Krugman Needs New Sunglasses

First published on TeleSur English, September 27, 2014.

Prepare for an Alien Invasion

Just because someone has a PhD, a Nobel Prize, a prized Princeton professorship, and a regular columnist position at The New York Times doesn’t mean they’re really all that clever.

Take the leading US liberal and partisan Democrat Paul Krugman, blessed with all of those things. Over the last few years, the science fiction fan Krugman has jokingly proposed an interesting idea for pulling the US economy out of stagnation: prepare for an alien invasion.

In 2011, Krugman told CNN about a Twilight Zone episode in which “scientists fake an alien threat in order to achieve world peace,” adding that “this time…we need it…to get some fiscal stimulus.”

“If you…look at what took us out of the Great Depression,” Krugman said in 2012, “it was Europe’s entry into World War II and the US buildup…So if we could get something that could cause the government to say, ‘Oh, never mind those budget things; let’s just spend and do a bunch of stuff.’… My fake threat from space aliens is the other route,” Krugman said before a laughing crowd. “I’ve been proposing that.”

But how smart or funny was it, really, for Krugman to use the futuristic imagery of an alien invasion to make the case for replicating the stimulus that military spending provided to end the Great Depression? Home- and human-made existential threats to survival were sufficient to the task.  How about saving the planet for livable habitation by putting millions to work on ecological retrofitting and clean energy? Tackling climate change and other environmental ills in a meaningful way means putting many millions of people to work at all skill levels to design, implement, coordinate, and construct the environmental retrofitting of economy and society – the ecological reconversion of production, transportation, office space, homes, agriculture, and public space.

WWII analogy? Sure. Fine. As Noam Chomsky argued in 2010, ”Surely the US manufacturing industries could be reconstructed to produce what the country needs, using its highly skilled work force—and what the world needs, and soon, if we are to have some hope of averting major [environmental] catastrophe. It has been done before, after all. During World War II, industry was converted to wartime production and the semi-command economy. . . ended the Depression.”

No mythical extraterrestrial menace required. “Spaceship Earth” presents its own urgent social and ecological justifications for massive public works programs and investments.

The Aliens Already Here: They Live

If we want to reference science fiction to make the case for the progressive change we’d like to see, then let me nominate my own personal favorite science fiction (and horror) film: John Carpenter’s They Live(1987). In Carpenter’s brilliant, outwardly campy spoof, the space invaders are already here, wearing corporate suits and changing the climate (“acclimatizing us to their atmosphere”) in the name of free enterprise. America is ruled by aliens disguised as members of the business and professional elite. The extraterrestrials colonize America and the Earth, dismantling the nation in the name of “the free market.” They speak in hushed tones to one another through small radios installed in Rolex watches that symbolize their elevated status. In a vast underground complex, they speak in outwardly idealistic terms of their real objectives – ruthless economic exploitation for the galactic Few sold as “growth” and “development” for the earthly Many. Mobile across the galaxy, they ship resources off-planet and manipulate Earthly citizens through subliminal forms of thought control encoded in advertisements and other corporate mass media content.

“They’re free enterprisers,” a leading human resister of the alien occupation explains. “We are like a natural resource to them,” a different resister elaborates. “Deplete the planet and move on to another. They want benign indifference. They want us drugged.”

Some humans are cultivated for co-optation, rewarded for collaboration with fancy jobs, money, and consumer goods. They are invited to sumptuous banquets where aliens dressed as business chiefs regale them with the latest data on the robust “per capita income growth” enjoyed by earthlings who cooperate with the extraterrestrials’ “quest for multi-dimensional expansion.”

Resistance is futile and there is no alternative, so you might as well play ball with the capitalists/aliens to enjoy the rewards. So the collaborationist story goes, encouraged by ubiquitous media messages selling personal consumerism, fashion, and narcissistic self-display as the meaning of “the good life.”

Those who cannot be co-opted or numbed by dominant media and consumer gratifications are designated “terrorists” and “communists who want to bring down the government.” They face violent repression by a heavily armed high-tech police state, whose tools of surveillance and repression include airborne spy cameras that prefigure the low-flying drones currently being prepared for use inside the United States.

Along the way, the aliens’ economic system generates unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide and methane, heating the environment in ways that fit their own home climate but threaten life on Earth.

The capitalist aliens are opposed by a revolutionary human cadre that has developed special sunglasses that decode the deadening messages of the alien-run corporate mass media and reveal the repulsive nonhuman identity of the privileged. When the glasses are donned, billboards, magazines, newspapers, and television programs are shown to express hidden meanings, telling humans to “obey,” “consume,” “watch tv,” “sleep,” “conform,” “submit,” “buy,” and “work eight hours.” Bills of money are shown to say “this is your god,” while billboards are seen to proclaim “no thought,” “do not question authority,” and “no imagination.”

The cadre oversees a campsite of poor, working-class Americans. Sitting behind a threadbare church in the shadow of Los Angeles’s downtown financial district, the camp captures the rising poverty and joblessness of the reckless get-rich-quick Reagan years and harkens back to previous episodes of mass homelessness in American history.

