The Infinite Toddler Regress–The Krugman Function Part 3

October 27, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Ed. note: This is the third in Erik’s current series responding to  Paul Krugman’s recent articles in the New York Times. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here.

In this installment I’m going to talk about Paul Krugman’s resistance to whole-system thinking, and I’m going to do it by way of a comparison to a very different intellectual dispensation: namely the one demonstrated by my three year old twin sons.  Lest this comparison seem too insulting to be taken seriously, in his defense I should mention that Krugman’s poor showing in this intellectual curiosity contest nevertheless illustrates an important dilemma.  This dilemma is faced daily by parents trying to get to work, but also by the intellectual-activist attempting to harness a curious and inquiring disposition for useful action.

Here, at any rate, is a partially fictionalized conversation between me and my three year-olds.  I should note, however, that it is less fictionalized than one might be apt to assume.

Daddy [putting boots on]:  bye-bye guys

Evjen:  Where you going daddy? Where you going?

Isak:  No go bye-bye Daddy, no go bye-bye.

Daddy:  I’m sorry men, I’d much rather stay here, but I have to go to work.

Evjen:  Why Daddy?

Daddy:  I have to go make money.

Evjen: Why Daddy?  Why you need money?

Isak: [pulling loose change from desk] I have money Daddy.

Daddy:  Thanks honey, but that’s not enough.  We need money to buy food—and toys.

Isak:  Why?

Daddy [pausing to consider the scores of way this question might be answered]:  because money is the way our society trades goods and services, like food, toys, and, houses.

Evjen [perplexed]: we grow food in back yard, daddy.  I like broccoli.

Isak:  broccoli help me poop!

Evjen [chiming in]: I fix houses [pounds floor with toy hammer]

Daddy: That’s a very good point, but I don’t have enough time to grow enough food for us.

Evjen: Why Daddy?

Daddy: well you got me there.  I don’t have enough time because I have to go to work.

Isak [knowingly]: you no go to work Daddy!

Daddy [sidling impatiently towards the door] well we need other things that I can’t grow or make myself.

Isak:  Why Daddy?

Daddy [looking at clock and hoping to wind this down]: because we live in an industrial society and that’s just the way industrial societies work.

Evjen: what’s dat industio sitey?

Daddy [sighing]: industrial society is where everyone has a job and does one thing in exchange for money.  Some people are teachers, some people are farmers, some people are regional sales managers, and some people build houses.

Isak:  And drive bobcats.  Jeffy drive bobcat!

Daddy:  Exactly.  Remember that book about Laura in the woods?  She lived a long time ago and her mommy and daddy didn’t have jobs; they stayed home and made just about everything themselves.

Isak: Why we not do that daddy, why we not do that?

Daddy:  That’s a very good question.  Because we can make more stuff this way, when everyone does one thing all the time and we live in big cities.  And we don’t need to worry about bears outside [hoping specter of bears might make conversation-ending diversion]

Evjen: Why we have no bears?

Daddy: Because white settlers made them go bye-bye to make room for their big cities. . .

[and so the conversation continues, as our discussion of why I have to go to work crisscrosses through the settling and unsettling of America, the discovery of the Americas by gold-seeking plunderers, the rise of statecraft in the late Middle-Ages, the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution, wage-labor and capital, the evolutionary and anthropological development of humans and human societies, the origin of life.  We finally end at the big bang theory, or so I think, until we engage the meta-cosmological questions that it raises.]

This, of course, is the Infinite Toddler Regress.  In addition to the clear fact that my boys should start looking for a good therapist right now, several additional points might be taken from conversations like this, which occur almost daily in our household.  First and foremost is the way the Infinite Toddler Regress can, in principle, go on forever.  For the sufficiently curious mind, to put it another way, the answer to any question leads to additional questions.   One can try to terminate such regresses, after they have gone on too long already for our practical purposes, by moving more quickly towards the big-bang theory, with talk about bears, or the always hopeful “that’s just the way things are, honey.”  But these are not answers; they are strategic moves made to get us out the door, get little people to bed, or to watch the last 5 minutes of the Packers game without interruption—or to enforce an ideological position that would be undermined by further questions. 

