Why is American politics so dysfunctional? Regardless of the deepest causes of our afflictions, the immediate cause is ideological extremism: powerful factions determined to impose false visions of the world, against the evidence.
Notice that I have said factions, plural. There is no doubt that the most disturbing and dangerous extremists are those on the right. But there is another faction whose obsessions and refusal to face reality have caused enough damage.
But I do not speak of the left. Radical leftists are practically non-existent in American politics; Does anyone know any prominent figure who wants to place us to the left of, say, Denmark? No. I'm talking about fanatical centrists.
In recent days we have been offered the ridiculous but possibly destructive spectacle of Howard Schultz, the Starbucks billionaire, insisting that he is the president we need, despite his demonstrable political ignorance. Obviously Schultz thinks he knows many things that just are not like that. But their delusions of knowledge are not so special. For the most part, they follow the conventional centrist doctrine.
First, the obsession with public debt. This obsession may have made some sense in 2010, when some feared a Greek-style crisis, although even then I could have told them that these fears were out of place. And in fact, I said it.
In any case, however, 10 years have passed since Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson predicted a fiscal crisis in less than two years unless your advice to cut spending is ignored; But US debt spending remains at historic lows. These low borrowing costs mean that fears of a uncontrollable increase in debt they are unfounded; the conventional economists they tell us now that "the risks associated with high debt levels are small in relation to the danger of cutting deficits".
However, Schultz continues to affirm that the debt is our major problem. But true to the centrist form, his concerns about the deficit are strangely selective. Bowles and Simpson, in charge of proposing a solution to the deficits, listed as the first principle … reduce tax rates. No doubt, Schultz is very willing to cut Social Security, but he opposes any tax increase for the rich. It's funny how that works.
In general, centrists are frantically opposed to any proposal that would make life easier for ordinary Americans. Universal health coverage, says Schultz, would be "free health care for all, something the country can not afford."
And he's not the only one who says things like that. A few days ago, Michael Bloomberg declared that expanding Medicare to everyone, as Kamala Harris suggests, "it would lead to a very long bankruptcy"
However, the universal medical assistance of a private nature but financed by the public administration (what is called Medicare) has not broken Canada. In fact, except the United States, all advanced countries have some form of universal coverage, and they manage to sustain it.
The real problem with "Medicare for all" is not the costs: the taxes needed to pay them would almost certainly be lower than what Americans now pay in insurance premiums. The problem would be, rather, political; It would be difficult to persuade citizens to change private insurance for a public program. That is a real concern for Medicare advocates for all, but it is not at all what Schultz or Bloomberg are saying.
Finally, the hallmark of fanatical centrism is the determination to see the American left and right as equally extreme, regardless of what each proposes in fact.
Therefore, in Obama's time, centrists called for political leaders to tackle debt problems with an approach that combined spending cuts and revenue increases, offering a market-based health plan that invested in infrastructure, without reaching to never recognize that there was a great figure who proposed exactly that: President Barack Obama.
And now that the Democrats are embarking on a more progressive, though by no means radical, turn, centrist rhetoric has become directly hysterical. Medicare and Medicaid already cover more than a third of residents in the United States and pay more bills than private insurance.
But Medicare for all, says Schultz, "he is not American" Elizabeth Warren has proposed impose taxes on the rich that directly follow the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt; Bloomberg says that they would turn us into Venezuela.
Where does the fanaticism of the centrists come from? Good part of the explanation, I think, is in pure and hard vanity.
Both experts and plutocrats like to believe themselves superior beings, located above the political din. They want to think that they rise above the extremism of the left and the right. But the reality of American politics is a asymmetric polarization: right-wing extremism is a powerful political force, while left-wing extremism is not. What can a brave aspiring centrist do?
The answer, too often, is to retire to a fantasy world, almost as hermetic as the right-wing, the Fox News bubble. In this fantastic world, social democrats such as Harris or Warren are decried as followers of Hugo Chavez, so adopting what is in fact a conservative stance can be taken as a courageous defense of moderation. But that is not what is really happening, and others have no obligation to fall into the delusions centrists.
Paul Krugman He is Nobel Laureate in Economics. © The New York Times, 2018. Translation of News Clips. Translation of News Clips.