Arnold Kling  

Selective Memory

PRINT
The Lesson of Ebenezer Scrooge... Memory Boost...

The New Republic has a list of successful progressive reforms that conservatives opposed. It focuses on quotes from conservatives that today look bad. My guess is that one could comb through the back issues of their magazine and find quotes that are equally embarrassing.

Just in case you were convinced by the list that progressives are always right, here are a few progressive visions that did not work out so well:

--Roosevelt's National Recovery Administration cartels
--New Deal policies to restrict farm output (which persist to this day)
--"fine tuning" the economy in the 1960's and 1970's
--wage-price guideposts and controls in the 60's and 70's
--Carter-era energy policy
--government aid programs for developing countries
--welfare programs of the 1960's
--just about anything done in the name of "affordable housing"

If I were looking for embarrassing quotes from the left, I could start with "I have seen the future and it works." I could go on to quote Galbraith on the essential similarity between the planning done in the U.S. and Soviet economies (the only difference being that in the U.S. some of the technocrats work inside large corporations) and on the alleged importance of the entrepreneur being nothing but a myth. I could Krugman on the greatness of Enron (when he was on its Board) and on the overwhelming economy-wide significance of Enron's failure (when it collapsed).

Anyway, coming up with a list of the most embarrassing statements of one's opponents is a really vapid exercise. The last thing we need to do is reinforce confirmation bias.

Instead, list your own most embarrassing statements. I challenge commenters to list their own. Here are mine:

1. I took note of high house prices during what we now know was a bubble, but I thought it would take a much larger rise in interest rates to cause a big drop. Along the same lines, I said that none of the highly-regulated firms would be hurt in the sub-prime crisis. At least I said that in the early drafts of FP2P, and that was one of the few things I deleted during the late stages of editing the book.

2. I bet Bryan that the Republicans would not win a branch of government between now and 2017. While I might not lose that bet, I certainly have no desire to double down.

3. I know I had another argument with Bryan this year where I had to concede to him, but right now I cannot remember the topic. Selective memory strikes again.

4. I discount somewhat the embarrassment of my bizarre theories of money and exchange in ancient times, because I always preface those theories by saying that they are wrong.

5. I wrongly accused Brad DeLong of changing his mind about Greenspan's conduct of monetary policy after the crisis. Brad may be in the process of changing his mind now, but in an intellectually honest way.

6. There are many more, which I cannot think of right at the moment. But don't remind me. Let me keep my selective memory.


Comments and Sharing






COMMENTS (13 to date)
GabbyD writes:

is the lesson then, there is wisdom and folly from all sides?

Bill Shoe writes:

Thank you. Great quality post. I would feel terrible if I had to tell my co-workers what I thought I had judged wrong over the past few years. I'm an anonymous person so don't worry about me.

However, I have one item I'd like to add to Arnold's list. Many years ago Arnold wrote an essay on Tech Central Station that said something to the effect that he thought it was necessary and correct to take the fight against terrorism to the terrorists in the middle east. Meaning Iraq. He was in favor of going into Bagdad. Then the Iraq war became a decade long quagmire. It's somewhat resolved now, but at tremendous cost to the deficit and yes in human life. What would the Arnold of Sep 12 2001 advocate if he had the knowledge, experience, and wisdom of the Arnold of Dec 25, 2009? A respectful curiosity.

Steve writes:

"Just in case you were convinced by the list that progressives are always right, here are a few progressive visions that did not work out so well:

--Roosevelt's National Recovery Administration cartels
--New Deal policies to restrict farm output (which persist to this day)
--"fine tuning" the economy in the 1960's and 1970's
--wage-price guideposts and controls in the 60's and 70's
--Carter-era energy policy
--government aid programs for developing countries
--welfare programs of the 1960's
--just about anything done in the name of 'affordable housing'"


...


--Prohibition

Greg Ransom writes:

TVA & BPA -- wasted billions on rusting nuke plants, destroyed the environment, sent electric rate well above what they would have been with private power.

.. and just for the record TNR was full of stuff leaning Stalinist by writers leaning Stalinist left the 1940s and 1950s. Go read some of those mags for yourself, if you don't believe me.

This kindmof thing continued until Peretz took over in the 1970s.

Bill Conerly writes:

I can't help but think that many of the Republicans who currently oppose health care reform will become big defenders of it. Once health care is perceived as a middle-class entitlement, every Republican will defend Obama care in a headlong pursuit of votes.

