The Spinning Tops of Paul Krugman

Spin. An interesting word. It has a variety of definitions in as many realms of human activity, such as in finance, music, and even computer science. In politics, it means exaggeration, fabrication and falsehood. Its political role in “civil discourse” means that truths, facts, theories, or accusations can be “spun” out of whole cloth from a single thread, or out of context, or “twisted” beyond recognition, twirled to tweak into existence a perceived fact to reflect positively or negatively on someone or some thing.

In advertising, spin means creating an entertaining or appealing image around a product. For example, the old Wilkinson Sword razor blade TV ads used to end with two swords coming together with a metallic clash. Benson & Hedges used to promote its cigarettes with a series of TV and print ads that showed how smokers were inconvenienced by the longer Benson & Hedges cigarette. (Wilkinson Sword is no longer in business as an independent company, and cigarette ads are now banned from TV.) Chivas Regal had a print ad of a man sidling up to an attractive woman at a bar. And Capital One’s barbarians, to my knowledge, are still asking viewers what is in their wallets. I liked all these ads. They are examples of benign spin, not of brainwashing by “hidden persuaders.”

For four days, the nation was bedazzled (or browbeaten) by the spin that because Sarah Palin (and her alleged coven of radio and television witches and warlocks) believes in gun ownership, because she is outspoken in her views of government and of those in it, because she uttered some gun-related verbs (e.g., “reload”), because she employed the visual device of putting certain Democratic voting districts under her “crosshairs,” and because she is more or less associated with “rowdy” town hall Tea Partiers, she was in part, if not wholly, responsible for the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of six people during a political event in Tucson on January 8th. She was a contributor to the “climate of hate” and the vitriolic “polarization” of political debate. Or so everyone was to believe, because Democrats and leftists usually regard most Americans as chuckle-headed morons ready to be taken in by a campaign of dissimulating bombast.

That is also called “spin.” It is the malevolent kind. It leaves one who is acquainted with elemental logic in a state of bafflement, with one’s head spinning, as well, by the arbitrary, selective clustering. There are word salads, and there are concept salads. There is nothing logical to see in them. But concept salads are more revealing than any Rorschach test of what one “sees” in blots of spilled ink.

But for a moment let us assume that, in its root etymological meaning in relation to political rhetoric, spin was initially inspired by the illusion created by tops. Stationary, a top’s decorations and markings are clearly visible and distinguishable. But as a top spins, its colors and markings blur into horizontal streaks and bands. And for as long as a top is spinning, those streaks and bands are distinguishable. They seem real. When the top comes to rest, however, the truth is visible again. The bands and streaks are illusory.

Much vigorous spin was applied also to President Barack Obama’s Tucson “memorial” speech of January 12th. He did not so much memorialize and remember the victims of the shooting in that city, as promote himself, his statist agenda, and his tenuous popularity. Liberal columnists and pundits are still spinning the speech, calling it dignified and appropriate and the mark of a great president. It is now being disclosed that the whole affair was a super spin, complete with an Organizing for America slogan emblazoned on T-shirts and with applause prompters. These revelations will not matter to the spinners.

Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate, alleged economist, and consummate spinner at The New York Times, is always busy spinning his top and pointing to the bands and streaks on it to advocate one statist scheme or another, claiming they are the real thing and that it is a shame that gravity and inertia keep affecting the top’s spin and bringing it to a rest. I say alleged because, when his disconnected fiscal and financial ramblings are pitted against the thinking and deliberations of Adam Smith, Frédéric Bastiat, or Ludwig von Mises, or even against the economic observations of thinkers such as Margaret Thatcher, Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell, he is more to be consigned to the class of Jared Loughner’s mental aberrations than he is to the realm of sane and credible economic theory.

Then why examine anything he has to say, if his ramblings defy rationality? Because even before his elevation to the Lords of the Nobel Prize, he was an “authority” on not so much economics, as on the collectivist morality behind statist economics. His allies in collectivism and statism take their cues from him. We have a duty, he claims, to rob productive or rich Peter to pay unproductive, needy, or unthrifty Paul, never mind the consequences, which assure the mutual, egalitarian impoverishment of all. But to Krugman, that would only be “fair.”

