Flip-flopping gets a bad rap. Yes, it can be depressing to hear politicians cynically reverse strongly held positions from one election cycle to another. Sometimes, however, when a particularly forceful and articulate voice in a policy debate switches sides, it can be the most effective way to shift the entire conversation.
David Blankenhorn may not have been the most high-profile gay marriage opponent to have had a change of heart this year -- that was President Barack Obama -- but he was definitely the most surprising. The founder of the conservative Institute for American Values wrote The Future of Marriage, a 2007 book offering intellectual cover to those arguing that same-sex marriage threatens to undermine the institution of the family. He also served as an expert witness in court defending California's Proposition 8, which legally defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. This year, however, swayed by the growing support for same-sex marriage, Blankenhorn did a full 180, putting his heresy on display in the New York Times in June. "Whatever one's definition of marriage, legally recognizing gay and lesbian couples and their children is a victory for basic fairness," he wrote, prompting an enraged reaction from his former allies.
Monetary policy may not provoke the same visceral emotions as the marriage debate, but it was no less shocking in the economics world when Narayana Kocherlakota, the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank's president, said publicly in September that the Federal Reserve should hold interest rates near zero until unemployment falls below 5.5 percent. Kocherlakota, a lifelong inflation hawk, had been one of the most outspoken opponents of lowering rates and had voted against doing so in 2011. Why did he switch? Facts on the ground, namely little real threat of inflation and the need for jobs, jobs, jobs (in Fed speak: "By increasing monetary accommodation," he said, "the committee can better meet its employment mandate while still satisfying its price-stability mandate.") The turnabout was in line with a major shift by the Federal Reserve and its chairman, Ben Bernanke (No. 15), resulting in the new growth-targeted monetary policy known as quantitative easing. Time will tell whether this will kick-start America's job market or lead to out-of-control inflation.
A closer look at the numbers also changed the mind of Richard A. Muller, a University of California/Berkeley physicist and author of popular science books like Physics for Future Presidents, who had long been the go-to climate-change skeptic for those unsatisfied with sneering Drudge headlines. For years, he argued that widely used climate-change models were flawed because thermometers around the world had been placed too near the pavement and scientists were manipulating the temperature data they used. So Muller, along with his daughter, embarked on his own effort -- the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project -- which automated data analysis to eliminate human bias. Given that they were partly funded by conservative billionaire Charles Koch, who also bankrolls the climate-skeptical Heartland Institute, Muller's numbers were widely expected to "disprove" global warming. But instead, he had an epiphany: "Call me a converted skeptic," he wrote, saying that "prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct" and "humans are almost entirely the cause."
As these three thinkers prove, it's never too late to change your mind.
MULLER Reading list: The Social Animal, by David Brooks; Uncommon Sense, by Alan Cromer; Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. Best idea: Clean fracking (producing shale gas in an environmentally acceptable way). Worst idea: Shut down conventional energy (Japanese nuclear, Gulf oil). American decline or American renewal? Renewal is possible, but it requires more sensible policies in the three Es: energy, education, and economics. We need less politicization and more objectivity. More Europe or less? Europe is about the right size. Maybe it should add Turkey and Morocco. To tweet or not to tweet? Twhat?