Debating Krugman, International Political Economy and Electoral Politics

There's an interesting debate between Kindred Winecoff over at International Political Economy at the University of North Carolina and Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber. Winecoff:

Paul Krugman thinks that democratic politics does not exist:

Well, what I’ve been hearing with growing frequency from members of the policy elite — self-appointed wise men, officials, and pundits in good standing — is the claim that it’s mostly the public’s fault. The idea is that we got into this mess because voters wanted something for nothing, and weak-minded politicians catered to the electorate’s foolishness.

So this seems like a good time to point out that this blame-the-public view isn’t just self-serving, it’s dead wrong.

The fact is that what we’re experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. The policies that got us into this mess weren’t responses to public demand. They were, with few exceptions, policies championed by small groups of influential people — in many cases, the same people now lecturing the rest of us on the need to get serious. And by trying to shift the blame to the general populace, elites are ducking some much-needed reflection on their own catastrophic mistakes.

If Greenspan's “with notably rare exceptions” deserves internet infamy, and it does, then surely Krugman's less notable exceptions should too. As Drezner notes, Krugman's examples — the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq war, mainly — were supported by majorities of the population. Bush campaigned on a platform of tax cuts too, so it's not as if he tricked the public once elected.

Henry Farrell responds over at Crooked Timber:

I like much of Winecoff’s blogging on IPE, but the relevant political science here seems to me to support Krugman far more than it does Winecoff. International political economy scholarship (the field that Winecoff specializes in) tends to have an extremely stripped down, and bluntly unrealistic account of how policy is made. Typically, modelers in this field either assume that the “median voter” plays an important role in determining national preferences, or that various stylized economic interests (which they try to capture using Stolper-Samuelson, Ricardo-Viner and other approaches borrowed from economic theory) determine policy, perhaps as filtered through a very simple representation of legislative-executive relations.

However, actual work on how policy gets made suggests that this doesn’t work. On many important policy issues, the public has no preferences whatsoever. On others, it has preferences that largely maps onto partisan identifications rather than actual interests, and that reflect claims made by political elites (e.g. global warming). On others yet, the public has a set of contradictory preferences that politicians can pick and choose from. In some broad sense, public opinion does provide a brake on elite policy making – but the boundaries are both relatively loose and weakly defined. Policy elites can get away with a hell of a lot if they want to.

More from Winecoff here.

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