My favorite economist Dean Baker alerted me to a conservative talking point that I didn’t know about. People go around claiming that Paul Krugman called for Alan Greenspan to create a housing bubble back in 2002. And now Krugman claims that Greenspan was wrong to allow the housing bubble to continue. What a hypocrite! Ah yes, there is nothing like a good conservative talking point, especially when it is based on a comment made sarcastically.
Back in 2002, Krugman did indeed write, “To fight this recession the Fed needs more than a snapback; it needs soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment. And to do that, as Paul McCulley of Pimco put it, Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble.” As Baker points out, his sarcasm was not only clear in the article itself, two weeks later, “Krugman wrote a column explicitly warning about the dangers of a housing bubble.”
About two years ago, I wrote, Satire is Dead. Well, I should have said that sarcasm is dead too. But at this point, it appears that not only is sarcasm dead, it will be used against you in the conservative media echo chamber. Actually, I’m afraid it is broader than that. Internet culture very much sorts for this kind of (non) thinking. I’m sure that 99% of those who quote the line have never bothered to read the article. Conservatives just know that Krugman is wrong the way that liberals just know Bill O’Reilly is wrong. There is a difference, of course. Krugman really does know what he’s talking about, although that certainly doesn’t make him always right.
This gets to my fundamental beef with politics. On one side of the debate you have Noble Prize winning economist Paul Krugman. He’s actually quite careful and more conservative than I am. But the main thing is that he’s a serious thinker. On the other side, you have Bill O’Reilly. He’s a professional ranter—an entertainer. Is that an unfair comparison? Do you think maybe I should compare Krugman to Greg Mankiw? Well, for one thing, I don’t think the conservatives look much better with his “Sunshine Keynesianism,” where Keynes was basically right about stimulus, except when a Democrat is in the White House. On the other side, Rachel Maddow makes O’Reilly look horrible too. Regardless, when it comes to visceral hatred that each side has, Krugman and O’Reilly sum it up.
But purely on a policy level, think of Avik Roy and Austin Frakt. Roy is a conservative healthcare policy wonk and Frakt is his liberal counterpart. Except: not really. First, Roy is an apologist not a wonk. He doesn’t use numbers to figure things out, he abuses numbers to make his partisan points. I don’t even especially know that Frakt is a liberal. It’s just that everyone assumes he is because “facts have a well know liberal bias.” He just seems to want a system that works and doesn’t really have a strong opinion about how to get there.
Last night, I caught a little bit of the Bill O’Reilly segment where he had on a preacher who talked about how Obamacare was softening us all up for the End Times. O’Reilly said something like, “Liberals want big government.” No! Conservatives supposedly want small government as an end in itself. (They don’t actually want small government, of course.) But liberals don’t really care about the size of government. We don’t believe in big government as an end. We believe that the society should take care of certain things and this tends to create a relatively large government.
But I suspect if conservatives created their perfect government and liberals created theirs, the liberal government would actually be smaller. Because what conservatives want from government costs a lot of money. It doesn’t cost much to feed the poor, but it costs a lot to feed the military industrial complex. Most conservatives are still angry that we don’t have the kind of army we had during World War II when it was 10% of GDP. That doubling of the defense budget would more than make up for the liberal programs they would get rid of. So just there, they would have an even larger government than the one we now have. Liberals could pay for their increased spending with military cuts. And would.
So not only do I have to listen to conservatives say they want a small government when they obviously do not. I also have to listen to them say that I want a big government. The actual Democratic Party is as invisible to conservatives as Barack Obama was in Clint Eastwood’s RNC presentation. But the thing is, I think that I can see the Republican movement for more or less what it is. Being sort of economically minded, I even agree with some things that used to be part of their ideology. But maybe I am just as blind as they are. I don’t think that Avik Roy, for example, thinks he is lying with numbers. Just like that guy who was so certain that the End Times had come that he spent all of his money on a billboard, I’m sure that Roy has convinced himself that the free market is always right and it is absolutely the best way forward on healthcare. Could my commitment to egalitarianism and equality have made me just as blind?
Obviously, I don’t think so. But consider this. Ideologically, like most liberals, I’m not wedded to particular solutions. As I talk about a lot around here, we liberals are a very pragmatic people. What’s more, why is it that Avik Roy seems to have to adjust his thinking about healthcare policy every six months and I don’t? It isn’t because he’s thinking about it all the time and coming up with new things. He’s just covering his flank. Since his policy preference is ideologically driven, he has to adjust every time someone says, “You know, that isn’t quite the way that the Singapore system works.” What’s more, liberals don’t move the goal posts the way conservatives do. We have their conservative healthcare reform. But now it is socialized medicine! After all, it is pretty much what Avik Roy wanted BO (Before Obama). Why did it take him four years to get to the point of admitting that maybe Obamacare could be okay if we make some changes to it?
My answer: conservatives and liberals have a different outlook on life. And a big part of the conservative outlook on life is intellectual rigidity. I undoubtedly am wrong about many things but I do consider new information and change my opinions. Conservatives, in general, do not. And someone like Avik Roy uses his very capable intellect, not in fixing mistaken beliefs but in preserving them.