Send in the Economists?


edward tenner, a research affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and Rutgers University, is currently a visitor in the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Published December 9, 2020


Have you ever remarked on the fact that most candidates for high office in the United States are lawyers, trained in one of the least trusted occupations? (Donald Trump is no lawyer, but then, he seems to be the exception to all rules.) Not only are lawyers seen as untrustworthy, they have no special expertise on the economy — the issue that, year in and year out, ranks as the most important in the minds of the voters in presidential elections.

There is an explanation for the dominant role of lawyers in politics going back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s description in Democracy in America of the profession as the essential link between the wealthy and the people. “Lawyers,” de Tocqueville concluded, “belong to the people by birth and interest, and to the aristocracy by habit and taste.”

But are we forever destined to elect members of a group that de Tocqueville treated as a surrogate nobility? If it’s really “the economy, stupid,” is it stupid to overlook the possibility that a professional economist could improve outcomes? 

The Impossible Dream?

So far, economists haven’t even come close. Not a single current member of Congress has a PhD in economics. And only one economist, Phil Gramm, who left the Senate 18 years ago, was ever a serious presidential candidate. He missed the nomination in 1996 by a mile, in part because he was alleged to have invested in a porn movie. (He was apparently 20 years ahead of his time.)

But there are other reasons. Gramm may have been to the right of most academic economists, but he also represented the professional stereotype that even some peers acknowledge. In her defense of the tribe, The Soulful Science (Princeton University Press, 2007), the economist Diane Coyle (Bennett professor of public policy at the University of Cambridge) notes her peers’ disproportionate enthusiasm for detective fiction and Star Trek and observes of a fellow graduate student’s overly technical cookie recipe, “The voice of Mr. Spock echoes eerily here.” Larry Summers, Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton who subsequently became president of Harvard, did not help to dispel the tactless nerd stereotype when he innocently questioned women’s ability to do high-level mathematics and science in 2005.

Nor is it wise to assume that professional economists know much about what’s going on in the real world. Revisiting his celebrated 1987 coauthored study of economics graduate students in leading departments in 2005, David Colander (a distinguished professor of economics at Colby College) found that the proportion of grad students surveyed considering it important to have “a thorough knowledge of the economy” had increased — but only from an insignificant 3 percent to a meager 9 percent.

Of course, not all economists are Trekkies and not all lack the skills to lead. Historians cum politicians with a passion and knack for politics, like Woodrow Wilson, Newt Gingrich and Ben Sasse, were also atypical of their discipline. Economics may still be disproportionately white and male compared to other social sciences, but it has become more diverse not only in background but also in methods. Behavioral economics, in particular, with its embrace of psychology, has become a full-fledged wing of the establishment. There are even a handful of socialist economists at the commanding heights of the Ivy League, like John Roemer at Yale.

Americans may seek an expert to lead only if the economy is in such desperate straits that the emergency demands a wizard at the very top.

In spite of this, only one noted progressive economist has attempted to beat a path to high elective office. Robert Reich, who accepted a teaching position at Brandeis University after leaving his cabinet post as Secretary of Labor in the first Clinton administration, made a valiant but woefully underfunded attempt to secure the Democratic nomination for governor of Massachusetts in 2002. He ran on a platform of “a new, positive nationalism, which entails offering citizens a wider circle of opportunity to get involved, strengthening democracy, making a deeper commitment to civil liberties and civil rights.”

Reich failed — in hindsight, predictably. (Mitt Romney won on a platform of universal health insurance and protection of women’s rights to abortions.) And during the campaign Reich confessed to a sympathetic writer that he could not quite shake the economist’s image: “I try my best to suppress my policy wonk instincts, but I don’t always succeed.”

The Impossible Dream Redux

Still, the technical nature of economics need not bar the way to the Oval Office. Law may not be as mathematical, but it can be just as arcane in other ways, with the complications of American federalism and state jurisdictions — not to mention its mix of common and statute law and judicial review. Only a small minority of lawyers have the combination of talent, personality and networks to be politically viable.

So I ask again, why no economists? I suspect that there are three reasons. One is that many economists must see first prize in the game of power and public policy as becoming members of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors. The position offers a chance for enormous influence without the travails of being polite to local news anchors and begging for money from 23-year-old Silicon Valley billionaires. No surprise, then, that two of the most distinguished policy-oriented macroeconomists of their generation, Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen, jumped at the chance to serve as Fed chairs.

A second reason is that, whatever they claim, even the occupants of the White House have a limited and uncertain influence on the economy — and more specifically, growth and employment. Some presidents have been in the right place at the right time (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton), while others (George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter) have caught the short end of the stick. In any event, chairs of the Fed have more impact on the economy and can usually get home for dinner by 7.

There is a third reason that may be the most telling. While economics may no longer deserve the dismissive old canard of the dismal science, it deals with difficult choices that are bound to leave some people unhappy. Consider fighting climate change. European countries that are serious about a rapid transition to green energy, like Denmark and Germany, pass on the cost through higher taxes and higher prices. Economists love carbon taxes, and a majority of Americans surveyed agree in principle. Yet state carbon tax proposals have never gotten to first base.

American progressives have long admired European social democracies. But as conservatives never tire of pointing out, those countries finance universal medical care, education, child care and pensions with taxes that fall squarely on their middle-class beneficiaries. The people, not the ultra-rich, pay for liberal benefits — and even then, some nations have been forced to cut them back.

So, once again: will we ever have an economist president? It may not be something to look forward to. Americans may seek an expert to lead only if the economy is in such desperate straits that the emergency demands a wizard at the very top. As Phil Gramm said of his 1996 presidential bid: “America was never going to elect me unless there was a crisis. And people didn’t see a crisis in 1996.”

main topic: Economics Profession