The Self-Censorship of a Would-Be Truth-Teller: Paul Krugman's 'Spots of Commonness'

By Stephen Steinlight on December 22, 2009

But there’s also, I believe, a question of priorities. The Fed sprang into action with the prospect of wrecked banks; it doesn’t seem equally concerned about the prospect of wrecked lives. The kind of sustained high unemployment envisaged in the Fed’s own forecasts is a recipe for immense human suffering – millions of families losing their savings and their homes, millions of young Americans never getting their working lives properly started because there are no jobs available when they graduate. If we don’t get unemployment down soon, we’ll be paying the price for a generation. (Paul Krugman, "Bernanke's Unfinished Mission," the New York Times, December 10, 2009)

This jeremiad, along with others no less apocalyptic, is evidence Paul Krugman can't be faulted for lacking moral outrage, failure of empathy, or an insufficient sense of urgency in recognizing how purgatorial life has become for millions of unemployed and partially employed Americans in an economy with a U-6 unemployment rate of 17.5 percent. Nor can he be accused of myopia about the ruinous long-term impact of continued high-level unemployment should nothing be done to reduce it dramatically. He sees the extent of the human tragedy unfolding around us and recognizes, implicitly, that in terms of potential social unrest we are playing with fire.

But in the column excerpted above on a grand scheme involving the Federal Reserve in ameliorating the highest unemployment since the Great Depression, as was the case with his contributions to the brainstorming session at the recent White House Jobs Summit on December 3, the Nobel Laureate in economics channels his inward Maynard Keynes and advocates billions, even trillions in deficit spending. If huge deficit spending was briefly a policy option, it’s become a political non-starter, especially after Obama's first controversial and bitterly contested stimulus package as well as all the costly bailouts. The Administration won't get a second bite at that apple. Krugman calls for another stimulus package on an unprecedented scale. He believes we must have it but knows we won't get it as a result of a pusillanimous President and opposition by centrist Democrats and the Republicans.

Thus the switch to Plan II, which would necessitate still greater deficit spending. Drawing on the work of Joseph Gagnon, a former staff member at the Fed who now works for the Peterson Institute of International Economics, he proposes that the Federal Reserve expand credit to promote jobs – he is describing a monumental project to create 18 million jobs over the next five years – by buying $2 trillion in assets to speed up growth. Like the titanic stimulus package he believes is critical, it goes without saying this plan is politically DOA. Krugman surely knows this, which makes his policy recommendations seem akin to a temper tantrum, suggesting a deeply troubling absence of high seriousness, or perhaps just grown-up thinking.

What's oddest about Krugman and his proposals is the image of very smart, highly trained economists seeking to scale Mount Everest to find THE ANSWER, each of which bears a striking resemblance to the other in being immensely expensive and thus not part of "the art of the possible," as well as Byzantine in complexity.

What wasn't broached at the Summit because it's not just ideologically outré but so heretical as to be unspeakable was a response that could have made a huge, immediate contribution to addressing the problem of joblessness – sans the windy intellection and vast expenditure. The solution is dirt cheap by any standard, and chump change in comparison to each and every Summit idea.

Had the participants employed Occam's razor and looked for the simplest, most obvious causative factor, the lowest-hanging fruit, they could have acknowledged, faced, and taken on the Hydra-headed, job-stealing, budget-exploding, safety-net-slashing monster: massive immigration by the unskilled, illegal and legal.

In Krugman's op ed of December 10, he argues we must add no fewer than 100,000 jobs a month to defeat the recession and keep up with our growing population. But his internalized ideological control officer won't permit him so much as to mention that the Feds are importing 125,000 low-skill foreign workers a month, making nonsense of his proposal. With eyes wide shut, he chooses to worship his fetish while his country founders.

The Summit came and went. Not a single invitee uttered a word about the impact on American jobs and wages of massive immigration by the poor and less-educated. Neither Krugman, nor any other of the Illuminati, could summon the courage to say the self-evident. Why not? Because it would have necessitated toppling an ideological idol and their failure shows why, in the final analysis, they're all second-raters. The Summit crowd may be smart, but it is surely not wise. Had they removed their ideological blinders, solutions would have come fast and furious. An example of just one set of practical policy recommendations that would make a concrete difference immediately is contained in Roy Beck's testimony last month before the House at a forum entitled "American Jobs in Peril: The Impact of Uncontrolled Immigration."

