Galbraith: Attack on Sanders’ Economic Plan By Former Chairs of the Council of Economic Advisors Irresponsible

Yves here. Jamie Galbraith discusses in some detail why Gerald Friedman, the Clinton supporter who gave a favorable review of Sanders’ economic plan, is owed an apology by his detractors.

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

On February 17, four former chairs of the Council of Economic Advisors for President Barack Obama and Bill Clinton penned an open letter to the Bernie Sanders campaign and economist Gerald Freidman. In it they claim that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ economic plan and much of the optimism behind it could not be supported by economic evidence. The letter was a response to the economist Gerald Friedman’s predictions that Sanders’ campaign plan would yield strong economic rates as well as higher employment levels.

With us to discuss this issue is James K. Galbraith. He’s a professor at the University of Texas at Austin LBJ School of Public Affairs, and author of Inequality: What Everyone Needs to Know, just out from Oxford University Press. James, thank you so much for joining us.

JAMES K. GALBRAITH: Always a pleasure.

PERIES: James, the Council of Economic Advisors, they put out economic forecasts each year. And there has been some wildly optimistic ones. For example, if you look at the 2010 predictions for 2012 and 2013 they have not quite been attained. And one would say it was done in the interest of trying to make the administration that they were serving more impressive. But what accounts for this particular attack on Friedman’s projection and other fellow economists?

GALBRAITH: This was a classic case of professional bad manners and rank-pulling. What we had here were four former chairs of the president’s Council of Economic Advisors, and two from President Obama, two from President Clinton, who decided to use their big names and their titles in order to launch an attack on a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts who had written a paper evaluating the Sanders economic program.

It’s likely that the four bigwigs thought that Professor Friedman was a Bernie Sanders supporter. In fact, as of that time he was a Hillary Clinton supporter and a modest donor to her campaign. What he had done was simply to write his evaluation of the economic effects of the ambitious Sanders reform program. The four former council chairs announced that on the basis of their deep commitment to rigor and objectivity, they had discovered that this forecast was unrealistic. And what I pointed out was that that claim was based on no evidence and no analysis whatsoever. And when you pressed down on it you found that it was simply based on the obvious fact that we haven’t seen the kinds of growth rates that Professor Friedman’s analysis suggested the Sanders program would produce. And for a very simple reason: the Sanders program is bigger. It’s more ambitious than anything we’ve seen in recent years, so it’s not surprising that when you put it through a model it generates a higher growth rate.

So that was the basic underlying facts, and these guys, two men and two women, announced that they, that it was a disreputable study, but failed to present any analysis that suggested they’d actually even read the paper before they denounced it. And that’s what I pointed out in my counter letter, in a number of articles that have appeared since.

PERIES: James, so in your letter, how do you counter them? What methods did you use to come to your conclusions?

GALBRAITH: Well, I, no need to say anything beyond the fact that I had looked in their letter for the rigor that they were so proud of, for the objectivity and the analysis that they were so proud of, and I’d found that they had not done any. They had not made any such claim, not done any such work.

So that began to provoke a discussion. It’s fair to say ultimately, without apologizing for effectively launching an ad hominem attack on an independent academic researcher, one of the former chairs, Christina Romer of President Obama’s council, and her husband David Romer, a fellow economist, did produce a paper in which they spelled out their differences with the, with the Friedman paper. But that, again, raised another set of interesting issues which we’ve continued to discuss at various, various outlets of the press.

PERIES: Now, James Friedman’s claim that the growth rate from Sanders’ plan to be around 5.3 percent. And some economists, including Dean Baker at the Center for Economic Policy and Research, have claimed that this is unrealistic. What do you make of that?

