Politicians and Economists

From a review of Doug Irwin’s important new book Peddling Protectionism: Smoot-Hawley and the Great Depression (Princeton University Press, 2011):

Hoover had famously received a petition signed by 1,028 economists urging him to veto the bill. Then as now, economists were held in warm regard by Congress; Senator Samuel Shortridge remarked: “I am not overawed and I am not at all disturbed by the proclamations of the college professors who never earned a dollar by the sweat of their brows by honest labor – theorists, dreamers – I am not so overawed or disturbed by their pronunciamentos ....”

My own experience as a government adviser, many years ago, convinced me that not much has changed. Economists are lauded in Washington when they agree with their political masters, when they provide intellectual cover for the policy fashion of the day. (Exhibit A: Keynes’s General Theory, which offered a sophisticated-sounding rationale for the deficit spending policies already in place in the US and Europe, policies long-favored by political hacks.) Economic advice that challenges the conventional political wisdom ends up in Orwell’s famous Memory Hole.

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