Prominent Economists Who Wouldn't Sign My 1990 Statement about War for Oil
By David Henderson
In late August 1990, I published an article in the Wall Street Journal. The title was badly chosen, though not by me: “Sorry Saddam, Embargoes Don’t Hurt U.S.” My editor at the time, by the way, was David Frum, and, although he and I differed on the issue of war against Saddam Hussein, he was a fantastic editor.
I’ve published that article on my own web site here.
Here are the opening two paragraphs:
Saddam Hussein is an evil man who has no qualms about hurting innocent people. But many Americans believe that if he were to succeed in extending his control to a large part of the Arab world, he could severely damage the oil-dependent U.S. economy. No less an authority than Henry Kissinger has claimed that an unchecked Saddam would be able to “cause a world-wide economic crisis.”
But is it true that Saddam Hussein can impose large costs on our economy? Economic analysis of the oil market answers with a resounding, No. The annual cost to the U.S. economy of doing nothing in the Gulf would be less than half of 1% of the gross national product. The vaunted oil weapon is a dud.
Early in September 1990, I wrote and circulated among economists a statement making the point I made in the WSJ op/ed, and asked them to sign. It was titled “Economists Speak Out on War for Oil.” The statement, though substantially shorter than my article, was somewhat lengthy. For that reason, I’m not typing it in here unless 2 or more people demand it.
Ed Crane of the Cato Institute thought he could get some funds to publish a big ad in major publications with the statement and, underneath it, the names of signers. We hoped to get a lot of names people had heard of.
I got some but not enough and so we junked the project. The signers, in alphabetical oder, were:
Barbara Bergmann, American University
Tyler Cowen, George Mason University
Richard Ebeling, Hillsdale College
James K. Galbraith, University of Texas
George Horwich, Purdue University
John M. Heineke, Santa Clara University
Dwight R. Lee, University of Georgia
William A. Niskanen, Cato Institute
David Ranson, H.C. Wainwright & Co.
Alan Reynolds, Hudson Institute
Jennifer Roback, George Mason University
George Selgin, University of Georgia
Richard Timberlake, University of Georgia
Robert D. Tollison, George Mason University
David Weimer, University of Rochester
Lawrence H. White, University of Georgia
Benjamin Zycher, UCLA
In going through some old files on Friday, I found some notes I had taken verbatim about my conversations on the issue with three prominent economists who had all refused to sign: Gary Becker, Paul Samuelson, and Sam Peltzman. Milton Friedman wrote me a separate letter saying that he agreed with the analysis but wouldn’t sign because many people would conclude that he was against the war, and he wasn’t.
Here are the conversations with Becker, Samuelson, and Peltman:
Gary S. Becker: I agree with the economic point you made. But I won’t sign. I’m not a signer. Also, Saddam Hussein is a threat in other ways. But I agree that the threat does not arise from his power over the price of oil.
Paul A. Samuelson: This war isn’t about the price of oil.Henderson: Maybe it’s not but that’s the justification that’s being given by Bush and Baker. [I should have said “one of the main justifications.”]
Samuelson: It is and it isn’t. But I won’t sign.Henderson: Do you agree with my analysis?
Samuelson: I don’t have any quarrel with your analysis.
Henderson: If I’m ever asked, can I quote you to that effect?
Samuelson: (Pause.) Sure. Your analysis was correct.
Sam Peltzman: The analysis is right but I won’t sign.
Henderson: Can I quote you as saying the analysis is right?
Peltzman: Why do you want to quote me?
Henderson: You’re a name. You said the same thing that Paul Samuelson, Murray Weidenbaum, and Gary Becker said. You guys are names. Can I quote you?
Peltzman: Sure. I don’t care.
Why do I post this here? First, because I’m kind of proud of the results and second, to make the point that when you ask for something that you don’t get, try to get something out of it.