Krugman’s blog 10/28/16

On Friday Prof. Krugman had one post:  “Conservative Intellectuals: Follow the Money:”

Both Ross Douthat and David Brooks have now weighed in on the state of conservative intellectuals; both deserve credit for taking a critical look at their team.

But — of course there’s a but — I’d argue that they and others on the right still have huge blind spots. In fact, these blind spots are so huge as to make the critiques all but useless as a basis for reform. For if you ignore the true, deep roots of the conservative intellectual implosion, you’re never going to make a real start on reconstruction.

What are these blind spots? First, belief in a golden age that never existed. Second, a simply weird refusal to acknowledge the huge role played by money and monetary incentives promoting bad ideas.

On the first point: We’re supposed to think back nostalgically to the era when serious conservative intellectuals like Irving Kristol tried to understand the world, rather than treating everything as a political exercise in which ideas were just there to help their team win.

But it was never like that. Don’t take my word for it; take the word of Irving Kristol himself, in his book “Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea.” Kristol explained his embrace of supply-side economics in the 1970s: “I was not certain of its economic merits but quickly saw its political possibilities.” This justified a “cavalier attitude toward the budget deficit and other monetary or financial problems”, because “political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government.”

In short, never mind whether it’s right, as long as it’s politically useful. When David complains that “conservative opinion-meisters began to value politics over everything else,” he’s describing something that happened well before Reagan.

But shouldn’t there have been some reality checks along the way, with politically convenient ideas falling out of favor because they didn’t work in practice? No — because being wrong in the right way has always been a financially secure activity. I see this very clearly in economics, where there are three kinds of economists: liberal professional economists, conservative professional economists, and professional conservative economist — the fourth box is more or less empty, because billionaires don’t lavishly support hacks on the left.

Again, how can you even begin to talk about conservative intellectuals without discussing the founding of Heritage in 1973, or the roughly contemporaneous weaponizing of AEI as a political entity? Heritage in particular is flamboyantly incompetent on economics — remember the claim that the Ryan plan would reduce unemployment to 2.8 percent, or the chief economist’s complete botch on state job growth? But no matter: the foundation has plenty of money, because it advocates huge tax cuts for the rich, and the demand for that never goes away.

Remember, too, that climate denial is essentially an industry, funded by interest groups with a stake in promoting bad science. And this means a market for conservative “intellectuals” who are basically anti-science.

The point is that the intellectual side of movement conservatism has been a corrupt enterprise for around four decades. In its early years it could draw on right-wing intellectuals who had some prior reputation outside political work, but it has relied on home-grown hacks for a long time. I don’t see any reason to believe that such an enterprise is about to reform itself: if just being wrong and losing an election were enough, this would have happened in the 1990s.



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