More than 20 years ago, Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw, who would later serve as George W. Bush’s chief economic adviser, published the first edition of his best-selling Economics 101 textbook. Early in the book, trying to explain why economists are often perceived as disagreeing about everything, he wrote about the role of “charlatans and cranks.” When economists appear to be at odds, he wrote, you should be aware that sometimes the apparent dissent is coming from “some snake-oil salesman who is trying to sell a miracle cure.” He was referring to the people who told Ronald Reagan that cutting taxes would pay for itself, above all a guy named Art Laffer. As Mankiw noted, the charlatans and cranks were wrong: Reagan’s tax cuts sharply reduced revenue. And the same thing has been true every time tax-cut proponents have promised a miracle. Most recently, the 2017 Trump tax cut has led to a precipitous collapse in corporate tax receipts, twice as much as projected. Yet decades of being wrong again and again has done nothing to reduce the influence of tax-cut cranks on the G.O.P. On the contrary, their grip has gotten ever tighter. Even supposed Republican moderates like Maine’s Susan Collins justified their support for the 2017 bill by saying that it would pay for itself. And on Wednesday, Laffer will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. To be fair, Laffer is known for other things besides his utter faith in the miraculous power of tax cuts. He’s also known for warning about the dire effects of the Federal Reserve’s efforts to fight the financial crisis: “Get ready for inflation and higher interest rates,” he thundered a decade ago. Actually, no: Inflation has stayed low, and interest rates are close to their lowest levels in history. Now, anyone with a long career of making economic pronouncements will have made some bad calls. God knows I have. But what makes Laffer and others like them so special is both the utter consistency of their wrongness and the fact that their influence just keeps rising despite that wrongness. Or maybe I should say that their influence grows because of their wrongness. Constantly predicting great results from tax cuts for the rich and catastrophe should top tax rates go up is a bad way to devise economic policy but a very good way to ingratiate yourself with wealthy political donors. Attacking any policy that might have helped the economy while a Democrat was president was a pretty good career strategy too. What’s striking is that at this point the G.O.P. apparently has no use for economists who aren’t snake-oil salesmen. There are serious economists — like Mankiw — who happen to be conservatives, out of some combination of personal values and judgements about the proper role of government. I can respect their positions, even when I disagree. But they have no political home. Laffer’s medal, like the appointment of the fundamentally ludicrous Larry Kudlow as chief economist and the attempt to install Stephen Moore at the Fed, is like putting up a sign saying “Only charlatans and cranks need apply.”
A senior administration official involved in the process said, “We’re not pulling out. We’re not pulling back. We’re still supportive. He’s still going through the White House vetting process and then he will go up to the Senate Banking Committee—if he gets through vetting process. In other words, no change. We’re sticking with Moore.”
When asked about Mr. Moore, Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager who remains in contact with the president, said Mr. Trump has been influenced by the fight over his last Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, who came under withering scrutiny for alleged sexual misconduct and heavy drinking in high school and college.
“Judge Kavanaugh is Justice Kavanaugh because this president is willing to stand up and fight for him,” Mr. Lewandowski said. “And he’s willing to do that for other people.”
Multiple Senate Republicans have expressed doubts about the prospects for confirming conservative commentator Stephen Moore if President Trump nominates him to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. They cited among other issues his comments about women. Here is a sample.
Aug. 1, 1994 column for The Washington Times
“Probably the most objectionable pork in the entire legislation is the $1.8 billion earmarked for Sen. Joe Biden’s ‘Violence Against Women Act.’ That act sets up gender sensitivity programs for judges and police; classifies assaults against women as ‘hate crimes’ or civil rights offenses, and passes out millions of dollars to women’s groups for ‘rape education’ and a smorgasbord of other programs. The act would be more efficient if Congress cut out the federal middleman and simply required every American household to write a $20 check to the radical feminist group of its choice.”
Nov. 7, 2000 column in National Review
Explaining that his wife voted for a Democrat: “Women are sooo malleable! No wonder there’s a gender gap.”
March 19, 2002 column in National Review
Writing about the “March Madness” NCAA college basketball tournament: “Here’s the rule change I propose: No more women refs, no women announcers, no women beer vendors, no women anything. There is, of course, an exception to this rule. Women are permitted to participate, if and only if, they look like Bonnie Bernstein. The fact that Bonnie knows nothing about basketball is entirely irrelevant.”
Nov. 21, 2013 speech at Brown University
“You all know the motto for Fox News, right, John? It’s, uh, ‘Fox News: Fair Balanced and Blonde.’ Haha! I’ve met a lot of beautiful women at Fox News and it’s one of the fringe benefits of working there.”
April 10, 2014 column for National Review
“What are the implications of a society in which women earn more than men? We don’t really know, but it could be disruptive to family stability. If men aren’t the breadwinners, will women regard them as economically expendable? We saw what happened to family structure in low-income and black households when a welfare check took the place of a father’s paycheck. Divorce rates go up when men lose their jobs.”
July 19, 2016 debate at Republican National Convention
“I’d get rid of a lot of these child labor laws. I want people starting to work at 11, 12. It’s amazing how many people I meet who are successful…who grew up on a farm and started working on a farm at age 10, 11, 12 years old where you learn a work ethic.”
“If we do have a higher minimum wage, nationally…we must, must, must must have a policy that has a $6- or $7-an-hour teenage minimum wage because we’re going to price a lot of those young people out of the workforce, and they’re not going to get the training we need.”
“And by the way did you see that there’s that great, um, cartoon going along that the New York Times headline: ‘First thing that Donald Trump Does as President is Kick a Black Family Out of Public Housing?’ And it has Obama leaving the White House? I mean, I just love that one. But uh — It’s just a great one.”
