So there I was sitting in my favorite bookstore in Pleasantville, NY on a cloudy, wintry afternoon this past Saturday.
When the chill breezes of right wing austerity hit me smack in the face.
I had just finished browsing and was gathering my four selections and making the trip to the check out counter. Including myself, there were about ten patrons in the store, along with Roy and Yvonne, proprietor and proprietress, respectively, of this, one of the remaining two independent bookstores in northern Westchester County.
I had been ensnared by Al Gore's latest tome, a Toffler-esque look at the "drivers" of today's change, as well as by an insider's account of the Vatican and the latest bio on Boston's notorious former crime boss, Whitey Bulger. My reading habits being eclectic, the group was then rounded out by a new biography on Calvin Coolidge, America's 30th president in the roaring '20s.
Coolidge had a reputation for being very sparse with words. So sparse, in fact, that he earned the moniker "Silent Cal" during the course of his career. That career included stints as a Massachusetts city councilman, mayor, legislator and governor, followed thereafter by a few years as Vice-President (to Warren Harding) and about five and a half years as President. His silence was apparently most pronounced in social settings, where the habit of small talk apparently never became his.
Unlike in the The Village Bookstore in Pleasantville . . .
Where small talk on Saturday afternoons is one of the reasons we regularly show up.
Anyway, arriving at the check out counter, Yvonne and Roy spied my selection as I hunted for my frequent buyer card. (I would only be able to march home to my wife with four new hardcovers -- to go with the forty boxes of books waiting to be shelved on yet to be built bookcases in this, our new home -- if I was able to explain that two were "really free" and therefore could not be avoided.) The card found, and marital bliss preserved for at least another week, Yvonne and Roy then remarked that my selection of the Coolidge volume was . . .
A bit of a shock.
Small talk being what it is, and this being a bookstore where we small talkers presume to expound on ostensibly big ideas, Yvonne and Roy knew that I was no fan of conservative Republicans, not to mention books written by former staffers for George W. Bush, as was the case with this latest effort on Silent Cal. I agreed that they had a right to be surprised but joked that it was important to "keep your eye on" the enemy.
But then, turning serious, I pointed out that America's 30th president might provide a lesson for today.
Though Coolidge generally gets credit for ending the deficits of his era, the critical fact is that he did it during a growing economy. Today's environment is, of course, radically different. Unlike during Coolidge's tenure in the 1920s, growth today is anemic and monetary policy is powerless to increase it with interest rates as low as they can go (namely, at about zero). Fiscal stimulus -- deficits be damned -- is really all we have left to combat the current plague; robust growth will itself lower the deficit and we should therefore do all we can to generate it first. We can deal with the rest thereafter.
Though the current crop of dysfunctional DC pols appear unable to avoid the draconian spending cuts to be brought on by a mindless sequestration that is now only days away, this will -- in the current environment -- only be recessionary. And though most of today's prominent deficit hawks -- Boehner and Cantor and GOP whip Kevin McCarthy -- were yesterday's deficit spenders, mindless authors of Bush's unnecessary tax cuts and unpaid for wars, their hypocrisy is lost in a journalistic echo chamber that assumes all sides are guilty when in fact the guilt is not remotely shared. The Clinton Democrats were many things to many people. But they were also the last pols to give us a surplus and growth.
All this I earnestly imparted to Yvonne and Roy.
While happily acknowledging to the guy behind me in the check out line that, "if this made me a liberal, I was."
For good measure, I also praised Paul Krugman.
And then, in the calm columns of a small independent bookstore, on a lazy Saturday in February . . .
All hell broke loose.
Unbeknownst to us on the check out line, about twenty feet away, in the history section no less, a big guy with a small mind had overheard our small talk and announced to all in the store that . . .
"Krugman is an asshole."
Now, Paul Krugman is many things, but rectally challenged is not one of them.
In fact, he is a relentlessly courageous New York Times columnist, a storied Princeton economics professor, and a Nobel laureate. Over the past decade, he has emerged as one of the only experts to focus on facts and rebut the right wing nonsense that has for the last four years wrongly predicted massive inflation and a bond market meltdown if the deficit is not cut right now.
As Krugman has consistently noted throughout this period, Keynes was right. When interest rates are at zero and growth is stalled, demand implodes. The danger in that case is deflation and depression, not inflation and bond market revenge. Wherever austerity has been practiced today -- Britain, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Greece -- it has failed; wherever it has been cabined -- here, Japan, Iceland -- growth has at least been positive.
Needless to say, all of this had to be pointed out to BGSM (big guy, small mind).
His rejoinder was that while I had my opinion, he had his. Mine was that his opinion (or, really, ad hominem) was not based on evidence but mine -- or, rather, Paul Krugman's -- was. At that point, he did not deign to point out the evidence supporting his view, which, assuming it is different from Krugman's, presumably amounts to some form of the claim that austerity works. Instead, he told the store that . . .
He had an MBA from the University of Chicago.
Which, given that school's love affair with austerity as ideology rather than economics as science, was probably his first problem.
And which, of course, I promptly pointed out.
Because, as some other politician might say . . .
I am no Calvin Coolidge.