Krugman: When ‘Freedom’ Means the Right to Destroy

Good commentary:

On Sunday the Canadian police finally cleared away anti-vaccine demonstrators who had been blocking the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, a key commercial route that normally carries more than $300 million a day in international trade. Other bridges are still closed, and part of Ottawa, the Canadian capital, is still occupied.

The diffidence of Canadian authorities in the face of these disruptions has been startling to American eyes. Also startling, although not actually surprising, has been the embrace of economic vandalism and intimidation by much of the U.S. right — especially by people who ranted against demonstrations in favor of racial justice. What we’re getting here is an object lesson in what some people really mean when they talk about “law and order.”

Let’s talk about what has been happening in Canada and why I call it vandalism.

The “Freedom Convoy” has been marketed as a backlash by truckers angry about Covid-19 vaccination mandates. In reality, there don’t seem to have been many truckers among the protesters at the bridge (about 90 percent of Canadian truckers are vaccinated). Last week a Bloomberg reporter saw only three semis among the vehicles blocking the Ambassador Bridge, which were mainly pickup trucks and private cars; photos taken Saturday also show very few commercial trucks.

The Teamsters union, which represents many truckers on both sides of the border, has denounced the blockade.

So this isn’t a grass-roots trucker uprising. It’s more like a slow-motion Jan. 6, a disruption caused by a relatively small number of activists, many of them right-wing extremists. At their peak, the demonstrations in Ottawa reportedly involved only around 8,000 people, while numbers at other locations have been much smaller.

Despite their lack of numbers, however, the protesters have been inflicting a remarkable amount of economic damage. The U.S. and Canadian economies are very closely integrated. In particular, North American manufacturing, especially but not only in the auto industry, relies on a constant flow of parts between factories on both sides of the border. As a result, the disruption of that flow has hobbled industry, forcing production cuts and even factory shutdowns.

The closure of the Ambassador Bridge also imposed large indirect costs, as trucks were diverted to roundabout routes and forced to wait in long lines at alternative bridges.

Any attempt to put a number on the economic costs of the blockade is tricky and speculative. However, it’s not hard to come up with numbers like $300 million or more per day; combine that with the disruption of Ottawa, and the “trucker” protests may already have inflicted a couple of billion dollars in economic damage.

That’s an interesting number, because it’s roughly comparable to insurance industry estimates of total losses associated with the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the killing of George Floyd — protests that seem to have involved more than 15 million people.

This comparison will no doubt surprise those who get their news from right-wing media, which portrayed B.L.M. as an orgy of arson and looting. I still receive mail from people who believe that much of New York City was reduced to smoking rubble. In fact, the demonstrations were remarkably nonviolent; vandalism happened in a few cases, but it was relatively rare, and the damage was small considering the huge size of the protests.

By contrast, causing economic damage was and is what the Canadian protests are all about — because blocking essential flows of goods, threatening people’s livelihoods, is every bit as destructive as smashing a store window. And unlike, say, a strike aimed at a particular company, this damage fell indiscriminately on anyone who had the misfortune to rely on unobstructed trade.

And to what end? The B.L.M. demonstrations were a reaction to police killings of innocent people; what’s going on in Canada is, on its face, about rejecting public health measures intended to save lives. Of course, even that is mainly an excuse: What it’s really about is an attempt to exploit pandemic weariness to boost the usual culture-war agenda.

As you might expect, the U.S. right is loving it. People who portrayed peaceful protests against police killings as an existential threat are delighted by the spectacle of right-wing activists breaking the law and destroying wealth. Fox News has devoted many hours to fawning coverage of the blockades and occupations. Senator Rand Paul, who called B.L.M. activists a “crazed mob,” called for Canada-style protests to “clog up cities” in the United States, specifically saying that he hoped to see truckers disrupt the Super Bowl (they didn’t).

I assume that the reopening of the Ambassador Bridge is the beginning of a broader crackdown on destructive protests. But I hope we won’t forget this moment — and in particular that we remember it the next time a politician or media figure talks about “law and order.”

Recent events have confirmed what many suspected: The right is perfectly fine, indeed enthusiastic, about illegal actions and disorder as long as they serve right-wing ends.

