Con Intellectuals Only Do Apologetics

John HoodI don’t have a problem with people disagreeing with me. There are times that I’m wrong. Here is a really embarrassing example: Chained-CPI Madness. If you look at that article, you will notice that right at the top I note the error that I made. The point is that I may have a political ax to grind (I do have a political ax to grind!) but it is based upon how I see the world. I would never intentionally manipulate data. I would never, for example, say that raising the minimum wage absolutely won’t cost jobs. But it is de rigueur for conservatives to claim that raising the minimum wage absolutely will cost jobs. The data are mixed, but they tend to side with me. If the data tended against me, I might still argue for raising the minimum wage; but I wouldn’t just quote the studies that agreed with me and pretend that the others didn’t exist.

This is my primary problem with the conservative movement. Look, I understand. If you pull a conservative and a liberal off the street, they will both spout a lot of nonsense. But when it comes to liberal intellectuals, a great deal of care is taken to get the facts right and to not deceive. That just isn’t true on the right. Except for Bruce Bartlett and Josh Barro (both of whom are far from perfect), I can’t name any major conservative thinkers who seem to care about getting the facts right. (And yes, I am especially thinking about Avik Roy.) Paul Krugman made note of this just today. Danny Vinik wrote an article where he pointed out that conservative wonks have abandoned Paul Ryan. But he noted that, “Ryan has long had passionate supporters among conservative intellectuals.” Krugman responded that it was always obvious that Ryan was a charlatan, noting, “And what does that say about the supposed wonks who passionately defended him?”

What it says is that the conservative intellectual class are themselves a bunch of ideologues who don’t care about having a real argument about policies. In other words: there is no major conservative intellectual movement; it is all apologetics. There is no greater example of this than John Hood’s recent The Wall Street Journal article, North Carolina Got it Right on Unemployment Benefits.[1] In the article, he argues that North Carolina was right to cut unemployment benefits because it really did encourage workers to go out and find jobs:

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of payroll jobs in North Carolina rose by 1.5% in the second half of 2013, compared with a 0.8% rise for the nation as a whole. Total unemployment in the state dropped by 17%, compared with the national average drop of 12%. The state’s official unemployment rate fell to 6.9% in December 2013 from 8.3% in June, while the nationwide rate fell by eight-tenths of a point to 6.7%.

That’s a whole lot of numbers, even for a math geek like me. Luckily we have the national treasure who is Dean Baker to cut through all these lying statistics. First, North Carolina grew by more than the nation, but this has been true for the last four decades. The southern states are seeing more growth. Compared to the rest of that southern region, North Carolina actually grew less. So much for lie number one.

Second, total unemployment in the state dropped a lot in the state. Why? Because people who claimed to be looking for jobs before (because they had to in order to get unemployment benefits) simply stopped looking for work. Thus: the unemployment rate went down, but actual unemployment did not go down. As Baker put it, “While the size of the labor force in the rest of the [southeast] region grew by 1.0 percent over the last year, the labor market shrank by 0.2 percent in North Carolina.” Baker concluded:

In short, if we look at the data instead of playing games with it, the story is pretty clear. There is zero evidence that cutting unemployment benefits in North Carolina or the rest of the country did anything to spur job growth. There is much evidence that it led those who saw their benefits to end to give up looking for work and to drop out of the labor force.

There are two possibilities for what is going on with John Hood. One is that he knows he is lying and he just sees himself as a good foot soldier in the ideological fight. But I think it is more likely that he is just a true believer and so regardless of what happened in North Carolina, he was going to hunt around and look for any bit of data that backed up what he knew to be true.

This is my problem with the conservative movement. What Hood did is pretty much what every conservative “thinker” does. Facts are simply things to be used to justify what they already know to be true. Facts are never used alter policy, much less to create it. And this is why our country is on the verge of political crisis. We have two political parties. One is the usual kind of mediocre mixed blessing. The other is crazy. And we have a mainstream media that insists that the two parties are mirror images of each other. During the most recent debt ceiling negotiations, the idea that it would be no big deal got a lot of coverage in the mainstream press. When facts are just an ideological plaything for half the political leaders of a nation, catastrophe is a constant threat.

[1] John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation. This is something I really hate. Conservatives take people like John Locke, who were very liberal (and even radical) in their own time, and grab onto them. Yes, the conservatives have finally caught up to the liberal thinking of three and a half centuries ago. You can imagine in the year 2525, conservatives will start the Martin Luther King Foundation. I hate that conservatives do this: co-opt great liberal thinkers of the past. Note that no conservatives want to name their foundations after Thomas Paine because after two and a quarter centuries, they are still far behind his thinking.

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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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