How does this relate to whole-system thinking?   The curiosity of young minds (undisciplined by the boundary-drawing intellectual disciplines, we might say) reveals how everything is at some level interconnected: personal behavior might be explained sociologically, but then the sociology needs to be explained.  Explain it culturally, metaphysically, biologically, or anthropologically, and possibly with some theodicy thrown in for good measure, and all these answers need further explanation: why did the species evolve?  Why did God create an imperfect world?  Why are humans hairless, slow, with overly-sensitive digestive tracks?  How did this lead to agriculture, urbanization, and industrialization?   Without intellectual disciplines and their tendency to isolate the world into various systems and sub-systems—or, more powerfully for most of us, without the part of our socialization that convinces us to accept pat answers–the whole universe will begin to look like one great interconnected system in which the play of questions and answers dance across a great web of being which quivers at every step.

In order to say something useful or effective about the world, however–or at least in most (adult) contexts—one does need to end the Infinite Toddler Regress.  How one stops it and why returns us to the question of motives (or something like motives) with which I began my first installment, and to Paul Krugman’s defense of Liberalism.  In The Return of Depression Economics, Krugman describes his own intellectual modus operandi in rather glowing terms: “we will not achieve the understanding we need, however, unless we are willing to think clearly about our problems and to follow those thoughts wherever they lead” (190).  It sounds like he might make a good baby-sitter, cum toddler interlocutor, but I don’t believe this is actually the case.   For in almost all his writings, he controls the Infinite Toddler Regress  in a way that makes Super-Nanny stop in appreciative wonder.

Part of this has to do with the nature of narrative itself.   A model or narrative is a smaller and contained representation of something larger.  It must, in order to be a model rather than an unmanageable life-sized reproduction of the thing modeled, stop the Infinite Toddler Regress.  In most cases, the way the regress is terminated is arbitrary—or at least contingent or strategic.  This, I will show, is clearly the case with Krugman, whose intellectual self-description is not only inflated, but about as opposite of the one we might in fact discern in his books and editorials as possible.  Because he is a crafty model-builder and narrative teller, and because he is committed in advance to a certain kind of Liberal story, he is pretty quick to figure out exactly where his clear-appearing, allegedly thought-following story must take us.  End up at the wrong destination, and the increasingly precarious Liberal edifice will crumble into giant heap of rubble.

When put next to the inquiring mind of a typical Toddler, Krugman looks more like the impatient parent who wants to get on with life without engaging in too much interrogative nonsense.  Most (“normal”) parents (the kind whose children can start shopping for a good business school rather than a good therapist) put an end to the Infinite Toddler Regress fairly early on: “that’s just the way things are, honey”; or “there are winners and losers and our job is to try to win”;  “Republicans just don’t like to think” or “he’s just being silly” (an explanation that no toddler is likely to question); or “economists are arrogant.”

One of the more interesting aspects of Krugman’s writing is the way he barely hides his act of termination, the way he limits the field of explanations in broad daylight and in clear view, even as he makes a show about fearlessly following thought wherever it leads.   While we will save our more far-reaching analysis of Krugman’s Liberal success story for later installments, we do need to understand its basic outline.  This basic outline also appears in a large percentage of his Op-Eds and other books.   The broader goal towards which Krugman’s narratives relentlessly move is that most of our “problems” can be “solved” with sufficient political will, sensible policy-makers (who follow inquiry wherever it leads?), and the rebirth of the values and practices that led to our previous successes as a nation (especially the New Deal).  Whether he is talking about voter-suppression, wind and solar power, or solving the problem of climate change, “the solution” almost universally involves continued economic growth, increased global trade and development, and the rise of other middle-class values and expectations.  We will know our “problems” are “solved,” more specifically, when we find ourselves repeating the successes of our past, most specifically those of the post-WWII era, before it all went wrong beginning sometime in the 1970s  Thus Krugman’s explicit program of a new New Deal.  It is worth mentioning that many liberal Democrats already gravitate towards this general view of things, a gravitational pull which allows Krugman to slip a number of rather glaring errors and omissions past his readers.  One of the master-tropes in Krugman’s explanation of our growing problems, today, and our inability to manufacture workable solutions, at any rate, is our growing inequality as a nation.  This view also pulls at the liberal heart-strings (and for good reason), thus further smoothing the way for Krugman’s errors and omissions with which he helps prop up a world view that should be on its last legs as the planet and its obsession with economic growth cascades towards two degrees centigrade of certain global warming. 