The Gray Lady, perennial champion of “need,” is “standing by her man” and allowing him to go on about “civility,” even though his pugnacious and accusatory assertions in “Climate of Hate” have been rebutted by the facts behind Jared Loughner’s eminently non-politically motivated criminal actions. Facts will not stand in the way of Krugman. The facts, he asserts – indeed, a moral imperative – are to be found in his bands and streaks. Those, however, are the markings on a top designed by a student of Jackson Pollok.

But in his first relatively lucid commentary on matters, “A Tale of Two Moralities,” Krugman adumbrates the “moral divide” between his vision of America and that of his freedom-oriented adversaries, and states that this conflict exists and must be resolved. Of course, he comes down on the side of statism, and feels compelled to sneer at “the other side.”

He begins by virtually beatifying Obama over his Tucson speech.

On Wednesday, President Obama called on Americans to “expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.” Those were beautiful words; they spoke to our desire for reconciliation.

But antithetical opposites cannot be “reconciled.” The “hopes and dreams” of Obama or of his father or of anyone else who advocates “social justice” or socialism or a permanent welfare state cannot be “bound together” with the “hopes and dreams” of those who protest the elimination of their freedoms by the imposition of legal servitude. Slave-masters and the enslaved are not on the same moral page.

For the great divide in our politics isn’t really about pragmatic issues, about which policies work best; it’s about differences in those very moral imaginations Mr. Obama urges us to expand, about divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice.

Here Krugman presents a false dichotomy: the “moral” has little to do with “what works.” It is just our “imaginations” that count. Called by another name, it is wishful thinking. But the moral is the practical, because moral practicality is justice. If the indentured servitude of the productive among us is “moral,” then it is both unjust and impractical, for the beneficiaries of that servitude will reap rewards they refuse to “imagine.” It will be justice when the enslaved or the fettered produce as little as possible, or not at all.

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

This is where Krugman begins to lapse from lucidity. America does not have a capitalist economy, although private enterprise and productive work are the source of whatever wealth it can boast of. (And productive work should not include the paper-shuffling and regulation-minding of government employees, wherever they may be employed.) America has a mixed economy, one of private enterprise governed by controls and regulations. It is beginning to assume the features of fascism, in which the government allows private ownership of production but establishes the goals and means of that ownership. This was the character of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. The trend in America began long before Roosevelt’s New Deal.

America has never had a fully capitalist economy. But, note that Krugman feels free to characterize capitalism as “red in tooth and claw.” That is his “imagination” at work. And any nation that has established a tax-supported “social safety net” cannot claim to be capitalist.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

Which, in fact, taxes and regulations are, regardless of who “sees” them. The “modern right” does not have a “fondness” for “violent rhetoric.” Advocates of limited government identify wrongs in the calmest rhetoric possible. If the liberals and the Left feel admonished or intimidated by such “harsh” language, there is no semantic alternative available other than gibberish. What one has worked to own or create would not otherwise exist for a government to assess and tax. The forcible taking of it is basically theft – by a criminal, immediately; by a government, over a lifetime, through extortion.

It is the Left that has a fondness for violent rhetoric, from the “kill the pigs” calls of the 1960’s and 1970’s, up to Saul Alinsky’s “target and isolate” advice to leftist radicals, and Obama’s less than genteel suggestion about guns and knives. Right-wingers, libertarians, free-marketers, and Tea Partiers do not have a history of robbing banks, occupying universities, obstructing property with noisy demonstrations, taunting and battling the police, fire-bombing military recruitment offices, destroying private and government property, and advocating the violent overthrow of the government.

There’s no middle ground between these views. One side saw health reform, with its subsidized extension of coverage to the uninsured, as fulfilling a moral imperative: wealthy nations, it believed, have an obligation to provide all their citizens with essential care. The other side saw the same reform as a moral outrage, an assault on the right of Americans to spend their money as they choose.

This is true. There is no “middle ground” between those positions. In Krugman’s “imagination,” wealthy nations automatically have a Kantian moral imperative to provide for the needy, regardless of whether or not they “need” or want medical insurance or anything else deemed “essential.”

Krugman then makes this statement:

Commentators who pine for the days of civility and bipartisanship are, whether they realize it or not, pining for the days when the Republican Party accepted the legitimacy of the welfare state, and was even willing to contemplate expanding it. As many analysts have noted, the Obama health reform — whose passage was met with vandalism and death threats against members of Congress — was modeled on Republican plans from the 1990s.

