The Conscience of a Liberal is um…not that polemic. It’s not that shrill. There is an argument, to be sure, but the book has much more economic history than I had expected, and much more political history.
I’ve already blogged on The Great Compression; Krugman’s more detailed account in the book does emphasize the role of war, wage and price controls, and very high rates of taxation. Normative questions aside, Krugman’s positive analysis isn’t as far from mine as I had been expecting from his blog post.
Some claims in the book are simply wrong: "…if there’s a single reason blue-collar workers did so much better in the fifties than they had in the twenties, it was the rise of unions." (p.49) Of course it was instead greater capital investment per head and better technology; if Krugman means relative status he needs to say so. This conflation of relative and absolute magnitudes is a running problem throughout the first part of the book.
Most of all, today’s world — or even an extrapolated version thereof — isn’t nearly as like the Gilded Age as Krugman suggests. Absolute standards of living really do matter, and most Americans today live very fine lives, or if they don’t the economy is not at fault.
Krugman writes of "the vast right-wing conspiracy" repeatedly, and in these moments he verges on the shrill. But Bush receives virtually no attention; perhaps Krugman is simply sick of writing about the guy.
Conservatism rose in the 1980s in large part because the mid to late 1970s were such an economic mess and because American had lost so much relative status internationally. Krugman won’t face up to that; instead he blames the Republican manipulation of "the race card," even though at the time racial tensions arguably were lower than ever before. Of course in a relatively close election any single factor can be called decisive but I found this discussion well below the standards of the political science literature, even the popular political science literature.
Krugman calls for single-payer health insurance, tax hikes, and raising the minimum wage. He doesn’t come off as all that radical.
His theory of government failure is that wealthy right-wingers hijack the state to redistribute wealth to themselves, and that’s all we hear on what’s wrong with government. That’s the part of the book I find hardest to swallow, but if you’re asking "should I read this?" the answer is yes.
My prediction: For lack of red meat, this book won’t sell nearly as well as Naomi Klein’s latest. At my Borders, circa 4 p.m., they hadn’t even unpacked it. "Yeah, we have that in the back somewhere, I haven’t seen it yet." was what the guy said.
My question: Is Paul Krugman willing to come out and simply pronounce: "Margaret Thatcher turned the UK around and for the better"? If so, how does this square with his broader narrative? And if not, why not?
Addendum: Here is Ed Glaeser’s review.