Conservatism


Those protesters all around the big cities aren’t going away. Whether they’re right or wrong, something motivated them to be there. A lot of conservative commentators are passing the protestors off as youths who don’t feel like paying back college loans or people that took out mortgages more ambitious than their finances allowed. I think this is very inaccurate and really, really dodges the issue at hand.

People have a right to be angry at banks. Unemployment is just hovering a bit above 9% due to a balance sheet recession that many bankers were made rich from. While the economy tanked, many got big bonuses (supposedly performance-based). Any reader of this blog knows that I am a market enthusiast, but it’s hard to explain bankers getting their compensation as any sort of productive incentivizing device. Furthermore, these banks got huge bailouts from the government.

However, the protestors are wrong in confusing corporatism for capitalism. It was government who gave the banks bailout money. It was the government supporting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that kept artificially low interest rates and spurred a disastrous bubble in the name of ‘fairness.’ The popular radical argument on both sides these days is that the Fed was the cause of all of this (though I personally think these arguments are overstated).

So what are those in the “#OccupyWallStreet” faction hoping to accomplish? It’s unclear. Right-wingers are taking this to mean a “protest for the sake of protesting.” If a group doesn’t have clear aims in terms of policy, they’re just complaining (or so people are saying). I think this is totally unfair. The Occupiers may be foolish in trying to be overly un-organized (because then they’d be just like THE MAN!) but there’s nothing wrong with coming together because of general disdain for current conditions. A lot of the Arab Spring protests were driven my general dissatisfaction with the status quo. I’m fairly certain that the millions of protestors had incredibly varied reasons for protesting. What they shared in common was that they wanted change.

The Occupiers are just like this. The current system in America has gotten high unemployment, high debt, and frankly, rewarded a lot of people who made the problem worse. So the Occupiers are protesting the status quo.

Where I do think they are foolish is directing all of their anger at Wall Street. Wall Street created wealth and is responsible for a lot of the prosperity in America (if “Wall Street” can really even qualify as a collective noun here). The government had a lot to do with the bad stuff too.

Some opponents are saying the Occupiers are complaining about all this nonsense, yet most of them voted for Obama. Yes, Obama. The same guy who bailed out the auto companies and spent foolish money all around the place. But this doesn’t weaken the justifiability of their angst, I believe. The Tea Party was very much the same. And here’s what I’ve been waiting to get to.

The Tea Party and the Occupiers are very, very similar. Both groups were protesting the status quo with vaguely defined policy goals. The Tea Partiers wanted less government spending (from where? military? social security? medicare? they were never too clear). A lot of them voted for George Bush, the guy who did those huge wars and presided over huge deficit spending. The Occupiers want better wealth distribution and less corporatism. A lot of them voted for Obama. So yes, there’s so inconsistencies and some may say hypocrisies on both sides. But I don’t think that means they’re wrong.

I think both the Tea Party and the Occupiers are right. In fact, I’ll be as bold to say that I agree with both of the groups. Wall Street has been getting special treatment for a long time, mostly because of corporatist practices. The government has been spending beyond its means. A lot of people like to dismiss the tea party because it’s easy to characterize them as religious whackos who think any sort of government is socialism. Indeed, some people in the movement are like that. But some people in the Occupy group are just as idiotic – smelly, lazy, hippies who just like many Tea Partiers have no actual knowledge or insight for what they’re fighting for/against.

But evaluating a group based on their most absurd characters is misguided. It’s the message that we should be attacking or defending. Most importantly, we need to figure out what the policy result of these protests will be.In the case of the Tea Party, politicians were elected who mostly favored borrow-and-spend government instead of tax-and-spend government. For the Occupiers: Will corporations be so villified that business will shrink significantly in America? Or will it mean that corporations stop getting bail outs and a true free market is realized? I hope the latter.

One of the uglier moments during last night’s Republican primary debate came when, in response to Ron Paul’s claim that the government should not be in the business of providing health insurance, Wolf Blitzer asked, “are you saying that society should just let [a sick person without insurance] die?” and some knuckle-dragging spectators enthusiastically whooped, “Yeah!” Ron Paul responded, more reasonably, that private charities should support people who fall through the cracks.

