Arguing with Zombies

Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future

by Paul Krugman

Number of pages: 480

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

BBB Library: Booklets

ISBN: 978-0393541328

About the Author

Paul Krugman writes a twice-weekly column for the op-ed page of the New York Times. A winner of the John Bates Clark Medal who was also named Columnist of the Year by Editor and Publisher magazine, he teaches economics at Princeton University.


Editorial Review

  There is no better guide than Paul Krugman to basic economics, the ideas that animate much of our public policy. Likewise, there is no stronger foe of zombie economics, the misunderstandings that just won’t die. In Arguing with Zombies, Krugman tackles many of these misunderstandings, taking stock of where the United States has come from and where it’s headed in a series of concise, digestible chapters. Drawn mainly from his popular New York Times column, they cover a wide range of issues, organized thematically and framed in the context of a wider debate. Explaining the complexities of health care, housing bubbles, tax reform, Social Security, and so much more with unrivaled clarity and precision, Arguing with Zombies is Krugman at the height of his powers. It is an indispensable guide to two decades’ worth of political and economic discourse in the United States and around the globe, and now includes a preface on Zombies in the Age of COVID-19. With quick, vivid sketches, Krugman turns his readers into intelligent consumers of the daily news and hands them the keys to unlock the concepts behind the greatest economic policy issues of our time. In doing so, he delivers an instant classic that can serve as a reference point for this and future generations.

Book Reviews

The book showcases the range of Krugman’s intellect — he can toggle authoritatively from climate change and the Green New Deal to the Maastricht Treaty and currency crises — and his gift for clear, accessible writing.

All through the book, the reader wonders how so talented and fortunate an author came to develop such a furious and bitter voice. What drives a dazzling academic—the winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics, no less—to turn hisNew York Timescolumn into an undiscriminating guillotine for conservative foes? Krugman is substantively correct on just about every topic he addresses. He writes amusingly and fluently.

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Wisdom to Share

And I’m with Alan Greenspan, who—surprisingly, given his libertarian roots—has repeatedly warned that growing inequality poses a threat to “democratic society.” It may take some time before we muster the political will to counter that threat. But the first step toward doing something about inequality is to abandon the 80–20 fallacy. It’s time to face up to the fact that rising inequality is driven by the giant income gains of a tiny elite, not the modest gains of college graduates.

Now that Eastern Europe is free from the alien ideology of Communism, it can return to its true historical path—fascism.

bothsidesism. It’s the insistence that whatever excesses of partisanship you may see on the right have an equivalent on the left, that the way forward to solving America’s problems is for good centrists of both parties to come together and work things out. All of this is willfully naïve.

Between 1972 and 2001 the wage and salary income of Americans at the 90th percentile of the income distribution rose only 34 percent, or about 1 percent per year. So being in the top 10 percent of the income distribution, like being a college graduate, wasn’t a ticket to big income gains. But income at the 99th percentile rose 87 percent; income at the 99.9th percentile rose 181 percent; and income at the 99.99th percentile rose 497 percent. No, that’s not a misprint.

But public opinion surveys show overwhelming support for raising taxes on the rich. One recent poll even found that 45 percent of self-identified Republicans support Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion of a top rate of 70 percent.

There are, of course, leftist radicals in America, but they don’t control the Democratic Party; rightist radicals basically are the Republican Party. There are some politicians one might describe as centrists, in the sense that their policy views broadly match public opinion—although public opinion is actually much further to the left on economic issues than is widely acknowledged. In any case, however, at this point virtually every politician one might call a centrist is a Democrat; Republican centrists have been driven out of the G.O.P.

I don’t mean that conservatism in general is dying. But what I and others mean by “movement conservatism,” a term I think I learned from the historian Rick Perlstein, is something more specific: an interlocking set of institutions and alliances that won elections by stoking cultural and racial anxiety but used these victories mainly to push an elitist economic agenda, meanwhile providing a support network for political and ideological loyalists.

being fair with readers means explaining why they’re dishonest. For the most part, that means talking about the nature of modern U.S. conservatism, about the interlocking network of media organizations and think tanks that serves the interests of right-wing billionaires, and has effectively taken over the G.O.P. This network—“movement conservatism”—is what keeps zombie ideas, like belief in the magic of tax cuts, alive. If you’re having a real, good-faith debate, impugning the other side’s motives is a bad thing. If you’re debating bad-faith opponents, acknowledging their motives is just a matter of being honest about what’s going on.

So what does the Green New Deal mean? It’s not entirely clear, which is what makes it a good slogan: it could mean a number of good things. But the main thrust, as I understand it, is that we should make a big move to tackle climate change, and that this move should accentuate the positive, not the negative. In particular, it should emphasize investments and subsidies, not carbon taxes.

Look, we’ve seen this over and over again—three times since 1980. Republicans rail against budget deficits when they’re out of power, then drop all their concerns and send the deficit soaring once they are in a position to cut taxes. Then when it’s the Democrats’ turn, they’re expected to clean up the Republicans’ red ink rather than address their own priorities. Enough already.