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Paul Krugman and the Bull Profile Series

This is a bull.

No, really!

Abstraction and abstract art - Imagery which departs from representational accuracy, to a variable range of possible degrees, for some reason other than verisimilitude. Abstract artists select and then exaggerate or simplify the forms suggested by the world around them.

See how easy that was?

This was a series of six lithographs done by the iconic Roy Lichtenstein. You can see how, at each step he removed some of the details, exaggerated some of the forms, added [in some of them] some extraneous information, and re-arranged some things. Along the way, each successive image clearly resembles the one preceding it, but what you have at the end doesn't look a damn thing like the original.

- Oh no, you're not really going to use art theory to bash Paul Krugman, are you?

Oh yes I am.


Let me show you two schematic charts I’ve used over the past couple of years to describe two different approaches to near-universal coverage.

First, single-payer. This relies on taxes, collected from everyone — but with the well-off paying more — to provide a basic health benefit to everyone. Schematically, it looks like this:

He's right on target there, that's pretty much how single payer works. A good use of abstracting the useful information, presenting it, and leaving off the extraneous.

And here he glosses over the intermediate steps on his way to the yellow and white geometric shapes with black and red accents bull:

Now consider the type of plan we’re actually about to get. (It’s labeled “Hackerish” on the slide because the genesis of the plans offered during the Democratic primary was a proposal by Yale’s Jacob Hacker.). This plan combines three main elements: community rating, so that premiums can’t be based on medical history (which means that coverage becomes available to people with preexisting conditions); an individual mandate, so that healthy people are in the pool, keeping premiums down; and subsidies, to help lower-income families afford the premiums. The subsidies are ultimately paid for with taxes on the relatively affluent. So the picture looks like this:

At this level of abstraction, it’s basically the same as single-payer.

Ha! He gets bonus points for naming his pony "Hackerish" but at that level of abstraction, anything that moves money from one location to another can be made to look like single payer.

Like the final bull in Lichtenstein's series, this is something decorative you can hang on your wall, but it's missing some important parts if what you were looking for was something closer to the real thing.

Krugman again:

Let me say that I get especially, um, annoyed at people who say that the plan isn’t really covering the uninsured, it’s just forcing them to buy insurance. That’s missing not just the community rating aspect, but even more important, it’s missing the subsidies.

It's been mentioned before, and by people smarter than me: health insurance is not health care. Forcing people to buy insurance they can barely afford too often leaves with too little money to pay the co-pays, the deductibles, the myriad other out-of-pocket expenses that you only find out about when you get expensively sick.

And community rating? Where everybody has to pay the same premium, no matter how much they can afford? One of the beauties of single payer as practiced in America's Medicare, in Canada's Medicare, in Australia's Medicare, is that for the most part everybody pays what they can afford -- lower income people pay lower taxes, higher income people pay higher taxes. Sure, sometimes you may still need some subsidies to help the very least well-off with even the meagerest of expenses, but no community rating needed.

And we’re talking about big stuff: between Medicaid expansion and further support for families above the poverty line, we’re looking at around $200 billion a year a decade from now. Yes, a fraction of that will go to insurance industry profits. But the great bulk will go to making health care affordable.

There's still a lot of brouhaha over what the mandated medical loss ratios should be, but the law is supposedly going to dictate that insurance companies have to spend [depending on who wins this round] something like 80% of your money on your health care. On paper, the insurance companies all make it look like their profits are running at a mere 3%, but there's a lot of hocus pocus that goes into producing those numbers. The bottom line here of course is that if you had real single payer, about 98% of your money would go to paying for your health care.

So yeah, the government is going to pay for health care for a lot more people than it does now [just like single payer would] but it's going to funnel huge amounts of money [20% of $200 billion a year is $40 billion a year] to already-bloated corporations that are strangling us [which single payer would not do].

That $40 billion per year would pay for all the health care for every single undocumented alien in the country, but I guess it's morally better to give fatcat CEOs and investors the money instead, because at least that's legal.

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Submitted by gmanedit on

And was intended to: Its patron was the CIA, in concert with the Rockefellers (MoMA, Chase; Nelson Rockefeller called Abstract Expressionism "free enterprise painting"). This article from 1995 gives the background: This one ( describes how their patronage atomized American artists as a political community and projected U.S. power.

Here ( is a book review that also discusses the role of the CIA in developing an intellectual Democratic Left to counter a real Left ("The most effective propaganda was defined by the CIA as the kind where 'the subject moves in the direction you desire for reasons which he believes to be his own.' "). Something that may be of contemporary relevance.

The CIA liked Abstract Expressionism because it was free of overtly ideological content, unlike that nasty Social Realism.

Submitted by cg.eye on

Really, it does -- because it better than anything else explains why we *liked* the disconnect between Stevensonians and Jacksonians foisted on us after WWII. If we look back on the hibrow/lobrow split, working people were sentimentalized (that was the preoccupation of the Golden Age of Television, the explosion of Method acting), then dismissed in cycles. It took the shearing off of cultures possible through cable and the Internet to end that cycle, so well-dressed kids of all colors with magnificent things *are* the youth culture.

