Krugman’s blog, 7/9/17

There was one post yesterday, “When Was The Golden Age Of Conservative Intellectuals?”:

A few days late, but a few thoughts on Bret Stephens’s columnabout the intellectual decline of conservatism. As you might guess, I agree completely with his take on the modern degeneracy of the movement. But Stephens harks back to a golden age of deep thought; and my question is, when was this age, exactly?

William F. Buckley is a problematic icon. Surely one needs to mention his spirited defense of white supremacy in the South, and National Review’s weird infatuation with Generalissimo Francisco Franco. I’d also note that while God and Man at Yale castigated my alma mater for its downgrading of religion, he seemed equally dismayed by the fact that it was teaching Keynesian economics — you know, the stuff that has been so thoroughly vindicated these past few years.

But leave that aside. When did conservatives have good ideas, and when did they stop? Let’s talk about four areas I know pretty well: macroeconomics, environment, health care, and inequality.

In macroeconomics, there’s no question that Milton Friedman and, initially, Robert Lucas performed a useful service by challenging the case for policy activism, especially fiscal activism. Circa 1976 the track record of Chicago macroeconomics was impressive indeed.

But then it all fell apart. Lucas-type models failed the test of eventsin the 1980s, while updated Keynesianism held up. Rather than admitting that they had overreached, however, conservative macroeconomists just dug themselves deeper into the rabbit hole — effectively turning their back on Friedman-style monetarism as well as Keynesianism. Vigorous monetary expansion to fight a deep slump, originally a conservative idea, became anathema on the right even as it was welcomed on the left. What was once a good conservative idea was incorporated by liberals while rejected by the right.

On environment, a similar turn took place a bit later. The use of markets and price incentives to fight pollution was, initially, a conservative idea condemned by some on the left. But liberals eventually took it on board — while cap-and-trade became a dirty word on the right. Crude slogans –Government bad! — plus subservience to corporate interests trumped analysis.

On health care, ObamaRomneycare — relying on mandates, regulation, and subsidies rather than a single-payer system — was, famously, a conservative idea developed at the Heritage Foundation. But liberals took it on board — pretty quickly, actually — while conservatives began denouncing their own side’s clever idea as evil incarnate.

Finally, on inequality, conservative intellectuals were terrible from the very beginning. I wrote a long piece in 1992 detailing their evasions and distortions, many of which remain unchanged to this day. It wasn’t just that they were wrong; as I wrote at the time,

the combination of mendacity and sheer incompetence displayed by the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Treasury Department, and a number of supposed economic experts demonstrates something else: the extent of the moral and intellectual decline of American conservatism.

Remember, this was a quarter-century ago.

So when was the golden age of conservative intellectuals? Actually, there never was one. Certainly, the supposed era in which only conservatives had all the interesting ideas while liberals rehashed tired dogma never happened in any field I know well. That said, there was a period when conservatives contributed some useful stuff to the discourse. But that era ended a long, long time ago.




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