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The good professor, lack of agency, and pain

[Welcome, Naked Capitalism readers! Welcome, Brad DeLong readers! Welcome, Paul Krugman readers***! -- lambert]

Krugman's column today ends:

More and more, conventional wisdom says that the responsible thing is to make the unemployed suffer. And while the benefits from inflicting pain are an illusion, the pain itself will be all too real.

Come on. Bang, meet whimper. "Conventional wisdom" never made anybody suffer. It's people who do that. Who's suffering the pain? Who's inflicting it? Let me search through Krugman's column, looking for agency....

Here's an extract, marked up as follows: Passive, agency-free verbiage; abstract agents, like ideas; and named institutional agents. There are no human agents in Krugman's column, so there's no markup for them.

But what I currently find most ominous is the spread of a destructive idea... [D]emands that governments switch from supporting their economies to punishing them have been proliferating... [T]he idea that what depressed economies really need is even more suffering seems to be the new conventional wisdom... The extent to which inflicting economic pain has become the accepted thing... And what the O.E.C.D. is saying right now is that policy makers should stop promoting economic recovery and instead begin raising interest rates and slashing spending. [Here is a sentence with an agent! And another one--] ... [T]he organization believes [No, only people do that!] that we [who?] must worry about the chance that markets might start expecting inflation, even though they shouldn’t and currently don’t.... A similar argument is used to justify fiscal austerity. ...

Put that way, it [that is, the conventional wisdom] sounds crazy*. And it is**. Yet it’s a view that’s spreading. ... [More agency coming up!] Last week conservative members of the House, invoking the new deficit fears, scaled back a bill extending aid to the long-term unemployed — and the Senate left town without acting on even the inadequate measures that remained. [And finally--] [C]onventional wisdom says that the responsible thing is to make the unemployed suffer.

Sad, sad, sad. I understand that one deformation professionelle in the professariat is treating the Idea as a driver, but Krugman's column is just ridiculous. Can Krugman truly believe that the creators of the "conventional wisdom" are House conservatives and the OECD -- the only agents he names in his column? If Krugman does, then his column is, to say the least, analytically impoverished; and if he does not, it's obfuscatory. And since the "official style," with its passive constructions and flaccid verbs, is designed to obfuscate, I have to say I'm choosing Door #2.

In a different, better world, a liberal lion like Krugman would have used his bully pulpit at Izvestia to call out accounting control fraud -- which, by definition, happens at the elite, CEO level -- and call for the prosecution of those who brought down the financial system. I can't help but feel that if the country had seen a few CEOs in orange jumpsuits doing the perp walk, we'd be suffering less pain today, since the elite would have understood that they cannot act with impunity. Today, as we see, through acts of commission and omission by many -- including, alas, Nobelist Krugman -- the elite are all too clear in their own minds that they have created the banana Republic of which they have long dreamed; to them, their ability to act with impunity must seem complete. The strong do what they will; the weak suffer as they must. Or, possibly, not.

* * *

NOTE * Notice how Krugman, who is quite the prose stylist, actually begins a paragraph with a sentence whose subject is an unclear referent. The obfuscation goes that deep.

NOTE ** And why would the "crazy" be, one wonders? At this point, it's very hard to believe that it's an accident that Congress left for their paid vacation without extending unemployment benefits. The best working theory I can come up with -- like Krugman -- is that the elite, as a class (and not a "caucus") really do hate the rest of us, and they really do want us to suffer and die. HCR (Higher Corporate Returns) shows that clearly enough, as 40,000 deaths a year are an acceptable cost for bailing out the insurance companies with a program that's going to be cut back anyhow. (Thanks, "progressives"! You really helped advance the discourse!)

The challenge is to end the elite's hate without infecting ourselves and entering a new cycle of hate. Eh?

UPDATE *** Welcome, readers, to the blog that everybody hates and nobody reads! Unfortunately, RL for me today demands that I (a) finish cleaning the garage and (b) put in the remaining winter squash and beans (no corn, so no Three Sisters, but corn is a racoon magnet), so, under some worst case scenarios, I can eat this coming winter. Jeebus, it's after Memorial Day, and everything's not planted!

So I don't have time to read, or respond to Professor Krugman's link to this post as I should, immediately. Let me say that I honor Professor Krugman -- and no snark intended here, either by the verb or by the use of academic rank -- for the work he did during the Bush administration. When the number of people who would call bullshit on the crazy could, quite literally, be counted on one hand, Krugman was in that number. (In fact, I found Atrios through one of Krugman's columns!) That was then. This is now.

