The Straw That Stirred the Drink

Irving Kristol, who died earlier this month at 89, meant many different things to many different people. One way to remember him is as the editor who, with his friend and City College of New York classmate Daniel Bell, founded The Public Interest in 1965, at just the moment the phenomenon known as “the counterculture” was beginning to grip the popular imagination of the West.

The first issue featured Robert Solow on “Technology and Unemployment,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan on “The Professionalization of Reform,” Nathan Glazer on “The Paradoxes of Poverty,” Jacques Barzun on “Art – By Act-of-Congress,” Daniel Greenberg on “The Myth of the Scientific Elite,” Martin Diamond on “Conservatives, Liberals and the Constitution,” and Daniel Bell on “The Study of the Future.”

And for the next fifteen years, while the Americans lost their way in Vietnam, the Soviet economy stagnated, the Chinese people suffered Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution, The Public Interest was the quarterly that kept its head, serving as a focal point for meliorists of all kinds. Magazines such as People, Money and Rolling Stone built huge audiences in those years; The Public Interest rarely sold more than 12,000 copies. But the people who read it would in due course take over the nation’s politics.

An extraordinary galaxy wrote for Kristol in those days on nearly every social issue of the day (Bell, a professor of sociology at Harvard, cut back his participation after the two disagreed on the presidential election of 1972): Peter Drucker, Milton Friedman, Seymour Martin Lipset, James Coleman, Robert Nisbet, Henry Fairlie, Aaron Wildavsky, William Bennett, James Tobin, Richard Zeckhauser, Thomas Schelling, Herbert Stein, Gordon Crovitz, Anthony Downs, David Gordon, John Meyer, Jeffrey O’Connell, Paul Starr, Christopher Jencks, Charles Reich, Michael Novak, Charles Lindblom, Josiah Lee Auspitz. They were conservatives and liberals alike, but the quarterly’s content steadily trended over the years towards the stance that in time would become known as “neoconservative.” (A terrific full issue-by-issue archive can be found here.)

Kristol “was able to pick a side without losing his clarity,” wrote David Brooks in his New York Times column last week.

The side he picked in economics was an odd one. A 1975 issue featured a pair of articles: “The Social Pork Barrel” launched the career of a young Michigan Congressman, David Stockman, who would become budget director for Ronald Reagan; and “The Mundell-Laffer Hypothesis – a New View of the World Economy,” by Wall Street Journal editorial writer Jude Wanniski, introduced the world to economists Arthur Laffer and Robert Mundell, and their newly-invented brand of “supply side economics.”

The striking thing about Wanniski’s article was its anti-establishment tone, anti-Chicago as well as anti-Cambridge, Mass. The new hypothesis might be as transformative as the Copernican Revolution, he averred – or at least that of John Maynard Keynes. Mundell and Laffer’s enthusiasms for a gold standard, fixed exchange rates, large tax cuts and tight money were picked up and greatly amplified by the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. The Republican Party was divided – insouciant economic populists in one wing, sober technocrats in another.

In the neo-conservative firmament, the stars of ordinarily first-magnitude conservatives Milton Friedman and Martin Feldstein dimmed, while Laffer and Wanniski brightened. The success of The Way the World Works, Wanniski’s 1979 book for editor Midge Decter, nearly ripped apart the boutique social science publisher Basic Books, where Kristol worked as an editor as well.

By then The Public Interest was losing its force. As James Q. Wilson wrote the other day in The Wall Street Journal, “It began to speak more in one voice and the number of liberals who wrote for it declined.” Daniel Bell quietly resigned, in 1980. It didn’t matter. The Republicans were in power; and Kristol was ready for a second act. He would become widely known as “the Godfather” of neo-conservatism, dispensing favors and advice as a political activist operating out of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

In its obituary last week, The Economist summed up this second act of Kristol’s career: “American conservatism, before he began to shake it up, was dour, backward-looking, anti-intellectual and isolationist, especially when viewed from the east coast. By the time Mr. Kristol … had finished with it, it was modern and outward looking, plumped up with business-funded fellowships and think tanks and taking the lead in all policy debates.”

Success profoundly changed the game. The Cold War ended. The discipline and sense of fair play seemed to go out of civic life. There hasn’t been anything like The Public Interest since. But for fifteen crucial years in the late ’60s and ’70s, Kristol’s editing was the straw that stirred the drink.


There’s more to say about economics’ renewed macro wars, but not this week.