Cowardly, politically correct dishonesty about immigration's impact on the economy wasn't always a defining characteristic of Krugman's thinking. He wasn't always a conformist who toed the party line. One memorable occasion is his column "North of the Border," published in the Times on March 27, 2006. In this piece he offered a clear-headed, no-holds-bared analysis of the impact of uneducated and unskilled immigrants, especially those from Mexico, on the wages and prospects of poor Americans. He did not hold his conclusions hostage to post-American multicultural ideological prejudice. It should be noted he understood the nature of that impact well in advance of the economic meltdown. The piece could be re-published, with a few tweaks to bring it up to date, as a CIS Backgrounder.

Though he confessed he's sentimental about immigration, telling us Emma Lazarus' poem "puts a lump in his throat" – "I'm instinctively, emotionally pro-immigration" – Krugman was willing to face the "uncomfortable facts about the economics of modern immigration," noting they're undeniable and come from "serious, nonpartisan research." He cited studies by George Borjas and Lawrence Katz concerning the damage such immigrants inflict on the wages and working conditions of lowest-paid Americans; he mocked George Bush's assertion about Mexican immigrants doing "jobs that Americans will not do;" he stated without qualification "low-skill immigrants threaten to unravel the safety net … Unfortunately, low-skill immigrants don't pay enough taxes to cover the cost of benefits they receive." Why could he face the "uncomfortable facts" then and not now, when they are wreaking havoc with the lives of millions of Americans?

His piece went much further than more description: it was boldly prescriptive, filled with policy recommendations one wishes he had the guts to make at this month's White House Jobs Summit:

Realistically, we'll need to reduce the flow of low-skill immigrants. Mainly that means better controls on illegal immigration…What about a guest-worker program that includes a clear route to citizenship? I'd still be careful. Whatever the bill's intentions, it could all too easily end up having the same effect as the Bush plan does in practice – that is, it could create a permanent underclass of disenfranchised workers.

Perhaps most striking in ideological terms, he didn't write this op ed from a post-American standpoint, one that devalues the bonds of shared nationality; rather, they were strongly and explicitly affirmed. He was unashamed to place his fellow citizens first. Arguing that immigration, at best, contributes 1 percent to the economy, he writes, "While immigration may have raised overall income slightly, many of the worst-off native-born Americans [my italics] are hurt by immigration – especially immigration from Mexico." He also stood up for his fellow citizens when he wrote, citing studies by Borjas and Katz, "that U.S. high school dropouts [my italics again] would earn as much as 8 per cent more if it weren't for Mexican immigration." He underscored that this is a zero-sum game, and he knows whose side he’s on.

As noted, Krugman made a point of displaying his pro-immigration credentials, but they're visceral, emotional, nostalgic – not the product of intellection, let alone a particular economic or political analysis. They didn't hamper his ability to state his case: that immigration by the less-skilled and uneducated, and he explicitly pointed to Mexican immigration, is bad for America.

Nor were his requirements for treating those "immigrants" here with "basic decency" more than commonsensical and minimal. He argued the children of immigrants should be educated, but the Supreme Court has already mooted the point when it ruled California's Proposition 187 unconstitutional. He also spoke of "essential health care," but left it undefined. Emergency room treatment is already legally mandated, and if Krugman had something larger in mind he did not articulate it. To this short list he adds the words, "and more," but does not specify, intimating it's not a subject of great interest. He wanted to help America's poor by reducing the flow of low-skill immigrants, not focus on the latter’s needs. His priorities couldn't be clearer.

A subtler if no less significant point was reflected in Krugman's disinterest in the legal status of resident aliens. In most cases, a conscious refusal to distinguish illegal aliens from legal residents is emblematic of a post-American, post-national sensibility. That was not the case here. Krugman made the important point that mass immigration of the unskilled and uneducated – whether legal or illegal – has the same dire consequences for America's most vulnerable workers. Their legal status is not a major factor in their harmful potential.

What went wrong? What caused Krugman to cease speaking inconvenient truth? How do we understand the decision not to use his bully pulpit at the New York Times to force its reflexively post-American elitist readership to re-think its autonomic support for open-borders immigration? A piece like "North of the Border" in one of America's newspapers of record was so rare as to be freakish. What might lead a tenured professor and Nobel Laureate to abandon the role of truth-teller? One cannot help but be outraged by his unforgivable failure not to wield his potential influence at the White House Summit – to tell what he knows about immigration and unemployment – and to challenge the cult-like worship of a fetish that is scourging his countrymen.

I strongly suspect the explanation is both ordinary and damning. In "North of the Border" one fleeting phrase and usage provides an intimation or foreboding of the coming silence, the eventual abandonment of a position so out of keeping and non-conforming with the worldview of the cultural milieu in which he works and makes his life – whether at the New York Times or at Princeton.

