Like so many liberals, I regarded Paul Krugman as a beacon of light over the last 16 years. While I was not so dependent upon him during the Bush years as one friend of mine who confessed that he often stayed up late the night before Krugman's next column was scheduled to appear so as to read it on line, he was a rare kindred spirit. Although he is a full six years younger than I am, Krugman repeatedly expressed admiration for the strong points of the America of our youth--in particular, its relative economic equality and sense of concern for the public good--and regretted their eclipse as our own generation took power. He was never afraid to call a spade a spade rather than referring to it metaphorically as a shovel, to quote Mark Twain, and he earned hysterical enmity from the right wing during the Bush years because he was the most visible figure willing to tell the truth about what the Bush Administration was doing. During Bush's attempt to privatize social security Krugman actually quoted something I had written to the effect that a failure to pay benefits out of the Social Security Trust Fund would violate the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the public debt of the United States. Delighted, I made a few attempts to make personal contact with him, but never heard anything back. Now I feel that is just as well.
The great turning point in Krugman's career occurred late last year, when he came down squarely on the side of Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders, claiming that her vision of "incremental change" was superior to his sweeping proposals. Exactly how and why a man who had written so eloquently about the catastrophic consequences of the deregulation of the financial industry under Bill Clinton could come to embrace the candidate who is herself the darling of Wall Street is something I will not try to guess, but I don't see how anyone can deny that it represents an extraordinary change in his position. Some of his columns on the Clinton-Sanders contest carried the clear implication that we no longer had any choice but to live with the society our generation has created, simply tweaking it around the edges to make it a little less unjust. Sanders was the candidate, it seemed to me, who was standing for the New Deal values Krugman had always embraced--and he was opposing him.
Today, however, Krugman's evolution has taken a further disastrous step. Drawing on a question he was asked a ta conference, he endorses the concept of the primacy of "horizontal inequality"--inequality among groups--over what he calls "vertical inequality," that is inequality among individuals. What really shocked me about this dichotomy is that it leaves out a third, rather relevant concept, class inequality, which surely, in the age of the 1% and in a column claiming the superiority of Clinton over Sanders, was worth at least a mention. What has happened to Krugman, however, is that he has succumbed to prevailing economic fashion. Thus he repeats the canard, immortalized some time ago in a book, that Irish-Americans at one time were not regarded as white. This is absurd: they were not, indeed, regarded as "Americans," a term which until the Second World War was often reserved for what we would call WASPS, but they were certainly regarded as white, and they were among the most anti-black ethnic groups in America. More importantly, he suddenly encourages us all identify primarily with the groups to which we belong, citing even his own Judaism. He even implies that Hispanics and black Americans are rightly Democratic in their politics that white people because the Obama Administration has done more for them than for white people, specifically in the area of health care. And he suddenly seems willing to concede the votes of most white Americans to Donald Trump.
Now in my own case the option of reverting to some ancient group identity is not available. Being half Jewish, but not eligible for Israeli citizenship and lacking any religion whatever, I have no tribe to which I can return--but I have never wanted one either. Yes, I am white, but I don't vote the way the majority of white people do, that is, Republican. I have never wanted to be identified as anything but an American citizen, and even today I know there are a great many more like me out there. But Krguman's and my personal feelings aren't very important. The real question is whether the United States can continue to exist as a nation in which its citizens primarily identify themselves as member of a particular ethnic group--or, for that matter, gender or sexual orientation. And I am convinced that it cannot.
The great crises of the past--1774-1794, 1861-69, 1929-45--were all periods in which our citizenry had to pull together as Americans and put their differences aside. Every one of those crises strengthened national identity and helped integrate previously excluded groups. Slavery was abolished in the northern states in the wake of the revolution and the suffrage was broadened. Irish were assimilated after the Civil War in large part because of their service in that war. Jewish and Italian Americans became fully equal citizens in the wake of the Second World War, and black Americans drew on the capital they had accumulated serving in the military and in war plants to create the triumphs of the civil rights movement. Those great efforts created a new sense of American identity in which minorities wanted to be included. In addition, as I have pointed out again and again, programs to help the less well off became unpopular at the very moment--50 years ago--when they became identified with the interests of minorities. And today, the problems of health care, mass incarceration, the costs of college, opioid addiction, economic inequality, and infrastructure, are not specific to any racial or ethnic group. They affect us all, and a concerted attack on any or all of them could bring us together just as the fight against the Depression and the Axis did 80 years ago. And that is what Bernie Sanders wanted to start.
There will be more women in high positions in Washington than ever before after 4 or 8 years of Hillary Clinton in the White House--but will there be significantly fewer numbers of women (and men) in prison? Will there be more women (and men) graduating debt free from college? Will it be easier for young women (and men) to find affordable housing in major metropolitan areas? There comes a time in the life of generations--and particularly Prophet generations like the Boom, to which Krugman and I belong--when many of us must recognize that history is not going our way. Some of us however refuse to bend with the wind, and I think in the long run our country is stronger for it.
[p.s. Don't miss yesterday's new post, below.]