Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A New New Deal: A Review of Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal

Title: The Conscience of a Liberal
Author: Paul Krugman
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co. (2007)
Pages: 273
Challenges: 2011 GoodReads Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: I borrowed this from the library the same day that I borrowed Barry Goldwater's  The Conscience of a Conservative. I figured it would be interesting to see how the two were similar and different.

About the Author: Paul Krugman, who was named Columnist of the Year by Editor and Publisher magazine, writes a twice-weekly column for the op-ed page of the New York Times. A winner of the John Bates Clark Medal, the most prized award given to American economists, he also teaches economics and international affairs at Princeton University.

Synopsis: America emerged from Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal with strong democratic values and broadly shared prosperity. But for the past thirty years American politics has been dominated by a conservative movement determined to undermine the New Deal's achievements--a movement whose founding manifesto was Barry Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative. That movement has been highly successful in turning the clock back: both the inequality of today's America and the corruption of its political life hark back to the age of the robber barons.

Now, the tide may be turning--and in The Conscience of a Liberal Paul Krugman, the world's most widely read economist and one of its most influential political commentators, charts the way to reform.

Krugman ranges over a century of history, from the political economy of the Gilded Age--which seems all too familiar these days--to the calamities of the Bush years, which he argues where inevitable once movement conservatives gained full control of the U.S. government. he shows that neither the middle-class America the baby boomers grew up in nor the increasingly oligarchic nation we have become over the past generation evolved naturally: both were created, to a large extent, by government policies guided by organized political movements. He explains how defenders of inequality have exploited cultural and racial divisions to their advantage, while reformers have found ways to bridge those divisions. And he argues that the time is ripe for another great era of reform.

Last by not least, The Conscience of a Liberal outlines a program for change. It shows how universal health care can be the centerpiece of a New Deal, just as Social Security was the core of the original. It explains what can be done to narrow the wealth and income gap. And it shows how a new political coalition can both support and be supported by reform, making our society not just more equal but more democratic.

The Conscience of a Liberal promises to reshape public debate about American social policy and become a touchstone work for an entire generation.

Review: This review and the review I did yesterday can be seen as a sort of yin and yang type of thing. Goldwater wrote The Conscience of a Conservative as a way of shaping Conservative politics in order to move away from New Deal-type policies; Krugman wrote The Conscience of a Liberal several decades later in order to bring people back to the New Deal way of thinking. While I'm politically, fiscally, and socially liberal (and therefore agree far more with Krugman than with Goldwater), I felt that this book was much better than Goldwater's not because of what it said, but because of how it was said.

I've mentioned several times on this blog that I got my BA in history. I was taught the importance of using primary and secondary sources, of citing those sources correctly, and of using those sources in order to enhance your argument. I was also taught the value of being able to identify an author's bias. Obviously these skills benefit me both as a reader and as a writer, but they've also helped me as an individual. Being able to see the flaws in someone's argument or having the ability to understand why someone is saying something just make life a whole lot easier. So, of course, I can see the bias inherent in both this book and in Goldwater's treatise as well. Yet, I'm a lot more prone to support writers who provide evidence rather than simply relying on their opinions to write an argument.

Krugman's Conscience of a Liberal is a well-researched, well-cited book that takes a historical as well as a contemporary perspective on the issue of politics, economics, and society. He is highly critical of Conservative politicians (and engages in just as much blame as Goldwater does), but he gives a solid reasoning based on an exploration of the detrimental policies of the Gilded Age rather than just railing against Conservatives because he doesn't like them (even though it's obvious that he doesn't).

This book is a reaction to The Conscience of a Conservative as much as it is a reaction to the Bush presidency. Published prior to the 2008 election, Krugman can focus on criticism of one president without speculating on the next (simply because he hadn't been elected yet). He derives his solutions to contemporary problems both from an analysis of historical events as well as from an exploration of the (then) current socio-political climate. Goldwater, on the other hand, spent much of his book suggesting solutions based on little more than (what seemed like) gut feeling and deeply-held prejudices about everyone from poor people to Russians. Whereas Goldwater advocated for an economy basically based on social Darwinism, Krugman is more conscious of inequality and the systematic racism that has pervaded American society for far too long.

The only real issue I'd like to raise about this book was, despite being mostly straightforward in terms of writing style, Krugman is an economist, a subject in which I am no expert. Occasionally I had difficulty understanding some of what he was saying and I'm not really a graph/chart person so their presence was a bit distracting. They were, however, necessary to his point and almost everything was explained in easy-to-understand terms. There were only a few passages that were hard to get through, which is to be expected when the reader (i.e., me) has only a rudimentary understanding of how economics works.

Much like Goldwater's book was interesting to read in terms of the current goings-on in this country, so, too, is Krugman's. I honestly recommend reading the two of them together just to get an idea of the vast differences between parties. Too often I hear people saying that there's not a lot of difference between Democrats and Republicans or Conservatives and Liberals. Not only does Krugman blow that theory out of the water (at one point the parties were fairly similar but within the last thirty years they've grown so far apart that it's hard not to believe that the expanding universe theory might not apply to politics as well), but reading these books together shows just how different they truly are.

I'm giving The Conscience of a Liberal 4 out of 5 Gabriels.



  1. Anyone who reads my blog knows that my pet peeve is a lack of proper citations. People seem to think that just stating who said something suffices. Or event that a name and source are enough. Now I know that there are different schools for citations and that some allow for no pagination but I want a page number, an act/scene, a specific source citation that I can explore for myself.

    I read a very popular teacher quote from Shakespeare. The teacher didn't bother to mention the play but I was familiar enough with the quote to know specifically where the quote could be found. I also knew that, in context, the quote is said in sarcasm, advice offered tongue in cheek.

    But this teacher was quoting it as support for his argument and I sat there laughing at how foolish he made himself seem as a result.

    Sadly, I cannot cite the book or even the play because I obviously found it too ridiculous and didn't want to bother cluttering my mind with such details.

    You know, I may have to stop reading your reviews or I'll never get around to writing any of my own because I keep leaving comments here in your blog. LOL!

  2. Satia: Exactly. Most guides require some sort of citation and many are very strict about it. I feel like a lot of writers don't pay attention to that sort of thing or they find it a lot easier to feed people their crap by not providing sufficient evidence.

    Maybe you should save all of my reviews for one day a week and get all of your commenting done at once. I'd be a sad fish if you stopped coming around all together. :)

  3. This is strange. I am in middle of doing basically what you did. Read this book, and Goldwater's at the same time. I already completed Goldwater's and am half way through Krugman's.

    I am a liberal leaning person with an interest in politics. I was very disappointed by Krugman's book. To call it the "Conscience of a Liberal" was writing a very big check. "Conscience of a Conservative" was a treatise of the moral justification of conservatism, attempting to connect it to American values, and a call to conservatives to be unapologetically conservative. Krugman's book didn't do that. It was a great, factually based, academic work explaining why economies are better off with low inequality. It didn't really speak to the heart and soul of readers. Krugman's book would've been much better if he hadn't arrogantly attempted to call it the yin to Goldwater's yang.

  4. DustinM: I will be the first to admit that Krugman is a bit pompous. I guess I just connected with this book a lot more than I did with Goldwater's. Obviously, as a hardcore Liberal I guess that's to be expected, but I appreciated the fact that Krugman backs up his claims.

    I find a lot of benefit in both books, however, which is why I rated them the same...as well as why I rated them so highly. I think that both are a good way to explore the ideas and minds behind Conservative politics and they both give interesting perspectives on issues that affect us today.

    I'd definitely recommend reading both books and I think reading them simultaneously is a great idea.