Tag Archives: Matthew Continetti

So Your Choice Is Earl Grey Or Oolong…

Matthew Continetti at The Weekly Standard:

As a student in the exciting new field of Tea Party Studies, I’ve noticed that no one agrees on what the Tea Party actually is. Is the anti-Obama, anti-big government movement simply AstroTurf fabricated by Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks? Is it a bunch of Birthers, Birchers, conspiracists, and white power misfits? Is it a strictly economic phenomenon—the inevitable result of high and persistent unemployment? Or are the Tea Partiers nothing more than indulgent Boomers who combine 1960s social libertarianism with 1980s laissez-faire economics? Does the Tea Party draw on longstanding American constitutional, political, and economic traditions, eddies of thought that one can trace back to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson? Or is it of a more recent vintage: Are the Tea Partiers simply the same folks who once were called Reagan Democrats and Perotistas?

All of the above. There is no single “Tea Party.” The name is an umbrella that encompasses many different groups. Under this umbrella, you’ll find everyone from the woolly fringe to Ron Paul supporters, from Americans for Prosperity to religious conservatives, independents, and citizens who never have been active in politics before. The umbrella is gigantic. But there are discernible ribs that extend outward from its central post, and points of shared concern that support the overall structure.

[…]

The Tea Party, like the Roman god Janus, has two faces. One looks to the future. The other looks to the past. One wants to repair deformities in the American political structure and move on. The other is ready to scrap the whole thing and restore a lost Eden.

They are the faces, in other words, of the cable TV stars who are arguably the Tea Party’s two founders: Rick Santelli and Glenn Beck.

Return to Thursday, February 19, 2009. The economic picture was bleak. Employment was in free fall. The political system was in a state of emergency. Several months earlier, Congress had passed the TARP bailout. Less than a week before, Congress had passed the $800 billion stimulus bill by a narrow vote. The previous day, the new president had unveiled his “Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan.”

At 8:15 a.m., CNBC on-air editor Rick Santelli appeared on that network’s Squawk Box program from the floor of the Chicago mercantile exchange. Most of the traders hadn’t yet shown up to work. The floor was quiet. Santelli’s booming voice echoed throughout the room. He began to rant about the Obama housing plan, and as his rant gained force some of the traders joined in. By the time the segment was over, the Tea Party had been born.

The topic may have been economic policy, but Santelli really was making a moral argument. For him, the housing plan rewarded bad behavior. It changed the rules so people could remain in homes that they shouldn’t have been able to purchase in the first place. The responsible taxpayer’s earned wealth was being diverted to bail out the irresponsible. Government modification of interest rates was a band-aid that didn’t address the underlying problem. “You can go down to minus 2 percent [interest],” Santelli said. “They can’t afford the house.” This, in Santelli’s view, was the textbook definition of moral hazard.

America was on a path, Santelli said, that its Founders would not recognize. “If you read our Founding Fathers,” he said, “people like Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson, what we’re doing in this country now is making them roll over in their graves.” That was why he was planning a “Chicago Tea Party” for all “the capitalists out there” who were fed up with the situation. It turns out that there are a lot of capitalists out there. Santelli’s rant has been viewed on YouTube more than 1.2 million times.

[…]

Beck is not simply an entertainer. He and his audience love American history. They are hungry for new ways to interpret current events. And Beck is creating, in Amity Shlaes’s words, “a competing canon” of texts and authorities. This competing canon is not content to assault contemporary liberalism, but rather deconstructs the very foundations of the New Deal and the Progressive Era. Among the books Beck regularly cites on his programs are Shlaes’s Forgotten Man, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, Larry Schweickart and Michael Allen’s Patriot’s History of the United States, and Burt Folsom Jr.’s New Deal or Raw Deal? And books like Matthew Spalding’s We Still Hold These Truths, Seth Lipsky’s Citizen’s Constitution, and William J. Bennett and John Cribb’s American Patriot’s Almanac all belong on the list as well.

This intellectual journey has led Beck to some disturbing conclusions. Whereas Rick Santelli says the housing plan and the stimulus aren’t sensible, Beck says the Obama administration is the culmination of 100 years of unconstitutional governance. On the “We Surround Them” episode, Beck said, “The system has been perverted and it has to be restored.” In between bouts of weeping, he asked, “What happened to the country that loved the underdog and stood up for the little guy?” That country, he implied, is vanishing before our eyes. In Beck’s world, politics is less about issues than it is about “us” versus “them.” We may have them surrounded. But “we can’t trust anyone.”

The reason no one can be trusted, Beck says, is that the political system is compromised by the ideology of progressivism. At his keynote speech to the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference, Beck wrote the word “progressivism” on a chalkboard and said, “This is the disease. This is the disease in America.” He said again, “Progressivism is the cancer in America and it is eating our Constitution.”

When he refers to progressivism, Beck is not only highlighting the liberals’ latest name for liberalism. He is referring to the ideas of John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Walter Lippmann. According to Beck (and many others), these early 20th-century thinkers believed that there is no such thing as natural right. The Constitution, in their view, was not equipped to deal with the complexities of modern society. They argued that government should do more to protect free competition by busting trusts, and also promote equality and individual development through redistribution. The progressive tendency found political expression in Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech of 1910 and in Woodrow Wilson’s presidency from 1913-1921. It became the foundation for FDR’s New Deal.

Beck believes progressive ideas infect both parties and threaten to destroy America as it was originally conceived. “Progressivism,” he wrote in Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, “has less to do with the parties and more to do with individuals who seek to redefine, reshape, and rebuild America into a country where individual liberties and personal property mean nothing if they conflict with the plans and goals of the State.”

By attacking progressivism, Beck is taking on a big idea. He is forcing people to question their assumptions. He is introducing new thinkers to the reading public. But he is also engaging in a line of inquiry that—interesting though it may sometimes be—is tangential to the political realities of our day. And his intellectual inquiries have a purpose: to foster the perception that a benighted American public is being preyed upon by an internationalist conspiracy.

So, the difference between communism and progressivism, Beck argued at CPAC, is “revolution” or “evolution.” In other words, the difference between communism and progressivism is one of means not ends. “There is no difference,” he said, “except one requires a gun and the other does it slowly.”

“Socialism and fascism,” the author writes in Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, “have been on the rise for two administrations now.” Beck’s book Arguing with Idiots contains a list of the “Top Ten Bastards of All Time,” on which Pol Pot (No. 10), Adolf Hitler (No. 6), and Pontius Pilate (No. 4) all rank lower than FDR (No. 3) and Woodrow Wilson (No. 1). In Glenn Beck’s Common Sense Beck writes, “With a few notable exceptions, our political leaders have become nothing more than parasites who feed off our sweat and blood.”

This is nonsense. Whatever you think of Theodore Roosevelt, he was not Lenin. Woodrow Wilson was not Stalin. The philosophical foundations of progressivism may be wrong. The policies that progressivism generates may be counterproductive. Its view of the Constitution may betray the Founders’. Nevertheless, progressivism is a distinctly American tradition that partly came into being as a way to prevent ideologies like communism and fascism from taking root in the United States. And not even the stupidest American liberal shares the morality of the totalitarian monsters whom Beck analogizes to American politics so flippantly.

Read and watch enough Glenn Beck, and you realize that he is not only introducing new authors and ideas into public life, he is reintroducing old ideas. Some very old ideas. The notion that America’s leaders are indistinguishable from America’s enemies has a long and sorry history. In the 1950s it led Robert Welch, the head of the John Birch Society, to proclaim that President Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist sympathizer. For this, William F. Buckley Jr. famously denounced Welch and severed the Birchers’ ties to mainstream conservatism. The group was ostracized for decades.

But not everyone denounced Welch. One author, the Mormon autodidact W. Cleon Skousen, continued to support the Birchers as he penned books on politics and the American founding. And Skousen continued to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that American political, social, and economic elites were working with the Communists to foist a world government on the United States.

Glenn Beck is a Skousenite. During the “We Surround Them” program, he urged his audience to read Skousen’s 5000 Year Leap (1981), for which he has written a foreword, and The Real George Washington (1991). “The 5000 Year Leap is essential to understanding why our Founders built this Republic the way they did,” the author writes in Glenn Beck’s Common Sense. More controversially, Beck has recommended Skousen’s Naked Communist (1958) and Naked Capitalist (1970), which lay out the writer’s paranoid scenarios in detail. The latter book, for example, draws on Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope (1966), which argues that the history of the 20th century is the product of secret societies in conflict. “Carroll Quigley laid open the plan in Tragedy and Hope,” says a character in Beck’s new novel, The Overton Window. “The only hope to avoid the tragedy of war was to bind together the economies of the world to foster global stability and peace.”

For Beck, conspiracy theories are not aberrations. They are central to his worldview. They are the natural consequence of assuming that the world hangs by a thread, and that everyone is out to get you. On his television program, Beck promised to “find out what’s true and what’s not with the FEMA concentration camps”—referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a federal bureaucracy that chiefly funnels relief funds to victims of natural disasters, and is more commonly (and accurately) thought of as punchless. Beck later acknowledged that his staff could not find any evidence for such camps.

Beck has urged his viewers to read The Coming Insurrection, an impenetrable political tract by a French Marxist group called The Invisible Committee that has no clear relationship to U.S. politics (or to reality). In Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, the author writes that “efforts are now also being made to empower the State to retain, test, and research the blood and DNA of newborn babies.” The plot of The Overton Window is one big conspiracy theory in which the United States government, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and the Trilateral Commission are all plotting an antidemocratic coup. It is a fever-dream that Oliver Stone would envy. “Who needs a list when they can monitor you whenever they want?” says one of the book’s characters at a fictional Tea Party rally. “You’ve all heard of that ‘Digital Angel’ device that can be implanted under your skin, right? They say it’s to store medical information and for the safety of children and Alzheimer’s patients.” Scary stuff. But also fantastical. In an author’s note, Beck says his novel is not fiction but “faction”—“completely fictional books with plots rooted in fact.” Which “facts” are those?

FrumForum:

In response to an article written by Matthew Continetti in the Weekly Standard, Glenn Beck’s producer is attacking the magazine and pushing for a boycott:

Look, we usually love The Weekly Standard. They are typically an extremely useful and important source of analysis (I think?). But, this is horrible. It’s a hit piece barely worthy of Media Matters, and I’d rate it as impossible that the author doesn’t know it.

The piece is filled with so many discredited attacks and poorly researched nonsense (the list is just one small example) that you might think it is just laziness. But it’s worse than that. It’s intentionally misleading. It’s a collection of lies they are proud of.  They put it on the cover. I mean, it’s enough to doubt anything they print.

I don’t understand the motivation, but luckily their circulation is so impossibly small that Glenn reaches more people in 11 seconds on the air than they do in 6 months. Oh, but how will we compete with those creative cartoons on the cover!!! So innovative for 1962!

Truly embarrassing work.

You can cancel your subscription by calling 1-800-274-7293. When you’re done…might I suggest another option.

Daniel Foster at The Corner:

Before I get to why, let me first say that there is much I love about what Beck is doing. Anyone who puts Hayek at the top of Amazon is not without his merits. Continetti captures this:

Beck is not simply an entertainer. He and his audience love American history. They are hungry for new ways to interpret current events. And Beck is creating, in Amity Shlaes’s words, “a competing canon” of texts and authorities. This competing canon is not content to assault contemporary liberalism, but rather deconstructs the very foundations of the New Deal and the Progressive Era. Among the books Beck regularly cites on his programs are Shlaes’s Forgotten Man, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism*, Larry Schweickart and Michael Allen’s Patriot’s History of the United States, and Burt Folsom Jr.’s New Deal or Raw Deal? And books like Matthew Spalding’s We Still Hold These Truths, Seth Lipsky’s Citizen’s Constitution, and William J. Bennett and John Cribb’s American Patriot’s Almanac all belong on the list as well.

For the record, I think Continetti actually underestimates the debt Beck owes to Jonah and Liberal Fascism for the very structure of his critique of progressivism. I trust you’ll believe that it isn’t mere collegiality that compels me to say that that book seems more important with each passing day.

[…]

At this point in the proceedings, by the way, I’m actually halfway between Beck and Continetti. Like Continetti (and like Jonah, for that matter) I think that the unique political culture of America means that European-style totalitarianism would have a much tougher time gaining ground here. Indeed the very existence of the Tea Party is proof of this. But I also think certain — ahem — neoconservative elements of the right are too quick to reflexively beatify the likes of Wilson and Roosevelt, and too selectively blind to the breathtaking statism they advocated.

[…]

This cuts right to the core of Continetti’s thesis in that piece —  that the as-yet amorphous Tea Party movement must lead with free-markets and small-government, not conspiracy theories and doom-saying. As I’ve said above, both Beck and I happen to think that conservatives like Continetti are too kind to the post-New Deal order, but whether one sees that order as the well-intentioned but fatally flawed American project, or as the fruits of an Illuminati conspiracy, is surely important to the future of the Tea Party — and the discourse.

Scott Johnson at Powerline:

I’m with Foster on the proposition that “conservatives like Continetti are too kind to the post-New Deal order.” Whatever accommodation politicians must make with the post-New Deal federal government, it represents a deep rupture with the doctrine of limited government embodied in the Constitution.

Taking issue with Beck, Matt defends the Americanness of progressivism, asserting that “progressivism is a distinctly American tradition that partly came into being as a way to prevent ideologies like communism and fascism from taking root in the United States.” Here Matt is clearly referring to referring to Roosevelt and the New Deal, and one understands the point. Yet Roosevelt’s battle with the Supreme Court was no accident, and it is not wonderful that Roosevelt ultimately prevailed. As James Ceaser writes, the progressives “sought to replace, which meant virtually to efface or supplant, the original Founders.” (I am borrowing the Ceaser quote from William Voegeli’s Never Enough.)

Moreover, if one traces the origins of progressivism, as Ronald J. Pestritto does in Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism, one discovers the deep hostility of the progressives to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The progressives’ hostility to the Declaration and the Constitution is rooted largely in nineteenth-century German thought.

Wilson and other progressives thought that the insights of German philosophers such as Hegel rendered the thought of the Founders obsolete. (Paul and I quoted some of Wilson’s more pointed comments on Hegel and the Founders in “From Hegel to Wilson to Breyer.”)

Anyway, my point, and I do have one, is to suggest that you read Continetti, and then Foster…and the important books cited in their pieces.

Conor Friedersdorf at The American Scene

Matt Lewis and Conor Friedersdorf at Bloggingheads

Kevin Drum:

Here’s the thing: as near as I can tell, tea partiers are not, in fact, especially put out by bailouts to the wealthy. Santelli’s founding rant, as Continetti points out, was aimed at homeowners being bailed out of mortgages they couldn’t afford. And as Continetti himself admits just a few sentences later, tea partiers don’t have much to say about Wall Street banks. That’s pretty odd for a movement supposedly opposed to big bailouts. The reality is quite different: if the tea partiers are really upset that Congress hasn’t yet reined in the financial sector, they sure have a funny way of showing it. All the evidence I’ve seen suggests just the opposite: most tea partiers think not that Obama’s financial reform proposals are too modest, but that they verge on socialism. They think he wants to take over the banks the same way he took over the car companies.

Ditto for securing the borders — though here the schizophrenia is a little more explicable. Tea partiers do indeed seem to be temperamentally outraged by illegal immigration, but Dick Armey and FreedomWorks, who are big tea party funders, aren’t. So that’s tamped things down a bit on the immigration front. (Though obviously that could change if immigration becomes a front-and-center legislative issue later this year.)

In other words, the inchoate rage of the tea party movement is, if anything, even worse than Continetti says. Tea partiers are, obviously outraged about Obama, outraged at his “socialism,” and outraged at the increasing deficit and the social programs it funds. But there’s simply not much evidence that they’re really outraged at Wall Street or at the business community in general. Nor are they outraged by two foreign wars and skyrocketing military spending. Nor are they outraged by the obvious possibilities for government overreach that are inherent in things like massive warrantless wiretap programs and a less than robust attitude toward constitutional rights for anyone suspected of terrorism.

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner:

I finally got around to reading Matt Continetti’s piece on the tea parties. I’ve got to say I find it pretty flawed. First of all, it’s not really a piece on the tea parties. It’s a hit piece on Glenn Beck. And that’s fine. Conservatism is big enough and Beck is controversial enough, for people to take different sides on a vast range of topics. But I think Matt’s analysis simply comes up short.

(Warning: Long post ahead)

My chief complaint is that he desperately wants to force a Manichean critique of the tea parties (Santelli = good, Beck = bad) by lambasting Beck for being too conspiratorial and Manichean. The title of the essay says a lot: “The Two Faces of the Tea Parties.” Note, Continetti  isn’t being hypocritical. One could argue that the chief flaw of, say, Stalin was his us-vs.-them worldview while at the same rightly arguing that we should have an us-vs.-them attitude toward Stalin and Stalinists.

[…]

For starters, the notion that Reagan and Goldwater represented two distinct and irreconcilable factions would come as a shock to nearly every conservative and liberal commentator from, say, 1960 to 1990. Heck,  it would have come as a shock to both Reagan and Goldwater. The Goldwater forces inside the conservative movement in large part became the Reagan forces. (Matt also does a grave disservice to Goldwater by comparing him to Beck, given what Continetti thinks of Beck). So I have no idea how Matt thinks this historical analogy supports his argument that the Santelli and Beck faces are irreconcilable with mainstream conservative politics.

But then again, I largely think he’s wrong to divide the movement this way. And it is telling that he has to offer a literary interpretation to support this claim. If there were true wings to the movment, he would deploy  polling data, and speech excerpts from Beckians denouncing Santellians. Where are the primary fights manifesting these supposedly durable and longstanding schisms? We aren’t seeing any because, I suspect, the more radical tea partiers do not define themselves in terms of their opposition to the Santelli wing of the movement at all. That’s why the Beckians supported Scott Brown, and why the Santellians supported Nikki Haley — because this schizophrenia that Matt ascribes to the tea parties isn’t all that pronounced according to the tea partiers themselves. In other words, Matt is simply taking a journalistic short cut to get to the Beck-Bashing.

This is a big problem for Matt’s analysis given that he says Beck can’t be integrated into the conservative movement.   Again, he offers little to no empirical data on this point. Rather, he lambasts Beck’s conspiratorial streak — and I think Matt is right that Beck has one, even if he might overstate his case.

Matthew Continetti at TWS, responding to Goldberg:

In a response to my article, “The Two Faces of the Tea Party,” Jonah Goldberg writes that “at times [Continetti] seems to be trying — and trying very hard — to use [Glenn] Beck to discredit the entire conservative argument against the progressive revolution in politics.”

I am doing no such thing. The long passage Goldberg excerpts in his post, in which I describe Beck’s construction of a “competing canon,” is not meant as an attack. Indeed, I respect Beck’s ability to introduce conservative authors into public discourse. I happen to like many of the books on that list. All of them are interesting. So let me settle any disagreement between Goldberg and his colleague Daniel Foster, who Goldberg says “seems to think Continetti is celebrating Beck’s bibliophile prosletyzing.” Foster is right: “Celebrating” — or at least, cheerfully acknowledging — is exactly what I was doing in that passage.

