The GOP’s age of unreason

By Nicholas Wapshott
October 10, 2013

If the federal government fails to pay its bills and the interest on its borrowing by the middle of the month, it is the overwhelming verdict of the nation’s smartest economists that financial mayhem will ensue.

Until this week, no one on either side doubted that. In fact, it was implicit in the Republican case for using the debt ceiling as a lever to cut public spending. Only with the threat of Armageddon in the markets and the prospect of a return to the Crash of 2008 did the Republican bartering made any sense.

Now the looser cannons on the GOP deck have changed their tune. At last count, seven House members and six senators have suggested the government can remain shut down in perpetuity and America can fail to make interest payments on its borrowing and nothing much will happen.

Hard-right Republicans’ rejection of basic economics is just the latest example of how they have abandoned rational thought and refuse to accept established scientific facts. Consider their arguments against evolution.

Not long ago, Republicans were hardheaded realists who derided the woolly pipe dreams of their Democratic rivals. Now they appear to have lost all touch with reality, embracing notions that used to be the preserve of paranoid eccentrics who write rambling letters in green ink.

While we live in the Age of Obama, they are living in the Age of Unreason.

For Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the threat of America not paying its debts is not so much about economics as semantics. “It really is irresponsible of the president to try to scare the markets,” he said. “If you don’t raise your debt ceiling, all you’re saying is, ‘We’re going to be balancing the budget.’ … the American public will say that sounds like a pretty reasonable idea.”

An ophthalmologist by trade, Paul should forget grappling with economics and tend to his own shortsightedness.

The flat denial, in face of the fact that freezing the federal economy is already causing profound business uncertainty, could lead to a steep stock market slide and will provoke a skyrocketing of interest rates that could ricochet around the world and set the scene for another Great Recession is part of a pattern. These same Republicans were indifferent to the consequences of the sequester — a mindless deep slashing at entitlements and defense spending they insist is doing no harm. If they looked around them they would see how the sequester is unfairly causing misery.

Economics has long been an act of faith rather than a rational scientific study for some conservatives and libertarians. The pretense that a successful modern economy could do without a strong central government or that a government should somehow not influence economic policy by intervening is fanciful. There is a reason we are living under the all-pervading influence of John Maynard Keynes rather than the Austrian economists who challenged him, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek.

Keynes won the argument 80 years ago and transformed our understanding of economics. There is no putting that toothpaste back in the tube. Some deluded conservatives and libertarians may wish to live in an alternative reality where history never happened — but Keynes won and the Austrians lost. The right should get over it.

Ignorance about business, finance and economics is new to the GOP, which was once the proud party of big business and Wall Street. Now driven by the Tea Party, angry at bankers and Wall Street types who were saved by the government from bankruptcy in 2008 and 2009, the congressional GOP is being pushed around by a radical sect willing to risk the collapse of the world economy rather than accept that the Affordable Care Act is the law of the land.

Little wonder that Wall Street donors are pondering whether they should continue feeding dogs that bite them. It makes you wonder, too, whether the sons and daughters of the anarchists and communists who plotted the overthrow of capitalism have infiltrated the GOP to get the job done. The Party of Lincoln has become the Party of Lenin.

Ignorance about economics is just one example of how a resistance to facts has become an electoral asset for a Republican seeking a candidacy from a mob of ignoramuses. Nowhere is this clearer than in the evolution debate — where a fondness for creationism upends science in the name of piety.

Charles Darwin’s contention that we are all descended from common ancestors caused uproar when he first floated it in the 1830s. No one likes being made a monkey. But educated people cannot doubt the wealth of evidence that Darwin was right. All, that is, except the GOP holdouts.

The dodgy science underpinning the prejudices of those who ignore scientific facts became evident in the last general election. For example, GOP Senate candidate Richard Mourdock said, “I believe God controls the universe. I don’t believe biology works in an uncontrolled fashion.”

Wishful thinking only got him so far. Mourdock convinced Republican primary voters he should be their Senate candidate — then he lost the general election.

This denial of knowledge or just plain ignorance is widespread. Recall the absurdity of GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin. “From what I understand from doctors,” Akin said, “[pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Akin, a married man with two daughters and four sons — all home schooled, which may explain a lot — is plainly not paying attention to what goes on under his roof. Before pronouncing on women’s health, he should have spent less time talking to “doctors” and more time asking his wife and daughters about the birds and the bees. Despite wearing a dunce’s cap, Akin won the primary — but then lost the election.

The fostering of ignorance has also altered the climate change debate. Once it was universally acknowledged that global warming existed, though the reasons for it were less certain. Then came a well-funded campaign to cast doubt on the science behind climate change and disparage the distinguished researchers who provided hard evidence that the globe is getting warmer.

Though the muddying of the science was paid for by the big oil brothers Charles and David Koch, whose interest in keeping the world burning fossil fuels is not in doubt, climate change denial found a ready audience among contrarians, curmudgeons and doubters who welcomed the new “evidence.” It proved their conspiracy theory that all this science was a put-up job. These cranks and kooks even deny they are in denial.

Conservatism has always represented a stand against the tide of history. Progress is an anathema to many who wish the world would stop spinning while they catch up.