The solutions to economic slow-downs, climate destruction, or political gridlock, in Krugman’s fictive universe, in other words, circulate around the issue of inequality.  Fix inequality and we are on the road to a repetition of the post-WWII glory years.   Fixing inequality, it bears repeating, is mainly a matter of political will and appealing to our liberal conscience, a story that appears in a near-identical form in the work of Robert Reich.  One of the key elements of Krugman’s strategy as a writer is employing inequality as a “final answer.”  But the toddler intellect, such as it still exists, has all sorts of additional questions about where this inequality came from, why it has appeared here, why now, why in this form, and why with so little recognition and protest.  Krugman knows he must dispose of such questions, and quickly—for they might turn us in the direction of a whole-system approach.  Thus from the opening pages of Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman keeps such questions on a very short leash, gripped tightly by a confident, vaunted, and crafty story-teller.

More specifically, Krugman offers at the outset two possible explanations for the rise of inequality in America.  First, he tells us, is a standard “economic” explanation, which, we might parenthetically note, veers dangerously towards the structural or systematic end of the conventional continuum: “in that view,” Krugman explains, “the story of the last thirty years would run like this: Impersonal forces such as technological change and globalization caused America’s income distribution to become increasingly unequal, with an elite minority pulling away from the rest of the population.  The Republican Party chose to cater to the interests of that rising elite” thus implementing policies that served the interest of the super-wealthy (6).  With its focus on impersonal forces, this, again, is a more system-based explanation, though in its polite and accepted forms it does not even begin to approach the one planetary system so thoroughly described and modeled by Meadows, Randers, and Meadows.   But even when seen somewhat less “systematically,” the global economy is a system in which cause and effect bounce around in complex and unpredictable ways and something seemingly beneficial things like technological change might have effects that were opposite of their intention.  According to this explanation, the invention of the personal computer might have profound effects on the way American business offices are run, which might in turn have disruptive effects on the village life in India where our customer-service calls are now processed; this in turn might push even lower-paid industrial jobs to Bangladesh, which in turn might finally unravel the textile industry in South Carolina, which in turn might change the demography of the Republican Party (never mind where Indian and Bangladeshi people will get the their food or electricity, and all the chains of cause and effect that this and a thousand other such questions might bring into view).

 Clear thought (as I understand the concept) sets one out  on a long journey to destinations unknown, as long as it is guided by the “structural view” of things.  But (or “and”), it is difficult to find a single villain within this sort of explanation.  It is also difficult to figure out easy ways to make change.  The structural story does not sell books.  The liberal activist raring to go and jump into the fray and get some new people elected will probably be unsatisfied with a structural story: how can such a system composed of such large and impersonal forces be reformed so that we achieve global equality while still getting good customer-service from AT&T,  and  have our clothing remains dirt-cheap while  South Carolina working-class white people unionize and stop focusing on the increasingly rare abortions that occur in their state?   In defense of the liberal activist, and as Krugman would certainly agree, this story of impersonal forces can be used to encourage complacency or resignation, and often dovetails too conveniently with the conservative love affair with laissez-faire economics.  Its journey to unknown destinations is, to say the least, fraught with risks.  It might even land one in a backwater of intellectual acceptance like The Post Carbon Institute.

