January 24, 2022

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Paul Krugman: Thwart ‘zombie ideas’ to stop misinformation

  • Paul Constant is a writer at Civic Ventures, a cofounder of the Seattle Review of Books, and a frequent cohost of the “Pitchfork Economics” podcast with Nick Hanauer.
  • On the latest episode of “Pitchfork Economics,” economist and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman spoke out against what he calls “zombie ideas” — ideas that are proven wrong continually but continue to persist.
  • In a column, Krugman said that two menacing zombie ideas in the coronavirus pandemic are that the government can’t do anything right, and the “attitude of disdain toward expertise.”
  • It’s everyone’s job to push back on these zombie ideas and oversights.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

“The whole point about zombies, actually, is you really can never fully kill them,” warns Nobel Laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman in the latest episode of “Pitchfork Economics.” Before you conclude that one of the most important economists of our time has lost his mind, you should know that the zombies Krugman is sounding the alarm bell over are economic in nature. 

Krugman defines zombie ideas as “things that people believe in the political sphere that are demonstrably false. They’ve been proved wrong by evidence over and over again. And yet they stay out there, shambling along, eating people’s brains.” His latest book, “Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future,” works to identify and dismantle some of the biggest zombie ideas in the political and economic discourse. 

In the podcast, which was recorded before COVID-19 reached pandemic levels, Krugman identifies the belief that tax cuts for rich people pay for themselves and the conservative denial of climate change as two of the most harmful zombie ideas of our time. But now that the coronavirus pandemic’s economic impacts have risen to the forefront of the national discussion, Krugman acknowledged in a recent column that the two most menacing zombie ideas in this moment are the fallacious argument that the government can’t do anything right and the continuing conservative “attitude of disdain toward expertise.”

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While I watched the Senate debate the stimulus package that eventually passed as the CARES Act last week, I kept one of Krugman’s rules for identifying zombie ideas at the top of my mind: “Don’t be afraid to talk about motives,” he writes in the beginning of “Arguing with Zombies.” In other words, always keep in mind who benefits from a given policy. It’s easy to see which portions of the CARES Act were created to help American workers survive the economic collapse and which were drafted by lobbyists — just follow the zombies.

“There’s always going to be big money to support dumb stuff,” Krugman said in the podcast. And their agents support that dumb stuff by employing clichés — “We must run government like a business,” or “People will refuse to work if unemployment benefits are too good” — that are catchy and clever, but factually false.  

As we move into the next phase of the stimulus fight, we’re going to have to get better at identifying and vanquishing those zombie ideas that enable trickle-down policies. One thing that would immediately improve the discourse, Krugman explains on “Pitchfork Economics,” is calling out destructive and lazy ideas when they come from your own political side. “What you can try to do is loosen the grip of zombie ideas on people who are in some position of influence with at least moderately progressive values,” he said. 

While many of the zombie ideas in Krugman’s book and on the podcast are deliberately shared by trickle-downers looking to pass harmful policies, they tend to infect even the most well-meaning progressives. That’s the true menace of a zombie infection: A little momentum can take a bad idea a very long way. When we hear progressive politicians announce that we don’t have the money to support big, bold stimulus policies, it’s incumbent on us to call them out, to identify their zombie idea for what it is, and explain why it’s wrong.

It’s easy for bad, lazy zombie ideas to become instantiated into law — particularly when lawmakers are working quickly to address an unfolding economic crisis. It’s everyone’s job to provide oversight, to make sure that trickle-down policies don’t become law, and to work to pass stimulus policies which are immediate, impactful, and inclusive without dilution or partisan sabotage.

Krugman has devoted his life to the hunting and slaying of zombie ideas, from George W. Bush’s ill-fated attempts to privatize Social Security; to the long, arduous fight against Tea Party Republicans obsessing over the national debt when it suited their political ends; to the Trump Administration’s current struggle to turn the coronavirus pandemic into yet another huge payday for the wealthiest Americans. It’s a never-ending fight. But now, when so many Americans require massive government intervention to save their homes, their livelihoods, and their futures, we have a unique opportunity to transform the economic conversation and put some zombies back into their graves for at least a generation.

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