Don't shoot the economist

Representative Carolyn Maloney (Democrat, NY): "Has it been the most persistent jobs recession since the 1930s?"

Gregory Mankiw, Chairman, Council of Economic Advisers: "I haven't compared every single one. So I don't know the answer to that question. But there is no question that it's been a recession that has . . . "

Ms Maloney: "You're a famous economist. Could you compare it and get it to us in writing?"

Mr Mankiw: "Yes, we could."

Transcript of a joint economic committee hearing, February 2004. This presidential campaign is an odd one. At times, the candidates and their advisers seem to be running not against one another but against the laws of economics themselves.

John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, has railed against "Benedict Arnold CEOs" who outsource, even though outsourcing brings US consumers cheaper products.

Republicans have joined Democrats in humiliating Republican-appointed economists, most notably Mr Mankiw, for acknowledging that increasing productivity can be a good thing.

Nor are critics stopping at living economists. A number of public figures have been busy trying to topple David Ricardo from his pedestal in the economic pantheon. As for the Ricardian principle that every nation should make what it makes best - aka comparative advantage - that, too, no longer holds.

Such lunacy may seem unusual but it is nothing new, says William Coleman, an economist at Australian National University. In Economics and Its Enemies, a book published in 2002 when Benedict Arnold CEOs were still a glint in Mr Kerry's eye, Mr Coleman notes that anti-economic fits frequently take hold in nations, especially when those nations are entering a stage of uncertainty.

In his view, the anti-economic malady can be spotted through telltale symptoms. Economics is false, economics is useless, economics is harmful, the argument goes. In addition, anti-economics tends to feature specific assaults on individual economists and economic leaders, as seen in Ms Maloney's belittling of Mr Mankiw.

Examples of anti-economic moments from history abound - nearly all arising at moments of change. One of the most dramatic came in 19th century Britain as it moved from an agricultural state to an industrial one.

In that period, it was the growling Scotsman Thomas Carlyle who assailed advocates of an increasing standard of living, calling them advocates of a "Pig Philosophy". To those who dared argue back that economics was useful, Carlyle replied: "My cow is useful and I keep her in the stable and feed her with oilcake . . . and esteem her truly. But shall she live in my parlour? No, by the fates, she shall live in the stall."

Carlyle supported the liberal opponents of the protectionist Corn Laws but refused to grant authority to their philosophy. He sought what he called "true government and guidance; not no-government and laissez faire".

In modern times, anti-economics has showed up among greens and anti- globalists. Students at the École Normale in Paris, Mr Coleman notes, spent June 2000 circulating a petition calling for an end to the "hegemony of neoclassical economic theory". The region most prone to anti-economics may be Latin America, where economists are treated as scapegoats for both their failures (Venezuela) and their successes (Chile). Following Nafta's ratification, a play in Mexico City entitled The Deliberate Death of Four Neo-Liberals was a popular success. The play, which concluded in the murder of four US-trained economics students, suggested that the world is run by US-trained rightwing economists.

This idea is a bit off since, as studies have shown, US economists are not especially rightwing. A 1990s study by Robert Blendon showed the public to be more conservative than economists, opposing regulation, foreign aid and a large federal deficit by far greater proportion than the economists.

When I rang Mr Coleman to ask him more about the causes of anti-economics, and especially their emergence in the present day, he referred me to his book's recounting of the threat the French Revolution represented to Britain. Although it started in order, reason and science, the revolution continued in blood and guillotines. Britons feared the war would come to the UK.

This helps explain the present-day hysteria. The greatest threat to the US is not Indian word processors. It is the continuing threats from al-Qaeda and the Middle East. So the sunny assumption that exchange with all benefits all looks imperfect when you live in a world of grenades hidden in gift wrap and terror threats.

The mood of fear creates an opening for those who might otherwise be too timid to attack. Overall, war trumps economics and, when war comes along, we shut down the economic part of our brain. And tension over the war on terror is finding expression in the current US economic debate.

© Copyright 2004 Financial Times

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