Krugman’s blog, 12/8/16

There was one post yesterday, “The Economics of Regional Self-Esteem:”

Donald Trump won the electoral college at least in part by promising to bring coal jobs back to Appalachia and manufacturing jobs back to the Rust Belt. Neither promise can be honored – for the most part we’re talking about jobs lost, not to unfair foreign competition, but to technological change. But a funny thing happens when people like me try to point that out: we get enraged responses from economists who feel an affinity for the working people of the afflicted regions – responses that assume that trying to do the numbers must reflect contempt for regional cultures, or something.

So the other day I mused about the dilemmas of dealing with regional backlash, and noted that even lavishly funded attempts to shore up declining regions don’t seem to work very well. Here’s what I said:

[T]he track record of regional support policies in other countries, which spend far more on such things than we are likely to, is pretty poor. For example, massive aid to the former East Germany hasn’t prevented a large decline in population, much bigger than the population decline in Appalachia over the same period.

In response, I get a long, furious piece from Lyman Stone denouncing me:

Krugman and those who believe him want to believe that the fears of Appalachians (or Rust Belters, or what have you) are overblown, that life has not been so bad for them as it seems.

Wait; did I say that? I don’t think so. In fact, if I thought everything was OK in Appalachia, I wouldn’t have used it as a comparator for Eastern Germany. The point was precisely that Appalachia is a byword for regional decline, which makes it striking that East Germany, which has received the kind of aid Appalachia can only dream of, is suffering an even faster demographic decline.

And for what it’s worth, I’ve spent decades writing and talking about the problems of rising inequality and stagnant wages, so characterizing me as someone telling workers that their problems exist only in their heads is pretty strange.

Now, if we want to have a discussion of regional policies – an argument to the effect that my pessimism is unwarranted – fine. As someone who is generally a supporter of government activism, I’d actually like to be convinced that a judicious program of subsidies, relocating government departments, whatever, really can sustain communities whose traditional industry has eroded.

But what we get instead is an immediate attack on motives. Apparently even suggesting that the decline in some kinds of traditional employment can’t be reversed, and that sustaining regional economies can be hard, is a demonstration of elitist contempt for regular people. You might think that people like me are potential allies for those who want to help working families, wherever they are. But if we can’t say anything without facing the hair-trigger tempers of regional advocates, without being accused of insulting their culture, that pretty much forecloses useful discussion.

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