Suffice then, to say, for now, that to unterbussen like myself, the similarities between the Obama administration and the Bush administration are far more evident than the differences (except where Obama's made matters worse, say by normalizing torture). So I'm not understanding why Krugman doesn't bring a similar level and nature of the Shrill now, as he brought so effectively then. The "official style" is not appropriate today!

(To clarify, there was a level of irony in both "the good professor" and "the professariat." In general, however, I deprecate attacks on academics qua academics. Hopefully, the light touch went almost unnoticed.)

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annabellep's picture
Submitted by annabellep on

And decided that if they can't win, they will fuck us before we fuck them in November. Fine. Do it, because that will just us make us stronger, and more of us will bring it in November.

That's what this looks like. Reaction to the populist uprising. I assume they think they'll starve the beast, but it won't work.

a little night musing's picture
Submitted by a little night ... on

There's no "populist uprising" in what can happen at the polls - unless there were a wave of third-party or write-in votes, which I doubt. If November results in a shift toward the R side of the Unity Government, Versailles won't be feeling any pain at all.

The uprising's got to be in the streets, and NOW.

annabellep's picture
Submitted by annabellep on

Because that always works out so well. The people just grab pitchforks and viola! freedom!

a little night musing's picture
Submitted by a little night ... on

2006?

eta: "pitchforks" is your word, not mine. BUt just to be clear, I'm using "in the streets" loosely to mean that we've got to make ourselves heard, clearly, and NOW. I do have the massive NYC Central Labor Council demos in mind when I say that. We need more like that, and more different ways to make ourselves heard.

MoveThatBus's picture
Submitted by MoveThatBus on

they are unable to come together under one set of principles. Perhaps a thrid party needs to come out of a split of the D's....they certainly were vocal that they had an element they would do better without when they tossed the older generation, and women under the bus in 2008. The biggest deal they created so far was proof they have no concerns over elder and women citizens.

Perhaps no protests, just focused organization to get the D's who share our principles to show some backbone and shift. Obama's New Democrats are so close to being Republicans, the rebirth of a Liberal party shouldn't be that difficult.

MoveThatBus's picture
Submitted by MoveThatBus on

Yes, working class, too.

I need to go surfing the web to see if there has been a release of demographic breakdown on the unemployed.

This administration is exactly what I thought it would be, and I think it is going to get so much worse before it comes up for re-election.

S Brennan's picture
Submitted by S Brennan on

I am going to put as many Democrats as I can out of work, I don't buy you flaccid construction below. You screw me, I screw you. You say Democrats don't care if they are out of work, I think they do.

But I will grant you one point:

"....good news for Obama...a Republican House would give him a handy target for any blame in his anticipated 2012 re-election bid, something he wouldn't have if both houses remained Democrat...W/ low approval ratings."

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/washingt...

Obama has gotten Democrats to screw themselves

"...unless there were a wave of third-party or write-in votes, which I doubt. If November results in a shift toward the R side of the Unity Government, Versailles won't be feeling any pain at all."

a little night musing's picture
Submitted by a little night ... on

I don't buy you flaccid construction below. You screw me, I screw you. You say Democrats don't care if they are out of work, I think they do.

It doesn't matter at all what the ones out of work think. What matters is what the effect of an electoral shift is on those who then are in Congress, and the evidence we have is that no matter what, they do not end up concluding that they have to listen to us. As I said, the only thing I could imagine having a different effect is POSSIBLY if there was a massive third-party or "none of the above" write-in vote. I'm not even sure of that. I suspect only very significant campaign finance reform would change this dynamic, so perhaps that is something worth working for - I'm pessimistic about it actually happening, but I try not to give up on it.

I just think, given recent history, that "voting the scoundrels out" will have any good effect except to make us feel good. Not to be sneezed at, of course. But I don't think it would have the effect you think it would have on the rest. But YMMV.

MoveThatBus's picture
Submitted by MoveThatBus on

is a terrible blow to their ego.

But, we need to make sure they understand why they are being kicked to the unemployment lines. No great twisting by the media to tell the people why they took the stand they did.

