Un-Mooring of Conservative Economics

Reinhart and RogoffJonathan Bernstein is curious about what Kevin Drum calls the “Hack Gap.” In an article yesterday, he looked at Obamacare. Every time an insurance company announces a rate hike, conservative economists come out of the woodwork to proclaim that it is all the fault of Obamacare and just wait until next year when everyone will die of syphilis. But when a new study comes out that finds that healthcare cost increases are slowing by more than would be predicted by the recession, there are not any liberal economists making the rounds proclaiming that Obamacare is our savior.

This behavior is not limited to Obamacare. On just about any economic policy issue, this is what we see. Bernstein doesn’t really offer any answers to his question, but there were a few good comments. (There were also two conservative commenters who think that Krugman is a hack because he isn’t nice. And they posted again and again, because as far as I can tell, conservatives on the internet don’t have jobs.) They all revolved around the idea of policing. When a conservative economist comes along with an outlandish idea (for example, Reinhart & Rogoff), the conservative media universe completely accepts it; there is no push back. But if the same bad science came from a liberal economist, there would be major push back.

As an anonymous poster put it:

But a wannabe [liberal hack economist] who wrote an article crediting this inflation slowdown to the ACA would be contradicted by Ezra Klein and his nerd minions within minutes; then dismissed by Yglesias, lampooned by Chait, and finally, somewhat bafflingly, called a disgusting evil bloated maggot by Greenwald.

I think there is something deeper going on here, however. The truth is that there is no comparable divide in foreign policy or even social policy. There are a lot of supposed expert hacks when it comes to this. (But I will admit there is a lot more hackery on the conservative side.) Why is it we just don’t see this in economics? I think it is that the left lost its economic moorings in the 1970s and 1980s. The political success of economic conservatism caused them to focus on data. This in turn caused liberal economics to move substantially to the right. Given that conservative economics was moored to an ideology, it naturally moved to the right as well. And this ended with conservative economists turning into apologists for the ideology.

I know this sounds harsh, but I am quite certain about it. The Reinhart & Rogoff episode was telling. Normally, academics appreciate outside attention, but they are very leery of non-professionals overstating their work. In the case of Rogoff, it was just the opposite; he went out of his way to push an un-nuanced understanding of their work. That isn’t the behavior of a serious scientist; it is the behavior of an ideological hack. And Kenneth Rogoff isn’t some minor player; he is (or was) a highly respected economist.

This all comes back to my often stated problem with American economic policy: it’s come off the rails. Now the “liberal” side is basically what the science of economics would dictate. The conservative side is an ideological travesty. That’s not the way it is supposed to work. The middle is supposed to be what reality is. Then the two sides are supposed to fight over changes to that. For example, a liberal might argue that slightly higher taxes is not best for the economy, but it will limit suffering. A conservative might argue that slightly lower taxes will cause wages to go up. But this isn’t what we see. Conservative economics is no longer moored to reality.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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