Wrong in all the right ways


But I’d argue that Mr. Douthat, Mr. Brooks and others on the right still have huge blind spots. In fact, these blind spots are so huge as to make the critiques all but useless as a basis for reform. For if you ignore the true, deep roots of the conservative intellectual implosion, you’re never going to make a real start on reconstruction.

What are these blind spots? First, there’s the belief in a golden age that never existed, and, second, a weird refusal to acknowledge the huge role played by money and monetary incentives in promoting bad ideas.

On the first point: We’re supposed to think back nostalgically to the era when serious conservative intellectuals like Irving Kristol tried to understand the world rather than treat everything as a political exercise in which ideas were just there to help their team win.

But it was never like that. Don’t take my word for it; take the word of Mr. Kristol himself. In his book “Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea” he explained his embrace of supply-side economics in the 1970s: “I was not certain of its economic merits but quickly saw its political possibilities.” This justified a “cavalier attitude toward the budget deficit and other monetary or financial problems,” because “political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government.”

In short, never mind whether it’s right, as long as it’s politically useful. When Mr. Brooks complains in his column that “conservative opinion-meisters began to value politics over everything else,” he’s describing something that happened well before the Reagan administration.

But shouldn’t there have been some reality checks along the way, with politically convenient ideas falling out of favor because they didn’t work in practice? No – because being wrong in the right way has always been a financially secure activity. I see this very clearly in economics, where there are three kinds of economists: liberal professional economists, conservative professional economists and professional conservative economists – the fourth box is more or less empty, because billionaires don’t lavishly support hacks on the left.

How can you even begin to talk about conservative intellectuals without discussing the Heritage Foundation, which started in 1973, or the roughly contemporaneous weaponizing of the American Enterprise Institute as a political entity? The Heritage Foundation, in particular, is flamboyantly incompetent when it comes to economics. But no matter: It has plenty of money, because it supports huge tax cuts for the rich, and the demand for that never goes away.

Remember, too, that climate change denial is essentially an industry, funded by interest groups with a stake in promoting bad science. And this means that there’s a market for conservative “intellectuals” who are basically anti-science.

The point is that the intellectual side of movement conservatism has been a corrupt enterprise for around four decades. In its early years it could draw on right-wing intellectuals who had some prior reputation outside of political work, but it has relied on homegrown hacks for a long time. I don’t see any reason to believe that such an enterprise is about to reform itself: If just being wrong and losing an election were enough, this would have happened in the 1990s.

The failures of conservative governance

Most comments are condensed versions of longer texts.

I fail to understand how the acceptance and promotion of falsehoods and bad math qualifies one as an “intellectual.”

At best, such reasoning amounts to the sort of magical thinking that we discourage in children before they reach puberty. At worst, it’s hard-core cynicism designed to bilk a system built on public money.

– Paul Franzmann, Washington, D.C.

Mr. Krugman, your argument demonstrates why I have a problem referring to almost any conservative as an intellectual.

People like Newt Gingrich, Antonin Scalia and Pope Benedict are not thinkers. They merely have the ability to spit out a cherry-picked rationalization for preconceived ideas, and they bellow loudly enough to project an air of authority.

– David Dyte, New York

Conservative governance is simply about preserving wealth, power and privilege. Such governance lacks big ideas and philosophical underpinnings; it’s all about good old-fashioned greed and cruelty.

– Name withheld, Massachusetts

Mr. Krugman, I wish you would mention history’s one good example of conservative thinking.

President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration is often overlooked, even though he championed the country’s interstate highway network, which created more jobs and prosperity than any other industry in America after World War II and remains the backbone of our modern economy.

He also preserved Social Security when radical conservatives in his own party wanted to destroy it, and he sent in the National Guard to protect the African-American children who were integrating white schools.

You can argue about his faults, but Mr. Eisenhower advanced a conservative philosophy that was based on humane ideas and pragmatic thinking.

– Michael Sugarman, New Mexico

These days it seems like we’re all living in an intellectual bazaar in which the value of an idea is measured by the number of people who buy into it.

For instance, if you believe that global warming is a hoax, there are many people in this bazaar willing to sell you that conspiracy, just a couple of aisles down past the birthers.

The fundamental principles of our country today are similar to the principles of the marketplace. And the market has reordered everything related to academics and politics. In America today, you’re a success when people buy what you’re selling.

