Economists and Influence
By Arnold Kling
Richard Green asks why economists do not have more influence at the White House. His answer:
economists have poor social skills
I do not think that is the issue at all. There is diversity among economists, and there are plenty who do have social skills.
I think that it is this White House where economists have little influence, and for that I blame this President. Economists were much more helpful during the Carter Administration (Alfred Kahn on deregulation) and the Clinton Administration. Under this President, the economic stimulus proposal was outsourced to Congressional leaders, with disastrous results. The Secretary of Energy was given a blank check to spend on picking winners, with disastrous results.
Worst of all, the Administration walked away from the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction proposals. I doubt that you can find an economist anywhere on the spectrum from Blinder to Mankiw who thinks that throwing Bowles-Simpson under the bus was the right decision for the country.
The question to ask is not how economists can acquire better social skills but how we ended up with a President with so little appreciation of the role that economists can play in providing policy advice. More generally, one has to ask how did we end up with a President so little administrative ability and such poor management instincts.
My answer is that the nomination process has become more random. We have more primaries and more media events. As of about 1960, winning a party nomination took management skills. You had to negotiate with party leaders. You needed a highly organized effort to capture delegates. (Prior to 1960, the party leaders basically picked the nominee. Dwight Eisenhower did not need any management skills at all to win the nomination, but presumably he was picked in part for those skills.)
Today, you do not need an organization to run a Presidential campaign. If you did, instead of Newt Gingrich emerging as a front-runner, he would be out of the race. I say this not to demean Mr. Gingrich, but just to point out that in an earlier era his strategy of focusing on the media events known as “debates” would not have worked.
It is possible today to become President without having any idea how to set up effective processes for making and implementing decisions. That does not mean that a President will necessarily lack those skills. It seems to me that President Clinton maintained effective processes. He used his economic team well enough. But I expected the current President to be roughly similar, and I was wrong.
UPDATE: James Hamilton adds the Keystone Pipeline to the list of questionable decisions. I would add the decision to scorn Wyden-Ryan on Medicare reform. Once upon a time, President Obama claimed he was open to new ideas on entitlements.