Pop, Charts: On Paul Krugman

Pop, Charts: On Paul Krugman

Krugman affirms the way things are, no matter how often he choruses the word "change."


Pop culture, née mass culture, once possessed a dual meaning: the shared experience of mass-produced cultural commodities, and persisting folk traditions. These senses pitted mass culture as a populist bulwark against both high culture's gleaming exclusions and the alienations of industrial development.

This chain of meaning swiftly contradicts itself: one can scarcely celebrate mass production while denouncing the assembly line. Riven by such inconsistencies, pop culture has forfeited its birthrights, structuring antagonisms long since collapsed. Today every artwork belongs to the market, while the market appears as a kind of mass spectacle. In the sharpest formulation on offer, culture has become economic and the economic has itself become cultural.

Inevitably, then, even an economist can become a pop star. Consider the phenomenon of Paul Krugman, of late taking a curious turn. Krugman's credibility rests on a Nobel-punctuated passel of prizes bestowed largely for refashioning trade theories relating comparative and geographical advantage. In parallel, he has contributed popular writing in various venues, eventually debuting a New York Times column in 2000 and later an accompanying blog. His ardor for scolding George W. Bush, not limited to matters economic, drew both admiration and antipathy. Critics intimated that he should stick to his specialty and remove his snout from politics. This merely underscores Krugman's advantageous positioning as a public intellectual famously handy with hard data and rigorous analyses. Ask Thomas Friedman: anyone can be a blowhard on matters global. Few can do the math. 

A peculiar dynamic has transfixed our moment: true opinion-makers must speak to the "general public," but in the language of expertise audible to the technocratic 
cadres. A veneer of social conscience adds the final touch of mass appeal. Behold Krugman: as a star economist, his historical role has been to reinvigorate the duel between liberal Keynesians and the recently regnant monetarists of various stripes. 

This opposition is surely very complicated, as professional obfuscators remind us. Fortunately, pop suffers simplification gladly. During the long boom after World War II, government's modulation of the market was meant to balance inflation and unemployment, understood to be inversely correlated. "Stagflation," wherein neither variable could be tamed, undermined this belief in the 1970s. Monetary policy thus turned entirely to controlling inflation, along the way striving to renounce the deficit spending Keynes recommended for restarting stalled economies.

Monetarism ran the table until our Great Recession, with its persistently high unemployment—at which point Krugman's adjusted Keynesianism recovered its sympathetic cast, even while defamed as socialism by market fundamentalists. There economics stands today, divided against itself no less vitriolically than the two governing parties. A charming video dramatizing the Manichaean struggle, "Fear the Boom and Bust: A Hayek vs. Keynes Rap Anthem," has more than 4 million views. This is how we live now. We jam econopop.

It is the character of pop to pose the moment's conflicts as timeless dramas. This is part of its delight, its glittering intensity. Concomitantly, pop must present these oppositions as if they contain all possibilities, and as if the side chosen matters above all things. For the record, I greatly preferred the Backstreet Boys to 'N Sync.

The oppositions Republican/Democrat and monetarist/Keynesian are in this regard pure pop. They are, as you will have noticed some time ago, choices only in the most straitened sense: minimally distinct management strategies for capitalism. Their present distinction lies in whether crisis is best managed by allowing the owners of capital everything they want immediately, or at pace lest they choke on something. The idea that profitability may not be a social good is literally unthinkable. The possibility that the ownership class's growing command over the stuff of life might itself be a problem, not only for a few workers, but for the economy as a whole? Beyond the pale.

And yet. In December, Krugman wrote two blog entries in swift succession: "Rise of the Robots" and "Human Versus Physical Capital." Inequality, his charts informed him, was itself a consequence of the opposition between capital and labor—specifically the increasing domination of capital in the form of machines—as labor is expelled from the production process. That ratio turns out to be basically the same measure as productivity, sine qua non of economic progress.

Moreover, in a development Krugman couldn't quite bring himself to declare, his charts suggest that a generally declining labor share since the 1970s has also spelled bad news for overall profitability outside the finance sector. The productivity race wasn't just unfortunate for the unemployed; it was for capital a poison pill of its own making. Thus Krugman's comedy: always on the verge of discovering the arguments of a 150-year-old book; always turning away at the last second. In Krugman's words, "I think our eyes have been averted from the capital/labor dimension of inequality, for several reasons. It didn't seem crucial back in the 1990s, and not enough people (me included!) have looked up to notice that things have changed. It has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism—which shouldn't be a reason to ignore facts, but too often is. And it has really uncomfortable implications."

Does it? I suppose so. And that uncomfort is what pop, for all its pleasures, must defer. Pop must affirm the way things are, no matter how often it choruses the word "change." You cannot be Paul Krugman, Pop Star, and at the same time discover that capital is built to break us, and itself—even if your charts so testify. So you will not be shocked to discover Krugman stepped back from this realization and continued about his business, scarcely speaking of it again. There are some things you do not say. They are not popular.

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