Were Our Enemies Right?

August 3rd, 2011 at 3:16 pm David Frum | 187 Comments |

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In February 1982, Susan Sontag made a fierce challenge to a left-wing audience gathered at New York’s Town Hall:

Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or The New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?

Posing that question won Sontag only boos from an audience that the New York Times described as “startled.” Yet the question has only gained power over the intervening years. It contributed to the rise of a healthier, more realistic left much less tempted to make excuses for “progressive” dictatorships than the left of the last generation. If Hugo Chavez has any defenders on the contemporary American left, I haven’t heard of them.

Think of Susan Sontag as you absorb the horrifying revised estimates of the collapse of 2008 from the Commerce Department. Two years ago, Commerce estimated the decline of the US economy at -0.5% in the third quarter of 2008 and -3.8% in the fourth quarter. It now puts the damage at -3.7% and -8.9%: Great Depression territory.

Those estimates make intuitive sense as we assess the real-world effect of the crisis: the jobs lost, the homes foreclosed, the retirements shattered. When people tell me that I’ve changed my mind too much about too many things over the past four years, I can only point to the devastation wrought by this crisis and wonder: How closed must your thinking be if it isn’t affected by a disaster of such magnitude? And in fact, almost all of our thinking has been somehow affected: hence the drift of so many conservatives away from what used to be the mainstream market-oriented Washington Consensus toward Austrian economics and Ron Paul style hard-money libertarianism. The ground they and I used to occupy stands increasingly empty.

If I can’t follow where most of my friends have gone, it is because I keep hearing Susan Sontag’s question in my ears. Or rather, a revised and updated version of that question:

Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Wall Street Journal editorial page between 2000 and 2011, and someone in the same period who read only the collected columns of Paul Krugman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of the current economic crisis? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?

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187 Comments so far ↓

  • MaxMBJ

    A lesson in economics for you, David. Governments don’t create jobs. If government did in fact create jobs then all the money we spend on military would be a bonanza. Why cut back in Afghanistan and Iraq? Jobs!

    Krugman and others who are smart guys know this reality. They get around it by thinking government can “stimulate” the real job creators, the entrepreneurial segment of our society. Even this is very debatable. The big stimulus and TARP certainly are getting at best mixed reviews.

    It would be nice if we could get past the completely fallacious notion that government directly creates jobs. It does not today and never has. Period.

    • johnranta

      “The government can’t create jobs” is such a widely repeated and accepted myth amongst conservatives – why is it that no one questions it? Of course the government can create jobs – millions of them. Just ask a policeman, fireman, bridge builder, etc. In fact, during a recession, when private sector demand is flat or falling (as it has been for the past 2-3 years), the government may be the only entity that can create jobs (and generate private se tor demand growth). The better question to ask is “what types of government created jobs provide the best long term investment to kickstart the private sector”? I would argue that infrastructure jobs – jobs that improve transportation, power generation and distribution, communications, etc are not only meaningful jobs in the short term but jobs that make it easier for the private sector to grow and compete internationally in the long term. For the government to do nothing to create jobs (or even worse, to cut spending) during a recession is morally reprehensible – such inaction condemns millions of unemployed to prolonged idleness. JR

      • giannid

        Let’s not forget the roadways… first the construction jobs, then the lasting infrastructure that built the economy for decades.

    • thebighallbowski

      Then who delivers your mail? Inspects the food you eat? The materials that get shipped into America from other countries? Who makes sure health and safety standards are maintained at workplaces? The government doesn’t create jobs? Really?

    • translator

      I would like to most humbly point out a clarification that I am sure has been simply overlooked out of distraction or simply by rushing things into the usual clichés.

      By the reasoning you have just displayed, then the private sector does not create jobs by its lonesome self either! Without favorable taxation, without the right economic, social and political conditions the private sector would be unable to create jobs as well. What we must learn is to think together not constantly denigrating government! We are the government. Having an industrial policy, an energy policy, a housing policy, an environmental policy etc. is important, that is what we the government must do! Left to our own wits, we would return to the far west and the fastest gun in the west! That is not governing, that is suicide!

  • martimr1

    Max, Max, Max. You are doing exactly what David says, repeating the same tired right-wing mantras in the face of overwhelming evidence that the Right was wrong. How closed-minded must you be? Today’s front-page article is even sillier: Obama’s to blame because people think he might be in favor of raising taxes, even though all he’s done so far is cut them. Wow. You guys amaze me.

