Saturday, January 23, 2021

Krugman-Klein Theory and the Tasks of the Biden Administration

Kaluza-Klein theory is, as you know, a classical unified field theory of gravitation and electromagnetism built around the idea of a fifth dimension beyond the usual four of space and time and considered an important precursor to string theory. This won't do the Biden administration much good but what I am dubbing Krugman-Klein theory just might. And there's no fancy mathematics, just some simple principles! (Note: Krugman and Klein aren't the only ones to have thought of these ideas but they both are very well-known and express the principles exceptionally clearly. Plus it sounds cool.)
Krugman lays out four rules for economic policy-making that should guide the administration:
"Rule #1: Don’t doubt the power of government to help. The last time Democrats took the White House, they were still in something of a reflexive cringe, halfway accepting the conservative dogma that government always does more harm than good. But everything that has happened since 2009 says that government spending can be hugely beneficial....
Rule #2: Don’t obsess about debt. Constant warnings about the dangers of government borrowing hobbled the Obama agenda almost from the start. Biden shouldn’t let that happen again....
Rule #3: Don’t worry about inflation. Constant warnings about soaring prices, combined with false claims that the government was hiding the true rate of inflation (no, this sort of thing didn’t begin with Trump) also marked the Obama years; but inflation never took off. Nonetheless, the usual suspects are ramping up to try it again....
Rule #4: Don’t count on Republicans to help govern. The original sin of Obama economic policy was the underpowered stimulus of 2009. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act helped stabilize the economy, but it was much too small given the depths of the crisis. This isn’t hindsight; some of us were very publicly tearing our hair out in real time.
One reason the plan was too small was that Obama was trying to gain bipartisan support, rather than using reconciliation to push it through with Democratic votes."
And Klein points out the absolute centrality of moving fast to provide positive change that voters can see, feel and give government credit for.
"President Biden takes office with a ticking clock. The Democrats’ margin in the House and Senate couldn’t be thinner, and midterms typically raze the governing party. That gives Democrats two years to govern. Two years to prove that the American political system can work. Two years to show Trumpism was an experiment that need not be repeated....
This is the responsibility the Democratic majority must bear: If they fail or falter, they will open the door for Trumpism or something like it to return, and there is every reason to believe it will be far worse next time....
Among the many tributaries flowing into Trumpism, one in particular has gone dangerously overlooked. In their book “Presidents, Populism and the Crisis of Democracy,” the political scientists William Howell and Terry Moe write that “populists don’t just feed on socioeconomic discontent. They feed on ineffective government — and their great appeal is that they claim to replace it with a government that is effective through their own autocratic power.”
Donald Trump was this kind of populist. Democrats mocked his “I alone can fix it” message for its braggadocio and feared its authoritarianism, but they did not take seriously the deep soil in which it was rooted: The American system of governance is leaving too many Americans to despair and misery, too many problems unsolved, too many people disillusioned. It is captured by corporations and paralyzed by archaic rules. It is failing, and too many Democrats treat its failures as regrettable inevitabilities rather than a true crisis.
But now Democrats have another chance. To avoid the mistakes of the past, three principles should guide their efforts. First, they need to help people fast and visibly. Second, they need to take politics seriously, recognizing that defeat in 2022 will result in catastrophe. The Trumpist Republican Party needs to be politically discredited through repeated losses; it cannot simply be allowed to ride back to primacy on the coattails of Democratic failure. And, finally, they need to do more than talk about the importance of democracy. They need to deepen American democracy....
In her book “Good Enough for Government Work,” [Amy] Lerman argues that the U.S. government is caught in a reputation crisis where its poor performance is assumed, the public is attuned to its flaws and misses its virtues, and fed-up citizens stop using public services, which further harms the quality of those services. The Trump years add another dimension to the analysis: Frustration with a government that doesn’t solve problems leads people to vote for demagogic outsiders who create further crises. But this is not an inevitability. Her titular phrase, she notes, “originated during World War II to describe the exacting standards and high quality required by government.” It was only in the 1960s and ’70s that it became a slur.
It is no accident that World War II led to the idea that government work was a standard to strive for, not an outcome to fear. Crises remind us of what government is for in the first place. Biden has an extraordinary opportunity to change the relationship between the people and their government. If he succeeds, he will not only deprive authoritarian populists like Trump of energy, he will give Democrats a chance to win over voters who’ve lost faith in them, and he will give voice to millions more that the American political system has silenced. “The best thing we can do right now to reduce levels of anger and frustration on both sides of the aisle is to give people the things they need to live better lives,” said Lerman.
In other words, what Democrats need to do is simple: Just help people, and do it fast."
So there you have it: Krugman-Klein theory. The Biden administration needs to zealously apply this theory and not worry about much else. Indeed, whatever other plans they have are pretty much dependent on getting these Krugman-Klein big things right, restoring faith in effective governance and avoiding a wipe out in 2022. As Klein notes, the clock is ticking.

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