GALBRAITH: Well, the question is whether it is an effect, let’s say, a reasonable projection, of putting the Sanders program into an economic model. And the answer to that question, yes, Professor Friedman did a reasonable job. He spelled out what the underlying assumptions that he was using were. He spelled out the basic rules of thumb that macroeconomists had used for decades to assess the effects of an economic program. In this case, an expansionary economic program. And he ran them through his model and reported the results, a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

Now, one can be skeptical. And I am, and Dean Baker is, lots of people are skeptical that the world would work out quite that way, because lots of things, in fact, happen which are not accounted for in a model. And we’ve talked, we’ve basically put together a list of things that you think might be problematic. But the exercise here was not to put everything into paper that might happen in the world. The exercise was to take the kind of bare bones that economists use to assess and to compare the consequences of alternative programs, and to ask what kind of results do you get out? And that’s what, again, what Jerry Friedman did. It was a reasonable exercise, he came up with a reasonable answer, and he reported it.

PERIES: Now, Friedman seems to think that the rate of full employment in 1999 is attainable. However, many labor economists seem to think that the larger share of the elderly currently in society compared to 1999 explains some of the lack of labor participation, which creates a lower full employment ceiling that’s contradicting Friedman’s report. Your thoughts on that?

GALBRAITH: Well, I think it is a fact that the population is getting older. But as, I think, any economist would tell you, that when you offer jobs in the labor market, the first thing that happens is the people who are looking for work take those jobs. The second thing that happens is that people who might look for work when jobs were available start coming back into the labor market. And if that is not enough to fill the vacancies that you have, it’s perfectly open to employers to raise their wages so as to bring more people in, or to increase the pace at which they innovate and substitute technology for labor so that they don’t need the work.

So there’s no real crisis involved in the situation if it turns out five years from now we’re at 3.5 percent unemployment, and they were beginning to run short of labor. That’s not a reason to, at this stage, say no, we’re not going to engage in the exercise and run a more expansionary, vigorous reform program, a vigorous infrastructure project, a major reform of healthcare, a tuition-free public education program. All of those things, which were part of what Friedman put into his paper, should be done anyway. The fact that the labor market forecast might prove to have some different, the labor market might have different characteristics in five years’ time is from our present point of view just a, it’s an academic or a theoretical proposition, purely.

PERIES: And Friedman’s paper, he looks at a ten-year forecast. Did you feel that when you looked at the specifics of that, including college, universal healthcare, infrastructure spending and of course, expanding Social Security and so on, that those categories and his predictions or projections, rather, made sense to you?

GALBRAITH: Well, again, what he was doing was running a program of a certain scale, of a large scale, through a set of standard macroeconomic assumptions. And that, again, is a reasonable exercise. If you ask me what my personal view is, I’ve written a whole book called The End of Normal in which I lay out reasons for my chronic pessimism about the capacity of the world economy to absorb a great deal more rapid economic growth.

But that’s not in the standard models, and it would not be appropriate to layer that on to a forecast of this kind. What Friedman was criticized for was not for putting his thumb on the scale, but for failing to put his thumb on the scale. In fact, that was the reasonable thing to do.

On the contrary, and on the other side, when Christina and David Romer did put out their forecast, their own criticism of the Friedman paper, they concluded by asserting that if this program were tried, inflation would soar. So they there were making an allegation for which, again, they had no evidence and no plausible model, that in the world in which we presently live would produce that result.

So what we had here was a, what was essentially an academic exercise that produced a result that was highly favorable to the Sanders position, and showed that if you did an ambitious program you would get a strong growth response. It’s reasonable, certainly, for the first three or four years that that would transpire in practice. And what happened was that people who didn’t like that result politically jumped on it in a way which was, frankly speaking, professionally irresponsible, in my view. It was designed to convey the impression, which it succeeded in doing for a brief while through the broad media, that this was not a reputable exercise, and that there were responsible people on one side of the debate, and irresponsible people on the other.

And that was, again, something that–an impression that could be conveyed through the mass media, but would not withstand scrutiny, and didn’t withstand scrutiny, once a few of us stood up and started saying, okay, where’s your evidence, on what are you basing this argument? And revealed the point, which the Romers implicitly conceded, and I give them credit for that, that in order to criticize a fellow economist you need to do some work.

PERIES: James, thank you so much for joining us this election year. We hope to have you back very soon.

GALBRAITH: My pleasure.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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  1. Keith

    The true nature of Capitalism has obviously been forgotten over time.

    Today we think it brings prosperity to all, but that was certainly never the intention.

