Thursday, July 03, 2014

Taking One for the Team: Embarrassing Moments in Ideological Solidarity

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Last Tuesday, Professor Dorf noted an odd and gratuitous passage in a recent opinion by Justice Scalia, who wrote that the Environmental Protection Agency "recently set standards for emissions of 'greenhouse gases' (substances it believes contribute to 'global climate change') from new motor vehicles."  Professor Dorf then imagined a Scalia opinion about the powers of the federal Zombie Violence Protection Agency: "The ZVPA recently set standards for the containment of 'zombies' (animate corpses that it believes constitute an 'undead menace' to the living)."

The point was that Scalia had, through a few deliberately chosen words and some carefully placed scare quotes, aligned himself with the climate change deniers within his conservative movement.  It was a truly surprising move, because nothing that Scalia has written about environmental law requires him to believe that climate change is a massive hoax, as nutcases like Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe loudly proclaim.  Even so, it is true that climate change denial has gone mainstream in Scalia's political party, as Florida Senator Marco Rubio's recent panderings demonstrate.  Maybe Scalia is just getting with the program.

Scalia, however, is not running for office.  Given that he (and Justice Thomas) are in the strange position of being "the reasonable not-at-all crazy moderates among the people who think the Second Amendment protects an individual right," it never occurred to me that Scalia would actually buy into the anti-science nonsense that has run amok in Republican circles.  He does not always say crazy things, but here he was, mocking the idea of "greenhouse gases" contributing to "global climate change."

This, however, is merely one example of people on the right who adopt untenable and uninformed positions on issues far outside of their area of expertise.  A bit over a year ago, I wrote here on Dorf on Law about Chief Justice Roberts' ignorant comments about federal budgeting, in which he not only adopted the standard deficits-are-always-bad mantra, but then managed to become completely confused about how government spending is determined by law.

The broader issue is, therefore, the notion of "affinity," which essentially means "being a good team player."  Scalia and Roberts hang out with a certain group of people, and they hear the same things being said over and over again.  Notwithstanding Scalia's image of himself as the smartest man on Earth, no one can know everything, so one starts to adopt the positions of the people with whom one spends time.  (Mitt Romney's fateful comments about "the 47%," spoken to a closed room of rich donors, are another example of this.)

In my Verdict column today, I confront another "zombie," i.e., the claim that "tax cuts pay for themselves by encouraging people to work hard and thus pay more taxes."  When it comes to dead ideas, the Laffer Curve is "all dead."  (Fans of "The Princess Bride," unite!)  Yet it simply will not go away, and it is still frequently invoked in current policy debates.  Moreover, as I discuss in the column, Laffer-esque reasoning has fueled state-level tax cut drives that are doing serious damage.

My central point in the column is to offer a relatively innocent explanation for why some people might still buy into the Laffer nonsense, notwithstanding its all-deadness.  I am generally in favor of cynical explanations, and Paul Krugman's view on this gets it right: Republicans are committed to tax cuts, and big money is keeping the zombie moving forward, eating brains.  Even though that explains a lot, I wanted to try to understand what a non-cynical person could be thinking when he or she endorses the idea that tax cuts increase tax revenues.

That innocent explanation boils down to two elements: (1) Wishful thinking (because, after all, wouldn't it be great if it were true?!), and (2) Intellectual preening (because the Laffer curve, by virtue of offering a counter-intuitive take on tax cuts, allows a person to pretend to be uniquely "in the know").  I admit that the innocent explanations are not exactly flattering, but if a person does not want to be embarrassed, then one should not take embarrassing positions on subjects that one knows nothing about.

As my discussion at the beginning of this post suggests, I think that the extra element here is something that we might call "affinity bone-headedness."  Imagine that you know a lot about, say, corporate finance.  The people who surround you tell you that "the science on evolution turns out to be wrong."  That sounds weird and unlikely, but how would you know, given that you last took a science class as an undergraduate?  Your friends and associates who claim to know something tell you that the world is flat, or that the moon landing was a hoax, or that Barack Obama sent coded signals to his minions to have the IRS go after Tea Party groups.  Who are you to claim to know better?

One might object that what we "know" about economic issues is far less settled than what we know about climate science or evolutionary biology.  And we certainly know more about the shape of the earth or the reality of space travel than we do about the effects of tax cuts.  In addition, much of my writing (e.g., here) is based on debunking and ridiculing the silly claims that economics is a science.  But that does not mean that we know nothing at all, or that some things have not been very well established.  As I note in my column, the debunking of Laffer-esque claims has even been bipartisan, which, as I note below, means that it has overcome a great deal of pressure for Republican economists to take one for the team.

Although I cannot find the link, I am sure that I have previously noted on this blog that, when I began to write my law review article on "capital budgeting," I had no plans to include any discussion of the use of deficits as a short-term response to economic downturns.  That was such a settled matter that it seemed to be a waste of time even to mention it in the article.  Yet, as 2009 unfolded, I found myself astonished to be witnessing the affinity bone-headedness of people who suddenly decided that, because Obama was in favor of stimulus in the face of the worst economic downturn in over seventy years, they were against it.  Much to my amazement, it became necessary to include in the article a section on short-term effects of fiscal policy.

Were it not for the factors that Krugman notes, believing in the magical powers of tax cut snake oil would not be a required blood oath to show one's affinity to the group.  After all, Republicans conveniently forget about deficits when they feel like it.  (Remember Dick Cheney's immortal line: "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter"?)

In other words, although the scientific consensus on climate change and evolution is more lopsided than the "economic science" consensus on the Laffer curve (and, for that matter, deficit spending), that has a lot less to do with the relative hardness of the science than one might imagine.  There are a lot of economists who are simply willing to say embarrassing things on behalf of Team R.  There is a sub-group that is willing to continue to push Laffer's nonsense, grabbing onto misleading examples in the same way that Fox News anchors excitedly announce that a cold weather snap proves global warming is wrong.

And the people who do not really know anything, but who like the team for other reasons, say that they believe, too.  Why not?  It sounds good, it makes one seem clever and contrarian on an obscure issue like taxes, and it makes one's friends happy.  When reality is optional, anything goes.