Tucker Carlson Versus Conservatism

The Fox News host amplifies a debate the right needs to have.

The most interesting thing in conservative politics right now is not the government shutdown and Donald Trump’s flailing attempt to claim victory while being defeated on all fronts. Instead it’s an ideological battle over Tucker Carlson’s recent Fox News soliloquy, in which he accused his fellow Republicans of building an anti-family, finance-dominated economic system that might be “the enemy of a healthy society.”

Carlson’s monologue was an expansion of themes that have dominated his reinvention as a Trump-era populist — the general folly of elites, the unwisdom of the bipartisan consensus on immigration and foreign policy, the failure of Republican leaders to defend the national interest.

But in expanding on those themes he went somewhere that Fox hosts rarely go — from culture into economics, from a critique of liberal cosmopolitanism into a critique of libertarianism, from a lament for the decline of the family to an argument that this decline can be laid at the feet of consumer capitalism as well as social liberalism.

Just about every conservative worth reading was provoked into responding.

If there is to be a healthy American right, after Donald Trump or ever, this is the argument that conservatives should be having. And it is especially an argument that Fox News should be highlighting, since Fox is frequently responsible for stoking populism but keeping it vacuous or racialized, evading the debates the right really needs.

Now let me attempt my own quick contribution. A key issue in the Carlson contretemps is distilled in this line from David French of National Review, one of the monologue’s critics: “There are wounds that public policy can’t heal.”

This is a crucial conservative insight, a caution for policymakers everywhere — but it can also become a trap, a cul-de-sac, an excuse for doing nothing. And that has happened too often for conservatives in recent decades: They’ve leaped to despair without even trying policy.

But in hindsight this was wrong, the feared inflation never came, and the economic recovery was slowed because of the Republican fixation on tight money. Of course, in the Trump era some Republicans have conveniently become dovish on inflation. But in the preceding eight years, wage-earning Americans suffered unnecessarily because of a wrongheaded right-wing counsel of despair.

A second example: While it’s true that family breakdown has deep and tangled roots, it’s also true that in the 1940s and 1950s, a mix of government policy, union strength and conservative gender norms established a “family wage” — an income level that enabled a single breadwinner to support a family.

Maybe it isn’t possible to recreate a family wage for a less unionized and more feminist age — but are we sure? Is there really nothing conservatives can do to address

  • the costs of child care,
  • the unfulfilled parental desire to shift to part-time work,
  • the problem that a slightly more reactionary iteration of Elizabeth Warren once dubbed “the two-income trap”?

If marriages and intact families and birthrates declined as the family wage crumbled, perhaps we should try rebuilding that economic foundation before we declare the crisis of the family a wound that policy can’t heal.

A final example: Historically conservatism has been proudly paternalist, favorable to forms of censorship and prohibition for the sake of protecting precisely the private virtues that Carlson’s critics think government can’t cultivate. But in recent decades, the right’s elites have despaired of

  • censoring pornography, acquiesced to the spread of
  • casino gambling, made peace with the
  • creeping commercialization of marijuana, and accepted the
  • internet’s conquest of childhood and adolescence.

Yet none of these trends actually seem entirely beyond the influence of regulation. It’s just that conservatism has given up — once again, in unwarranted despair — on earlier assumptions about how public paternalism can encourage private virtue.

The deeper point here is that public policy is rarely a cure-all, but it can often be a corrective. And the part of Carlson’s monologue his critics should especially ponder is the end, when he suggests that absent a corrective that “protects normal families,” even the normal will eventually turn to socialism — choosing a left-wing overcorrection over a right that just says, Well, you see, we already cut corporate taxes, so there’s nothing we can do.

Bad Faith, Pathos and G.O.P. Economics

On professionals who sold their integrity, and got nothing in return.

As 2018 draws to an end, we’re seeing many articles about the state of the economy. What I’d like to do, however, is talk about something different — the state of economics, at least as it relates to the political situation. And that state is not good: The bad faith that dominates conservative politics at every level is infecting right-leaning economists, too.

This is sad, but it’s also pathetic. For even as once-respected economists abase themselves in the face of Trumpism, the G.O.P. is making it ever clearer that their services aren’t wanted, that only hacks need apply.

.. Professional conservative economists are something quite different. They’re people who even center-right professionals consider charlatans and cranks; they make a living by pretending to do actual economics — often incompetently — but are actually just propagandists. And no, there isn’t really a corresponding category on the other side, in part because the billionaires who finance such propaganda are much more likely to be on the right than on the left.

.. Even during the Obama years, it was striking how many well-known Republican-leaning economists followed the party line on economic policy, even when that party line was in conflict with the nonpolitical professional consensus.

Thus, when a Democrat was in the White House, G.O.P. politicians opposed anything that might mitigate the costs of the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath; so did many economists. Most famously, in 2010 a who’s who of Republican economists denounced the efforts of the Federal Reserve to fight unemployment, warning that they risked “currency debasement and inflation.”

