The Katie Couric Interview: Paul Krugman, Economist

“There are effectively no socialists in America. Not in the sense we normally mean it.”

Katie Couric
Feb 11, 2020 · 10 min read

The economy is a major issue at the forefront of the 2020 election. President Donald Trump has said it’s “the best it’s ever been,” while Democratic candidates argue that gains are not being shared with enough Americans. In response, we’re seeing Dems propose a number of policies, including some that the right have criticized as “socialist.” So, what’s going on?

To find out, I called Paul Krugman. He’s a Nobel Prize-winning economist, op-ed columnist for the New York Times, and author of the new book, Arguing with Zombies. Paul broke down misconceptions about Obamacare, the president’s tax cuts, and the increasingly common, but mistaken, use of the term “socialist.”

Katie Couric: Your new book is called ‘Arguing With Zombies.’ It’s a collection of your columns and some additional columns as well. But in terms of the title, we’re not talking about ‘The Walking Dead.’ What do you mean by zombies in this case?

There are a few that you talk about, so I thought we’d go down the list. Another zombie that you’ve written about extensively is Obamacare and all the myths and misconceptions that have been perpetuated by detractors of Obamacare. First of all, what are some of those misperceptions in your view?

Why do you think some of these falsehoods are able to persist in such a strong way? And why are people so adamant about the fact that these things are true — when they clearly aren’t?

The reason they say that is, well, that’s what they’re paid to say. And then if you ask who supports those right-wing think tanks — that turns out to be a handful of billionaires who have a very strong stake in people believing that cutting their taxes is great for everybody.

Same thing on climate. There’s a 95% agreement among scientists that man-made climate change is real. So, of the people who have questioned that, what percentage have received financial support from fossil fuel interests? The answer is basically 100%. It’s entirely paid advocacy that leads to the persistence of these ideas.

You’re talking about people in the financial sector and scientists, but what about the politicians who have a vested interest in either maintaining the status quo or promoting what are essentially lies? Are they also bought and sold by special interests? And is that the underlying reason they perpetuate these misconceptions?

A couple of other zombies you mentioned, Paul. “Socialism” — that seems to be the trendy zombie of the day. “Socialism” is really overused by both sides. Correct?

There are two concepts. One is what we don’t have a very good word in America for, although the Europeans do: Social democracy, which is when have a market economy, you certainly make room for the profit motive, but you have a combination of government regulation, taxes, and a strong social safety net to take some of the rough edges off of capitalism. And then you have actual socialism, where the government takes control of stuff, which currently would be represented by Venezuela.

So there’s a constant rhetorical trick that people use, which is: You propose to make America look a little bit more like Denmark — and they say you’re trying to turn us into Venezuela.

If you look at surveys, over 50% of young people have said they prefer socialism over capitalism. I think perhaps they’re lacking the true understanding of the word. But similarly, conservatives are using it as sort of the Willie Horton of 2020 — the modern day boogeyman.

Do you think that people like Bernie, and AOC for that matter, should be more careful with their use of the word, or do you think that it’s being used unfairly against them?

And then, a zombie that’s probably very near and dear to your heart and mind is fake news. I think that the press has been undermined, and I make it a practice never to use the term “fake news” — because I don’t want to buy into it. But what are your feelings on that? I know that you believe that most of the media really does try to be careful with the facts.

But there are multiple sins. One of them is that there’s still way too much horse race politics. Too much about the people, too much about how things are playing, and not enough about what the actual policies are.

I have one piece in Arguing With Zombies where I went through a month of TV coverage of Bush versus Kerry on healthcare back in 2004. The question was: How much would a viewer have learned about what they were proposing on healthcare? And the answer was: Not a thing. There were several reports describing how their healthcare plans were playing politically, but nothing at all about what they actually were. So that’s one bias the media has — but it’s not a factual error. It’s a tendency to focus on the flashy and the trivial.

Moving on to President Trump and the State of the Union. He said, “Our economy is the best it’s ever been.” He also said, “The average unemployment rate under my administration is lower than any administration in the history of our country.” I have two questions, Paul, about that. A, is it true? B, does president Trump deserve any credit for a strong economy?

Now what I would say about the role of Trump in all of this is: First, the unemployment rate was falling steadily and fairly rapidly, from 2010 onwards. Basically, after the financial crisis was over, there was a long trend of steadily falling unemployment under Obama that just continued. So if you just looked at a chart of employment or unemployment, and you didn’t know that there was an election in 2016, you wouldn’t say that something changed. It’s just the continuation of the straight line tracks. Basically in many ways, what Trump is presiding over is the continuation of the Obama economy.

Now, the economy has certainly been goosed to some extent by deficit spending….Trump has presided over what I’ve been calling “a deficit-palooza,” a surge in deficit spending that’s almost as big as the Obama stimulus, which was something that was introduced as an emergency measure in an economy with 9% unemployment. Now we’re doing the same thing with the economy starting at 4% unemployment.

I remember when David Stockman refuted the whole notion of trickle-down economics, and I know you’ve called President Trump’s tax cuts a massive scam. I think the question is, have we seen any of his policies help the middle class voters who make up his base?

You of course know the statistic that the richest 1% in the U.S. now own more wealth than the bottom 90%. Income inequality is such an intractable problem, it seems. What do you think is the best way to tackle it?

And before we go, do you think Michael Bloomberg would be called an oligarch? He’s given an estimated $8 billion to charity and has signed the giving pledge. Obviously he’s a very wealthy guy, but I saw a tweet saying that he is an oligarch. What do you think?

I guess you could say he’s spending all this money on ads. So, you know, he is using his wealth.

Maybe a bridge too far. Well, Paul, thank you for your time.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

This originally appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.

Wake-Up Call

Katie Couric and friends talk career, culture, politics…

Katie Couric

Written by

Founder, Katie Couric Media. Newscaster: Wake-Up Call. Podcaster: Next Question. Doc filmmaker. @SU2C founder.

Wake-Up Call

Katie Couric and friends talk career, culture, politics, wellness, love, and money

Katie Couric

Written by

Founder, Katie Couric Media. Newscaster: Wake-Up Call. Podcaster: Next Question. Doc filmmaker. @SU2C founder.

Wake-Up Call

Katie Couric and friends talk career, culture, politics, wellness, love, and money

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