    Today’s raw Capitalism is showing its true nature with ever rising inequality.

    Capitalism is essentially the same as every other social system since the dawn of civilisation.

    The lower and middle classes do all the work and the upper, leisure Class, live in the lap of luxury. The lower class does the manual work; the middle class does the administrative and managerial work and the upper, leisure, class live a life of luxury and leisure.

    The nature of the Leisure Class, to which the benefits of every system accrue, was studied over 100 years ago.

    “The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions”, by Thorstein Veblen.

    (The Wikipedia entry gives a good insight. It was written a long time ago but much of it is as true today as it was then. This is the source of the term conspicuous consumption.)

    We still have our leisure class in the UK, the Aristocracy, and they have been doing very little for centuries.

    The UK’s aristocracy has seen social systems come and go, but they all provide a life of luxury and leisure and with someone else doing all the work.

    Feudalism – exploit the masses through land ownership
    Capitalism – exploit the masses through wealth (Capital)

    Today this is done through the parasitic, rentier trickle up of Capitalism:

    a) Those with excess capital invest it and collect interest, dividends and rent.
    b) Those with insufficient capital borrow money and pay interest and rent.

    All this was much easier to see in Capitalism’s earlier days.

    Malthus and Ricardo never saw those at the bottom rising out of a bare subsistence living. This was the way it had always been and always would be, the benefits of the system only accrue to those at the top.

    It was very obvious to Adam Smith:

    “The Labour and time of the poor is in civilised countries sacrificed to the maintaining of the rich in ease and luxury. The Landlord is maintained in idleness and luxury by the labour of his tenants. The moneyed man is supported by his extractions from the industrious merchant and the needy who are obliged to support him in ease by a return for the use of his money. But every savage has the full fruits of his own labours; there are no landlords, no usurers and no tax gatherers.”

    Like most classical economists he differentiated between “earned” and “unearned” wealth and noted how the wealthy maintained themselves in idleness and luxury via “unearned”, rentier income from their land and capital.

    We can no longer see the difference between the productive side of the economy and the unproductive, parasitic, rentier side. This is probably why inequality is rising so fast, the mechanisms by which the system looks after those at the top are now hidden from us.

    In the 19th Century things were still very obvious.

    1) Those at the top were very wealthy
    2) Those lower down lived in grinding poverty, paid just enough to keep them alive to work with as little time off as possible.
    3) Slavery
    4) Child Labour

    Immense wealth at the top with nothing trickling down, just like today.

    This is what Capitalism maximized for profit looks like.

    Labour costs are reduced to the absolute minimum to maximise profit.

    The beginnings of regulation to deal with the wealthy UK businessman seeking to maximise profit, the abolition of slavery and child labour.

    The function of the system is still laid bare.

    The lower class does the manual work; the middle class does the administrative and managerial work and the upper, leisure, class live a life of luxury and leisure.

    The majority only got a larger slice of the pie through organised Labour movements.

    By the 1920s, mass production techniques had improved to such an extent that relatively wealthy consumers were required to purchase all the output the system could produce and extensive advertising was required to manufacture demand for the chronic over-supply the Capitalist system could produce.

    They knew that if wealth concentrated too much there would not be enough demand.

    In the 1950s, when Capitalism had healthy competition, it was essential that the Capitalist system could demonstrate that it was better than the competition.

    The US was able to demonstrate the superior lifestyle it offered to its average citizens.

    Now the competition has gone, the US middle class is being wiped out.

    The US is going third world, with just rich and poor and no middle class.

    Raw Capitalism can only return Capitalism to its true state where there is little demand and those at the bottom live a life of bare subsistence.

    When you realise the true nature of Capitalism, you know why some kind of redistribution is necessary
    and strong progressive taxation is the only way a consumer society can ever be kept functioning.

    A good quote from John Kenneth Galbraith’s book “The Affluent Society”, which in turn comes from Marx.

    “The Marxian capitalist has infinite shrewdness and cunning on everything except matters pertaining to his own ultimate survival. On these, he is not subject to education. He continues wilfully and reliably down the path to his own destruction”

    Marx made some mistakes but he got quite a lot right.

