Paul Krugman’s Failure of Nerve

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Such a promising beginning.  In his March 8 column, “Ignorance is Strength“, Paul Krugman points his sharp editorial finger at the elephant in the room of our culture.  If American Exceptionalism means anything, he argues, that meaning resides in the importance we have placed on widespread education, from the “high school movement” to the G.I. Bill.  But in this presidential primary season, he notes, Republicans have turned against education, and

“Remarkably, this new hostility to education is shared by the social conservative and economic conservative wings of the Republican coalition, now embodied in the persons of Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney.”

Krugman then goes on to highlight some of the dangers of this anti-education stance to our economy and national well being and begins to analyze the reasons for it.  He notes the degradation in our educational quality and access and then sort of sidles around Santorum’s  sense of the inverse relation between a person’s level of education and degree of religiosity:

“It’s not hard to see what’s driving Mr. Santorum’s wing of the party. His specific claim that college attendance undermines faith is, it turns out, false. But he’s right to feel that our higher education system isn’t friendly ground for current conservative ideology. And it’s not just liberal-arts professors: among scientists, self-identified Democrats outnumber self-identified Republicans nine to one.

“I guess Mr. Santorum would see this as evidence of a liberal conspiracy. Others might suggest that scientists find it hard to support a party in which denial of climate change has become a political litmus test, and denial of the theory of evolution is well on its way to similar status.”

And this is where Krugman loses his nerve.  Of course Santorum is right that college attendance undermines faith, if by “faith” we mean unquestioning acceptance of untested propositions forwarded without evidence and about which no argument is permitted.  That’s what it’s supposed to do!  The overarching benefit to a nation of widespread education is twofold:  it gives citizens, in geek-speak, a common database and it provides them with intellectual tools to communicate about, manipulate and modify that database.  For almost all of us, post-secondary education (and I’m not talking about Bible schools here) means that we shed some cherished beliefs and alter what we once thought of as hard truth, but without that database and the agreed validity of those tools, citizens cannot collaborate to identify and solve national problems in any effective way.

Paul Krugman knows this — he’s a really smart guy.  His impediment to naming the elephant in the cross-hairs of his pointing finger is the mainstream cultural taboo against saying anything negative about religion.  He knows that the skeptical, critical, probing mental habits promoted by higher education typically tend to dissolve faith-based beliefs.  He knows that education tends to pull back the veil of mystery relied on by religion and expose the emptiness there.  He knows that religion is necessarily the implacable enemy of modern higher education

Krugman’s inability to name this elephant leads him, I think, to misunderstand the anti-education stance of Romney and the 1%.  Krugman thinks the Romney-ites favor underfunding public education because they want to keep their taxes as low as possible.  Well, maybe.  I’m not so bold as to cross swords with Paul Krugman on any economic issue, but it seems to me, particularly in a consumer-driven economy like ours, the super-wealthy make more money, whatever the source of their income, if our consumers have more disposable income rather than less.  And that requires better jobs for them.  And that requires more and better education.

I think Romney’s new-found antipathy for education has a simpler explanation.  It’s the one so well elucidated by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America:  Tell the rubes what they want to hear on social issues and then you can screw them with impunity on economic issues.  Santorum may actually believe that more and better higher education is bad for us as a nation; Romney’s position here seems to be the cynicism exposed by Thomas Frank.

Whatever the truth of Romney’s motivation, Krugman’s missed opportunity is clear.  Even if he cares little about so-called social issues, the economic health of the nation is now at the mercy of the sort of religiously-privileged mental laziness so much on display during this primary season.  Precisely because he is an economist and not a culture critic, Krugman could identify this elephant with less blow-back than others might suffer.

The given, absolute, unchallengeable, faith-based beliefs of today’s GOP — God’s Own Party — can be distilled to two:  1. Obama is bad; 2. Everything Obama does or wants to do is bad.  This means the new healthcare law, “Obamacare”, is bad and Obama’s economic stimulus package is bad.  These are not hypotheses to be tested; they are truths to be supported and, as with all faith-based truths, when facts conflict with them, facts lose.  This need to sacrifice facts meshes nicely with the GOP’s anti-education stance: the sacrifice is less painful when the facts and their implications are unknown.

So how to handle the apparent strengthening of the economy, the decreasing unemployment rate, the resurrection of our auto industry, the happy stock market?  Claim that it would be even better if Obama weren’t so bad.  Claim that it has nothing to do with the stimulus but is solely due to our exceptional American workers.  Claim that Obama knows nothing about business and therefore is incapable of doing anything to help the economy and only makes things worse.  All of these claims have been and are being made.  All of them meet the GOP standards:  they support the core beliefs and they are fact-free.

But still it would be nice to have some anti-Obama numbers.  Numbers always sound like truth, whether they correspond with reality or don’t.  And there is one.  The Obama Administration predicted in 2009 that the unemployment rate would now be down to 6% as a consequence of the stimulus, but it is only down to 8.3%.  Check and mate.  Obama bad.  Stimulus bad.  The GOP core beliefs are supported by actual real numbers.

Except that they aren’t.  As Joe Weisenthal of “Business Insider” notes, the castigated 2009 prediction was off because the economy was then hugely worse than anyone knew; the economic hole we were trying to fill with the stimulus was almost three times bigger than we understood.  In fact, Weisenthal opines, far from indicting the stimulus as a big waste of taxpayer dollars, the GOP faith-based position, the Administration prediction chart perhaps “makes the case that the problem was that the stimulus wasn’t nearly big enough.”  Which is what Krugman was saying way back in early 2009.

Krugman can be right about the economy over and over again, but that doesn’t address the problem.  The problem isn’t a lack of information about the economy.  It’s that a large part of the electorate has neither the ability nor the inclination to understand the economy.  And that’s just the way the GOP wants it.  Keep ’em ignorant and angry and the facts will be irrelevant.  And with facts out of the way, feelings reign.

This is why Krugman’s failure of nerve is so unfortunate.  It will take a long, determined, multipronged effort to de-legitimize faith-based ideation.  Almost our entire culture privileges it.  We cannot afford to squander those “teachable moments” when the stark dysfunction of religious ideation — as with Santorum and higher education — is right there in front of us.  We have to be willing to say, always and everywhere, Your private feelings  must yield to our public facts.

ARC – 15 March, 2012

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This entry was posted in - FEATURED POSTS -, - MOST RECENT POSTS -, Culture, Economics, Education, Government in Society, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Paul Krugman’s Failure of Nerve

  1. dkantz says:

    Can anyone provide a link (or whatever) to the independent evidence Krugman should’ve cited backing his statement:

    “Among scientists, self-identified Democrats outnumber self-identified Republicans nine to one”

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