Varieties of denial

Paul Krugman marshals German poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller in writing about a new book on what economists and policymakers have and haven't learned about the crash of 2008: "The gods themselves contend in vain against stupidity." He's not specifically targeting the author of the book, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, but the would-be reformers who in having come to accept the so-called Standard Model of the crisis (complacency bred by faith in deposit insurance, trust in financial "innovation" and the wisdom of the industry, and the belief that the crisis could be "contained" to the mortgage market) continue to propose drastic spending cuts and deficit reduction as pillars of a stable, even expanding economy. Or, as Krugman himself puts it: to reject "orthodox economics ... in favor of doctrines like 'expansionary austerity'--the unsubstantiated claim that slashing government spending actually creates jobs."
Anyone who reads Krugman won't be surprised by his use of the word "wrongheaded" in describing such prescriptions. But it's the "intellectual shifts" he wants to call attention to: "[the unlearning of] the hard-won lessons of the Great Depression, the return to pre-Keynesian fallacies and prejudices." The application of such fallacies prolonged the crisis; the ongoing expression of such prejudices would make worse "the mess we're in." 
Krugman's review appears in the same issue of the New York Review of Books as a piece by Priyamavda Natarajan on three new works about science. Or, how science is understood, misunderstood, scapegoated, and rejected by those who aren't scientists -- including politicians and policymakers but also ordinary citizens feeling overwhelmed by it now, whether or not they had a firm handle on it in the first place.
Natarajan's main point is that people don't understand the provisionality of science, the idea that incremental advances arrived at through trial and error lead to greater, though perhaps not complete, understanding: provisionality is "the state of knowledge at a given time." What happens is that people both expect too much of science (how could this earthquake not have been predictable?) but also distrust it. Refusal to acknowledge climate change is one obvious manifestation of the latter, illustrated tellingly in Natarajan's account of a North Carolina law forbidding "the use of any new data and allowing only historical data in making estimates of sea-level rise in awarding permits" for development in coastal regions.
The law simply discounts the newest scientific findings, admittedly dire, and sets as a baseline measurements taken more than a century ago, in 1900.
There's denial, and there's denial. Natarajan speaks later in her piece of proposals to demystify the practice and streamline the teaching of science by acknowledging its provisionality and uncertainties, to make us more comfortable with it. So much is happening so fast, the thinking goes--climate change, Ebola, Chernobyl--that most people simply can't deal with it and are maybe even scared: "The instinct is to turn away from a complex reality and yearn for a simpler life." The phenomenon is not new, but the particulars always will be; the current reality is practically by definition the most complex. Each new dispatch on climate catastrophe from Bill McKibben or Elizabeth Kolbert makes me want to avert my eyes. I only needed to glimpse once the photo of 35,000 walruses crammed onto a sliver of Arctic shoreline, the ice-floes they normally hunt from having melted to nothing, to want to wish it away and believe it wasn't happening at all. Unproductive and harmful though it may be, denial arising out of fear is maybe at least understandable.  
But denial applied as a tactic for gain isn't. In his review, Krugman doesn't come right out and impute less-than-noble motives to the deficit-busters and austerity-backers and the politicians who parrot them. But in his Friday New York Times column, he does. Those who refuse to acknowledge evidence that Obamacare is working, that the deficit is shrinking, that the fiscal outlook may be "much better than anyone thought possible not long ago" have a vested interest in maintaining their position, according to Krugman; their assiduous feeding of the fear that crisis is upon is their best hope of "getting what they really want: big cuts in social programs," like the slashes in Social Security and the raising of the Medicare eligibility age advocated a couple of years ago. As to those who refuse to acknowledge the reality of climate change, actions like those of the North Carolina lawmakers also show just what motives are really at work, the same that have slowed investment in alternative energy technologies and have hampered efforts to contend with carbon emissions. The gods are having a hard enough time with stupidity without having to labor against greed. 

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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