Thursday, February 18, 2016

More Democratic Economists Calling Out Sanders

Now there’s a formal letter from Obama’s 3 past chairs of the Council of Economic Advisors, and 1 of Clinton’s chairs, calling out Sanders and his campaign for making misleading economic claims.*

Dear Senator Sanders and Professor Gerald Friedman,

We are former Chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers for Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. For many years, we have worked to make the Democratic Party the party of evidence-based economic policy. When Republicans have proposed large tax cuts for the wealthy and asserted that those tax cuts would pay for themselves, for example, we have shown that the economic facts do not support these fantastical claims. We have applied the same rigor to proposals by Democrats, and worked to ensure that forecasts of the effects of proposed economic policies, from investment in infrastructure, to education and training, to health care reforms, are grounded in economic evidence.  Largely as a result of efforts like these, the Democratic party has rightfully earned a reputation for responsibly estimating the effects of economic policies.

We are concerned to see the Sanders campaign citing extreme claims by Gerald Friedman about the effect of Senator Sanders’s economic plan—claims that cannot be supported by the economic evidence. Friedman asserts that your plan will have huge beneficial impacts on growth rates, income and employment that exceed even the most grandiose predictions by Republicans about the impact of their tax cut proposals.

As much as we wish it were so, no credible economic research supports economic impacts of these magnitudes. Making such promises runs against our party’s best traditions of evidence-based policy making and undermines our reputation as the party of responsible arithmetic. These claims undermine the credibility of the progressive economic agenda and make it that much more difficult to challenge the unrealistic claims made by Republican candidates.


Alan Krueger, Princeton University

Chair, Council of Economic Advisers, 2011-2013

Austan Goolsbee, University of Chicago Booth School

Chair, Council of Economic Advisers, 2010-2011

Christina Romer, University of California at Berkeley

Chair, Council of Economic Advisers, 2009-2010

Laura D’Andrea Tyson, University of California at Berkeley Haas School of Business

Chair, Council of Economic Advisers, 1993-1995

It’s hard for me to actually see what the motivation is here (other than Sanders’ claims give all economists a bad name). Politically, the numbers game is stacked against Sanders getting nominated, and factually Clinton has gotten delegates at a pace to support that. The poll numbers look weak, but polls are lousy predictors (economists prefer to use betting markets, which show very little shift away from Clinton). I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but it makes me wonder if the Democrats know something that we don’t about Clinton’s health or the likely outcome of the ongoing FBI investigation, and they’re worried about getting Sanders as the choice by default. But, it is a fact that this letter is unprecedented.

As I remarked at the beginning of the semester … it can be hard to predict what the macroeconomic current events are going to be as the semester progresses. I didn’t imagine this one.

For perspective, here’s the letter signed supporting Sanders signed by 170 economists. I’ve only heard of 9 of them, and two of those are former colleagues of mine at the Univeristy of Utah so maybe they shouldn’t really be counted. I’m sure most of the 170 haven’t heard of me either, which is fine. My point is that 170 isn’t really that many (when about 10K go to the annual meetings each year), and I’m probably a reasonable resource for evaluating name recognition of professionals in my field.

FWIW: Gerald Friedman is one of Sanders advisors, and is a tenured (full) economics professor at the University of Masschusetts. That department is one of the few that has specialized for the past few decades in Marxist economics. Friedman’s views would not be unusual there, but they would be in most university economics departments. UMass is classified as a top level (R1) school. Professors at those places evaluate each other by the number of citations of their work. Friedman has very few, and would probably have trouble getting tenure at a place like SUU. Having said that, Marxists like to write books (that tend not to get cited the same way) and Friedman has written a few; also, if you’re writing for a small audience to begin with, perhaps the proportion who cite you is more important than the gross number who do. But, for comparison’s sake, Krueger has about 60K, Goolsbee has about 6K, D’Andrea Tyson has about 6K, Romer’s aren’t totalled up but she shows several thousand cites on just her first page of listings

* Clinton had 4 chairs. Of the other three, one can’t sign something public like this (because she’s currently Chair of the Federal Reserve). I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the other two, Joe Stiglitz, agrees with Sanders. And, of course, Obama’s fourth chair is still in office, and can’t sign a public letter like this either.

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