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Krugman: The unwisdom of elites

Written By: - Date published: 12:32 pm, May 15th, 2011 - 19 comments
Categories: capitalism, class war, International, tax - Tags: , ,

Paul Krugman tells it like it is:

The Unwisdom of Elites

The past three years have been a disaster for most Western economies. The United States has mass long-term unemployment for the first time since the 1930s. Meanwhile, Europe’s single currency is coming apart at the seams. How did it all go so wrong?

Well, what I’ve been hearing with growing frequency from members of the policy elite — self-appointed wise men, officials, and pundits in good standing — is the claim that it’s mostly the public’s fault. The idea is that we got into this mess because voters wanted something for nothing, and weak-minded politicians catered to the electorate’s foolishness.

In NZ this is the nonsense we hear all the time about the policies of the last Labour government. Working for Families. Interest free student loans. You know, policies that help ordinary people instead of just the top 5%. National and their media enablers like to call these “election bribes”, while studiously avoiding the biggest election bribe of them all, National’s unaffordable tax cuts.

So this seems like a good time to point out that this blame-the-public view isn’t just self-serving, it’s dead wrong.

The fact is that what we’re experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. The policies that got us into this mess weren’t responses to public demand. They were, with few exceptions, policies championed by small groups of influential people — in many cases, the same people now lecturing the rest of us on the need to get serious. And by trying to shift the blame to the general populace, elites are ducking some much-needed reflection on their own catastrophic mistakes.

Let me focus mainly on what happened in the United States, then say a few words about Europe.

These days Americans get constant lectures about the need to reduce the budget deficit. That focus in itself represents distorted priorities, since our immediate concern should be job creation. But suppose we restrict ourselves to talking about the deficit, and ask: What happened to the budget surplus the federal government had in 2000?

The answer is, three main things. First, there were the Bush tax cuts, which added roughly $2 trillion to the national debt over the last decade. Second, there were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which added an additional $1.1 trillion or so. And third was the Great Recession, which led both to a collapse in revenue and to a sharp rise in spending on unemployment insurance and other safety-net programs.

We don’t have big expensive wars to pay for, but we’re in line with the unaffordable tax cuts and the damage from the recession.

So who was responsible for these budget busters? It wasn’t the man in the street.

President George W. Bush cut taxes in the service of his party’s ideology, not in response to a groundswell of popular demand — and the bulk of the cuts went to a small, affluent minority.

Well gosh, what a surprise. Every time a right wing government gets in the rich get richer and the poor get screwed.

Skipping over stuff about America’s wars, and role in the financial crisis, which are less relevant to NZ, we get to:

Needless to say, that’s not what you hear from European policy makers. The official story in Europe these days is that governments of troubled nations catered too much to the masses, promising too much to voters while collecting too little in taxes. And that is, to be fair, a reasonably accurate story for Greece. But it’s not at all what happened in Ireland and Spain, both of which had low debt and budget surpluses on the eve of the crisis.

New Zealand being in line with Ireland and Spain in those respects. Krugman ties the fate of Ireland and Spain to the euro zone, another “elite vision imposed on highly reluctant voters”. That’s not relevant to NZ of course, we were just collateral damage of the crisis, petrol price rises, and tax cuts that we couldn’t pay for.

Does any of this matter? Why should we be concerned about the effort to shift the blame for bad policies onto the general public?

One answer is simple accountability. People who advocated budget-busting policies during the Bush years shouldn’t be allowed to pass themselves off as deficit hawks; people who praised Ireland as a role model shouldn’t be giving lectures on responsible government.

Can anyone think of a prominent New Zealand politician who “praised Ireland as a role model”? Anyone? You at the back?

But the larger answer, I’d argue, is that by making up stories about our current predicament that absolve the people who put us here there, we cut off any chance to learn from the crisis. We need to place the blame where it belongs, to chasten our policy elites. Otherwise, they’ll do even more damage in the years ahead.