Source: When ‘Freedom’ Means the Right to Destroy

Krugman: Attack of the Right-Wing Thought Police

Strong reminder of the greater danger to free speech. Money quote: “What’s really striking, however, is the idea that schools should be prohibited from teaching anything that causes “discomfort” among students and their parents.” Phrase applies to both left and right who argue against raising difficult or contentious issues:

Americans like to think of their nation as a beacon of freedom. And despite all the ways in which we have failed to live up to our self-image, above all the vast injustices that sprang from the original sin of slavery, freedom — not just free elections, but also freedom of speech and thought — has long been a key element of the American idea.

Now, however, freedom is under attack, on more fronts than many people realize. Everyone knows about the Big Lie, the refusal by a large majority of Republicans to accept the legitimacy of a lost election. But there are many other areas in which freedom is not just under assault but in retreat.

Let’s talk, in particular, about the attack on education, especially but not only in Florida, which has become one of America’s leading laboratories of democratic erosion.

Republicans have made considerable political hay by denouncing the teaching of critical race theory; this strategy has succeeded even though most voters have no idea what that theory is and it isn’t actually being taught in public schools. But the facts in this case don’t matter, because denunciations of C.R.T. are basically a cover for a much bigger agenda: an attempt to stop schools from teaching anything that makes right-wingers uncomfortable.

I use that last word advisedly: There’s a bill advancing in the Florida Senate declaring that an individual “should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.” That is, the criterion for what can be taught isn’t “Is it true? Is it supported by the scholarly consensus?” but rather “Does it make certain constituencies uncomfortable?”

Anyone tempted to place an innocuous interpretation on this provision — maybe it’s just about not assigning collective guilt? — should read the text of the bill. Among other things, it cites as its two prime examples of things that must not happen in schools “denial or minimization of the Holocaust, and the teaching of critical race theory” — because suggesting that “racism is embedded in American society” (the bill’s definition of the theory) is just the same as denying that Hitler killed six million Jews.

What’s really striking, however, is the idea that schools should be prohibited from teaching anything that causes “discomfort” among students and their parents. If you imagine that the effects of applying this principle would be limited to teaching about race relations, you’re being utterly naïve.

For one thing, racism is far from being the only disturbing topic in American history. I’m sure that some students will find that the story of how we came to invade Iraq — or for that matter how we got involved in Vietnam — makes them uncomfortable. Ban those topics from the curriculum!

Then there’s the teaching of science. Most high schools do teach the theory of evolution, but leading Republican politicians are either evasive or actively deny the scientific consensus, presumably reflecting the G.O.P. base’s discomfort with the concept. Once the Florida standard takes hold, how long will teaching of evolution survive?

Geology, by the way, has the same problem. I’ve been on nature tours where the guides refuse to talk about the origins of rock formations, saying that they’ve had problems with some religious guests.

Oh, and given the growing importance of anti-vaccination posturing as a badge of conservative allegiance, how long before basic epidemiology — maybe even the germ theory of disease — gets the critical race theory treatment?

And then there’s economics, which these days is widely taught at the high school level. (Full disclosure: Many high schools use an adapted version of the principles text I co-author.) Given the long history of politically driven attempts to prevent the teaching of Keynesian economics, what do you think the Florida standard would do to teaching in my home field?

The point is that the smear campaign against critical race theory is almost certainly the start of an attempt to subject education in general to rule by the right-wing thought police, which will have dire effects far beyond the specific topic of racism.

And who will enforce the rules? State-sponsored vigilantes! Last month Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, proposed a “Stop Woke Act” that would empower parents to sue school districts they claim teach critical race theory — and collect lawyer fees, a setup modeled on the bounties under Texas’ new anti-abortion law. Even the prospect of such lawsuits would have a chilling effect on teaching.

Did I mention that DeSantis also wants to create a special police force to investigate election fraud? Like the attacks on critical race theory, this is obviously an attempt to use a made-up issue — voter fraud is largely nonexistent — as an excuse for intimidation.

