because for the rich to accept that it is not true they would have to accept a pianful psychological bruise to their ego.

    By the way, on my computer screens it shows that my comment above, posted at 4:48pm on the 23rd of January is awaiting moderation.
    What have I done to deserve such consideration? Is this something that is being moderated by your staff or is this something that is being moderated by someone or something in between my location and your location.
    This has happens to me frequently when I post on the web site of Professor Juan Cole at the University of Michingan ( but I always assumed that his staff had done that to make sure that neither he or I get in to trouble for some my views becoming public which is really a sad commentary on the state of self censorship in the USA.

    • Joe Firestone

      Sorry, Curt. Everything is moderated here, most by a primary moderator. My posts are moderated by me, and my standards are pretty much that everything gets through except uncivil behavior. That’s favorable to the poster. On the other hand, I sometimes take awhile to get to the moderation because I’m doing other things.

    • We don’t have any problem accepting the fact that some people can play football better than others, that some can write better novels, that some can teach classes more effectively, that a few are able to design systems better than the rest. Why is it impossible that some individuals are actually better at making money than the rest of us? The supposedly poor today are immensely more wealthy than the affluent of just a short time ago. The supposed poor at one time can become the middle class later on. Hanging the hat of MMT on the bogus poverty syndrome is a poor tactic if you want to change monetary policy.

      • Chuck, great rant in favor of a 100% inheritance tax.

        W/R/T your claim that the supposedly poor of today are immensely more wealthy than the affluent of just a short time ago, do you have a link? I’ve never heard or read anyone, anywhere, make such a bold and unsubstantiated claim.

        If you can’t find a link, explain CEO compensation in the Fortune 100. How is it that they are able to generate so much more value in an hour than most other people. We should make them wear catheters, because going to the toilet is a huge loss to shareholders.

        Gale Klappa looted almost $50 million out of rate payers in the last five years.

        Guy runs a MONOPOLY that “sells” water, natural gas, and electricity.

        How is he “good” at anything except lining his own pockets at the expense of rate payers and shareholders?

  14. Pingback: Professor Krugman’s Nervous Tic? | The Mo...

  15. Chuck Martel is a libertarian Internet troll who doesn’t understand how the macro economy functions. Don’t waste too much time with him.

  16. Great article. Folks need to be challenged when they make remarks such as these. The equivocation makes my blood boil and emasculates any philosophical and moral basis for an argument. They leave themselves open to the argument that their positions are merely a matter of degree. Its okay to address poverty, unless the poor are “too” lazy and its okay to promote the need for government spending as long as its not “too”much. It then just becomes a fight over where to draw the line. There really is “good” policy and “bad” policy.