This is also true. Both Presidents Bush sanctioned the growth of big government and the expansion of the welfare state. They built on what the Democrats had created. Krugman does not dwell on the fact, but this was possible only because of the moral and philosophical bankruptcy of the Republicans. The Republican notion of preserving freedom has been to advocate putting just one handcuff and one fetter on just one wrist and ankle, instead of on both wrists and ankles, as the Democrats propose.

Krugman becomes nasty later on his article. The “other side” is guilty of moral turpitude.

Regular readers know which side of that divide I’m on. In future columns I will no doubt spend a lot of time pointing out the hypocrisy and logical fallacies of the “I earned it and I have the right to keep it” crowd. And I’ll also have a lot to say about how far we really are from being a society of equal opportunity, in which success depends solely on one’s own efforts.

But there is no “hypocrisy” or “logical fallacy” in the idea. Why is wanting to keep what one has earned “hypocritical”? One has earned it, or one has not. “Earning” is not synonymous with theft. He does not answer. Why is it a “logical fallacy”? Krugman offers no evidence to support that assertion, either.

His remark about success depending “solely on one’s own efforts” identifies him as an apostle of John Rawls’ morbidly egalitarian A Theory of Justice (1971), in which “original positions” and “final outcomes” are equalized and weighted in favor of the “least-advantaged.” One’s skills, ambition, ingenuity, perseverance, and values are “unfair” if they net one rewards. If one is, say, less skilled, or less hard-working, or simply a mediocre performer, then one should be boosted to the level of one’s superior. That would be “fair” – to the envious. Envy is now a “moral” virtue. If one has no skills and does not work at all, then one somehow has a right to everything the skilled and ambitious attain, because the latter simply lucked out in the distributive “lottery” of skills, ambition, and so on. Who or what “distributed” the advantages? Neither Rawls nor Krugman provides an answer.

Others adopt the Rawlsian mantra and claim that one’s abilities, skills, vision, and success are somehow bestowed on one by “society,” and that it is one’s moral duty to “give back” to it, voluntarily or by law. Such a perspective discounts the volitional nature of man’s consciousness and demotes it to a passive role. It implies that the content of one’s mind is not one’s own, but the property of any random stranger or group of strangers. One is merely a “steward” of the property of an absentee landlord.

The hidden premise in Rawls’ theory is that, ultimately, it is the professional parasite, the moocher, the career welfare state beneficiary and system gamer, who is the “least-advantaged” and who requires a “safety net.” In Krugman’s “imagination,” one’s success in achieving one’s values is directly responsible for another’s luckless failure. Ergo, the achiever “owes” the non-achiever.

Krugman’s article is one long endorsement of egalitarianism by decree. Its “moral” foundation is the impractical, suicidal code of altruism, and its political expression is collectivism.

Right now, each side in that debate passionately believes that the other side is wrong. And it’s all right for them to say that. What’s not acceptable is the kind of violence and eliminationist rhetoric encouraging violence that has become all too common these past two years.

Again, the “violence” has been perpetrated by the Left, and the “eliminationist” rhetoric has also been a monopoly of the Left, and for much, much longer than a mere two years. No Tea Partier ever told Democrats to shut up, or smeared them with the allegations of racism or bigotry or knuckle-dragging.

We all want reconciliation, but the road to that goal begins with an agreement that our differences will be settled by the rule of law.

No, we do not all want reconciliation. We do not agree that it is possible, practical, or even desirable. Reconciliation means compromise, of “one side” surrendering in part or in whole its principles and values, just to “stay in the game,” while the “other side” – Krugman’s side – not only “stays in the game,” but sets its rules.

And how will differences be settled, and by whose rule of law? Should it be the law founded on the “practicality” of laissez-faire, individual rights, and the preservation of liberty, including the freedom to employ “violent” rhetoric? Or the fiat law of legislators, bureaucrats, czars, and the dispensers of “fairness”?

Yes, there are “two moralities” in conflict. Krugman does not bother to delineate them other than in a crude, superficial manner. The purpose of his article is to blur the distinctions between them by making an appeal for “non-violent” discourse, in which A would be equated with non-A by both “sides” of the conflict. That is the goal of Krugman’s spinning top, to vitiate the epistemology and metaphysics of the sane and the owners of their own lives.