In the second sentence he writes of those "anti-immigrant demagogues" whom informed people must be prepared to discredit by first acknowledging inconvenient facts. The reference may be fleeting but it the expression of a profound concern. Who are these unnamed "demagogues" that are so cavalierly attacked and with so broad a brush? Is it so inconceivable to Krugman that there are other opponents of open-borders immigration who are no less serious and ethical than himself?

Of the several neurotic fantasies that beset the contemporary left-liberal elite, none is more frightening than to be perceived as giving aid and comfort to these unspecified "anti-immigrant demagogues." (This is perhaps why the liberal elite takes such pleasure in calling their opponents "racists.") I suspect Krugman's column elicited considerable comment of that kind from many in his social, professional, and intellectual circle, that he was chided by chums at Princeton and the New York Times and he didn't enjoy having his "progressive" credentials questioned.

This commonplace failing among would-be truth-tellers, thinkers who see themselves in the avant-garde, would-be idealists – the fatal ordinariness of the social pressures that encumber and ultimately overpower them – is something no one has ever understood better or expressed more eloquently than George Eliot. Her discussion of these "spots of commonness" in Middlemarch – not only very probably the greatest novel in English but also the finest account of what defeats truth-seeking would be-non-conformists – appears to apply to Krugman. George Eliot's omniscient narrator analyzes these "spots of commonness" in one of the novel's protagonists, Dr. Lydgate, a medical researcher (he's seeking the "primitive tissue" in anticipation of cell theory) and would-be medical reformer who ruins his life because the caliber of his thought when it comes to social appearances, his place in society, his attitudes towards women, even domestic taste is fundamentally ill-matched to his genius in science.

The following is one of the most famous passages in the novel, and because it may very well characterize the conformist tendency that ultimately led to Krugman's undoing, explaining the mystery of his otherwise inexplicable silence, I quote it at length:

There is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardour in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardour of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly. Nothing in the world more subtle than the process of their gradual change! In the beginning they inhaled it unknowingly: you and I may have sent some of our breath towards infecting them, when we uttered our conforming falsities or drew our silly conclusions: Lydgate did not mean to be one of those failures, and there was the better hope of him because his scientific interest soon took the form of a professional enthusiasm: he had a youthful belief in his bread-winning work, not to be stifled by that initiation in makeshift called his 'prentice days, and he carried to his studies in London, Edinburgh, and Paris the conviction that the medical profession as it might be was the finest in the world; presenting the most perfect interchange between science and art; offering the most direct alliance between intellectual conquest and the social good…There was another attraction in his profession: it wanted reform, and gave a man an opportunity for some indignant resolve to reject its venal decorations and other humbug, and to be the possessor of genuine though undemanded qualifications. He went to study in Paris with the determination that when he came home again he would settle in some provincial town as a general practitioner… Such was Lydgate's plan of his future: to do good small work for Middlemarch, and great work for the world.

The man was still in the making…and there were both virtues and faults capable of shrinking or expanding…Among our valued friends is there not some one or other who is a little too self-confident and disdainful; whose distinguished mind is a little spotted with commonness; who is a little pinched here and protuberant there with native prejudices; or whose better energies are liable to lapse down the wrong channel under the influence of transient solicitations? Where then lay the spots of commonness? … How could there be any commonness in a man so well-bred, so ambitious of social distinction, so generous and unusual in his views of social duty? As easily as there may be stupidity in a man of genius if you take him unawares on the wrong subject, or as many a man who has the best will to advance the social millennium might be illinspired in imagining its lighter pleasures; unable to go beyond Offenbach's music, or the brilliant punning in the last burlesque. Lydgate's spots of commonness lay in the complexion of his prejudices, which, in spite of noble intention and sympathy, were half of them such as are found in ordinary men of the world: that distinction of mind which belonged to his intellectual ardour did not penetrate his feeling and judgment about furniture, or women. (Volume 1, Chapter III)

Krugman's "spots of commonness," his susceptibility to being infected by "conforming falsities" or accepting "silly conclusions" in order to go on leading his comfortable, privileged, high-profile but ultimately ordinary life is what likely caused him to retrace his steps. Through his silence, through a sin of omission, he disowned the truth and made meet obeisance to the politically correct household gods of his social universe, knowing them to be false gods whose worship has become a grave social danger. He didn't face the headman's axe: only the disapproval of his peers, but that was evidently enough to suppress a truth that might have helped millions of his countrymen.