Paul Krugman’s Naivete

As a polemicist and as an economist, Paul Krugman is almost always worth reading. However, over the last couple of years I’ve been surprised at his political naivete–at his inability to anticipate how issues would play out in the public, and his blindness to the power game that always underlies the issues and policy debates.

Now, I am no great master of these, either, or I’d be working in Washington right now, but it surprises me that a guy like Krugman doesn’t even have the level of political savvy common among urban newspaper readers.

Yesterday in the New York Times he wrote a piece encouraging the administration to back a full accounting of the torture of prisoners during the Bush administration. So far, so good. I actually agree that this ought to be a priority for the administration. We should know what happened because, clearly, there are a lot of people in the country who’d happily go down that road again. We really need to do something to head that off, and I’m pretty sure the more that comes out the worse Mr. Cheney et al are going to look. The Bush/Cheney administration made a fiasco of practically everything it touched. I have little doubt the interrogations were no different than the war in Iraq–badly done out of sheer incompetence and/or muleheaded ideological reasons.

However, Krugman seems laughable when he tries to dismiss Obama’s reasoning for NOT focusing on the past.

Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to rescue the economy. Peter Orszag, the budget director, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to reform health care. Steven Chu, the energy secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to limit climate change. Even the president needn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be involved. All he would have to do is let the Justice Department do its job — which he’s supposed to do in any case — and not get in the way of any Congressional investigations.

It’s laughable to consider the idea that the President would just go off about his business while an extremely high stakes investigation and possible prosecution took place over at Justice or in Congress. This would be time consuming, very time consuming, for the President. Who would then have considerably less time to oversee Geithner, Chu and all the rest. And I want Obama to be overseeing these folks. This would not be a move without costs. Remember how many important things went by the wayside when Clinton got mired in his own prosecution, in spite of the fact that few in his cabinet were directly involved?

Krugman notes that many who are calling for us to pass over the Bush-era abuses and work on the economy and health care were complicit in the abuses when they happened, which is true.

Also true is that we all knew what was going on. Nothing Obama has released so far is news to anyone who has read the papers over the last 8 years. Many who are calling for investigations and prosecutions were also complicit in the Bush abuses.

The failure of that era was general. Our institutions, out journalists, the political opposition, the administration, the majority of voters ALL made the trade of our values for “security.” Ben Franklin wrote, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” He could have continued that, ironically, they usually get neither–which is what I think an investigation will find.

While I feel it is important to come to terms with the Bush era and our collective failures during it, I think we should recognize that it will not be done without cost. AND, because the failures were general, we should be exceedingly careful that this does not turn into a partisan bloodletting.

However justified we may feel in punishing some republican officials for what was done in the prior administration, we should realize that there will inevitably be retribution for it, and the cause will probably not be just when that retribution comes. In 18th century, each change of administration was followed inevitably by the impeachment of the major figures under the old regime, regardless of actual guilt. We don’t want to set a precedent for a similar practice here in the US.

I would actually be fully supportive of a general amnesty for Bush administration figures who would cooperate fully with a thorough public investigation of the Bush-era security state. This, I think would be a good way to take a good hard look in the mirror without opening up an all-out partisan war.

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