Conservative reform of the Republican party is a project that has already failed. The only question is whether the remaining participants will choose hackery or heresy.
Overwhelmingly, the choice has been hackery (or, a little more honorably, silence).
The case for hackery is put most clearly by Henry Olsen. Starting from the evident fact that most Republican voters are white nationalists who don’t care about small government, Olsen considers the options available to small government conservatives. He rapidly dismisses the ideas of challenging Trump or forming a third party, and concludes that the only option is to capitulate. Strikingly, the option of withdrawing from party politics, and arguing for small government positions as an independent critic isn’t even considered.
As Paul Krugman has observed recently, conservative economists (at least, those who comment publicly). are a striking example for the choice of hackery over heresy. Krugman, along with Brad DeLong, has been particularly critical of a group of economists (Robert Barro, Michael Boskin, John Cogan, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Glenn Hubbard, Lawrence Lindsey, Harvey Rosen, George Shultz and John. Taylor) who’ve made dishonest arguments in favor of corporate tax cuts.
Recently, an overlapping group (Boskin, John Cochrane, Cogan, Shultz and Taylor) have taken the hackery a significant step further.
At first sight, it’s yet another piece of doom-mongering about the impending debt crisis. What’s striking is the extent to which the piece has been adjusted to fit the Republican party’s new found lack of concern about deficits, while supporting the party’s continued attack on “entitlements”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they make excuses for the corporate tax cut they’ve been pushing all along, even though it’s now clearly unfunded.
Rather more startling is the claim that the US government to cut entitlements in order to “restore our depleted national defense budget”. These alleged deficit warriors don’t mention the big increase in defense spending that was just passed by the Congress, with overwhelming support from Republicans. Nor do they mention one of the notable outcomes of this largesse, namely that the Pentagon has abandoned any attempt to pursue the program of closing military bases it regards as unnecessary. That’s one of many examples of waste in the defense budget.
There was a time when free-market economists like Milton Friedman saw defense spending as the exemplar of the rent-seeking “iron triangle” (interest groups, bureaucrats and politicians) ensuring that public expenditure is always wasteful. I Don’t suppose that Boskin and the rest have looked at the evidence and concluded that Friedman was wrong. Rather they’ve correctly calculated that heresy on defense spending would see them cast into the outer darkness of irrelevance.
The problem is that there’s no room for heresy of any kind. Moreover, as the fate of Republicans foolish enough to oppose Trump in 2016 has shown, heresy can be retrospective. Boskin and the rest would have been better off using their 750 words to say “Trump is right*”, 250 times over.
The last decade or so has been pretty devastating for the idea of economics as a science or profession. As I argued in my book Zombie Economics, ideas that have been utterly refuted by the evidence of the Global Financial Crisis shamble on in an undead form. The hackery I’ve described here isn’t being produced by marginal figures like Larry Kudlow but by some of the leading lights of the “discipline”. In the end, all their expertise turns out to be nothing more than a fig-leaf for service to financial capitalism. As with evangelicals, libertarians and the Republican base as a whole, the last few years have shown that the most lurid leftwing caricatures of free-market economists have turned out to be understatements.