The campsite is brutally cleared by a militarized Los Angeles Police Department early in They Live, Reviewing this scene recently, I was struck by how closely it presaged the police-state clearances of the Occupy Movement’s many US encampments in the fall of 2011.

The cadre struggles to escape detection and repression as it seeks to break into the all-powerful media to tell ordinary Americans what they have discovered about who is running and ruining the country behind the façade of democracy. The movie ends when its two working class heroes (one black, the other white) penetrate corporate media headquarters to disable the aliens’ great satellite cloaking mechanism, exposing the privileged Few’s repulsive extraterrestrial identity and sparking a great popular rebellion

Cheap and Easy?

I was moved to reflect on They Live when I read a Krugman column published two days before the giant Climate March in Manhattan last Sunday.  Krugman accused left “antigrowth” thinkers and activists of dysfunctional “climate despair.”  He cited with approval a recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) working paper purporting to show that we can save the world from global warming by moving off fossil fuels and on to renewable energy sources at no great cost to economic growth. “Saving the planet would be cheap,” Krugman wrote, adding that “it might even be free….The idea that economic growth and climate action are incompatible may sound hardheaded and realistic,” Krugman concluded, “but it’s actually a fuzzy-minded misconception. If we ever get past the special interests and ideology that have blocked action to save the planet, we’ll find that it’s cheaper and easier than almost anyone imagines.”

Krugman and the IMF are right that economic growth can continue to take place in a world that has gotten off fossils fuels and switched to wind, water, and solar energy.  In the first section of this essay, indeed, I suggested the potential growth-stimulating impact of a major public investment in a post-carbon economy.

But Krugman’s commentary is deeply flawed. It misrepresents the “left” position on growth.  As a perceptive commenter on Krugman’s column notes, for example, the European “degrowth” movement is actually “NOT against economic growth and development. It is against grossly consumptive and mindless economic growth and development – which is what we have today.”

I would add: what we have today, under corporation capitalism, dedicated to the relentless generation of false needs and waste in service to profit.

I would also add that many of us on the eco-Left believe that societies can and must grow in ways more than economic: expand equality, increase democracy, boost community, augment health, raise  happiness, enlarge caring, swell sustainability, amplify creativity and imagination, and multiply love.  Here the issue is re-defining growth, not rejecting it.

Second, Krugman (like most economists, liberal or “conservative”) habitually talks about economic growth as a positive good in and of itself, ignoring not only its giant ecological downside under capitalism but also its longstanding role in providing an ideological cloak for the stark socioeconomic inequality that concerns him. As Herve Kempf has noted, the Western “oligarchy” has long sold the pursuit and promise of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment,” and a “means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them. . . . Growth,” Kempf explains, “allow[s] the overall level of wealth to arise and consequently improve the lot of the poor without—and this part is never spelled out [by the economic elite] – any need to modify the distribution of wealth.”

“Growth,” liberal economist Henry Wallich explained (approvingly) in 1972, “is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.” And that’s why the assurance of growth is a critical promise made by Carpenter’s alien invaders to their human subjects in They Live.

Third, Krugman’s notion of a cheap and easy transition to a post-carbon future collapses when we get serious about confronting “the special interests and ideology that have blocked action to save the planet.”  Make no mistake: getting real about that means fierce popular confrontation with Big Carbon, a critical component of the currently reigning corporate plutocracy with vast capital assets sunk in the fossil fuel economy.  It means a dedicated mass movement against a key part of the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money,” which is intimately connected to a Deep State that regularly resorts to repression to crush popular movements for democracy and the common good. A classic recent example of this repression is the Occupy Movement, dismantled by a coordinated federal campaign under a Democratic administration and with the participation of hundreds of cities under the direction of Democratic Party mayors.  I find it hard not to accept the accuracy of the following conclusion from Chris Hedges, sounding a bit like one of John Carpenter’s radical cadre in They Live during a panel session (titled The Climate Crisis: Which Way Out?) preceding last weekend’s historic People’s Climate March in New York City, “Republicans appeal to one constituency. The Democrats appeal to another. But both parties will do nothing to halt the ravaging of the planet…When we begin to build mass movements that carry out repeated [necessary] acts of civil disobedience… the corporate state, including the Democratic Party….will use the security and surveillance apparatus, militarized police forces…to shut down…dissent with force…as …during the Occupy movement. The corporate elites, blinded by their lust for profit…will not veer from our path towards ecocide unless they are forced from power.”

Nothing cheap and easy about that, but survival and getting to where humanity can grow (in ways more than economic) beyond fossil fuels depends on it.

It’s one thing – low-cost and laidback – to read and report environmentally hopeful capitalist research from the IMF from a privileged perch in Princeton.  It’s another and by no means casual and inexpensive thing to take the risks involved to form and join a mass movement dedicated to expelling Big Carbon from ecocidal power.

Paul Krugman needs a pair of John Carpenter’s magical sunglasses. There’s no such thing as a free revolution.

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By | 2014-09-30T11:48:33+00:00 September 30th, 2014|Articles|