I make two critiques of Beck in my article. The first is that, as valuable an intellectual exercise as it might be to explore, as Goldberg puts it, the “progressive revolution in politics,” it is hard to see how such an exercise translates into today’s politics. The welfare state is here to stay. A Republican party that ran on the platform of repealing the Progressive Era would no longer be a force in American life. Hence the Tea Party may prove to be self-limiting, as its anti-statist ambitions grow more and more utopian. Now, obviously this is a debatable assertion, and I’ve been happy to see my article provoke a lot of discussion. But to disagree with Beck or anyone else on the relative merits of progressivism is not to write a “hit piece” on him.

Which brings me to my second critique. While Beck is introducing many excellent authors to his radio and television audiences, he is also introducing crank conspiracy theorists such as Carroll Quigley and Cleon Skousen. Goldberg concedes that Beck has a “conspiratorial streak,” but then says that I “might overstate my case.” I’m sorry, I don’t. Take, for example, Beck’s June 22 television show. His guest was Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, who has written a new book on the Weimar banker Sigmund Warburg. “His family is conspiracy central, right?” Beck asked Ferguson, and then referred, once again, to Quigley’s 1966 Tragedy and Hope.

Tragedy and Hope, as I write in my piece, is the bible of conspiracy theorists. Why? Because in it Quigley, a Georgetown professor for many years and a man of the left, “admitted” that most of world history since the early twentieth century has been the design of secret societies. From page 950:

“There does exist, and has existed for a generation, an international Anglophile network which operates, to some extent, in the way the radical Right believes the Communists act. In fact, this network, which we may identify as the Round Table Groups, has no aversion to cooperating with the Communists, or any other groups, and frequently does so. I know of the operations of this network because I have studied it for twenty years and was permitted for two years, in the early 1960s, to study its papers and secret records.”

Of course, Quigley is the only individual, dead or alive, who has studied “the papers and secret records” of the Round Table Group — perhaps because no such records and no such network exist.

Ross Douthat:

Yes, there isn’t actually a self-identified Santellian faction of the Tea Party, or a self-identified Beck wing. And yes, no binary will ever capture all the nuances of a diverse and motley movement. But the point of Continetti’s “literary” analysis was to identify tendencies, not factions — and tendencies can co-exist not only in the same movement, but often in the same people, without being formally acknowledged as competing ideologies. (There’s probably a little Beck and a little Santelli in every conservative heart …)

Moreover, once you start applying the frame to real-world figures, it’s pretty easy to see what Continetti’s talking about. Nikki Haley and Scott Brown are both Santellians, for instance (even though Haley is more right-wing than Brown), because they’re forward-looking and positive rather than conspiratorial and apocalyptic. Rick “Gather Your Armies” Barber, on the other hand, is a Beckian. So is Michelle Bachmann, at least when she’s fretting about Barack Obama’s sinister plans to create a “global economy.” When Tea Party darling Marco Rubio talks about the need to reform Social Security, he’s being Santellian. When Tea Party darling Sharron Angle talks about how Social Security and Medicare “can’t be fixed,” that’s Beckian. Paul Ryan’s Roadmap is Santellian. Rand Paul’s critique of the Civil Rights Act is Beckian. And so on and so forth.

I’m more sympathetic to Goldberg’s broader complaint about Continetti’s essay — namely, that it’s possible to separate some of the arguments that Beck endorses (particularly the critique of early-20th century progressivism and its consequences that’s obviously close to Goldberg’s own heart) from the conspiracy theories and apocalyptic rhetoric that the TV host favors.  Certainly there can be virtues in radical ideas and vices in the comforts of the “mainstream,” and with the conservative movement in the wilderness, a deep rethinking of all kinds of issues (even if Goldberg and I might disagree about which ones) may have more to recommend it than Continetti’s piece sometimes seems to allow. (Though I don’t think that he intended to be quite as sweepingly dismissive of such rethinking as Goldberg suggests: See his response on that front for some clarification.)

But Continetti’s ultimately right that any such rethinking needs to circle back to the realities of contemporary politics, and the challenges of actual-existing policy issues, rather than indulging in manichaean fantasies about a final battle between virtuous liberty-lovers and wicked statists. What’s more, he’s right to suggest that certain ways of rethinking American politics are simply toxic and self-discrediting and ought to be labeled as such, no matter how many copies of “The Road to Serfdom” they inspire people to buy.

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Close Your Mind And The Rest Will Follow

Julian Sanchez:

I’ve written a bit lately about what I see as a systematic trend toward “epistemic closure” in the modern conservative movement. As commenters have been quick to point out, of course, groupthink and confirmation bias are cognitive failings that we’re all susceptible to as human beings, and scarcely the exclusive province of the right. I try to acknowledge as much, and I’m often tempted to pluck some instances from the left just to show how very fair-minded and above the fray I am. (For instance, I find myself increasingly sympathetic to complaints about the coverage of the Tea Parties: Obviously there are both subtle and not-so-subtle bigots in the pack, but I doubt they’re representative, and it’s a huge leap to the dismissive suggestion that the phenomenon is nothing but a manifestation of racial anxiety.) Yet I can’t pretend that, on net, I really see an equivalence at present: As of 2010, the right really does seem to be substantially further down the rabbit hole.

Perhaps some of that perception can be put down to the fact that I mostly write about the issues where I’m prone to agree with progressives—so I’m more conscious of it when Fox spins fantasies about the Patriot Act than when MSNBC spins on economics or health care—but I don’t think that’s the whole of it, since I feel like I see the same tendencies even on issues where I’m closer to the conservative position. So suppose it’s true that there’s a real asymmetry here—the obvious question, if we’re going to sideline the cheap partisan explanation that conservatism intrinsically appeals to the stupid or closed minded, is why this should be true now. I have a couple ideas, and (perhaps another bit of personal bias) they mostly focus on the effects of technological change.

[…]

here’s another explanation that’s related to the rise of what I’ve called the politics of ressentiment, maybe best illustrated with the help of an example in the news lately. Constance McMillen, as you may have read, is a teenage lesbian in Fulton, Mississippi who (with the help of the ACLU) sued for the right to bring her girlfriend to her high school prom, and to attend wearing a tux.  At first, the school planned to simply cancel the prom rather than afford Constance the basic equality a court agreed they should. But ultimately, there was an official “prom” attended by Constance and a handful of others, including a couple of the class’ learning disabled kids, and a real (but unofficial) prom sponsored by parents, to which she wasn’t invited.Here’s what’s interesting for present purposes. A bunch of her classmates started a Facebook group called “Constance quit yer cryin” to ridicule her. The attitude of the students and parents who spoke up there was characterized less by overt homophobia than by a resentment of the effort, characterized as attention-grubbing and selfish, to upset local traditions and “force” the school to cancel the dance by demanding equal treatment. But then gay-friendly sites—including traffic behemoth Perez Hilton—began linking the group, bringing a tsunami of comments from people all over the world, in numbers vastly dwarfing the original membership. Almost all condemned the actions of the school and parents, and supported Constance.  Not a few doled out their own hateful stereotypes, heaping scorn not just on the school, but on southerners or Christians on the whole, as inbred rednecks. Photos were posted, and much speculation ensued about which rack at Walmart various prom dresses had come off.

Contemplate how vertigo-inducing this must be. You’ve got a local community where a certain set of cultural norms is so dominant that it’s just seen as obvious and natural that a lesbian wouldn’t have an equal right to participate in prom—to the point where the overt hostility isn’t really directed at Constance’s sexuality so much as her bewildering insistence on messing with the way everyone knows things are supposed to be. They’re not attuned to the injustice because it seems like almost a fact of nature. Except they’re now flooded with undeniable evidence that a hell of a lot of people don’t see things that way, and even hold their community in contempt for seeing things that way. There have been thousands of “outside” posts in a handful of days, with more every minute. (Think of the small-town high school quarterback getting to college and realizing, to his astonishment, that everyone thinks the “art fags” he used to slag on are the cool ones. Except without even leaving the small town.)

Fulton is an extreme case, but I think there are probably a lot of conservative communities that feel a lower-grade version of this all the time. So here’s a hypothesis: Epistemic closure is (in part) an attempt to compensate for the collapse of geographic closure. A function no longer effectively served by geographic segregation—because the digital equivalents of your local hangout are open to invasion by the hordes from New York and London—is being passed to media segregation, bolstered by the sudden demand that what was once tacit and given be explicitly defended.

On both explanations—and I think they’re complementary rather than competing—the shift toward epistemic closure is linked to changes in communications technology. Then the obvious question is whether it’s a short-term symptom of adjustment to that technology, or the start of a new equilibrium.

Matthew Yglesias:

The left is simply less monolithic. It seems to me that if you look at the discourse among “green” types, you see groupthink there. And if you look at labor types, there’s another groupthink there. And there’s an immigrants’ rights groupthink and there’s feminist groupthink and all kinds of groupthink all around. But these points of view come into contact with one another and only partially overlap. At times they conflict. The progressive infrastructure contains people and institutions who are robustly on both sides of important questions like trade policy or K-12 education. Business groups are very involved with most Democratic Party politicians and with many progressives organizations (we have a “Business Alliance” at CAP). I think it would actually be beyond the intellectual powers of any one person to work all the sacred cows of all the different factions of the movement into a seamless and coherent whole.

The right just isn’t like that. It’s less demographically diverse, less diverse in its financial base, and less ideologically diverse.

At any rate, it does occur to me to wonder why Julian’s post is at his personal blog rather than on the Cato blog where he works. Isn’t the first step toward disrupting right-wing epistemic closure to put ideas that challenge it into the right’s institutional network?

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

I think the answer is that liberalism is not really an ideology in anything like the sense that conservatism is. Conservatism is an ideology organized around the belief that big government inherently destroys freedom. Contemporary liberalism is the ideology of people who don’t share that conviction, though it lacks any strong a priori beliefs to hold it together. I wrote about this in a 2005 essay for TNR’s 90th anniversary issue.Liberals are not ideologically pro-government in anything like the sense that conservatives are ideologically anti-government — conservatives view shrinking government as an end in and of itself, while liberals would view expanding government a success only to the extent that doing so furthers some other real-world benefit. I think it’s the fundamental distinction between the two parties, and it explains all kinds of asymmetrical behavior — a loose coalition versus a coherent ideological movement.

Now, I realize that I’m only discussing economics, and while this is the central front for two-party competition, it’s not the only front. I don’t think I have the only answer here to Sanchez’s question. (Indeed, on social issues and foreign policy, I think there’s more symmetry than asymmetry between the two parties.) I do think the central role of economics in the two party competition does play in important role in organizing the contrasting epistemological styles of liberalism and conservatism — that is, economic conservatism plays a dominant role is shaping the epistemological style of the conservative movement as a whole, and likewise for economic liberalism.

Sanchez admirably dismisses “the cheap partisan explanation that conservatism intrinsically appeals to the stupid or closed minded.” That’s certainly an explanation we should treat with caution. But should it be dismissed out of hand? Open-mindedness to rational inquiry is a political style historically linked with liberalism, and it’s usually (though not always) found more often in liberal parties than in conservative or Marxist ones. Certainly, when we consider other countries, we frequently assume that one party is more nationalistic, populist, reactionary, racialist, fronting for powerful economic interests, and so on, and often we associate those parties with simplistic or closed-minded approaches to politics. Likewise other parties are associated with technocracy, internationalism, and general willingness to impose policy reforms in response to objective needs. We don’t assume that there’s some universal law requiring the spirit of open-minded inquiry to be equally divided between the two major parties in any democracy. Nor should we assume that such a law should apply to the United States but not elsewhere.

Reihan Salam:

One of the virtues of Matt’s theory is its parsimony. The conservative coalition is diverse in many respects, but is is certainly more ideologically coherent than the liberal coalition, which, as Matt suggests, is more transactional, more interested in achieving incremental expansions of government power on issue of particular concern. You want a cap-and-trade system and a green industrial policy? That’s fine, as long as I get higher public sector salaries and a permanent system of racial preferences. In contrast, the right — for better or for worse — is organized around the principle of saying no to new expansions of government power and mostly acquiescing, in reality if not rhetorically, to old expansions of government power.

In his brilliant new book Never Enough, forthcoming from Encounter, William Voegeli writes:

All the liberal arguments point to a welfare state even bigger than Sweden’s; all the conservative ones to a welfare state smaller than pre-New Deal America’s. The welfare state we actually have limps along, lacking enthusiastic support and a compelling rationale that could explain how to improve it without making it radically larger or smaller. Liberals and conservatives are both in the awkward position of reassuring voters that they don’t really mean what all of their arguments clearly do mean. As a result, neither of them can muster the syllogisms or the votes to change the welfare state we’re stuck with.

But would this problem on the right be solved by less groupthink? Or should an ideologically coherent group move collectively away from arguments that are straightforwardly anti-statist to arguments that are more focused on value for money? The ideological through-line, about the dangers of unsustainable state expansion, remains the same; the arguments, however, would reflect more of a real-world engagement with near-term policy issues. As Voegeli suggests, this would move left-right debates from a philosophical terrain, where the left is strong because it is vague and hard to pin down, to the more practical question of what we can and can’t afford, i.e., would the median voter have the same appetite for taxpayer-financed public services if we were all paying enough taxes to pay for current spending, of if we even came close?

Noah Millman at The American Scene:

Here are some possible additional explanations that I think are worth considering:

– Blame the South. The argument, in a nutshell, is that a successful political coalition in America cannot be dominated by the South, as the GOP currently is. The South is a distinct region in America, significantly different in history and political culture from the rest of the country. Moreover, regional identity in the South is manifested substantially in opposition to the rest of the nation. A political movement dominated by the South will necessarily manifest a political culture that is more similar to that of the South than to that of the rest of the nation, and that political movement is also going to absorb this oppositional element of Southern identity, and will necessarily become overly invested in intellectual shibboleths. What looks like epistemic closure is really just identity politics.

I don’t think this explanation can be dismissed out of hand – in particular, dismissing it out of hand as “insulting” to the South would be in instance of precisely the dynamic I’m outlining. The South does have a distinct history and culture; that culture is substantially oppositional; and the American right is dominated by the South in a way that it has not been before. Dominance of a party by an atypical and oppositional region is just a structural problem. And, if this is a problem, it is going to be a hard one for the American right to solve, because the South is now large enough and strong enough, and remains cohesive enough, that its leaders should expect to lead any coalition of which they are a member.

Now, you might plausibly say that whether the GOP is dominated by the South is irrelevant to the intellectual state of the right in America. The GOP could be run by a bunch of ninnies and the right could be full of intellectual ferment. I think that’s a reasonable description of the state of things in much of the 1970s, for what it’s worth.

The problem is that, if you are an engaged intellectual, you want to be able to see a way forward. And right-leaning types today – contrary to historical type – are terribly engaged. If, for the foreseeable future, the GOP is going to be dominated by the South, and the Democrats are going to be dominated by the left, then where is a Northern conservative to find a natural political home?

You can see the dynamics playing out in a place like the Manhattan Institute. Properly, the focus of the Manhattan Institute should be topics relevant to urban America – that’s their beat. So why do they publish so much culture war fodder? Why do they publish on foreign policy at all? Is it really plausible that what’s good for Alabama is good for New York? If not, then why isn’t City Journal the forum in which New York’s right-wingers get to make the case for their priorities over the priorities of Alabamians? I think part of the answer relates to the fact that an oppositional section is now dominant within the conservative coalition.

– Blame the money. Is there a major patron of conservative intellectuals who is a patron primarily because he or she wants to generate new ideas, insights, works of the spirit that do not already exist in the world, as opposed to advancing arguments for ideas that are already well-established in defense of interests that are well-entrenched? If there is, please let me know that person’s name. Ron Unz is the only person who comes immediately to mind, and honestly I don’t think he’s quite in the wealth category one would ideally want.

Nobody, of course, is just going to hand out money willy-nilly. But there is an enormous difference between bankrolling a person or organization because you like what they think, and bankrolling a person or organization because you like the way they think. If a multi-millionaire says: I am interested in education, and I believe that vouchers are the answer, so I’m going to give $100,000 per year to a think-tank to produce pro-vouchers research and advocate for vouchers, well, that’s not really intellectual patronage. If, on the other hand, that same multi-millionaire says: I am interested in education, and I am skeptical of the way the system works now, how we train teachers to how our schools are financed, and impressed with some of what’s been achieved following new models. I’m going to find the smartest, most informed, most independent-minded people I can, who are also skeptical of established practice, and give them money to do whatever research they want. If they can impress me with their independence and intelligence, then I want to know what they can learn with a bit of money to work with – and I want other people to know as well. That second millionaire might wind up funding Diane Ravitch – and getting a very different report than he or she expected. And why would that be so bad? If Diane Ravitch has lost faith in a certain kind of school reform, that’s a hugely important fact – her arguments are ones that any advocate of school reform needs to know and grapple with. Even if she doesn’t change her patron’s mind, he or she should be glad to have funded her work.

Ultimately, you can only have an intelligentsia if you have patrons who are interested in learning things they don’t already know. And so, if you want a conservative intelligentsia, you need patrons of a conservative temperament who want to learn things they don’t already know – things that may unsettle them. If all the patron wants is advocacy for established views in defense of established interests, then you don’t actually have intellectual patronage at all, and pretty soon you won’t have an intellectual establishment.

I have never been a movement conservative, and I’ve never worked for a conservative institution, so any impressions I have are from a considerable distance – second-hand impressions at best, generally third-hand. Having declared that caveat, I will say that my general impression is that the money going to purportedly intellectual conservative organs is vastly more interested in advocacy than in developing intellectual talent or generating new insights. If I’m right, then that is something that has to change if you want an open conservative mind.

But if I’m right, the question that must next be asked is: has this changed? Were things different in 1975, and if so – why? I think it would be highly instructive to see a study done on the sources of funding for conservative organs and see how these sources have changed over time – is the money coming more or less from individuals over time, from more or fewer sources, from the same or different industries, is the age of donors changing, has the place in American life of donors changed over time, etc. I don’t know much of this information is in the public domain, but if it is, it would be interesting to see if anything can be gleaned from this kind of aggregate data. But, you know, I’m an elitist. My own inclination is to think that single individuals who are determined to shape history can make an enormous impact if they have the wherewithal. You don’t need a whole generation of intellectually-minded plutocrats to sponsor a renaissance. If he’s rich enough, and clear-eyed and determined enough, you may only need one.

– Blame David Frum. Just prior to the Iraq War, David Frum published a now-infamous essay expelling “unpatriotic conservatives” – that is to say, people who vociferously opposed the war – from . . . well, it’s not exactly clear from what, since he had no power to expel anybody from anything – let’s say from “conservative respectability.” And this endeavor on his part was, generally, applauded by the outlets of the organized American right. I don’t know that this was literally unprecedented, but it felt to me at the time – and more so since – like a crucial Rubicon had been crossed.

