Along with Paul Krugman’s new column: Long ago, we once (or twice) saw Paul Reiser tell a long, complex “joke-joke” about the time Moses was invited to golf with the three persons of the Holy Trinity.
To make a very long joke-joke short, Moses was thrilled to be invited to round out the celestial foursome. But when the group arrived at the first tee, the three members of the trinity took turns authoring increasingly ridiculous holes-in-one. Each produced a supernatural shot which evoked a Bible miracle story.
Finally, it was Moses’ turn to tee off. In sheer frustration, though, he said this:
“Are we here to play golf? Or are we just gonna [blank] around?”
Reiser said you should always know 45 minutes of old jokes for the nights when things aren’t going well. We thought of that very old joke when we read Krugman’s new column.
We just lunched with a couple of liberal friends who thought the column was great. We had had a different reaction. Here’s why:
Krugman’s column bore this headline: “Slavery’s Long Shadow.” After noting that America “is a much less racist nation than it used to be,” Krugman articulated his basic point:
KRUGMAN (6/22/15): Yet racial hatred is still a potent force in our society, as we’ve just been reminded to our horror. And I’m sorry to say this, but the racial divide is still a defining feature of our political economy, the reason America is unique among advanced nations in its harsh treatment of the less fortunate and its willingness to tolerate unnecessary suffering among its citizens.Noting that his thesis tends to produce “angry denials,” Krugman said he would “try to be cool and careful here.”
Of course, saying this brings angry denials from many conservatives, so let me try to be cool and careful here, and cite some of the overwhelming evidence for the continuing centrality of race in our national politics.
Was Krugman trying to help his message go down? If so, it was probably too late by that point. Once you’ve accused the other side of authoring “harsh treatment of the less fortunate” and tolerating “unnecessary suffering among its citizens,” the other side has probably stopped listening to what you might have to say.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that your thesis is “wrong,” although of course it could be. It may mean that a lot of people may have stopped listening already.
What does Krugman mean when he says that “race” and the “racial divide” explain our country’s harsh treatment of the less fortunate? As he continues, he cites an academic paper which helps explain his claim:
KRUGMAN: The second paper, by the economists Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote, was titled “Why Doesn’t the United States Have a European-style Welfare State?” Its authors—who are not, by the way, especially liberal—explored a number of hypotheses, but eventually concluded that race is central, because in America programs that help the needy are all too often seen as programs that help Those People: “Within the United States, race is the single most important predictor of support for welfare. America’s troubled race relations are clearly a major reason for the absence of an American welfare state.”According to Krugman, this nation’s historically troubled race relations “are clearly a major reason for the absence of an American welfare state”—more specifically, for the absence of “a European-style welfare state” in this country.
That may well be true. But are we here to play golf? Or are we here to scold all those very bad people?
As Krugman continues, he stresses a certain correlation, the one which drives his headline. It starts as he considers those states which haven’t chosen to expand Medicaid under Obamacare.
What kind of state would turn down this program? States which practiced slavery before the Civil War:
KRUGMAN: For those who haven’t been following this issue, in 2012 the Supreme Court gave individual states the option, if they so chose, of blocking the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid, a key part of the plan to provide health insurance to lower-income Americans. But why would any state choose to exercise that option? After all, states were being offered a federally-funded program that would provide major benefits to millions of their citizens, pour billions into their economies, and help support their health-care providers. Who would turn down such an offer?It isn’t just Obamacare, Krugman notes. “A history of slavery is a strong predictor of everything from gun control (or rather its absence), to low minimum wages and hostility to unions, to tax policy.”
The answer is, 22 states at this point, although some may eventually change their minds. And what do these states have in common? Mainly, a history of slaveholding: Only one former member of the Confederacy has expanded Medicaid, and while a few Northern states are also part of the movement, more than 80 percent of the population in Medicaid-refusing America lives in states that practiced slavery before the Civil War.
We’re not saying that Krugman is “wrong” about those correlations or about that predictor. We’re saying that, from our point of view, this is a shaky way to play golf.
How can liberals persuade other people to institute the various programs of the “welfare state?” Our first suggestion:
In this country, we might start by dropping references to “the welfare state!”
Beyond that, we can think of few approaches that are less likely to bear fruit than the suggestion that other people pursue the policies they pursue because their ancestors were slaveholders. If that’s what we say when we’re being “cool and careful,” what do we say when we let it all hang out?
Krugman is the liberal world’s MVP on matters of policy—has been for many years. In our view, all liberals owe him a giant debt, a debt too large to repay.
At the same time, it seems to us that Krugman’s sense of politics is less strong than his grasp of policy. This returns us to our basic question:
Are we here to play golf?
Increasingly, it seems to us that many liberals primarily want to scold the other team. In the main, we aren’t looking for ways to make better things happen in the world. We’re looking for ways to shame the many millions of people who are less fine than us.
When the flag comes down in South Carolina, we complain that it didn’t happen last year. We complain that the motives for the change weren’t pure. We complain that this doesn’t affect the flag in Mississippi.
Listening to the radio today, we heard these complaints roll down like water from a mighty stream. We learned that we seem to the only liberal who is thrilled by what happened yesterday in South Carolina.
All week, we’ll ask variants of Moses’ age-old question, routed to us through the prophet Reiser:
Are we here to play golf? Or are we just going to [blank] around?
Are we looking for ways to produce societal gains? Or is this really all about us? All about our desire to tell the world that we are the truly good tribe?
Like Moses, of course, we’re just saying...