When faith meets evidence, evidence doesn’t stand a chance

Conservative delusions about inflation hint at a much larger rejection of fact-based thinking

On the eve of the Great Recession, many conservative pundits and commentators had a world view that combined faith in free markets with disdain for government. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On the eve of the Great Recession, many conservative pundits and commentators had a world view that combined faith in free markets with disdain for government. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Tue, Jul 8, 2014, 01:04

On Sunday the New York Times published an article by the political scientist Brendan Nyhan about a troubling aspect of the current American scene – the stark partisan divide over issues that should be simply factual, like whether the planet is warming or whether evolution happened.

It’s common to attribute such divisions to ignorance but, as Nyhan points out, the divide is actually worse among those who are seemingly better informed about the issues.

The problem, in other words, isn’t ignorance; it’s wishful thinking. Confronted with a conflict between evidence and what they want to believe for political and/or religious reasons, many people reject the evidence. And knowing more about the issues widens the divide, because the well-informed have a clearer view of which evidence they need to reject to sustain their belief system.

As you might guess, after reading Nyhan, I found myself thinking about the similar state of affairs when it comes to economics, monetary economics in particular.

Some background: on the eve of the Great Recession, many conservative pundits and commentators – and quite a few economists – had a world view that combined faith in free markets with disdain for government. Such people were briefly rocked back on their heels by the revelation that the “bubbleheads” who warned about housing were right, and the further revelation that unregulated financial markets are dangerously unstable.

Damage limitation

But they quickly rallied, declaring that the financial crisis was somehow the fault of liberals – and that the great danger now facing the economy came not from the crisis but from the efforts of policymakers to limit the damage.

Above all, there were many dire warnings about the evils of “printing money”. For example, in May 2009 an editorial in the Wall Street Journal warned that both interest rates and inflation were set to surge “now that Congress and the Federal Reserve have flooded the world with dollars”.

In 2010 a virtual Who’s Who of conservative economists and pundits sent an open letter to Ben Bernanke warning that his policies risked “currency debasement and inflation”. Prominent politicians such as Paul Ryan joined the chorus.

Reality, however, declined to co-operate. Although the Fed continued on its expansionary course – its balance sheet has grown to more than $4 trillion, up fivefold since the start of the crisis – inflation stayed low. For the most part, the funds the Fed injected into the economy simply piled up either in bank reserves or in cash holdings by individuals, which was exactly what economists on the other side of the divide had predicted would happen.

Needless to say, it’s not the first time a politically appealing economic doctrine has been proved wrong by events. So those who got it wrong went back to the drawing board, right? Hahahahaha.

In fact, hardly any of the people who predicted runaway inflation have acknowledged that they were wrong, and that the error suggests something amiss with their approach. Some have offered lame excuses; some, following in the footsteps of climate-change deniers, have gone down the conspiracy-theory rabbit hole, claiming that we really do have soaring inflation, but the government is lying about the numbers (and by the way, we’re not talking about random bloggers or something; we’re talking about famous Harvard professors).

Mainly, though, the currency-debasement crowd just keeps repeating the same lines, ignoring its utter failure in prognostication.

You might wonder why monetary theory gets treated like evolution or climate change. Isn’t the question of how to manage the money supply a technical issue, not a matter of theological doctrine?

Theological issue

Well, it turns out that money is indeed a kind of theological issue. Many on the right are hostile to any kind of government activism, seeing it as the thin edge of the wedge – if you concede that the Fed can sometimes help the economy by creating “fiat money”, the next thing you know liberals will confiscate your wealth and give it to the 47 per cent.

Also, let’s not forget that quite a few influential conservatives, including Ryan, draw their inspiration from Ayn Rand novels in which the gold standard takes on essentially sacred status.

And if you look at the internal dynamics of the Republican Party, it’s obvious that the currency-debasement, return-to-gold faction has been gaining strength even as its predictions keep failing.

Can anything reverse this descent into dogma? A few conservative intellectuals have been trying to persuade their movement to embrace monetary activism, but they’re ever more marginalised. And that’s just what Nyhan’s article would lead us to expect. When faith – including faith-based economics – meets evidence, evidence doesn’t stand a chance.

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