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A Brief Review of Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics and the Fight for a Better Future

Arguing with zombies would seem like a waste of time. They don’t listen; indeed, they don’t cogitate. It may seem right, since what you’ve heard come out of their mouths is pure nonsense. But all they want to do is rip into you while you talk. This is a quandary facing many of us in the Age of Social Media. Brain-dead arguments are all the rage. Why even bother?

Well, almost certainly if your only goal, and only  possible effect, is to persuade the conveyor of a brain-dead argument that the argument is meritless, then you are wasting your time. Zombies don’t listen and they don’t have minds to change. Paul Krugman’s book nevertheless does suggest some value to arguing with them. He lays out his arguments so clearly and succinctly that it is a pleasure to read them, assuming you’re not a zombie. For those already familiar with the arguments that counter —  destroy, really — the supply-side fanaticism of Ronald Reagan and fellow Reaganauts, which is one of Krugman’s main targets, they serve to remind us of the main points. For the unfamiliar, they provide a great introduction to those issues. The value of arguing with zombies lies largely in providing guidance to newcomers to the arguments, to onlookers, and perhaps inoculating them against brain diseases, but also in supplying handy supports for the familiar in their daily travails. 

There is also potential to aid the author her or himself: collating and synthesizing the main arguments opposing the apparently ceaselessly rising tide of zombie arguments can serve the same purposes as teaching undergraduate classes. It aids the author in achieving clarity, focusing on key issues, as well as testing ideas and genuine arguments. As Krugman notes in this volume, achieving simplicity is itself hard work, and far more valuable than most people, lay or expert, appreciate.

These kinds of efforts are more important than ever before. In an age of Trump and Murdoch, Zukerberg and Thiel, a good deal of the money, and so time and effort, of those capable of influencing political decision making is flowing towards zombie ideas, given them an afterlife and energy well beyond any rational justification.

There are many particular arguments that Krugman takes on, providing, if you like, model arguments for the rest of us to wield at picnics, cocktail parties or other gatherings. The rest of us using these models and spreading the word is of the essence, so long as democracy remains a viable political option. Among the many:

  • That economic austerity is not the panacea for economic woes Thatcherites claimed it is.
  • That government budgets are not just like household budgets, requiring us to maintain a balance. In particular, that the debt phobia encouraged by the right in opposition, but almost always forgotten about when they gain power (e.g., Reagan’s defence spending and tax cuts, Trump’s enormous tax cut), is grounded in nothing but a misunderstanding of government debt and economics.
  • That Obamacare is the thin edge of the wedge of State Socialism. Also, that Denmark is an authoritarian, State Socialist dictatorship in the same category as Cuba, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Venezuela. In general, Krugman takes down the idea that the government protecting the public through regulation is inimical to any variety of capitalism. The social democracies (not socialist states) of Europe are long-standing counterexamples to this right wing “meme”.
  • These tax cuts have padded the pockets of the rich, but, no, it hasn’t trickled down since those pockets are nearly waterproof. In consequence, both income and wealth inequality in America has been rapidly growing (see, e.g., Pew Research Center, 2020, Trends in US Income and Wealth Inequality).
  • That Trump is no fluke: the right side of American politics has been long drifting, and more recently surging, towards outright racism, xenophobia and fear of the future; Trump is only a high-water mark in galvanizing hatred and fear, likely to be surpassed soon rather than late.
  • The mass media (including Krugman’s own New York Times) have often, but not always, done the public a great disservice, not by spreading fake news (so much), but by often omitting stories that undermine the right, and, in a misbegotten idea of “fair play”, selecting instead unfounded zombie arguments to represent “the other side”.
  • That the Norquist dogma that the only good government employee is a dead employee is a phony way of claiming that the right way to deal with a Commons is to run your cattle all over it until it is destroyed, so that you personally profit first and foremost, while your neighbors starve (“The Tragedy of the Commons”). All public goods should be captured by the powerful, and the weak or late should die.

The last idea is a misreading of Darwin (as in Social Darwinism), but a true reading of Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism”, as presented in her novel The Fountainhead. She has had a pernicious effect over the last seventy years, as the wealthy (i.e., potential financial supporters of rightwing propaganda) have read her and found very convenient arguments seeming to justify their wealth and their use of that wealth to screw everyone else. Hers, and theirs, is a morally vacuous universe — the alternative universe discerned by Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump.

All of these messages (and more) will be familiar to many who follow the political debates. Krugman beefs them up with pointed and clear arguments that will make sense to almost anyone willing to digest them.

To take an example, consider the long-standing arguments over a claimed need to avoid large budget deficits by the right, which have recently heated up over $3.5T spending bills and the self-imposed punishment of requiring that a debt ceiling be raised to avoid defaulting on US government debt. Krugman illustrates the hypocrisy of these claims with the case of “Flimflam man” Paul Ryan, who decried Obama’s deficit spending even while advocating a $4T tax cut for the rich. Ryan’s proposed spending cuts, potentially hurting the poor and middle class, would have left a $1.3T hole in the budget, about which he was entirely unconcerned. The net effect of his plan would have simply been a huge new financial burdening of the poor and middle class for the benefit of the wealthy. Complaints about such proposals are inevitably labeled class warfare by our insightful mass media, of course.

It is worth pointing out that deficits incurred through tax cuts for the wealthy are very different from deficits incurred through public spending on health, welfare and infrastructure. The former put money into the pockets of the rich, who have no need to spend it, and generally do not. The latter directly grows the economy. Necessarily, therefore, the multiplier effect, the number of dollars circulating in the economy as a result of the additional deficit, will be smaller following a tax cut than an equivalent public investment. Money stuffed in a bank is less active than that paying a contractor, who pays a subcontractor, etc. This simple point has stumped economists from George Mason University, but shouldn’t go unnoticed by intelligent lay people. 

Related to this are specious claims that household and national finances work the same way, so when a government invests in infrastructure through deficit spending, for example, it is “stealing from future generations”. Since investments just are investments in the future, this idea is nonsensical. Not only are the budgetary time scales between nations and families radically different, any family will eventually have to repay its debts, or go bankrupt, whereas nations can and do carry debts indefinitely, so long as their economies have sufficient capacity. In particular, if an economy is growing at a rate higher than the interest rate on its debt, then the debt is likely to be manageable. Krugman points out that there are two distinct kinds of national economic conditions: normal conditions, when extra government spending can “crowd out” private borrowing by sending up interest rates, and depressed conditions, when reducing interest rates can fail to affect private borrowing due to a lack of confidence, and public spending may be needed to keep the economy from further tanking. Whereas many consider Obama’s spending during the Great Recession a failure, it was at least a half success, and the fully successful public spending response for that time was better exemplified by that of Australia under a Labor government. The corresponding considerations for family budgets are non-existent.

QAnoners, conspiracy theorists and others committed to zombie arguments are much like cultists. With a strong commitment to seeing confirmations of their views and reinterpreting disconfirmations as neutral or even positive, directly confronting them with sensible arguments is actually counterproductive. It is almost certainly better to have a friendly chat about the weather (as long as the weather isn’t extreme!). But engaging with those who are not yet committed, who may even be toying with zombie arguments, will be purposeful as long as science, civilization and democracy have any remaining signs of life. We should all thank Krugman for showing us how to engage.