What else does Krugman say about this structural explanation?  “That,” he tells us in Conscience of a Liberal, “is more or less the story I believed when I began working on this book,” though a quick look at his other books casts doubt on this claim.   But, he explains, as his work progressed he became increasingly convinced by another story, in which the arrow of “causation runs the other way,” from politics to economics, from personal choices to structural changes.  Belief—the kind that can be swayed with a good book or an effective Democratic effort of re-branding—does in fact hold the reins of power in its hands.  There is no good reason, Krugman likes to say and says almost every week, why we should accept inequality.  But, in the same vein (and in the same breath), he also says there is no reason why we should accept slower economic growth, current (non-increasing) levels of prosperity, and, without the faintest pause, the new solar and wind-powered economy that can fuel it all without the slightest inconvenience to our re-sanctified liberal expectations. 

Here’s Krugman himself, as he starts the master-explanation in Conscience of a Liberal of where our inequality (and thus all our other problems) came from, an explanation which underwrites his weekly mix of laudable social goals and planet-destroying fantasy: “I’d suggest an alternate story for the last thirty years that runs like this: Over the course of the 1970s, radicals of the right took over the Republican Party, opening a partisan gap with the Democrats who became the true conservatives, defenders of the long-standing institutions of equality.  The empowerment of the hard right emboldened business to launch an all-out attack on the union movement, drastically reducing workers’ bargaining power; freed business executives from the political and social constraints that had previously placed limits on runaway executive paychecks; sharply reduced tax rates on high incomes; and in a variety of other ways promoted rising inequality.”   Why here?  Why now?  To the weary and bedraggled liberal democrat–sickened by the conservative ingorati and battered by their latest denial of climate change, of fossil records showing that Jesus did not, in fact, have a pet dinosaur, and of medical knowledge that shows a woman can, in fact, get pregnant when raped–the mere fact, itself, that radicals took over the Republican Party over the course of the 70s is explanation enough.

As I will argue at greater length in future installments, one of the main functions of Krugman’s master- explanation and of his (and Robert Reich’s) rather notable re-insertion of a distinctly moral element into liberal economics, however, is to keep us from wandering off the Liberal reservation.  The backdrop of conservative idiocy blocks out a broader historical context.  With the drama played out within a world that is no broader than the difference between liberals and conservatives—a morality play about the liberal conscience, the proper-mix of public and private investments as determined by pragmatic non-ideological thinking—the liberal is less likely to question the more important values at stake: what in fact constitutes a “solution” to our current problems.  What, in other words, does a world in which we have truly addressed climate change, our growing addiction to cheap energy, and desperate inequalities actually look like?  What sort of solution is actually possible on a finite planet with a single planetary system encompassing out ecology, climate, demography, economy, and social and political orders?  One of Krugman’s main functions as a Liberal public intellectual is to help keep any such questions off limits, as well as the sort of whole-system thinking that might encourage such questions. 

Rather, successful solutions in the Liberal lexicon of things involve “having our planet and eating it too,” as J. M. Greer has put it.  Though without any irony, Krugman says pretty much the same thing.  Against the notion that “there is no free lunch,” Krugman explicitly declares that his own book, The Return of Depression Economics, proves just the opposite—that “there is a free lunch, if only we can figure how to get our hands on it” (191).  This should be a stunning statement.

Evjen and Isak, who have not yet seen a full episode of the Rachel Maddow Show and don’t yet hate Republicans, would certainly want to know why “radicals of the right . . . took over the Republican Party.”  Why now?  How were they able to do this?  What economic, social, or psychological conditions made it possible in 1980 and not earlier?  Might it have been facilitated the “technological changes” mentioned in the other standard story?   Why, why, why?   Or perhaps, Daddy would add, it was “caused” by the peak of U.S. oil, followed by a temporary oil glut made possible by Alaskan and North Sea oil, augmented by a tripling of our natural debt, and the way that glut and that debt shifted political power to England in Europe and to Houston in the U.S. (in other words, a story told by Heinberg or John Michael Greer).  We might also note that further questioning of this sort would change Krugman’s story inalterably: there would not be the same simple Republican villains, nor would there be as simple a path to changing things back to the way they were before the radicals of the right took over the GOP.   Nor could the expectations of a policy-created free-lunch and constantly rising levels of income and comfort survive this further line of questions, if allowed to run a long course.  

