There was one post on 2/18 and three on 2/19. The 2/18 post was “Wonkery Has A Well-Known Liberal Bias:”
Matthew Yglesias says that the Sanders campaign won’t care about the warnings from top Democratic economists that its numbers are nonsense, and that it doesn’t need to care. That may or may not be true — my guess is that making growth claims that are even more outlandish than those of the Republicans, and having made it impossible for progressive policy experts to offer a full-throated defense of your position, would do more harm in a general election than he imagines.
But leave the political gaming on one side for a moment: I just want to say how much of a shame it will be if a good piece of the Democratic party’s left wing decides that progressive wonks are the enemy. And yes, I have a vested interest in this business — not because I’m a Hillary shill, not because I’m a corporate stooge, but because wonkdom is a key part of who I am and why I think I can play any positive role.
So, about wonks and progressive values: the reason the joke about facts having a liberal bias rings so true is that this really has become a defining difference between the two sides of our political chasm. On the right, allegiance to voodoo has become obligatory — leading Republican economists fell right in line when Jeb! announced his 4-percent solution. On the left, real policy research and political positions have marched hand in hand. The push for higher minimum wages, to take a not at all arbitrary example, has been mightily helped by the research literature showing that higher minimums don’t cost jobs, a line of research pioneered by Alan Krueger, one of the signatories of that open letter.
And in general, progressivism in America has valued intellectual integrity and openness to evidence, while conservatism increasingly rejects all of that — which is why scientists overwhelmingly lean Democratic.
But what if the political left starts behaving like the political right, making support for implausible claims a litmus test of loyalty, declaring that anyone raising hard questions is ipso facto corrupt? That would become very uncomfortable, to say the least.
It’s also, almost surely, a losing game in the end. If it comes down to gut feelings that reject hard thinking, the right is always going to have an advantage.
So I hope that the Sanders campaign doesn’t just brush off this criticism as the “establishment” doing its corrupt thing, and realizes that it really is in danger of losing not just an election but an important part of what it should be standing for.
The first post on 2/19 was “Lack of Power Corrupts:”
Personally, I’m sick of the Sanders/Clinton thing; I didn’t want towrite about it for today. But one of my mottos for column-writing has been “if it feels bad, do it.” If I would really like to avoid a topic because it makes life uncomfortable and will predictably lead to another wave of angry mail, that’s probably a good indication that it’s important. Still, I hope that I won’t have to do more columns like that.
But there is one other aspect of this discussion I do think should be aired, involving incentives and motives.
What you get a lot from Bernie supporters are accusations of bad faith. (The response to the critique of the CEA chairs seems to be 1. The campaign bears no responsibility for projections it eagerly endorsed 2. Anyway, the projections are right 3. They’re shilling for Hillary!) In general, feeling the Bern all too often seems to mean accusing anyone who doesn’t of corruption. So how should we think about such things?
First of all, yes, corruption — including corruption of alleged experts — really does happen. It tends to be a much bigger issue on the right, simply because there’s so much more money and so many fewer scruples. I’ve been saying for a while that there are three kinds of economists: liberal professional economists, conservative professional economists, and professional conservative economists. The fourth box is mostly empty, for lack of funding. Still, it would be naive to claim that keeping access to prospects for corporate consulting gigs and suchlike has no effect on policy arguments.
But it’s also naive, and destructive, to presume that that’s all there is. You don’t have to be a corporate hireling or a Hillary shill to be taken aback when a Democratic campaign endorses economic projections that are even more outlandish than the Republican fantasies you were ridiculing just the other day. And you really, really don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of assessing all substantive arguments solely on their political convenience, and assuming that nobody who disagrees with you might honestly, you know, disagree with you. That’s what right-wing apparatchiks do, and you don’t want to emulate them.
And it’s also important, I’d argue, to understand that to the extent that personal ambition distorts analysis — which it surely does for everyone, because none of us are saints — that’s not a phenomenon unique to well-connected insiders. For sure, big money and/or the prospect of big influence are much more powerful corrupting forces than what I’m about to describe. But they’re not the only sources of impurity.
Imagine an economist who has some following but is, for whatever reason, not in the nomenklatura of policy wonks who typically get called upon to advise officials, give speeches at financial conferences, whatever. That might be because said economist holds views that are considered too heterodox; it might be because he is too honest about the corruption of the mighty; or it might be because insider circles don’t consider him especially insightful or even technically competent — which in turn could be a huge injustice, or possibly kind of true. Whatever the reasons, he is or feels himself to be on the outside looking in
Now imagine that our outsider encounters a situation in which another outsider, this time in the sphere of politics, has some chance of staging an upset victory. It should be obvious that our outsider economist has every personal incentive to throw his lot in with the political outsider — even if the politician’s chances of winning are relatively small, even if his campaign could bring about disaster because it’s not ready for the challenges of the larger world. The point is that if the outsider politician should happen to pull it off, it will give the outsider economist a seat at the table, which he won’t have otherwise. The option value is the thing.
It also follows that the outsider has every incentive to vilify and blacken the reputation of more insider types who aren’t on the challenger’s bandwagon, even if this means alienating progressives whose support you really could use later on — hey, you don’t want to see your champion turn to established figures if and when he makes it to office.
My point is not that outsiders are more corrupt than insiders, nor that everyone’s actions right now should be seen as reflecting nothing but self-interest. That’s exactly what I’m arguing against! What I’m saying instead is that nobody can be presumed pure simply because he is currently without much power or access to power — for that very lack of power can have its own distorting effect.
And for ourselves, what each of us should do — all the time — is ask not just what we believe but why.
The second post on 2/19 was “Living With Monetary Impotence:”
Slides for a talk next week. (A .pdf file)
The last post on 2/19 was “Plausibility:”