In previous defenestrations – Eisenhower’s turn against McCarthy, Buckley’s expulsion of the Birchers, the removal of Trent Lott from his leadership position – the organizations or individuals being expelled were extremists of the dominant tendency. If Republicans were generally anti-Communist, McCarthy took this to an unacceptable extreme; if Republicans were generally more friendly to a white Southern perspective on American history, Lott, in his remarks, took this to an unacceptable extreme. Frum was not expelling extremists, however; he was expelling dissenters.

The expulsion of dissenters is not something we generally associate with mainstream political movements; it is most memorable as a tic of the radical left, Stalinists expelling Trotskyites and so forth. Certainly, right-wing groups – anti-tax groups, anti-abortion groups, etc. – have tried to impose orthodoxy before, demanding pledges of allegiance in exchange for electoral support. But this is just interest-group politics; civil-rights groups, unions, and other left-wing organizations do that sort of thing all the time, with more or less effectiveness depending on the political circumstances. Expelling dissenters is something else again, and once the precedent has been set, it is very difficult to see how one may justify not applying it in more and more circumstances.

While I don’t think it’s fair to blame David Frum as an individual for very much (and poetic justice has already been served on him specifically anyhow), I do think it’s important for those who are concerned with the openness or closedness of the conservative mind to grapple with this particular event, and consider whether a formal repudiation might not do rather a bit of good, even at this late date.

– Blame Iraq. The Iraq War was the cause for which Frum expelled the so-called “unpatriotic conservatives” and the Iraq War is the cause for which the conservative mind closed. It won’t open again until this fact is faced.

Of course, conservatives weren’t alone in supporting the Iraq War, or in blinding themselves to contrary arguments. But it is instructive to examine the difference between the way conservatives who changed their mind about the war have behaved and the way liberals who changed their mind have behaved.

In my experience, conservatives who have changed their mind fall into three broad camps: minimizers, avoiders, and abandoners. Minimizers admit the war didn’t work out as planned, but spend their energies on damage control – arguing that intentions were good, or that knowledge was limited, or that some aspects did work out, or whatever. Avoiders show signs that they know the whole enterprise was rotten to the core – so they avoid the topic and avoid drawing any broader conclusions about, well, anything from the fiasco of Iraq. And abandoners, well, they feel obliged, when they face the depth of their mistake, to abandon their political home altogether, either for the other side or for a relatively un-engaged posture.

In other words, there’s a general sense among conservative thinkers that the die was cast long ago: within the context of the conservative political world, it is not an option to seriously rethink the decision for war. Doing so is tantamount to abandoning their political identity. Why that is, I’m not sure, though I suspect guilt has more to do with it than anything.

It’s instructive to compare conservatives with liberals in this regard. Liberal hawks – people whose political identity was very bound up with the Iraq War project – have had much the same problem as conservatives coming to grips with the war. But liberals who supported the war but didn’t consider that integral to their identity have had a pretty easy time chucking off their history and forging a new identity around what they learned from that mistake. These liberals frequently learned a great deal from dissenting conservative opponents of the war – people like Andrew Bacevich – and have thereby brought essentially conservative arguments against ventures like Iraq into the tent of liberal thinking – to the benefit of the nation, if to the impoverishment of the conservative tent.

I don’t know what the solution to this is. I do know that when Ross Douthat writes a column for the New York Times about why the Iraq War was fundamentally a mistake, and how his outlook on the world changed when he fully absorbed that, we’ll know that the conservative mind has opened a bit again.

– Blame the times. No analysis of where conservatism has gone wrong would be complete without an utterly fatalistic analysis, so here it is. Political movements have their life cycles like anything else: they are born; they grow; they mature; they decay. The conservative movement was born in the 1950s, grew in the late 1960s and 1970s, matured in the 1980s and early 1990s, and decayed from the mid-1990s through today. You can lament being born at the wrong time, but you can’t do anything about it.

To a considerable extent, the life cycle of movements derives from the life cycle of the people who grow up within those movements. Young conservatives in the late 1980s and early 1990s saw their movement go from strength to strength – and learned that conservatism was always right and that people who didn’t see that were fools. These same folks in the Bush years tutored their successors in appalling intellectual tactics: bullying and sophistry and identity politics. By contrast, the generation of liberals who came of age in the Bush years had to weather that bullying, had to cut through that sophistry – and were vindicated by events. I am continually impressed by the intelligence and sophistication of liberals ten years younger than I am. They are the leaders of tomorrow’s left even more than today’s, and the right is just not in the same league. It was, once, in 1960s and 1970s, when left-wing ideas were dominant and left-wingers intellectually complacent – even as their intellectual roof was falling in. The bright young things who saw that the roof was falling in, and who debated what their new home should look like, became the rising generation of conservative leaders.

Noah Millman has a very thoughtful, long post exploring the reasons for the so-called “closing of the conservative mind.” As I have said before, I am skeptical that the movement conservative mind was ever open in quite the way that Millman or Sanchez means it. The conservative mind of the sort described by Kirk is one that is both grounded in principle and also very capable of critical thinking and self-criticism, but what I think we have seen in recent years is not much the closing of such a mind as its replacement by an ideological mentality that is basically hostile to a conservative mind. To say that the conservative mind has closed leaves open the possibility that it might open someday. Perhaps I am wrong, but once such a mind is obliterated by ideology I’m not sure that it can recover.

Millman’s argument is persuasive that something has changed in degree, but I’m not at all sure that much has changed in kind. What has changed is the relative strengthening and consolidation of movement institutions compared to twenty or thirty years ago, and there has typically been greater access to Republican administrations and majorities and involvement with them during a general period of Republican ascendancy. Where conservative intellectuals once had to prove themselves by the strength of their arguments, they could now increasingly get along by repeating not much more than slogans and audience-pleasing half-truths. By the start of the last decade, there was considerable complacency, which the myth of the “center-right nation” helped to encourage by making intellectual bankruptcy seem to be politically cost-free, and then after 2006 there seems to have been general disbelief and horror that the ascendancy to which the movement had tied itself so closely was now coming to a close.

I agree that the Iraq war and the greater post-9/11 ideological rigidity movement conservatives embraced have worsened matters considerably, but what we have seen over the last eight or nine years is really just an intensification of past habits, which new forms of online media and the growth of distinctively conservative media over the last twenty years have facilitated and brought to a much larger audience. The cocooning instincts were always there (because any group that sees itself as an embattled minority is prone to this), but the means to create a large enough cocoon was not present until the 1990s and afterwards. The creation of the conservative media as an “alternative” to mainstream media gave way to conservative media as a near-complete substitute for their conservative audience. At one point, there was a desire, which I think was partly very genuine, for greater fairness to the conservative perspective, but this soon morphed into the need to construct a parallel universe of news and commentary untainted by outsiders.

Millman contrasts the expulsion of the “unpatriotic conservatives” (i.e., mainly paleoconservatives) with earlier movement expulsions, and sees a difference between expelling “extremists” as opposed to expelling “dissenters.” As far as movement conservatives were concerned then and now, paleoconservatives who opposed the invasion of Iraq (and at least some elements of the “war on terror” more broadly) were like the “extremists” of the past in that we were/are radicals, but we paleoconservatives were considered worse than these others because we were/are also basically reactionaries in many ways when compared to mainstream conservatives. We were and are very sympathetic to the Old Right on both foreign and domestic policy, and we have tended to find fault with movement conservatives on account of their myriad compromises with the welfare and warfare states. Whatever they say now that it is useful, mainstream conservatives tend to abhor the Old Right in both spheres, but they are particularly offended by the desire to return to anything remotely resembling pre-WWII neutralist foreign policy. It may or may not be an important element, but paleoconservatives also tend to be cultural pessimists and many are traditional Christians, and both pessimism and traditional Christianity have helped keep us grounded and wary of any form of triumphalism, be it nationalist or democratist or “conservative.”

Millman mentions that the expelled are expelled from “conservative respectability,” but one reason for engaging in these expulsions is to preserve the respectability of mainstream conservatism in the eyes of the broader public. Another reason for going through the expulsion exercise is to reaffirm one’s own credentials as the True Conservative and Real American, which I suppose must be gratifying in its own right. Opposing the invasion of Iraq was already a minority view during 2002-03, and on the right opposition to the war commanded almost no support, so it was not politically risky to cast out people who were already on the margins of the movement. As far as most non-conservatives were concerned, this was simply a matter of conservatives policing their own extremes, which is what “centrist,” establishment figures are always asking movement leaders to do.

Kevin Drum:

My guess is that this hasn’t really changed much over the years. It just seems like it. Take vouchers. I imagine that conservative think tanks of the 70s were just as single-mindedly dedicated to producing pro-voucher advocacy as today’s think tanks. But in the 70s, the intellectual superstructure to support that advocacy didn’t exist because the big mainstream center-left institutions like Brookings or the Ford Foundation weren’t studying the issue. So conservative think tanks got busy doing research, writing white papers, developing talking points, writing op-eds, etc. This was responsible for the “intellectual ferment” that Millman associates with conservative advocacy of that era.

Today, that intellectual superstructure has long since been built. So the only thing left is to keep pressing the argument. That means repeating the same talking points, issuing slight variations on the same research, rewriting the same op-eds, and so forth. It’s really the same thing they were doing in the 70s, but without the excitement of actually constructing all the arguments in the first place. That makes it seem duller and more closed-minded than it used to be.

But I suspect it’s not, really. It’s just that things always seem more exciting when you’re doing them for the first time and fighting an insurgent campaign against an entrenched power. But once you win — or, in the case of vouchers, reach a stalemate — it’s not as exhilarating anymore. That’s the real difference between the 70s and today. The goals of the funders, the entrenched interests they serve, the ideas they want to promote, and the desire to construct arguments to support preordained conclusions are probably much the same.

(And why haven’t conservatives been more willing to entertain new ideas over time? Good question. Liberals have retained many of the same goals over the past few decades too, but for some reason have been more willing to consider different approaches and open up whole new areas of inquiry. Global warming is entirely new, for example, and Barack Obama’s healthcare reform was quite different from Teddy Kennedy’s or Bill Clinton’s. I’m not entirely sure what accounts for the difference, though Millman’s essay proposes some fairly plausible mechanisms.)

Andrew Sullivan:

Noah’s comments on the Iraq war are also trenchant. I think his major omission is the ideological-industrial complex – the FNC/Talk Radio money machine that holds everything else in thrall. And then there’s the authoritarian leader worship of the Bush-Cheney war years, when party discipline was all the more vital because the policies themselves were so incoherent and practically disastrous.

I certainly feel, of course, total alienation from people I once saw as fellows in a broad world of ideas. I don’t think I’m alone. I just think I’m rare in saying so in public day after day. The perils of blogging, I guess. And I fear the handful of us out there in total dissent – now with extra Frum! – somehow enable the others to stay silent.

James Joyner:

Noah Millman makes an even broader claim, that somewhere along the way conservative intellectuals ceased to be intellectuals but rather advocates for Establishment views favored by funders.  Kevin Drum isn’t so sure that this is a recent phenomenon.

I don’t think this is quite right.  There are oodles of conservative intellectuals out there, whether on university campuses, the journalistic circuit, the blogs, or whathaveyou.  But I’d agree that the Official House Organs of the Conservative Movement are increasingly orthodox and that the hacks seem to get most of the airtime.

Partly, I think, it’s a function of network effects.   People who book shows are looking for people with recognizably conservative views, and the Official House Organs of the Conservative Movement are the obvious places to look.  And not only is it hard to get hired at those places if you’re far outside the orthodoxy but your views are likely to more closely approach the orthodoxy if you’re surrounded by people steeped in it.  (The reverse is also true:  Conservatives or liberals surrounded by reasonable and friendly people of the opposite persuasion will naturally moderate their views over time.)

Partly, too, there’s a self-selection effect.   As the house blogger (among other things) at the Atlantic Council, I frequently write about breaking topics in the foreign policy realm.  Sometimes, it’s about something in which I’m expert or close enough to expert that I’ve got a strong opinion.  Sometimes, it’s very important to our constituency that I have to get something up quickly (and thus don’t have time to solicit and wait for a genuine expert to write something) but sufficiently outside the scope of my interests or expertise that all I can do is aggregate the news and commentary that’s out there in a way that’s hopefully of use to the reader.

Quite frequently, I’ll be approached by the booker of a show to talk about one of these second types of posts.  For example, last night, a major international network asked me to be a guest this morning to talk about the mess in Kyrgyzstan.  I thanked them for their invitation and expressed interest in appearing again at some point in the future, but politely declined the offer — as I frequently do — on the basis that I simply don’t know the subject well enough.  [UPDATE:  I’ve now turned down a second request from another major international outlet.  Sigh:  They almost always approach me after one-off posts rather than things in my wheelhouse.]

I’ve watched enough news television and heard enough news radio to know that this stance is unusual.  There are clearly people who will show up any time, anywhere, to talk about anything.  But that pretty much defines a hack.  Doing that reduces you to regurgitating a few talking points you’ve picked up and steering the conversation back to them.

Tyler Cowen

More Salam

UPDATE: Megan McArdle

Michael Berube at McArdle

UPDATE #2: Matthew Continetti

Jonah Goldberg at The Enterprise Blog

Chait on both of them

UPDATE #3: Conor Friedersdorf on Goldberg

More Goldberg

UPDATE #4: Jonathan Bernstein

Matt Steinglass at DiA at The Economist

Both of the above via Sullivan

UPDATE #5: Ross Douthat

UPDATE #6: Bruce Bartlett

More Chait

UPDATE #7: Jonathan Chait and Ramesh Ponnuru at Bloggingheads

UPDATE #8: More Sanchez

UPDATE #9: More Goldberg

Marc Ambinder

UPDATE #10: More Bartlett

UPDATE #11: William Saletan at Slate

Ezra Klein

UPDATE #12: Glenn Greenwald and David Frum on Bloggingheads

Julian Sanchez

3 Comments

Filed under Conservative Movement, Politics

Greasing The Wheels For The Skid

Peter Boone and Simon Johnson at Baseline Scenario:

There are disconcerting parallels between Argentina’s catastrophic decade, 1991-2001, which ended in massive default, and Greece’s recent and impending difficulties.  The main difference being that Greece is far more indebted, is much less competitive in global markets, and needs a commensurately greater fiscal and wage adjustment.

At the end of 2001, Argentina’s public debt GDP ratio was 62%, while at end 2009 Greece’s was 114%.  Argentina’s public deficit reached 6.4% GDP in 2001, while Greece’s was 12.7% GDP (or 16% on a cash basis) in 2009.  Both countries locked themselves into currency regimes which made it extremely painful to exit:  Greece has the euro, while Argentina created a variant of a currency board system tied to the US dollar.  And both countries had seen their competitiveness, as measured by the “real exchange rate” (which reflects differential inflation relative to competitors) worsen by 20% over the previous decade, helping price themselves out of export markets – and boosting their consumption of imports.  In 2009 Greece had a current account deficit equal to 11.2% of GDP, while Argentina’s 2002 current account deficit was a much smaller 1.7% GDP.

The solution to such crises is rarely gradual.  Once financial market confidence is lost, yields on government debt soar, private capital flees, and sharp recessions occur.  The IMF ended up drawing tough conclusions from its Argentine experience – the Fund should have walked away from weak government policy programs earlier in the 1990s.  Most importantly, IMF experts argued that from the start the IMF should have prepared a Plan B, which included restructuring of debts and termination of the currency board regime, since they needed a backstop in case the whole program failed.  By providing more funds, the IMF just kicked the can a short distance down the road, and likely made Argentina’s final collapse even more traumatic than it would otherwise have been.

Sadly, the Greeks are today in a similar situation: the government’s macroeconomic program is not nearly enough to calm markets, or put Greece’s debt on a sustainable path.  By 2012 we estimate Greece’s debt/GDP ratio will rise from 114% of GDP to over 150%.  The interest payments alone on this would amount to 9% of Greek’s incomes at current rates, and almost all those funds are transferred to the German, French, and Swiss debt holders.

Greece’s 2010 “austerity” program is striking only for its lack of credibility. Under that program Greece, even in 2010, does not pay the interest on its debt – instead the government plans to raise 52bn euros in credit markets to refinance all its interest while at the same time it borrows 4% of GDP more.  A country’s “primary budget” position measures the budget without interest expenses — at the very least, the Greeks need to move from a 4% of GDP primary budget deficit to a 9% of GDP primary surplus – totalling 13% of GDP further fiscal adjustment, in the midst of what will be a massive recession, just to have enough funds to pay annual interest on their 2012 debt.  This is under the rather conservative assumption that interest rates would settle near 6% per year, where they stand today.  The message from these calculations is simple: Greece needs to be far more bold if its austerity program is to have a serious chance of success.

How did Greece manage to get into such a terrible situation?  Local politics that lead to profligate spending is one answer.  But remember that someone needs to supply the money that allows such profligacy.  In this case it was the European Central Bank that handed Greece the keys to the safe.

Megan McArdle:

Greece’s fiscal problems are turning into one of those endless sagas, the kind we watch unfold at Thanksgiving every year.  Aunt Daphne is going to leave Uncle John!  No, they’re in counseling! Wait, now Aunt Daphne is breaking up with the counselor, too!  The rumors are starting to take on a toxic life of their own, driving up the yields demanded on Greek debt–which in turn, makes it less likely that they’ll be able to finesse the crisis with a moderate infusion of outside cash.

Paradoxically, that seems to be good news for us, pushing our debt yields lower; we are the proverbial “any port in a storm”. This phenomenon is what makes it so difficult to assess the risk of US fiscal trouble.  On the one hand, the US budget is clearly on a completely unsustainable path, and frankly, our household budgets don’t look so much better.  This should make investors nervous about our bonds.

And as far as I can tell, they are.  But they’re even more nervous about bonds everywhere else . . . because everywhere else has worse demographic problems, and a less impressive history of economic growth.  So they aren’t signalling their nerves the way we’d expect, by slowly and steadily pushing up bond yields.

But that in itself is a vulnerability.  If at any point we are not seen as the safest game in town, we will take a gigantic–the better word might be “catastrophic”–hit on our bond interest.  If there’s somewhere safer to park our money, suddenly we lose the premium we currently enjoy for having bonds considered the “risk free” rate.  So while our super-sterling credit rating may delay the onset of a fiscal crisis, if we ever let it get to that point, the onset may be even more sudden and disasstrous than these things usually are.  All the more reason to start getting our fiscal house in order now.

Paul Krugman at NYT:

The debt crisis in Greece is approaching the point of no return. As prospects for a rescue plan seem to be fading, largely thanks to German obduracy, nervous investors have driven interest rates on Greek government bonds sky-high, sharply raising the country’s borrowing costs. This will push Greece even deeper into debt, further undermining confidence. At this point it’s hard to see how the nation can escape from this death spiral into default.

t’s a terrible story, and clearly an object lesson for the rest of us. But an object lesson in what, exactly?

