McCain and the Revelatory Economist

June 26, 2008 | 16 comments
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Bloomberg reports the following from McCain about economists who criticized his (lunatic) summer gas plan:

He has shown increasing disdain for any economist who questions his policy prescriptions. Earlier this month, he lashed out at critics of his proposal for a summer gas-tax holiday.

“You know the economists?” McCain said June 12 at Federal Hall, near the New York Stock Exchange. “They’re the same ones that didn’t predict this housing crisis we’re in. They’re the same ones that didn’t predict the dot-com meltdown. They’re the same ones that didn’t predict the inflation that’s staring us in the face today.”

Essentially his critique is that economists did not predict the future, and therefore they should not be trusted on the effects of a gas tax. Now, leaving aside more specific rejoinders about whether he has his facts right, I think it is fascinating that McCain wishes to apply the Deuteronomy prophet test to economists:

When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.

To McCain, and many politicians, the economic advice he gets looks suspiciously like voodoo. Perhaps to him, Marginal Benefits=Marginal Costs, IS/LM, and inelastic supply all make no more sense than a guy staring at goat entrails*. It’s something he, and politicians generally, has to take on faith. Unfortunately for his economic advisors, his faith is shaken. Specifically, his faith is shaken whenever the economists tell him he’s wrong. Which, come to think of it, may often be how people lose their faith in the prophets.

On behalf of all economists, Senator, I’d like to assure you that we’re not prophets and we make lots of mistakes.

But, speaking strictly in terms of probabilities and with all due humility, we are more likely to be right about economics than you.

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* Prophets don’t stare at goat entrails. On the other hand, the IS/LM model makes only slightly more sense to me than staring at goat entrails.

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16 Responses to McCain and the Revelatory Economist

  1. I eat boogers on June 26, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    But, speaking strictly in terms of probabilities and with all due humility, we are more likely to be right about economics than you.

    Apparently, you all speak univocally now, that’s a neat trick.

    Prophets don’t stare at goat entrails.

    Well, the prophets you listen to don’t. However in ancient times prophets were engaged in all sorts of kooky divination behavior, both inside and outside the Bible.

  2. Steve Evans on June 26, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    best moniker ever, commenter 1.

  3. Aaron Brown on June 26, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    Frank, if McCain thinks economists aren’t prophets, and Hilary thinks they’re all elitists, your profession is in real trouble. Bipartisan disdain for your neo-fascist ideology is evidence of its moral and intellectual bankruptcy. Also, God has told me that my rent-controlled apartment exists thanks to divinely-sanctioned public policy, never mind what you heathens say. One day, you will burn in flames…

    AB

  4. Frank McIntyre on June 26, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    “However in ancient times prophets were engaged in all sorts of kooky divination behavior,”

    At which point, Joseph Smith using a seer stone starts to look pretty good.

    “One day, you will burn in flames…”

    That seems reasonable.

  5. Edje on June 26, 2008 at 2:54 pm

    Burn in flames? I thought the fate of mis-predicting economists was to have their heads rotated 180 degrees and to cry so much that they couldn’t see anything.

  6. Dave on June 26, 2008 at 6:23 pm

    Well, large chunks of the electorate would rather have a President staring at goat entrails (with a prayer in his heart) than one who lectures the country on the finer points of undergraduate economics. So it is understandable if McCain has a little fun with economists while on the campaign trail. If, after being elected, he replaces the Council of Economic Advisors with the Council of Augury and Divination, then I’ll start to worry a bit.

  7. jessawhy on June 26, 2008 at 10:28 pm

    Awesome post. I’m a huge fan of the former TV series The West Wing, where the president is a Nobel-prize-winning economist. It disturbs me deeply that we could potentially have a president that not only doesn’t understand economists, but doesn’t trust them.
    In the interest of full-disclosure, I’m a wanna-be economist.

  8. Ray on June 26, 2008 at 11:20 pm

    Great choices this time around. I’m so excited I could . . . can’t think of anything to express just how excited I am.

  9. queuno on June 27, 2008 at 12:44 am

    I’m a huge fan of the former TV series The West Wing, where the president is a Nobel-prize-winning economist.

    All canceled out by the fact that he’s a ND football fan, which means he loses a billion credit points…

  10. Geoff B on June 27, 2008 at 8:36 am

    Frank M, agreed that the gas tax holiday idea is pure populism and useless from an economic standpoint. However, at least McCain has learned that keeping the Bush tax cuts in place will help spur the economy (and letting them expire will further deepen our economic slowdown).

  11. Last Lemming on June 27, 2008 at 9:40 am

    When Doug Holtz-Eakin is actually thrown overboard (or jumps) then you worry. Till then, its just politics. Same with Austin Goulsbee in the Obama camp. (Notice how his controversial visit with the Canadians is being vindicated?)

  12. Fletcher on June 27, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    Strictly speaking, no economist came out and predicted the inflation (at least on the major econ blogs that I read). However, if Senator McCain asked any economist about continued Fed policy of increasing the money supply, he/she would have told you that indeed we would face inflation. You can\’t accuse an economist (or prophet) of a lack of prediction if you don\’t ask . . .

  13. Adam Greenwood on June 27, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    Go Irish!

  14. Brian Woodward on June 27, 2008 at 12:40 pm

    A fool and his electorate are soon parted.

    McCain’s arrogance and ignorance are going to be his undoing. I’m voting for whoever is on the Bull Moose ticket.

  15. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 27, 2008 at 4:56 pm

    Most of the things a President can do to mess with the economy has to go through congressional action, which means it will take half a year at least and be subjected to all sorts of political posturing and hearings and whatnot. It is the areas of foreign policy and military deployment where the president is much more able to act by himself, so it is those issues that are most crucial to my choice between the presidential candidates.

    Foreign policy and war fighting have many more historical and Biblical precedents than economic decisions, though they go in lots of different directions. One of the problems in applying those precedents is identifying which modern nation plays which Biblical or historical role. Is the USA Judah or Babylon?

  16. Jessawhy on June 28, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    Maybe we can talk Martin Sheen into running as an independent. Even if he likes ND.

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