Krugman is right, then possibly wrong: Praising the Occupy Wall Street protest, Paul Krugman provides an important service.
Early in this morning’s column, he reviews the way we all got here. Note the highlighted passage:
KRUGMAN (10/7/11): A weary cynicism, a belief that justice will never get served, has taken over much of our political debate—and, yes, I myself have sometimes succumbed. In the process, it has been easy to forget just how outrageous the story of our economic woes really is. So, in case you’ve forgotten, it was a play in three acts.Have people really forgotten that history? Of course they have! More significantly, most people have never encountered so clear an account of these disgraceful events.
In the first act, bankers took advantage of deregulation to run wild (and pay themselves princely sums), inflating huge bubbles through reckless lending. In the second act, the bubbles burst—but bankers were bailed out by taxpayers, with remarkably few strings attached, even as ordinary workers continued to suffer the consequences of the bankers’ sins. And, in the third act, bankers showed their gratitude by turning on the people who had saved them, throwing their support—and the wealth they still possessed thanks to the bailouts—behind politicians who promised to keep their taxes low and dismantle the mild regulations erected in the aftermath of the crisis.
Given this history, how can you not applaud the protesters for finally taking a stand?
It’s always important to keep it simple. Krugman provides an important service by walking us through those events.
After that, we think his judgment may be wrong. We’re somewhat inclined to disagree with what he says in this passage:
KRUGMAN: A better critique of the protests is the absence of specific policy demands. It would probably be helpful if protesters could agree on at least a few main policy changes they would like to see enacted. But we shouldn’t make too much of the lack of specifics. It’s clear what kinds of things the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators want, and it’s really the job of policy intellectuals and politicians to fill in the details.We’re inclined to disagree with that idea. In our view, this protest movement serves best as a form of “teach-in,” as a forum for helping the public understand the basic history—and the basic sociology—of our long, ongoing meltdown. As soon as specific proposals are made, many citizens who might be drawn in will find themselves getting pulled back.
Rich Yeselson, a veteran organizer and historian of social movements, has suggested that debt relief for working Americans become a central plank of the protests. I’ll second that, because such relief, in addition to serving economic justice, could do a lot to help the economy recover. I’d suggest that protesters also demand infrastructure investment—not more tax cuts—to help create jobs. Neither proposal is going to become law in the current political climate, but the whole point of the protests is to change that political climate.
Sadly, it gets even worse. As soon as Krugman endorses proposals, many others will instantly feel that they can’t. We think that’s a deeply unfortunate state of affairs. But such is the state of the culture.
We’ll discuss the coverage of this movement all next week. But the best thing this movement has done is this: It has redefined our political math.
Over the past dozen years, our standard political math has all turned on 50/50. We’re a 50/50, tribal nation—half red and half blue.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has pushed an important new math—99/1, not 50/50. “We are the 99 percent,” they keep saying. Through that accurate reckoning, many people, across all tribal lines, are being told, completely correctly, that they are part of this movement too—that they’re getting ripped off by the one percent, just like everyone else is.
We think it’s smart to stress this instruction, in both the history and the math. As soon as specific proposals are made, tribal walls will start rising again. The plutocrats will use long-established scripts to peel one tribe from the other.
This movement should keep giving people that history. People don’t know how we got to this place. Very few people have taken the time to tell them in a simple clear manner.
Krugman’s history is clear—and important. So is that new American math. We need more of that history, aimed at all tribal groupings, in a movement which heavily buys that new math.