Politics & Policy

Rotten Red Meat

Watch nuanced analysis go through the liberal meat grinder.

Two recent stories illustrate why even seemingly intelligent politicians speak in short, dumbed-down sound bytes. One story has to do with the peak of political power; the other concerns lowly me.

Let’s start at the peak. Last week, N. Gregory Mankiw, the chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisors, made the following sensible statement on globalized trade in testimony to Congress as part of introducing this year’s Economic Report of the President:

Outsourcing of professional services is a prominent example of a new type of trade … When a good or service is produced at lower cost in another country, it makes sense to import it rather than to produce it domestically. This allows the United States to devote its resources to more productive purposes.

Although openness to trade provides substantial benefits to nations as a whole, foreign competition can require adjustment on the part of some individuals, businesses, and industries. To help workers adversely affected by trade develop the skills needed for new jobs, the Administration has worked hard to build upon and develop programs to assist workers and communities that are negatively affected by trade.

It’s safe to say that there is not a single serious economist in the world who would disagree with the basic principle expressed by Mankiw. One of the earliest and most durable results in the science of economics is that everyone gains when people are free to do what they do most efficiently — i.e., at lowest cost — and trade the fruits of their labor with others who are doing what they do most efficiently. For over a century economists have called this the principle of “comparative advantage,” and it leads to what they call “gains from trade.”

Yet judging by the public reaction to Mankiw’s statement, you’d think he’d said that it is the Bush administration’s avowed policy to put American workers out of their jobs (and shoot their dogs, too). Jonathan Weisman, the Washington Post’s perennial liberal cheerleader, wrote that Mankiw had made “laudatory statements on the movement of U.S. jobs abroad.” Weisman quoted John Kerry saying the Bush administration wants ” to export more of our jobs overseas … What in the world are they thinking?” Tom Daschle said, “This is actually now the position of the White House that they support outsourcing of jobs, jobs going abroad, saying that that’s good for our country.” A story in the New York Times quoted Hillary Clinton saying, “I don’t think losing American jobs is a good thing. The folks at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue apparently do.”

Now go back and look at what Mankiw really said. He wasn’t “laudatory” about job losses. Mankiw said that there are overall advantages to letting jobs move to where they can be done most efficiently — essentially an axiom in economics. At the same time, he fully acknowledged that in the short-term there are winners and losers, and expressed the administration’s commitment to help the losers become winners. But Weisman quotes Pete Stark saying, “Bush stands idly by as jobs continue to take flight from the U.S., and now we know why. It’s part of his economic plan.”

Washington insiders have come to know Mankiw, an even-keeled former Harvard economics professor, as a straight shooter and a “go to guy” when they want an honest and sophisticated opinion on economic matters. But after this, who could blame him if he adopted the Chauncey Gardner style of economic analysis: “Growth will return in the spring.” I talked to him Thursday to try to cheer him up and, not surprisingly, he wouldn’t say anything for publication.

Well, that’s what happens when the liberal propaganda machine grinds you up in its gears. I know, because the same thing just happened to me. Here’s my story.

Last week I noticed that Brad DeLong, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, had issued a challenge to Bush supporters on his hyper-liberal website (it’s very widely read and linked-to — an “influential website” according to Paul Krugman in a New York Times column). Recalling a March 2003 letter signed by hundreds of economists who “supported Bush’s economic policy,” DeLong asked, “is there anybody out there who is enthusiastic about Bush administration economic policy, and this year’s budget proposals that are its instantiation? Anybody at all?” Citing a quotation from a National Review Online article by Larry Kudlow favorable to the administration, DeLong said that Kudlow was the one and only signatory to the letter who would now stand up and be counted.

The impression DeLong intended to give, of course, is that conservative economists have suddenly abandoned Bush’s economic policy — his proof being that they hadn’t responded en masse to his challenge (assuming any of them even knew about it, or would want to bother to respond if they did). I couldn’t let him get away with a dirty trick like that, so I made a posting to my blog titled “Sign Me Up, DeLong!”. I wrote,

DeLong can add my name next to Kudlow’s. I signed the letter last year, and I’d sign it today. But let’s be clear about what I’m signing. I’m signing up for a supply-side tax cut. That’s the “economic plan” being referred to here. I’m not signing up for steel tariffs or a farm bill or Medicare prescription benefits or abstinence counseling in Baghdad [or] anything else. All those things have economic impact, but they are not part of the “economic plan.” But if the question is cuts in marginal tax rates on labor and investment income, then bring ‘em on, DeLong.

What did DeLong do in response? He made a posting to his website in which he wrote,

Not even Donald Luskin will sign on to the Bush budget plan proposed last week: ” … let’s be clear. … I’m not signing up for steel tariffs or a farm bill or Medicare prescription benefits or abstinence counseling in Baghdad.” But it is the same administration with the same policies that it had last year (better policies, in some respects: the free-trade forces within the administration are stronger than they were), when he signed on gladly. But I’m glad to have him aboard.

Another dirty trick? No. There’s only one word for this: fraud. What else can you call it when he takes a posting titled “Sign Me Up, Delong!” and states that “Not even Donald Luskin will sign on”? What else can you call it when he quotes my list of Bush policies with which I disagree, and completely ignores my enthusiastic endorsement of the core of Bush’s program — the tax cuts — which were, after all, the subject of the 2003 letter that I originally signed?

The smoking gun? That DeLong didn’t include a link to my original posting, so his readers would have no easy way to find out what I really said. And he has studiously deleted comments defending me, which had been posted by visitors to his site. Isn’t this a great way for a state university professor, paid with tax dollars (my tax dollars, since I live in California), to spend his time?

When I made another posting to my website, protesting this abjectly fraudulent representation of my statement, I got more fraud in return — with compound interest:

Donald Luskin protests that I have misinterpreted him: that he is in fact an enthusiastic endorser of the proposed Bush 2005-2009 budgets.

Of course, I never said that. I said that I am in favor of the core proposition of Bush’s economic policy — supply-side tax cuts. I never said I endorse “the proposed Bush 2005-2009 budgets.” Indeed, the hundreds of economists who signed that 2003 letter weren’t signing on for budgets either. They were signing on for tax cuts.

There are plenty of conservatives right now who love the tax cuts, but are concerned with rapidly increasing spending. The whole point of DeLong’s smear is to create a “gotcha”: If anyone protests against any element of the budget, he’s against the tax cuts he supported last year. Or if he supports the tax cuts, then he’s in favor of profligate spending.

And if you protest against this smear technique? Just look at DeLong’s latest posting, where I am “like a villain in a Bugs Bunny cartoon” who won’t give a “simple, consistent ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

As of press time for this column, Brad DeLong had not responded to my request for comment.

Why do liberal demagogues like DeLong, Weisman, and all the rest pull transparently fraudulent stunts like this? Like the famous saying about the unique anatomical capabilities of dogs: “Because they can.” They rely on the fact that most of their readers have already made up their minds about people like Bush, Mankiw, or even me. None of their readers will ever bother to check what was really said. So throw them some red meat, even if it happens to be rotten.

When it comes to economics or anything else, don’t be surprised when you hear short dumbed-down sound-bytes instead of lengthy nuanced analysis. After getting burned by the liberal propaganda machine a few times, people learn.

– Donald Luskin is chief investment officer of Trend Macrolytics LLC, an independent economics and investment-research firm. He welcomes your comments at don@trendmacro.com.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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