Hear hear. In all the discussion of our knackered economy, our record deficit, our borrowing $380 million a week, and so on, the only “solution” ever being proposed is a slash and burn budget. Cutting back on spending at every turn. Why no discussion of the obvious alternative? Reverse National’s unaffordable tax cuts. They did nothing to stimulate the economy and they’ve left us deep in a hole. Don’t let our own “policy elites” sell us a pack of lies while ignoring the tax cut elephant in the room.

19 comments on “Krugman: The unwisdom of elites”

  1. rainman 1

    Because the Nats are in government, and if they reversed the tax cuts they would be guaranteed to be voted out, no matter how asleep Labour is – they campaigned on tax cuts, implemented tax cuts, and have nothing else of substance to offer to their voters.

    Not. Gonna. Happen.

    • ZeeBop 1.1

      Ask how Key would pay for the tax cuts, would he raise GST. Key said No.
      As petrol price shocks and food spikes roll in people are finding the tax cuts don’t
      cover all the extra costs, and inflation from the GST. So whereas Key
      figured most people would be better off, any increase in the cost of living
      will harm those on more income, turning believers into disbelievers.
      Key lied about tax cuts, he borrowed because GST hike didn’t cover it,
      he said he wouldn’t cut services, and yet he now has done both.
      They were unaffordable even before the petrol price rises and the
      food price spikes.

      Now look at Australia, instead of tax cuts for the rich, they gave
      everyone hundreds of dollars, their economy quickly rebounded.
      We have a commodities boom, we are a commodities exporter,
      so why are we going backwards? Our currency is a buy! How
      can the world market value our nation so highly yet the economy
      is so signs of so much pain? It doesn’t make sense until you understand
      the type of capitalist we breed in NZ, the distorter scavenger
      parasite speculator. We need a capital gains tax, GST off food,
      catch up with Australia on fair taxation.

    • ghostwhowalksnz 1.2

      Key and English have allready reversed tax cuts they promised before the election and then changed the laws they passed 6 months later. Que Sera ?

  2. Jim Nald 2

    Actually, with due respect, the full and honest argument would be to reverse the double con jobs of tax cuts and also the GST increases.

    Remember the GST increases were sold to us stupid voters as a ‘fiscally neutral’ package with the tax cuts?

    The new incoming Govt, who will govern for the many of us working poor, can compromise by going only halfway – Reversing the tax cuts would only be half the dose of policy medicine. That’s do-able.
    Next.

  3. marsman 3

    What a great article,clear and concise. Applies exactly to NZ. The same kind of parasites waving the same kind of sticks.

  4. ianmac 4

    Yes. A crystal clear identification of the problems.
    But the solution? Can Labour canvass on reversing tax cuts? That would take real courage.
    Can Labour restore GST to 12.5%? Mmmm.
    Can Labour increase tax to balance the books? That might be surprisingly better received than supposed.
    Would anyone propose that the cause of debt for NZ is not the people but the Banks that have over 70% of the liability and therefore must be held to account.

    Anyway it might help if Krugman’s points were held as a checklist and marked against current and future policies from any party. (But don’t expect much clarity from National. Not much before the last election.)

    • Colonial Viper 4.1

      Can Labour canvass on reversing tax cuts? That would take real courage.
      Can Labour restore GST to 12.5%? Mmmm.
      Can Labour increase tax to balance the books? That might be surprisingly better received than supposed.

      Can Labour give us some firm election year policy please.

      And this does not mean re-hashing lines out of speeches which are months old.

  5. Carol 5

    Somewhere in there, as part of the problem, are the corporates who actively promote and market consumerism and the need for people to constantly update their products and services, spending on things they don’t always need.

    Governments need to counter this by focusing on encouraging businesses that cater to our needs, at a reasonable price, through production of real stuff, and not promoting getting rich on financial speculation.

    • Colonial Viper 5.1

      Learning from cigarette promotions, and focussing on TV advertising, I can suggest:

      1) All TV ads to be in low definition only – 360p or similar.
      2) All TV ads to be in black and white only.
      3) No music in TV ads (unless the goods or service being advertised is music).
      4) No TV advertising on Sundays.
      5) No advertising for an hour after school.
      6) Stricter regs against misleading or untrue advertising claims.