I got another Democratic plea for money with self-addressed, postage paid envelope this weekend (those have slowed down a lot)....I'm sending the latest articles on unemployment, the oil spill, the limited showing of Obama on Memorial Day, articles on expanding the ME conflicts, etc.

gqmartinez's picture
Submitted by gqmartinez on

Many have lost several elections over their political lifetimes. Arguments about their ego being damaged are wrong. The reaction is more complicated than a simple damaged ego. Electoral politics isn't high school student council. Increasingly, you have to be very wealthy to run for office, even on the state level. For a lot of folks, politics is an afterthought: I have too much time and money on my hands *not* to run for office. And in years where there is an unpopular incumbent, losing is easily brushed off as a consequence of that. Also, look at the rhetoric many progs use: our problem is messaging to a stupid populace, not bad policy. Its *our* fault that Obama is unpopular, not his. Combineall this with being surrounded by sycophants and you have pols who's conception of an electoral loss is greatly distorted. (I *know* many folks who hold office and/or are currently running, or planning to, at various levels, local to fed. I might be talking out of my ass, but its based on many data points not merely speculation.)

To me, the worst of all possible worlds is to elect an increasingly rabid GOP congress rather than maintaining our right-wing one. The legacy parties and the permanent fundraiser model depends on parties alternating power. This two-step has resulted in a dramatic shift to the irrational right by *both* parties. The legacy parties will continue to go further and further to the right so long as we keep seesawing back and forth.

An undervote/"NOTA" campaign is the best way to show that we can take on the legacy parties, and its probably the only way to prevent us from going off the deep end as a GOP sweep or a solid Dem performance would lead to. We have to make it clear that we can challenge *both* legacy parties, not that we can swap one for another.

Submitted by hipparchia on

Many have lost several elections over their political lifetimes. Arguments about their ego being damaged are wrong. The reaction is more complicated than a simple damaged ego. Electoral politics isn't high school student council. Increasingly, you have to be very wealthy to run for office, even on the state level. For a lot of folks, politics is an afterthought: I have too much time and money on my hands *not* to run for office.

based on the politicians i have known.

and yes, in recent decades at least, the seesawing back and forth between the two parties HAS had that ratchet effect, moving both parties to the right. so which is better for getting the politics to move left - to have a sizeable chunk of the left undervote, or convincing a lot of people of both left and right persuasions to undervote?

Valley Girl's picture
Submitted by Valley Girl on

gq- Please don't take this wrong- but one of your words just prompted a small bit of steam from my ears, in a very particular and peculiar sense. Just happened to hit me- nothing personal to you- good grief no! Just timing, happenstance.

But, I have to say that I have come to absolutely abhor the use of "folks" in political discourse. It's an Obama issue, not you. Because it's a word he uses repeatedly in what I see as a "folksy" condescending fashion. Thus:

And so sometimes when I hear folks down in Louisiana expressing frustrations, I may not always think that they're* (sic) comments are fair; on the other hand, I probably think to myself, these are folks who grew up fishing in these wetlands and seeing this as an integral part of who they are -- and to see that messed up in this fashion would be infuriating.

(from answers in Presidential presser here- but also quoted somewhere at Corrente. *I copied and pasted from the transcript.

Hell, I dunno if Bush used "folks". Maybe everybody does. I've been sensitized of late I guess- end of word rant. ;)

Submitted by gob on

Not only did he use it, but if I recall correctly, he used it to refer to the 9/11 terrorists. !

It was GWB who first put me off that word. Now it doesn't matter whose mouth it's coming out of, it just grates on me, so I'm with you on that.

Valley Girl's picture
Submitted by Valley Girl on

I responded to gq's thoughtful comment with a wildly OT comment, and much regretted it after. Interesting to know GWB used "folks"- somehow I missed that as particularly failsome in his word salad, but maybe it registered subliminally.

MoveThatBus's picture
Submitted by MoveThatBus on

state and federal offices, and I know them quite well.

Your analysis may hold true for some, and I'd imagine there are probably as many reasons for running for office as there are people holding office. I'm afraid this congress has not given me any reason to believe they are even smart enough to have one collective reason behind anything they do.

These people know win and loss, and that's about as far as it goes. They have some mighty cushy jobs with great benefits, and a wonderful retirement plan. If they were using some strategy in the decisions they've made, knowing full well they were bucking the majority of voters, I'm hardpressed to figure out what exactly it was.

Patty Murray was recently caught by a question where she had to admit she didn't really even know what was in that Health Insurance bill the Democrats gave us. Jay Inslee and his broadcast email on the topic showed he sure didn't know what was in that bill. And, I seriously doubt they are the only two in congress who didn't read or understand the bill, and didn't spend much time trying to make sure it was a good bill before it went to the floor. So, are they just burned out? I'm tired of that lazy attitude making critical decisions for us. Don't really give a damn if they care or don't care if they lose their job. The work they are doing isn't meeting even minimum expectations.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

However, they have to be very large, and very frequent, and really amount to turmoil in most major cities. They have to be more like the Iranian demonstrations that brought down the Shah of Iran, and they have to be economic and social justice demonstrations aimed at ending corporate rule of the political system.

