On Gary Johson, via E. D. Kain — The Eternal Return of the Magic Pony Salesman, Libertarians Hate Reality edition

Note:  this is an expansion of a comment left over at Balloon Juice.

Over at Balloon Juice, new front pager E.D. Kain has a post up dissing Newt (fine by me) but praising the latest libertarian flavor of the month, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, whom he touts as thinking conservative/GOPster’s best choice for President in 2012:

“’I’m more of a Gary Johnson guy myself. I like Mitch Daniels, too, but I haven’t been paying close enough attention to his foreign policy to say for sure. I’d vote for Johnson over any other candidate out there.

I beg to differ.

To begin with, I agree entirely with that Web keeper of critical thinking traditions, Aimai, who wrote in the comment thread that:

… on the question of sane/insane conservatives at this point in our political history I’d actually rather deal with an honest religious and racial bigot than a soi disant libertarian. I’m anti the drug war too but to excuse every other form of lunacy espoused by this Gary Johnson guy on the strength of that is typical of modern day libertarians. Ending the drug war while also ending social security, medicare, abortion and everything else and removing regulation in order to free up large corporations is a recipe for disaster. I don’t care from what principles you think you operate. If you think that principles matter more than reality you deserve to be left alone on a desert island with only a large corporation that produces cans of food, and no way to get a can opener and no bargaining power.

You tell ’em, Sister.

Still, there is always a chance that Johnson himself has some core of argument and knowledge that enables him to take broad principles and craft policies that would actually achieve the principal-driven goal in the real world…so to see, I honored E.D.’s encomium to the point of looking at former Gov. Johnson’s Our America site (a test -the-water production anticipating a national run).

I looked at a couple of his issue statements: for a clean environment but against carbon tax/cap and trade and so on.  This is nothing surprising — it’s just typical magic pony stuff.  He wants the tooth fairy to pay for college education, Philip Morris (sorry, Altria) to cure cancer (joking, in case it isn’t obvious)…and he wants the environment to be wonderful without doing anything about actual environmental problems.

As I say, there is nothing exceptional here, except as an illustration of the emptiness of GOP claims of policy expertise, as here, when even this “best of breed” fella has nothing to say beyond happy slogans.

But Johnson’s, and I would argue the GOP’s, pathology goes much deeper.

Without having the time required to fisk every claim at this one Johnson site, I decided to do just a bit of sampling.  To that end, I listened I read and listened to Johnson’s discussion of the Federal Reserve.

Mostly Johnson tried to avoid any controversy, and certainly any hint of the crazy that the thought of the Fed evokes from some of the libertarian/black helicopter crowed.

Thus,  mostly, he delivered an anodyne and I-love-apple-pie call for more transparency.

But, of course, you can’t keep a true believer down, and the anti-Fed scorn snuck out at the end of Johnson’s video presentation.

There he noted, scornfully, that between 1913 (the Fed’s founding) and now, the value of a 1913 dollar has dropped to 5 cents. I.e.—the portrait of Washington you have in your pocket would buy you what a nickel in 1913 did. (per Dr. Drang’s comment below — this is the result of a terrifying annualized inflation rate:  roughly 3%/year.)

Johnson’s trenchant analysis at that revelation: “Yikes.” (Quoted in full.)

Is this nonsense? Of course it is.


Because it omits the critical measure of per capita income changes from then to now.

In the haste of an afternoon at the office, I haven’t yet dug up the full time series, but just looking at it from 1950 to 2004, US per capita income has risen, in constant 2004 dollars, from $17,077 for men and $6,333 for women to $30,513 and $17,629, respectively, over that 54 year period.

The point: Americans have grown substantially wealthier despite nominal decreases in the value of a dollar, which I think pretty much everyone who pays attention to real data from the real world actually knows.

The deeper point: Libertarian fixations on the Fed, on the numerology of money, on all kinds of policy bear no relation to reality.

Most sentient folks even vaguely literate in economics understands that mild inflation is vastly preferable to deflation. Inflation hawkery in the absence of actual inflation, is one of the real threats to job creation and long term economic growth; deflation is a real danger. See,e.g.,  KThug for much more, along with many other sources (DeLong offers a good clearing house for this stuff as well) —but again, everyone here pretty much knows this stuff I think.