Jacob Weisberg, writing in Slate, responds,

This was indeed an appalling, mob-mentality moment—more medieval, even, than the crowd applauding Gov. Rick Perry for winning the death-penalty derby at the previous debate. What it clarified, however, was less the cruelty of the Tea Party crowd than the absurdity of the health-care positions of all of the Republican candidates. The GOP contenders relentlessly attack “Obamacare” as “socialized medicine.” But they won’t speak up for either of the other two choices available to them: the arguably more socialized system we have hitherto lived with or the Blitzer option of letting the uninsured die in the streets.

What about private charity?

“[W]e no longer have an extensive system of charity hospitals. If emergency rooms treat the uninsured, whether because of a legal requirement or because they are good Samaritans, they will be passing the bulk of the cost along to the rest of us—and we’re back to our current system of socializing the costs of treatments for the uninsured.”

I just can’t help but feel frustrated when “the government shouldn’t provide x” is conflated with “society shouldn’t provide x”. Idiot spectators notwithstanding, saying that society should not provide health care to people who can’t afford it and will die without it is plainly absurd and immoral. Saying that the government shouldn’t provide health care because health care is better provided by institutions other than the government is an empirical claim.

Now, although Weisberg conflates these two positions throughout the article (for example, that our two health care policy options are the  “socialized system we have hitherto lived with or the Blitzer option of letting the uninsured die in the streets”), he clearly understands this, because he spends a couple of sentences arguing that the empirical claim is false. I’m skeptical myself that private charities would necessarily be better health care providers of last resort than the government, and clearly we couldn’t just take the government out of health care overnight without some pretty disastrous humanitarian consequences. But there is some evidence that private mutual aid societies did a decent job of providing basic necessities in the past. At the least, Weisberg and many other progressives are giving short shrift to what is actually a fascinating and difficult empirical question.

Empirical issues aside, I think that it’s usually harmful to the cause of constructive political discourse when empirical disagreements are misconcieved as disagreements over principle. Two people who disagree about whether health care would be better without government involvement at least have a chance of having a productive discussion. Dialogue isn’t really possible, on the other hand, when an entire ideology is understood to be arguing that society should let uninsured sick people rot in their gurneys.

I think Nick Kristoff is one of the better NY Times columnists, but today he penned a clunker:

With Tea Party conservatives and many Republicans balking at raising the debt ceiling, let me offer them an example of a nation that lives up to their ideals.

It has among the lowest tax burdens of any major country: fewer than 2 percent of the people pay any taxes. Government is limited, so that burdensome regulations never kill jobs.

This society embraces traditional religious values and a conservative sensibility. Nobody minds school prayer, same-sex marriage isn’t imaginable, and criminals are never coddled.

The budget priority is a strong military, the nation’s most respected institution. When generals decide on a policy for, say, Afghanistan, politicians defer to them. Citizens are deeply patriotic, and nobody burns flags.

So what is this Republican Eden, this Utopia? Why, it’sPakistan.

The conclusion:

[I]n this season’s political debates, let’s remember that we’re arguing not only over debt ceilings and budgets, but about larger questions of our vision for our country. Do we really aspire to take a step in the direction of a low-tax laissez-faire Eden …like Pakistan?

For what it’s worth, Pakistan ranks 83rd on the most recent Ease of Doing Business Index from the World Bank (the US is number five). Pakistan’s government has trouble maintaining order, is plagued by widespread corruption and cronyism, and, despite what Kristoff claims, has a complex web of burdensome, growth-impeding regulations (which partially explains its Ease of Doing Business ranking). This, more or less, is why Pakistan is such an unattractive place to live relative to the United States, not because of the mere fact that it has low taxes and conservative sensibilities. Pakistan is not the logical conclusion of conservative economic ideals.

However, I think that there’s a more interesting point to be made here. Populist conservatives, but also many conservative intellectuals as well, often frame the central ideological battle in the United States as being Big Government versus Small Government. But Kristoff is right that Pakistan’s government is “small” in a certain sense: it does have a low tax burden. The government has direct control over a much smaller portion of money in the economy than does the US government, or the Danish government.

