Princeton economist and political advisor Alan S. Blinder in his new book, Advice and Dissent – Why America Suffers When Economics and Politics Collide (2018), uses a metaphor that politicians rely on economists the way drunkards rely on lampposts: “for support, not for illumination”. Blinder argues that greater public policy making power should be vested with expert economists (technocrats). Politicians could be illuminated by the wisdom of economists and guided by a spirit of “hard heads and soft hearts”.
Politicians should not, as they do now, drunkenly lean on lamppost economists for support in battle. Politics and economics is brutal tribal warfare. It all boils down to a question of who gets what from whom. Blinder is honest about the wealth redistribution debate (he favors more confiscation of wealth from the rich so it can be passed down to the poor) reiterating all the classic arguments of inequality vs. efficiency (e.g. Okun’s Bucket post here on 11/15/16); but he’s clearly a highly partisan Democrat blaming those mean, unreasonable Republicans who “systematically oppose virtually every policy that would reduce inequality, whether it’s Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, or whatever… actively seeking to widen inequality”.
Blinder’s a bit of a smart ass referring to the Republican Party’s leading “thinker” (he puts the word thinker in quotes) Paul Ryan in 2012 who said that we require a “safety net for people who cannot help themselves, for people who are down on their luck, so they can get back on their feet but we don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives”. He then sarcastically references the hammock comment several times and claims Republicans refer to those who are too poor to pay income taxes as “lucky duckies”, reveling in their good fortune.
Sarcasm aside, more power should NOT be given to technocrats. The power, credibility and illuminative wisdom of our elites has eroded for good reasons. Jonathan Kirshner (Cornell Univ.) puts it well in a Washington Post review of Blinder’s book – “in the 1990’s and 2000s the technocratic class became ensconced in its own hubris and seduced by intimacies with power”. There is no monopoly on truth. Those of us “experts” whose minds are deployed by others for legal, economic and political battle are hired intellectual guns. We are always leaned upon for support. No matter how much we’d like to think of our ideas as illuminating – there’s always someone who disagrees. Truth is like a trial – each side trots out experts to testify to the veracity of their opposing points of view. Experts are not the source of the irrefutable light of wisdom. We are weapons in the War Chests of our patrons, clients or constituents.