Two hundred economists (and nothin’ on).

The 200 economists who think the Affordable Care Act would be a disaster lack a certain heft.

A few days ago, Politico Pulse (can’t find a permalink, but here’s where The Weekly Standard’s blog reprinted the story) published an item saying

“House Republicans open the health reform repeal debate today with an ace up their sleeves: a letter making the economic case for repealing the law, signed by 168 tenured economics professors and academic institution-affiliated scholars, two former CBO directors and four Federal Reserve economists, including a Nobel Laureate, among others. ‘We believe the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is a threat to U.S. businesses and will place a crushing debt burden on future generations of Americans,’ the 200 economists write, in a letter organized by the American Action Forum and obtained by PULSE. They charge that the law is a barrier to job growth and a ‘massive spending increase,’ adding $1 trillion in government spending over the next decade.”

Here’s the (rather overheated) letter. Conveniently, it was followed a couple of days later by a crowd-sourced rating of top economics departments, the top ten portion of which Tyler Cowen calls “exactly right.”

Of the 200 or so economists signing the letter, the number who teach at the top ten departments is four: Michael Boskin from Stanford (Hoover doesn’t count), Robert Lucas from Chicago (the business school doesn’t count), and two from Columbia.  We’ll add the Nobel Laureate (Edward C. Prescott) on an honorary basis.  That makes five out of two hundred from top ten departments or the equivalent.  On the other hand, Hillsdale College is well represented (four signers), as are conservative think tanks.

I don’t intend this as an exercise in snobbery.  There are brilliant economists in all kinds of places, and of course any economist knows more economics than I do.  But a letter like this is a political exercise, and the currency of politics is reputation.  Whoever circulated the letter knew full well that the more famous economists from prestigious departments who signed it, the more impact it would have among people who actually care what experts think.  And this is the best they could do.

The letter is “an ace up [the House Republicans’] sleeves” only in the literal sense: they can’t win this game honestly.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

9 thoughts on “Two hundred economists (and nothin’ on).”

  1. It's not a clean game–for example, Prescott is listed as the featured Nobel Laureate, but he's at Arizona State. Does that count for the prestige of the petition? I would expect so. So would a Senior Economist at RAND. But that's almost beside the point. The majority of signatures are pure fluff–Senior Adjunct at Golden Gate University?? That makes Sarah Palin's credentials look good. This is a classic Republican petition. It was likely generated at the top by former Republican administration officials (there are about a dozen of those, near the top of the list), then picked up by the National Association of Scholars and distributed through their network. As such, two things happen. Some signatures are collected from colleagues who don't fully read the statement and understand what they are signing–usually, the relative departmental prestige of the person seeking signatures outweighs any distrust of petitions that academics often have. This has happened many times in the past and, in some cases, signatures had been formally withdrawn. Usually, this is a trick that can be used once–once someone's been burned being offered to sign something he did not believe in, an average professor will think twice before signing another. Then there is the secondary list which simply amounts to the NAS membership. These include such academic hotbeds as Ashland University and Claremont-McKenna College that contain full subsidiaries of the Heritage Foundation on its campuses, or Hillsdale College, as you mentioned, where the criteria for joining the faculty are not exactly clear. And many of these are not even faculty, even if they are somehow entitled to sign their names with a university byline–some may be "shadow faculty", never approved for appointment by their peers, but paid for through Olin or Bradley or Eastman foundations fellowships; others may have no title at all but have some departmental and library research privileges, also never formally approved. For years, one Sandra Stotsky–once a popular figure in right wing circles on issues of literacy and civics education–signed her name as someone from "Harvard University". In reality, she held no Harvard appointment at any time in her career and simply was given a library cubicle to conduct "research" (such permits are accompanied by a mailbox). She also signed as a member of faculty at Boston University, although she never held any formal position there either–in fact, she's been repeatedly rejected for hiring by both Harvard and BU. But she did have an office at BU for two years under a Bradley Foundation fellowship. Her academic credentials? President of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Scholars–a forked-tongued name, if there ever was one. Checking the list closely will reveal a number of similar "scholars".