Were these economists arguing in good faith? Even at the time, there were good reasons to suspect otherwise. For one thing, those terrible, irresponsible Fed actions were pretty much exactly what Milton Friedman prescribed for depressed economies. For another, some of those Fed critics engaged in Donald Trump-like conspiracy theorizing, accusing the Fed of printing money, not to help the economy, but to “bail out fiscal policy,” i.e., to help Barack Obama.

It was also telling that none of the economists who warned, wrongly, about looming inflation were willing to admit their error after the fact.

But the real test came after 2016. A complete cynic might have expected economists who denounced budget deficits and easy money under a Democrat to suddenly reverse position under a Republican president.

And that total cynic would have been exactly right. After years of hysteria about the evils of debt, establishment Republican economists enthusiastically endorsed a budget-busting tax cut. After denouncing easy-money policies when unemployment was sky-high, some echoed Trump’s demands for low interest rates with unemployment under 4 percent — and the rest remained conspicuously silent.

What explains this epidemic of bad faith? Some of it is clearly ambition on the part of conservative economists still hoping for high-profile appointments. Some of it, I suspect, may be just the desire to stay on the inside with powerful people.

President Trump Bashes the Fed. This Is How the Fed Chief Responds.

Jerome Powell’s playbook includes making allies outside the Oval Office, never talking politics and sticking to the economy.

Federal Reserve leaders for the past quarter-century have made decisions about interest rates without being pressured by the president.

President Trump has broken that streak, calling the central bank “crazy” for raising rates and more than once saying the Fed is damaging the economy. That has prompted Fed Chairman Jerome Powell to update playbook rules for dealing with a president annoyed by America’s central bank.

Rule 1: Speak not of Mr. Trump.

Rule 2: When provoked, don’t engage.

Rule 3: Make allies outside the Oval Office.

Rule 4: Talk about the economy, not politics.

.. Mr. Trump blamed the Fed for October’s stock market selloff, calling the central bank “out of control.” The president told The Wall Street Journal Oct. 23 that Mr. Powell seemed to enjoy raising rates.

Not since the 1990s has a president leaned so hard on the Fed chief and never so publicly. On Monday, Mr. Trump told the Journal: “I think the Fed right now is a much bigger problem than China.

.. The Fed’s benchmark interest rate is now in a range between 2% and 2.25%, well below long-run averages. The central bank is expected to raise rates by a quarter-percentage-point at its Dec. 18-19 meeting.

Mr. Powell says he is raising rates to return them to a more normal setting and avoid the type of boom-and-bust economy that ended in past recessions.

.. Mr. Trump has said he doesn’t plan on firing Mr. Powell, and it isn’t clear he could. The Federal Reserve Act states a Fed governor can only be removed for cause, a high bar that courts and legal scholars have interpreted to mean malfeasance or neglect.

.. The Fed’s credibility could suffer

  • if investors believe its commitment to guard against inflation has been compromised by politics, or
  • if Mr. Trump’s attacks sour the public’s view of the central bank.

“At some point, it becomes very damaging to the institution to be perceived as not acting in the best interest of America,” former Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen said in an interview.

.. Mr. Powell has told others that he knows the president’s criticism could make his life unpleasant, but that he wouldn’t respond to political pressure. People close to Mr. Powell said he understood that history would judge him on policy decisions made over his four-year term.

  • President Lyndon B. Johnson once summoned Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin to his Texas ranch to berate him for raising interest rates, saying it was despicable, according to Mr. Martin’s account.
  • One low point for the central bank came when President Richard Nixon privately pressured Fed Chairman Arthur Burns to keep rates low before the 1972 election, according to Oval Office recordings. Mr. Burns kept rates low and inflation accelerated.

.. Shortly after President Reagan’s inauguration, a White House staffer asked Fed Chairman Paul Volcker if he wanted to host the new president at the Fed. Mr. Volcker declined, but replied he would be happy to meet the president anywhere else. They settled on the Treasury Department as a neutral ground.

Top Reagan administration officials frequently criticized Mr. Volcker, who presided over rate increases that triggered recessions in 1980 and 1981. But President Reagan refrained. “He just never did it,” Mr. Volcker said in an interview last year.

.. President George H.W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady cut off regular breakfasts with Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan to show his disapproval of tight-money policies in 1992. Mr. Brady stopped inviting Mr. Greenspan to dinner parties and golf dates at Augusta National.

One of Mr. Brady’s deputies at the time was Mr. Powell, who served as an appointee in the Treasury’s domestic policy office. Mr. Powell, 65, graduated from Princeton and Georgetown University law school.

.. In 1994, President Clinton was upset that Mr. Greenspan’s rate increases threatened a delicate deficit-reduction plan that Mr. Clinton had guided through Congress.

Mr. Clinton’s unhappiness “never was communicated to me,” said Mr. Greenspan, who added he heard about it much later. Economic adviser Robert Rubin convinced the president it was best to lay off the central bank to show investors that the Fed was apolitical.

.. While Mr. Trump complains loudly, his top economic advisers conduct business as usual with Mr. Powell; that includes Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, National Economic Council director Lawrence Kudlow and Council of Economic Advisers chairman Kevin Hassett.

Mr. Kudlow and Mr. Powell have bonded over their back troubles. Mr. Powell shared the name of his doctor, “who’s been a terrific help to me,” Mr. Kudlow said in an interview. “I’m not kidding.”

