2021年6月8日 星期二

Policy in a time of political madness

When bad things happen to good governments.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (top right) and other finance chiefs attending the first day of the Group of 7 finance ministers meeting in London on June 4.Stefan Rousseau/Agence France-Presse, via Pool/Afp Via Getty Images
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By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

Warning: Today's newsletter will be kind of meta. It's a meditation on what people like me, and more important, fine public servants like Janet Yellen, are even doing in an era when malign insanity seems all too likely to swallow our nation.

Today's column was about Yellen's impressive achievement in getting Group of 7 governments to agree in principle to new rules that should greatly reduce the ability of multinational corporations to avoid taxes. It's really good stuff, a model of both good economic policy and effective economic diplomacy. It points the way to a potential future of greater policy fairness and more resources available to deal with society's needs.

But will that potential future materialize? What if by 2025 America is back in the hands of Trumpists — either Donald Trump himself or someone who managed to gain the Republican nomination by emulating all his worst qualities? Clearly this could happen — not just because voters might choose a Trumpist, or because the Electoral College might deliver the White House to the popular-vote loser as it did in 2016 (and almost did in 2020), but because Republican states might simply declare Trump or his stand-in the winner no matter what the voters say.

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Anyone paying attention to national affairs knows that a nightmarish outcome that might mean the end of American democracy is all too possible. So what's a public servant — or, vastly less important, but relevant to yours truly, an economist/pundit whose beat is public policy — supposed to do? Is there even any point in advocating for and implementing good policy?

There are two facile answers. One of them is that governments can reap political rewards for good policy if they try hard enough to explain to voters what they're doing. The other is that good policy will lead to good outcomes, and in a democracy voters will reward success.

Both of these strike me as political equivalents of "do what you love, the money will follow" — which is, of course, terrible advice for most people, who must do jobs they don't especially love if they want to make a decent living.

I mean, policymakers and those who follow policy should do their best to explain what they're doing in ways large numbers of people can understand; to a large extent that's basically my job at The Times (which, I have to admit, I love. Do as I say, not as I do). But I also write a lot about the persistence of zombie ideas that should have died long ago in the face of logic and evidence, but keep shambling around. Many of us do our best to kill these zombies or at least limit their spread, but their persistence bodes ill for the ability of even the clearest explanation of policy to break through to a mass audience.

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Oh, and 23 percent of Republicans believe that the world is controlled by Satan-worshipping pedophiles. Can we talk to such people about international tax policy? OK, most people aren't that out of it. But serious political scientists find that voting behavior mainly reflects social identities and partisan loyalties, not issues.

As for voters rewarding successful policy, to the extent that the economy affects elections, that effect seems to come mainly from short-term performance — how fast the economy is growing in the year or less before the election — which has very little to do with the overall quality of policy, and may not be much affected by policy at all. Add to this the real chance that what voters want may not even matter in 2024.

So is there any point in even arguing for good policies? Yes, so long as you don't have illusions about saving the world. The detective novelist Raymond Chandler published a wonderful essay about writing, "The Simple Art of Murder," in which he argued among other things that no matter how important your theme, what mattered was what you could do with it: "Some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest."

The point is that there are many people trying to save democracy, and rightly so. But meanwhile things like tax policy must be made, and it's still important that we try to do it right.

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And I might add a speculation, which political scientists should feel free to mock. I suspect, or at least hope, that while the specifics of policy have very little political effect, a general sense of competence may bring political rewards — perhaps especially after the clown show of the past four years.

So I guess we should all do the best we can, even though you have to be oblivious not to realize that political catastrophe may overtake everyone's best efforts.

Programming note: The newsletter will be off next week. After the hiatus, it will be back in your inbox on June 22.

Quick Hits

The economy affects elections.

But it's mostly just the very recent rate of growth.

Which mainly reflects policy by the Fed, not the president.

Election theft: not a fantasy anymore.

LISTEN: Narratives of the American economy often focus on employers. What would change if they were to focus on workers? On today's episode of The Ezra Klein Show, the policy scholar Jamila Michener discusses the American economy's trenchant reliance on poverty, the potential and limitations of universal basic income, and the political disenfranchisement of the poor. You can listen to the episode here.

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If you're enjoying what you're reading, please consider recommending it to friends. They can sign up here. If you want to share your thoughts on an item in this week's newsletter or on the newsletter in general, please email me at krugman-newsletter@nytimes.com.

Facing the Music

Music makes it more OK, anyway.YouTube

OK is too much to ask; better, maybe.

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