“Voodoo Economics”

Paul Krugman, self-proclaimed “wonk” and liberal economist,  is today denouncing what he loves, absolutely loves, to call “voodoo economics.” What is “voodoo economics,” you ask?

“Wonk wonk wonk wonk wonk wonk wonk. Wonk wonk wonk”

It’s what it isn’t. Today in the Times Krugman  sides with a group of Democratic Party economists who proclaim, without irony, that they speak for the party of “responsible arithmetic.” This celebration of rationality and arithmetic as neutral, apolitical values is a classic liberal ideological move, an ideology that denies its own existence. Only naughty people have interests and ideologies, as Raymond Williams summed up this usage; sensible people just have, well, arithmetic. (As if thieves and plunderers can’t add up their loot correctly, as if subprime mortgages and meth labs aren’t “innovation.”)

Krugman makes a more cautious version of the same argument in his column criticizing Bernie Sanders’ economic program as “voodoo economics.” Whatever one thinks of Sanders (I’m a pessimistic supporter), I think Matt Yglesias is correct to point out that the campaign is a challenge to this Clintonite pretense of non-ideological centrism, openly embracing politics as a field of conflict, rather than consensus. In such a scenario, you have to stand for something other than “arithmetic.” For this reason it’s not so much that Krugman is wrong on the numbers (I am bad at arithmetic and therefore regard it as basically a bourgeois deviation) as missing the point.

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From the New York Times, Sept. 28, 1941: “voodoo” and HUAC’s ideological “witch hunt” 

Back to the “voodoo economics” thing: the phrase was coined by George Bush, the elder, who used it during the 1980 Republican primary, when he was running against Ronald Reagan. From there, the phrase has enjoyed a long career as a liberal accusation against Reagan and Reagan-inspired conservatives, thanks in no small part to Krugman. Michael Parenti defined it this way in a chapter called, appropriately enough, “Voodoo Economics: The Third-Worldization of America“: “voodoo economics is supply-side economics, a trickle-down ideology that goes something like this: If left to its own devices, the free market will provide prosperity for all who are willing to work. Liberated from the irksome and artificial constraints of government regulations and heavy taxes, private investment will grow, bringing greater productivity, more jobs and income for everyone, and less government.”

George H.W. Bush’s first use of the term, his denial, and exposure

It’s not clear to me what exactly Bush meant by the term, except as a memorable phrase in an intra-party feud. One can presume, however, that for a Republican Party well on its way to becoming the all-white party of reaction it now is, disparaging your opponent by affiliation with Haitian or southern African American culture can’t hurt.

Krugman uses it in more or less Parenti’s way, to impugn Republican tax-cut plans by comparing them to “black magic.” Putting aside its racist implications, he’s kind of obsessed with “voodoo” and you could say he should stop using it purely as a matter of style. For Krugman, “voodoo” is a  term of art in an ideological dispute. Its appeal relies on vodou’s enduring reputation in the United States as an irrational superstition that is not only primitive but sinister. As Michel-Rolph Trouillout and Sidney Mintz wrote, vodou’s history is “shrouded not only in myth, but also in a million printed pages written by non-practitioners, both infatuated and violently hostile.”

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From J.W. Buel’s The Mysteries and Miseries of America’s Great Cities

One violently hostile observer was J.W. Buel, who wrote in the 1888 book The Mysteries and Miseries of America’s Great Cities of what he called “voodoo” practices in New Orleans.

All Superstition is a shackle about the reason of every race that can never be broken ; it maintains itself not alone among barbarous people, but also clings about the abode of those most enlightened. As our remote ancestors saw God in every lightning’s flash, and heard his angry voice in each thunder peal, so do those yet lingering in the valley of superstition look to the operation of occult forces and supernatural agencies. This feeling exists among all classes in degrees, but the negroes are particularly impressionable, for the reason that cause and effect are not understood by them as corollaries of nature…

He goes on, treating this superstitious tendency among Black people in the south as a force that rears its head even in the middle of church:

Christianity, undoubtedly, has a strong hold on this people of pre-eminently adverse circumstances, but overwhelming religious excitement instantly vanishes in the presence of a black cat.…should a black cat enter the church at this time, every religious feeling would be dissipated with such astonishing suddenness as to produce a panic ; they would regard the circumstance with the same feeling of terror as though the devil had leaped into the room blowing fire from his nostrils and brandishing a three-handled, four-pronged broiling spit with which to impale every negro in the congregation.