Yes, Greece is paying the price for past fiscal irresponsibility. Yet that’s by no means the whole story. The Greek tragedy also illustrates the extreme danger posed by a deflationary monetary policy. And that’s a lesson one hopes American policy makers will take to heart.

The key thing to understand about Greece’s predicament is that it’s not just a matter of excessive debt. Greece’s public debt, at 113 percent of G.D.P., is indeed high, but other countries have dealt with similar levels of debt without crisis. For example, in 1946, the United States, having just emerged from World War II, had federal debt equal to 122 percent of G.D.P. Yet investors were relaxed, and rightly so: Over the next decade the ratio of U.S. debt to G.D.P. was cut nearly in half, easing any concerns people might have had about our ability to pay what we owed. And debt as a percentage of G.D.P. continued to fall in the decades that followed, hitting a low of 33 percent in 1981.

So how did the U.S. government manage to pay off its wartime debt? Actually, it didn’t. At the end of 1946, the federal government owed $271 billion; by the end of 1956 that figure had risen slightly, to $274 billion. The ratio of debt to G.D.P. fell not because debt went down, but because G.D.P. went up, roughly doubling in dollar terms over the course of a decade. The rise in G.D.P. in dollar terms was almost equally the result of economic growth and inflation, with both real G.D.P. and the overall level of prices rising about 40 percent from 1946 to 1956.

Unfortunately, Greece can’t expect a similar performance. Why? Because of the euro.

Until recently, being a member of the euro zone seemed like a good thing for Greece, bringing with it cheap loans and large inflows of capital. But those capital inflows also led to inflation — and when the music stopped, Greece found itself with costs and prices way out of line with Europe’s big economies. Over time, Greek prices will have to come back down. And that means that unlike postwar America, which inflated away part of its debt, Greece will see its debt burden worsened by deflation.

Arnold Kling:

What Krugman never mentions in his column is the fact that defense spending fell dramatically as a share of GDP in the United States after World War II. In fact, even as late as the 1990’s, the fiscal outlook in the United States appeared to be improving because defense spending’s share of GDP was falling. As of now, defense spending is already too low relative to GDP for further cuts to make a meaningful difference.

According to the Committee on the Fiscal Future of the United States, by 2030, U.S. debt will be 117.6 percent of GDP, roughly the same as that of Greece today. And that is with total non-interest, non-entitlement spending of only 8.5 percent of GDP. (The report pre-dates the Obama Administration, which has substantially increased the path for both debt and spending.)

I have said this before, but the Left’s favorite solution to this, which is bending the health care cost curve between now and 2080, is whistling past the graveyard. We will not get to 2080. Instead, the crisis will come before 2030. If you have not done so already, stare at the table.

Several years ago, I wrote that the future will be a Great Race between technological progress and Medicare–a contest between the technological Singularity and a fiscal Singularity, if you will. Back then, I thought that the technological singularity had a better chance of winning than I do now.

The next time the United States hits a debt-to-GDP ratio of 100 percent or more, we will look much more like Greece in 2010 than the United States in 1945. That is, our government will be in a state of paralysis, the public-sector unions and pensioners will be in a state of hysteria, and defense spending will be only a few percentage points of GDP. Like Greece, we will be devoid of options. At that point, “inflating away the debt” will not be some mild, harmless act–it will require a virulent inflation and/or capital levy that wipes out the savings of everyone except those who have found safe havens overseas.

Have a nice day.

Matthew Continetti at The Weekly Standard

Tom Maguire:

First, the notion of hyper-inflation followed by default probably takes its inspiration from Weimar Germany and Latin America.  However, neither example is useful since they (like Greece, but unlike the US) were dealing with debt denominated in something other than their own currency.  In fact, as Krugman notes in the passage above, inflation is probably a substitute for formal repudiation of our debt.

However, Japan’s Lost Decade provides a more relevant example – a long, grinding deflation could push the US into an untenable financial position.  And that might happen despite a sustained Fed policy of low interest rates and easy money.  Imagine that China maintains its link of the yuan to the dollar, so that easy dollars simply result in easy yuan, thereby stimulating employment and production in China (actually, that is pretty easy to imagine, since it has been the story of the last several years, although China’s policy may change.)  The Fed will never achieve either inflation or robust growth here, since China swallows it up by buying dollars and selling yuan, and the US might be pushed to the brink.

But to the brink of what?  What might a US default look like?  Since we control our own printing presses, it is not that easy to picture logical scenarios in which we default on our debt rather than spinning the presses and printing the legal tender needed to pay off our bills, notes and bonds.  But we are talking about Washington, so why rely on logic?

Matt Welch in Reason

Felix Salmon:

There are two outcomes which no one wants in Greece but which are still becoming increasingly likely: default and devaluation. Argentina did both in 2001. But these aren’t binary things: both can be relatively mild or extremely severe. In Greece’s case, they would surely be much more modest than they were in the Argentine.

The first option is default. If it happens, it’ll happen, as Thomas says, in the form of a debt restructuring, where holders of Greek debt would end up getting new bonds with new terms — lower interest payments, lower principal amounts, that kind of thing. Debt restructurings are messy and unpleasant things at the best of times, but what we’re really talking about here is the sovereign equivalent of a loan modification which, if it goes according to plan, makes both the borrower and the lender better off.

What we’re most emphatically not talking about here is an Argentina-style default, where the country simply unilaterally stops paying any interest on its debt, and then takes years to address the issue, trying to drive the hardest bargain it can all the while.

Then there’s devaluation. If Greece leaves the euro, that would allow it to devalue its currency. If it redenominated its debt from euros into drachmas, that alone would constitute a default, even without a bond exchange. But again, in the event that Greece did leave the euro, it wouldn’t see its currency plunge overnight to a third of its previous value, as Argentina did.

This is where being a member of the EU really does help — not least because of the large exposure that many European banks have to Greece. Even if Germany insists on a hardline refusal to bail Greece out, it equally doesn’t want a Greek failure to be the just the first of the PIIGS dominos to fall, in a series of sovereign collapses which would make the 1998 Asian crisis look positively tractable in comparison. As a result, even in the worst-case scenario, the EU and IMF are at least likely to step in somewhere to cushion the blow and to try to isolate Greece’s problems. What happens in Athens must stay in Athens: if it spreads to Rome and Lisbon and Dublin and Madrid, London would probably be next, and at that point we’d have a major global financial crisis at least as severe as the one we just went through.

So while it’s true that, as Mohamed El-Erian says, things will likely get worse for Greece before they get better, it’s worth being a little bit realistic here about just how much worse they could possibly get. For the time being, everybody’s still hoping that Greece will somehow manage to get through this crisis — and Greece’s debt spreads, while wide, aren’t yet trading at distressed levels. That’s grounds for hope. And it’s also an indication that traders see much less downside here than there was in Argentina.

Robert Wielaard at Huffington Post:

Trying again to halt a debt crisis that has hammered the euro, fellow eurozone governments tossed struggling Greece a financial lifeline Sunday, saying they would make euro30 billion in loans available this year alone – if Athens asks for the money.

The International Monetary Fund stands ready to chip in another euro10 billion, said Olli Rehn, the EU monetary affairs chief.

The promise – filling in details of a March 25 pledge of joint eurozone-IMF help – was another attempt to calm markets that have been selling off Greek bonds in recent days.

Markets viewed the March pledge as too vague and carrying such tough restrictions that Greece could not easily get the money. As a result, investors demanded high rates to loan to the government as it struggles to avoid default – rates the government says it can’t go on paying. Greece has some euro54 billion in debt coming due this year and a huge budget deficit.

In an emergency video conference, the finance ministers of the 16-eurozone nations agreed on a complex three-year financing formula that generates an interest rate of “around 5 percent.”

EARLIER: A Scattering Of Blog Posts Concerning Greece, Germany, And EMF

Beware Goldman Sachs Bearing Gifts

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Filed under Economics, Foreign Affairs, The Crisis

Remembrance Of Books Past

Tyler Cowen is asked “which have influenced your view of the world:”

The books are in no intended order, although the list came out in a broadly chronological stream:

1. Plato, Dialogues.  I read these very early in life and they taught me about trying to think philosophically and also about meta-rationality.

2. The Incredible Bread Machine, by Susan Love Brown, et.al.  This was the first book I ever read on economics and it got me excited about the topic.

3. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, by Ayn Rand.  This got me excited about the idea that production is what matters and that producers must have the freedom and incentives to operate.

4. Friedrich A. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order.  The market as a discovery procedure and why socialist calculation will not succeed.  (By the way, I’ll toss a chiding tsk-tsk the way of Wolfers and Thoma.)

5. John Maynard Keynes: The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.  Keynes is one of the greatest thinkers of economics and there are new ideas on virtually every page.

6. John Stuart Mill, Autobiography.  This got me thinking about how one’s ideas change, and should change, over the course of a lifetime.  Plus Mill is a brilliant thinker and writer more generally.

7. Willard van Orman Quine, Word and Object.  This is actually a book about how to arrive at a deeper understanding than the one you already have, although I suspect few people read it that way.

8. Reasons and Persons, by Derek Parfit.  This convinced me that a strictly individualistic approach to ethics will not in general succeed and introduced me to new ways of reasoning and new ways to plumb for depth.

9. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae.  I don’t think the ideas in this book have influenced me very much, but reading it was, for whatever reason, the impetus to start writing about the economics of culture and also to give a broader focus to what I write.  Alex, by the way, was the one who recommended it to me.

10. Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past.  This is still the best book on interiority.

I’d also like to mention the two books by Fischer Black, although a) I cannot easily elevate one over the other, and b) I capped the list at ten.  La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims also deserves honorary mention, on self-deception and related issues.  Plus there is Shakespeare — also for thinking with depth — although I cannot point to a single book above the others.  Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon comes to mind as well.

I would encourage other bloggers to offer similar lists.

Peter Suderman at The American Scene:

I’m not sure if the books below are truly the absolute most influential in my life, but they’re certainly the ones that immediately stick out in my mind as having stuck with me over time.

Fahrenheit 451 — Ray Bradbury: I’ve always been a little perplexed by the book’s reputation as a defense of free speech. It is, of course, but that’s not its most important point by far. Instead, it’s a novel about mental debilitation and loss of empathy induced by media overload — in particular, overload on shallow, visual, electronic media. It’s also a novel about the love of stories, and the way written stories in particular can provide humans with meaning, purpose, and escape; by the book’s end, the hero joins an outcast community in which individuals devote themselves not only to learning works of literature, but to immersing themselves in them, fusing their identities with these works and, in a sense, becoming them. For reasons that should be obvious, I’ve long found this wonderful and tremendously appealing.

Videohound’s Guide to Cult Flicks and Trash Pics: Before the Internet, and thus before easy access to IMDB and the rest of the digital cinemaverse, cinephiles had to rely on incomplete reference books in order to familiarize themselves with back catalog films. For years, I poured over Videohounds’ cult film guide almost daily, and its sensibility — a quirky mix of giddy, passionate, erudite, snarky, and critical — helped shape my appreciation of and attitude toward pulp ever since.

The Caves of Steel — Isaac Asimov: As an eight year old first reading the book, I loved Asimov’s cleverly constructed murder mystery story, and as an already-devoted sci-fi geek (Star Trek was a staple in my household), I loved the intricate future world Asimov designed even more. But what stuck with me most was the slightly detached, slightly cranky, cerebral-but-not-stuck-up quality of both the detective protagonist, Elijah Baley, and the storytelling itself. As with most of Asimov’s characters (and, as I understand, Asimov himself), Baley was a hyper self-aware invert somewhat vexed by people and social situations, but who solved problems by thinking them through as thoroughly as possible and accepting whatever results, often imperfect, came of this method. Perhaps to my detriment, I related to this quite a bit and found it a useful model for understanding human relations.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns — Frank Miller: I got my first copy of this at nine or ten years old, and I literally read and reread it until it fell apart (for a while I held it together with duct tape, but eventually I lost so many pages that it was no longer worth saving). Miller’s fusion of gruff noir sentiment and comic book action helped define the way I think about pop art and genre storytelling; sure, it’s low culture — frequently crude and base — but it’s executed with such verve that it somehow makes it into the upper middlebrow (or near enough) anyway.

Ender’s Game — Orson Scott Card: Speaking of hyper-cerebral! Scott Card’s later books descend into a near-parody of the Asimovian worldview, with protagonists who presume (and act upon) an absurdly concrete and knowable understanding of human behavior. But while you can find hints of this in Ender’s Game, it works anyway, in large part because of the young age of its heroes. These days, I prefer the first two sequels, Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide, both of which are more mature in their outlook. But the original is the one I’ve read most often, and the one I think of most.

The Catcher in the Rye — J.D. Salinger: Yes, another novel about a social outcast who spends too much time in his head. But it’s a classic for a reason, and an enduring portrait of adolescent questioning.

American Pastoral — Philip Roth: Probably the finest work of prose in the bunch, and arguably also the most mature, it’s one of those novels that’s both impressive and gripping — not only do you admire it, but you can’t stop flipping pages as you do.

Mike Schramm:

He doesn’t know me and I don’t know him, but it seemed like an interesting idea, and I needed something to write tonight. Note that these books are some of the influential books in my life, not the most influential or the best books I’ve ever read. Like Tyler, this is top-of-my-head stuff, not a definitive list.

1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. This book (and the subsequent “trilogy” of five books — I haven’t read “And Another Thing” yet, so I’m not sure if I consider it canon or not) defined my humor, my geekiness, my wit, my insight into our species and what a silly, messed-up set of creatures we are.

2. Dracula, by Bram Stoker. I bought an edition of this called “The Essential Dracula” back when I was a kid, and it got me into literary analysis long before I ever minored in English in college. Here was a pulp story about a supernatural villian told in an interesting way, but when I read the analysis on it, I realized it was actually a commentary on class and wealth, on Victorian sensibility and sex, and the proper modern balanced up against the great old evil myths of history.

3. The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller. Batman was my favorite long before I read this book, but this series taught me about how you can deconstruct a legend, take it over, and place it in your own time. I remember reading that Miller wanted to write this because he was worried — Batman, to him, was always an old man figure, and Miller was rapidly approaching the age at which he imagined Batman had always been. So in this book, Miller pushes the clock back, and turns Batman into a guy who will always be the old grumpy bastard. Not to mention the Joker’s death scene — just a perfect ending to that mythical relationship.

4. Jennifer Government, by Max Barry. I found this book later than the other books on this list so far, but it’s one of my favorite books, and it’s the first book that really convinced me that I could sit down and write a novel. Not only is it a cracking good and funny read, but it was written by Barry while he was working at HP — in short, he was like me, a guy stuck in a tech job and trying to write fiction in the evenings about the geeky stuff he knew. I still haven’t come up with a premise or a book this good, but I am still working on it.

5. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. My high school teacher told us that this was the best novel ever written, and though I didn’t believe her at first, I reread it a few years later, and eventually came around to her point of view. It’s not my favorite novel at all, but yes, in terms of voice and story and themes, it could well be the best novel ever written.

6. In the Hall of the Dragon King, Stephen R. Lawhead. There’s nothing really special about this book — it’s straight fantasy, with a kid who starts out humbly but eventually has to save the world with all of his magical buddies. But this was the first fantasy book I ever read, and so it was my introduction to the genre that I keep finding myself coming back to again and again. Nowadays, fantasy is super popular, and there are all sorts of subgenres and different takes, and it’s much more of a commodity. But this book hearkens back to when it all started for me: a little pudgy kid who was pretty unpopular who found all sorts of magical worlds and wonder in the pages of a book.

7. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. As if you didn’t already know I was a nerd — it’s cliche to like this book at this point. But still, this was my introduction to cyberpunk. Nowadays, I think that The Diamond Age is a very much superior book, and I think Neuromancer should be much more respected for its influence and role in the creation of the genre. But Snow Crash was the first one I read that really vibed with me — Neuromancer was always a little too intellectual when you compared it to Hiro Protagonist’s pizza delivery adventures.

8. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. If you want to talk lifetime, this might not register quite yet, as it’s only in the past year or so that this book has influenced me. Still, if you want to talk quality over quantity, this book is more or less responsible for all the thinking I’ve done in the past year about what I’m eating and how I’m dealing with food in general. There are quite a few factors that have influenced my changes in lifestyle over the past 16 months or so, but this book is a big one of them.

9. Gamma World, 4th edition by James M. Ward and Gary Jaquet. I’ll come clean: my introduction to roleplaying games wasn’t through D&D. I never actually played D&D much as a kid — I was in that weird spot where the few friends I had were too cool to concern themselves with video games or D&D dice. But I did buy this book somewhere and I poured over it for hours, reading up on character creation and various weapons and how to design settings for players this postapocalyptic world. I only remember playing this once with my brother, and he didn’t have any interest in it at all (partly because I didn’t really understand it myself, but mostly because he didn’t really care), but I was so darn fascinated by the idea of it.

10. The Holy Bible. Let’s be honest here — I would almost argue that anyone who says they weren’t influenced by this one is lying. But even if you want to claim that this book isn’t a part of your life, I’ll admit that it’s been a big part of mine. I don’t mean to evangelize — personally, I have no real idea what exactly I believe right now, and that doesn’t give me any position to tell anyone else what they should or shouldn’t believe. I figure, as long as you’re not hurting yourself or someone else, more power to you. But from “In the beginning” to “Amen,” I would argue that there isn’t a part of anyone’s life this book hasn’t influenced in some way. You can talk about quotes, you can talk about story (almost all of our stories involve some sort of messianic figure, and who’s the most messianic figure you know?), you can talk about laws and politics and gender relations and wars, and you name it, this book’s had a hand in it. And even if you want to get personal, I went to a Lutheran school — I know all the stories of Jacob and Esau (oh hi Lost) and Isaiah and Solomon and David and Jesus and Peter and Paul and so on. Like it or not, if you want to list influential books, I’m putting this one on there.

Arnold Kling:

1. David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest. My take-away from that book might be described as “The Exclusive Country Club Theory.” He makes foreign policy in the 1950’s and early 1960’s in the United States sound as if it was the province of an exclusive country club of people with a certain temperament and background. Wall Street lawyers, mostly. I have to say that I have carried this model with me for a long time. To this day, I view the relationship among Treasury, the Fed, the New York Fed, and large financial institutions in Exclusive Country Club terms. These people vet one another, agree with one another, and support one another. They do not question whether their interests coincide with those of the rest of the country–they just assume that the country depends on their institutions and their class leadership.

2. George Goodman, aka ‘Adam Smith,’ The Money Game and Supermoney. He was the Michael Lewis of his time–a great storyteller who also understood the substance of finance. I think his books still read well, although I could understand it if others find the stories themselves too dated. These books sparked my interest in finance theory and in the temptation to both believe and refuse to believe in efficient markets.

3. Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian, Information Rules. Again, you may find that the examples seem old, but no better book has been written on the economic issues of the information-driven economy. Among other things, this book convinced me that Price Discrimination Explains Everything.

4. Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines. At first, I did not buy it. However, I have mostly come around. It is now possible to evaluate his predictions for 2009 (made around 1997). He did score with this one (p. 190):

Computers routinely include wireless technology to plug into the ever-present worldwide network, providing reliable, instantly available, very-high-bandwidth communication. Digital objects such as books, music albums, movies, and software are rapidly distributed as data files through the wireless network, and typically do not have a physical object associated with them.

However, for the most part, his predictions are far too aggressive. He was about right on hardware capability, somewhat optimistic on software capability (he thought that functions like language translation would be pretty much mastered by now), clearly too optimistic on the emergence of applications (he predicted computer-controlled cars on main highways by now) and ludicrously optimistic about the speed at which education and health care will be transformed by technology.5. Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man. Folks on the left scorn this book, and it is not without its flaws. But ultimately, I think the left hates Shlaes not for what she gets wrong but what she gets right. What she gets right pokes huge holes in the high school book narrative of the Depression (Herbert Hoover sat back and did nothing, Roosevelt saved the economy). My takeaway from this book is the importance of the battle over historical narrative. We see that today in the determination of the left to blame the financial crisis entirely on “free-market ideology,” even though that narrative is not such a good fit for the facts.

6. George Gilder, Microcosm. This was his history of the microprocessor. My guess is that it will not read well today, but at the time his emphasis on the relative unimportance of the materials in computers (he refers to silicon as “sand”) stimulated me to focus on intangibles in the modern economy.

7. Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed. This book got me started thinking about the origins of the differences between the left and the right. I do not think anyone has fully satisfactory answers, but it is a fascinating question.

8. Amar Bhide, The Origin and Evolution of New Businesses. He breaks down the business ecosystem into two dimensions–degree of capital intensity and degree of ambiguity, and he gets remarkable mileage out of the resulting matrix.

9. Bill James, The Baseball Abstact, 1987. Others can be equally analytical about baseball. What is striking about Bill James is how well he wrote–when he cared. If only Amar Bhide wrote this well…

10. Ernest Graham, The Wind in the Willows. The character of Toad is brilliantly drawn and offers great insights.

11. Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age and Snow Crash. How I came to understand nanotechnology and competitive government, respectively.

1. Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell. For me it all started with Sowell. In hindsight what intrigued me about the book was not the economics, but Sowell’s ability to use human reason to understand the world, but in a concrete way. Call it empirical philosophy.
2. Moral Theory by David Oderberg. A defense of natural rights morality against Peter Singer and other utilitarians, but this also inspired by interest in philosophy.
3. The Myth of Monogamy by David Barash. The first work of sociobiology that I’d ever read and it opened my eyes. Interestingly enough, it also removed the last glimmer of the belief that Judeo-Christian sexual morality was an obselete relic of the past. It is about creating peace in the war between the sexes more than avoiding out of wedlock childbirths.
4. Civil Rights by Thomas Sowell. I still think this is Sowell’s best book. Takes a birds eye view of culture and cultural values and shows why it matters.
5. Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig. I used to be an atheist and began my walk with God with a very shaky and weak faith. This strengthened me.
6. Microeconomics by Samuel Bowles. Let me slough off my neoclassical chains and learn some real economics, and made me appreciate the need for social norms and cultural models of “life strategies”.
7. Luxury Fever by Robert Frank. A lot of this book was fluff, but the crucial insight of people in an arms race with each other for relative rank (social status) reoriented my thinking about incentives and taxes. I now realize that it brought me to the economic center.
8. Choice Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Allingham. Opened up the world of political philosophy.
9. The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. I knew a lot of the material already but the section on children and behavioral genetics opened my eyes. Culture > family.
10. Herbert Gintis’ Amazon Book Reviews. Ok, I’m cheating a bit. If I wanted to conform to the challenge then I could put his book The Bounds of Reason, but after reading all of his book reviews a couple times I’d already been acquainted with the major points he’d made. Opened my eyes to really good work in the social sciences.

E.D. Kain at The League:

I have thought about this some, and come to the decision that the books I read as a child were by far the most influential – far more influential than anything I read later as a college student or the ones I read nowadays.  So here’s a list, from memory, of the most influential books I read as a child.

The Lord of the Rings – This one is the obvious choice for a fantasy reader, I suppose.  I read it in fourth grade for the first time and loved it, and have read it several times since. It is still the definitive work of epic fantasy, I believe.  The only downside is that so many people attempted to imitate Tolkien when they should have been writing their own ideas.

The Prydain Chronicles – Lloyd Alexander was never as well known as Tolkien, but his Prydian books were wonderful young adult fantasy novels steeped in Welsh myth.  So while some of the characters mirrored those in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the stories themselves were unique and interesting and lively.  I read these ones countless times.

The Dark is Rising Sequence – This series taps into the old Welsh and British mythology fairly heavily, mixing the modern world and Merlin and time travel together in an epic clash between good and evil.  One of many books I read and loved that transports us from the mundane world into one much darker and more fierce.

A Wrinkle in Time – This was one of those books that really stopped me in my tracks. Free will, conformity, and the seduction of evil are all present here.

The Giver – Another glimpse into totalitarianism and conformity and the dangers of ‘sameness’ and ignorance of history.  Less fantastical than my typical childhood read, but sort of shocking also.

The Bridge to Terabithia – They made a movie about this book recently.  Please don’t watch it.  Sometimes movies can enrich the book experience, but not when they are mangled by over-Disneyfication. Terabithia helped me understand tragedy and loss better.

The Castle in the Attic – To be honest, I can barely remember this book, but like Narnia it helped transport me into another world – something I did a lot of as a kid.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – This was a good, funny, cynical take on the King Arther stories.  Very helpful to round out all that heroism and chivalry with some good, honest, witty realism.

Narnia – Like the Lord of the Rings, these books are simply staples of young adult fantasy.

King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table – I have read so many King Arthur books at this point I can barely keep track of them.  This was one of the first.

I Am the Cheese – This was far more dystopian a tale than I typically read as a child, and still sort of haunting whenever I think about it.

Some honorable mentions:

Watership Down, Lord of the Flies, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, The Wind in the Willows, The Last Unicorn, the Redwall books, the books of Roald Dahl and many others…

Matthew Yglesias:

So my list in no order:

— 1. Derick Parfit, Reasons and Persons: This is my alternative to a theological system or religious belief, the set of preposterous-to-those-who-don’t-believe-it-yet ideas that underlies how I think about morality, who we are, and what it all means.— 2. Friedrich Nietszche, On the Genealogy of Morals: I first picked up Nietszche because his image has a kind of appeal to smart, pretentious, angry, lonely teenage boys. But this is a really important book! The fact that Caplan “ultimately didn’t learn much of substance” from Nietszche except the value of being arrogant strikes me as telling.

— 3. Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained: The precise content of Dennett’s ideas about human consciousness isn’t important to me, but the practical methods at work are. I’m drawn to Wittgeinstein’s thing about how you need to “show the fly the way out of the flybottle” rather than “solve” these timeless dilemmas, but I find Wittgeinstein almost impossible to read and didn’t understand what he was saying at all when I tried. Dennett I think gave me an example of the shewing.

— 4. William McNeil, Plagues & Peoples: This had a kind of revelatory quality to me, the idea that everything you thought was important about history was actually kind of trivial and the real determinants of human destiny are something else entirely. Guns, Germs, and Steel is arguably the better book in this genre, but I only ever read it because I’d read P&P first so I’m giving McNeil the nod.

— 5. Maxine Hong Kingston, Tripmaster Monkey: For two reasons. One is that I used to be the kind of jerk who thought education was being ruined by PC demands to represent more women and minority writers. Then I wound up randomly assigned freshman year to a class that was all about women and minority writers. And damnit, if some of the books weren’t really good! Turns out I didn’t have it all figured out when I was 18. This was my favorite of the bunch, and from it I acquired my love of pastiche. If you like “Miley Cyrus and American Exceptionalism” you have Kingston to thank.

— 6. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground: The very beginning from “I am a sick man” to “I will talk about myself” is the greatest stretch of prose in human history. Dostoevsky is also an illustration of the power of great writing to convey radically unsound or even totally nonsensical ideas. And at the end of the day, coming to grasp the difference between the true, the right, and the beautiful is hugely important. Many if not most of the most compelling artistic visions are espousing somewhat crazy ideas, and sober thinking about big issues is boring.

— 7. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: This books is ultimately why I stopped trying to get good grades and go to grad school. Most people, of course, don’t suffer from the “might want to be a professional philosopher when I grow up” problem and don’t necessarily need to be un-bewitched about the nature of the enterprise. But Rorty more generally is the summation of a whole series of thinkers on the Hume-Wittgeinst-Quine-Sellars trajectory who teach a deflationary way of approaching problems.

— 8. Susan Moller Okin, Justcie, Gender, and the Family: I think that to a lot of heterosexual left-of-center men, distinctively feminist ideas can easily seem to be either trivial or else censorious and annoying. I know some men who say their thinking about this was changed when they had a daughter, which makes sense. For me, though, it was Okin that showed that there were intellectually important claims here and that the feminist revolution is likely to continue to challenge the status quo in important ways for years to come.

— 9. Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: I feel like this book is too new and non-classic and I read it too recently for it to deserve a place on this list. But I’m constantly hearing or reading things that remind me of it, and wanting to tediously explain Clark’s whole thesis to people. It’s certainly not convincing in all respects, but I think it’s the model of how to frame a big question and attack it.

— 10. Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution: I actually find Structure a bit obscurantist in certain respects that encourages misreadings. Certainly it’s an important classic, but I think I think I would have found it totally unconvincing had I not read Kuhn’s earlier and more accessible book first (and thanks to Michael Rescorla for structuring the tutorial that way). Suffice it to say that the story you think you know about how a diligent empiricist looked at the stars and debunked religious superstition about planetary orbits is totally wrong.

Tyler Cowen has a list of bloggers who have participated

Conor Friedersdorf

Jason Kuznicki at The League:

Following the meme, here are the ten books that changed my life the most.

  • The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. This book de-Catholicized me, or at least it began the process. It set me on the path to libertarianism, after I’d read Atlas Shrugged. It offered a sense of life, and a lifelong obsession. I still live here a lot of the time.
  • The Once and Future King by T. H. White. The most insightful book about government ever written for young people. It taught me that government is a nasty business, even at its best. I have never since been able to see government as noble in the way that I think most people do.
  • Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama. Sparked another lifelong interest — the French Revolution, which was also a nasty business, but an instructive one. After years of reading in French history, I have all kinds of complaints with this book, but it’s still a great read.
  • Candide by Voltaire. I pick this one out of Voltaire’s many short stories both because it’s one of the longer ones — plausibly, it really is a book — and also because it’s familiar. Voltaire’s style, his absurdism, and his sense of justice have always appealed to me.
  • The Book of Predictions by David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace and Irving Wallace. Published in 1981. Obscure but fascinating; its influence would be hard for me to overstate. Every year on New Year’s Day I revisit this book to see what various people got right and wrong about the future, which I’ve been lucky enough to live to see. Patterns have emerged over time, and these patterns have deeply influenced how I think about society.Lesson one: psychics are never worth your time. The most accurate forecaster in the book is F. M. Esfandiary, by a landslide (yes, that guy). He got many things wrong, but it’s clear that he was in another league from all the rest.The biggest mistake made by nearly all forecasters (though not so much by Esfandiary) is to think that the future would be controlled by a central agency or authority. No one imagined how decentralized we would be in 2010. We were blindsided by a mostly libertarian, decentralizing technological revolution. This is a tremendously good thing. Most predictors were pessimists, and they were mostly wrong.
  • Island by Aldous Huxley. It’s hard to read or understand this book without Brave New World, but Island is a positive statement of Huxley’s beliefs, not a negative one, so what he really thinks comes across more clearly. It’s also the only utopian society in fiction that I’d ever really want to live in. The others either leave me cold or make me want to run away as fast as I can. I’d have some problems with Huxley’s utopia, but I think I could live in it.
  • Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault. Sort of a stand-in for all of his other works. Didn’t dare cite The Order of Things because that one’s so hard to understand that I’m not sure whether it’s had an influence on me. Whenever I try self-consciously to “be” a libertarian in my writing, I often end up sounding like Foucault.
  • Virtually Normal by Andrew Sullivan. Andrew would do better to blog less and to write more in print. He’s an extraordinary prose stylist, and maybe among the best of all time, when he slows down. When he blogs, he’s repetitive and formulaic. I learned to write by reading Virtually Normal. It was also the first book I ever read about gay politics, and it seemed just so clear, so right, and so wise.
  • Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett. This is the closest I’ve ever read to a convincing theory of everything. The book is too modestly titled, however, because while Darwin is certainly the key to the story, we also get Diderot, Hume, Leibniz, Popper, Gould, Penrose, and a host of others. It’s an intellectual tour de force, and especially remarkable for its linkage of biological evolution to a theory of mind.
  • Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World by Jack Goldstone. This book nearly destroyed my faith in non-quantitative historical methods. I take it as a reminder that while philosophy may be a tyrant, she is a tyrant with short, pudgy little arms.

Ezra Klein:

I’ve written this sort of thing before. The mainstays on my list are John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” Tom Geoghegan’s “Which Side Are You On?,” Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity,” Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes” and maybe a handful of others.

But I always feel like a fraud.

These books meant a lot to me, but they were much less influential in my thinking — particularly in my current thinking — than a variety of texts that carry consider less physical heft. Years spent reading the Washington Monthly, American Prospect and New Republic transformed me from someone interested in politics into someone interested in policy. So, too, did bloggers like, well, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum and Tyler Cowen. In fact, Cowen, Brad DeLong, Mark Thoma and a variety of other economics bloggers also get credit for familiarizing me with a type of basic economic analysis that’s consistently present in my approach to new issues.

Much of my emphasis on the institutions of American government and the processes by which they work (or don’t) came from my relationship with Mark Schmitt, first through his blog and then through his editorship at the American Prospect. That was cemented, of course, by reporting deeply on health-care reform, which is an opportunity that TAP gave me but that few other outlets would’ve been even mildly interested in letting me pursue. I consider reading the blogger Demosthenes use the word “props” in relation to politics as something near to an epiphany; it was the first time I realized that I could speak about Washington in a language I recognized.

Kieran Healy:

1. Clive James, Visions Before Midnight or The Crystal Bucket. His TV criticism. I think I read one or other these when I was twelve or thirteen, having bought them on holidays somewhere. Not exactly Leavis or Empson, I know. But it taught me a lot about how to write, encouraged me to pretend I knew about the literary stuff James habitually referred to in passing, and I’m pretty sure helped make me an insufferable teenaged shit.

2. Steven Vogel, Life’s Devices. Another random bookshop discovery. This is a book about biomechanics but also, and more importantly, a terrific introduction to what is means to do science. A lot of it went past me when I read it first, but it was still irresistible in part because (as I remember) it’s written with this quiet wit right the way through. Chock full of trivia that isn’t really trivia. Strangely enough, I think Vogel still teaches here at Duke. I should thank him personally for writing such a great book.

3. Bernd Heinrich, Ravens in Winter. Another book by a biologist. (Are you seeing my imagined career path here?) Another classic book on the practice of science. Heinrich follows ravens around in Vermont, trying to figure out why the hell they would share carrion they find. I’d recommend this book to anyone.

4. Thomas Schelling, Micromotives and Macrobehavior. So clever, so unassuming, so it made me want to be an economist. Then I took some economics and it wasn’t much like Schelling at all.

5. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger. I think this book made me want to do sociology. Bluntly creative. Briskly suggestive. Deeply frustrating.

6. David Warren Sabean, Power in the Blood: Popular Culture and Village Discourse in Early Modern Germany. I don’t know a damn thing about medieval German history, but I had to read this book very, slowly, carefully and repeatedly as part of a Sociology of Community course as a third year undergraduate. I learned a tremendous amount in the process. The cases are fascinating: a girl branded as a witch, a man who refused to say his prayers, the ritual burial of a bull at a crossroads. The analysis is subtle: Sabean is excellent on the fine grain of relations between the State and the peasantry, and how religion and cultural meaning generally express these relations. But for me it was the first academic monograph I really grasped and, in the process, came to understand how hard it must be to write a book that good.

7. Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice. I had to read chunks of it as a postgrad in Ireland, and as my reaction was one of constant irritation at Bourdieu’s writing style coupled with the feeling that he was getting at something important. I reread the first few chapters recently and was struck by how direct (and properly documented) its engagement with the literature was in comparison with much of the rest of his work, so I guess professional socialization has had its effect on me. But I was also surprised that it was as compelling as I remembered.

8. Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve. This came out the year before I moved to the U.S. for graduate school. The book and the ensuing controversy around it taught me a lot about American academia, the wider world of the chattering classes in the U.S., the institutional structure that supported them, and the American public sphere generally. It wasn’t a pleasant lesson. As a piece of social science the book was terribly executed and written in transparently bad faith; the social sciences in general and sociology in particular botched their response; the pressure of media narratives flattened people into parodies of themselves; and many people who I’d thought might have known better turned out to have a healthy appetite for eugenic tripe, as long as it was presented more in sorrow than in anger.

9. William S. Cleveland, Visualizing Data. “This book presents a set of graphical methods for displaying data”. Does it ever. Tufte gets the Presidential Commissions and the high media profile, and deserves all that, but Cleveland shows you how it’s done in practice and wrote the software that lets you code it yourself. For me it opened up the world of serious thinking on data and model visualization for quantitative data.

10. Richard Titmuss, The Gift Relationship. Reading this wasn’t a transformative experience in some existential sense, but it obviously left a mark seeing as I ended up writing a dissertation and a book that revisited its main questions.

Will Wilkinson:

1. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer. This book made me realize that it is possible to play with words and ideas. I can’t even remember much of the story now.  (Is it Milo?) What I remember is the revelation that it is possible to get a thrill from manipulating ideas and the words that express them.

2. Dune by Frank Herbert. The Dune books connected with me deeply as a teenager. They appealed, I think, to the sense that people have profound untapped powers that discipline can draw out; e.g., Mentats, Bene Gesserit. Also, it appealed to the fantasy that I might have special awesome hidden powers, like Paul Atreides, and that they might just sort of come to me, as a gift of fate, without the hassle of all that discipline. I think this book is why I was slightly crushed when I turned 18 and realized that not only was I not a prodigy, but I wasn’t amazingly good at anything. I sometimes still chant the  Litany against Fear when I’m especially nervous or panicking about something.

3. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller/The Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. I’m cheating on this one, since these came out about the same time and had a similar effect on me, and I don’t know which one to pick. Superhero comics can give a kid a pretty comprehensive mythology, a well of types and tropes and quests to draw from in the effort to make sense of the world. Miller and Moore/Gibbons convinced me at a vulnerable, self-conscious age that superhero mythology was not necessarily kid’s stuff, and that even superhero comics could be real art. So I planned to become a comics auteur, like Frank Miller.

4. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. This book ordered and amplified my awe at the natural world. The fact that I could more or less understand it made me feel confident about being smart.

4. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I read this at nineteen while working at the Joseph Smith Historic Center in Nauvoo, IL for the summer. I was just getting a strong sense of myself as a person apart from my family and hometown friends. I’d been excited by Bill Clinton in the 1992 Democratic convention and was toying with voting for him. Then I read Atlas Shrugged. I began reading the libertarian canon and I voted for Andre Marrou that Fall. I started paying more attention to my philosophy classes than my art classes. Ayn Rand is why I almost became an academic philosopher, why I became a libertarian, and why I work at Cato. She also all-but destroyed my interest in making art, since I could not at the time I was under her influence square her ideology of art with my own creative impulses.  I still suffer from this.

5. The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein. This is the first intellectual book I ever reviewed in print. I gave it a mixed review in the Northern Iowan. (I think I had some misgivings about some of the race and IQ stuff, but I understood that it was not a book about race.) A sociology professor either sent me an email or wrote a letter to the editor (I don’t remember which!) condemning me for not condemning the book for being racist. This was my first taste of the excitement and frustration of participating in public intellectual life. I was  impressed with Murray’s fortitude and grace in the face of what seemed to me to be outrageously unfair, truly scurrilous attacks. And it helped me understand the difference between trying hard to honestly think through tough social problems because you care and mouthing comfortable pieties in an effort to get credit for caring.

6. The Geneology of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche. Morality has a history and its value is open to question. Our deepest intellectual commitments reflect deeper psychological needs. If this book (or Nietzsche generally) doesn’t make you wonder why you really believe what you do, then you are a clod. If I am hungry for the buzz of illumination, I go back to Nietzsche.

7. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle. The best class I had as an undergraduate was a grad seminar on the Nicomachean Ethics taught by a Straussean. This is one of the best books ever written (or best set of lectures compiled) by one of the best minds ever. The paper I wrote for this seminar on what it means to have a stable disposition to action sparked my interest in moral psychology.

8. Law, Legislation, and Liberty by F.A. Hayek. Rand made me a libertarian. Hayek made me a liberal. I don’t know how much of what I believe comes from Hayek, but it’s a lot.

9. Tractatus Logic0-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Still dominates how I think about modality and the bounds of what may sensibly be said. There is no book more like great architecture.

10. Universals: An Opinionated Introduction by David M. Armstrong. Initiated my love of metaphysics and Australian realism, though Armstrong never did argue me out of nominalism.

11. In Praise of Commercial Culture by Tyler Cowen. This book angered my inner Randian, but delighted my native sensibility. When I got home from my first IHS seminar, Tyler Cowen lecture in mind, free Tyler Cowen book in hand, I went straight to my computer to begin writing a furious denunciation, which I never finished. But I’m still curious about folk art and foreign cuisines and have since repeated Tyler-like arguments to so many people so many times that I forget what I ever thought was wrong with them.

12. Morals by Agreement by David Gauthier. This book was the key that unlocked the contractarian treasure chest for me. Made me understand at a much deeper level the point of moral constraints on self-interested behavior, and why they would be impossible if we were well described by stripped-down models of instrumental rationality.

13. A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. I dug into this book with the intention of saying what was really, really wrong with it. Instead, I ended up feeling like I understood political philosophy.

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

So I guess I’ll throw out my ten books. But just to be ignorant, I’m going to list eight

1.) Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neal Hurston–I always hated the exhibitionism of Native Son. I felt like Richard Wright was basically using black people as a prop to make a point to white people. Their Eyes, on the other hand, struck me as the best aspects of the Afrocentric idea, and certainly that part of it which I carry with me today–the notion of writing, and thus existing, on your own terms.
2.) The Orgins Of The Urban Crisis, Thomas Sugrue–A brilliant corrective to the whole “Negroes and Coleman Young ruined Detroit” myth. Sugrue debunks Detroit’s golden age by depicting the city’s deep-seated institutional racism, and illustrates the complexities of white flight, and effectively argues that the exodus began almost two decades before the 67 riots.
3.) When And Where I Enter, Paula Giddings–This is just masterful and colorful history of black women in America. It was the first place I really learned about Ida B. Wells, feminist, militant, and later Garveyite, packing a pistol while investigating lynchings. Beautiful book, and in no small measure the reason for my son’s very existence.
4.) Battle Cry Of Freedom, James MacPherson–They need to make people read MacPherson’s history of the Civil War in order to vote in this country. I don’t think I’ve read an 800plus page book that moved so smoothly. This is the greatest work of history I’ve ever had the privilege of reading.
5.) The Country Between Us, Carolyn Forche–Heh. I spent much of college trying to ape this book. Once I realized I would never write anything as beautiful as “The Return,” I gave up poetry.
6.) Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow–I think about this book almost once every day. Books like Ragtime really define, for me, how writers should deal with inserting the politics into books. Doctorow’s pinko-commie leanings definitely shine through, but the book is so damn beautifully written that you almost don’t notice. On another note, this book–weirdly enough–was actually a guide for me when I went to write my memoir.
7.) Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth Jackson–Much like Sugrue’s book, Jackson’s history of American suburbs is just a superb take-down of much of the mythology surrounding the fall of the American city in the 70s and 80s. I think Jackson’s greatest contribution is how he outlines the distorting effects of red-lining on black people, and on cities themselves. I’m waiting for someone to write an entire history of housing segregation, covering red-lining, restrictive covenants, the whole gamut. This is the closest that I’ve seen to that.
8.) Drown, Junot Diaz–Much like Their Eyes, Drown was a book that really convinced me that that your voice, the one native to your neighborhood, was OK. There’s a story in there called “No Face,” about a kid whose face is so mangled that he wears a mask. But, a’la M.F. Doom, No Face  has super-powers (or imagines himself having super-powers) that allow him to avoid the neighborhood bullies. I can’t recall the line, but at the end of the story, the boy comes home to his little brother who says something like, “Where have you been all day?” And the boy just says to him, “I’ve been fighting evil.”

Matthew Continetti at The Weekly Standard

Ross Douthat

UPDATE: Daniel Drezner

Will at The League

Ned Resnikoff

UPDATE #2: Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy

UPDATE #3: Austin Bramwell at TAC keeps score

UPDATE #4: Tim F.

UPDATE #5: Matthew Schmitz at The League

UPDATE #6: Mark Thompson at The League

UPDATE #7: Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative

4 Comments

Filed under Books

Evidence Of Inflation Unseen

Michael Kinsley in The Atlantic:

In short, I can’t help feeling that the gold bugs are right. No, I’m not stashing gold bars under my bed. But that’s only because I lack the courage of my convictions.

My fear is not the result of economic analysis. It’s more from the realm of psychology. I mean mine. The last time I wrote about this subject, The Atlantic’s own Clive Crook called me a “fiscal sado-conservative.” I would put it differently (you won’t be surprised to hear). Maybe, at least on economic matters, I’m a puritan. The recession we’ve been going through did not occur for no reason. Even though serious misbehavior by the finance industry triggered it, sooner or later it was bound to happen. For a generation—since shortly after Volcker saved the country, and except for a brief period of surpluses under Bill Clinton—we partied on borrowed money. We watched a real-estate bubble get larger and larger, knowing but not acknowledging that it had to burst. Then it did burst, and George W. Bush slunk off to Texas, leaving Barack Obama to clean up the mess. Obama has done the right things, mostly, pushing through a huge stimulus package and bailing out a few big corporations and banks. Krugman says we need yet another dose of stimulus, and maybe he’s right.

But this cure has been one ice-cream sundae after another. It can’t be that easy, can it? The puritan in me says that there has to be some pain. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been plenty of economic pain. But that pain has come from the recession itself, not the cure.

My specific concern is nothing original: it’s just the national debt. Yawn and turn the page here if you’d like. We talk now of trillions, not yesterday’s hundreds of billions. It’s not Obama’s fault. He did what he had to do. However, Obama is president, and Democrats do control Congress. So it’s their responsibility, even if it’s not their fault. And no one in a position to act has proposed a realistic way out of this debt, not even in theory. The Republicans haven’t. The Obama administration hasn’t. Come to think of it, even Paul Krugman hasn’t. Presidential adviser David Axelrod, writing in The Washington Post, says that Obama has instructed his agency heads to go through the budget “page by page, line by line, to eliminate what we don’t need to help pay for what we do.” So they’ve had more than a year and haven’t yet discovered the line in the budget reading “Stuff We Don’t Need, $3.2 trillion.”

There is a way out. It’s called inflation. In 1979, for example, the government ran a deficit of more than $40 billion—about $118 billion in today’s money. The national debt stood at about $830 billion at year’s end. But because of 13.3 percent inflation, that $830 billion was worth what only $732 billion would have been worth at the beginning of the year. In effect, the government ran up $40 billion in new debts but inflated away almost $100 billion and ended up with a national debt smaller in real terms than what it started with. Ten percent inflation for five years (if that were possible) would erode the value of our projected debt nicely—but along with it, the value of non-indexed pensions, people’s savings, and so on. The Federal Reserve is independent, but Congress and the White House have ways to pressure the Fed. Actually, just spending all this money we don’t have is one good way.

Compared with raising taxes or cutting spending, just letting inflation do the dirty work sounds easy. It will be a terrible temptation, and Obama’s historic reputation (not to mention the welfare of the nation) will depend on whether he succumbs. Or so I fear. So who are you going to believe? Me? Or virtually every leading economist across the political spectrum? Even I know the sensible answer to that.

And yet …

Matthew Continetti at The Weekly Standard:

Welcome to the team! Slight addendum: Contrary to Kinsley, one guy has put out a way to get out from under the national debt (though right now he might not be in “a position to act”).

Brad DeLong:

If Kinsley seriously believes that inflation is on the way, he and his wife could take their entire household portfolio and go short 20-year Treasury bonds @4.43% and long 20-year TIPS @2.11%. Each year over the next 20 that inflation is above 2.32% they make money.

I’m not one who pledges to always believe that markets have gotten it right. But I do believe that someone who doesn’t think that market prices are aggregating information needs to tell a story about why markets have gotten it wrong before they set pen to paper.

That is all.

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic:

First, inflation doesn’t just chew up the debt. It also swallows the value of non-inflation-indexed savings. For savings tied to inflation, like Social Security, inflation would in nominal terms cost tax payers more money down the line.

Second, inflation at a level high enough to quickly reduce fiscal deficits could spiral out of control back home. If you’re setting prices in an economy where future prices are expected to rise, your temptation is to set prices higher. In this way, inflationary expectations can outrun the Fed’s target.

Third, there’s a decent chance that inflation won’t actually reduce our deficit in the first place. If inflation begins to creep up, investors will demand higher interest rates on US debt to beat expected inflation in the future. As Anne Vorce, director for the Fiscal Roadmap Project of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget at the New America Foundation, told me this morning, “Our creditors would go nuts. The Chinese premier specifically said he was concerned about inflation in our debt. Inflation is tempting in the short run. In the middle or long it has costs.”

Matthew Yglesias:

So neither leading economists nor Michael Kinsley himself believe that hyperinflation is just around the corner, and yet the thesis of Kinsley’s piece is that “when and if the recession is well and truly over, there is a serious danger of another round of vicious inflation” and that “[t]his time, inflation will be a lot harder to stop before it turns into hyperinflation.”

I note that not only does Kinsley’s column explicitly discuss the lack of evidence for Kinsley’s thesis, but it also details the theoretical error Kinsley is making—thinking too moralistically about the economy. He says “on economic matters, I’m a puritan.” And also that “The recession we’ve been going through did not occur for no reason.” He feels, metaphorically speaking, that it was sent by God to punish us for our overindulgence. And that while we’ve had plenty of economic pain over the past 24 months, that’s not enough: “that pain has come from the recession itself, not the cure.” Kinsley’s view is that recovery has to come with some episode of ritual purging and mass suffering over and above the suffering caused directly by the recession. In his view, a greater punishment must be over the horizon for the sake of the moral order. And since recession is, by his lights, not enough the only other economic calamity on the menu is inflation. And so, he deduces, we must be heading for inflation, even though he himself recognizes the reasoning as so specious that he won’t use it as the basis for investment decisions.

Andrew Leonard at Salon:

Matthew Yglesias does such a scintillating job of eviscerating Michael Kinsley’s bizarre hyperinflation hyperventilation in the April issue of The Atlantic that it would be unsportsmanlike to pile on and offer my own line-by-line exegesis of his confounding nervous-nellyism. I’ll just note that it requires some very clever rhetoric to explain how you can’t sleep at night because of your inflation fears, even as you acknowledge that there is no evidence that your nightmare is something to worry about right now, and all the economists you respect don’t see it as a significant problem. Kinsley is a heck of a writer, but he’s not that good.

Paul Krugman:

Hyperinflation is actually a quite well understood phenomenon, and its causes aren’t especially controversial among economists. It’s basically about revenue: when governments can’t either raise taxes or borrow to pay for their spending, they sometimes turn to the printing press, trying to extract large amounts of seignorage — revenue from money creation. This leads to inflation, which leads people to hold down their cash holdings, which means that the printing presses have to run faster to buy the same amount of resources, and so on.

The kind of inflation we had in the 1970s, the famous era of stagflation — high inflation combined with high unemployment — was quite different. Deficits weren’t the issue — actually, US deficits were much smaller in the inflationary 70s than in the disinflationary 80s. Instead, what you had was a combination of excessively expansionary monetary policies, based on an unrealistic view of how low the unemployment rate could be pushed without causing accelerating inflation (the NAIRU), plus oil shocks that pushed up inflation across the board thanks to widespread cost-of-living clauses in contracts. There was never any risk of hyperinflation; the only question was whether and when we’d be willing to pay the price in high unemployment of bringing inflation back down.

Kinsley seems to be confusing the logic of the natural rate argument, which says that expected inflation gets built into price-setting, so you need an accelerating inflation rate to keep unemployment below the NAIRU, with the very different logic of hyperinflation, which is about people fleeing money.

Brian Doherty at Reason:

Those with reasonable doubts as to the stability of this whole freakin’ system are in the unenviable position of, if struggling to be “prudent,” making lots of big decisions that are going to seem really short-sighted, depending on whether or not things go seriously awry. That is, going gold will make you either King of the World or the nuttiest of chumps. Well, that’s what hedging is all about, I suppose, but most hedging is done within the ol’ dominant paradigm. Gold seems more like a “all bets are off” bet.

Kevin Drum:

I’m going to defend Kinsley a bit. One reason is that although he freely talks about the inner demons that prompted his heresy, he does, in fact, also offer up a concrete reason for his fears: “My specific concern is nothing original: it’s just the national debt….We talk now of trillions, not yesterday’s hundreds of billions.” This is not a completely nonsensical concern, even if it would be better expressed as a percent of GDP rather than in raw dollars. What’s more, if Kinsley had wanted to write something a little more sophisticated, he could have spent some time on the Fed’s likely problems unwinding its trillion dollar balance sheet over the coming years, something that has at least the potential for sparking inflationary pressures if it isn’t timed pretty delicately.

But that’s not the real reason for defending Kinsley. The real reason is this: I sort of agree with him. Is it because we were both around for the 70s and remember what happened then? Maybe, though Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong were around then too and they’re not worried. And intellectually, like Kinsley, I agree with them: inflation just doesn’t seem like a big issue right now. But what about a few years from now? It really does look as if our political system is going to find it next to impossible to control our long-term federal deficit, and at the same time the dollar is going to have to come down in value eventually. Both of these things, along with the Fed’s operations, pose inflationary potential. And I have a fairly healthy respect for the proposition that if the Fed loses its reputation as an inflationary hawk, it’s much harder to get back than you might think.

So here’s the question: if all the people you respect say that inflation isn’t a big issue; if all the market evidence points toward moderate inflationary expectations; and if your fears of inflation are almost certainly grounded in demons from your youth — if all that’s true, but you still feel the fear anyway, what should you do? Nothing? Or should you write about it, being honest along the way about what’s driving you?

UPDATE: Kinsley responds to Krugman:

Krugman says that I mistakenly conflate inflation and hyperinflation, although “textbook economics…makes a real distinction” between the two. I will confess that I was not aware of this distinction. I thought hyperinflation was inflation out-of-control. Mea culpa. However:

(1) Krugman should stop bullying people with accusations of economic ignorance. I would never pretend to know a tenth of economics Paul knows. But if he means, in calling this distinction a matter of “textbook economics [subtext: you idiot],” that economic textbooks make this distinction, he is wrong. Or at least no such distinction between inflation and hyperinflation is made, despite an extensive discussion of inflation, in the leading economics textbook, by Harvard Professor Gregory Mankiw.

(2) Krugman’s definition of hyperinflation–“when governments can’t either raise taxes or borrow to pay for their spending, they sometimes turn to the printing press”–is more or less precisely what I wrote that I was afraid of. I suppose there’s a difference between the government printing money to pay off its debts (Krugman’s definition) and the government printing money to reduce the real value of its debts (my fear). But not much of one.

(3) Krugman, Brad DeLong, Matt Yglesias and others make the point that there is no current economic evidence of inflation on on the horizon. I conceded as much in the original piece. But using Krugman’s definition, hyperinflation is the result of explicit policy choices by public officials. There is a “real distinction” between this and inflation ordinaire, which results naturally from the interplay of economic forces. Therefore, the fact that there is no sign of inflation today says very little about whether there may be hyperinflation tomorrow.There are reasons to worry that our political leaders may opt for inflation even if there is no economic evidence of it happening naturally. (Of course the interplay of economic forces can force the hand of public officials. But if we go down this road, we are muddying that key distinction between hyperinflation and inflation.)

I have been waiting for Paul Krugman to tell me how we are going to handle the debt, once we get this recession out of the way. No, really. There’s no economist whose judgment I trust more. (About economics, that is.) I’ve been all for the stimulus and the jobs bill and even, I guess, the sundry bailouts. But don’t we at some point have to start paying the money back? And how are we going to do that? Krugman’s failure (unless I’ve missed it) to give us an answer to that question is one of the things that makes me worry.

Ryan Avent at Free Exchange at The Economist:

Contra Mr Kinsley, there is a massive difference between printing money to pay off debts and printing money to erode the real value of debt. In the immediate postwar period, America experienced annual rates of inflation up to 10%, which eroded the value of America’s war debt by some 40%. Hyperinflation was never a problem. And there is a big difference between governments that are reluctant to opt for painful budget fixes and governments that absolutely cannot do it. Moreover, the pain of hyperinflation is every bit as bad as and worse than the pain of tax increases, or spending cuts, or default. No politician would risk it, and even if the politicians were willing to, America’s independent Fed wouldn’t let them.

The truth about hyperinflation is that it isn’t so much an economic phenomenon as a political one; it corresponds to the complete breakdown of a country’s political institutions. It is no coincidence that episodes of hyperinflation are typically associated with very poor developing nations, those exiting major conflicts, and those suffering from other major economic dislocations (like the end of Communism).

