Arguing With Zombies with a pandemic at the gates | On Culture | Chicago Reader

Arguing With Zombies with a pandemic at the gates 

As the threat of coronavirus looms, Paul Krugman dissects GOP talking points that refuse to die.

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click to enlarge Vice President Mike Pence

Vice President Mike Pence

Gage Skidmore

Last week, as the world caught a bad case of the coronavirus and the stock market began a major swoon, Paul Krugman came to town to talk about zombies.

A scary, flesh-eating, indestructible force rampant in the world? Couldn't have been more apropos for the events of the next few days.

Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist, drew a packed Chicago Humanities Festival crowd to the sanctuary of the Chicago Temple on a blustery night to hear him talk about his new book, Arguing with Zombies. It's a collection of his columns, in which he takes on conservative ideas that he says have proved false and should have died long ago but are still lurching around, consuming human brains.

Two days later, on the heels of assurances from President Trump that coronavirus will miraculously disappear, we learned that all future information we'll be getting about the virus from our government will have to be cleared by a new task force, headed by Vice President (and major zombie concept adherent) Mike Pence.

This, apparently in response to an announcement by the Centers for Disease Control that we need to prepare for a possible pandemic. And that it wasn't a question of if the virus would spread to the U.S., but when.

So Pence—still unconvinced about evolution, and notoriously reluctant to employ a needle exchange to head off an HIV outbreak in Indiana when he was governor—is now deciding what the nation's top health and science experts can tell us. In case he needs some help, Trump appointed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow to the task force.

Or maybe Trump did that because the ailment that really got his attention last week was the nasty sell-off virus that took the stock market down 3,000 points. If he'd known this two years ago, he might not have axed the health security team whose job it was to handle pandemics.

Krugman's zombie concepts are a roster of Trump-supporter talking points, so it's no surprise that, as broadcaster Steve Paulson, his interviewer at the Chicago Temple, noted, Trump has tried to get him fired from the Times.

The zombies include climate change denial (kept alive by the fossil fuel industry's hired guns), and the threat that Social Security will run out of money. (Not to worry: it's a payroll tax, not a private pension fund, and taxes—as we know so well—can always be raised.)

Also, the national debt crisis, which the Republicans were so concerned about during the Obama administration, but have recently "done a 180" on. The size of the debt relative to the size of the national economy looks OK to Krugman. Besides—and this is my favorite among his nuggets of wisdom—"from a planetary perspective, it's just money we owe ourselves."

Krugman's "ultimate zombie" is the idea that tax cuts for the rich are a way to stimulate the economy; he's called the 2017 Trump tax cut, "the biggest tax scam in history," and writes that "at least 90 percent of Americans will end up poorer" thanks to it.

He's also argued that, whoever the Democratic candidate is, the issue the party should pursue is the growing financialization of the U.S. economy. Since the deregulation of the 1980s, he has written, the greatest profits have come, not from "running companies that actually made things," but from Wall Street transactions: buying and selling those companies, often loading them up with debt and resulting in job losses.

Wall Street, of course, is the arena in which Michael Bloomberg, with his pioneering computer terminals, made his fortune: "he got rich by selling equipment to destructive wheeler-dealers." Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, "saving ordinary families billions, until the Trump administration set about eviscerating it."

Bernie Sanders is "not actually a socialist," Krugman maintains, but he doesn't like Sanders's "personal branding" and fears he would waste "his political capital on unwinnable fights," like Medicare for All—"a heavy political lift" that Krugman says isn't going to happen right now, no matter who's president.

Still, what makes him angry is people who say, "Trump is bad but Bernie might raise my taxes." To defeat Trump, "we have to set aside that kind of self-indulgence."

On Monday morning Krugman turned up on CNN, looking concerned. He said he was extremely nervous about the market (given "the few tools" in the Federal Reserve's tool kit, since interest rates are already historically low) and about the spread of the virus.

The president had resisted warnings; he "did not want to hear that [the virus] was going to be bad," Krugman said.

"This could turn out to be Trump's WMD."  v

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