But a government being small in this sense doesn’t mean that it doesn’t impose egregious restrictions on social freedoms or growth- and innovation-stifling economic regulations. The size of the government’s budget as a percentage of the overall economy doesn’t tell you anything about how free citizens living under the government are. What really matters is that the government is limited in the sense that it respects rights and doesn’t crowd out efficient private sector economic activity. The language of “small government” is simplistic in a way that is perhaps attractive from a populist perspective, but it obscures the real issue and the result is confused and misguided thinking by normally smart guys like Nick Kristoff.

I’ve been hearing a lot of libertarians and conservatives raising alarm bells about inflation recently. According to Ron Paul, a prominent critic of Bernanke’s job as chair of the Fed, the coming currency crisis “won’t be as bad as Zimbabwe… but perhaps something like 1979 or 1980.” Conservative rising star Paul Ryan told Bernanke recently that “Our currency should provide a reliable store of value—it should be guided by the rule of law, not the rule of men… there is nothing more insidious that a country can do to its citizens than debase its currency.”

There is evidence that Paul and Ryan’s concerns about inflation are misplaced.  Here’s a graph from David Leonhardt:

Kind of seems like there are other priorities that should take precedence over fighting inflation right now, no?

Ron Paul has nutty views on a lot of things, including monetary policy, and is a fairly fringe political figure. But Paul Ryan is a mainstream republican (he even gave the State of the Union rebuttal), which indicates how this inflation anxiety has permeated the thinking of right-leaning American political figures.

Of course, inflation is bad, and it should be a priority to keep it low. In the early 1980s, as you can see from the graph above, inflation was very high, and the Reagan/Volker tight money policy was exactly the right response. But the economic context is very different now, and instead of recognizing that, politicians like Ryan continue to keep pushing the same crude version of Reaganomics. In the absence of evidence indicating future increases in inflation, this dogmatic obsession with inflation just impedes economic recovery.

Amanda Carey is a friend of mine (she was a Koch summer fellow in 2009 with Will and me, and we interned at Reason together), she’s an awesome person, and it’s really cool that she’s managed to get a full time, paying job as a journalist (not an easy thing to do!).  But she kind of goes off the deep end in this short Daily Caller piece about Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity “get moving” program, which encourages people to walk more, is to blame for the recent spike in pedestrian deaths:

Pedestrian deaths increased sharply during the first half of 2010, according to the GHSA.

In an interview with the Washington Examiner, Harsha said that while there are not yet definitive answers as to why there were more pedestrian deaths in 2010 than 2009, Obama’s “get moving” movement could be at least partially to blame.

“There’s an emphasis these days to getting fit, and I think people doing that are more exposed to risk [of getting hit by a vehicle],” Harsha told the Examiner. “Obviously, further study is needed.”

Nice job by Harsha making a preposterous claim supported by no evidence whatsoever and then backing away from it by citing the need for “further study”.  Even by Daily Caller standards this is absurd.

Chris Preble touches on some of the points that were in the op-ed that I posted last week.  He also offers some analysis of the political upshot of the Right’s (two blocks away from) Ground Zero Mosque foolery.

This whole fiasco reflects the frustrating and destructive tendency of the modern conservative movement to make everything into a culture war (here’s Brink Lindsey’s takedown of American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks’s attempt to frame disagreements about what the size of the welfare state should be as a struggle between freedom loving, salt-of-the-earth middle Americans and state worshipping, Euro-wannabe coastal elites).

It’s maddeningly difficult to have productive public deliberation on an important issue when one entire side of the political spectrum interprets everything as evidence that their American identity is being threatened.  Of course, strong commitments to private property rights and religious tolerance are part of traditional American identity.  But for a large group of populist-nationalist conservatives, these aren’t general rules to be applied dispassionately regardless of the specific circumstance, but instead are values that get lip service but can be outweighed by concern about imagined threats to the ill-defined ideal that is ‘our way of life’.

The Democrats’ monolithic rule over the executive and legislative branches of government is in need of a good mid-term shakeup, but with this sort of nonsense going on, it’s hard to root for more Republican control over anything.