To get from America’s current situation to one in which hyperinflation is a realistic possibility, one must pass through an intervening step in which America’s political institutions utterly collapse. And I submit that if Mr Kinsley has reason to believe that such a collapse is imminent, he should be writing columns warning about that rather than the economic messes which might follow.

Felix Salmon:

The logic here is that simply running large fiscal deficits is an “explicit policy choice” by officials who “opt for inflation”. Just by spending money, the government is pressuring the Fed to, um, what, exactly? Keep interest rates too low? Print money?It’s true that the Fed isn’t looking particularly independent these days, but that’s largely because inflation isn’t a problem, and therefore the Fed is rightly concentrating on the second part of its dual mandate, which is reducing unemployment through loose monetary policy. Fiscal policy and monetary policy should both be pulling in the same direction right now — which is the direction of trying to extricate the country from the deepest recession in living memory.

It’s also hard to see the dynamics by which hyperinflation — or even plain old ordinary high inflation, for that matter — could emerge. If there’s a panicked run away from the dollar and dollar-denominated assets, that would hurt both the stock market and the bond market, hitting wealth hard. It would also send the cost of imports up. But the US doesn’t import so much that import-price inflation would pass through into domestic hyperinflation. And with the markets in turmoil, weak unions, and unemployment surely rising, I don’t think that workers would be in any position to ask for double-digit wage increases on an annual basis. In any case, to have any hyperinflation you need a maniac helming the printing press, and Ben Bernanke is not a maniac. Yes, he’s expanded the money supply significantly, but only when disinflation was the greatest risk facing the economy. It’s almost impossible to imagine the Fed continuing to print money once consumer prices start rising sharply on Main Street — and, frankly, it’s hard to imagine the Obama administration putting pressure on the Fed to do so.

As Krugman notes, it’s instructive to take a hard look at Japan, which ran enormous deficits for many years and which still has no sign of any inflation any time soon. Deficits, in and of themselves, do not cause inflation. And while Kinsley is right that there’s no obvious way out of America’s current fiscal problems, he’s wrong that politicians can simply choose inflation as an option. Just as the Treasury secretary does not control the value of the dollar, the president does not control the trajectory of consumer prices. So in order for his fears about hyperinflation to be remotely justified, Kinsley first has to explain how the Fed is going to transmogrify into the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. And he hasn’t come close to doing that.

(h/t Sullivan)

UPDATE: Paul Krugman responds

UPDATE #2: Kinsley again

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Filed under Economics, The Crisis

We Remember, With Great Fondness, Our First Post On Health Care’s CBO Score. This May Be The Last One.

Carrie Budoff Brown in Politico:

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) just released the first set of Congressional Budget Office numbers to reporters this morning.

The bill would cost $940 billion, and reduce the deficit by $130 billion over the first 10 years and $1.2 trillion in the second 10 years. The deficit numbers Democrats have been most worried about, and will be key to convincing moderates to coming on board with the bill.

Jacob Sullum at Reason:

1. The Medicare savings, which may not actually materialize because they depend on reimbursement changes Congress has been loath to maintain in the past, total about $500 billion during the first decade, compared to  total deficit reduction of $130 billion.

2. The reconciliation bill includes changes to student loan programs that CBO estimates will reduce spending by $19.4 billion during the first decade. By contrast, the “doc fix” that was originally envisioned as part of the health care package, since it deals with Medicare payments to physicians, was carved out and placed in a separate bill. It costs more than $200 billion.

3. CBO warns that it “does not generally provide cost estimates beyond the 10-year budget projection period” and that its projections for the second decade are subject to “an even greater degree of uncertainty” than its projections for the first 10 years. It estimates that the unmodified Senate bill “would have a total effect during that [second] decade that is in a broad range between one-quarter percent and one-half percent of gross domestic product.” The changes in the reconciliation bill, it says, would “further reduce federal budget deficits in that decade, with a total effect that is in a broad range between zero and one-quarter percent of GDP.” When the range of numbers in a projection includes zero, it seems fair to say the projection is not very helpful as a guide to policy decisions. Yet the Democrats have transformed these highly uncertain projections into a seemingly precise and reliable dollar figure: $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction during the second decade.

Ezra Klein:

The question people generally ask about the final health-care reform vote is, “Won’t it be politically difficult for many House Democrats to vote yes?” But with the release of the CBO report (pdf), I’d flip that question a bit: Won’t it be substantively difficult for many House Democrats to vote no?

If you’re a liberal House Democrat, here’s what you’d be voting against: Legislation that covers 32 million people. A world in which 95 percent of all non-elderly, legal residents have health-care coverage. An end to insurers rescinding coverage for the sick, or discriminating based on preexisting conditions, or spending 30 cents of each premium dollar on things that aren’t medical care. Exchanges where insurers who want to jack up premiums will have to publicly explain their reason, where regulators will be able to toss them out based on bad behavior, and where consumers will be able to publicly rate them. Hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to help lower-income Americans afford health-care insurance. The final closure of the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit’s “doughnut hole.”

If you’re a conservative House Democrat, then probably you support many of those policies, too. But you also get the single most ambitious effort the government has ever made to control costs in the health-care sector. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill cuts deficits by $130 billion in the first 10 years, and up to $1.2 trillion in the second 10 years. The excise tax is now indexed to inflation, rather than inflation plus one percentage point, and the subsidies grow more slowly over time. So one of the strongest cost controls just got stronger, and the automatic spending growth slowed. And then there are all the other cost controls in the bill: The Medicare Commission, which makes entitlement reform much more possible. The programs to begin paying doctors and hospitals for care rather than volume. The competitive insurance market.

This was a hard bill to write. Pairing the largest coverage increase since the Great Society with the most aggressive cost-control effort isn’t easy. And since the cost controls are complicated, while the coverage increase is straightforward, many people don’t believe that the Democrats have done it. But to a degree unmatched in recent legislative history, they have.

Matthew Continetti at The Weekly Standard:

Via NRO, the guy in the video is challenging the notion that the numbers leadership is peddling are accurate: “The Congressional Budget Office has confirmed that there is currently no official cost estimate.  Yet House Democrats are touting to the press — and spinning for partisan gain — numbers that have not been released and are impossible to confirm.  Rep. James Clyburn stated he was ‘giddy’ about these unsubstantiated numbers.  This is the latest outrageous exploitation by the Majority — in this case abusing the confidentiality of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office — to pass their massive health care overhaul at any cost.”Something to keep in mind as the conversation unfolds today. Unless of course politics is temporarily suspended for the March Madness tip-off.

Steve Benen:

[…] it’s hard to overstate how pleased Democrats are with the new health care reform score from the Congressional Budget Office. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) conceded this morning, “We are absolutely giddy.”

To briefly review, the final package costs $940 billion over 10 years. It reduces the deficit by $130 billion in the first decade, and $1.2 trillion in the second. The bill will bring coverage to 32 million Americans, while extending Medicare solvency by at least 9 years.

Democrats have begun calling the package the “biggest deficit reduction measure in 25 years,” which happens to be true. It’s also arguably the biggest cost control bill ever.

Also note, the final Democratic proposal lowers the deficit more than the previous versions. The Senate bill was projected to reduce the deficit by $118 billion in the first decade, and this one does even better.

[…]

All the leadership and the White House have to do now is figure out of how to get the votes. For Democrats who claim to care principally about fiscal responsibility, it’s very difficult to take a firm stand against reform after a CBO score like this one.

But I still don’t know exactly where Pelosi & Co. find the votes. Stupak and at least a few of his friends will chose betrayal, and so far, only one “no” vote from November — Dennis Kucinich — has been willing to switch sides. They have 72 hours, but they don’t yet have the votes.

Ed Morrissey:

Undoubtedly, this is good news for Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats. The overall deficit reduction number from the CBO, as well as the under-$1 trillion price tag, gives them some momentum towards winning the votes of reluctant moderates. Whether they can overcome the issues of abortion and Demon Pass will still have to be seen, but at least on cost they have some ammunition.

That also applies to the reluctance in the Senate to take this bill back up again.  The House version with the reconciliation package saves more money off of the deficit than the Senate version alone, at least according to the CBO.  If the Senate balks at considering the reconciliation changes, they’ll essentially be writing off supposed savings to the deficit.

Atrios:

Oddly, CBO score was going to be the Last Great Chance to push this bill in a more progressive direction, as there are policy options (public option, Medicare buy-in) which would have made things cheaper and reduced costs, but since hippies like those options they won’t happen and so Labor is going to suck on it instead.

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Filed under Health Care, Legislation Pending

The Paul Ryan Week That Was, Week Two

Paul Ryan’s “A Roadmap For America’s Future” website

Tim Fernholz at Tapped:

Republican Rep. Paul Ryan was in the news earlier this year after releasing a budget designed to eliminate the deficit and federal debt. Many argued that, though it contained radical changes in Social Security and Medicare as well as draconian budget cuts, it also represented a good-faith effort to make hard choices about the budget. But several new analyses show that not only is the plan incredibly regressive, it fails to actually solve the debt problem. Here’s your background on the issue:

  • Ryan’s Plan:A Roadmap for America’s Future” [PDF] was released in January; it promises major changes in social insurance, tax policy, and spending cuts that would cut deficits and gradually eliminate the national debt.
  • Tax Policy Center Analysis: However, the respected Tax Policy Center highlighted an important problem [PDF] in these calculations: The expected tax-revenue figures — approximately 19 percent of GDP — were assigned arbitrarily. When TPC ran the numbers, they found that Ryan’s plan was billions of dollars short and would also result in extraordinary regressive tax policy, with large cuts for the wealthy but tax increases [PDF] for almost everyone else.
  • Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Analysis: The CBPP took the TPC analysis and went one step further, looking at the impact on other government programs, noting that the plan “would eliminate traditional Medicare, most of Medicaid, and all of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).” It’s funding for private Social Security accounts “would leave the program with a deep financial hole.”
  • The President’s Budget: For comparison, here is the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of President Barack Obama’s preliminary budget proposal, which, while it does not purport to eliminate the deficit and the debt, it does propose the (barely) feasible goal of lowering the deficit to the point where the national debt is sustainable.

You can argue whether this cost control is better or worse than other forms of cost control. But it’s a blunt object of a proposal, swung with incredible force at a vulnerable target. Consider the fury that Republicans turned on Democrats for the insignificant cuts to Medicare that were contained in the health-care reform bill, or the way Bill Clinton gutted Newt Gingrich for proposing far smaller cuts to the program’s spending. This proposal would take Medicare from costing an expected 14.3 percent of GDP in 2080 to less than 4 percent. That’s trillions of dollars that’s not going to health care for seniors. The audacity is breathtaking.

But it is also impressive. I wouldn’t balance the budget in anything like the way Ryan proposes. His solution works by making care less affordable for seniors. I’d prefer to aggressively reform the system itself so the care becomes cheaper, even if that causes significant pain to providers. I also wouldn’t waste money by moving to a private system when the public system is cheaper. But his proposal is among the few I’ve seen that’s willing to propose solutions in proportion to the problem. Whether or not you like his answer, you have to give him credit for stepping up to the chalkboard.

Ramesh Ponnuru at The Corner:

I don’t share the liberal objections to it, particularly those that assume that his reforms would have no effect on medical inflation and then complain that he would leave people unable to keep up with it. I do, however, think that his tax proposal is flawed. The alternative, simpler tax structure he would allow people to opt into would have a child allowance smaller than current law, which already makes it too small. The effect would be to shrink the overall tax burden but to leave families with children paying a larger share of it. I think that this is lousy politics and policy, although one that Representative Ryan could easily correct.

Our entitlement programs overtax families with children. People who make the financial sacrifices needed to raise children are paying twice for those entitlements, both via their payroll taxes and via those sacrifices. Those who don’t have kids benefit in retirement from the fact that others have made those financial sacrifices. The tax credit for children should not be considered a special-interest tax break that we should try to move away from. It should be seen, rather, as a partial corrective to the bias against children in federal fiscal policy — and it should be expanded in order to provide a complete offset.

Jake Sherman at Politico:

Last Friday, Rep. Paul Ryan looked like President Barack Obama’s new Republican best friend. The president showered praise on everything from his substantive budget proposal to his family during the now-legendary question-and-answer session with House Republicans.

But rather than opening a hopeful new avenue for bipartisanship, the White House and Hill Democrats quickly went to work ripping apart Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future” — which Obama himself said he had read.

Democrats accused the Wisconsin Republican of trying to privatize Social Security, cut taxes for the rich and increase them for the middle class. Medicare would be allowed to “wither on the vine.” Here we go again, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said Thursday of Ryan’s proposal. On Capitol Hill, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag deconstructed the plan, saying it would address long-term fiscal problems but in a way that many policymakers might find “objectionable” because it would shift risks and costs onto individuals and their families.

In just a week, Ryan had gone from being seen as the smart conservative whom Obama might take seriously to being seen as the symbol of how Democrats believe Republicans would dismantle the social safety net if the GOP took control of Congress.

Republicans believe the criticism was a setup.

Matthew Continetti at The Weekly Standard:

Key fact: Ryan’s plan preserves the current entitlement system for everyone over the age of 55. The rest of us will see dramatic changes in the structure of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the tax code–changes the CBO says will solve the long-term budget problem, in ways that increase individual choice and limit government’s scope. If nothing is done, America faces high interest rates, inflation, and economy-crushing tax rates. Is this the future Democrats prefer? After all, they have provided no alternative way to achieve the Roadmap’s outcomes.

Why is the assault on Ryan irresponsible? Because Democrats are pretending that America’s future budget obligations aren’t a serious problem. They have no proposals to limit the growth in entitlements other than phantom reductions in Medicare reimbursement rates, a parodic “spending freeze,” and independent commissions whose recommendations Congress will probably ignore. Democrats clearly hope they can preserve their majorities by demagogic attacks on Ryan. Meanwhile, the crisis approaches.

Obama has no ideas to balance the budget. Ryan has a big one–one that nonpartisan analysts say would work. Thus, he’s now a target.

More Continetti at TWS:

Liberals have seized on the Roadmap in order to say that Republicans want to leave seniors in the cold. Today, the Wisconsin Democratic party organized a conference call, featuring Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra of California and left-wing economist Dean Baker, devoted entirely to attacking Ryan and his plan. (Ryan participated in a conference call of his own to respond.) Meanwhile, the liberal Talking Points Memo website reports that House Democrats are planning to hold a vote on a resolution condemning the Roadmap and other attempts to introduce personal accounts into Social Security. This week’s blizzard interfered with the Democrats’ plans, however. Now the vote is up in the air.

The critics make two specific charges against Ryan’s plan. One involves revenues. It’s true that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) did not score the revenue side of the Roadmap. (It would reduce the current six tax brackets to two, replace the corporate income tax with a business consumption tax, and eliminate the Alternative Minimum, dividend, capital gains, and estate taxes.)

But that’s because macro-economic volatility makes it close to impossible for the CBO to estimate revenues in, say, 2070. Instead, the CBO assumed that in the long-term, the Roadmap’s revenues would be similar to the historical average of 19 percent of GDP. You can agree or disagree with that assumption, but it seems fair enough to me — especially considering the growth potential of Ryan’s tax reform.

The second charge against the Roadmap is that “ends Medicare as we know it.” Yes, but only for Americans 55 or younger — these are the same people, in other words, who face a fiscal nightmare as entitlement spending surges in the coming decades and Medicare and Social Security become insolvent.

Expect liberals to focus heavily on Ryan’s “cuts” to Medicare. The Ryan camp’s response is that these are a far cry from the Medicare cuts in the Democratic health care reform. The $500 billion in cuts there would affect current beneficiaries — Ryan’s do not. Moreover, in the Democratic health bill, the cuts to Medicare would be pocketed and used to pay for … another entitlement!

Stephen Spruiell at NRO:

Ryan has put a credible plan on the table. It isn’t perfect, but no plan for controlling the cost growth at the heart of the entitlement problem is going to be uncontroversial. As Ryan put it to me, “If we are going to get serious about controlling costs, then either the individual is going to be in control of their health-care decisions or government is going to be in control.” Putting the individual in control sounds like the no-brainer choice, but in the past voters have expressed a preference for less risk, not more control, when it comes to their post-retirement well-being. Getting Republicans to embrace the politically perilous task of explaining to people that the status quo entails more risk, not less, will be no easy feat.

For now, the GOP leadership wants to proceed along two tracks: Stay away from big, specific reforms until the most dangerous items on the Democrats’ agenda have succumbed to the politics of the election cycle; and, meanwhile, develop a “Contract with America”–style set of positive agenda items on which to run. The plan is to pivot to this second track at some point between now and November. But details about this new contract have not been forthcoming. Will it include a specific plan for getting us out of the debt trap? Or will it eschew these for broad platitudes, so that the focus stays on the Democrats’ unpopular agenda?

The desire to remain vague is understandable as long as there is a threat that Obamacare might pass. And the political dangers of including something like the Ryan plan in the platform for 2010 are clear. But here’s the contrarian case:

The Democrats have already put forward a health-care bill that cuts Medicare, complete with the rationing board that inspired Sarah Palin’s memorable bit of resonant hyperbole. Medicare cuts are on the table, and we know how the other side would do it: price controls that force providers to leave the system and a federal apparatus that thinks it knows better than you or your doctor what treatments you need.

The Ryan alternative — reduced spending, but in voucher form, which allows patients to comparison-shop on quality and price —would likely prove to be effective at controlling costs, balancing out the spending reductions. And if we do nothing, we’ll get Medicare cuts anyway, in the context of a debt crisis that leaves us with no choice but to ration care.

Politicians do not generally consider elections to be good times for serious conversations about the nation’s problems. This year, the nation’s problems are so great that it’s possible the calculus has changed. If they want to appeal to the growing number of Americans whose heads are spinning at the size of Obama’s deficits, Republicans might need to start that conversation. Ryan’s plan provides as good a starting point as any.

Ramesh Ponnuru at The Corner, answering Spruiell:

Many Republicans have complained that President Obama’s agenda is too ambitious: that it attempts to do too many things at once, indeed to transform America. Conservatives have said that health-care reform should take the form of modest steps that reduce our problems with cost, access, and portability rather than an attempt to have Congress rationalize the entire system. Rep. Ryan’s plan is the mirror image of Obama’s agenda. It attempts to move America in a free-market rather than social-democratic direction, and I support that goal; but it is just as transformational, just as ambitious, just as immodest. I don’t think that the public, or the political system, can bear this type of comprehensive change. Nor do I believe the public really wants our politicians to offer a complete 100-year solution to making entitlements solvent; I suspect it would need them to prove first that they are equipped to make headway against the problem before it would trust anything so sweeping.

Rep. Ryan’s plan is a great way to provide the conservative movement with long-term goals, but it is not a practical agenda for incremental progress, and that’s what conservatives need more urgently.

Howard Gleckman at Tax Policy Center:

However, TPC found Ryan’s plan generates much less revenue than he projects. If all taxpayers chose the simplified system, it would produce about 16.8 percent of GDP by 2020, far below the 18.6 percent he figures for that year. If taxpayers chose the system most favorable to their situation, the Ryan plan would produce even less revenue—about 16.6 percent of GDP.

