Why Won't Any Economist Defend McCain's Economic Policy in a N California debate?

…at least against Brad DeLong. Stanford University contains the conservative think tank, the Hoover Institution. Why have 2 conservatives backed out of public debate on economics against Brad DeLong?

  1. Kevin Hassett refused to debate Brad Delong at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research Obama vs. McCain Debate on September 24th. I see that Professor DeLong’s role was taken by Peter Henry.

Here’s what Professor DeLong would have said, in part. He ended up giving his opening remarks at the UCLA Anderson Forecast meeting, which was not a debate.

  1. John Taylor, former Undersecretary of the Treasury for International Affairs under GW Bush (and creator of the Taylor Rule) pulled out of the October 16th debate at the Commonwealth Club, “the nation’s oldest and largest public affairs forum, bringing together its more than 18,000 members for over 400 annual events on topics ranging across politics, culture, society and the economy.” Taylor’s office could not find a replacement.

Why does John McCain have so few active defenders in the economics profession? The campaign got 90-100 to sign a petition in support of him. Several of them live in Northern California. From DeLong’s comments I see these names: Michael Boskin, James Sweeney, Clifford Tan, George Schultz, Eric Hanushek, James Miller, John Cogan, and Dino Falaschetti and Charles Wolf. But preparing remarks is another matter.

Possible explanations

  1. Professor DeLong is an awesome debater, more so than any quivering conservative. I disbelieve.

  2. All economists are liberals. False, see the petition above.

  3. It’s not worth a conservative economist’s time to defend a Republican Presidential candidate. I disagree, and so did Jim Miller who debated DeLong in 1996 and Michael Boskin who debated DeLong in 2000. Dick Schmalensee, who debated in DeLong in 2004 is a special case.

  4. Professor DeLong believes that ideas matter. Kevin Hassett dropped out because he was afraid that DeLong would bring up Dow 36,000, a bullish tome published in 2000 at the peak of the stock market.

John Taylor may have been worried by DeLong’s October 2 blog entry:

  1. Or perhaps all of McCain’s attacks on the Bush Administration placed Taylor, a Bush appointee, in an untenable position. Still, Taylor did pull out within a week of the actual debate, so I’m not sure this explanation makes sense.

  2. McCain’s economic policies are too confusing to get a grasp on. McCain calls for deeper tax cuts than George Bush did – but McCain insists that he is not George Bush. His positioning during the financial crisis was embarrassing, erratic and unhelpful.

Defending John McCain’s economic policies in a forum where your views are subject to scrutiny and your reputation is on the line is too much to bear.

  1. Obama and the Democratic Party simply have a superior track record.

  2. Or perhaps serious conservative economists have given up hope that an intellectually defendable economic policy will ever take flight from a Republican administration. An intellectually defendable economic policy does not mean “Tax cuts forever” (ref: Bruce Bartlett). You don’t get even a plausible growth benefit unless tax cuts are matched by spending reductions. (And since lower taxes have both an income and substitution effect, the effects on labor supply are unclear theoretically, and I understand small empirically.)


I don’t know which if any of these explanations apply. It’s a puzzle. This is not a critique of the McCain campaign: these sorts of events occur without their sponsorship or approval. Rather, I see it as a reflection of the collapse and demolition of the intellectual support for modern conservatism, and an indicator of the hard work ahead of us. (I wasn’t sure where to put this: mods can move the thread with my approval.)

Because MR<AVC.

OK, let me expand that rather terse explanation.

When marginal revenue is below average variable cost, a competitive firm will produce no output in the short run. Here, output is debating De Long.

Suppose you’re a McCain-supporting economist. Why would you debate De Long? You would if doing so would get you something - like increase your candidate’s chances in the election or your influence in the Republican party - and it wouldn’t cost you much.

But whilst a McCain-supporting economist might well continue to support McCain and perhaps bag Obama on his shortcomings, it would be foolish to debate De Long, because:

You stand to gain little or nothing because even if the election is winnable, it’s not being fought on economic policy issues as debated amongst economists in California.

You stand to gain little or nothing by defending McCain’s policies, because either McCain’s going to lose *or you’re going to want him to change them after the election. Either way, you don’t want to be tied to them. And you certainly can’t go into a debate conceding that whilst you support the candidate you don’t support his policies.

An example: McCain’s call for expenditure cuts. If you’re a conservative economist, you think one of three things about this:

  1. It’s a bad idea at the moment when the economy is about to go or has gone into recession (you’re a conventional economist).
  2. It’s a good idea even now, but totally inconsistent with the mortgage bailout stuff (you’re a neo-Mellonite).
  3. It’s good as far as it goes, but irrelevant because there is no crisis anyway (you’re a real business cycle type).

So the conservative economist will want to avoid supporting McCain’s positions and look to have influence in the unlikely event of a McCain administration or try to build something from the wreckage if he loses. Some, of course, have decided their fixed costs are well and truly sunk and have bailed entirely.

So, like I said, MR<AVC. Shutdown**.

  • [sub]De Long, of course, can be openly critical of Obama’s trade policies (for example). He’d make some some sort of motes and beams remark and get back to appealing to your honour (if you’re a serious person) or nailing you as charlatan. [/sub]
    ** [sub]Note that Wikipedia is not actually quite correct here - zero output IS the profit maximising output.[/sub]

Hypothesis #9. Brad DeLong is not awesome. Brad DeLong’s argument for Obama and his backup material are awesome.

Comment: c’mon there should be a servicable conservative stance on this – if the Republican party had remotely sensible economic policies.

Following up on Hawthorne’s remarks, what sort of people debated Brad DeLong during past Presidential elections?

From the first link:

There have always been a number of Universities stocked with conservative economists: the University of Chicago, Minnesota and Rochester are among them. But there never were any supply-side Universities per se: that doctrine was born out of meetings with the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.

After the remarkable spell of growth in 1995-2000, I can see why Jim Miller would head for the hills.

There’s a variety of conservative economist who might say, “Politics shmalitics. Politicians promise all sorts of things on the campaign trail, but I trust that sensible minds will prevail in the end.”

George W Bush proved them wrong. Few conservative economists are willing to state publically that you shouldn’t worry too much when McCain promises deeper long-run deficits. Fiscal irresponsibility has become the Republican guidestar.

In 2004, DeLong debated Richard Schmalensee, member of George Bush I’s Council of Economic Advisors, currently Professor of Economics and Management, Dean Emeritus, MIT. Here’s what happened.

That would have been a respectable position for Taylor to take, but he decided to pull out of the debate instead.

Brad DeLong is hardly a radical:

Somehow, someway sensible Republicans of honor must wrestle their party from the grip of the zealots and cranks. There is much work to be done.

The Council on Foreign Relations persuaded the 2 campaigns to officially list some of their key advisers. Over here is the McCain brain trust. And over here is a list of Obama’s advisers. I’ll note that Obama’s economic advisers hail from places such as the centrist Brookings institution and the conservative University of Chicago, although they are all center-left types.

It turns out that John B. Taylor is listed as part of McCain’s economic team - one of 4 members. So the decision to turn tail was probably at least cleared by the campaign. Maybe they were uncomfortable about the possibility of having an official McCain representative debate an unofficial and independent Obama supporter. I guess a serious debate on the issues --where claims would be subjected to scrutiny-- was not the sort of activity that the McCain team wanted to be involved in. As they didn’t want it to happen at all, they didn’t bother finding a replacement. Too risky.