Supply-Siders and Their Friends

In the course of a larger debate over the influence of supply-side economics, touched off by Jon Chait's book and TNR excerpt, Ezra Klein complained that mainstream conservative (and non-conservative) economists regularly write for the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, and in the process lend "their titles and credibility to an outlet that continually promotes a fundamentally poisonous and empirically laughable ideology."

To which Will Wilkinson retorted:

I’m sure it seems to many intelligent people that the collected work of Robert Kuttner, the founder and editor of Ezra’s magazine, is extremist and intellectually sloppy (if not always mendacious) and “promotes a fundamentally poisonous and empirically laughable ideology.” Yet Ezra still chooses to write for The American Prospect. And so do many perfectly respectable academics. Why? Probably because its editorial vision is closer to their views than the relevant alternatives. And, just perhaps, the economic outlook of the Journal editorial page is closer to the views of many Nobel Prize-winning economist than the relevant alternatives, as inconvenient or annoying as that fact may be to some people.

Then Larison chimed in:

It isn’t a question of credible people lending support to a “laughable ideology” or credible people who are ideologically inclined towards the paper’s editorial views publishing in a comfortable venue. Prominent, respectable economists submit articles to the WSJ op-ed page because the paper is one of the most widely-circulated national newspapers whose main focus is reporting on business and finance. A huge percentage of WSJ readers, whose politics are happily not always that of the immigration-cum-imperialism crowd who write the paper’s editorials, is made up of people who make their living working for corporations or investing in the market (or both) and who want to have informed commentary about developments in the economy. Economists publish their op-eds in the WSJ to reach an audience that is going to be interested in what they have to say. And supposedly clever schemes of building up the empire of the supply-siders really has nothing to do with it.

I think they're both right. As Daniel says, the WSJ op-ed page is important because the WSJ is important, and so if you're interesting in reaching influential readers it makes sense to publish there regardless of what you think of the editorial page next door. (The same goes for the Times op-ed page, obviously; if I had an op-ed published there, I wouldn't beat myself up because I was somehow "lending credibility" to the Times' arch-liberal editorials.) But it's also the case, as Will says, that mainstream conservative economists don't go around bashing supply-siders because, well, supply-siders tend to be their political allies. As Megan has been arguing, it's possible to support lower tax rates - as it's possible to support any policy - for good reasons and bad, and it's the nature of politics that alliances form around shared support for particular policies, not on "quality of your reasoning" grounds. So yes, conservatives who believe in lower taxes and leaner government but recognize that cutting taxes doesn't raise revenue could spend all their time anathematizing Larry Kudlow and attacking every GOP politician who makes "free lunch" claims. But I don't think it's intellectually dishonest or hypocritical for the Greg Mankiws of the world, who publicly acknowledge that tax cuts don't directly raise revenue but support them for other reasons, to work with and for supply-siders, rather than threatening to resign in protest every time a Bush Administration official makes an implausible boast about tax cuts' magic powers. It's just a recognition that political reality requires making alliances with people who believe the right things (or what you take to be the right things) for the wrong reasons.

Now, I also think that conservatives have taken this principle too far where the Kudlows of the world are concerned, but I'm participating in a forum on Jon Chait's book over at TPMCafe next week, so I'll keep the rest of my powder dry till then.