The Conscience Of A Liberal

by tristero

Here, as promised, is a brief excerpt from Paul Krugman's wonderful new book, The Conscience of a Liberal. I've chosen a small section that illustrates the detail and clarity of his argumentation. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of equally concise passages to illustrate his overall point - that liberals have a unique opportunity to restore New Deal government to the US - and to rebut rightwing nonsense:
...don't high taxes and an extensive welfare state remove the incentives to work and innovate? Gross domestic product per capita in France is only 74 percent of GDP per capita in the United States. Isn't that a compelling argument against moving in a French direction? Well, France and other countries with generous social programs do have serious economic problems. These problems are not, however, as simple or as closely related to the generosity of social programs as you might think.

France does have much lower GDP per person than the United States. That's largely becasue a smaller fraction of the population is employed - French GDP per worker is only 10 percent lower than in the United States. And that difference in GDP per worker, in in turn, is entirely becasue French workers get much more time time off: On average French workers put in only 86 percent as many hours each year as U.S. workers. Worker productivity per hour appears to be slightly higher in France than in the United States.

The real question is which aspects of the French difference represent problems, and which simply represent diffferent and possibly better choices. The lower number of hours per worker in France seems to fall in the second category. In the United States vacations are very short, and many workers get no vacation at all. France has essentially made a decision, enforced by legal requirements on vacation time as well as union settlements, to trade less income for more time off. And there's some evidence that this decision actually makes most people better off. As one recent study of the difference in working hours between Europe and the United States points out, polls suggest that people would like to work shorter hours, and international comparisons of reported "life satisfaction" seem to say that working less improves the quality of life even if it reduces income. Yet it's very difficult, for any individual, operating on his or her own, to trade less income for more leisure. French rules and regulations that solve this problem by requiring that employers provide vacation may actually be a good thing, even though they reduce GDP.
The passage continues by explaining that while France has higher rates of unemployment than the US, that is because:
The French are more likely than Americans to stay in school...This sounds like a virtue, not a vice, of the French system...

Once they reach prime working age...the French are just as likely to be employed as we are...
Krugman then discusses a serious problem with the French system and does so without excusing them and without pulling punches.

The lay reader is left with the impression that Krugman has carefully, and fairly, compared French employment practices with American. That is what is meant in the argumentation biz by the technical term "effective persuasion."

I invite commenters to try to tear Krugman's argument here apart. But you must provide links. As a lay reader, I don't have the knowledge or training to evaluate Krugman's analysis. But it is arguments of this kind that critics of Krugman must engage if they wish to criticize his book with any seriousness. The reviews I've read fail to do so. One of them carped over a mere typo and a matter of opinion. Another one objected that Krugman's portrayal of the rise of conservatism was "cartoonish" because Krugman accurately quoted racist and pro-Franco remarks from the early years of the National Review. (What was truly cartoonish, of course, was the crude racial stereotyping and admiration of fascism in the passages Krugman quoted.)

Speaking personally, I found the cumulative effective of Krugman's spare style very accessible, and just as importantly, very moving. There are no cheesy time-wasting stories inserted to people-ize the argument - "Jacques Clavecin is a baker who takes his 4 weeks of vacation in Eastern Europe studying ancient methods of bagel making" - just the facts. But somehow, Krugman makes those facts not only accessible but compulsively readable.

Yes, it's true. It's hard to put down. The Conscience of a Liberal is a pageturner and really should not be missed.