The Whole Foods Nation would have been impossible without the ease of supply through globalization, and globalization wouldn't have gone through a nation with strong labor unions. I betcha HUAC would have stalled before the 50s -- or at least would have been forced to deal with right-wing fifth columnists first -- if the psy warfare our culture pumped out wasn't embraced up by us as part of our triumphalist push.

Submitted by cg.eye on

The Democratic Left was essentially used to combat the radical left and to provide an ideological gloss on U.S. hegemony in Europe. At no point were the ideological pugilists of the democratic left in any position to shape the strategic policies and interests of the United States. Their job was not to question or demand, but to serve the empire in the name of "Western democratic values." Only when massive opposition to the Vietnam War surfaced in the United States and Europe, and their CIA covers were blown, did many of the CIA-promoted and -financed intellectuals jump ship and begin to criticize U.S. foreign policy. (...)

The CIA's cultural campaigns created the prototype for today's seemingly apolitical intellectuals, academics, and artists who are divorced from popular struggles and whose worth rises with their distance from the working classes and their proximity to prestigious foundations. The CIA role model of the successful professional is the ideological gatekeeper, excluding critical intellectuals who write about class struggle, class exploitation and U.S. imperialism—"ideological" not "objective" categories, or so they are told.

The singular lasting, damaging influence of the CIA's Congress of Cultural Freedom crowd was not their specific defenses of U.S. imperialist policies, but their success in imposing on subsequent generations of intellectuals the idea of excluding any sustained discussion of U.S. imperialism from the influential cultural and political media. The issue is not that today's intellectuals or artists may or may not take a progressive position on this or that issue. The problem is the pervasive belief among writers and artists that anti-imperialist social and political expressions should not appear in their music, paintings, and serious writing if they want their work to be considered of substantial artistic merit. The enduring political victory of the CIA was to convince intellectuals that serious and sustained political engagement on the left is incompatible with serious art and scholarship. Today at the opera, theater, and art galleries, as well as in the professional meetings of academics, the Cold War values of the CIA are visible and pervasive: who dares to undress the emperor?

Submitted by hipparchia on

... the subject moves in the direction you desire for reasons which he believes to be his own ... Something that may be of contemporary relevance.

something that is and has ALWAYS been relevant, i'd say.

The CIA liked Abstract Expressionism because it was free of overtly ideological content, unlike that nasty Social Realism.

i like abstract art. a lot. and i'm firmly of the opinion that anything can be hijacked and used in the service of evil, but yeah, one of the lessons the republicans have learned is how to keep their messages full of overtly ideological content. too bad the democratic party has abandoned this [and it's probably the thing i least liked about obama as a candidate, that lack of overtly ideological content].

i haven't taken the time to read your links yet, but i'm looking forward to it.

madamab's picture
Submitted by madamab on

Paul is so terrified of Republicans that he can't see the neoliberals are just as bad.

I have lost so much respect for him. Shame on you, Paul Krugman!

By the way, hipparchia, this is a brilliant post! I loved every word. :-)

Submitted by hipparchia on

paul krugman is one of my favorite bloggers, even when his posts suck rotten eggs on policy. one of the fun things about writing about krugman's writing is the chance to steal some of it.

i have to admit, i fear the republicans [and their fox news army] probably as much as krugman does, so i get his underlying point [that the democratic party has to be seen as 'winning' the health care fight]. the neoliberals are probably about as bad but i'm still [just barely] convinced that we're headed for the cliffs at a 2% slower pace now than we we would otherwise have been.

that said, krugman could help us slow that march to the cliffs by another percentage point maybe, if he'd drop the lying claptrap.

hehe. 'fox news army' made me think of this:

madamab's picture
Submitted by madamab on

I love Tom Lehrer! And really, I love Krugman too, but he should simply not post anything on policy at all, unless it has to do with economics. The fear of Repubs makes him disingenuous.

Yeah, I think we're actually worse off than with the Repubs in charge. The Neolibs have that special "D" label that has protected them from the great ire of online and offline activists for almost two years. They've already stolen trillions and are poised (after the Health Insurance Corporate Giveaway passes) to still trillions more, eviscerating our social safety net and women's rights, possibly beyond repair. Imagine if a Repub tried to get away with that! He'd probably be impeached already by the "outraged" Dem Congress.

As far as I'm concerned, Raygun is still President.

Submitted by hipparchia on

a lot of smart people think ronnie raygun is still president.

also, i approve of injecting overtly ideological content into the arts. keep up the good work!

Submitted by hipparchia on

i decided to stick with krugman's 'abstractions' as much as possible. the first draft of this post was probably about twice as long and i still wasn't finished.

i can see a handful of different possible scenarios going forward from here, all of them too depressing to delve into on christmas eve. thanks for the link to your post, that's a great resource [and thanks for writing it!]

coyotecreek's picture
Submitted by coyotecreek on

starts flowing into the insurance companies several years before the benefits come out the other end (analogy intended)? So for X years, it's pure profit for the insurance companies or the government?

