Say Goodby to a Hack

Chris DeMuth, the head of AEI, is announced he's stepping down from the position in the WSJ Op-Ed page (article free here - at AEI). His farewell is a call to crankery:

Every one of the right-of-center think tanks was founded in a spirit of opposition to the established order of things. Opposition is the natural proclivity of the intellectual (it's what leads some smart people to become intellectuals rather than computer programmers), and is of course prerequisite to criticism and devotion to reform. And for conservatives, opposition lasted a very long time--in domestic policy, from the New Deal through 1980.

These circumstances meant that the think tanks in their formative years attracted many contrarian characters who were strongly disaffected by some aspect of politics or policy. One of AEI's founders was Raymond Moley, the FDR brain-truster who coined the term "New Deal" and then became disillusioned with the project (a liberal mugged by reality long before the 1960s, he was a proto-neoconservative). Milton Friedman was an active AEIer when he was still considered a crackpot in polite academic circles. Robert Bork and Jeane Kirkpatrick worked at AEI long before they became public personalities.

You ask me, Milton Friedman still was a crackpot when he died this year - none of his ideas, no matter how widely adopted actually worked. Robert Bork is so embarrassing as an intellectual and a human being that when he wasn't serving as a hit-man for Nixon during the Saturday Night Massacre, he wrote execrable legal opinions on reverting the constitution to a some antebellum ideal. He also cites Charles Murray, of Bell Curve fame, the most recent leader in the effort to abuse science to justify racism.

This isn't surprising talk from someone who championed the conversion of AEI from a conservative, but scholarly organization to a promoter of catastrophic idiocy. Basically, if you want to know who thought up the Iraq war - it's these idiots. DeMuth takes credit for the surge in the essay:

Sometimes the moment comes with astonishing speed. Last December, a group of military specialists closeted themselves at AEI to see if they could devise a new strategy for the war in Iraq, one that might have a reasonable prospect of victory following three years of catastrophic mistakes. Their plan was adopted within weeks by the White House, Pentagon, and new commanders in the field, with all credit due to our soldiers in action for their great success to date.

But what he fails to remind us is that the strategy of the invasion and subsequent attempt to turn Iraq into a libertarian paradise was largely the intellectually aborted brainchild of AEI "thinkers".

Timothy Noah has the full scoop of the legacy of AEI in the DeMuth years in Slate. It's a must-read for people to understand why I consider the global-warming denying, torture-promoting, stem-cell restricting, ultra-right, racist, and downright stupid nonsense coming from AEI to be the height of organized denialism.


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This latest effort by conservatives to cast themselves as rebels (see also: the Ben Stein movie Expelled) is as ridiculous as it is transparent.

I suppose rolling back the Enlightenment could be considered a rebellion against an established order... of sorts... but you'd be hard-pressed to find anything "intellectual" about it, once you scratch the veneer of big, but empty, words.

By minimalist (not verified) on 12 Oct 2007 #permalink

I'm a computer programmer. Does that mean I'm not intellectual?


By Brendan S (not verified) on 12 Oct 2007 #permalink

"Every one of the right-of-center think tanks was founded in a spirit of opposition to the established order of things."

That's their way of boasting that only cranks need apply. Within the established order of things we have physics, history, evolution, evidence-based testing, blind clinical trials, honesty and integrity in reporting results, peer-reviewed publications, checks and balances, civil rights ....

By Globle Warren … (not verified) on 12 Oct 2007 #permalink

"You ask me, Milton Friedman still was a crackpot"

No one's asking you, because you don't know anything about economics.

"none of his ideas, no matter how widely adopted actually worked."

You mean besides the permanent income hypothesis (still a fundamental topic in macro classes); NAIRU and his critiques of the Philips curve (which was disproved during the stagflation days of the late 70s); his critiques of Bretton Woods and support of floating exchange rates (he really pulled the wool over our eyes on that one, considering it's what's actually been adopted worldwide); his support for the negative income tax (aka Earned Income Credit). Along with his amicus brief on Eldred v Ashcroft (which he, along with Larry Lessig and others, will be proven correct on in 5 or 10 years most likely), and his work on quality control statistics in the WW2 era. Oh, and he won a Nobel Prize, the John Bates Clark Medal, and a National Medal of Science.

