Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Case study in how bitter political fights destroy social capital

I've been thinking a lot lately about Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, which I read and enjoyed while on vacation this summer. While much of it is about the eponymous Trickster, a perennial favorite topic of mine, it's really mainly about a broader trend in our society that Nixon was brilliant and innovative at exploiting but that really goes way beyond his direct influence (i.e., in large part he merely exemplifies its development). This is the bitter division of our country between left and right, or red states and blue states, or however one chooses to characterize it. If the two groups hate each other enough, they can get into escalating tit-for-tat cycles that destroy the social capital that they need to cooperate as well as compete. Cooperation is necessary, for example, in setting (1) mutually accepted rules of the road for political debate that limit how dishonest and destructive it is permitted to get, or (2) the groundwork for the long-term budget deal (with taxes going up and entitlements down) that is indispensable if we are going to forestall a U.S. fiscal collapse. In foreign policy as well, while the notion that politics should stop at the water's edge perhaps always was naive and overly restrictive of needed policy debate, we are in big trouble if foreign policy begins to be set primarily with an eye to its efficacy in bludgeoning or sidestepping the opposition, rather than to serve U.S. national interests.

I had all this in mind - not identifying bad guys, as some of the above may suggest, but lamenting the problem - when I read a blog entry from Brad DeLong describing the cancellation of an Obama versus McCain debate that was scheduled to take place tonight at Stanford, under the auspices of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). Apparently, Austan Goolsbee was supposed to debate Doug Holtz-Eakin. But then Kevin Hassett replaced Doug, and after that Brad replaced Austan, whereupon Kevin, at least according to Brad, called it off.

Hassett and DeLong have a feud, on which you can get Brad's side at the above link, going back to Kevin's coauthored book, Dow 36,000, which I suppose even Kevin would agree made a prediction that did not come to pass within the suggested time frame of 3 to 5 years after 1999. (Hassett then recouped intellectually with his interesting follow-up, Bubbleology.) But although academics can always squabble over nothing as well as something, or over analytical fine points as well as fundamental political issues, I find it hard to doubt that the great and angry divide in our country had a lot to do with the Hassett-DeLong falling-out.

As it happens, although I am obviously intellectually and politically in DeLong's camp rather than Hassett's, I am friends with Kevin (with whom I co-taught the NYU Tax Policy Colloquium for the first half of the winter 2008 semester) and don't really know Brad personally. Without pointing any fingers or saying anyone is wrong, or even definitively assuming that without the great political divide this wouldn't have happened, I must say it's not only too bad but seems to exemplify the broader problems I've been writing about from time to time in this blog, regarding where our country seems to be headed.

1 comment:

brad said...

So is Bubbleology worth reading?