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Beware Charlatans, Cranks and Contemptible Politicians

The hermetic nature of conservatism always made it vulnerable to this kind of spin into policy craziness.

Ben Smith and Byron Tau commented in Politico: “In this Republican primary season, no economic or monetary policy is too unorthodox for an electorate hungry for change.”

There wasn’t much new in the story, published May 20, but it did remind us that former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty — who is supposed to be a noncrazy — has declared his opposition to fiat currencies, which means a return to the gold standard (although he may not know that that’s what it means).

What Politico doesn’t include, but should, is the lemming-like rush to endorse the budget plan of Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, which, although Very Serious, is also complete crank economics, with its insistence — in the teeth of all the evidence — that privatizing Medicare can somehow bring about adequate health care in the United States at a much lower cost. And then there’s the recent rise of default denialism: Hey, let’s signal to everyone that we’re a banana republic, what harm can it do?

In the first edition (but only the first edition) of his textbook “Principles of Economics,” economist Greg Mankiw famously derided President Reagan’s supply-side advisers as charlatans and cranks. It’s pretty clear that when Mr. Mankiw wrote that, he imagined that this was only a phase, that Republicans would return to more sensible policies. In fact, however, the party is sinking ever further into deep voodoo.

My take is that the hermetic nature of conservatism — its loyalty tests, its closed intellectual world where you get all your alleged facts from Fox News and the Heritage Foundation, the “wingnut welfare” that ensures that defeated politicians always have a cushy job waiting at a think tank somewhere — always made it vulnerable to this kind of spin into policy craziness.

The debacle of George W. Bush’s presidency undermined the control once exercised by the establishment, which tried to keep up the appearance of reasonableness; and now people like Mr. Pawlenty and fellow Republican Mitt Romney need to sound crazy even if they (possibly) aren’t.

The 2010 election may, in retrospect, turn out to have been a disaster for the Republicans: it empowered the extremists, leading them to believe that they could go the whole way and keep winning elections. I guess we’ll see.

Where Have All The Mensches Gone?

I asked this question five years ago, with regard to members of the Bush administration, who seemed pathologically incapable of taking responsibility for their actions. (A mensch, after all, is an upstanding person who takes responsibility for his actions).

But the question is as relevant as ever. Newt Gingrich, who recently described Mr. Ryan’s plans for Medicare as “right-wing social engineering,” declared earlier this month that anyone who quoted him accurately was lying. And now, Mr. Pawlenty, who, aside from saying a whole lot of false things while declaring himself a truthteller, pulled a Gingrich when Rush Limbaugh correctly pointed out that (according to a 2006 newspaper article that quoted him as saying “the era of small government is over”) he wasn’t a true Tea Partier a few years ago.

It’s possible to believe that someone is completely wrong on policy while respecting his or her character. But policy aside, these are just contemptible people.

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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.

Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including “The Return of Depression Economics” (2008) and “The Conscience of a Liberal” (2007). Copyright 2011 The New York Times.

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