Although vodou is no longer as widely associated  with the U.S. South or Louisiana, it is still invoked in ways not much different from Buel’s–as a cultural explanation for poverty and underdevelopment, a superstition left behind by modern people like “us.” David Brooks wrote of Haiti’s “progress-resistant cultural influence” after the 2010 Haitian earthquake. He cited Lawrence Harrison, a right-wing economist who explained Haiti’s poverty as cultural, not economic in origin, in a post-earthquake Wall Street Journal article called “Haiti and the Voodoo Curse.”

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From J.W. Buel, Mysteries and Miseries of America’s Great Cities


Krugman, to be clear, is using “voodoo” as a metaphor, not commenting on the religious in a directly racist way, like Brooks and Harrison. But there’s a basic irony in each, in which ostensibly empirically-minded, un-ideological defenders of development, arithmetic, and other good things invoke a primitive “curse” to criticize someone else’s silly superstitions. Naughty people use “voodoo”; smart ones use arithmetic.


The Sanders Phenomenon and Socialism in the United States

This is the English version of an article I wrote in the January-February issue of Nueva Sociedad in Argentina on the Sanders election, the socialist tradition in American presidential campaigns, and the question of running (and serving) as a socialist in a neoliberal party. It was written in November, when the Sanders campaign had less momentum than it now appears to have, after the candidate’s win in New Hampshire. I tried to balance cautious enthusiasm for the campaign with what I still think is the certainty that the Democrats would ever let him win.

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Keywords for the Age of Austerity 25 3/4: “Residences”

If you read the print edition of the New York Times and open the weekend magazine, you are immediately greeted with the guillotine-bait that is the real-estate ads in the opening pages. Sandwiched between the table of contents and the Patek Phillippe ad, these advertisements pitch “residences” to the highest end of the Manhattan (and occasionally Brooklyn) real-estate market. One of “46 generous residences of 1,700 to 7,000 square feet” in Tribeca’s  70 Vestry can be yours, from $5 million and up. Or what about “Messana O’Rorke’s refreshingly contemporary designs” in the 1-4 bedroom “residences” of 200 east 62nd street?


On the one hand, the ads market these apartments in a way no reasonable person could ever approach housing: as a collector’s item, like an expensive artwork or high-end designer gown. There is the emphasis on the designers, sometimes their architects, as if these ads are addressed to true cognoscenti and appreciators of postmodernism. On the other hand, their easily most grating quality is the uniformity with which are marketed as “residences,” which is ostensibly where someone lives, not an object s/he collects.


Why this emphasis on “residence”? Part of it is a sense of exclusivity, of course–you plebeians live in apartments, maybe houses, on friend’s couches, etc. Those who appreciate fine architecture live in a different category of housing altogether. The other reason may be compensatory–these are called “residences” because they are almost certainly not actually intended to be their buyers’ main residence. These are sold, instead, to international billionaires as part of an investment portfolio–it’s likely that no one ever gets to appreciate that hideous statue, above. Or they are sold to shell companies laundering the assets of anonymous, corrupt, or criminal buyers. In this sense, the marketing is almost honest–these are “residences” are meant to be collected, not “shelter” to be lived in, as 60,000 people go homeless in New York. 



ISIS Walks Into a Bar

Before the November ISIS massacre in Paris, I found an ISIS joke on reddit–a one-liner, which like much American ISIS humor was really a meta-joke about the inappropriateness of ISIS jokes. It began, “What’s the best part of an ISIS joke?”

The Paris attacks briefly elevated the inappropriateness of the genre, but this reticence didn’t last long. The right-wingers occupying the Malheur refuge in Oregon were renamed #VanillaISIS, and public discussions of ISIS became more ironic, as they have long been ever since the group became well known in the United States in 2014. Since then, ISIS has been the target of a level of ironic derision seemingly out of step with its brutal reputation. So: why is ISIS funny, and what is the best part of an ISIS joke, anyway?

One of the first classics of the genre was the Saturday Night Live skit about a suburban Dad dropping his daughter off at the airport for her very first trip to ISIS training camp. The real master, though, is Clickhole, in articles like like “Horrible: ISIS Fished Up All the Catfish Out of the Old Creek” and “ISIS Has Lost Sight Of What Our Founding Fathers Intended.” On Twitter, ISIS is the 21st-century update of your Dad’s “Cuba” or “Russia” in “love it or leave it” insults: “If u like the blue jays and live in America,” tweeted a patriotic Royals fan during the American League playoffs last October, “go join Isis.”

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