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The troubled relationship between politicians and economists

Alan Blinder Mar 27, 2018
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The United States Capitol building is seen as Congress remains gridlocked over legislation to continue funding the federal government Sept. 29, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

In his book “Advice and Dissent: Why America Suffers When Politics and Economics Collide,Princeton economics professor Alan Blinder examines the complicated relationship between politicians and economists. In the excerpt below, read about his first foray into the world of politics, which came shortly after joining then President-elect Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. 

 On a number of issues, a bipartisan majority of the [economics] profession would unite on the opposite side from a bipartisan majority of Congress.

—Arthur Okun (1970)

Politicos and economists speak different languages. And that’s not all. Their differences go deeper and further. It is barely an exaggeration to say that politicians and economists live in two different, often clashing, civilizations.

One day long ago, I crossed the border from one strange land to the other as a fledgling member of President-elect Bill Clinton’s new economic team. At our first meeting at the governor’s mansion in Little Rock in January 1993, I felt like a duck out of water. The cast of characters gathered around the big mahogany table that winter day included titans of Wall Street like Robert Rubin and Roger

Altman; experienced politicians like Lloyd Bentsen, Leon Panetta, and Ron Brown; and campaign figures like George Stephanopoulos, Gene Sperling, and Robert Reich. Apart from Bentsen and Brown, who have since passed away, those are all my friends now, but they were mostly strangers then. And I didn’t know the rules of engagement, which made me uneasy. Only later did I learn that nobody else did, either.

Two other fugitives from academia were present at that first meeting: Laura Tyson and Larry Summers. I had agreed to join Laura as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA)—a team of three economists, typically professors on leave from their universities, who advise the president on all matters economic. Larry was headed to Treasury.

I arrived early, via connecting commercial flights from Newark through Memphis, while most of the others came directly from Washington on a charter plane. As the number two person in the smallest and least powerful agency at the briefing, I knew enough not to take a seat until the bigger shots arrived to claim theirs. When Vice President-elect Al Gore walked in, he said a round of hellos. Then Gore and Bentsen, the Treasury secretary designate, sat at the end of the table closest to the door. Interpreting that action to mark the presidential end of the table, I modestly positioned myself at the opposite end.

Whoops. Moments later the photographers swooped in and hustled Gore down to my end of the table, practically sitting him in my lap. I slid down two chairs to make room for Bentsen and a honcho to be named later. But alas, when President-elect Clinton entered the room, he chose to sit at the opposite end—near Gore’s original seat—and it was musical chairs all over again. Thus did I receive my first lesson in hierarchy: where you sit depends on where you stand.

Exactly a week later, the team returned to Little Rock. This time I traveled with the others from Washington, thereby helping to overcrowd the little charter plane. Those with the highest ranks (Bentsen and Rubin) got comfortable seats in the front; we peons squeezed onto the sofas that lined the back of the bus, er, plane. Ironically, that morning’s Wall Street Journal had carried an article on some new OSHA rules on overcrowded workplaces. I joked to Reich, the incoming secretary of labor, that this was just the sort of thing that OSHA should prevent.

After a long delay—imagine, Bill Clinton was late!—we were ushered into the dining room and took our seats around the polished mahogany table. The decor had been transformed from early American to early transient—featuring cardboard moving boxes, crated mirrors, and the like—for the First Family would be moving to Washington in a few days. This time, Clinton’s end of the long table was clearly demarcated, so I headed dutifully for the opposite end.

As dictated by our respective ranks, Laura sat to my left, one seat closer to the president-elect. While we waited, I whispered to her to observe a pattern that, I predicted, would characterize all future meetings of the economic team: the Treasury would bring the most people, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) would bring the most paper, and we (the CEA) would bring the best ideas. Snarky, but basically true.

Then Clinton arrived, followed by an orderly with a bowl of soup. I thought at the time that the poor man must not have eaten anything all day. I later learned that he ate all day long. Laura began the briefing with a quick review of the state of the economy and the basic rationale for reducing the federal budget deficit. Then it was my turn to hold forth with the details.

Armed with slides, tables, and numbers to bolster my deficit reduction pedantry, I started. But barely three words had passed my lips when a young aide rushed in to announce that the press would be allowed in for a photo op—no reporters, just photographers. How exciting, I thought, my very first photo op! I’ve heard so much about them.

Realizing that I was an alien in his civilization, the president-elect looked up from his soup and instructed me graciously on proper photo op behavior: “Alan, now you’re supposed to say nothing and look profound.” The raucous laughter around the table gave me a much needed moment to gather my wits, and I responded: “That’s funny, Mr. President-elect. In my previous job, I was supposed to look like nothing and say profound things.” (More laughter.)

Two seconds later, we were surrounded by a swarm of photographers, flashbulbs popping and cameras whirring. I thought to myself, It’s a new world, Tevye.

Excerpted from Advice and Dissent: Why America Suffers When Economics and Politics Collide. Copyright © 2018 by Alan S. Blinder. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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