Via Mark Thoma who makes a very interesting contribution to the debate
Paul Krugman misrepresents the central focus of the left-right divide in national politics. He tells readers:
"Start with the proposition that there is a legitimate left-right divide in U.S. politics, built around a real issue: how extensive should be make our social safety net, and (hence) how much do we need to raise in taxes? This is ultimately a values issue, with no right answer."
This is not an accurate characterization of the left-right divide in U.S. politics since there is actually little difference between Republicans and Democrats or self-described conservatives and liberals in their support of the key components of the social safety net: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and even unemployment insurance. Polls consistently show that the overwhelming majority of people across the political spectrum strongly support keeping these programs at their current level or even expanding them.Note the bold. Krugman definitely didn't say it was the left-right divide. Krugman went on to discuss illegitimate left right divides, in which one side (hmm always the right) denies reality. I think that Baker is just noting that, as Krugman went on to argue, reality vs fantasy is the main divide in US politics.
There are, however, a lot of largely empirical questions whose answers need not, in principle, be associated with one’s position on this left-right divide but, in practice, are. A partial list:
I don't think that Krugman claimed that the legitimate debate divided the population roughly equally. He just said it was legitimate. The consistent advocates of small government may be few, but Krugman didn't say that they are numerous. Also, of course, the support for the huge domestic programs is not unanimous, so there is a debate, even if it is not the electorally crucial debate.
In fact, Baker tends to support the conclusion that Krugman reached. Krugman's main claim is that the political debate is, to a large extent, the reality based vs the fantasy based. Baker correctly notes that self identified conservatives and Republicans want to expand the really big programs, so when asked program by program they propose higher government spending. However self described moderates (and some liberals) claim to support lower government spending in the abstract. The real struggle is the vast majority of US adults Vs arithmetic.
I'd add to Krugman's partial list of 5 debates over simple matters of fact 6 more (and there are many more like this)
6. can you increase spending on Defence, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (which is about as popular as Medicare) and cut total government spending roughly in half (the median fraction described as "wasted")
7. Is the Federal Bureaucracy over 5% of total employment (it's about 1% not counting the DOD and the post office)
8 Is the foreign aid budget over 10% of the total federal budget (the median answer in a poll. it was over 20% in another -- it is about two thirds of one percent of the federal budget).
9. Can people on TANF an food stamps live a middle class lifestyle
10. Is the food stamp budget over 10% of the Federal budget (it is about 2.3%).
11. Does more of the Federal welfare budget go to bureaucrats or to poor people (OK that may be Michelle Bachman vs reality and the majority of her fellow citizens)
The difference between my 6 and Krugman's 5 is that elite conservatives know the answers to my 6 and admit that they do when debating with elite liberals. Also many moderates and liberals make totally incorrect guesses about the federal budget which are wrong in the same direction as conservatives' guesses.
The fact that the programs which many people want to cut are small does not affect the political debate or elections, because those people have convinced themselves that they are large.
I think Dean Baker responded to Krugman's throat clearing (aka his Obamanation) and neglected the point he wanted to get to, to be sure, only after inserting a "to be sure" to be sure he wouldn't be accused (again) of claiming no one can legitimately disagree with him.
update: This post cleaned up when I found Thoma had linked so someone might actually read it