Paul Krugman is Wrong about the Democratic Primary

by Benjamin Studebaker

As some of you may know, I am an avid reader of Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman’s blog. He is a stalwart opponent of austerity and has written some brilliant pieces on it. However, I find myself in disagreement with his latest column about the 2016 Democratic Party primary election in the United States, where Krugman argues that because Bernie Sanders’ single payer proposal is unlikely to be passed by congress it is a distraction rather than a meaningful point of distinction between himself and Hillary Clinton.

Krugman acknowledges that Sanders’ single payer proposal is probably the best healthcare proposal in raw policy terms:

If we could start from scratch, many, perhaps most, health economists would recommend single-payer, a Medicare-type program covering everyone.

However, he claims that single payer is not politically feasible for three reasons:

  1. The private health insurance sector has too much influence over public policy.
  2. Single payer requires a middle class tax increase (although health care economists have calculated that Sanders’ plan will yield net savings for middle class families because single payer systems are more cost efficient than private systems–the tax they pay will be smaller than what they currently pay for health insurance).
  3. Single payer is disruptive because it replaces the insurance policies even of those people who are already happy with their current plans.

Krugman rightly points out that the Affordable Care Act barely made it through congress even when the democrats had control of both the house and the senate, and it is highly unlikely that the democrats will control both houses by similar margins after 2016. Krugman argues that the next president should prioritize policies that are more achievable.

In my discussion of the 2016 election to this point, I have primarily focused on which candidates have the best policy positions, irrespective of whether or not the policies they favor are likely to pass. I have done this because once we start accounting for what the post-2016 political reality is likely to be, we are to some degree creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If say, I were to believe that single payer will never be passed in the US, and as a result I were to advise my readers that there’s no point in supporting Sanders, I would be contributing to the very problem I would be highlighting. When we write about politics, we are also participating in politics. So I think it is a mistake for Krugman to dismiss Sanders’ plan not on the basis of its substance but on the basis of the very political considerations that the election supposedly exists to determine. Maybe Sanders will turn out to be right, maybe if he’s nominated there will be a huge spike in turnout and he’ll sweep both houses of congress. I think it’s very unlikely, but if he’s running against Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, who knows? In my public writing I sometimes try to avoid foreclosing those possibilities by focusing on policy analysis rather than the likely political outcomes.

But in the interests of engaging with Krugman’s argument, I’ll tell you what I think is likely to happen. Krugman is almost certainly correct that the republicans will retain control of at least the house, and that this will enable them to block nearly everything valuable a democratic president might want to do. I think it’s quite likely that if Bernie Sanders is the nominee, he will win the general election–he currently polls very favorably against Trump and Cruz, the two republicans who realistically stand by far the greatest chance of being the nominee at this point. He is up 5 points on Trump and 3 on Cruz. Hillary Clinton does not currently poll as well–2.5 points over Trump and 0.6 points behind Cruz. After the election both Sanders and Clinton would almost certainly be faced with Paul Ryan’s house republicans, and those republicans will attempt to block everything they possibly can.

From a legislative standpoint, all of Barack Obama’s major accomplishments came before the 2010 midterm election when the republicans took the house. These include the stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, and so on. After the midterms, there simply isn’t any seminal legislation. Post-2010, Barack Obama became the guardian of what remains of the welfare and regulatory states–he exists to block austerity and to preserve both the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank. He exists to prevent the tax system from getting more regressive. He also exists to obstruct misguided foreign military adventures–because of Obama we have not sent large numbers of ground troops to Iraq or Syria. The next president must be trusted to do all of these things at least as well as Obama has done them and make sound appointments to the Supreme Court.

The reason it matters that Bernie Sanders supports things like single payer, tuition-free college, mandatory paid vacation time, Glass-Steagall, and breaking up the banks is not because if you elect Bernie Sanders he will do all of these things. Most likely if you elect Bernie Sanders he will accomplish zero of those things. The reason they matter is because they illustrate Bernie Sanders’ level of commitment to defending the interests of the middle class, the poor, and the socially marginalized. Hillary Clinton’s record indicates that she is much less trustworthy. During the first Clinton administration, Bill and Hillary went along with the republican congress on repealing Glass-Steagall, which contributed to the financial crisis of 2008, and on passing welfare reform, which inflicted mass suffering on America’s poorest and most vulnerable families. Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq War and was the architect of the Obama administration’s disastrous intervention in Libya. In the 1960’s, Bernie marched with Martin Luther King while Hillary campaigned for Barry Goldwater.

What will most likely be the real world difference between a President Sanders and a President Clinton?

The next president will likely be faced with a situation where the republicans offer to pass a budget, but only if the democratic president agrees to repeal parts of Dodd-Frank. Who do you trust not to cave? The politician whose biggest donors over the years have mostly been banks and financial institutions, who was involved in the repeal of Glass-Steagall, who represented the state of New York and Wall Street in the senate for eight years? Or the politician who gets most of his money from unions and small donors, wants a new Glass-Steagall, and wants to break up the big banks?

The next president will most likely immediately face pressure to send ground troops into Syria or Iraq, ground troops who may not only have to destroy ISIS but may then stick around for many years to nation build. Who do you trust to resist the pressure to send troops? The politician who voted for Iraq and pushed hard for Libya, or the politician who voted against Iraq and has consistently opposed regime change by military means?

The next president will probably get to appoint at least one new Supreme Court justice. Who will appoint justices more likely to stick up for the little guy?

Throughout the next president’s term, there will be opportunities to make the case to the public for electing a congress more favorable to big reforms like single payer or tuition-free college. Who will make that case more often and more persuasively?

Sanders is currently more electable than Clinton and he is more trustworthy as a guardian of the welfare and regulatory states than Clinton is. This is why Sanders makes sense even if you are convinced that he won’t be able to get congress to pass his ambitious proposals. And if you think that Clinton might be able to succeed where Sanders would fail, you don’t know the republican congress. These people won’t even pass gun control measures that enjoy support from 90% of the population. If anyone thinks that because Clinton’s proposals don’t go as far as Sanders’ the republicans will be any more likely to acquiesce, that person needs to return to the planet earth post-haste.

Still unconvinced? For a more thorough critique of Hillary Clinton’s progressive credentials, check out this post.