It seems to me you're...what term shall I use...denying Friendman's well regarded contributions to economics. Shall we make a special "Market Denier" card for your deck?

I won't deny that he made important early contributions to economic theory, that's going too far. His writings on monetary systems were influential, and yes, he did win Nobel for them. However, as the origin of the economic practices that were the inspiration of the Reagan and Thatcher governments, he was way off. I find the proofs that he was right about supply-side economics and de-regulation to be absurd. These policies have not worked except in the diseased minds of Reaganites. I'm also of the Krugman school of thought on Friedman, that monetarism was ultimately a failure - his statement that "inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon" is decidedly false and I do not believe any central banks actually operate that way. The policies he inspired in Pinochet's Chile (also proof that markets don't automatically lead to good and democracy and puppy dogs) were failures. So what if he was correct about a few things? A broken clock is right twice a day. He was still wrong on the big ones.

Further, as a public intellectual, Milton Friedman was a crackpot. Deregulation? Eliminating public schooling? Supply-side advocacy? Sorry to disparage the libertarian Jesus, but he was an asshole. Living in San Francisco, no less, while challenging the worth of any government regulation or intervention in people's lives. Screw Friedman.

Well, if you want to claim several of the fundamental topics in any macro book (inflation, unemployment, permanent income hypothesis), and the multi-trillion dollar foreign exchange market aren't "big ones", then I'm at a loss as to what is a "big one".

Pure monetarism isn't practiced...but pure Keynsianism has also been proved to be totally ineffective. The Philips curve ended up being quite wrong - by your standards, Keynesian manipulation was a failure also. That leaves us high and dry on macro policy, I suppose.

And, of course, you pull out the usual "Pinochet!" line that's never far behind when people start criticizing Friedman. Even though Friedman was invited by a private university and had only a brief meeting with Pinochet, everything bad that Pinochet did can be traced back to Friedman (or something). Considering that Chile has one of the strongest economies in Latin America (good GDP growth, good per capita income, etc), and is a democracy, your claim that free-market policies are a failure and don't lead to democracy seem rather weakly supported. Yes, it took a while, but economic health and changing political systems don't happen at the drop of a hat. At the bare minimum, it's proof that regulation and state control of everything under the sun are not necessary conditions for a healthy economy and country. Most of Latin America would probably love to be in as good of shape as the "failed" Chile you decry.

The "Pinochet line" is important to debunk the persistant libertarian myth of Chicago-style economics helping Chile. See: Tinker Bell, Pinochet and The Fairy Tale Miracle of Chile. Best response I've ever heard to the claim is: "As libertarians like to remind us, you can't make an omelet without tossing some people out of helicopters."

Friedman did have much crank policy advice, but some was not too bad. His ideas for practical taxation were pretty good: the withholding tax has worked well for 60 or so years. The negative income tax is not a bad idea: it might even be workable.

By Mike Huben (not verified) on 13 Oct 2007 #permalink

That's a nice link Mike.

When it comes to Friedman's early writings, and yes, his extremely early work on witholding, he was important and influential. It's the other 90% of what he did that was irresponsible, damaging, and downright detestable that I object to.

I love how they like to use the examples of his early contributions to theory to justify the horrors he wrought as a public intellectual. It reminds me of the discussion going on right now in the 9/11 thread where a crank brought up Lynn Margulis. A very similar phenomenon is occurring. Yes, she had a great idea early on - symbiosis. But now, she advocates HIV/AIDS denialism, 9/11 conspiracy crankery etc. You can have a good start, and have creative good ideas, and then for the rest of your career devolve into a crank. Their advocates would have us only remember those aspects of their career, but I think Friedman needs to share the blame for Reagonomics, irresponsible deregulation, and the libertarian crackpot ideas he espoused later in his career more than his early scholarly work. There are many examples of this, I think Duesberg is another example.

It's important not to let them off the hook by emphasizing their early work that gave them the influence to act as jerks for the rest of their lives.