      🙂

      • Treetop 5.1.1

        Unrealistic ads irritate me. The cost of ingredients required to assemble a meal in most cooking programme also irritates me. Who can afford to purchase what advertisers and cooking programmes ram down our throat without considering the cost?

        With most ads there is a much cheaper alternative e.g. a plastic bag verses a plastic container. A packet compared to individual sachets, (this trend has got worse and worse). There are some great natural home made remedies which work better than some expensive cleaners and beauty products e.g. sage is a main ingredient in homemade hair dye.

      • Alwyn 5.1.2

        Let’s introduce it for the political ads before the election this year.
        The one that would be particularly effective would be number 6.
        Yea. No party ads at all this year!

      • Jum 5.1.3

        You need to focus on all advertisements this election year. The one about the ‘I should have chosen the blue one’ ute ad was a perfect example of supporters paying for ads that have not been focussed back on the NAct party in relation to campaign allowances. Ansell has proved how manipulative and damaging ads can be and The Hollow Men has proved how dishonest this government is.

        People advocating equal and fair election campaigns should be FORMALLY complaining to the Broadcasting authority if anything looks remotely like an ad favouring the rich that support NAct.

    • PeteG 5.2

      Somewhere in there, as part of the problem, are the corporates who actively promote and market consumerism and the need for people to constantly update their products and services, spending on things they don’t always need.

      That’s a dilemma – if people stopped wasting so much money on consumist crap there would be a significant contraction in business activity. That’s actually what’s happening now on a minor scale, spending has been reduced, debt repayments have improved, both of which are good but the flow on effect of that is short term it is slowing the recovery from recession. Longer term it will be better for individuals and for the country.

  6. arandar 6

    Just watched John Pilger’s ‘The War on Democracy’. Far too many similarities between them, there and then and us, here and now. If you haven’t seen it, get it out. If you haven’t seen it for a while, watch it again.
    Yes, our basic realities differ somewhat; our indigenous people are a minority for one thing and our growing poor are spread across a range of less easily identifiable groups; young, ethnic, migrant, aged, unwell, women, we don’t have a history of military intervention in our governments, at least recently, and I’ll grant our economic starting points were well upscale. Never the less…

    Our elites are the same old suspects; the already wealthy and powerful buying or selling our country and our assets. It is they who are manipulating our economy or allowing it to be manipulated by foreign influences and big business; big oil, big banks, big media.

    Perhaps the thing that will save the world today from the worst excesses of the elites of the past is access to the internet. Without that, they would be able to sell us double-downs and reality tv, the equivalent of bread and circuses, treat us like a nation of mushrooms and get away with it.

    • Jum 6.1

      Arandar,

      I watched it. Until New Zealanders begin to realise that Key is the new Pinochet, they won’t take the degradation of our country seriously.

      The people of Venezuela and Chile certainly put Kiwis to shame, when it comes to fighting back to retain our dignity and our autonomy.

      Maybe Kiwis don’t really value their country. They will, but it will not be until they have suffered the same at the hands of the US which is moving in behind Key.

      Everything I could see and blogged about Key doing to achieve what America wants has been ignored but is swiftly happening.

      Just how far America will go to achieve control over NZ, related to their Latin American plots, remains to be seen, as the greedy and the selfish in New Zealand put their own greed above all others, as evidenced by Act’s rise in the polls, but it is obvious America views its own needs and desires as paramount over any other country’s needs. Capitalism, Fascism, Communism, Act individualism – all ignore the needs of people because they are too wound up in their flawed ideologies. We need a people’s charter. I don’t mean binding referenda either; that’s tied into the majority prejudices.

  7. aj 7

    Tax cuts will be ‘north of $40 a week’…..

    • felix 7.1

      North of $50 I think you’ll find was the clarion call to the voters in 2008.

      • Draco T Bastard 7.1.1

        And I’m still amazed that people actually bought the line. There’s no way that more than $50/week for average wage earners was affordable.

  8. Krugman is the #1 economic voice in the world right now. Putting that out there…

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