ECO:nomics: The Decline and Fall of the Ideologues

There was a lot going on at the Wall Street Journal's ECO:nomics conference las week, but one underlying dynamic is particularly notable. I mentioned it in my post on GE CEO Jeff Immelt's panel, but it's worth discussing at more length.

The conservative ideologues -- the WSJ editorial board, invited guests Fred Smith and Myron Ebell of CEI, Steve Milloy of JunkScience -- thought they were going to put the CEOs' feet to the fire. Force business community to face some hard truths. Expose carbon policy as an economy killer!

Instead, they ended up looking small, shrill, and utterly marginalized. Despite their claims to be pro-business, the business community disdains them.

One incident captured it pretty well. During the panel where EDF's Fred Krupp debated CEI's Fred Smith, moderator and right-wing polemicist Kim Strassel of the WSJ editorial board paused to ask the audience, "is there a CEO who went down this road [going 'green'] and hasn't been happy with the experience?" She looked around the room expectantly, even hopefully.

Crickets.

Wait, no. That wasn't my favorite. My favorite came when Strassel asked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, "Do you see any pros in global warming?" For just a moment he was struck dumb, as though waiting for a punchline. Finally: "No."

Or when she confronted Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris, asking incredulously, "do you think 80% by 2050 is achievable?" The breezy response: "My answer's obvious." So Strassel turned and asked the same question of the crowd. They voted: 75% think it can be done. Strassel's face fell.

Or hold on. Even favoriter: There was a debate between Mindy Lubber of Ceres, whose Investor Network on Climate Risk represents $5 trillion in capital, and Steve Milloy, who was there on behalf of his Free Enterprise Action Fund. Milloy spent 20 minutes telling Lubber she was an unwitting vehicle for lefty activists and the CEOs in attendance that they were dupes being fleeced out of billions of dollars by devious crypto-socialists. Toward the end, Andrew Shapiro of Green Order rose to ask Milloy, how much capital does your fund represent? The too-dumb-to-be-embarrassed answer, which prompted open laughter in the audience? $11 million. As Shapiro noted: looks like the market has spoken.

Or was it this one? Watch Alan Murray poke and prod Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott Jr., trying to get him to object to a cap-and-trade program because it will raise prices:

Scott just won't take the bait. He's not going to run around screaming like a little girl because some economic model forecasts doom. He's been through this before. He knows as well as anyone that the American economy is extraordinarily resilient and adaptable.

Or perhaps it was when Jeff Immelt responded to one scold, "I don't need to be lectured by anybody in this room about how to compete!"

Time after time, the ideologues pushed the same questions: Isn't this a tax? Isn't the government crippling the free market? Won't we lose our precious fluids?

Time after time, they were dismissed, with reactions ranging from anger to awkward condescension (as when the crazy uncle starts in at the family reunion) to barely concealed disdain. The people operating in the market -- as opposed to lobbing bombs from think tanks and Fox News studios -- are pragmatists. They don't have time for rigid ideology, or as Immelt called it, "false idols." Their job is to make money within the constraints set by the polity; they are under no illusion that there ever was or ever will be the frictionless free market of Ayn Rand's heated fantasies. Unlike the dour doomsayers, they have faith in themselves, in the business community, and in America to innovate and tackle any challenge.

As one reporter noted to me in the hallway, the WSJ embarrassed itself by inviting them. "Maybe this debate was interesting two years ago ..." Now it just looks like the twitching of a corpse already beyond the point of brain death.