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DeLong/Equitable Growth Smackdown Watch: Thomas Frank on How he Doesn't Want to Be Lectured by Paul Krugman or Joe Stiglize Anymore: Monday Focus: March 3, 2014

Thomas Frank: Paul Krugman won’t save us: "When President Obama declared in December that gross inequality is the 'defining challenge of our time', he was right, and resoundingly so....

However, he quickly backed away... at the urging of pollsters and various Democratic grandees. I can understand the Democrats’ fears... a throwback to an incomprehensible time.... Unfortunately, they really have no choice. Watching... the bankers steered us into disaster in 2008 and then... harvested the fruits of our labored recovery--these spectacles have forced the nation to rediscover social class...

My thought here is to ask the Tonto question: "Who is this 'us', kemosabe?"

The nation--with the exception of the top 1%, who understand social class very well--has not rediscovered social class. If the nation had rediscovered social class, "inequality" would poll better and "upward mobility" would poll worse--would be seen as the mess of overdone pottage that it is. I think we would have a healthier politics if the 99% had rediscovered social class. But pretending it has does not make it so. There is a big task of education and analysis ahead. And trashing Paul Krugman is a rather odd exercise to engage in given that Paul Krugman has been raising the hue and cry about the disastrous consequences of rising inequality for America since Thomas Frank was in diapers.

But Franks quickly reverses field:/p>

What really defines our time is the simultaneous soaring of inequality and the maddening inability of most progressives (there are exceptions, of course) to talk about it in a way that might actually inspire anyone to get off their ass...

So the nation has not rediscovered social class: if it had, "most progressives" would be using it as a political mobilization tool...

Franks continues:

Certain liberals like it that way. “Needlessly clinical” is exactly their style... cloaked in wonkery.... It requires so many charts.... Who is called upon to speak?... The same bien pensant crew... Joseph Stiglitz... Robert Reich... Larry Summers, the celebrated deregulator.... The discovery of inequality has also compelled our leadership class to establish things like the Washington Center for Equitable Growth... just another platform for the trademark blog styling of the well-known economist Brad DeLong.... So inequality, now that we’re having a “conversation” about it, must of course turn out to be massively complicated, something no one could possibly have seen coming — sort of like the 2008 financial crisis, come to think of it. Furthermore, it must be seen as another technical problem, a matter for the experts to solve, like the budget deficit or entitlement spending.

The list of bad guys in Thomas Franks's eyes has expanded: negative references to "wonkery" and "charts" make me think that Ezra Klein's Project X, Nate Silver, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Economic Policy Institute, and, indeed, the entire reality-based community is on Franks's chopping block...

But then Franks quickly reverses field again:

Then again... the experts... aren’t actually wrong. I have quoted them myself on occasion; I have shown PowerPoint slides of Piketty-Saez graphs to audiences of unbelieving college students. Many of the essays in the Times’ “Great Divide” series have been admirable, as will surely be much of the “cutting-edge analysis” scheduled to be produced by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

So we are precisely nowheresville: two claims--about the rediscovery of social class and the fecklessness of wonks and chartmongers--that have both been retracted. The only thing coming through is a vibe that Franks is allergic to being lectured again by Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz:

What difference does it make if it’s a Nobel laureate who tells us what’s happened to the middle class or the leader of a local union somewhere?

And then we get something that isn't taken back: not a claim about what is, not an argument about how the world works, not a plan for action, but rather a wish that somebody, somewhere, somehow would have a plan:

My suspicion is that it makes an enormous difference. “Inequality” is not some minor technical glitch for the experts to solve.... Offering instruction on the subject in a classroom at Berkeley may be enlightening for the kids in attendance but it is fundamentally the wrong way to take on the problem.... This is the World War II of political subjects, and if we are going to win it must be a people’s war, not a Combat of the Thirty between the plumèd knights of the Beltway. We owe the economists thanks for making the situation plain, but now matters must of necessity pass into other hands. If the destruction of the middle class is ever to be addressed and solved, the impetus must come from below, not from above. This is a job we have to do ourselves.

And this is something to which I think I should reply. We--and in this case "we" refers to the entire reality-based community--know that making America and the world better for the next generation requires (a) understanding and analyzing what is going on, (b) using that understanding and analysis to construct a plan for fixing things, and (c) mobilizing people, voters, legislators, and others to carry that plan out. We look at this situation and have decided to do (a) and (b)--somebody has to do (a) and (b), and we are rather good at.

We are playing our positions.

What is your position? And are you playing it?

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