15 December 2009

Conservatives and their "bizarro universe"

The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.
~ Karl Marx

Let's start with this Op-Ed by Paul Krugman:
Disaster & Denial
By Paul Krugman
December 13, 2009

When I first began writing for The Times, I was naïve about many things. But my biggest misconception was this: I actually believed that influential people could be moved by evidence, that they would change their views if events completely refuted their beliefs.

And to be fair, it does happen now and then. I’ve been highly critical of Alan Greenspan over the years (since long before it was fashionable), but give the former Fed chairman credit: he has admitted that he was wrong about the ability of financial markets to police themselves.

But he’s a rare case. Just how rare was demonstrated by what happened last Friday in the House of Representatives, when — with the meltdown caused by a runaway financial system still fresh in our minds, and the mass unemployment that meltdown caused still very much in evidence — every single Republican and 27 Democrats voted against a quite modest effort to rein in Wall Street excesses.

Let’s recall how we got into our current mess.

America emerged from the Great Depression with a tightly regulated banking system. The regulations worked: the nation was spared major financial crises for almost four decades after World War II. But as the memory of the Depression faded, bankers began to chafe at the restrictions they faced. And politicians, increasingly under the influence of free-market ideology, showed a growing willingness to give bankers what they wanted.

The first big wave of deregulation took place under Ronald Reagan — and quickly led to disaster, in the form of the savings-and-loan crisis of the 1980s. Taxpayers ended up paying more than 2 percent of G.D.P., the equivalent of around $300 billion today, to clean up the mess.

But the proponents of deregulation were undaunted, and in the decade leading up to the current crisis politicians in both parties bought into the notion that New Deal-era restrictions on bankers were nothing but pointless red tape. In a memorable 2003 incident, top bank regulators staged a photo-op in which they used garden shears and a chainsaw to cut up stacks of paper representing regulations.

And the bankers — liberated both by legislation that removed traditional restrictions and by the hands-off attitude of regulators who didn’t believe in regulation — responded by dramatically loosening lending standards. The result was a credit boom and a monstrous real estate bubble, followed by the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. Ironically, the effort to contain the crisis required government intervention on a much larger scale than would have been needed to prevent the crisis in the first place: government rescues of troubled institutions, large-scale lending by the Federal Reserve to the private sector, and so on.

Given this history, you might have expected the emergence of a national consensus in favor of restoring more-effective financial regulation, so as to avoid a repeat performance. But you would have been wrong.

Talk to conservatives about the financial crisis and you enter an alternative, bizarro universe in which government bureaucrats, not greedy bankers, caused the meltdown. It’s a universe in which government-sponsored lending agencies triggered the crisis, even though private lenders actually made the vast majority of subprime loans. It’s a universe in which regulators coerced bankers into making loans to unqualified borrowers, even though only one of the top 25 subprime lenders was subject to the regulations in question.

Oh, and conservatives simply ignore the catastrophe in commercial real estate: in their universe the only bad loans were those made to poor people and members of minority groups, because bad loans to developers of shopping malls and office towers don’t fit the narrative.

In part, the prevalence of this narrative reflects the principle enunciated by Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” As Democrats have pointed out, three days before the House vote on banking reform Republican leaders met with more than 100 financial-industry lobbyists to coordinate strategies. But it also reflects the extent to which the modern Republican Party is committed to a bankrupt ideology, one that won’t let it face up to the reality of what happened to the U.S. economy.

So it’s up to the Democrats — and more specifically, since the House has passed its bill, it’s up to “centrist” Democrats in the Senate. Are they willing to learn something from the disaster that has overtaken the U.S. economy, and get behind financial reform?

Let’s hope so. For one thing is clear: if politicians refuse to learn from the history of the recent financial crisis, they will condemn all of us to repeat it."

I've italicized the especially delicious parts. But there is something I don't understand. We might all agree that Marx was wrong about a lot of things. And we might agree even more that Marxists have been wrong about a lot too. But there is one thing about which both Marx and Marxists seem to have been pretty much correct; and that is the fact that one's ideology is in many respects determined by one's material interests. The two are not distinct, as Krugman seems to suggest. Moreover, the causal arrow runs primarily from interests to ideas. The process may not be simple. The causal relation may not be direct or unequivocal. But it hardly is simple coincidence that, as Krugman suggests, conservatives spout policy nuttiness, generally are impervious to reason and evidence, and genuflect to the rich.

The reasons why conservatives adhere to a "bankrupt ideology" is that it serves their material interests. It is called rationalization. The problem is that Krugman doesn't just misconstrue the problem; he also underestimates the extent to which the Democrats generally - and those "moderates" among their number in particular - inhabit precisely the same "bizarro universe" for pretty much the same reasons. Oh, and - as I mentioned here a few days ago - that goes for pretty much the entire Obama administration too!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about the many millions of low-wage Americans who are die hard conservatives despite the fact that the GOP's policies do not serve their material interests?

16 December, 2009 00:39  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

That is a good question. The answer is considerably more complicated than it appears. The popular view pushed by, say, Robert Frank in What's the Matter with Kansas? turns out to be not especially compelling.

On that I'd recommend this anaylsis by Larry Bartels: www.princeton.edu/~bartels/kansasqjps06.pdf

White working class voters are not significantly more conservative now than in the past. And they tend not to get swamped by cultural issues in ways that override their economic views. They have not (outside the South) abandoned the Demcorats en masse.

All that, of course, leaves open the question of why they have relatively conservative economic views! And it leaves open the question of why they would support Democrats who (while slightly better than the Republicans) have little regard for their economic interests. In part they have no viable alternative. And in part the Dems, Repubs and so-called Liberal Media, push a fairly conservative line on economic matters.

16 December, 2009 09:37  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

PS: For a more succinct and accessible version of Bartels's argument:


16 December, 2009 09:45  
Blogger Public Squalor said...

Minor correction - "What's the Matter With Kansas" was written by Thomas Frank.

Robert Frank is the photographer.

- peace

16 December, 2009 11:03  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

You are obviously right Robert Frank is an economist ... But with my last name I get used to such mis-identifications!

16 December, 2009 12:26  

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