The Bankruptcy Bill
DeLong Smackdown Watch: John Yoo's Torture Memo and Academic Freedom

DeLong Smackdown Watch: John Yoo's Torture Memo and Academic Freedom

David Levine writes:

The Torture Memo: The Torture Memo and Academic Freedom: Consider Professor Left, on leave at CEA, who went on national TV to argue that a rise in the minimum wage would not reduce employment, increase prices, or harm small business's profits. Professor Left knew that at least one of these effects was essentially certain to occur, but had a political job to do.

Consider Professor Right who, a few years later, went on national TV to argue that a cut in capital gains tax rates would raise tax revenues. He knew full well that the short-term boost in tax revenue will be overwhelmed by revenue cuts in later years. He hid that fact on TV, in Congressional testimony, and in memos to executive branch decision-makers.

Professor Center is more mainstream than his colleagues on the left and right. He goes on national TV to argue that a free trade pact will increase U.S. employment. In fact, Professor Center believes unemployment will be roughly unchanged as it is largely determined by the Federal Reserve. Employment will probably be lower, Prof. Center believes, because the free trade pact might increase employment with the trading partners and reduce immigration to the United States.

Assume that each policy in fact had (somewhat predictable) harmful consequences: job loss for minority teens, massive budget deficits, and a financial crisis in the southern trading partners that reduced their ability to purchase U.S. exports. Was it professional misconduct to push these policies while declining to mention (and sometimes implictly denying) the downsides? Do those recommendations disqualify the professors from teaching? Would it matter if the economists had line authority and made policy decisions, or were trusted advisors who were very influential with both parties, not just standard wonk advisors?

I mention these cases not to defend Professor Yoo or the despicable U.S. policy of torture. I mention these cases to suggest the issues of academics acting as political advisors and decision-makers are tough.

I agree that the questions are tough. I do think that:

  • Left-wing economists should not say that minimum-wage increases would neither (a) decrease employment, (b) rise prices, nor (c) diminish profits.
  • Right-wing economists should not say that capital gains tax rates would raise tax revenues--unless they in fact do believe that the short-term boost in tax revenues outweighs properly-discounted revenue losses in the out-years.
  • Centrist economists should not say that free trade will boost U.S. employment--unless they believe that free trade will make the country richer and so actually boost labor supply and demand.

But neither left-wing, right-wing, nor centrist economists say such things in the classroom: in the classroom we all teach what we believe. At what point do violations of intellectual integrity by economists under message discipline become grave enough to warrant some kind of sanctions--that is not a question I know the answer to. I think that there is a line that should not be crossed, and that some form of responsibility for line-crossing would be a good thing, but I am not at all sure where the line is or what the sanctions should be.