Krugman: Obama is Wrong
Newsweek devotes its cover this week to the punditry of Paul Krugman, the most prominent leftist critic of President Obama’s financial plan.
In his twice-a-week column and his blog, Conscience of a Liberal, he criticizes the Obamaites for trying to prop up a financial system that he regards as essentially a dead man walking. In conversation, he portrays Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and other top officials as, in effect, tools of Wall Street (a ridiculous charge, say Geithner defenders). These men and women have “no venality,” Krugman hastened to say in an interview with NEWSWEEK. But they are suffering from “osmosis,” from simply spending too much time around investment bankers and the like. In his Times column the day Geithner announced the details of the administration’s bank-rescue plan, Krugman described his “despair” that Obama “has apparently settled on a financial plan that, in essence, assumes that banks are fundamentally sound and that bankers know what they’re doing. It’s as if the president were determined to confirm the growing perception that he and his economic team are out of touch, that their economic vision is clouded by excessively close ties to Wall Street.”
If you are of the establishment persuasion (and I am), reading Krugman makes you uneasy. You hope he’s wrong, and you sense he’s being a little harsh (especially about Geithner), but you have a creeping feeling that he knows something that others cannot, or will not, see. By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are. Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring. But sometimes, beneath the pleasant murmur and tinkle of cocktails, the old guard cannot hear the sound of ice cracking. The in crowd of any age can be deceived by self-confidence, as Liaquat Ahamed has shown in “Lords of Finance,” his new book about the folly of central bankers before the Great Depression, and David Halberstam revealed in his Vietnam War classic, “The Best and the Brightest.” Krugman may be exaggerating the decay of the financial system or the devotion of Obama’s team to preserving it. But what if he’s right, or part right? What if President Obama is squandering his only chance to step in and nationalize—well, maybe not nationalize, that loaded word—but restructure the banks before they collapse altogether?
One of the great cliches of the last few months was that Sept. 11 changed everything. I never believed that. An event changes everything only if it changes the way you see yourself. And the terrorist attack couldn’t do that, because we were victims rather than perpetrators. Sept. 11 told us a lot about Wahhabism, but not much about Americanism.
The Enron scandal, on the other hand, clearly was about us. It told us things about ourselves that we probably should have known, but had managed not to see. I predict that in the years ahead Enron, not Sept. 11, will come to be seen as the greater turning point in U.S. society.
So now what? At the moment, demands for reform are scattershot and confused. Some people want new rules for 401(k) plans; some want new rules for accountants; some want campaign finance reform; some want a return to regulation. These seem like unrelated agendas, but I think they have a common theme: They’re all about ending an era of laxity, in which nobody asked hard questions as long as everything looked O.K. That era is now over.
While I’ve never been a huge fan of Krugman’s non-economic punditry, he knows a little something about economics. I’m not so sure his prescription for the cure is right, but his diagnosis of the disease at least merits attention.
As an aside, the Newsweek piece, by Evan Thomas, is worth a read for what it says about the punditry game, too, especially the cozy relationship its most esteemed practitioners have had with policymakers.