OK, I’m sure that some people will say that I’m making too much of these issues. But ask yourself: Has there been any point over, say, the past five years when warnings about right-wing extremism have proved overblown and those dismissing those warnings as “alarmist” have been right?

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/24/opinion/florida-critical-race-theory-de-santis.html

Krugman: Learning to Live With Low Fertility

Interesting, rather than advocating for higher levels of immigration, Krugman takes the alternate take of adapting to lower fertility and population growth. Canadian governments, policy makers and advocates would be wise to also consider this alternate scenario:

Last week the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported much higher inflation than almost anyone predicted, and inflationistas — people who always predict runaway price rises, and have always been wrong — seized on the news as proof that this time the wolf is real.

Financial markets, however, took it in stride. Stocks fell on the report, but they soon made up most of the losses.

Bond yields rose only slightly on the news, then ended the weekright where they started — namely, extremely low.

Why so little reaction to the inflation news? Part of the answer, presumably, was that once investors had time to digest the details they realized that there was little sign of a rise in underlying inflation; this was a blip reflecting what were probably one-time rises in the prices of used cars and hotel rooms.

Beyond that, however, is what I think is the realization that while we’re achieving dramatic, almost miraculous success in defeating Covid-19, once the pandemic subsides we’re likely to be in an environment of sustained low interest rates as a result of weak investment demand. And the biggest reason for that low-rate environment is plunging fertility, which implies slow or even negative growth in the number of Americans in their prime working years.

This isn’t a new issue. Last month’s census report showing the lowest U.S. population growth since the 1930s only confirmed what everyone studying the subject already knew. And America is relatively late to this party. Japan’s working-age population has been declining since the mid-1990s. The euro area has been on the downslope since 2009. Even China is starting to look like Japan, a legacy of its one-child policy.

Is stagnant or declining population a big economic problem? It doesn’t have to be. In fact, in a world of limited resources and major environmental problems there’s something to be said for a reduction in population pressure. But we need to think about policy differently in a flat-population economy than we did in the days when maturing baby boomers were rapidly swelling the potential work force.

OK, let me admit that there is one real issue: An aging population means fewer active workers per retiree, which raises some fiscal issues. But this problem is often exaggerated. Remember all the panic about how Social Security couldn’t survive the burden of retiring boomers? Well, many boomers have already retired; by 2025 most of the growth in the number of beneficiaries per worker caused by retiring baby boomers will already have occurred. Yet there’s no crisis.

There is, however, a different issue with low population growth. To maintain full employment, a market economy must persuade businesses to invest all the money households want to save. Yet a lot of investment demand is driven by population growth, as new families need newly built houses, new workers require the construction of new office buildings and factories, and so on.

So low population growth can cause persistent spending weakness, a phenomenon diagnosed in 1938 by the economist Alvin Hansen, who awkwardly dubbed it “secular stagnation.” The term and concept have been revived recently by Larry Summers, and on this issue I think he’s right.

Secular stagnation can be a problem, because if interest rates are very low even in good times there’s not much room for the Fed to cut rates during recessions. But a low-interest-rate world can also offer major policy opportunities — if we’re willing to think clearly.

For what we’re looking at here is a world awash in savings with nowhere to go: Households are eager to lend money out, but businesses don’t see enough good investment opportunities. (Bitcoin doesn’t count.) Well, why not put the money to work for the public good? Why not borrow cheaply and use the funds to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, invest in the health and education of our children, and more? This would be good for our society, good for the future, and would also provide a cushion against future recessions.

What about the burden of debt, you ask? Well, federal debt as a percentage of G.D.P. is twice what it was in 1990, but interest payments on the debt are only about half as high. That’s what low borrowing costs — largely a byproduct of demographic stagnation — do.

So, are the Biden administration’s infrastructure and family proposals the kind of things I have in mind? They’re a gratifying step in the right direction. But they aren’t nearly as ambitious as they’re often portrayed, and to my mind they’re too fiscally responsible — the administration is excessively concerned with paying for its plans.

The fact is that, like it or not, we’re going to be living for a long time with very slow population growth. And we need to start thinking about economic policy with that reality in mind.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/17/opinion/low-population-growth-economy-inflation.html