    However, let's say we boil the list down to about 30 genuine practicing and somewhat respected economists (ignoring the fact that they've sold their souls, as is clearly the case with Holtz-Eakin). Does this enhance or diminish the quality of the petition in any way? Of course not! It's a clear piece of partisan twat. Adding 170 nobodies actually makes it more difficult to see it for what it really is–a page out of the party platform that has little to do with academia or reality. So it really does not matter much what the credentials are–just consider the source.

    The only reason to engage in this exercise is to expose the noise-making machine which routinely makes similar claims about petitions and open letters coming from the Left. When 200 academics sign a letter that appears as a full page ad in the NYT, right-wing blogger don't even bother to read it or to respond on merits–they immediately go down the list of name looking for ones to disparage. And they usually find a few, although the attacks are not always just. Engaging in similar exercises from the other side is reasonable in keeping the balance, but it's not reasonable in holding an actual debate. Unfortunately, we are often reduced to attacking the messenger to discredit an ostensibly absurd message because we falsely believe that we are winning supporters from the middle or even from the other side–we are not. Whether the tactic comes from the right or from the left, it amounts to little more than preaching to the choir. I am actually more concerned that any ostensibly respected academics might sing on to this nonsense than with the fact that they are outnumbered by frauds at the rate of 6 to 1. I am not worried about the 6–I wonder who the 1 could have stooped so low.

  2. What the hell is a "Senior Adjunct?" Does that mean that all the adjunct faculty out there who haven't been crowned Senior Adjuncts are now, on top of everything else, mere Junior Adjuncts?

    I don't want to have to be the one to tell them. Fortunately, it's after 2:00 on a Friday, so most of them are already drunk.

  3. Does reputation really matter in a failed profession? These days, I think it an open question, whether economists, generally, know anything about the economy. Review what Dean Baker or Jamie Galbraith or Steve Keen say about their colleagues. Heck, review what Brad DeLong says, in self-evaluation!

    The Republicans are playing to their own constituencies, which, though authoritarian enough to want the confirmation of legitimacy for their ignorant prejudices and resentments, do not care about real expertise, and generally reject it, in every other area of controversy, from evolution to climate change. If one-quarter of the undersigned were associated with a chain of bible colleges, the letter might be as well-received. It is not as if the letter, itself, makes any kind of economic argument.

    And, the undersigned economists are, themselves, Republicans — many of them Republicans of the worst kind. The Nobelist, Edward C. Prescott, is, on political questions, a certifiable nutcase — with no exaggeration, like someone's crazy uncle, inclined to make all kinds of bizarre declarations. (He's actually not all that much better on economics — RBC yields often laugably bizarre propositions.)

  4. From the letter:

    A more comprehensive and realistic projection suggests that the Affordable Care Act could potentially raise the federal budget deficit by more than $500 billion during the first ten years and by nearly $1.5 trillion in the following decade.

    Perhaps they could point us to that "more comprehensive and realistic projection" so that we could judge its accuracy for ourselves.

  5. @Bruce I completely agree.

    Furthermore, the expertise doesn't matter when the media only repeats what each 'side' says and does no real investigation of what they are reporting.

  6. the more impact it would have among people who actually care what experts think

    Surely this is the problem right here? After all, their target audience is people who don't care what the experts think, and at best merely want some rhetorical ammunition, no matter how weak or specious, with which to counteract the experts saying that climate change is real, or that dozens of millions of uninsured is a problem, or that we never had a plan for winning in Afghanistan and had neither a plan nor even a motive for winning in Iraq. People who care what the experts think are irrelevant: the whole point is to amass a large enough collection of signers by hook or by crook so that Rush Limbaugh's voice can rise an octave on the word "hundred" when he says two hundred economists agree the ACA is a commie plot. The actual content doesn't matter. Surely if it were a matter of convincing informed skeptics, one closely argued and richly detailed paper would be more effective than some boilerplate petition, no matter how many Senior Adjuncts and people with lapsed library privileges have signed it.

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