The Drift Toward Oligarchy

In 2014, the economist and The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman appeared on Moyers and Company to discuss income inequality in America. Thomas Picketty’s landmark study, Capital in the Twenty First Century, had just been published, and it revealed not only the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, but also an increasing amount of inherited wealth at the top. This aligned with Krugman’s own research, in which he reviewed the Forbes 400 and found it was “no longer a list of self-made men.” Moyers asked Krugman about the implications. 

“When you have a few people who are so wealthy that they can effectively buy the political system, the political system is going to tend to serve their interests,” Krugman replied. “The drift toward oligarchy is very visible through casual observation and in the numbers.”  

This drift toward oligarchy is the central premise of Arguing with Zombies, Krugman’s latest collection of his Times columns. His explanation of how and why we’re headed in that direction makes for a stirring and eye-opening read. 

Krugman builds his argument on two main tenets: that “movement conservatism” has completely corrupted the Republican Party; and that the media’s tendency toward false equivalency has precluded an honest discussion about just how radical the modern GOP has become.

The book includes columns from 2004 onward, but focuses on recent pieces. Arranged by chapter, the columns cover a wide range of topics, including the Great Recession, austerity, trade wars, climate change, the media, macroeconomic theory, and, of course, Trump. But discussions of inequality and tax policy form a central theme, as Krugman cites these issues to demonstrate how the GOP has been co-opted by its wealthy donors.

One big question I had before tackling Arguing with Zombies was whether I needed an Econ 101 refresher course to comprehend it all. Krugman, a Nobel laureate, prides himself on “writing in English,” but he does include some ultra-wonky pieces here. On the whole, however, the book is easily digestible and occasionally even fun (yes, fun; there are plenty of jokes here). Even his discussion of Keynesian versus Neoclassical economics is somehow compelling. 

A “zombie” is a failed policy that should have been killed by the evidence but continues to live on.

Krugman begins his book by asserting that he never planned to be a pundit. Dreaming of a life as a teacher/researcher, he imagined that if he played any role in public policy, it would be as a dispassionate technocrat. 

“But in 21st Century America,” he laments, “everything is political.” He was drawn to politics, he says, as he realized that “accepting what the evidence says about an economic question” was “seen as a partisan act” and “simply recognizing reality became seen as a liberal position.” 

Increasingly, Krugman became aware that conservatives, including once-respected economists, stuck to positions no matter how starkly the evidence contradicted them. As the years passed, he saw this resistance to facts grow more pronounced, finally culminating in today’s conservative political style—characterized by bad-faith arguments, misinformation, and repeating falsehoods ad nauseam. Many of these falsehoods are what Krugman calls “zombies.”

A “zombie” is a failed policy that should have been killed by the evidence but continues to live on. “The Ultimate Zombie,” as he titles one chapter, is “trickle-down” economics. This is the conservative idea that cutting taxes on the rich benefits everyone through increased investment, higher wages, and more jobs. Although the evidence has repeatedly proved “trickle down” a failure, it remains the hallmark Republican economic policy. 

Krugman often cites trickle-down to show that the modern GOP is no longer fact-based, and to demonstrate how it disregards—or lies about—evidence that doesn’t bolster its existing positions. 

The question is, why? Here, Krugman turns to “movement conservatism.”

The modern Republican Party, Krugman argues, is just one part of a unified movement that includes the Murdoch media empire and a “dizzying array” of think tanks and advocacy groups controlled by the same group of billionaires. Through this network, conservative policy is established and talking points are set. 

While this may sound conspiracy theory-ish, one need only look at GOP conformity on issues and talking points to see this network’s impact. The talking points are often absurdly obvious, from climate change denial (“I’m not a scientist”) to taxes (the estate tax is now the “death tax”) to political designations (the Democratic Party is now the “Democrat Party”).

Indeed, two years ago, Sinclair Broadcasting, a conservative television network which operates almost 200 stations across the country, had all of its anchors parrot, word for word, the same Trump-friendly script bashing “false news.”


One of the great tragedies of “movement conservatism” that Krugman does not adequately address is phony populism. While the movement’s economic policy hugely favors the wealthy, it attracts working class voters by wielding populist rhetoric and by stirring racial resentment. 

But no matter how many times a conservative politician says he’ll help “Main Street,” once in office, he typically pursues an elitist economic agenda that includes cutting taxes on the wealthy, attacking unions, and eating away at the social safety net—all while running up the deficit that he had railed against when a Democrat was in office. 

These policies don’t help “Main Street,” of course. They entrench wealth, make upward mobility more difficult, and push America ever closer to oligarchy. So why, one might ask, isn’t more being done to change these policies? Repeated polls, after all, find Americans want the rich to pay higher taxes. A poll from last January, in fact, found that most Americans even support a top marginal rate of 70 percent.

Trump’s tax cuts actually favored the wealthy to such a degree that in 2018, for the first time in American history, billionaires paid a lower tax rate than the working class. 

GOP propaganda is one reason (“socialism!” “class warfare!”). But Krugman also lays blame on the media and self-styled “centrists” for failing to name the radicalization of the right wing. He presents numerous examples of “bothsideism:” the assertion that both parties have radicalized when in fact it’s really just a problem on the right. 

He also lambasts those he calls Very Serious People: members of the Beltway elite who repeat bad conventional wisdom because it sounds erudite. Examples of this include “the government should be run like a business,” “Social Security is almost bankrupt,” and, of course, “tax cuts spur growth.”

“Democrats, being human, sometimes have biased views and engage in motivated reasoning,” Krugman writes. “But they haven’t abandoned the whole notion of objective facts and nonpolitical goodness; Republicans have.”

Which brings us to Trump, who Krugman argues is “not an aberration.” He is not a maverick bravely standing up to elitists. He is, in the end, just another tool of the billionaire class; the logical endpoint the Republican Party has been approaching for forty years. Trump’s tax cuts actually favored the wealthy to such a degree that in 2018, for the first time in American history, billionaires paid a lower tax rate than the working class. 

Moreover, Trump is by far the most dishonest President in American history, continuing a GOP trend that started with Nixon. His blindness to evidence has even led him to call global warming a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. While George W. Bush had held the crown for most mendacious—the “compassionate conservative” who attempted to privatize social security and launched a war under false pretenses—Trump has already told more than 15,000 falsehoods, according to the Washington Post. Trump’s degradation of political speech and his conspiracy-driven attacks on our civil institutions threaten lasting harm to our democracy.

In one of Krugman’s most inspired chapters, he compares Trumpism to climate denial. Both movements, he observes, are characterized by an absolute disregard for evidence, an attraction to conspiracy theories, and are kept alive by an unceasing repetition of falsehoods—all in the service of helping the rich get richer.

“We can now see climate denial as part of a broader moral rot,” Krugman writes.

“You could say that Trumpism is just the application of the depravity of climate denial to every aspect of politics. And there’s no end to the depravity in sight.”

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