What does that mean in dollars? CBO’s most realistic projection of revenues (assuming  most Bush tax cuts are extended and many middle-class families continue to be exempted from the Alternative Minimum Tax)  figures the existing tax system would raise about $4.2 trillion in 2020. By contrast, Ryan’s plan would generate about $3.7 trillion, or $500 billion less in that year alone.

While TPC didn’t model the Ryan plan beyond 2020, the pattern of revenues it generates suggests it would be decades before it reaches his goal of 19 percent of GDP—very likely sometime after 2040.

Top-bracket taxpayers would overwhelmingly benefit from Ryan’s tax cuts. By 2014 people making in excess of $1 million-a-year would enjoy an average tax cut of more than $600,000. To put it another way, their after-tax income would rise by nearly 30 percent.

By contrast, the average taxpayer making $75,000 or less would pay higher taxes if they  chose Ryan’s two-rate alternative. If they chose the tax plan more favorable to them, they’d do a bit better. For instance, people making between $50,000 and $75,000 would typically get a tax cut of $157 in 2014, while those making between $40,000 and $50,000 would pay $128 more on average.

These estimates are subject to lots of uncertainty. For instance, we assumed Ryan’s 8.5 percent VAT—the new business tax—would generate about 4.3 percent of GDP in revenues. TPC’s Joe Rosenberg, who modeled the Ryan plan, believes that estimate is generous. But since no such tax currently exists, it is hard to know for sure.

One other caveat: TPC did not assume that taxpayers would change their behavior in response to this new tax structure. We know they would, of course, in some ways that would generate additional revenue and in others that would lose revenue. But because these changes are so uncertain, TPC did not include them in our revenue estimates.

As I’ve written before, Ryan deserves kudos for highlighting the nation’s fiscal challenges and putting out a real deficit reduction plan. But it is hard to see how this one adds up.

Paul Ryan:

The Tax Policy Center has completed a 10-year revenue estimate of “A Roadmap for America’s Future” that suggests that the tax reforms would raise slightly less revenue than claimed.  With respect to TPC’s analysis, Congressman Paul Ryan issued the following statement:

“I appreciate the Tax Policy Center’s effort to advance the debate on our need to get a grip on the explosion of spending and put the government on a sustainable path.  Our nation’s fiscal crisis is the result of Washington’s unsustainable spending trajectory, not from a lack of sufficient revenue.

“The tax reforms proposed and the rates specified were designed to maintain approximately our historic levels of revenue as a share of GDP, based on consultation with the Treasury Department and tax experts.  If needed, adjustments can be easily made to the specified rates to hit the revenue targets and maximize economic growth.  While minor tweaks can be made, it is clear that we simply cannot chase our unsustainable growth in spending with ever-higher levels of taxes.  The purpose of the Roadmap is to get spending in line with revenue – not the other way around.

“I look forward to continuing the dialogue with the Tax Policy Center and working with my colleagues in Congress to advance real solutions to our fiscal crisis.”

The following additional points should be considered when interpreting these results:

1) The Tax Policy Center’s revenue analysis of the Roadmap is not an “official” score of this plan.  The Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) is responsible for providing the official revenue score of legislation before Congress.

2) The Roadmap’s revenue baseline was constructed last year, using CBO’s long-term “alternative fiscal scenario.”  This baseline incorporated an economic forecast from early 2009.  Since that time, economic forecasts have generally been lowered, which would tend to cause lower-than-predicted revenues over the near term.  The Tax Policy Center’s revenue analysis of the Roadmap uses an updated economic forecast from the one originally used to construct the Roadmap revenue baseline.  The different economic assumptions in these baselines likely explain a portion of the lower revenue prediction.

3) The Tax Policy Center analysis covers a 10-year period, but the Roadmap is a long-term plan with spending and revenue projections covering 75 years.  As such, the analysis is not consistent with the long-term horizon of the plan.  Staff originally asked CBO to do a long-term analysis of both the tax and spending provisions in the Roadmap.  However, CBO declined to do a revenue analysis of the tax plan, citing that it did not want to infringe on the traditional jurisdiction of the JCT.  JCT, however, does not have the capability at this time to provide longer-term revenue estimates (i.e. beyond 10 years).  Given these functional constraints for an official analysis, staff relied on its original work with the Treasury Department and other tax experts to formulate a reasonable expected path for long-term revenues given the tax policies in the Roadmap combined with the economic growth projections available at the time.

J.D. Foster at Heritage:

The TPC analysis is a good first step, but critically leaves out some important information on economic effects. By way of analogy, imagine the Congressional Budget Office providing an analysis of health care reform and ignoring any references to the consequences for health care costs or whether the ranks of the uninsured would rise or fall. Policymakers want to know if the legislation would “bend the curve” and that it substantially reduces the ranks of the uninsured. Analysis lacking this information would obviously be woefully incomplete.The TPC has done much the same by ignoring the stronger economy that would follow from enactment of the Ryan plan. As with health care reform and the uninsured, a fundamental motivation for tax reform is to improve economic performance, yet the TPC acknowledges its analysis is essentially static. Revenue forecasts aside, this is a substantial shortcoming of the TPC analysis that will hopefully be remedied in their follow-on work.

Foibles to Resolve
One foible in the TPC analysis is that it combines a rigorous methodology for assessing the revenue effects from the tax on individuals with a back of the envelope approach to estimating tax revenues from the new Business Consumption Tax (BCT) tax contained in the Ryan plan. If TPC does not have the tools for a rigorous assessment of the BCT, then so be it, but TPC should clearly indicate the difference in approaches and admit that its revenue forecast of the BCT carries an unusually high degree of uncertainty.

Another foible in the TPC analysis deals with the treatment of pass-through entities such as sole proprietorships. This is a difficult area and the TPC analysis usefully highlights an issue in the plan its designers may want to revisit. However, TPC arbitrarily assumes small business owners will take all their income in tax-exempt dividends rather than taxable wages. To be sure, this is a troubled area in the existing tax code, but the TPC assumption is most unreasonable, and creates an obvious downward bias in the total revenue estimate.

Finally, the TPC is known for its distributional analysis and it refers to distributional effects in its analysis. But where are the tables?

Philip Klein at The American Spectator:

I’d also add that “TPC did not assume that taxpayers would change their behavior in response to this new tax structure.” Yet in reality, if we had a new simplified tax code that didn’t tax savings or investment, and that eliminated the corporate income tax (while replacing it with a business consumption tax), as the Ryan plan does, it would generate more economic growth. While this economic growth may not make up for all of the revenue that TPC estimates would be lost, there’s good reason to believe, based on economic theory and empirical experience, that at least some portion of that “lost” revenue would be recouped by higher GDP. But the overaching point is that the Ryan plan, as scored by the CBO, shows that there’s a way to balance the long-term budget by keeping taxes at historical levels rather than raising them to levels that would cripple the economy. If critics acknowledge that Ryan’s reforms to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the health care system can make our nation solvent as long as we maintain historical levels of tax revenue, and the only argument left is over how to maintain historical levels of taxation, then I’d say that’s a major victory for Ryan.

Josh Marshall at TPM:

I guess it wasn’t such a hot idea after all to let Rep. Ryan (R-WI) score his own budget.

This is a story that deserves a lot of attention. For weeks, DC has been fawning over Rep. Paul Ryan’s ‘courageous’ Social Security and Medicare-slashing budget as a brave attempt to deal with mounting federal deficits. But it turns out the CBO didn’t really score his budget as he suggested. He asked him to score it on the basis of assuming his numbers were right.

But now an outside group has actually scored it and it turns out it leaves deficits much bigger than President Obama’s budget plan.

But hey, he’s the toast of Washington even though his numbers are pure fantasy.

Matthew Yglesias:

The CBO score that people are relying on to reach that conclusion doesn’t actually estimate how much revenue Ryan would raise, instead it just takes Ryan’s word for it that his ideas would raise 19 percent of GDP. That’s because the CBO doesn’t score tax issues, that’s done by the Joint Committee on Taxation. But if you look at what Ryan’s ideas would actually do, the truth is rather different:

3-10-10bud-f1

So that’s the Ryan Ripoff in a nutshell—much lower taxes for the rich, higher taxes for ninety percent of Americans, and no balanced budget. All in the name of balancing the budget!

Matthew Yglesias:

Paul Ryan’s “budget roadmap” has terrified the GOP leadership, but thrilled conservative intellectuals with its calls for sharp cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense, and all other government programs combined with privatization of Medicare so that a larger share of your diminished benefit goes to for-profit insurance companies. Less widely discussed is the tax aspects of Ryan’s plan. As you would expect from a conservative plan, compared to Barack Obama’s tax ideas Ryan would raise less government revenue. This is why he needs sharp cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense, and all other government programs combined with privatization of Medicare so that a larger share of your diminished benefit goes to for-profit insurance companies.

The interesting thing, however, is that when the Center for Tax Justice (PDF) ran the numbers, they discovered that this isn’t the kind of tax cut that makes your taxes lower. On the contrary. Most Americans will pay higher taxes under Ryan’s plan than under Obama’s. Only the very richest will pay less.

Paul Ryan:

Yesterday, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities [CBPP] published an error-riddled attack on what remains the only proposed solution to our nation’s fiscal crisis – “A Roadmap for America’s Future.”  Congressman Paul Ryan put forward this plan (H.R. 4529) to lift our nation’s crushing burden of debt, fulfill the mission of health and retirement security for current and future generations, and makes possible future economic growth and spurs sustained job creation.  The CBPP report is the latest is a series of partisan demagoguery against Ryan and the Roadmap – reminding the American people why bold, serious solutions are so rarely proposed in Congress.

In reviewing the CBPP’s analysis, it is important to keep in mind the lengthy series of factual errors and misleading statements – including the following:

Tax Reform

Claim: CBO was directed not to score revenues for the Roadmap by staff.  (pg. 2 – http://www.cbpp.org/files/3-10-10bud.pdf)

Reality:  False. In fact, Congressman Ryan and his staff did ask CBO to analyze both the revenue and spending provisions in the Roadmap.  However, CBO declined to do a revenue analysis of the tax plan, citing that it did not want to infringe on the jurisdiction of the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT).  The JCT is responsible for providing the official revenue score of legislation before Congress.  JCT, however, does not have the capability at this time to provide longer-term revenue estimates (i.e. beyond 10 years) that Ryan’s long-term solution requires.

Given these functional constraints for an official JCT cost estimate, Ryan relied on its original work with U.S. Treasury Department tax experts to formulate a reasonable expected path for long-term revenues given the tax policies in the Roadmap combined with long-term expectations for economic growth.

Claim: The Roadmap does not bring in the amount of revenue specified to the CBO according to the Tax Policy Center, and therefore it does not reduce the deficit as is claimed. (pg. 2)

Reality:  The Tax Policy Center does not give official revenue estimates, and in their analysis admit to significant uncertainty and unfamiliarity with a proposal of this size and scope. The tax reforms proposed and the rates specified were designed to maintain approximately our historic levels of revenue as a share of GDP, based on consultation with the Treasury Department.

Congressman Ryan stands by his numbers, and of course would be open to adjustments in the specified rates under his tax reforms if in fact TPC’s estimates are closer to reality than Ryan’s estimates.  We clearly cannot chase our unsustainable growth in spending with ever-higher levels of taxes – and the purpose of the Roadmap is to get spending in line with revenue – not the other way around.

Health Security

Claim: The Roadmap imposes no requirement that private insurers actually offer health coverage to Medicare beneficiaries at an affordable price. (pg. 10)

Reality:  Title III, Sec 301 of the Roadmap requires the Department of Health and Human Services to certify plans and publish an annual list of Medicare-approved plans, at least one of which must be targeted to the “special needs of Medicare’s highest cost seniors.”

Claim: The Roadmap provides no specific standards for Medicare benefits. (pg. 10)

Reality:  Title III, Sec 301 of the Roadmap defines qualified health coverage for Medicare.  The Medicare reforms are modeled on the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plans – giving all Americans the health coverage options enjoyed by Members of Congress.

Claim: The Roadmap would eliminate most of Medicaid and the entire SCHIP program. (pg. 10)

Reality: The CBPP described similar provisions in a health care proposal introduced by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon (the Wyden-Bennett plan) as “converting Medicaid and SCHIP into effective supplemental wrap-around programs.”  The CBPP provides two dramatically different descriptions of the same policy.  This raises the question on whether CBPP’s analysis is dependent on the party affiliation of a proposal’s author.

Social Security

Claim: The Roadmap privatizes Social Security (title and on pg. 12)

Reality: The Roadmap makes no change for those 55 and older. It provides future retirees with the option to either stay in the traditional government-run system or to enter a system of guaranteed personal accounts. Neither option is privatized. In the personal-accounts system, the accounts are owned by the individual, and managed and overseen by a government board — not a stockbroker or private investment firm. People choosing the reformed system select from a handful of low-risk, government-regulated options — just as Members of Congress and Federal employees do.Claim: The Roadmap’s inclusion of personal accounts requires $4.9 trillion in general revenue transfers, more than the entire Social Security shortfall. (pg. 13)

Reality: The CBO concludes that the Roadmap reforms would result in zero general revenue transfers (pg. 44, Table C-1).  The CBPP analysis either relies on faulty or outdated data – or is simply dishonest.

Claim: CBO did not analyze the cost of the guarantee for personal accounts. CBPP estimates the cost of the guarantee would equal $2.9 trillion on a risk-adjusted basis. (pg. 14)

Reality: False. The Roadmap guarantees that all Americans that choose to take part in the personal account option would get back at minimum what they’ve contributed, adjusted for inflation.  The CBO explicitly modeled the cost of the guarantee for personal accounts, which they included in their cost estimates.  The CBO makes clear that the Roadmap reforms – including the cost of this guarantee – makes Social Security permanently solvent.

Claim: The Ryan plan would cut traditional guaranteed Social Security benefits compared to the benefits now scheduled to be paid. (pg. 12)

Reality: The Roadmap reforms, in fact, increase benefits for low-income individuals, and places Social Security on a sustainable path through common sense reforms.  To be clear, the current trajectory for Social Security would require a 24% cut in benefits or 31% increase in taxes on workers.

Reihan Salam:

If Paul Ryan’s office is right about the CBPP analysis of the Ryan Roadmap, I’ll be very disappointed. CBPP is an institution with a richly-deserved reputation for doing its work with great care.

The CBPP report does provide a very valuable service in its revenue estimates, which seems more plausible than others I’ve seen.

But note that attacks on the Roadmap haven’t primarily been about the revenue estimates, etc. Rather, they’ve centered on the idea that shifting to premium support and the Medicare Advantage model represents a dismantling of the welfare state, as does the use of personal accounts in a public retirement system. This is, in my view, highly misleading, and it’s easy to see why Ryan’s office might feel unfairly maligned.

In my view, the Roadmap is too optimistic on the revenue side and possibly too politically optimistic on the spending side, i.e., if we shift to a defined contribution model rather than a defined benefit, as I think we must, it is very plausible that upward political pressure on the contribution will be higher than the Roadmap assumes, consonant with health inflation overall. To be sure, the hope is that the shift to a defined contribution model will itself encourage a shift in the ecosystem that will help restrain health inflation, but we don’t have any guarantee of that, just as we have guarantee that the projections of how the Senate health bill will “bend the cost curve” in its second decade.

Ross Douthat:

But the bottom line is this: Paul Ryan has attempted, admirably in my view, to sketch out a vision of the welfare state that forestalls the massive tax increases that will be required if we remain on our current fiscal trajectory. But as a matter of policy and politics alike, this vision only make sense (and only stands a chance of appealing to the broader public) if it forestalls tax increases for everybody — and especially for those Americans who stand to have a very difficult time of it, if current trends persist, in the 21st century economy.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

Ryan’s plan would make the federal tax code regressive, especially at the top, on top of an already-regressive state and local tax base. According to the Tax Policy Center, the richest 1% of all taxpayers, who earn more than 21% of the national income and currently pay about 25% of federal taxes, would pay 13% of federal taxes under Ryan’s plan. (Ryan’s response argues that the corporate income tax he’d eliminate is already born by consumers anyway, a contention most economists including the CBO reject, and even if true would only chip away slightly at the overall critique of his plan’s regressive nature.) Ryan’s tax plan alone would amount to the greatest shift of resources from the non-rich to the rich in the history of the United States, by far.

And that is just the beginning. Ryan would impose a series of dramatic social policy changes that would all push in the same direction. He would blow up the employer-based health care system, pushing workers into an under-regulated individual market. Instead of sharing medical risk with their fellow employees, they’d bear it entirely by themselves, which would be good for the healthy but bad for the sick. He would convert Social Security into primarily a network of individual investment accounts–meaning that some workers would do well and others poorly. And he would convert Medicare into a voucher system, capping the value of each voucher at well below the rate of medical inflation, which would make the elderly bear a far greater share of medical risk.

All these changes push in the same direction. The basic thrust of liberal public policy over the last century is to keep in places the market system but use government to slightly mitigate against risk–the risk of getting sick, the risk of outliving your savings, the risk that you just won’t make much money in the first place. The downside of these policies is that, in order to mitigate the downside risk, you also have to mitigate the upside benefit. If you’re unusually rich, you have to pay a somewhat higher tax rate than most people. If you’re unusually healthy, you have to subsidize medical care for people who aren’t. If you were able to invest well enough to cover your entire retirement, some of your good fortune will be siphoned off to those who weren’t. The rewards for getting rich, or merely being born rich, will remain enormous, just slightly less so than in a completely free market.

Republicans want to eliminate these mitigations of risk. Ryan would retain some bare-bones subsidies for the poorest, but the overwhelming thrust in every way is to liberate the lucky and successful to enjoy their good fortune without burdening them with any responsibility for the welfare of their fellow citizens.

Douthat responds to Chait:

It may not be as redistributionist as some would like (though any kind of means-testing has traditionally been anathema to many liberals), but it’s a long way from “Atlas Shrugged” territory.

Chait would no doubt counter that the voucher system Ryan proposes is still too ungenerous to low-income Americans, because the subsidies the roadmap envisions wouldn’t keep up with medical cost inflation. And he might be right: I suspect it won’t be possible, in the end, to keep the government’s share of G.D.P. as low as Ryan wants to keep it. But that’s a different kind of criticism, one that goes to how much we want to spend on entitlements overall, not whether we want to make them more or less redistributionist. On the latter question, there’s no question where Ryan stands: A big part of his plan for reining in the growth of government is to hack away spending (and implicit spending) on the wealthy, creating a welfare state that does more redistribution than it does right now.

“The rise of Ryan,” Chait concludes, “is a sign that the possibilities for bipartisan cooperation on domestic issues are, at the moment, essentially nil.” Change “rise” to “persistent caricaturing and misrepresentation,” and he and I agree.

EARLIER: The Paul Ryan Week That Was

UPDATE: More Chait

Paul Krugman

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