The widely ballyhooed debate showdown between Paul Krugman and Joe Scarborough finally aired last night on Charlie Rose. The debate was the culmination of the battle that began when Scarborough published an article entitled: “Paul Krugman vs. the world.” Krugman knew that purely in terms of showmanship, he’d been outworked by his rival, and he warned as much in a blog post yesterday. Of course, this isn’t that surprising, given that televised tit-for-tat is the medium Scarborough operates in daily.
On the substance, though, what the debate really showed is that the sensible middle ground in the debate over our fiscal and economic problems is not hard to locate. It’s the position held — with variations on the margins — by Obama, Krugman, and Scarborough alike. Seriously: All three men actually are in rough agreement on the basics here. Scarborough needs to obscure Krugman’s actual positions in order to create an aura of sensible centrism around himself and an aura of marginalization around Krugman.
Scarborough attacked Krugman for his claim that any reductions in spending are bad for the economy right now. But elsewhere, Scarborough actually agreed that we don’t have a serious immediate term spending problem, and said he supports immediate stimulus spending on infrastructure and education.
“I don’t think over the next three, four, five years it’s going to cause a serious problem,” Scarborough said when asked about short term spending, adding that we need to start planning to curb entitlement spending over time. Asked directly by Krugman if he would support an additional $200 billion per year in spending on infrastructure and education, Scarborough said: “Oh, yeah.”
Any difference here is overshadowed by agreement: Both think we should invest in the economy in the short term, while simultaneously believing that long term debt is a problem (in their exchange, Scarborough misleadingly implied that Krugman doesn’t believe this).
Scarborough also actually agreed with Krugman that the most serious problem facing the country right now is long term unemployment. “Now, the urgent problem is the highest long term unemployment since the 1930s,” Krugman said. To which Scarborough replied, “right,” before adding that long term debt is also a problem — again, a position that Krugman (and Obama) agree with.
The only perceptible difference Scarborough identified with Krugman was over when specifically we need to begin acting on long term debt — and even here the differences weren’t all that clear. Scarborough seems to want to begin acting in five years (and wants to plan for that now); Krugman perhaps sees the problem in somewhat less urgent terms. All these “gotchas,” in which Scarborough threw old Krugman quotes about debt in his face, only showed what we already know — that Krugman recognizes that debt is a long term problem.
All of which is to say that the sensible position in this debate is not hard to find: Our most pressing problem is unemployment; we should spend now to boost the economy and create jobs; and couple this with long term planning on deficits and debt. The notion that Krugman’s position is marginal is mostly trumped up out of nothing, as you can clearly see once you strip away the theatrics. It’s only marginal when compared to the focal point of the debate in Congress, which unfortunately is far more focused on the deficit than on jobs, mostly because we’re still living with the consequences of the misguided deficit hysteria of 2011, which Republicans fomented during a moment of political strength in the wake of the 2010 elections, and which Democrats enabled. Even Joe Scarborough’s position is to the left of the focal point of the debate in Congress, since Congress isn’t talking about stimulus spending at all. That may not make for good TV, but it’s true nonetheless.