When Is It Fair to Call a Policy Position Idiotic?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Fred Hochberg, CEO of the now-defunded ExIm Bank (ExIm photo)

Last night I wrote an impolite item arguing something I actually believe: that the Tea Party-led effort to defund the Export-Import Bank represented the destructive triumph of ideological posturing over real-world effectiveness.

Summary version of the case: Sure, in principle, big, rich companies like Boeing, GE, and Caterpillar “shouldn’t” ever have to rely on taxpayer subsidy. Also, government support can bring gross corruption at worst and market distortion at best; and the public costs of mercantilist policies often outweigh the public benefits.

Those are the principles, which I recognize well enough from my economics courses.

But the principles are a poor match for real-world complications.

If you have had any working exposure to the way big aviation, infrastructure, telecom, agricultural, or other high-stakes business actually gets done around the globe, you realize that the departures-from-market-optimum created by ExIm are tiny compared with those caused by governments in Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Emirates, etc. If you’d like to read about this at length, I invite you to check out my books Looking at the Sun and China Airborne.

Thus in an economic system modeled solely in a classroom, or consisting entirely of the United States, ExIm would be a waste. But in a world where Boeing, GE, Caterpillar, etc are dealing with usually more subsidized competitors from Asia and Europe, doing without ExIm is a form of unilateral disarmament. I say this based on what I have actually seen over the decades.

(And, yes, I also recognize that according to purist theory, even “unilateral disarmament” in trade competition still makes sense, in maximizing consumer welfare. For why I don’t think that’s the end of the discussion, please see “How the World Works” from back in the 1990s. I’m all in favor of expanded trade! But the U.S. did not grow rich by applying pure Ricardian trade theory, nor did England or Germany or Japan or any place else.)

Here’s a parallel: In principle, all military spending is a big waste. Armies destroy things. Their contracting systems are historically rife with corruption. Everybody would be much better off if military spending everywhere went down.

I can agree completely with that in-principle goal — and yet still consider it an idiotic blindness to realities if someone tried to defund the entire Pentagon to reinforce this theoretical point.


In last night’s installment, I didn’t fully spell out the pro-ExIm argument the way I had in books or 20-plus years ago in the magazine. Instead I just leapt to the end point, saying that willful blindness to real-world consequences amounted to idiocracy. Readers beg to differ! And also take offense at the term. Here is a sample.

One of the friendlier-toned dissents:

I don't think that opposition to the EX-IM bank ranks on the idiocy scale anywhere near the Republicans denial of global warming or their claims of a link between vaccinations and autism.

There are legitimate concerns about any government subsidy.  Government subsidizes things like sports stadiums and single family housing; when these things are subsidized, there are opportunity costs--other parts of the economy must shrink.  Similarly, the EX-IM bank subsidizes large multinational exporting companies such as Boeng and GE.

You apparently hope that these government subsidies trickle down to U.S. workers and to smaller suppliers to these corporations, and perhaps some of the benefits do trickle down.  But these benefits are the result of exporters offloading the default risk on financing exports from themselves to taxpayers. Additionally, at least to a minor extent, when loanable funds are used to subsidize exports, this competes with and might crowd out funding for non-exporting businesses.

I don't know enough about this particular issue to say more.  But generally you are even-handed in your analysis of issues.  In this case, you should at least acknowledge the potential costs of the EX-IM bank.

Agreed: any subsidy brings risks and costs. In my judgment and observation, the costs and risks would be worse from doing without. Now, from a writer who generally supports public efforts for the public good:

Obviously I don't think I'm a zealot, and I like Fred Hochberg [chairman of ExIm, whom I also know and like], and I think I've been as outspoken about the wackadoodle GOP as anyone...but I think the Republic would survive the loss of the ExIm Bank.

I find the everybody-else-does-export-subsidies argument somewhat persuasive, but on the whole I doubt we really need a government bank to provide 99.8% safe loans to Boeing and Pemex and the emirate of Dubai.

I think those of us who believe government has a very important role to play in fighting climate change and providing universal health insurance and so forth ought to support getting rid of marginal government roles that it can focus on doing those important things well.

I wrote him back giving my pitch on “this is the flawed world we live in, and you have no idea what mercantilism looks like until you’ve checked out the Chinese / French / etc.” He replied:

That’s fair. I bet I would feel differently if I knew anything about foreign affairs...

I guess what I would say is that it doesn't seem completely cut-and-dry, and that defenders of the ExIm don't usually acknowledge that the gross mercantilism you mentioned is gross. I also think the corruption scandals that inevitably seem to pop up at obscure money-sloshing institutions like this really do give government a bad name.

I agree that it’s important to acknowledge the costs and distortions of institutions like ExIm, and insist that they be run well.

Finally, a scolding letter from a reader who I believe is an MBA student at a leading business school. He started with complimentary remarks about my past practice of airing dissenting views. But …

That is why I found the attitude in your latest post on the Ex-Im bank to be so disappointing.

You write that "The people bringing down the Export-Import bank are zealots who care more about their theories than the completely foreseeable damage they are doing to American workers and companies."

I don't have a strong view one way or the other on whether the Ex-Im bank is good policy (my sense is that in a perfect world we wouldn't need it, but in our imperfect world I'm not sure whether it is better or worse than other feasible "second-best" policies). But I do have a strong view that the attitude in the above quote in particular, and your entire post in general, is out of character, factually incorrect, and dangerous.

It is out of character because, as I mentioned earlier, you have a long and admirable history of giving a respectful representation of those that disagree with you (your series on the Iran nuclear deal is one recent example of this).

It is factually incorrect because the opponents of the Ex-Im bank are self-evidently not Ayn Rand fanatics. The opponents include not only the conservative Greg Mankiw and the libertarian leaning but hard to classify Tyler Cowen, but also Senator Obama in 2008. [JF note: this was a throwaway reference in a campaign speech, unrelated to anything Obama has said or done since.] Perhaps in the last few years Obama has started inserting block quotes from the Fountainhead into his speeches, but if so I have somehow missed it.

It is dangerous because it is an example of a habit of thought that closes our minds and prevents us from learning. As soon as we explain our enemy's disagreement as resulting from some defect in their intellect or character, we feel safe to ignore any of the actual good arguments that identify flaws in our own position. The problem is that it is much easier to find some reason that our enemy is a knave or a fool than it is to question our own beliefs. If this habit is left unchecked, we get our contemporary politics: one group on either side of the aisle, each totally convinced that they are the party of honest, right-thinking folk defending the truth and the light against the pack of morons and zealots on the other side.

This is an easy pattern of thought to slip into - it may even be automatic. But for that reason it is all the more important to consciously fight against it. You have historically been at the vanguard of this fight. I hope that this post is merely a temporary stumble.

I wrote back saying that the tone was a decision rather than a stumble, but that it was based on observations I hadn’t bothered fully to spell out this time. Rather than take the argument through any more cycles right now, I’ll thank these readers and others for weighing in, and encourage readers to look more closely into the issues at stake with ExIm.


Still:  I think it would be a big, pointless, self-inflicted, and self-indulgent policy error to kill off the ExIm Bank.