But elevating ignorance over scholarship should have no place in conservatism. The role of political leadership is to gently persuade people to face the world as it is, the better to change it. The Age of Unreason that insists that Hayek won, that Darwin lost, that hot is cold, and that babies are found under gooseberry bushes brings all rational debate to a halt.

Who can reason with those who, to gain popularity with the foolish and the shallow, rail against the real world?

America may have reached a crossroads. That is what the president suggests by drawing a red line over the debt ceiling. He has decided it is time for a showdown between the realists and the fantasists. Tea Party House members, who appear to have kidnapped Speaker John Boehner, wish to ignore the facts. They regret passage of Obamacare — though it sprang from an idea of the conservative Heritage Foundation. They deny it is truly the law, they deny the Supreme Court found it constitutional and they deny that the straight up and down vote over Obamacare last November re-elected the president with a plurality of votes.

Which part of democracy do they not understand? They lost. The president won. They should stop pretending that the last five years never happened.

A small but significant number, however, are insisting that unless Obamacare is defunded, delayed or repealed now they will not pass a budget nor a debt ceiling increase. They assert that the economic consequences — which all those with knowledge of finance, business and economics say will be disastrous — may even be good for America. These deniers have reduced the public discourse to a farce by declaring that up is down and vice versa.

There is a term in psychology known as the Dunning–Kruger effect. “People tend to be blissfully unaware of their own incompetence,” David Dunning and Justin Kruger wrote, “… Their lack of skill deprives them not only of the ability to produce correct responses, but also of the expertise necessary to surmise that they are not producing them.”

In other words, some people are too stupid to know how stupid they are.



PHOTO (Insert 1): Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky) speaks to the press after fellow Republican Ted Cruz (not pictured) held a marathon attack on “Obamacare” at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, September 25, 2013.  REUTERS/Jason Reed

PHOTO (Insert 2): House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) speaks to the press after a House Republican meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 26, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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@Decatur Your comment “American exceptionalism in the 20th century was built on investment in infrastructure, research, and education to foster commerce…” is right on and not pointed out often enough. The Republicans war on science and education may have already doomed our economic power for our grandchildren and perhaps our children. Debt is not the threat, failure to lead in science and technology, both based on reason, is the real threat.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

I have never seen a liberal write a check. If you are so consumed with how you are “helping” people by forcing them to do things with guns and government, then I have a few questions for you.
Why not write a check? Everything you make over the US avg of $40k, write a check as a donation to our glorious government and the wonderful things it does. Or to St. Jude’s Hospital. You won’t do either.
For a party in love with the law, why not support the law of the land, the Protection of Marriage Act? Or immigration laws?
There is a serious debate going on in America that I don’t think makes it to the blue states – have you gone far enough that you need to be elminated – in the same way that Tories were in the American Revolution, and Democrats in the South were during the Civil War. You need to wake up and be scared.

Posted by matt66210 | Report as abusive

I am encouraged to see more individuals expressing the thought that neither the Democrats, nor the Republicans are putting the interests of this country first.

Once more people acknowledge the fact that it is the American citizen that is being negatively impacted by the party politics within the Beltway, then change will happen. The old-line Dems and old-line Republicans will continue to solidify the power, influence and wealth they control, while at the same time exempting themselves from the legislation they impose on us. That’s how those within in the Beltway becomes multimillionaires during their elected tenures. Both Republicans and Democrats inside trade on the legislation in committee, they sell their votes to the special interests (all the while investing with those same special interests), and secure special consideration from the industries they are charged to regulate. That’s how they get rich “serving” the country.

This is not about Republicans vs. Democrats. It is the political aristocracy versus the American people. It will take decades to unwind the damage both parties have done to this country by continually funding new “benefits” on the backs of the young people.

So, let’s see…the politico’s screw the working taxpayer of today, and diminish the future of young people through increased indebtedness. All so they can say “I won!”.

They’re right. 536 of them win, 315 million Americans lose.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Very good article, Mr. Wapshott. But, to go beyond it, we need to consider what scenario the 1% is operating under, assuming that what is happening now is according to their agenda. It seems a good guess (to me) that people who have a few billion dollars on hand may well believe they can turn a serious US financial decline and recession to their advantage. The US wouldn’t ever be the same afterward, but that is not their concern — they are above it, after all. Sure, it would be a little speed bump for them, but nothing they couldn’t easily absorb. Their enablers, the Tea Party toadies, need not imagine that they will be rewarded, of course.

Posted by bcrawf | Report as abusive

All the points in this article are just common sense, and them not being received as so shows how effective the Koch engine has been in its 1984-esque propaganda promotion. In the comments above, the only real criticism I see is ‘unsustainable debt’, but anyone actually concerned about the debt would immediately end our wars of choice and raise taxes. Reluctance to follow these straightforward steps shows that the real issue is not concern over the debt, but over quarterly returns for the rich, and ideology for the poor.

