Can Paul Krugman Save the World?

The alternative but clever Boston Phoenix is convinced that the New York Times editorializing,  Princeton teaching, Nobel Prize-winning celebrity economist Paul Krugman is the man to desend, deus-ex-machina-like, into the Obama adminsitration and tell everyone what, exactly, we should do about the fact that the world is ending.

"It’s one month into Barack Obama’s presidency and it’s already clear that the economic team isn’t making the grade," writes the Phoenix's Steven Stark. "Larry Summers helps craft a stimulus plan that almost no other economist thinks will work — at least as well as it should. Timothy Geithner announces his bank-rescue plan and the market immediately drops 300 points."


The solution? Appoint Paul Krugman economic czar.

In addition to the fact that Krugman is buddy-buddy with Ben Bernanke, here is the reasoning from the Boston Phoenix:

1) HE KNOWS WHAT TO DO Admittedly, this is a subjective category — you have to buy into Krugman’s notions (which I do) that the stimulus package was vastly under-funded and untargeted; that we’re suffering from a solvency problem, not a liquidity problem with the banks; that some banks need to be nationalized, etc., etc.

But whether you agree with Krugman or not, at least his prescriptions are coherent and dramatic. The good news about Obama’s economic policies so far is that they’ve managed to fulfill his campaign promise of uniting both sides. The bad news is that they’ve done so largely by fusing left and right in opposition to what he’s done. Krugman’s appointment would eliminate half the opposition, and the Republicans are never going to support Obama anyway.

2) HE’S UNTAINTED In legal ethics, the standard is not whether an individual has done anything wrong, but whether he or she gives “the appearance of impropriety.” Applying that standard, Summers and Geithner don’t cut it because they’re too identified with the policies of the past, and with Bob Rubin.

During his tenure under Bill Clinton, Summers curtailed Commodity Future Trading Commissioner Brooksley Born’s attempts to regulate derivatives. His protégé Geithner, as president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank from mid-2003 on, was in a position to try to address this crisis years ago. But he didn’t see it coming, either.

Every time these men take an action that seems to help an old friend at a bank — and they seem to be doing it often — they raise questions about their impartiality. That’s unacceptable — and it’s a problem Krugman doesn’t have.

Besides, Summers’s and Geithner’s experience may be limiting them. This is a new kind of crisis that requires a new kind of thinking. To this point, to use the old cliché, Obama’s mainstream-to-a-fault economic team hasn’t been able to think outside the box.

3) HE’S A TERRIFIC COMMUNICATOR This may, in fact, be Krugman’s most important attribute. Whatever one thinks of Geithner, public speaking is not one of his strengths: one wag described his recent bank-bailout-plan announcement as akin to “an elf giving a book report.”

As for Summers, his communication problems have been well publicized. Suffice it to say that he’s been in office only a month and he’s already managed to alienate Obama appointee and former Fed chairman Paul Volcker.

In contrast, Krugman is articulate. One of the president’s principal failures so far is that he’s tellingly failed to give the nation a narrative that explains the economic crisis and how he plans to solve it. Without that, the public will never give him the time he needs to address what are deep-rooted problems that can’t be cured overnight. Besides, without such an explanation, everything he does looks seat-of-the-pants and reactive.

Despite his oratorical prowess, Obama has not given a good speech in months. In truth, Obama was terrific when he was talking about himself — whether it was on the primary stump or in his book. That’s not a criticism: when one runs for president, promoting yourself is the major requirement.

But now that Obama has to talk about our struggles — not his own — he’s having trouble. Krugman could give him the ideas and the eloquence he needs.

Paul Krugman for economic czar. Now that’s change we can believe in.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.