Weekend Reading: John Quiggin: Hackery or heresy: "Henry’s recent post on the irrelevance of conservative intellectuals reminded me of this one from 2013, which concluded...
...Conservative reform of the Republican party is a project that has already failed. The only question is whether the remaining participants will choose hackery or heresy.
Overwhelmingly, the choice has been hackery (or, a little more honorably, silence).
The case for hackery is put most clearly by Henry Olsen. Starting from the evident fact that most Republican voters are white nationalists who don’t care about small government, Olsen considers the options available to small government conservatives. He rapidly dismisses the ideas of challenging Trump or forming a third party, and concludes that the only option is to capitulate. Strikingly, the option of withdrawing from party politics, and arguing for small government positions as an independent critic isn’t even considered.
As Paul Krugman has observed recently, conservative economists (at least, those who comment publicly). are a striking example for the choice of hackery over heresy. Krugman, along with Brad DeLong, has been particularly critical of a group of economists (Robert Barro, Michael Boskin, John Cogan, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Glenn Hubbard, Lawrence Lindsey, Harvey Rosen, George Shultz and John. Taylor) who’ve made dishonest arguments in favor of corporate tax cuts.
Recently, an overlapping group (Boskin, John Cochrane, Cogan, Shultz and Taylor) have taken the hackery a significant step further.
At first sight, it’s yet another piece of doom-mongering about the impending debt crisis. What’s striking is the extent to which the piece has been adjusted to fit the Republican party’s new found lack of concern about deficits, while supporting the party’s continued attack on “entitlements”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they make excuses for the corporate tax cut they’ve been pushing all along, even though it’s now clearly unfunded.
Rather more startling is the claim that the US government to cut entitlements in order to “restore our depleted national defense budget”. These alleged deficit warriors don’t mention the big increase in defense spending that was just passed by the Congress, with overwhelming support from Republicans. Nor do they mention one of the notable outcomes of this largesse, namely that the Pentagon has abandoned any attempt to pursue the program of closing military bases it regards as unnecessary. That’s one of many examples of waste in the defense budget.
There was a time when free-market economists like Milton Friedman saw defense spending as the exemplar of the rent-seeking “iron triangle” (interest groups, bureaucrats and politicians) ensuring that public expenditure is always wasteful. I Don’t suppose that Boskin and the rest have looked at the evidence and concluded that Friedman was wrong. Rather they’ve correctly calculated that heresy on defense spending would see them cast into the outer darkness of irrelevance.
The problem is that there’s no room for heresy of any kind. Moreover, as the fate of Republicans foolish enough to oppose Trump in 2016 has shown, heresy can be retrospective. Boskin and the rest would have been better off using their 750 words to say “Trump is right*”, 250 times over.
The last decade or so has been pretty devastating for the idea of economics as a science or profession. As I argued in my book Zombie Economics, ideas that have been utterly refuted by the evidence of the Global Financial Crisis shamble on in an undead form. The hackery I’ve described here isn’t being produced by marginal figures like Larry Kudlow but by some of the leading lights of the “discipline”. In the end, all their expertise turns out to be nothing more than a fig-leaf for service to financial capitalism. As with evangelicals, libertarians and the Republican base as a whole, the last few years have shown that the most lurid leftwing caricatures of free-market economists have turned out to be understatements...."
John Quiggin (2013): The last three on the island: "There’s been a spate of recent articles looking at a group of political writers referred to as 'conservative reformers'...
...The term ‘reformers’ is misleading since it tends to imply a shift in the direction of liberalism, which is not what the members of this group are hoping to do. More importantly, it implies the existence of a body of orthodox conservative thought against which the reformers are reacting. In reality, US conservatism has returned to the state identified by Trilling ’a series of irritable mental gestures'. The ‘reformer’ label covers all those self-identified conservatives who would like to present some sort of intellectually coherent policy platform. These days, that’s a surprisingly small set–the typical list includes Douthat, Salam, Ponnuru, Barro, Brooks, Levin, and Dreher.
There used to be many more people in this group. But one by one, they’ve either abandoned ship and moved to the left (Lind, Sullivan, Frum, Bartlett, Ornstein) or descended into outright hackery, an absolute requirement for employment at any of the main rightwing thinktanks (and it’s hard to recall, but there was a time when people like Glenn Reynolds and the Volokhs seemed like serious intellectuals).
Looking at the remaining group, it’s pretty clear that Barro and Dreher are well on the road to apostasy, while Brooks and Levin are now reliable hacks, if they weren’t always. So, that leaves three reformers (Douthat, Salam and Ponnuru) still on the island.
The reactions of the remaining three reveal the pressure they are under. Salam more or less openly shills for the party line from time to time, as in his (now-deleted) attack on the DREAM Act. It seems pretty clear that he will stick with the team, come what may.
Ponnuru responded with the plaintive observation that, to accept the positions being urged on him from the left, he would have to concede that the majority of US conservatives were crazy. But, if craziness is assessed on the basis of stated views, this is evidently true, as Ponnuru surely knows.
Pluralities of US conservatives believe, or at least claim to believe, that:
- The President of the US is a socialist Muslim, born in Kenya
- The earth is less than 10 000 years old
- Mainstream science is a communist plot
- Armed revolution will likely be necessary in the near future
Ponnuru hopes that he can engage in serious policy discussion with conservatives while treating such delusional statements as mere shibboleths–harmless assertions of tribal identity
Most interesting is this piece by Ross Douthat, setting out what he sees as the reform conservative policy program. As he observes, it’s not designed to appeal to (US) liberals, and its full of arguments that have been demolished repeatedly by the left.
OTOH, as Douthat admits, there’s no sign that the Republican party has any interest in a program of this kind. More importantly there’s nothing there that would seriously upset a moderate conservative like Obama, or either of the Clintons. It’s well to the left of the revealed preferences of someone like Rahm Emanuel.
Conservative reform of the Republican party is a project that has already failed. The only question is whether the remaining participants will choose hackery or heresy.