Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Dear Paul Ryan

I just can't help myself.  I described the people that I disagree with as collectively believing that "taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That's what lies behind the modern right's fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty." and that "There's no middle ground" between the views of those people and the views I hold.  When I wrote this column, I was, on some level, aware of your Roadmap and the Ryan-Rivlin Plan.  I have been able to take a step back from my work and can now see that your plans include a substantial welfare state funded at approximately the same level of federal taxation that has prevailed in recent decades.  When looking at what I wrote and what you have proposed, I can see the hysteria and dishonesty of what I have written.

That doesn't mean I don't have honest criticisms of your proposals.  I'm not sure the taxes in the Roadmap will bring in as much revenue as you project.  I think that the tax system in the Roadmap is too regressive and in any case I would prefer a state that takes in more revenue and redistributes more to recipients.  I think that your proposals for Medicare reform are such that the "death panels" I favor would be both more efficient and fairer.  I use the term death panels with bitter irony since we both know (as does Mitch Daniels) that there is no conceivable reform of health care for the elderly that does not leave some families with terrible choices.

But those were not the differences I described.  I suppose I could try to weasel out by saying that I was only talking about some more extreme members of your political coalition but I would be kidding no one.  I explicitly set up my side as those who believe in "the modern welfare state -- a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society's winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net."  That means I excluded the nontrivial socialist fringe of my coalition and we both know that Rand Paul is no more going to undo the welfare state than Bernie Sanders is going to undo the corporation.  Real policy is going to be made by people with something like my views on my side (maybe a little more statist on things like trade and top marginal tax rates) and people like you on your side (maybe a little less likely to reduce entitlement spending.)  And the eventual policy outcomes are going to be somewhere in the middle ground that I pretended does not exist.

In my column I wrote that "political leaders" need to "declare that both violence and any language hinting at the acceptability of violence are out of bounds."  I agree with that but I'm rethinking the implications.  My own newspaper published an article by former Democratic congressmen Paul Kanjorski in which Mr. Kanjorski wrote that "it is incumbent on all Americans to create an atmosphere of civility and respect in which political discourse can flow freely, without fear of violent confrontation."  Then it came out that Mr. Kanjorski had called for the murder of Florida's Republican candidate for governor.  I don't think he meant it but that is the kind of thing that should stop.  

I also need to rethink my use of the term "eliminationist" as a description of political rhetoric.  I originally used the term as a sly way to paint my democratic political opponents as proto-Nazis who were preparing their followers for a genocidal campaign against people who hold my views.  I more specifically used it to stigmatize a kind of heated rhetoric that grotesquely elevates the political stakes so high, and so demonizes the opposition that political violence becomes reasonable.  With that standard in mind, I am taking a second look at my own rhetoric.  I can see where I implied that if your policy preferences prevailed that the elderly and the poor would be left utterly helpless.  I can see where I described my opponents as collectively violent as well as heartless and that there is "no middle ground" between us and them.  I can see where someone terrified and indignant at the thought of the abandonment of the elderly and the poor at the hands of a bunch of terrorists and terrorist-enablers might contemplate violence despite my pro forma declarations against violence (after all, even Sarah Palin is officially against political violence.)  

Is my rhetoric eliminationist?  I don't think so, but I don't know.  I never intended for that standard to be applied to me or Alan Grayson or anyone else on my side.  I have no confidence in my ability to craft a standard of rhetoric that isn't a contradictory and self-serving mess.  I shouldn't be trying to tell other people how to talk.  I should be making the strenuous efforts it will evidently take for me to learn to write about my opponents with some modicum of honesty and civility.  So, Rep. Ryan, let us talk about our significant differences over the best way to craft a sustainable, just and humane welfare state.  Let us even see if we can find a middle ground.

Sincerely,

Paul Krugman 

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