Sunday, December 11, 2016

When intellectuals become apologists

I find Tyler Cowen's "economic" assessment (or rationalisation) of the impact of Trump's conflicts of interests appalling. Sample this (italics mine),
Standard political economy suggests that the worst forms of corruption usually are decentralized. If you have to pay off 13 different bureaucrats to get a project through, the chance that one of them will hold you up, or that the aggregate of the bribes is simply too costly, is pretty high. Conversely, a single payment at the top can be a way to grease the wheels for big projects, some of which may be beneficial for the nation as a whole (imagine simply passing cash to a president for him to fix the country’s airports). Or consider the value of domestic property as a potential source of conflict of interest. If Trump really put the value of his hotel properties before the national interest, that might encourage a lot of policies to foster urban growth, travel, and tourism. Those policies might not spread their benefits efficiently, but they are hardly the worst outcome imaginable... Note that congressmen currently hold stock and other asset portfolios and they are not required to put them into blind trusts. Maybe that’s not the best system, but it has not brought national ruin, and it is not responsible for most of the ailments facing our legislative branch, such as polarization and gridlock.
Does this mean that a corruption involving paying off just the President is to be condoned since it "may be beneficial for the nation as a whole"? Should we tolerate Trump's rational self-interest in promoting his hotel properties any more because it "might encourage a lot of policies to foster urban growth, travel, and tourism"? And should we not be any less concerned with Trump's conflicts of interest just because many Congressmen face similar conflicts and that has "not brought national ruin"? 

This is a slippery slope and the article is a very good illustration of intellectual compromises that contribute to the downward movement. Five years back, it would have been unthinkable, even looked upon with horror, that an American President could be a crony-capitalist-in-chief. Yet, now, as the moment has arrived, a leading economist uses economic logic to make this benign assessment of Trumpism's effect on US domestic politics and the economy. 

This is the problem when economists start using their rational calculus to offer judgements that are completely divorced from historical and ethical considerations. Sometimes, when facts are strikingly evident, and let's face the reality that Trump engenders shocking levels of conflicts of interest, it is best to acknowledge the same and get on with doing what can be done to address the contributors instead of seeking out silver-linings. 

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