Evidence Continues to Accumulate

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

I continue to try to find something rational in the actions and statements from the right in American politics today, without much success. I do not doubt that there are thoughtful people who view themselves as conservatives, but who view Bachmann and Perry (and Romney) as embarrassing. Nor do I doubt that there are conservatives who would have preferred a more sane approach to the debt limit debate over the summer.

Conservative intellectual David Frum, for example, has expressed serious unease with much of the craziness on the right (the demonization of "Obamacare," the controversy over light bulb rules, and on and on). Ben Stein (who has become highly problematic on other grounds) long took the view that the rich should pay higher taxes than they do. Bruce Bartlett ended a long career in Republican politics when he concluded that his friends had gone off the deep end.

The problem is that these are all people whose policy views (with which I often disagree, but which are at least grounded in reasonable discourse) have made them unwelcome in the conservative movement. Frum was fired from his jobs at top conservative outlets for saying that his colleagues were enhancing the role of "hysterical accusations and pseudo-information" in politics, and Bartlett pointed out that there is nowhere left for thoughtful conservatives to go. (See also Bartlett's interesting clarification and amplification of his points here.)

Therefore, when I make statements about "the right" (as I did in a recent Dorf on Law post), or "conservatives," I am nevertheless on the lookout for counter-examples that would disprove my negative descriptions (or at least make them less broadly true). Obviously, not every single conservative American thinks that evolution is a myth, or that global warming is a hoax, or that the government can do nothing right, or that cutting spending increases GDP. It is increasingly difficult, however, to find actual politicians and political leaders on the right who are not in lockstep on all of those absurd beliefs.

On the left, you can probably find a kid with nose rings who will say on camera that capitalists should all be shot, but you cannot find an actual U.S. political leader who would say such a thing. On the right, it is the leaders who seem to be egging each other on to see just how much crazier they can become. The excuses, moreover, are becoming ever less convincing. Excusing the entire Republican presidential field from reasoned discourse, on the basis that they must appeal to the base, merely relocates the insanity. At most, it says that the candidates might be lying about their extreme views.

When I look for reasoned discourse -- which, again, means arguments that I might find unconvincing, but which at least one could recognize as arguments, rather than statements of fervent belief -- outside of the presidential arena, it is still an arid land. Again, we are not talking about crazy guys on the street, or even backbenchers in Congress, but actual leaders who are saying the craziest things.

Take Paul Ryan, the chair of the House Budget Committee. Attacking President Obama's fiscal policies, Ryan recently said: "It pains me to say this, but it's become clear that the president has committed us to the current path: higher taxes, more dependency, more bureaucratic control, inaction on the drivers of our debt — just not even dealing with it — and painful austerity, the kind you see in Europe."

As several commentators have pointed out, this is insane -- even on its own terms. Ryan's complaint is that Obama will not do anything about deficits, by which he means (because Ryan is a no-tax guy) that Obama favors too much spending. This is why Ryan and his colleagues have signed onto the "expansionary austerity" bandwagon. Where is austerity being practiced most fiercely? Europe, of course, including the UK. And it is, indeed, quite painful. The economies there are stagnating or worse, with no sign at all of renewed business confidence. Which is why Obama -- and, even more aggressively, leading economic thinkers on the left like Krugman and Stiglitz -- correctly criticize calls for austerity. Ryan is so confused, and so blindly partisan, that he cannot even keep straight why he hates Obama so much.

Maybe I am looking in the wrong places. Right-wing media are out. Republican presidential candidates are out. The Republicans' acknowledged leader on budget policy is out. Maybe policy analysts? I recently participated in a symposium on deficit policy, along with several other legal scholars and a policy analyst from a regional Fed bank's research department. This is not a right-wing think-tank, but a nonpartisan research group that employs economists on the basis of their technical skills, rather than their political or policy views. If we are going to find reasoned discourse from a policy analyst who happens to hold conservative views, then surely this is the place. Right?

Much to my chagrin, however, this economist's presentation was little more than Fox News-style talking points with PowerPoint slides. I will limit myself to merely two of many examples of non-analysis that should have embarrassed anyone who claims to be engaged seriously with policy issues.

First, this economist showed various graphs depicting forecasts of possible paths of the federal deficit. (He never actually explained what was bad about deficits, merely presuming that any increase in the deficit was scary.) At one point, he said that the "scariest" thing of all was one graph that showed that the Obama administration had forecast deficits of 3% of GDP after the recession ended. The thing is, every fiscal policy analyst knows (or should know) that a 3% nominal deficit over time will lead to a decrease in overall indebtedness -- the total national debt divided by GDP -- because nominal GDP will grow by more than 3%, even under the most pessimistic assumptions.

Perhaps this is a bit too macro-nerdy. I do, however, expect budgetary analyses to accept uncontroversial concepts, such as the sustainability of long-term debt when the economy grows faster than the debt. This is remedial stuff. Still, this economist was willing to describe as "the scariest thing I've seen" what would actually be a sustainable budget path.

Even so, he soon offered up an even more ridiculous (and, fortunately, non-technical) assertion. Having echoed the standard right-wing line that the deficit happened because of too much spending, he then said that he did not understand why we spend so much money on education, given that "we get nothing" from that spending. I pointed out that this was patently absurd -- that we do, in fact, get something quite important for the money that we spend on education. (Illiteracy does not end by itself.) His response: "Well, then why is there still poverty?" I am not making this up. He was not arguing that the marginal amount of money spent on some particular anti-poverty program was ill spent. He argued that we get nothing from all of our spending on education, which is proven by the fact that there is still poverty. Yikes.

I know, I know. We cannot condemn the entirety of conservative policy analysis by this one incident. Fair enough. The problem is that the evidence continues to accumulate. It is becoming more and more difficult to find anything resembling reality-based analysis from conservative sources. (The stuff on the left is not uniformly great, but some of it is, and the rest is at least non-embarrassing. Not high praise, but everything is relative.)

As a final point, serious engagement with policy analysis also requires a commitment to responding to constructive criticism -- either by changing one's views, or by showing why a counter-argument does not require one to change one's views. Thus, even if it is reasonable to advocate a position at a certain point in time, one loses claims to seriousness by refusing to engage with meaningful attempts to refute that position. Reasonableness -- and, therefore, lack of seriousness -- is contextual.

The "expansionary austerity" claim clearly falls into that category. One could, as an initial supposition, plausibly believe (or at least allow for the possibility) that business confidence would be sufficiently enhanced by "fiscal responsibility" that business spending would more than make up for decreases in government spending. One could even initially credit academic analyses that claim to empirically confirm such a claim. When subsequent debate and analysis shows that the empirical support is simply not there, however, then continuing to believe in the Confidence Fairy is simply not a serious position. (See, for example, Krugman's brief slap-down of this idea here.)

Like many people, I find it difficult to believe that I am really seeing what I think I am seeing in U.S. politics. Can it really be that one side has, in both its words and actions, forsaken reasoned discourse? The evidence continues to accumulate.