This week, an internecine fight among left-of-center wonk technocrats erupted. If you were not one of the hundreds — perhaps scores — of people riveted, watching it unfold with popcorn in hand, it went down like this.
A while back, an economist named Gerald Friedman put out an analysis of Bernie Sanders’s economic plans, showing a bump in growth to 5.3 percent, a surge in productivity, the average monthly employment growth reaching nearly 300,000 over a ten-year period, and an employment-to-population ratio unseen since the bubble period of the late 1990s. This week, four Democratic big guns — Alan Krueger, Austan Goolsbee, Christina Romer, and Laura D’Andrea Tyson, all former chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers — called those claims fantastical.
This was not because they reran the numbers, to be fair, but because they seem far-fetched. Economists laughed at Jeb Bush for suggesting that he would hit 4 percent growth. Most believe we’ll be around 2 to 2.5 percent for the foreseeable future. As for the employment-to-population ratio surging, well, that seems unlikely given the aging of the population and the huge number of baby-boomer retirements we expect to see in the coming years. The productivity surge? That would be great! But again it seems unlikely. (Though, as others have noted, none of these things are impossible.)
But Krueger, Goolsbee, Romer, and Tyson did not just hit the Sanders campaign for its magic math — or, more precisely, for touting Friedman’s magic math. (Some economists, I should note, have also gone after the numbers coming straight from the Sanders campaign itself. Kenneth Thorpe of Emory University, for instance, has estimated that Bernie’s universal-health-care plan would cost about twice as much as Bernie said it would.) They hit the campaign for squandering Democrats’ wonk cred.
“Friedman asserts that your plan will have huge beneficial impacts on growth rates, income and employment that exceed even the most grandiose predictions by Republicans about the impact of their tax cut proposals,” they write. “As much as we wish it were so, no credible economic research supports economic impacts of these magnitudes. Making such promises runs against our party’s best traditions of evidence-based policy making and undermines our reputation as the party of responsible arithmetic.”
They have a point here. As I and my colleague Jonathan Chait have noted with varying degrees of exasperation, depression, and glee, the Republicans have long since left reality behind when making budget plans. They have insisted on “dynamic scoring,” measuring the budget impact of various pieces of legislation according to how much magic sparkling pixie dust they believe such pieces of legislation will bestow on the economy. They have put forward tax plans that do not — cannot — add up, and kept on insisting that they would. They have promised everyone no taxes, awesome jobs, and a pony — all for free.
Democrats, say what you will, have avoided doing this to anything like the same degree. They have admitted that tax cuts do not pay for themselves. They have recognized that government spending needs to be financed with budget cuts, revenue increases, or a jump in the deficit. And they have sought affirmation, vindication even, from nonpartisan outlets like the Tax Policy Center.
But the Bernie campaign, for its part, has pushed back on the CEA critique not by arguing that the Friedman numbers are in line with reasonable assumptions, but by implying that the critique is motivated by political beliefs more than economics. “It’s not surprising that some of the same establishment economists who told us how wonderful NAFTA and unfettered free trade would be are now attacking Sen. Sanders’s economic agenda,” Warren Gunnels, Sanders’s policy adviser, told The Wall Street Journal.
Instead of trying to co-opt the Democratic Establishment, in other words, Bernie’s campaign has chosen to keep raising a middle finger to it. Why trust the technocrats that brought you 2 to 2.5 percent growth and a low employment-to-population ratio with their room-temperature policies? Why not believe that our moon-shot policies might bring around moon-shot economic changes? Why let the insider Democrats tell you what liberalism can accomplish?
It tells you something profound about the way that Bernie is running his campaign. He has no interest in garnering respectability and credibility among Establishment Democrats. (He is not even a Democrat, after all!) He has no problem trotting out what many would call magic math, given that he disputes who gets to brand different things fantastical or crazy or extreme in the first place. He is acting much more like a Republican than a Democrat: appealing to the base’s heart, à la Donald Trump, rather than the Establishment’s head. And to be fair, it is a campaign that in its embrace of big, big liberal ideas and promise of big, big liberal accomplishments has thus far proven pretty magical.