Bob Murphy writes:

Call me a dinosaur, but I thought several of those TNR quotes were either clearly confirmed, or at least understandable mistakes. They are not all self-evidently absurd.

Mike Moffatt writes:

This one is *exceptionally* funny if you're Canadian:

“[I]t would make it practically impossible for any publisher in the United States to accept any food, drug, or cosmetic advertising without facing squarely into the doors of a jail.”

—Federal Trade Commission Chair Ewin L. Davis, in 1935, on the dangers of empowering the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the food, drug, and cosmetic industries

---

Right now a handful of individuals on the Canadian *left* is making similar arguments due to a bill that would regulate herbal remedies and the like.

luke g. writes:

My own most embarrassing statement? In the early 90s I told someone confidently that the Internet would never expand beyond a niche of 5-10 percent of persons in the developed world. It was a fad that would have only slightly more cultural impact than the CB radio and would be relegated to a world of techies and academics.

Why? It was too complicated to log on for your average consumer(this was in the days of tricky modems), the content was too nerdy and technical, and there seemed to be too few ways to make money off of it, especially through advertising.

My arguments seemed reasonable enough to me at the time, and I'm afraid I even convinced some people to see it my way!

Eric Rasmusen writes:

Good post, except I would have liked you to summarize the New Republic's list. Making such lists of the other side's mistakes is illuminating because it (a) shows what you think is an undeniable mistake, and (b) shows what you think the other side supported.

On (a), no Republican politician would oppose social security, medicare, the danger of acid rain, or the minimum wage now, but lots of intellectual conservatives would. In fact, I thought acid rain had turned out to be a hoax. (And on restricting Chinese immigration--- aren't we excluding a much bigger number of Chinese immigrants now than we did back then?)

On (b), segregation and Chinese immigration restriction weren't clearly conservative policies. They were policies with bipartisan regional support and mixed national support. Recall how Woodrow Wilson introduced segregation into DC federal offices for the first time.

But the post was also good in telling us to look for our own mistakes. I, too, didn't realize that the banks were exposed to ruin from the inevitable burst of the real estate bubble. I didn't think the Iraq surge would work. And, most recently, I thought a money-for-promises deal would come out of Copenhagen.

Eric Rasmusen writes:

Another thought, on conservative vs. liberal mistakes:

1. The conservatives' biggest mistake was in foreign policy: hostility towards Roosevelt's activist foreign policy.

2. Generally speaking, conservatives ran foreign and economic policy 1950-2000, while liberals ran education, crime, and the cities. Look at what happened.

noahpoah writes:

Perhaps it was a typo to write "I could Krugman...", but I like to think of it as a semantically very reasonable conversion.

reiver writes:

@Arnold Kling, you said...
"Just in case you were convinced by the list that progressives are always right, here are a few progressive visions that did not work out so well"

Don't forget about (Forced) Eugenics, for your list of "progressive visions".

The US state of Indiana was the first to enact sterilization laws in 1907. Other states followed with their own sterilization laws as the years went by.

If you want a more world wide view, Denmark enacted their sterilization laws in 1929, Norway in 1934, Sweden in 1935, Finland in 1935. By 1936, others were also looking at jumping on the band wagon, including: Hungary, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Poland, Japan, Latvia, and Lithuania.

(Note I'm not trying to suggest that sterilization is the only component of Forced Eugenics. I'm just picking an easy example.)

The thing a lot of people don't appreciate today is just how popular Forced Eugenics was back then. It was very common for people to think that way (back then). It was in the Zeitgeist. Forced Eugenics was solutions to a problem that many many people thought "we had to do something about".

All the Nazis did was implement what was already in the Zeitgeist!

Which of course, doesn't excuse their actions or make what they did any less horrible. But to demonize them and not acknowledge how things came to be is a disservice, and increases the risk of history repeating itself.

(Actually, I suspect Forced Eugenics could make a come back, although under a different name. Maybe under the banner of "Sustainability".)

guthrie writes:

Good call, reiver! Although a new FE movement could also come back under some 'Utilitarian' umbrella as well... a 'bell(curve) jar' if you will...

My own list would have to include my unwavering support for the war in Iraq, even after revelations of misinformation (must be a 'liberal conspiracy'...! Ugh! Embarrassing!)

It would also include my passionate (and irrational) defense of strong border control. At the time I was living in LA and could only see the downside of 'illegal immigration' without placing the blame properly on policy and intervention.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top