Paul Krugman and His Religion

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Paul Krugman, an economics professor at Princeton and a New York Times columnist, has become perhaps the best-known academic critic of George W. Bush and his administration’s policies. At times, at least when it comes to dissecting Bush’s Neo-con—led war policies, Krugman often is correct. However, in the area of economic policy, where Krugman is supposed to be such a great expert that his name regularly comes up when future Nobel Prize winners are discussed, Krugman mainly dishes up Keynesian statism, something I noted in a recent article elsewhere.

In a recent New York Times Magazine article, "The Tax Cut Con," however, Krugman goes farther than just to further reveal his economic beliefs. He reveals what seem to be his deepest religious thoughts. In short, he bows before his personal deity: the welfare state.

Early in that article Krugman looks at the recent initiative by Alabama Governor Bob Riley to radically raise taxes in that state through changing the existing tax laws. (Krugman wrote the article before Alabamians drove the measure to a stinging defeat by a lopsided 68-32 percent vote.) Says Krugman:

Riley knows all about substandard public schools. He’s the governor of Alabama, which ranks near the bottom of the nation in both spending per pupil and educational achievement. The state has also neglected other public services — for example, 28,000 inmates are held in a prison system built for 12,000. And thanks in part to a lack of health care, it has the second-highest infant mortality in the nation.

When he was a member of Congress, Riley, a Republican, was a staunch supporter of tax cuts. Faced with a fiscal crisis in his state, however, he seems to have had an epiphany. He decided that it was impossible to balance Alabama’s budget without a significant tax increase. And that, apparently, led him to reconsider everything. ”The largest tax increase in state history just to maintain the status quo?” he asked. ”I don’t think so.” Instead, Riley proposed a wholesale restructuring of the state’s tax system: reducing taxes on the poor and middle class while raising them on corporations and the rich and increasing overall tax receipts enough to pay for a big increase in education spending. You might call it a New Deal for Alabama.

Whether or not the Riley tax plan would have accomplished all of the Great Things Riley (and Krugman) said it would is a moot point — and most libertarians like myself are extremely skeptical that there would have been any improvement in government services had the tax increase passed. What strikes me about Krugman’s statement is his use of the word "epiphany," which has religious connotations.

According to my World Book Dictionary, the word "epiphany" is defined as: "an appearance or manifestation, especially of a deity." Liturgical Christians celebrate the Epiphany (January 6) as the anniversary of the visit of the Three Wise Men to Jesus, which occurred after they had followed a special star to Jesus’ home.

In a secular sense, "epiphany" means a sudden revelation of the Truth (and in this Post-Modern age, there supposedly is no such thing as "Truth"), whatever that may mean. Thus, it is a word to be taken seriously, one that separates that which is false from that which is true.

I have no idea if Krugman tosses around such words lightly, but it would seem that he was revealing his own thoughts about taxes and the state at a deeper level than just accounting. If the state is the vehicle of salvation, then taxation, in this view, is the fuel that powers that means of transportation. No longer are we simply arguing how to fund government services or even what are appropriate government services that the state should offer.

Instead — and this is sprinkled throughout the article — we are treated to a discourse of why the state should dominate our lives. Opponents of this welfare state themselves are attacked in religious terminology, as Krugman remarks they are on a "crusade." Now, in this day of Political Correctness, "crusade" is seen as something inappropriate at best and conspiratorial at worse. (For example, a number of Christian colleges, including Wheaton College of Illinois, have changed their team names from "Crusaders" to something — anything — that is not considered offensive to the editors of the New York Times.)

For the Krugmans of the world, the welfare state is the bastion of civilization and the True Deity. When Hillary Clinton (or whoever actually wrote it) came out with It Takes a Village, she made it be known that the welfare state was a fundamental building block of a society. (Yes, she repeats her belief in the two-parent family, etc., but it is clear that her agenda is the promotion of the welfare state, which is the "village" in her parlance.)

I say that Krugman worships the welfare state, as opposed to the welfare-warfare state that is central to the Holy Doctrines of the Neoconservatives that presently hold sway in the Bush Administration. Yet, as I noted in a recent LRC column, in reality the welfare state is a form of warfare state; that is, the objectives of a welfare state require the state to regard all citizens, and especially parents, as criminals.

Furthermore, because welfare spending over the past 40 years has been a virtual fiscal black hole, the tax-collecting arm of the state must be especially empowered to shake down the citizenry in order to pay for everything. Writes Krugman:

Nobody likes paying taxes, and no doubt some Americans are as angry about their taxes as Tinsley’s imaginary character. But most Americans also care a lot about the things taxes pay for. All politicians say they’re for public education; almost all of them also say they support a strong national defense, maintaining Social Security and, if anything, expanding the coverage of Medicare.

We hear that in order to pay for things like roads, bridges, police protection and the like, we need to pay taxes, lots of taxes. Yet, numerous budget analysts over the years have pointed out that more than half of federal government spending goes to transfer payments, which means that one group of Americans is being taxed in order to give a check to other groups. (This probably understates the true scope of transfer activity of government at all levels, as many transfer payments are included under the rubrics of "education, healthcare, and the like.)

I have not dealt with many of Krugman’s arguments, including his insistence that the 70 percent tax rates that existed from 1964—1981 actually meant that all wealthy people paid that percentage of their income in taxes. (He gives some lip service to taxes as a disincentive, although he mostly dismisses even that point.) Most likely, other critics will point out that lower tax rates actually have meant that people in upper income brackets today actually pay more in taxes as a percentage of their income than they did in the high-bracket (but also highly-sheltered) era. In a way, that is irrelevant, as such criticisms ultimately give Krugman his basic argument: that those who are wealthy should pay the lion’s share of taxes.

The important meaning of the discussion here is not the actual rate of taxation upon wealthy people. Krugman’s deeper point is that there needs to be a powerful state at home that can work the will of Anointed People like himself upon the rest of us. He rightly notes that a revolt against high taxes is ultimately a revolt against the welfare state itself, and that idea is thoroughly repugnant to Krugman and all of the other intellectuals and members of the political classes that congregate at the Church of the New York Times (and the Washington Times, for that matter).

In his classic book Feeling Your Pain, James Bovard painstakingly documents how the Clinton Administration systematically abused common citizens. (During the Clinton years, the U.S. prison population more than doubled from about 900 thousand to nearly two million inmates. This from an administration that preached "social compassion.") This is not an accident; the welfare state ultimately requires such abuse, as the tax collecting authorities must be given extraordinary powers to pay for such a state, and the people must be forced to accept such government "largess," whether or not they want it. Meanwhile, all dissenters must be squelched.

While Krugman has been an eloquent spokesman against many of the war policies of the current administration, I doubt he minds that at home, government authorities have gained vast new powers against individuals. Furthermore, I doubt Krugman minds the carnage that was Waco or the government-sponsored murder that was Ruby Ridge. After all, these targets of government rage were individuals who had mostly rejected the welfare state and simply wished to live apart from the dictates of the state. (By setting themselves apart from the larger society, they represented a threat to no one but government authorities who wished to impose their own will upon them.)

I make this last statement cautiously, as I cannot know what ultimately governs a person’s thoughts and deeds; I can only look at what a person says and how he or she says it, and the methods they use for presenting their views. Krugman has carefully crafted his arguments in religious terms, and if he uses religious terms to describe taxation and the scope of the welfare state, it is only logical that he is promoting a state religion. His words speak for themselves.

September 17, 2003

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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