Submitted by hipparchia on

from this article:

The Senate bill also calls for the industry to pay annual fees for the plan that start at $2 billion in 2011 and increase to $10 billion by 2017. Analysts say costs like these will be passed to consumers because insurers want to protect profit margins, which are generally thinner than other health care companies like drugmakers.

i hope to have more to say about some of the stuff in that article in my next post.

khin's picture
Submitted by khin on

...or else has no understanding of health care economics. (That choice leads me to tend toward the former.) This will not even remotely "in its overall results, work like a single-payer system." He's taking the one aspect where you could maybe get away with saying that, namely coverage, and then using a kind of false synecdoche. There's almost no attempt to contain costs in this bill.

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

as far as the economics of health care goes. (And by "others", I suspect Uwe Reinhardt.) It is not his area of expertise, and in fact pretty far away from it.

But I cannot excuse him for parodying the opposition on the left and refusing to come to terms with our very real concerns about this bill. I guess he really is convinced that failing to pass some kind of a bill would hand a "win" to the right-wing Republicans. But gee, that only has to be so if we don't seize the rhetorical high ground and create our own narrative of what "it means". Like, after having tried to win their support, we ended up with a bill so watered down that it did not even fool the American public into thinking it was "reform", and then no R's voted for it anyway (that's what happened, right?), and it's time to go back and push through the bill that we should have given the American people in the first place!

Edited to add:
To be totally clear, the thing I find most reprehensible in the author of "Conscience of a Liberal" is his too-facile dismissing of our arguments that the bills we have before us are very likely to increase suffering among groups who should be his natural concern as a Liberal. For shame.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

I think Krugman still hopes that Obama will call on him someday, so in areas where he doesn't have strong views based on his own work in macro, I think he's inclined to give the Administration support.

Submitted by lambert on


I think it's vanishingly unlikely that Krugman has "no understanding" of health care economics. As others have said upthread, I think he's terrified of the right -- could Obama have shared some domestic surveillance data at their last dinner? -- and so, for the good purpose of not undercutting the Dems, he pulls his punches. As Sirota points out, there's certainly a case for not exhorting the left to "lay back and enjoy it," if only from the strategic perspective. So it's really not clear who Krugman thinks he's helping here, other than the administration.

* * *

Actually, I think there are cost containment features in the bill. IMAC or whatever it ends up being called will be used to contain costs by denying care. And IIRC there are $48 billion in cuts to hospitals.

selise's picture
Submitted by selise on

marcia angell gave a talk on healthcare reform last year (sep 2008) at princeton. paul krugman introduced her (during which he said re the debate between ma plan / obama plan vs single payer "no one understands the issues and realities better than marcia angell") and also asked a question at the end, so i think it's fair to assume he stayed to hear her talk and knows he's writing bullshit.

the podcast is available for download (and is still relevant):

Submitted by hipparchia on

health care economics is not his area of expertise, so yeah, it's possible he actually believes the stuff he's telling us. otoh, his recent writings on health care have sometimes completely contradicted his earlier writings, so i'm sure disingenuous is part of it too.

Submitted by Elliott Lake on

that the Democrats aren't us. The Parties represent themselves (and their corporate benefactors), and don't care what happens to the hoi polloi. From my end of the telescope, the Dems have made a lot of things worse since the election, health care being just one more. I look forward to the collapse of the Democratic party, it can't happen fast enough for me. Handing them a "win" vs the R's just prolongs the process.

Submitted by hipparchia on

but not enough to give up some of their power, comfort, wealth, or happiness to make things more equal. if they can make things better for the little people without having to make any sacrifices of their own, they're on it.

the republicans just plain don't care about us.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

do care. But everyone is very risk averse with respect to their own position, so they won't fight for good bills that help people. They know what good bills are, and many of them favor such bills in principle, but they will back off any movement toward them, or even back off proposing them at the slightest opposition from the leadership, or the blue dogs.

selise's picture
Submitted by selise on

not healthcare, just econ in general. for anyone not following the debate on paul samuelson it's pretty hilarious (and informative). here are the articles, in chronological order (hudson, krugman, wray and finally hudson again. it will be interesting to see if krugman will respond)

Submitted by hipparchia on

i'm looking forward to reading those links.

selise's picture
Submitted by selise on

when i first read krugman's post, i almost blew a gasket. your post was the perfect antidote. thanks!

Submitted by hipparchia on

i had another take on his post, using abstract art, that was slightly oblique to what i ended up doing here and i may still use it later, but i found the bull series in my researches on abstraction and i couldn't resist the analogy.

madamab's picture
Submitted by madamab on

That people who are consistently right in their assessments of situations, are never given respect and credibility for being right, whereas people like Bill Kristol ("there will be no civil war in Iraq, the ethnic divisions are a myth") are treated as Very Serious, authoritative voices.

Seeing the Krug's popularity and prominence growing used to make me feel hopeful. Now I'm wondering what he's going to say next, and whether it will be enlightening, or nauseating.

Ah well. So many fallen heroes this past two years.