I picked up The Conscience of a Liberal on audiobook on a whim from the library. I knew from the description that it has a discussion of racial politics after the civil rights era and I thought it might be a good follow up to Mark Noll’s God and Race in American Politics.
Krugman runs through a history of the 20th century in the US as he sees it to illustrate what he thinks is wrong with both US economic theory and history and what is wrong with the state of current US politics (this was written in 2007, so is pretty dated when talking about current politics.)
The history sections are interesting. Krugman’s point is that the liberal periods of 20th century history were the good parts and the conservative periods were the bad. By this Krugman means that liberal periods were the points when the economic pie was growing and income inequality was shrinking. He is telling this story in this method to counter the traditional economic story that says that deregulation and lower taxes expands the economic pie in such a way that everyone is better off, even if some are better off than others.
He may have a point, but it is not one that economic conservatives would agree with. Krugman is saying that what is important is inequality. So it is better to have slightly slower growth (and heavily tax the rich) to have strong safety net programs that reduce inequality. As a somewhat liberal leaning person, I understand his point and agree, to a degree. But only to degree, there is a line where taxation and safety net program are both too high. But Krugman’s liberal ideology is similar to the beliefs of tax cutting conservatives. Tax cutting conservatives had a real point when taxes were at 90%. But the economic growth achieved by cutting taxes reduces as the rate drops (so you will not get the same boost cutting from 28 to 25% as you did from cutting 90 to 50%). Both sides seem to miss the point that there is a balance and instead argue from ideology.
The racial argument, that was the real reason that I picked up the book, was very similar to Noll’s analysis, but placed between conspiracy theories, it lost much of its weight. At one point he asserts that Bush would have not won the election if there had not been voter purge of primarily African Americans in Florida prior to the 2000 election. That may be true, but placed right next to an assertion that because it is possible to hack electronic voting systems, that it is likely that it actually did happen (although he brings it up and says he will not go further in a classic straw-man argument.)
The final sections were better done. There Krugman walks through the two areas that he believes are most important for the agenda of the modern liberal: health care reform and decreasing inequality.
Health care reform and the political ability to bring it about was fascinating. (Remember he was writing in 2007.) Essentially what he was describing was Obamacare and he accurately described its opposition. Although I do not think he thought the opposition would continue into 2013.
I was not offended or disturbed by the clear political agenda that Krugman had with the book. I actually think it was somewhat refreshing that an economist was taking an overt position. But I was disturbed by the sloppiness of the argument. (Especially the middle section of the book.) If I, as someone that is sympathetic to his argument, have a hard time swallowing some of his claims, then he is getting no where with someone that is skeptical of his claims.
Books that only preach to the choir, without engaging those that are skeptical, are rarely useful in the long run.