Every one of the right-of-center think tanks was founded in a spirit of opposition to the established order of things.

Ah, so that's why they call themselves conservatives!


Other examples of individuals who made early contributions and later turned into crackpots include Linus Pauling, Brian Josephson, J. Allen Hynek, and William Shockley. Like Friedman, Pauling, Josephson, and Shockley were Nobel Prize winners.

Ah, yes. Milton Friedman, of the "Chicago School" that pushed disaster capitalism -- or, to reference the title of Naomi Klein's book on the subject, The Shock Doctrine.

The basic idea is this: The very, very rich hate the idea of a burgeoning middle class because it cuts into their profits, so that they are merely very rich instead of very, very rich. So they go out of their way to destroy the institutions that prop up the middle class -- unions, government programs and the like -- but their problem is that if the public knew what they were up to, they wouldn't stand for it.

Solution: Wait for a disaster to occur (New Orleans) -- or create one (Iraq) -- and then swoop in and rip out the public-sector institutions and replace them with private-sector entities that you control and which are lucrative -- for you. Build up huge walls around your little piece of privatized heaven and hire Blackwater to keep out the riff-raff you've just evicted from their homes.

Arrgh, hit 'Post' too soon and can't edit!

Anyway, here's an interview with Klein on The Shock Doctrine (


Pinochet's coup in Chile. The massacre in Tiananmen Square. The collapse of the Soviet Union. September 11th, 2001. The war on Iraq. The Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Award-winning investigative journalist Naomi Klein brings together all of these world-changing events in her new book, "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism."...

Economist Milton Friedman once said, "Only a crisis produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. " Naomi Klein examines some of what she considers the most dangerous ideas -- Friedmanite economics -- and exposes how catastrophic events are both extremely profitable to corporations and have also allowed governments to push through what she calls "disaster capitalism."

Klein writes, "The history of the contemporary free market was written in shocks." She argues that "Some of the most infamous human rights violations of the past thirty-five years, which have tended to be viewed as sadistic acts carried out by anti-democratic regimes, were in fact either committed with the deliberate intent of terrorizing the public or actively harnessed to prepare the ground for the introduction of radical free-market reforms."


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest today is Naomi Klein. She took the world by storm with her first book, No Logo. Now she is back with The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

Naomi, you�re talking about Milton Friedman. Expand it to the �Chicago School.�

NAOMI KLEIN: Right. So the influence of Milton Friedman comes from his role in really being the popularizer of what�s known as the �Chicago School of Economics.� He taught at the University of Chicago. He studied, actually, at the University of Chicago, and then he went on to be a professor there. He was mentored by one of the most radical free-market economists of our time, Friedrich von Hayek, who also taught for a time at the University of Chicago.

And the Chicago School of Economics really stands for this counterrevolution against the welfare state. In the 1950s, Harvard and Yale and the Ivy League schools tended to be dominated by Keynesian economists, people like the late John Kenneth Galbraith, who believe strongly that after the Great Depression, it was crucial that economics serve as a moderating force of the market, that it soften its edges. And this was really the birth of the New Deal, the welfare state, all of those things that actually make the market less brutal, whether it�s some kind of public healthcare system, unemployment insurance, welfare and so on. This was actually -- the post-war period was a period of tremendous economic growth and prosperity in this country and around the world, but it really did eat into the profit margins of the wealthiest people in the United States, because this was the period where the middle class really grew and exploded.

So the importance of the University of Chicago Economics Department is that it really was a tool for Wall Street, who funded the University of Chicago very, very heavily. Walter Wriston, the head of Citibank, was very close friends with Milton Friedman, and the University of Chicago became kind of ground zero for this counterrevolution against Keynesianism and the New Deal to dismantle the New Deal.


There's more at the link, but I also urge you to go get the book itself. It not only explains the Shock Doctrine and disaster capitalism, it also explains how and why it's being rejected in Latin America, where it was first road-tested, as well as around the globe.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 15 Oct 2007 #permalink

The "Chicago School" of economics has never been able to refute the central tenet of "Keynesian economics" that a dollar spent by the government is as good or better then a dollar spent by the private sector.