“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.


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