Do Economists Count?

Jonathan Chait, a journalist who frequently attacks supply-side economics, derides Peter Robinson of National Review for making a big deal out of a statement by 100 economists (or maybe it’s only 90) warning about the dangers of Barack Obama’s plans to raise taxes and restrict international trade. Robinson may have gone a bit far in calling the statement “The Booming of the Big Guns.” As Chait says, 100 economists isn’t all that many. After all, 200 economists warned against the Wall Street bailout, and you see how much good that did.

But Chait also sneers at the quality of the economists who signed this statement opposing new burdens on production and trade. “The list certainly does not suggest excessive discrimination about credentials. It’s heavily larded with GOP apparatchiks now residing in the right-wing think tank world.” Actually, it’s not. There are maybe half a dozen who list think-tank affiliations, including people like Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution, who–perhaps Chait does not know–holds a Ph.D. from MIT and taught for years at the highly regarded University of Rochester econ department. And then there are five Nobel Laureates–Gary Becker, James Buchanan, Robert Mundell, Edward Prescott, and Vernon Smith.

After his snipe at “GOP apparatchiks now residing in the right-wing think tank world,” Chait says “(my favorite is “economist” George Schultz of the Hoover Institution).” OK, let’s think about that. First, it’s Shultz, not Schultz. And just who is this “GOP apparatchik George Schultz”? Well, Chait probably thinks that seven successful years as Secretary of State doesn’t qualify you as an expert on taxes and international trade. Maybe not. But Shultz also has a Ph.D. from MIT. And he taught economics for 20 years at MIT and the University of Chicago. He then served as director of OMB and Secretary of the Treasury. Qualified to comment on U.S. economic policy? I’d say so.

But if you insist on academic credentials–and 20 years at MIT and Chicago in the past doesn’t count–that still leaves you five Nobel laureates. And lots more economists of substantial accomplishment and reputation, including some who just might get a Nobel Prize one of these days, people like Robert Barro, Mike Jensen, John Taylor, Michael Boskin, Martin Feldstein, Anne Krueger, Glenn Hubbard, Burton Malkiel, Kevin Murphy, and Cato’s own Bill Niskanen. The fact is, I’ve seen a lot of petitions from economists, and this one is more top-heavy with academic credentials than most.   

It’s intriguing to note that the statement does not endorse McCain’s economic proposals, it just criticizes Obama’s. Perhaps they couldn’t get five Nobel laureates and the other accomplished economists on the list to do that.