.. Before he became chairman, Mr. Powell was the Fed’s point person on bank regulation, just as the Trump administration took shape. That put Mr. Powell in regular contact with Mr. Mnuchin, a newcomer to Washington. Mr. Mnuchin later backed Mr. Powell for the chairman job.

Mr. Trump has since taken out his frustration on Mr. Mnuchin, according to a person familiar with the matter, saying recently, “I thought you told me he was going to be good.

.. After Mr. Trump publicly complained about Mr. Powell this summer, Mr. Mnuchin said in a TV interview that he was “a phenomenal leader at the Fed.”

 .. In fact, Mr. Powell is the kind of Fed leader the White House wants, Mr. Kudlow said, because he is skeptical of traditional economic models that say inflation rises when unemployment falls.

With an unemployment rate of 3.7%, near a half-century low, traditional models suggest the Fed engage in aggressive interest rate increases. Mr. Powell, who isn’t a trained economist, views the models with greater skepticism than some macroeconomists.

.. “Jay is questioning a lot of the traditional Fed dogma with the board staff and their models,” said Mr. Kudlow.

.. Mr. Trump’s economic advisers have helped Mr. Powell cement control of the central bank, securing a cast of Fed deputies and governors who appear to be allies. All three rate increases this year have passed by unanimous vote of the Fed’s rate-setting committee.

.. The president, on the other hand, sees no reason to continue with rate increases because inflation is modest, he has said. He wants rates low to foster fast growth.

.. Several people who know Mr. Trump say his long career in real estate informs his view of rising interest rates, which have put a damper on his businesses. Mr. Trump’s firms sought bankruptcy protection after borrowing costs rose in the early 1990s and in the mid-2000s.

Mr. Trump told the Journal in October the Fed chief has surprised him, because he thought Mr. Powell was a “low interest-rate guy.”

.. Mr. Powell, a Republican and Washington native with a 40-year career spanning government, finance and law, recognizes that Fed authority depends more on Congress than the White House

“Our decisions can’t be reversed by the administration,” Mr. Powell said earlier this month in Dallas. “Of course, Congress can do whatever it wants.”

.. Messrs. Coons and Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) later decided to send Mr. Trump a letter telling him to lay off the Fed.

“You appear to be telling the Fed what to do with interest rates, which we believe is unconstructive and dangerous,” the senators wrote the president.

.. In his new memoir, Mr. Volcker described how White House chief of staff James A. Baker III, with President Reagan watching silently, ordered the Fed chairman not to raise interest rates before the 1984 election.

Mr. Volcker, who wasn’t planning to lift rates anyway, didn’t tell colleagues or lawmakers about the episode. Mr. Baker has said he didn’t recall that.

 

How Trump Survives

NBC News and the Wall Street Journal polled his job approval. There was no appreciable change.

.. Why? The most important reason has to be the remarkable state of the American economy. On Election Day 2016, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 18,332.43. On August 29, it closed at 26,124.57. That is an increase of some 40 percent. Other indices show similar gains. Growth in GDP went from 1.5 percent in 2016 to 2.3 percent in 2017 and, helped by the excellent 4.2 percent number in the second quarter, is forecast for around 3 percent in 2018.

.. The fact that presidents are not responsible for the economy does not stop the public from assigning them blame or credit. And Trump deserves some credit. His pro-business attitude stirs the bulls’ animal spirits. His deregulatory and tax policies contribute to growth. Trump understands that he is riding the bull — and that his following will be strong for the duration of the journey.

.. The economic boom is crucial in understanding why Trump enjoys the 88 percent approval among Republicans that keeps him politically viable.
.. Trump continues to goad, highlight, and benefit from an antagonistic news media. The overwhelmingly negative coverage of Trump paradoxically works to his advantage by driving his supporters to rally to his side. When the press gets a story wrong, Trump is vindicated. His voters have less reason to trust the elite media institutions they see as allied against them in a struggle over American identity.
.. Media obsession with Trump and scandal helps the president in other ways. For one, the scandals are confusing and increasingly self-referential. Only political professionals and junkies can keep track of them. The headlines run together. The talking heads are background noise to men and women outside the bubble.
.. The media fixation hands Trump the initiative. Because so much of the news is based on his Twitter feed, he can create storylines — and spark confusion and outrage — with the push of a button. This ability lets him shift attention from current controversies by creating fresh ones. The ongoing hysteria lessens the cost to Trump of each bad story. It also allows him to portray media institutions and figures as insiders contemptuous of Trump voters and eager to overturn the result of a presidential election.

Democrats — and most Republicans for that matter — have yet to grasp the ideas of political economy that Trump intuits: government that privileges American citizens through

  • tight labor markets,
  • border security,
  • trade reciprocity, and
  • entitlements.

.. Nor do Democrats understand that American populism is not simply economic. It is cultural. It has long been associated with traditional values and practices, an unreconstructed patriotism, and support for law and order. No matter how well Democratic proposals might test, the party will not succeed at the national level unless it addresses and mollifies the social concerns of the white working class. Pelosi, Schumer, and Sanders have not tried.