Greg Mankiw and the Republican Party

A couple of days ago, Yglesias dinged Greg Mankiw for suggesting elegant right-of-center alternatives to the stimulus package that are untethered from political reality. Mankiw responded with a defense of impractical ideas, and yesterday Yglesias responded in turn:

I think it's great for well-informed people to write about abstract policy ideals. At the same time, if you're going to comment on public affairs, it seems worthwhile to comment on what's actually happening. There are, right now, four ideas that have substantial support in congress. There's the House stimulus bill, the Senate stimulus bill, the Jim DeMint alternative that consists of large permanent tax cuts, and there's the idea of doing nothing.

... Based on what his ideal policy would be, it seems to me that Mankiw probably, like me, prefers the Democratic bills to doing nothing and prefers nothing to the DeMint plan. But Mankiw hasn't come out and said that. Instead, he's blogged about his ideal bill and linked-without-comment to lots and lots of stimulus opponents. And I haven't seen him offer any commentary or links on the main Republican alternative. One interpretation is that this is Mankiw being loyal to the abstract purity of the economics discipline. But it's unlikely that anyone so committed to the abstract purity of the discipline that he wouldn't offer an opinion on legislative options would have served as Chairman of the CEA. More plausibly, as a former CEA Chair who hopes to work again in Republican Party politics, Mankiw is hesitant to offer an honest opinion of the congressional GOP's legislation or the relative merits of their ideas and the congressional Democrats' ideas.

Jon Chait calls this a "fairly devastating critique." I'm not so sure, because I'm not so sure it's fair to call the DeMint plan the "main Republican alternative" to the stimulus. It's the alternative that liberals like to highlight, because it's the most ideologically-rigid and fiscally irresponsible, but you could just as easily call John McCain's proposal the main Republican alternative: It attracted more Republican votes than DeMint's, and its lower price tag, shorter-term horizons, and payroll-tax component puts it closer to Mankiw's ideal stimulus, I think, than either the House bill, the Senate bill, or the "doing nothing" option. (And there have been some other Republican amendments proposed as well, a few of which Mankiw might support - though none are as comprehensive as McCain's proposal, or DeMint's.)

That being said, the DeMint proposal did attract thirty-six Republican votes, and it does reflect where a large portion of the American Right stands at the moment - i.e., appropriately firm in their opposition to the Democratic agenda, but disconnected from both fiscal and political reality in their proposed alternatives. Republican office-holders need to thread a needle where this landscape is concerned, but conservative intellectuals have an obligation to be forthright about it: I understand Mankiw's reluctance to muck around in the realm of the politically-feasible, but the Republican Party and the country alike would be better off if he and others like him didn't just propose good right-of-center ideas, but called out bad ones.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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