In that context, nominal dollars will fall in value relative to their historical predecessors.  (You want to see this in spades?  Check out this web calculator that allows you to figure out the value of the pound sterling back to 1264.  FWIW, a pound then would be worth about £520 by the retail price index measure, and £11,800 using average earnings as the exchange rate.  See also this page for a range of resources on this question.)

But Gary Johnson either does not, or chooses not to mess about in this real world of buying and selling and growing wealthy over time.

Why not?

I don’t know what’s in the man’s head, but from observation of his ilk, it’s because this part of experience confounds his narrative.  Actually engaging in government action to achieve policy goals is always bad; therefore the existence of the Fed is suspect; hence, meaningless measures like the relative values of dollars printed a century apart must somehow be mademeaningful.

Yikes, I say.

If this is what passes for deep thinking and sane Republicanism, we are in even more trouble than I thought — and I was pretty much with Pete Seeger on this one already.

And that, to me, states the real problem.  If this is the best there is — Johnson as a candidate, Kain as an analyst…then we are way more than waist deep in the Big Muddy.

And, just to lay one more downer on your Wednesday afternoon, I’ve been reading a lot lately about the end-of-empire period in Europe — those crucial years running up to World War I when various nations spit the bit in all kinds of fascinating ways.  (I recommend my current reading, Philip Blom’s The Vertigo Years for a good start).

I’m seeing and smelling that now all around us.  We’ve got a dysfunctional government, an overextended military fighting endless wars on the fringes of empire, a systematic anti-science movement daily gaining traction (here, see Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt for truly depressing reading), attacks on the contents of education (Texas, are you listening), failure to address critical problems (like that pesky carbon issue Johnson wants to ignore) and the ongoing shift of wealth and economic opportunity from the bottom and the middle to a narrowing class of the socially-disconnected rich (PDF).

In that context, Johnson’s tag line at his proto-campaign site — “Good Government is Easy” — is simply the raving of a resident of Bedlam.  And E. D. Kain is apparently his keeper, but is yet unaware that he is as much an inmate of the asylum as the man he praises.

Image:  Jan Fyt “Big Dog, Dwarf and Boy,” 1652

Explore posts in the same categories: Conservatives, Data matter, Decline and Fall, Economic follies, Fiscal policy, libertarian nonsense, Stupidity, Uncategorized

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7 Comments on “On Gary Johson, via E. D. Kain — The Eternal Return of the Magic Pony Salesman, Libertarians Hate Reality edition”

  1. Tom Says:

    Dr. Drang is still unpersoned by Akismet so once again, here he is, by special delivery:

    Johnson thinks a 20:1 change in value over almost a century is a big deal? That’s an average inflation rate of only about 3% per year. Is there a libertarian paradise somewhere with a lower inflation rate? Was the US inflation rate lower in the 19th century, before there was a Fed? If so, would anyone prefer live back then?

    To repeat a common complaint of yours, how is it that Republican politicians get to say stupid things without being challenged by our oh-so-vital-to-democracy free press?

    I used to think Republicans said stupid things just to placate the rubes. At one time, that may have been true, but now they are the rubes.

  2. Mark S. Says:

    Most sentient folks even vaguely literate in economics understands that mild inflation is vastly preferable to deflation.

    I was shocked at how stupid Johnson’s argument was. As I said on the B-J thread, the Fed has done some stupid things, but they’ve most handled inflation well. To abolish the Fed would be about the stupidest thing we could do besides starting a nuclear war.

  3. jre Says:

    The Fed is Libertarianism’s institutional bête noir, just as the FDA is to alt-med advocates and the IPCC is to climate deniers. It’s impossible to have a rational discussion with a Lib-Con about central banking, but for the rest of us it’s useful to compare fluctuations in short-term interest rates pre- and post-creation of the Fed. You think we have volatility now? Check out the rates from 1890-1913 (when the Fed was created). It’ll curl your hair. Brad DeLong has a plot which I am too lazy to look up.

  4. liberal Says:

    Not that I think the Fed should be abolished, or that we should go off a fiat currency, but the simple fact of the matter is that the Fed does represent the institutional interest of bankers, and bankers as a class receive enormous, profitable privileges from the state.

    The fact that the Fed stood by while the housing bubble inflated shows that it’s fundamentally corrupt or incompetent or both.

  5. Dr. Drang Says:

    A late thank-you to Tom for taking my comment through the back door and posting it for me.

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