– Name withheld, Minnesota

It is absurd to talk about conservative intellectuals at the very the moment when conservative nonintellectuals have found a new leader in Donald Trump.

It’s clear that this group has succeeded in rejecting the Republican elites who cherish conservative intellectualism. Whatever the elites come up with now, it’s apparent that Republican voters may not follow as they did in the past.

– Name withheld, Florida

I see a strong parallel between nostalgic conservative intellectuals and the Trump supporters’ longing for a golden age.

– Daniel A. Greenbum, New York

Understanding the backlash

Most comments are condensed versions of longer texts .

Now that the low-hanging fruit (a reduction of tariff barriers) has been picked, the latest trade agreements focus largely on expanding or protecting corporate interests through other means.

– D. Conroy, New York

Thank you for not writing about the election, Mr. Krugman. I have stopped reading the news and feel better.

– Steve, New Zealand

Since when did the production of more stuff become the object and purpose of human existence?

And when did everyone decide that they’d rather live in a precarious Uber economy that relies on savage labor competition just so they can buy bigger plasma TVs to hang on the walls of the rented houses they’ll never be able to buy, and from which they might be evicted if their latest employment contracts aren’t renewed?

– Stephen Morris, Australia

Does it matter how fast trade increases? Does it matter whether or not people and institutions have time to adjust or not? And does it matter whether we let trade volume grow at a “normal” rate, or try to grease the skids of globalization with trade agreements that dismantle established barriers?

The trade issue is similar to immigration: A little is fine, but too much will annoy people, which will encourage them to take action.

But economists are likely to say that both immigration and trade are helpful to the economy and leave it at that.

– Thomas, Washington, D.C.

The social cost of carbon should not be discounted.

Before the 2008 financial crisis, oil was trading at about $147 per barrel. The high price of crude was causing some American companies to consider bringing manufacturing back to North America, since higher shipping costs were eroding any savings accociated with offshore manufacturing.

Factoring in the cost of carbon associated with the production of goods would likely have a very meaningful impact on trade balance and domestic manufacturing.

– U.V., Canada

Let’s not forget that these days, trade in services, entertainment and ideas is conducted in large part through electronic means.

Electrons are bad for tariffs, and they’d moderately difficult to block. Even with a wall.

– Bill, Washington State

It seems to me that the slowdown in trade is correlated with a gradual equilibration of labor costs and production technologies across the globe. For example, goods that were once exported by China are now being produced elsewhere – a natural response to rising Chinese production costs. Eventually, as labor and capital costs converge, advantages from trade will be offset by transportation costs and uncertainties associated with long supply chains from unstable places.

– Maggie S., Hawai

Stagnation, trade and transportation

The New York Times correspondent Binyamin Appelbaum recently wrote a nice piece about the stall in world trade growth, an issue that I, and many others, have been tracking for a while. And I thought I’d write a bit more about it, if only to serve as a much-needed distraction from the United States presidential election.

If there’s a problem with Mr. Appelbaum’s article, it’s that on casual reading it might seem to suggest that slowing trade growth is (a) necessarily the result of protectionism, and (b) necessarily a bad thing. Neither of these assertions is correct.

I found myself thinking about this issue years ago, when I was teaching trade policy at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. I was very struck by a paper published in 2002 by the economist Alan Taylor and others on the interwar decline in trade, which argued that much of this decline reflected rising transport costs, not protectionism. But how could transport costs have gone up? Was there technological regress?

The answer, as the paper correctly pointed out, is that real transport costs will rise even if there is continuing technological progress, as long as that progress is slower than in the rest of the economy.

To clear that story up in my own mind, I wrote up a little toy model, contained in my class notes from sometime last decade. I’m pretty sure I wrote those notes before the recent global trade stagnation happened, but they’re a useful guide all the same.

As I see it, we had some big technological advances in transportation – containerization, better communication (which made it easier to break up the value chain), plus the great move of developing countries away from import substitution toward export orientation. But this was a one-time event. Now that it’s behind us, there’s no presumption that trade will grow faster than gross domestic product. This need not represent a problem; it’s just the end of one technological era.

It is kind of ironic that globalization seems to be plateauing just as the political backlash mounts – but we’re not going to talk about the election.