Shown a video clip of that speech on an episode of PBS’s Firing Line with Margaret Hoover that aired April 30, 2019, Mr. Moore sought to defend himself, saying, “You know, that is a joke I always made about, you know, Obama lives in, you know, the president lives in public housing, but I didn’t mean it like a black person did.”
Aug. 17, 2017 appearance on CNN after Charlottesville riots
“I mean, Robert E. Lee hated slavery. He abhorred slavery, but he fought for his section of the country…The civil war was about the South having its own rights.”
“Can I say something politically incorrect? Republican women are so much more beautiful than Democratic women.”
It starts, but doesn’t end, with ditching Stephen Moore.
First, the policy. Our president’s past views on monetary policy range all over the map; he has been both an inflation hawk and an inflation dove, and he obviously has no definite and deeply held views on monetary issues, as he has no definite and deeply held views on many other topics.
But as on other issues, that lack of ideological mooring has enabled him to break loose from the stale formulas, the always-1979 assumptions, that defined a lot of conservative thinking in the last 10 years.
Shaped by the battles of the inflationary 1970s, much of the right reacted to the financial crisis and its aftermath by critiquing Ben Bernanke’s Fed for its interventionism and warning about imminent inflation. A few conservative journalists and economists dissented, arguing that the situation was very different, the ’70s weren’t returning, and if anything the Fed’s policy had been too hawkish. But you had to listen hard to hear them; for the most part institutional conservatism and Republican politicians kept up a steady “inflation is coming” beat.
Actual economic trends, however, vindicated the dissidents. And now Trump himself, for instinctive and opportunistic reasons, has taken up a crude version of their argument, jawboning Jerome Powell to discourage rate increases (a self-interested position, but also the correct one) and trying to elevate Moore in part because he currently shares the White House’s dovish line.
But a lot hangs on that “currently.” Historically Moore has not been an inflation dove; indeed when it counted he was a predictable inflation hawk, calling for monetary tightening in the teeth of the Great Recession. So it’s hard to escape the impression that his newfound dovishness is simply a hack’s adaptation to whatever Trump demands. Especially because — let’s be completely blunt here — Moore’s entire record of writings and arguments are hackish, his prominence a testament to cable-television’s appetite for partisans with think-tank titles, and those titles a testament to conservatism’s decadence.
So while Trump’s embrace of dovishness is moving the Republican Party in a sensible direction on the issue, his personnel moves aren’t rewarding the dissidents who were correct ahead of time. Instead, after making some respectable but uncreative picks, he’s trying to bring in yes-men and conservative-entertainment personalities (like his other, since-withdrawn choice for the Fed, Herman Cain) and relying on their loyalty rather than their ideas to make the policy he favors.
The desire to reward loyalists rather than intellectuals is common to politicians, and many dissident-conservative intellectuals were cool to Trump during the 2016 campaign. But most presidents make some effort to instantiate their governing ideology by elevating figures who actually believe it, rather than relying exclusively on toadies and ring-kissers and guys who look the part when you turn on Fox or CNN.
Not so Trump: All instinct and solipsism, he simply doesn’t care enough about Trumpism to find people who might carry his impulses forward once he’s gone. And so he’s bidding to do for monetary policy what he’s done in domestic policy and foreign policy already: Pursue a somewhat heterodox and populist agenda, but leave its implementation — and therefore to some extent its future — in the hands of men like Moore or John Bolton or Mick Mulvaney who represent the consensus that he once campaigned against.
That desire suggests a very plausible post-Trump scenario — especially if a liberal Democrat occupies the White House next — in which the Republican Party simply abandons his heterodoxies and returns to all its Obama-era positioning, all its reflexive policy clichés. Which in turn would set the stage for yet another Trump-like populist rebellion against this orthodoxy five or 10 years down the line.
In fairness, some Republican lawmakers appear to want to avoid this kind of pointless cycle. A younger cohort in the Senate, including Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton and Mike Lee and lately Josh Hawley of Missouri, appears interested in sustaining a conservative populism after Trump has exited the stage. And as Ramesh Ponnuru noted in a recent Bloomberg column, judging by how they questioned Powell in February, some Republican lawmakers seem to be “shopping” for a different monetary policy, one that actually learns something coherent from the last 10 years.
If those shoppers are serious, they should reject Moore on the basis of his empty intellectual portfolio, not just his dumber experiments in punditry, and they should encourage Trump to make a different kind of outside-the-box pick. I have suggested Ponnuru as a possibility before; as a journalist he has a long paper trail of rigorous, mostly vindicated takes on monetary policy, and as a representative of the right’s intelligentsia he’s everything that Moore is not.
Another clever choice would be Karl Smith, another Bloomberg columnist, a former economics professor and a prolific economics blogger, who has also defended Trump’s much-criticized tax reform (in case that matters to anyone in the White House!). Alternatively, if Trump prefers someone with a current academic title, then he should tap Scott Sumner or David Beckworth from George Mason University, both of whom were elaborating the more dovish case back when Moore was still pitching the gold standard.
Of course because they’re serious people, that “dovish” case is far more sophisticated than the White House’s palpable desire for rate cuts as re-election stimulus. Also, Sumner recently called for Trump’s impeachment … so, yeah, he’s probably off the table.
But so long as Moore’s nomination is in trouble, there is an opportunity here for some entrepreneurial senator to push the White House in a new direction — toward the actual institutionalization of the president’s better instincts, rather than just the appointment of hacks who flatter him. For it will have profited conservatism nothing to have surrendered to Trump’s rebellion, if all it gains in the end is another decade submitting to the imaginary “expertise” of hacks like Stephen Moore.