Sunday, September 03, 2006

Understatement of the Century

by Ken Houghton

In the continuing Economists-cage-match*, Duncan Black puts into words (a bit too glibly, perhaps) what often bothers me about Brad DeLong's arguments:
This, in a nutshell, is the worldview of the Sensible Liberal. It's the belief that there are Sensible Policies concocted by Wise Men (and women), preferably ones with advanced degrees, which are Right and True and Good. Wise Men may disagree a bit about the means, and we should throw a few conferences to hash these differences out. Politics and ideologues who do not share the ideology of the Wise Men, who of course are not really tainted by ideology, get in the way of enacting policies which are Sensible.

It's a dangerously wrong view of the world.

As they say in the blogsphere, read The Whole Thing.

Especially, though, see DeLong's post that inspired the reply, since the discussion (with himself) is not unreasoned:
First, I think...that the benefits of using government policies to strengthen unions (while they are certainly there) are much smaller than Paul [Krugman] judges them to be.

This is perhaps a matter for discussion as described, though one notes that many of DeLong's cohorts (and himself) are perfectly willing to argue for R&D credits that don't benefit workers either directly or proportionately while making such statements.

The second half of the argument is more clear-cut, though.
The events of the past decade and a half have convinced [Paul Krugman], I think, that people like me are hopelessly naive, and that the Democratic coalition is the only place where reality-based discourse is possible. Thus, in his view, the best road forward to (a) make the Democratic coalition politically dominant through aggressive populism, and then (b) to argue for pragmatic reality-based technocratic rather than idealistic fantasy-based ideological policies within the Democratic coalition.

He may well be right.

Xenos, in comments, finishes the job of hanging DeLong's hide to the shed (De Long tanned it himself), but is short by two orders of magnitude.
"He may well be right."

Understatement of the year. [typo corrected]

Tom Adds:
Rather than bump Ken with a follow-up post, I'll play PowerTools and add on.

My two cents: Krugman and Atrios are right. To see why, it's useful to bring in DeLong's most problematic claims. There's the claim that governance is properly based on consensus of the technocrats:
My natural home is in the bipartisan center, arguing with center-right reality-based technocrats about whether it is center-left or center-right policies that have the best odds of moving us toward goals that we all share--world peace, world prosperity, equality of opportunity, safety nets, long and happy lifespans, rapid scientific and technological progress, and personal safety. The aim of governance, I think, is to achieve a rough consensus among the reality-based technocrats and then to frame the issues in a way that attracts the ideologues on one (or, ideally, both) wings in order to create an effective governing coalition.
Now, it's important to remember that what's not wrong with this statement is the implication that "reality-based technocrats" provide major labor input for the creation of good policy. And, indeed, waging war on reality-based technocracy (i.e., reframing "expertise" as "elitism," if not denying expertise altogether) has been a major tactic of the far right wing in its ascent to power.

That granted, I spy two main flaws in DeLong's reasoning. First, I suspect he's projecting center-left values on the center-right. A center-right technocrat today might take the existence of social safety net policies as something that can't be undone (and perhaps even shouldn't**) , but that doesn't mean that, working from first principles, it would have been possible to achieve the center-to-middle-left's signal policy accomplishments (Social Security, say) as a matter of consensus with center-right technocrats.

Which brings us to the bigger conceptual problem with the argument: the idea of consensus rule itself. This is fine if the aim of governance is to avoid exerting coercive power on small minorities. But such an approach to governance would fundamentally frustrate social welfare centrist-progressivism: its tendency (from a public choice perspective) is to forego improvements in social welfare because they aren't 'Pareto-improving' — i.e., many policies make "society better off as a whole" at the cost of making someone worse off. See again: trying to enact the likes of Social Security by consensus of left-leaning and right-leaning technocrats.

We know approximately how much of the modern social welfare state we owe to center-right free-marketism (f*ck all), progressive-populist politicians and the like (most), and center-left policy wonkery (some, but not much; this may be subject to observational bias due to the extended period of rear-guard action against Reaganism and Bushism). Again, this is not to say that there aren't ideas out there that might be turned into well-intentioned but terrible public policy under a progressive-populist banner, regarding which technocrats of the reality-based left offer society a service by pointing out methods to achieve the same goals by better means.

Here's where I think DeLong is just being wildly overoptimistic:
[W]hile I am profoundly, profoundly disappointed and disgusted by the surrender of the reality-based wing of the Republican policy community to the gang of Republican political spivs who currently hold the levers of power, I do think that there is hope that they will come to their senses and that building pragmatic technocratic policy coalitions from the center outward will be possible and is our best chance.
Unfortunately, the "gang of Republican political spivs" learned in exile that pragmatic technocracy is for suckers. The past, as I've seen it said, is another country; it looks like the reality-based center-right has largely fled the Republican policy community and there's not much point building a coalition with nothing. The lesson from the Krugmanomicon that the center-left ignores at its peril is that the other side is a revolutionary force not interested in pragmatic coalition-forming.

Addendum: Max Sawicky concurs:
There is tree-shaking and jelly-making. Without more of the former, the latter will not be possible. Technocrats serve the people, and the more riled up the people are, the more technocrats will be able to do. Technocrats yes, technocracy no.


*This blog is on record as siding with Krugman/Thoma v. DeLong/Mankiw/Samwick. We may be outgunned, but "conquer we must/For our cause, it is just."

**That's not the case for far-right quasi-technocrats a la Heritage Foundation staff.
No, I didn't think Duncan was too glib.
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