I don't know if we're ready for those yet. But if we continue to point out every victory of the corporatists and stoke the anger out there, we may eventually get people to believe in some classical democratic remedies like nationalizing the banks, and instituting not only much more progressive income taxes, but progressive inheritance taxes to go after entrenched wealth.

When is eventually? That's hard to predict. But every time we lose a legislative fight to entrenched interests on health care reform, on Wall Street reform, on financial industry reform, on credit card reform, on the stimulus (yes we lost that one because the size of it was effectively only 1/3 of what was needed) we're a step closer, to that double-deep which will knock us into a depression. When that happens the opportunity will come again to get something real done.

gqmartinez's picture
Submitted by gqmartinez on

Maxwell's Equations hold in a vacuum with no one around. Would economic equations hold in the absence of human life? Why treat economics as some fundamental principle of the world? Can't you form another arbitrary set of economic equations where social justice is a fundamental principle of the theory? Over the years, it seems that our arbitrary economic theory has made the bias Krugman talks about a fundamental principle, or at least a dogma that few are willing to challenge with any vigor.

Joseph Cannon's picture
Submitted by Joseph Cannon on

One cannot easily define the responsible agents when attempting to trace the spread of a meme -- which is, in essence, the task here.

To fasten on Bob Somerby's favorite example: Back in 2000, "conventional wisdom" held that Al Gore was a serial liar. That meme was a ridiculous canard, and a lot of the people who spread it knew damned well that it was false. But how did the idea start? Who gave the "go" order to push that idea?

I don't know. All I know is that one day I woke up and found the words "Gore is a serial liar" spewing at me every time I fired up the internet or turned on cable news.

Now that a decade has passed, an historian of that period might be able to trace the exact route of meme-spread. Anyone attempting that job would have to make much use of Lexis-Nexis. Interviews would help. But even after doing that spade-work, our historian might not be able to determine with certainty just which individual or group of individuals made the decision to smear Gore in that fashion.

Same goes for the "Obama as socialist" idea, which is one of the most horrifyingly outrageous misapprehensions ever to take hold of (much of) the American psyche. How did this meme start? Which agent or group of agents was responsible?

I don't know. I was paying close attention to current events and I STILL don't know. All I know is that one day I woke up and that stupid Photoshop image of O-as-Heath-as-the-Joker had popped up all over the internet. Pure mindless repetition has convinced half the country that Obama=Marx.

That didn't happen by accident. Obviously, there was a plan.

Can I name the planner? No. But whoever he was, he was freaking brilliant.

Americans, being dummies, usually think dichtomously. They recognize but two choices. "Do you or do you not support Obama-the-socialist?" And that's it. No Door #3.

It is impermissible to aver, or even to think, that Obama is too conservative, too wedded to laissez faire, too unwilling to regulate, too much the agent of "conventional wisdom." The words to express that view simply do not exist in our political discourse. Orwell was right: Language control is thought control.

As for Krugman's column: Everything he says makes perfect sense to me. His subject was not accounting fraud, as you seem to think. He's talking about the calls for austerity in a time of high unemployment.

I'm horrified at the prospect of the unemployed losing their benefits at a time like this. The calls for fiscal austerity during a near-Depression are so misguided that they almost have my remaining hairs leaping out of their follicles.

How did those calls become conventional wisdom? I don't know.

Neither do you. Don't score Krugman for not naming the meme-masters who are pushing bad policy. You can't fill in the blanks yourself.

Come to think of it, did Marx ever name names? Instead of chewing out specific industrialists or bankers or politicians, he usually pointed the finger of blame at an amorphous, reified "captialism." Was he being chicken-shit, or was he simply trying to lift his argument out of a specific time and place, and into the realm of general principles?

(And speaking of Orwell: Who was responsible for meme-propagation in the world of 1984? Even Orwell couldn't name names, and he invented that world.)

okanogen's picture
Submitted by okanogen on

Is that really the question here? Really?

Somerby has actually named those meme-starters for a very long time. It is our ruling elite, the kleptocracy and their toadies in the corporate media. He calls them the D-grade elite, but that is only when he assumes that they are actually "liberal". Without that assumption, they are doing exactly what they are supposed (and paid) to do.

