Jonathan Chait wrote a post discussing the first substantive act of the 114th Congress of the United States: ordering the Congressional Budget Office to begin using so-called dynamic scoring to evaluate legislation. Dynamic scoring is a deliberately opaque term that means the CBO should assume that tax cuts pay for themselves. Chait goes into the history of the subject as well as the motivation for this change, which boils down to conservatives being unhappy that their budget math doesn’t add up. Rather than fix their budget math, they’re seeking to change the rules of math.
I’m not going to go into substantive analysis of this move; suffice to say that I think it’s a bad idea. There are legitimate questions regarding how Congress does its budgeting (see for example this vox.com post on capital budgeting), but I want to leave those aside for the moment and consider what this move represent in the broader context of U.S. politics. I believe that the embrace of dynamic scoring represents the latest example of what David Roberts identifies as postmodern conservatism.
The central tenet of postmodern conservatism is this: there is no truth, only competing political claims. This idea has been lurking in conservative circles for quite some time, for a look at its early history you can do a lot worse than Rick Perlstein’s The Long Con. We can witness this idea at work in some familiar features of the conservative landscape. For example, consider the conservative rejection of scientific evidence in particular, and the broader conservative disdain for intellectualism. The central philosophical idea underlying science is that by careful observation and analysis, human beings can discover truths about our world. Conservatives find these various truths to be politically inconvenient; as Stephen Colbert observed reality has a liberal bias. Rather than adapt to reality and adjust their views, conservatives simply reject reality. But they go one step further, rejecting not just the facts of reality but the very idea of facts themselves.
We can see this at work also in the conservative embrace of Fox News. That conservatives embrace the overtly partisan Fox News even as they rail against the bias of the mainstream media is an irony that liberals have rolled their eyes over for decades. But in doing so, liberals are missing the point. For conservatives it’s not that all media is biased and that they prefer the bias of Fox News, it’s that the idea that objectively reporting facts is ridiculous because there are no facts. Everything is political.
And so we come to dynamic scoring. The CBO estimates for conservatives’ preferred tax policy show that cutting taxes results in lower tax revenue, and thus an increase in the budget deficit. This analysis is backed up by a whole host of actual policy result; large tax cut programs ranging from the Bush tax cuts of the early 2000s to Sam Brownback’s slashing of taxes in Kansas have resulted in ballooning budget deficits and increased debt. Rather than acknowledge this reality and update their priors, conservatives prefer to stick with their priors and instead change the math so that it reflects their preferences. There is no reality or truth.
I believe much of the mainstream commentary on U.S. politics fundamentally misdiagnoses the liberal vs. conservative conflict in this country. It is not one of competing policy preferences (though they exist), or competing values (though of course this conflict does exist). The fundamental conflict here is one about the nature of reality, and it’s one that our institutions are entirely ill suited to handle.
PS: I am reminded of Julian Sanchez’s 2010 post coining the phrase epistemic closure with regards to the conservative movement. The epistemic closure he identifies is a symptom of conservative postmodernism.