Economists frequently complain that even when 98% of the profession agrees on something (say a free-trade proposition), the media will go to lengths to dig up an economist from the 2% minority in order to balance one from the 98% majority, in their feverish and misguided attempt to appear unbiased and balanced on every issue, even issues that don’t really have two sides. The New York Times op-ed page has outdone itself today by publishing “The 18-cent Solution” by Bryan Caplan. The “callout” heading is “Found: an economist who backs the summer gas-tax holiday.” The impetus, of course, was the question posed to Hillary Clinton by a reporter: can you name a single economist who supports the idea of a summer suspension of the federal gasoline tax? Newshour gave up on trying to find one.
In this case, the NYT evidently couldn’t find an economist who really takes the minority position on economic grounds, or even on reasonable political economy grounds. (The profession is all-but-unanimous on keeping the gas tax, as Greg Mankiw notes. And for good reasons.) Rather Caplan’s argument is a convoluted political rationalization: (1) the high gas prices engender populist anger that might lead to bad policies, (2) yes, a gas tax holiday is a bad policy, but (3) one can make a political argument for the gas tax holiday because it is not as bad as some of the other “populist nonsense: price controls, rationing, windfall profits taxes…” that we might get instead. This political argument is a bit of a stretch as it is, but he then goes on to make it absurd by supporting “a pairing of an excess profits tax with a gas tax holiday” on the grounds that it is not as bad as “an excess profits tax all by itself.” Apparently two bad policies are better than none.
This sort of reasoning makes me sympathize with political scientists who tell economists to leave the politics to them. A more straightforward political argument would have been “Hillary is the best candidate and so one can justify anything that will get her nominated.” Or the symmetric argument for John McCain, who originally proposed the gas tax holiday in April. But the New York Times editors, sensibly, would not have chosen to print such op-eds, out of the hundreds that are submitted every week. So they printed instead an economist’s political argument too complicated for them to understand. If they are going to do this, they might as well print economists’ economic arguments too complicated for them to understand, which they are seldom willing to do.
Bryan Caplan is a perfectly competent economist, with a Ph.D., a job and an interesting book and everything. (He may be a bit too desperate for publicity. But those of us who live in glass weblogs can’t throw stones.) Why would he spout the nonsense that is in this op-ed? The answer is very clear: it is the way to get into the New York Times. He gleefully admits as much on his blog today: “I’ve finally made the Gray Lady: Today’s New York Times features my op-ed inspired by Sunday’s post, I’ll Shill for Hillary. I hope critics don’t misrepresent me as an economic apostate; I’m not dissenting from the standard analysis… look on the bright side: I’m in the New York Times. Sweet!”
Bryan: A suggestion. You should now write a letter to the New York Times retracting your op-ed on the grounds that you should have known that readers would incorrectly infer that you were supporting the policy on economic grounds. [Arnold, can you help out here?] If you do this, the Club of Economists might let you back in. Plus, you will have gotten your name in the NYT a second time! “Sweet!”