Attacking Stupid Ideas: A Dirty Job, But Someone’s Got to Do It


Tyler Cowen posits today that on economic issues, the right wing was both more dynamic and more correct than the left during the 70s and 80s, with “peak right” coming in 1989. After that, the left became more dynamic and more interesting. Obviously this is an arguable hypothesis, but let’s put it aside for a moment to consider this:

The relative rise of the Left peaks in 2009, with the passage of Obamacare and the stimulus. From that point on, the left wing, for better or worse, is a fundamentally conservative force in the intellectual arena. It becomes reactive and loses some of its previous creativity.

Over those years, right wing thought, on the whole, became worse and more predictable and also less interesting. But excess predictability now has infected the left wing also. Attacking stupid ideas put forward by Republicans, whether or not you think that is desirable or necessary, has become their lazy man’s way forward and it is sapping their faculties.

Here’s my question: Supposing, arguendo, that stupid ideas from Republicans have been the most destructive economic force of the past four years, then isn’t attacking those ideas actually a pretty productive use of time for a left-wing economist? Sure, it would be nice to see lots of intellectual ferment coming from the left, but (a) it’s probably too soon for that given the scale of the upheavals of 2008-13, and (b) it’s hard for elegant new theories to get much of a foothold until the stupid stuff is finally and definitively put in the ash can of history.

These are both debatable points. But I think there’s been some interesting work on shadow banking, the future of automation, the role of financial intermediaries, the cyclical impact of leverage, and much more coming out of the left and center-left recently. And that’s not even counting some equally interesting work on the role of income inequality on economic growth that’s starting to emerge from the leftier precincts of the left. But this stuff is all still trying to find its legs. It’s too soon for anyone to have emerged as the Keynes or Friedman of the post-financial-crash world.

Likewise, even after five years, right-wing economists are still pushing pet theories of austerity that make no sense, along with a variety of nonsensical RBC blather and monetary medievalism. Maybe the best course for academic economists is to ignore this stuff, knowing that it’s basically doomed in short order. But you can hardly blame them for thinking that this might be a dangerous course, one that could end up in disaster for lack of pushback. I don’t know if that’s the right way to think about it, but it’s not obviously ridiculous.

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