Reverse engineering Ross Douthat

Responding to the latest attempt to breathe some life into the zombie of “reform conservatism”, Matt Yglesias noted a revealing silence on climate change. As he observed

The thought process that ended with this approach is easy enough to understand. Whether climate change is a massive conspiracy orchestrated by Al Gore, 99 percent of scientists, and a dazzling array of foreign governments or a genuine problem is hotly debated inside the conservative movement. Whether or not fossil-fuel producers should be hampered in their activities by regulatory concern about pollution, by contrast, is not controversial. For smart, up-and-coming conservatives to mention climate change, they would have to pick a side on the controversial issue. Do they sound like rubes by siding with the conspiracy theorists, or do they alienate the rubes by acknowledging the basic facts and the coming up with some other reason to favor inaction?

The optimal choice is not to choose.

I made much the same point a year ago in response to Ramesh Ponnuru’s plaintive observation that “To be a good reformer [in liberal eyes] a conservative has to agree that the vast bulk of conservatives are insane.”

In this NYT piece, Ross Douthat tries to respond to Yglesias. He ends up both confirming the point regarding climate change and illustrating the true nature of reform conservatism.

Since Douthat can’t refute Yglesias’ point about the craziness of the Republican base, he doesn’t try. Rather, he dismisses the point as “silly” and moves straight to his own apologia for lining up with the crazies. This is rather challenging. As Douthat admits, its not long since Republicans like John McCain were on the sane side of this debate. And it’s not as if the recent evidence (that is, the evidence coming from science rather than the rightwing parallel universe) has changed anything.

Still, Douthat tries desperately to claim that, in following his party where it leads, he is merely responding to the changed circumstances of the post-2008 economic slump. Supposedly, a relatively modest slowdown in economic growth means that it is now imperative to do nothing about climate change.

The best way to understand Douthat’s piece is by reverse engineering his argument as a constrained minimization problem The objective is to minimize the craziness he needs to embrace, subject to the constraint that he must end up in line with the denialist conspiracy theorists who dominate the base. The best approach is to combine the most inflated estimates of the cost of mitigation, with the rosiest projections of the implications of doing nothing.

This is “reform conservatism” in a nutshell. The Republican party is a coalition of crazies, racists and plutocrats. But there is a political requirement to talk about policy in a way that is not obviously crazy, racist or pro-rich. The task of conservative[^1] intellectuals is to square this circle.

[^1]: Corey Robin would say that this has always been the true function of conservatism. I’m more inclined to believe that a genuinely conservative approach to politics has some potential merit, not realized in actually existing conservatism.

17 thoughts on “Reverse engineering Ross Douthat

  1. The crucial turning point in the flow of what Douthat writes is here:

    How can anyone believe that the fate of the earth is a second-order issue? Well, I don’t believe that; I do, however, believe that

    If there’s any point to what he writes after that, it must be that he doesn’t believe that the fate of the earth is at stake; but if that’s what he means, why doesn’t he say so in as many words? The rhetorical flourishes with which he continues may conceal his failure of nerve from himself, but they shouldn’t conceal it from anybody else.

    Incidentally, I must be coming late to this discussion, but what does ‘reform conservative’ mean? I can understand ‘reformer’ as meaning ‘somebody who wants to change things’; ‘moderate reformer’ as somebody who wants to change things but only a bit; ‘conservative’ as ‘somebody who doesn’t want to change things’; ‘moderate conservative’ as ‘somebody who doesn’t want to change things but is willing to make some concessions’; but I can’t understand ‘reform conservative’ as ‘somebody who wants to change things but also doesn’t’.

  2. Climate do-nothings will need to defend their position if public opinion turns against them. Recall Rudd 1st was elected in 2007 in a time of climate concern. As we speak snow from the blizzard to end all blizzards (according to News Corp) is melting fast so resorts need a top up. Based on ocean water temperatures BoM thinks we will start experiencing El Nino conditions from August.

    The general warming trend is 0.2C per decade but El Nino could superimpose higher temperatures. As if Sydney’s 46.8C last summer wasn’t enough. If bushfires ruin lives and heat stressed seniors are carted off in ambulances this summer the public will demand a fix. Not sure if Abbott has a response to this scenario.

  3. “The task of conservative intellectuals is to square this circle.” This displays a boringly conservative Euclidean bias. Who cares if light does move in more or less straight lines so that Euclidean geometry is true enough for government work? Relax the assumptions and it’s much more fun. Sophists like Douthat can construct one-sided Moebius strips and Klein bottles to their heart’s content.

  4. So many words are written and gums flap on about these issues when the science is not contentious. I would find the way this debate goes on, seemingly endlessly, quite hilarious if were not so tragic.

    1. Limits to Growth

    As opposed to “Room to Grow” the fact is that a finite biosphere has a limit to the number of medium-size mammals (humans) it can support. There will also be a limit to the total infrastructure that can be built. As infrastructure is built, natural sustaining environment is obliterated. It is clear such growth cannot go on indefinitely. LTG and Footprint analysis indicate that the Limits to Growth are very near if not already over-shot.

    2. Climate Change.

    (a) C + O2 = CO2 (There, that wasn’t hard.)
    (b) Mining minerals and compounds with C in them and burning them generates more CO2.
    (c) The empirical record shows rising CO2 levels since the industrial revolution so we are exceeding the biosphere’s capacity to “scrub” CO2.
    (d) CO2 is a greenhouse gas. (Because it absorbs and re-emits light in the infra-red band).
    (e) Because of (d) more heat is being trapped in the biosphere.
    (f) The empirical record now shows warming and more hot days with a high degree of correlation and near certainty that CO2 emissions are the cause.

