Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future

Image of Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future
Release Date: 
January 28, 2020
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

Reading this book will help you appreciate that, despite many trends in the opposite direction, we live in a world where the values of the Enlightenment still exist. Serious people still search for truth, not “alternative facts,” and seek ways to make life better for humankind. Author Paul Krugman is one such person. One of the world’s great public intellectuals. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2008 for his technical writing—"his analysis of trade patterns and location of economic activity.” But for more than two decades he has published on economics and politics for the general reader in Fortune, Slate, and The New York Times.

This book consists mainly of columns in The Times and blogs published and posted since 2004.  Though the Times hired Krugman to write on economics, the destructive actions of the George W. Bush administration, couched in sheaths of falsehood as well as ignorance, pushed Krugman to use his analytical skills and reader-friendly style to eviscerate White House politics.  

Eight years after George W., the Trump administration’s policies have been as bad as those of W., but its self-serving deceits have been more numerous and monstrous.  So the Trump administration has pushed Krugman to write about its Zombie ideas—ideas that should have been buried long ago but still fly about, rationalizing not just bad but evil policies. These ideas and policies did not originate with Trump, but have been part of a Know-Nothing Republican canon for decades, for example, the claim that cutting taxes will generate economic growth.

Krugman explains his four rules for writing as a public intellectual: First, tackle the easy stuff such as the merits of pump-priming when the economy slows; second, write in clear, straight-forward English; third, be honest about dishonesty when you see it;  finally, don’t  hold back from exposing dishonest motives. Krugman also has rules for aspiring economists (probably useful for all serious scholars): first, listen to “Gentiles”—those whose values and methods seem alien; second,  question the question—go outside the established paradigms; third, dare to be silly—unconventional; fourth, simplify and then simplify to get at the essence of things.

Here are the themes covered by some of the book’s eighteen chapters. saving Social Security; the road to Obamacare; the housing “bubble and bust”;  crisis management and the stimulus tragedy; myths of austerity; the euro and Europe’s impossible dream; debt and paying for a progressive agenda; the ultimate Zombie—tax cuts; trade wars—making tariffs corrupt again; inequality—"don’t blame robots for low wages”; the conservative movement for billionaires; Trump versus socialists—"something not rotten in Denmark”; the depravity of climate-change denial; Trump and the aristocracy of fraud. Most of these chapters consist of published newspaper columns preceded by an essay that puts them in context.

Readers of Krugman’s work over recent decades will have seen most of this book before. Taken together, however, the book’s wide-ranging essays provide an astute picture of what has gone wrong in the United States. While Krugman blames most of these trends on the unholy alliance of big money and Republican politics, he fails to address the vulnerabilities in the American psyche, education, and culture that have led four out of ten voters to endorse Trumpism. The book has six pages on Fox News but could have offered more on the shaping of truly fake news.