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  • ExConSean

    I asked myself this question when, after cheering on the invasion of Iraq from an office with a view of the AEI building, I went over there and saw what it was really like. Having followed the debate leading up to the invasion, and seen the way conservative commentators slandered Middle East experts (particularly within academia), I couldn’t help but notice that the academics had correctly predicted most of what happened in 2003-2005, while the AEI crew–including you, Frum–was almost comically off the mark. I say “almost comically” because being fundamentally wrong about every important aspect of a military action means lots and lots of needless death, a huge amount of wasted money, and second-order effects that take generations to play out. If there’s anything one shouldn’t elide the truth about, it’s the decision to go to war. That recklessness alone convinced me to expand my reading beyond the conservative echo chamber I’d been raise in.

    You’d think more people would be able to remember who told the truth, and who was shilling for someone else. But no, those Middle East experts are still “academic anti-Americans” (whose “anti-Americanism” might have saved us trillions of dollars, thousands of lives, and not shown the world how to run a “paper tiger” out of town), and Bill Kristol is still paid to tell us what he thinks about world politics, as if he weren’t the very LAST person one should trust with questions of national security.

    Point being, Krugman could have correctly predicted in 2002 how many points the Dow would fall in 2008, on what day, and which companies would need to be bailed out, and the ideologues at NR would still deride him as a “left wing loon,” “out of touch with reality,” and a “socialist/communist/fascist” for his observations. Reality means nothing to the ideologue, only loyalty.

    Russell Kirk’s definition of conservatism, “the negation of ideology,” couldn’t look more out-of-place today.

    • translator

      Well said! Thank you for pointing that out! That is exactly what I mean when I say that if we are the government (as we should in a democracy) then we ought to listen to all, including the academics whom conservatives think are anti-Americans! The errors that were made have cost all of us trillions of dollars and have nearly destroyed the economies of the whole world!

      It is appalling that George W. Bush has nothing to say about all the disasters he has manufactured!

      I still think our country will pull through! But it will cost us plenty! The downgrade of the USA is totally the outcome of conservative, disastrous policies that had nothing to do with patriotism or with right wing ideology… they were simply insanity! And no one is putting Bush in an insane asylum!

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  • giannid

    Thank you, Mr. Frum, for trying to inject rational thought back into the conservative movement. Have you sent a copy of this article directly to Mr. Krugman? I think he would appreciate it.

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  • cthyjnsn

    This just in: The world is not flat !
    I have been dismayed by what has been happening in the Republican arena so I’m delighted to see the right wing coming out of it’s delerium.
    Democracy needs opposing views challanging each other, but our system is healthy only if we have opponents who aren’t crazy.
    As a Democrat, I welcome back your sanity with open arms.

  • CivilSocietyTrust

    “hence the drift of so many conservatives away from what used to be the mainstream market-oriented Washington Consensus toward Austrian economics and Ron Paul style hard-money libertarianism.”

    Therein lies a telling misconception of what’s really going on.

    First of all, it was the supposed “mainstream market-oriented Washington Consensus” that had no spine for true free-market capitalism and sat back and watched as we instead moved further towards CRONY-capitalism and piled on debt.

    Second, it is in fact Austrian economists who all along predicted the financial meltdown of 2008 (see Thomas Woods’ aptly-named book, “Meltdown”), and who have always lucidly described how it is exactly government policy (mostly that of the Fed) that creates our business cycles, both booms and busts.

    Third, thank God for Ron Paul who is waking so many people up to the fact that having a dollar whose value steadily erodes is like trying to run a construction company where someone’s constantly re-defining the marks on all the tape measures. Oil (aka, gasoline) priced in gold has not tripled in price over recent times the way oil priced in dollars has.

    When people sense that their money is going to be worth less in the future, either through currency debasement or various forms of confiscation, they make a “flight to the real” and spend their money in ways that lead to asset bubbles. Hence “literally living in my money” with bigger and bigger houses (financed by cheap credit), buying gold which just sits in a vault, bidding up agricultural commodities (“I’ll eat my money”), and so on. Collectively, these habits starve entrepreneurs for new capital that will ultimately grow the economy, create new jobs AND coincidentally, bring more revenue to the government.

    So I’m not sure what brand of Republicanism or Conservatism Mr. Frum is trying to speak for, but it sounds to me like the implied problem he sees people flocking to is in fact the solution, and has been preached as such all along.

    See also, “Professor Krugman’s Bias by Omission” at http://civilsocietytrust.org/blog/2009/09/13/professor-krugmans-bias-by-omission/

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