Posted by brianpforbes | Report as abusive

It’s unfortunate but true: the Republicans have become the loony party. There are Republicans in congress who truly believe Obama is a Muslim, that he supports Al Qaeda, that he’s a socialist dictator hell bent on destroying America. We have a Tea Party member who gets policy advice directly from God Almighty Himself through the power of Christian prayer, and another who believes there are 4 branches of government. The insane government shutdown was engineered by freshmen Tea Partiers who didn’t let their inexperience and ignorance of political process stop them from adopting a strategy of fiscal extortion that’s alarmed the more rational members of the public and caused moderates to go belly up.

Republicans aren’t driven by any coherent policy or ideology anymore. They’re driven by raw emotion: hatred, fear, and rage, all focused like a laser on anything Obama. Look at the comments section on any news site like this one, and see how many comments are rational policy discussions, and how many are just tirades, insults, and ad hominem attacks. I’ve been following the comments closely during the shutdown, and I’d say about 90% of the anti-Obamacare posters don’t even know what Obamacare is or what it does. These people have no regard for reality.

Do we need to do something about the debt? Yes. Definitely. But are these the people we want to trust to come up with some sane and rational method for doing so?

In 1944 as the war ended, the US debt was 120% of GDP. It was paid off in 30 years with no damage to the economy. Under Eisenhower, the top tax rate was 95%. The economy boomed. Boehner and the Republicans say they’re serious about reducing the debt, but are revenue increases on the table? Absolutely not. These people still believe we need low taxes on the wealthiest because they’re the “job creators”. Well they’ve enjoyed super-low tax rates of 35% for 13 years and where are the jobs?

The Republicans have let their party drift to the right into a cloud cuckoo land where facts don’t matter Facts are the product of the liberal media and are not to be trusted. So they circle the wagons and sit inside talking to each other, saying only things they want to hear: Romney has the election sewn up. People will rally behind a government shutdown. Defaulting on the debt won’t really matter. National monuments they closed down are Obama’s fault.

In this kind of environment, the crazier you are, the better you’ll fit in.

Posted by dr_mabeuse | Report as abusive

Not just an opthalmologist but a self-certified one at that. Try doing that in any other learned profession and see how long before the state nails your buns for practicing without a license.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

So, by all means, let’s continue to kick the can down the road like all generations, including the “greatest generation.” It is the defintion of insanity thing all over again. All that comes out of this is the “promise” to talk about it in the future – nothing again. I would submit that it is the idiot, liberal Democrats that are plotting our destruction, albeit, with a ready hand from the Republicans.

Neither party has any interest in developing a path to prosperity, just the race to see who can outspend who. I can tell you that the GOP is NOT being pushed around by some “mysterious” (please read oouu along with this) radical sect. First, they are ‘the people’, not the leeches. Second, these people, of which I am proudly one, seek someone to represent them, neither party will, i.e. if only that really were true.

Finally, I do agree with one point in all the crap that is pontificated in this piece – it is time for a ‘showdown’ – pick your sides enslavement through socialism or freedom and prosperity, albeit with pain and risk. I choose the later.

Interesting the inclusion of Dunning-Kruger, must have been pride in ownership as it relates to this article.

Posted by kevin2ia | Report as abusive

GOP continues to believe its own Karl Rove numbers. Effectively, just putting a piece of black tape over the fuel gauge, while driving further and further out into the desert. “What bad news. If the car was going empty, it would tell me.”

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

You would lose that debate about evolution, if you happened to debate a twelfth grader from my hometown. IF you have a problem with macro-evolution, you are plain wrong. It already calls you out as, yes, a neanderthal creationist. This is the point about denying science spelled out: just because you don’t understand doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Most science is counter-intuitive when you study it. For evolution to be discredited, you have to discredit geology, chemistry, genetics, the fossil record, the tree of life (taxonomic tree from biology)…

Just to name a few of many. If you can do that then you will win every nobel prize this year, because you would be the most brilliant scientist ever. The fact that your petty prejudices prevent you from seeing the obvious truth just shows how silly you are to think as you do. I know far less about AGW, but it makes me question your sources on that topic too. To go against a plurality of scientists you need evidence, something politicians of every stripe have a problem with.

@tmc, sorry for the republican comment, but you were comparing a political stunt of the democrats to the examples of science denial of the republicans, so I had to comment. I see your point now, but a political stunt is what it is, hardly indicative of any deeper foolishness (and both sides definitely do that)

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

The tactic of not funding government is smells to most Americans because that is not what they think government should work. Bad laws should be repealed if and only if the majority wants it done.

Also it is not really lawful. Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment says all lawful debt will be paid. Section 5 of the same says Congress shall make provisions for the payment. Since the Constitution is the highest law in this nation, honest judges will have to issue orders striking down the 1911 and 1974 laws requiring a balanced budget or issue orders requiring the house to pass funding all lawful expenses.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

The courts would take time to deal with issue and may be pact by years of Republican appointments. Which a financial
problems most by the illegal actions the the House”s Tea Party.

In sort the House’s Tea Party acts illegally and moves against majority rule.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

Reuters, will you PLEASE get this left wing nut jobs op-ed off the front page. Other real authors deserve the spot far more than this guy.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I think he’s more of a practical centrist loony than a left wing nut job, no complaints here.

Posted by Decatur | Report as abusive