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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Experts Vs. Partisans (Repost II)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Experts Vs. Partisans (Repost II)

I love college football; my favorite team is Southern Cal and it has been since I was ten. I love tailgating before the game, and walking into the stadium in a wave of cardinal. Then the game starts. USC defers to the second half.  Chris Galippo smacks a back for a five yard loss and the band plays Conquest. Matt Barkley hits Ronald Johnson on a slant up the middle for a thirty yard gain and the band plays Conquest. The band plays Conquest a lot. After the game, the players, the band, and the fans gather at one end of the stadium to chant traditional cheers, often led by players. I love being a fan and surrounded by other fans.>

If I had money on the game, I would not listen to my fellow fans; I wouldn’t even trust my own opinion. As a fan, I am too emotionally involved in the game. With money on the game, I would look at a computer model, or read what an expert or experts say. I would also try to get a consensus opinion of experts by looking at the Las Vegas betting line, or prediction markets. Experts and aggregations of experts somehow stay above the fray and remain objective.
There is a similar relationship between economists, politicians, and citizens; economists are the experts and politicians are the players, the media, the band, and voters, the fans. Politicians and voters are partisans, allegiance to the team comes before objectivity. Politicians enact policy through law, and economists study the impact of policy and advise politicians. Politicians need good positive economics to achieve their normative goals. But if I were a politician, I would like to know my advisors had my back, and would not hire an advisor unwilling to show allegiance.

Economists advising politicians walk a fine line between holding to their science and remaining objective, or becoming partisans. Occasionally, a good advisor might contradict the politicians they advise as did Greg Mankiw when he said,
Romney has had to distance himself from his top economics adviser after Mankiw _ a Princeton-trained economist now teaching at Harvard _ voiced his support for an immigration bill Romney strongly opposes [1].
At some point, an economist must become a partisan, or at least bite his tongue when his team supports policy that contradicts good science as Greg Mankiw did when he supported tax cuts that important Bush administration officials said would raise tax revenues. Mankiw is on the record as stating that tax cuts don’t increase tax revenue. He took incoming fire from fellow economists for his silence, but defended himself by parsing words, noting that, “Being opposed to a tax cut as a policy and being critical of an argument for tax cuts are two different things. [2]” In response to Mankiw’s relative silence and awkward position on the revenue impact of the tax cut, Brad DeLong noted,
Mankiw was indeed correct in thinking that he personally could do more good for the country and the world working inside than if he were to march up to Dick Cheney, tell him "you have to stop saying that tax cuts raise revenues," and so get fired. But the Bush administration did frequently argue that tax cuts raised revenue. And there is the much harder question: is it worth the sacrifice of the economics profession's outside credibility and the further confusion of the public that is entailed when good economists defend bad policies on the outside that they are working to change on the inside? I don't know the answer to that.
The world has need for both experts and partisans, and it is difficult to do both simultaneously. Anyone who reads my blog for any period of time will note that I do not like economists surrendering their science for partisanship. I believe that most economists share my sentiments. I hope that I can be fair.

[1] Glen Johnson, “Romney Finds Advisors Both Help And Hurt,” The Washington Post, June 19, 2007.

[2] Nathan Strauss, “Mankiw Defends Tax Cut Stance, Faces Online Flak,” The Harvard Crimson, July 13, 2007.

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