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Paul Krugman Misunderstands Bernie Sanders

01/29/2016 05:59 pm ET | Updated Jan 29, 2016
  • Mark Weisbrot Co-Director, Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington, D.C.
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I have to say it is puzzling to see Paul Krugman supporting Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders, at least to people who read his writings. Krugman has repeatedly expressed more actual contempt for what Sanders calls "the billionaire class" than Sanders himself has, citing research showing that rich people are "less likely to exhibit empathy, less likely to respect norms and even laws, more likely to cheat, than those occupying lower rungs on the economic ladder." Krugman's positions on fiscal policy, Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, and most economic issues that he writes and cares about are considerably closer to those of Sanders than of Clinton. Most journalists covering the campaign also recognize that Sanders has pushed Clinton to adopt more progressive positions such as a surtax on incomes over $5 million; or her opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership, which the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce just forecast will likely disappear sometime between now and her presidency if she gets there.

Furthermore, Krugman is smart enough to know that someone who gets millions of dollars from Wall Street and the plutocracy is less likely to implement policies that these donors don't like, than someone who owes them nothing.

Even on foreign policy, which Krugman does not write about that often, he is much closer to Sanders and the left of the Democratic party than he is to Clinton. Krugman was the only writer at the New York Times to point out, correctly in my view, that part of the motivation for the build-up to the Iraq war was to help the Republicans win the 2002 congressional elections. In his book, "The Conscience of a Liberal," he explains how this kind of U.S. foreign policy hurts Americans by allowing the right to move the political debate away from domestic issues in which the majority have a big stake. And yet he gives Hillary Clinton a pass for voting for the Iraq War (and defending her vote for 12 years).

As others have noted, members of Congress had access to U.S. intelligence files that contradicted the Bush administration's justifications for the war, and some of them looked at the intelligence and voted "no." Twenty-one of 50 Democratic senators voted no. This was a war that took thousands of American lives and killed about a million Iraqis, and as President Obama has noted, was responsible for the creation of ISIS. It has destabilized the Middle East into a state of permanent warfare. But Clinton has also shown by her recent bellicose speech on Iran that she is more than ready for another unnecessary war. Her foreign policy leanings are considerably to the right of many mainstream Democratic leaders, including President Obama himself and Secretary of State John Kerry.

In his latest New York Times column, Krugman argues that Sanders has a flawed analysis of American politics, and contrasts it to that of Clinton:

To oversimplify a bit -- but only, I think, a bit -- the Sanders view is that money is the root of all evil. Or more specifically, the corrupting influence of big money, of the 1 percent and the corporate elite, is the overarching source of the political ugliness we see all around us.

The Clinton view, on the other hand, seems to be that money is the root of some evil, maybe a lot of evil, but it isn't the whole story. Instead, racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice are powerful forces in their own right. This may not seem like a very big difference -- both candidates oppose prejudice, both want to reduce economic inequality. But it matters for political strategy.

I don't question Krugman's sincerity, but I think this is a serious misunderstanding of Sanders' views as compared to Clinton's. Sanders is quite intelligent and has been involved in politics for more than 40 years. He understands very well the roles of "racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice" in American society and politics. Here is what he said Thursday on MSNBC:

I think there is not widespread understanding in the white community of what it is like to be Black in America today, especially a Black male; when we know that something like one out of four African-American males born today stand a likelihood of ending up in prison. That is a tragedy that is beyond comprehension. When we know that our jails - we have more people in jail than any other country - are disproportionately Black and Latino, that is a major crisis. When we know that the Black and white communities do marijuana at about equal rates, and yet four times more Blacks are arrested for marijuana, what does that tell you? What does it tell you that Blacks are much more likely to be stopped by police officers for traffic violations than whites? So we got some serious problems in this country with institutional racism, and a broken criminal justice system, and that will be a major priority for a Sanders administration.

I have never heard anything like this from Hillary Clinton and I doubt that we will hear something like it on the campaign trail.

I raise these points with great respect for Krugman, who has contributed more than anyone in the United States to improving the debate over some crucial economic issues, and also helped advance the political debate. I am sorry that some on the left have attacked him and his motivation. I am quite sure that he is not looking for any political gain; when more than 250,000 people signed a petition for him to be appointed Treasury Secretary, he immediately and flatly refused. He is also one of the few prominent writers on economic and political issues who has, on a number of occasions, admitted when he was mistaken, and forthrightly changed his position. I hope that he will reconsider his ideas in this case.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, D.C., and the author of the new book "Failed: What the 'Experts' Got Wrong About the Global Economy" (2015, Oxford University Press). The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent those of CEPR.

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