The Conscience of a Liberal

by Paul Krugman

W.W. Norton, 352 pp.

Read our interview with Paul Krugman

It’s become a cherished ritual in reality-based America during the Bush years: Grabbing hold of a copy of The New York Times, turning to the op-ed page, and enjoying the latest blistering attack on the administration offered by Paul Krugman. While the Times has other liberal columnists, none demonstrates the sheer indignationnor boasts the academic credentials (professor of economics at Princeton)that Krugman wields.

Consequently, Krugman has become an honored and prominent figure not just among liberal academics but among the activist-minded progressive netroots as well. Virtually everything Krugman publishes is reprinted on the lefty Web site Common Dreams, a distinction that places Krugman in the same company as left icons Noam Chomsky and Tom Hayden.

Yet a decade ago, few would have pegged Krugman as a leading left spokesperson of the early 21st century. Krugman first made his name as a wunderkind economist in the 1980s, later winning major prizes such as the John Bates Clark medal (awarded to the top economist under age 40) for his work on trade theory. Krugman established a reputation as the sort of economist who is interested inand could write intelligently aboutjust about anything.

It would have been no surprise, then, if Krugman had been drafted into the Clinton administration in the 1990s as a top adviser. Instead, Krugman was left off Clinton’s economic teamand even more galling, Krugman simply did not respect Clinton’s actual advisers, believing, as he states in his new book, The Conscience of a Liberal, that they were preoccupied with trade wars with Japan rather than economic fundamentals. In 1994, Krugman published a bitter book called Peddling Prosperity, which attacked “policy entrepreneurs” posing as economists on both the right (the supply-siders) and the left (the “strategic traders”). The viewpoint was that of an academic economist looking down through his nose at the nonsense that passed for economic reasoning in many Washington policy circles.

While Krugman has always been a consistent critic of supply-side economics, the 1990s Krugman was equally eager to bash populists, critics of globalization and left-allied activists for not understanding economic “fundamentals.” Krugman thus offered a qualified defense of sweatshop labor; derided journalist William Greider’s critique of global capitalism, One World, Ready or Not, as the work of an “accidental theorist”; and found himself in savage catfights with more avowedly progressive intellectual-activists such as Robert Kuttner, editor of the liberal journal The American Prospect.

Seven years of W, hundreds of billions of dollars in deficits, and one fruitless war later, few liberals remain interested in the internecine debates of the 1990s. The imperatives are rather to get the Republicans out and to be sure Bush II goes down as one of the worst presidents in American history. Krugman’s acerbic style and unbridled disgust at the mendacity of the administration on a wide range of issues now has a tonic effect on liberal readers, while his characteristic command of economic data lend substance and credibility to his assessments.

So now it is the right who hates Krugman. The Conscience of a Liberal certainly won’t improve Krugman’s standing in conservative circles. But the more interesting question is just what sort of liberalism Krugman is promoting.

Krugman’s latest offering provides an amply documented, crisply presented account of what might be termed the liberal view of the 20th century. In this narrative, the Gilded Age was a time of great inequality and corrupt politics; the New Deal led to a virtuous postwar generation in which economic growth went hand in hand with narrowed economic inequalities and expanded social freedoms; but since the mid-1970s, the economic prospects of ordinary Americans have stagnated even while the overall economic pie continues to expand, because those increased gains have been claimed overwhelmingly by the richest Americans. The result is a return to Gilded Age-level inequalities and an increasingly bitter political landscape.

Where things get particularly interesting is when Krugman considers just who and what is responsible for the past 30 years of economic stagnation. Crucially, Krugman believes that the stock explanations employed by many economists (such as “skill biased technical change”) cannot account for the long-term upward spiral in inequality. Instead, Krugman stresses the primacy of politics, and in particular the rise of “movement conservatism”the powerful, well-funded network of right-wing conservatives that has captured the Republican Party and a vastly influential role in public debate and policy-making through its many think tanks and lobbying organizations. Krugman argues that the goal of movement conservatives is nothing less than to undo all the progressive social reforms of the 20th century, and that they are willing to seize any argument or claim to advance that cause, with no regard for either truth or intellectual integrity. Once in power, movement conservatism has emasculated labor unions, allowed the real value of the minimum wage to wither, and pushed the tax code in a regressive direction through tax cuts skewed to the wealthy.

Krugman builds a persuasive case that movement conservatism needs to be confronted and, eventually, defeated. But his animosity toward movement conservatives runs the risk of giving them too much credit, and of over-estimating the impact a Democratic restoration would likely have on the long-run trends of economic inequality and public dismay with politics.

Consider an alternative explanation for the rightward shift in American politics, one advanced with varying degrees of emphasis and radicalism by Kuttner (in his new book The Squandering of America), economist Dean Baker (in his recent book The United States Since 1980) and historian Gar Alperovitz (in his 2004 book America Beyond Capitalism). According to these accounts, recent developments in American politics and economics reflect not simply movement conservatism, but a fundamentally broken political system, epitomized by the enormous power of corporate America and the pervasive influence corporate interests wield over both parties.

When Republicans rule the roost, movement conservatism and corporate power are deeply intertwined, to the degree that it can be almost impossible to separate the two. But when Democrats sweep into office, as they did in 1992 and may do in 2008, the corporations and their vast political influence are still there, and are still capable of blocking meaningful reforms (such as providing universal health care) of the kind Krugman endorses.

To the extent this analysis is correct, Krugman’s suggestion that a liberal revival capable of reversing decades-long trends of growing inequality will soon be at hand appears as so much wishful thinking. To be sure, Krugman stakes a position far closer to John Edwards’ populism than Hillary Clinton’s pragmatic centrism, and takes potshots at Bill Clinton for failing to build a progressive movement or enact an agenda any broader than re-election. That, Krugman concedes, “could happen again.”

For now, however, Krugman appears so obsessed with getting the Republicans out that he’s willing to downplay the limitations of a possible Clinton restoration. At times, The Conscience of a Liberal reads more like a campaign book than a serious analysis of the post-Bush future. This is understandable, but don’t be surprised if Krugman’s next volume, issued in the middle of another Clinton presidency, is titled The Disappointment of a Liberal.

Thad Williamson, a Chapel Hill native, is assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and co-author of Making a Place for Community: Local Democracy in a Global Era (Routledge, 2002) and author of the forthcoming Sprawl, Justice, and Citizenship: The Civic Cost of the American Way of Life (Oxford).

Paul Krugman will make two appearances in the Triangle Tuesday, Nov. 27: 2 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh and 5:30 p.m. at Duke University’s Sanford Institute of Public Policy. For more information, visit and