    It’s that simple. Anyone who does not understand and openly acknowledge these basic, empirical facts is scientifically illiterate, a denialist or a liar.

    Our mendacious elites and our mislead masses need dramatic demonstrations from nature. These events, when they arrive, could be termed “salutary disasters”. That is they will be disasters so unambigously attributable to collapse of growth and climate change that humanity will not be able to ignore the lessons being delivered by natural force majeure.

  5. @J-D
    J-D, Prof Q explains what he means by the term ‘reform conservative’ in his Crooked Timber piece from last year that he links to in the post. It’s roughly ‘a self identified Conservative who thinks the movement should have some kind of intellectual coherence, rather than just being a series of irritable mental gestures’.

  6. I’m more inclined to believe that a genuinely conservative approach to politics has some potential merit, not realized in actually existing conservatism.

    This is Malcolm Frasers posn, that the LNP are not true Libs and that he has maintained his principles whereas the current bunch have moved way off the target.

  7. @Tim Macknay


    That piece begins by referring to people who are ‘described as’ conservative reformers, which I take as meaning that they are described that way by people other than John Quiggin, whose dissociation from the description is confirmed when the piece goes on to say that the application to the group of the term ‘reformers’ is misleading.

    However it also links to a piece by Ross Douthat which gives me the impression that what is meant by ‘conservative reformer’ (or ‘reform conservative’) is ‘somebody who belongs to a movement which is, within some larger context, conservative, but who wants to bring about change within the narrower scope of that movement itself’, which provides a sufficiently clear answer to my original question.

  8. @rog

    Or as Karl Rove put it in 2004 according to a piece by Ron Suskind:

    [He] said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

    The “we” refers, I believe, to the much broader ‘neo con’ movement worldwide – rather than just the US empire.

  9. Its a post truth tribal world dominated by motivated reasoning and confirmation bias -pity mother nature hasnt been told about that .The real world has a way of butting in and ruining things.

  10. Marco Rubio seems to have captured the essence of a reform conservative

    The great cause of our time is to reclaim the American Dream for more of our people than ever before.

    The reality is the Dream

  11. The real problem in all of this is that the people making the anti Carbon Action claims are too lazy, and perhaps too self interested, to actually do the calculations and risks that they claim to understand.

    Douthat uses a hypothetical situation, a family facing an insurance choice, to justify his implied conclusion that no action is the better solution. Within the example he suggests without evidence that there are costs to action, that they are beyond affordability, and that it is all too hard for no actual gain.

    Douthat is locked into the pattern of negative thinking that typifies the denialist platform. It is easier to criticise rather than to think through to the actual benefits of change.

    When government policy is built upon hyperbole as it is here in Australia the outcome can only be against the public interest. As an example Abbott has invested much time in promising to the public that with the removal of the Carbon Price there will be an automatic saving for households. The fact is that the cost of the Carbon Price for most businesses that it was simply absorbed and no increase to product prices appeared. So naturally when the Carbon Legislation is repealed there will be no change as far as households are concerned. This is going to require an huge amount of bluster from Abbott’s front bench to deflect scrutiny and cover up the lie that Abbott’s election was built upon.

    I find this

    “The Republican party is a coalition of crazies, racists and plutocrats”

    comment illuminating. How did it get that way? I think that it is the US’s obsession with “becoming rich” rather than having a good life that has led that country down that path.

    Here in Australia Howard did his best to convert Australia to the “get rich [quick]” theme with his emphasis on property investment and capital growth which coupled with the wave of low cost oil money permanently changed the social landscape. Though this has had less effect at the personal public level than it has had at the political level.

    I was just testing this with an employee who tells me that in 1996 she was able to rent a town house for $150 per week and then several years later bought a 2 bedroom home on 900 sq M for $95 thousand, in Sydney’s west developer plains. The same property would now be 380 to 450 thousand dollars. Property rentals routinely call for $600 per week requiring two incomes to be affordable.

    Australia cope’s with this degree of change in various ways. One is through education to 12th year thus reducing the youth unemployment rate, an affordable higher education platform, Australia still has a high degree of “pioneering” economic performance predominately through minerals exploitation, still but only just a reasonable social benefit platform, and Australian’s do not have the “get rich’ culture down to ground level as America has.

    Tony Abbott is determined to change all of that.

  12. I believe carbon tax is supposed to be about $25.40 per tCO2 about now. Recall it started at $23 in July 2012. If the repeal is backdated to 1/7/14 I guess it may never be collected so power bills will have to be adjusted. I’m a bit puzzled why big power users claimed to be slugged by the RET as they should be 90% exempt in 2014 and in any case where hydro is the main power source it was excluded from the RET if built before 1997.

    This RET fiddle while minor is a pointer to the porkies and scams that we can expect if we go to an ETS. Pilot schemes in China for example look a bit dodgy and that’s the kind of thing we’re supposed to link hands with. Much as I dislike hot summers I’d kinda like one this time so the public wants to lynch climate do-nothings.

  13. The political get out runs along the lines of “look I’m no expert and I note that some experts disagree etc but anyway this this policy is economically damaging and will hurt families..old people..children etc”

  14. > I’m a bit puzzled why big power users claimed to be slugged by the RET

    Agency problems.

    Management push for measures that make their life better. Increased profit makes their lives better indirectly [because more money potentially going to shareholders means more money they can extract], but reduced regulation makes their lives better directly — less work they have to do — so the management of a firm will pretty reliably lobby for less regulation on that firm’s activities even if it makes the business less profitable.

    [this is most obvious in labour-law conflict: casualised labour is less efficient in terms of dollars paid, but more efficient in terms of hours worked by HR management, and golly-gee-whillickers guess which one HR management thinks is more important.]

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