A few thoughts:
I started this blog a few months after George Bush was reelected (March 6, 2005). There was more than one motivation behind the choice to start a blog, but a key factor was the way in which liberal/progressive ideas were presented in the media prior to the election, particularly on television. The presentation of economic issues was abysmal, and the people the news shows chose to invite onto their programs were far to the left of what I thought of as the typical Democrat. More importantly, the people representing Democrats on news and talk shows were unable to articulate the economic reasoning behind many of the Democrat’s proposals and ideas. When Social Security was targeted as a socialist redistribution scheme, for example, and George Bush pushed privatization, the people speaking for Democrats were unable to explain Social Security’s role as social insurance rather than a purely redistributive scheme, and they were unable to articulate the market failures that underlie the need for the government to take an active role in these markets.
For one, as an economist, I wanted people to know that Democrats are not opposed to markets. The vast majority of us are not a bunch of socialists waiting for our chance to overthrow the system. In fact, at least from my perspective, we wanted to fix the market failures so that markets actually work in the best interests of society as a whole, not just the privileged few. We were trying to make the system work better through institutional and regulatory reform that improves markets, to come as close as we can to the ideal markets in our textbooks, not overthrow the capitalist system.
But that, and other messages such as the economic underpinnings of social insurance never got through. The people chosen by the networks to be the spokespeople for the Democratic Party were, I thought, generally far to the left -- extremists if you will -- who didn’t represent what I believed at all. I can remember watching CNN one day before the election and thinking that if I was an independent voter presented with this description of what the Democratic Party stands for, I’d be wary about signing on. It was really frustrating irritating to see this happening, and I can also remember writing Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman and telling him how jealous I was that they had a way to make their voices heard.
My response – my attempt to add my voice however small it might be – was to write several letter to the editor to the local paper. When that wasn’t enough I wrote three op-eds, then one day I started a blog. Somebody had to take the initiative, I thought, and if everyone free rides waiting for others to do it, it won’t happen. (To give you an idea of the scale of my expectations for this blog, I initially hosted all the external content – graphs, etc. – on my desktop internet server which maxed out at 10 simultaneous connections. The first time someone linked to me, it overwhelmed my PC and I had to scramble to move the content to a real server. I never expected that anyone would pay much attention to the blog, though I suppose I had hopes.)
My views have evolved since then. I’m not as much of a Clinton type deficit hawk as I was then, for example, I am somewhat more receptive to redistributive policies that go beyond correcting for the effects of market failures and unequal opportunity, and I have a lot more sympathy for the views of what I used to call extremists, especially with regard to the distorting influence of political power. When I started doing this, I was pretty naïve in many, many ways (and still am).
I suspect there are Republican economists who are having much the same reaction I had eight years ago. How, they must be wondering, did the Tea Party come to represent the Republican Party? Why do news organizations choose to only interview the extremists and ignore the more moderate, reasonable voices that actually represent our views? I thought the news media was biased in its choices back then and I can understand how Republicans must think that today. Those damn producers are choosing the loudest, most entertaining of the lot I’d tell myself, and those choices are distorting the Democratic Party’s views! (This was in addition to other biases I could see, e.g. reporting about Bush.) The only solution, as far as I could tell anyway, was for people with different views to do everything in their power to be heard.
I hope there are Republican economists (and others within the Republican Party) having the same reaction I had. The push to extremism is even more pronounced in the Republican Party, and it's far more mainstream relative to what I (at least thought) I faced. I wish these voices on the right had spoken up already, but it will probably take a loss to bring them to action. I know I couldn’t understand how anyone could lose to Bush, to Bush!!!!???, and it took a loss to get me to become more active. So I can't blame the moderate voices on the right too much for not doing more to blunt the extreme voices that now dominate the Republican Party (though, again, the Republican extremism has been more extreme). For me, the loss was the motivation I needed. With the economy in the shape it’s in, Republicans must be (and are) saying the same thing about Obama. How can anyone lose to him under these circumstances? If they lose – it’s not assured yet by any means that they will – some of the more reasonable voices may blame the influence of the Tea Party and be motivated to try to change how the world sees a typical member of the Republican Party.
I hope they do, and that they are successful. We have a mixed economy and that is not going to change. Some parts are left to the private sector, at least for the most part, and in other areas there is a strong government presence. We need a healthy, robust debate about where the lines ought to be drawn between the public and private sectors, and how best to regulate the economy when the government does intervene. We also need debates on how to conduct countercyclical fiscal policy, something Republicans have always supported in the past in one form or another, we need more sensible Republican voices when it comes to monetary policy, and we need a discussion of social insurance that doesn't have one-side calling for its annihilation. There are all sorts of questions that call for a debate at the margins rather than posturing at polar extremes, and I would welcome a healthier discussion of these issues.