Book Review

The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century, by Paul Krugman, W. W. Norton and Company, 426 pp., $25.95

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For the past three years, Paul Krugman, a liberal economics professor at Princeton, has written a twice-weekly op-ed column for The New York Times. With these articles, Krugman has emerged as one of the most prominent mainstream critics of radical right economics and politics in the U.S.

Krugman’s latest book, The Great Unraveling, is a collection of over 100 of his articles, mostly from the Times. Krugman explains, “If I have ended up, more often than not, writing pieces that attack the right wing, it’s because the right now rules, and rules badly. It’s not just the policies are bad and irresponsible; our leaders lie about what they are up to.” He later refers to the “outrageous dishonesty of the Bush administration.”

Krugman’s writings are an important contribution to the struggle against the radical right. The fact that his columns appear in one of the most prestigious daily newspapers in the U.S. may also be a sign of increasing concern among ruling circles over the deepening influence of the right.

In his preface and various chapter introductions in the book, Krugman expands on concerns expressed in his columns, and his political criticism of the right is a key aspect of the work. He warns that the right “is a movement whose leaders do not accept the legitimacy of our current political system.” In short, the right “doesn’t feel obliged to play by the rules.”

He further notes that the Heritage Foundation, which is the driving force for the economic ideology of the Bush administration, doesn’t seek to simply scale back New Deal and Social Security programs. “It regards the very existence of such programs as a violation of basic principles,” he says, adding that this radicalism extends to all areas of public policy in the Bush administration.

Krugman examines how we got to where we are now – the polarization of American politics. Underlying this is a growing inequality of income which has resulted in “a form of class warfare” driven “by the efforts of an economic elite to expand its privileges.”

He observes that discredited ideas such as “inherited privilege is good” have worked their way back into political discourse. The present crusade by the right against the “welfare state” rests on “an ideology that denigrates almost everything, other than national defense, that the government does.”

The right’s slander of the government’s role was extended even to the Bush administration’s shameful exploitation of the aftermath of the tragic events of 9/11. During that time, the right attempted to prevent the government takeover of airport security, and privatization reached its ultimate absurdity with the Bush administration proposal “for the public to protect itself with duct tape and plastic screening.”

Krugman’s portrayal of “Crony Capitalism, U.S.A.” looks at the overwhelming corporate domination of the Bush administration as well as the serious corporate scandals. The chapter “2-1= 4” describes the relentless drive by the Bush administration to privatize Social Security and the catastrophic consequences that would result. And finally, “California Crisis” shows how energy corporations made massive profits through deregulation, market manipulation, and price gouging.

Krugman’s arguments against the right are the highlight of the book, but a word of caution is still in order. Although Krugman is an ally of progressive forces in the struggle against the right, he is not our ally in the fight against globalization. Krugman defends globalization because he believes that it has aided poorer nations, though they certainly didn’t think so at the recent trade talks in Cancun.

He also sidesteps the all important issue of the massive loss of American manufacturing jobs that have been shifted to lower wage markets abroad. The losses are now even spreading to office jobs, with estimates of 3.3 million service jobs being shifted abroad during the next 15 years.

Taking the above into consideration, The Great Unraveling is still worth the read, and it provides valuable ammunition for the struggle against the radical right. Some of Krugman’s columns are truly outstanding for their understanding and criticism of the right.

– Al Olson (