Low interest rates (by the federal government) ensures a healthy profit on credit card rates and other financial instruments. So that is good for Wall Street and the banksters. Austerity programs (on social services) ensure there is no competition from the government on borrowing/lending. Also good for banksters. As long as spending is directed on wars, the military industrial complex is fat and happy, and that is about the only manufacturing we have left. Plus, with low interest rates, they have access to cheap capital. Again, fat and happy.

So, the banksters (i.e. Wall Street), the military industrial complex, and their lick-spittles in the media and Washington. Those are the ones starting the memes of which Krugman speaks.

It's not fucking rocket-science.

So, who is not starting memes on "our" side? That's not fucking rocket-science either....

Joseph Cannon's picture
Submitted by Joseph Cannon on

"Is that really the question here? Really?"

Yes. Really.

I think this is one of those occasions where the words on the page (or on screen) differed from the words which registered in your head. The original post really was about Krugman's inability to name the people who determine "conventional wisdom."

"...our ruling elite, the kleptocracy and their toadies in the corporate media."

"So, the banksters (i.e. Wall Street), the military industrial complex, and their lick-spittles in the media and Washington."

Those terms are rather amorphous. In the original post, lambert made a request for something very concrete: "named institutional agents."

Personally, and contrary to lambert, I have no problem stipulating that innumerable people have suffered from conventional wisdom. For example: At one time, conventional wisdom held that tuberculosis wasn't catching.

okanogen's picture
Submitted by okanogen on

Joe,

I do respect your viewpoint (and your blog), and that is why I am having such a hard time grasping that you are (like Krugman) obfuscating what is going on here regarding the creation of so-called "Conventional Wisdom". However, I would not presume to say "what registers in your head", I would prefer to put my argument on the merits, rather than ad hominem.

Most Americans are actually finally coming to grips with the fact that our so-called representative institutions, the political parties (I'll name them for you, the Democrats and the Republicans), the mainstream media (that would be Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, Comcast, Clear Channel, etc.), and then corporations (GM, BP, Boeing, etc.) could give a rat's ass about the common good. They represent their own interests. Do we need to name every single fucking member of those classes of people to make them "named institutional agents"? Well, maybe if we were to bring them up on indictments.

The ruling class makes the rules, they decide what "named institutional agents" are accepted, and which are not (unions, etc.).

As for Krugman's column, if he had said

More and more, conventional wisdom our ruling class says that the responsible thing is to make the unemployed suffer. And while the benefits from inflicting pain are an illusion, the pain itself will be all too real.

Would that not be more descriptive of "named institutional agents"?

How about this:

But what I currently find most ominous is the spread of a the political parties and their compliant media spreading the destructive idea...

or this:

Our political class (apparently) is responding to [D]emands that governments switch from supporting their economies to punishing them have been proliferating... Such that [T]he idea that what depressed economies really need is even more suffering seems to be successfully sold by the media as the new conventional wisdom... The extent to which inflicting economic pain has become the accepted thing is normalized by the elites who will suffer none....

See how easy it is? Granted, not if you want to keep your paycheck, or keep getting those invites to This Week, but....

CMike's picture
Submitted by CMike on

Gee that's a tough one. First I put Gore and Liar in the Howler search engine and got too many hits. Then I went with "war on gore" and millionaire:

Did “the right-wing press” drive the War Against Gore—the war which decided the last White House race? Alterman and Tomasky seem to say this....but the claim is patently bogus. From start to finish, the War Against Gore was driven by the mainstream press—by the Washington Post and the New York Times. By the first week of April 1999, it was perfectly clear that the Post was driving an aggressive agenda against Gore, and for the next twenty months, the Post and the Times led the press assault on the Dem hopeful...

For the record, many (not all) of the War-on-Gore stories originated at the RNC, as we have shown in the past. But the route these stories took is clear: The RNC dished to the mainstream press, and the mainstream press ran to bruit them. The “right-wing press” played no role in this process. Indeed, when the “right-wing press” tried to make up Gore Lore, their stories generally failed to gain purchase. In July 1999, for example, the Washington Times ran reports about Gore’s troubling canoe trip on its front page for seven straight days. But the story got almost no play in the mainstream press. The mainstream press had its own bogus tales, and needed no help from pretenders.

Who gave the "go" order? You're right Joseph Cannon, that remains a tough one to unpack. You only get so far then the trail runs stone cold.