Pitchforks and Torches

PITCHFORKS AND TORCHES….Brad DeLong says something worth starting a conversation over:

When I read Paul [Krugman’s] call for “smart, bold populism,” I am reminded of earlier calls a couple of decades ago by Milton Friedman, Marty Feldstein, and their ilk for smart, bold conservatism or smart, bold libertarianism. But they did not get what they ordered: on the economic policy front the policies of Reagan and of Bush II have been a horrible botch. What populist policies that we can think of would be smart? And how can we make our high politicians allergic to populist policies that are stupid?

I would have agreed with this 15 years ago. And I am enough of a temperamental moderate to agree with it still ? emotionally, anyway.

But one has to respond to reality, no? And given the current political and economic climate in the United States, what are the odds that David Sirota will succeed in leading howling mobs onto the streets with pitchforks and torches? About zero, right?

The reality is that, in a way that’s invisible to most Americans, the economy has gotten fantastically out of kilter over the past quarter century. Bill Clinton did a little bit to get it heading back in the right direction, but he didn’t do enough and he didn’t have much time to do it. Eight years out of the past 26 was too little to make a serious dent.

So what to do? We now have an enormous tide to swim against, and let’s face it: sober, incremental, smart rhetoric just isn’t going to change things. Incendiary rhetoric, by contrast, might ? and discomfiting though it may be, it’s hardly likely to lead to incendiary policy. We don’t live in Weimar Germany. Sure, a few stupid policies are bound to emerge from all the talk, but more likely it will merely succeed in scaring a few people into turning the battleship a few degrees.

None of this means that serious economists like Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong should deliberately advocate stupid policies, or even that they should refrain from criticizing stupid policies. Nonetheless, we desperately need radically more attention paid to full employment policies; to labor organization in service industries; to the distributional inequities of free trade policies; to national healthcare; and to significantly more progressive taxation. It seems unlikely to me that we can get it without a sea change in public opinion, and that won’t happen without breaking a few eggs.

I probably won’t be one of the egg breakers. Not my style. Maybe Brad and Paul won’t be either. But I’m willing to sit back and let other people do it without kibitzing too much.

Unless, of course, someone comes up with a realistic alternative that can still produce serious change. So far, no one has.