SYNOPSIS: Bemoans the political stratification of Republican Economists.
The chief economic adviser of one candidate is the co-author of an exuberant book claiming that investors ain't seen nothing yet; unfortunately, the exuberance is a bit, well, irrational. The chief adviser of the other is a pessimist, deeply skeptical about the durability of our current prosperity. One candidate proposes huge tax cuts that will break the budget unless the long boom not only continues but accelerates. The other prefers not to count his fiscal chickens before they hatch. Which is which?
George W. Bush, of course, is the tax-slasher. John McCain is his cautious rival.
Kevin Hassett is the raging bull. Lawrence Lindsey is the dour bear. Now for the punch line: Mr. Lindsey is advising Mr. Bush; Mr. Hassett is advising Mr. McCain.
The story of the Bush economic program is déjà vu all over again. Just like Bob Dole's advisers in 1996 (who by and large were the same people), Mr. Bush's economists have allowed the presumed political appeal of tax cuts to override their professional scruples. The other story is less well known. Indeed, like most other people, I have only started paying serious attention to the McCain campaign in the last few days, and I have to admit that discovering that Mr. Hassett, of all people, is his chief economic adviser was a shock.
Who is Kevin Hassett? Until quite recently he had a solid, not at all flashy reputation in fiscal economics, with a career that moved from Columbia University to the Federal Reserve and then to the American Enterprise Institute, an establishment-conservative think tank. There he teamed up with the investment writer James K. Glassman to write a couple of articles in The Wall Street Journal, followed up by a book expanding on those articles entitled "Dow 36,000" -- a catchy title backed up by a thesis that was ingenious, exciting and unfortunately quite silly.
I don't mean that their forecast was wrong. For all I or anyone else knows, the Dow may indeed go to 36,000. But the way the book justifies that forecast involves a series of conceptual confusions about such things as the sources of risk and the difference between dividends and earnings. (To be fair, when I talked to Mr. Hassett, he offered a plausible explanation -- much better than Mr. Glassman's indignant denials that he said what he actually said -- of why the most glaring apparent error in the book might not be too bad an approximation, but the other objections remain.)
How did someone like Mr. Hassett end up writing that kind of book? As I understand it, a casual, back-of-the-envelope calculation led to a huge publisher's advance so quickly that the authors never had a chance to have second thoughts. Yes, Virginia, that is the way the world works.
The more interesting question is, How did Mr. McCain end up designating Mr. Hassett, hardly a household name until that book, as his chief economic adviser? The answer, which comes as something of a relief, is that it apparently had nothing to do with "Dow 36,000." Instead, it was that inevitability thing: all the usual Republican policy suspects believed that if you worked against Mr. Bush, you would never eat a free lunch in Washington again. (And you might find a horse's head in your bed.) So Mr. McCain had to take what he could get. Mr. Hassett was one of the few identifiably Republican fiscal experts who wasn't intimidated. And if we ignore the brief foray into stock-market hype, the senator could have done worse: before Mr. Hassett succumbed to the imperatives of the book trade he was regarded as quietly sensible, and freed from those imperatives he seems likely to revert to type.
But you have to admit that it's a depressing spectacle. The Republican tent is a big one, which probably contains at least as many first-rate economists as its rival. Yet that huge pool of talent has not only been locked up by the Anointed One; it has been forced to genuflect to the legacy of a crank doctrine -- supply-side economics -- that even party loyalists don't believe in. Meanwhile, Mr. Bush's main rival has been forced to assemble a scratch team from the handful of Republican economists who know something about policy yet are sufficiently remote from the corridors of power to be immune to pressure. Is this any way to run a Grand Old Party?
Originally published in The New York Times, 2.6.00