ARGUING WITH ZOMBIES: ECONOMICS, POLITICS, AND THE FIGHT FOR A BETTER FUTURE
By Paul Krugman
One thing that becomes clearer as you get older is that there’s no point in arguing with some people. Unless it’s a subject they truly have no interest in whatsoever, their minds are usually made up.
This is especially the case if it’s a matter they feel some personal investment in. The mindset then becomes like that of a cult. Think of fandom, in the realm of the cult of celebrity. Or, in the field of ideas, true believers in the cybertopia being fashioned by the digital revolution, or acolytes of the neoliberal ideology that free markets create the best of all possible worlds when set free from all government regulation. To hold such truths to be self-evident, natural, ineluctable laws, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, is to mark oneself as one of the elect.
For Paul Krugman it is the neoliberal faith, specifically that cutting taxes on the wealthy will inevitably result in greater economic growth and prosperity (what is now the sole remaining policy plank of the Republican Party), is a “zombie” or “cockroach” idea. Indeed, it is the “ultimate zombie” idea, one that has been shambling about now for well over a century. And this despite the fact that it has been tested repeatedly over the past fifty years and been proven false.
What adds to the pointlessness of arguing with zombies is the fact that we inhabit a cheerfully post-truth, post-fact media ecosystem, largely operated by the very groups who stand to profit most from the dissemination of such toxic ideas. “We live in an era in which politicians and the supposed experts who serve them never feel obliged to acknowledge uncomfortable facts, in which no argument is ever dropped, no matter how overwhelming the evidence is that it’s wrong.”
Given this state of affairs, you have to wonder why Krugman even bothers. As I started off by saying, there’s little point arguing with true believers about these matters. One of the better pieces included here is an analysis of the dangers of widening economic inequality, and a dismantling of the various right-wing arguments (more zombie ideas) defending this growing gap. It’s the oldest essay in the book, first published in 1992. Since then the situation Krugman describes has only gotten worse, while the same “conservative” (in reality, radical redistributionist) arguments in its defence continue to be made.
One can’t be pessimistic enough about where all this is headed. In 2014, writing on the sharp rightward turn of the Republican Party into a kind of fever swamp of mass insanity, Krugman signs off thusly: “An ugly political scene is about to get even uglier.”
It certainly did, and quickly. Is it even possible to imagine when things will start getting better?
Review first published online July 11, 2022. One point I wish Krugman had expanded on is how zombie ideas are manufactured and propagated. In think-tanks and through right-wing media, yes, but some further examination would have been helpful. We can blame “the rich” (as in “Why do Republicans adhere to a tax theory that has no support from nonpartisan economists and is refuted by all available data? Well, ask who benefits from low taxes on the rich, and it’s obvious.”) but I’d like him to name names, and give some numbers (they exist) on just how much the rich and the powerful profit from peddling their ideological snake oil. They spend an incredible amount on lobbying and media manipulation, but the return on their investment is even more amazing and should be more reported on.