Lest it seem like I am “reading too much” into a few passages, these villains and this path to a relatively easy reversal of fortunes are visible throughout Krugman’s book and, I would add, most of his Op-Eds.  Or as he puts it in the closing paragraph of The Return of Depression Economics, right after he reassures his liberal readers and reaffirms their expectations about the availability of the free lunch,  “the true scarcity in Keynes’s world—and ours—was therefore not of resources, or even of virtue, but of understanding” (191).  As in the fantasy inspired by our national worship of innovation and ingeniousness, the road to never-ending riches, here, is, Krugman explicitly states, paved with understanding.  Never was a more cunning pitch for the role of the public intellectual made.   But beyond that, in a single passage, Krugman articulate what, we will see, is the ultimate and most consistent Liberal shibboleth, “that reading my book will set us all free.”  As Krugman continues, “We will not achieve the understanding we need, however, unless we are willing to think clearly about our problems and to follow those thoughts wherever they lead.  Some people say that our economic problems are structural, with no quick cure available; but I believe that the only important structural obstacles to world-prosperity are the obsolete doctrines that clutter the minds of men” (191).

I could write volumes on this passage alone:  In the matter of a few sentences Krugman reminds us of the current Liberal dependence on The Great Depression as a model for all economic problems, suggests that he is a ruthlessly free-thinking intellectual willing to undermine his most cherished beliefs, that global (middle class?) prosperity is our natural trajectory (unless Republicans get in the way), that conservative beliefs (again) are the main obstacle to our unlimited desires, that a quick cure is available,  that Enlightened wisdom might burst any limits that one might place on progress, and that prosperity is based on ideas and understanding, rather than abundant natural resources, cheap and exploited labor, and undeveloped markets. 

All of these beliefs, unfortunately, are wrong.  But Krugman helps keep otherwise curious liberals from asking the questions that might remind us that human history did not start in 1945, or in 1929, or, for that matter, in 1776 or 1494.  Instead he steers the liberal reader towards that comfortable place of smug, but helpless, superiority, as he or she tunes into another episode of Bill Maher or rants and raves about the current obstacles to the solar powered prosperity that awaits all of humanity.   Yes, of course!  Radicals did take over the Republican Party (no matter why, “that’s what Republicans do, honey”) and diverted us from our otherwise inevitable trajectory of world-prosperity and perpetual economic growth.   No thought is given, here, to the one and finite planetary system in which we of course live.  When the theories that Krugman protects under the guise of “clear thought” were invented, I will later argue, America was so large as to appear infinite as Thomas Jefferson repeatedly suggested in his writings.   And if nothing else, America sticks to its guns and respects its traditional way of life.  “Live Free or Die” as the license plates of New Hampshire read.

Except for the fact that the future of life on Earth may hang in the balance, we should have sympathy for Krugman’s position.  It is not easy to be a Liberal Functionary in this day and age—when ecosystems are crashing all around us, the polar ice caps are melting, and world conventional oil has peaked.  His transgressions against thought and curiosity and understanding (like that goods and services must inconveniently be made before they are financed, traded, and taxed) might be shown some mercy.  For Krugman, in his current role, is structurally incapable of following these thoughts where they would lead.  The liberal expectations that, dare I add, most of us post-carbon radicals still benefit from, will crumble unless they are defended with the craft, ingenuity, and persistence that Krugman displays.

To the question, “how does Krugman’s narrative in his recent books and his weekly New York Times Op-Eds operate within a larger Liberal system?,” we will turn in the coming installments.  Importantly, we must answer the questions, “why here, why now, why in this way?”



Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: economic growth, Whole-system thinking