For sometime now, even figures that are politically sympathetic to Paul Krugman have been lamenting his abandonment of intellectual rigor and his seeming inability to debate in good faith. At times it seems the only real function Paul Krugman serves any more is, to borrow one of President Obama's favorite bits of jargon, that he's become a "permission structure" to nudge Democrats and otherwise well-intentioned liberals into adopting radical positions and/or dishonest rhetoric.
I can only conclude Krugman hopes that earnest New York Times readers react to his thoughts on political matters by saying, "Gosh, I thought that argument was something that only uncharitable and blinkered ideologues were making, but if this Nobel prize-winning economist is saying it -- maybe there's something to it!" But the truth is that often he's just being partisan and petty.
This brings us to Paul Krugman's latest appalling squib on the Koch bothers. Facing pretty bleak electoral prospects, Democrats are gearing up to run a campaign against the Koch brothers. No really -- Democrats are spending millions to run ads not against their Republican challengers, but against two private citizens. This is a total red herring to distract voters from Obamacare and myriad of other failed Democratic policies. But Paul Krugman's a team player, so if he's going to endorse Democrats Hail Mary strategy here, he's going to go all the way. Anyway, here's his post oh-so-cleverly headlined "Things Go Better With Kochs":
Hey, I had to use that headline before someone else claimed it.
David Weigel reports that Democrats are finding the Koch brothers an effective fundraising tool — emails that bash the Kochs raise three times as much as emails that don’t.
And you can see why: the Kochs are perfect villains. It’s not just what they are — serious evildoers who use their wealth to push hard-line right-wing, anti-environmental policies that redound very much to their own benefit. It’s also what they aren’t: they’re wealthy heirs, not self-made men, they aren’t identified with innovation (which you can at least argue for Bill Gates), they haven’t made money for other people like Warren Buffett. So focusing on the Kochs is a way to personalize a vision of conservative politics as a defense of people with unearned privilege.
"Perfect villains"? "Serious evildoers"? Even for Krugman, that's pretty Krugman. I'm so old, I remember when the phrase "evildoers" gave Krugman's ilk conniption fits. I mean, it's not like the Koch brothers are some benign entity like the government of Iran or North Korea.
Now I know that making building supplies, petrochemicals, paper, and supplying energy aren't exactly exciting businesses when we're all going gaga over Mark Zuckerberg's latest virtual reality investment. It's true that some Koch products have environmental costs, but much of what the Kochs provide is essential to the way we live and can't really be produced any other way. The Kochs also employ 100,000 people and make so many different essential items such a grand scale that the notion that they don't provide value or enable others to make money is laughable, especially coming from an economist of Krugman's esteem. This notion that they don't innovate is also absurd; Koch Industries spends about $100 million a year on R&D at the parent level. That total's much higher if you include the Koch subsidiaries. If it makes Krugman feel any better, Koch supports innovation by making components found in your iPhone and nearly every computer. And yes it's true, that the Koch brothers inherited a very valuable company. But they've taken what they were given and grown the company far, far beyond what they inherited through some pretty savvy business accumen. They started out with some pretty big advantages in life, but dismissing what they've done as "unearned privilege" is absurd. There's also the hundred of millions they've given to cancer research and other charitable endeavors, but if Krugman bothered to mention that, the Kochs might come across as less-than-perfect villains.
But again, the point here is not to be honest about what the Kochs do or what they contribute to society. It's to dehumanize them, so Democrats can call them evil and "un-American" from here to November and still feel good about themselves when they're done spewing this contemptible rhetoric.
Oh, don't tell Paul Krugman, but he's not just being grossly uncharitable here, he's also spectacularly unoriginal.