    1. Keith

      Thanks to Michael Hudson, whose ideas anyone will recognise who has read his book.

      “Killing the Host”

      If you haven’t read it, do so immediately.

    2. human

      “Capitalism is essentially the same as every other social system since the dawn of civilisation.”

      This is a highly blinkered and biased comment. Certainly countless hundreds of peaceful, responsible, inclusive, open, empathetic indigenous societies have been co-opted/overthrown by the western model. It begins with the “discoverers”, then the missionaries move in…

      1. Keith

        Perhaps, Western civilization had already cultivated and concentrated psychopathic personality traits in its elite before Capitalism ever begun.

        Early European history is an endless procession of wars at home and abroad as the elite took their wealth by force and the masses were kept in check by force whenever necessary.

        No peaceful group could ever survive this relentless onslaught of millennia.

        This psychopathic elite then took their warlike ways to every corner of the earth.

        The wealthy elite from this era then became the wealthy elite of the next Capitalist era.

        Even today their bloodlust cannot be sated as they look to control a global empire.

      2. Vatch

        Certainly countless hundreds of peaceful, responsible, inclusive, open, empathetic indigenous societies have been co-opted/overthrown by the western model.

        Yes, but it’s not just the western model that overthrows peaceful societies. The empires of China, the Japanese monarchies, the empires of India (together with a cringeworthy caste system), the human sacrificing Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas, all prove that tyranny is not a western invention.

        When a local population becomes too large to be supported by simple egalitarian hunting and gathering, something else is required. That something is agriculture, and almost inevitably, the organization, specialization, and partial urbanization required by large scale agricultural society leads to exploitation and tyranny. This is seen in the earliest societies for which we have a written record, Sumer and Egypt.

      3. legendary bigfoot

        Oh those noble savages brought down from their ignorant paradise by the white man.


    3. Jim Young

      Thanks for the explanations of Veblen and Galbraith, which I find enduring basics over more than 100 years of speculation, real investment, and the best way to keep consumer society healthy.

      My unschooled, simple, way to measure the health of an economy is in the Velocity of Money in the real economy of useful products and services. It appears to be very far below where it was when we did our best, and lower than when we first started measuring it near the beginning of the Great Depression.

    4. Keith

      In addition …..

      By the 1920s, mass production techniques had improved to such an extent that relatively wealthy consumers were required to purchase all the output the system could produce and extensive advertising was required to manufacture demand for the chronic over-supply the Capitalist system could produce.

      They knew that if wealth concentrated too much there would not be enough demand.

      Of course the Capitalists could never find it in themselves to raise wages and it took the New Deal and Keynesian thinking to usher in the consumer society.

  2. For The Win

    Colonialism and fiscal conservatism

    Fiscal conservatism, which champions a balanced budget and expenditure restraints, is often hailed as a politico-economic philosophy as well as a policy of financial responsibility. In practice, it has been used as an argument against free spending by governments which can lead to high levels of debt and inflation. It has not been a positive philosophy which advocates the pro-growth and stability benefits coming from balanced budgets. Rather, it is a negative one – reacting against excessive spending and its consequences. This is probably why modern examples of fiscal conservatism in the United States and the United Kingdom have not led to sustainable growth or a significant reduction in public debt. Instead, in the case of the Ronald Reagan era in the US in the 1980s, public debt soared as fiscal conservatism and other policies were abandoned.

    1. Rodger Malcolm Mitchell

      A Monetarily Sovereign government does not need to reduce debt. In the U.S. (which is Monetarily Sovereign) federal so-called “debt” is actually the total of deposits in T-security accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank. In short, “debt” is bank deposits.

      Why anyone would want to reduce the size of deposits at the world’s safest bank is a mystery to me — other than the misleading use of the word “debt.”

      While all bank accounts are, in fact, debt of banks, most banks boast about the size of their depositors’ accounts.

      Contrary to popular myth, federal debt (i.e. deposits at the FRB) does not lead to inflation. America’s “debt” has grown more than 9,000% in the past 75 years, and the Fed is struggling to create inflation.

  3. mpr

    Galbraith is probably my favorite economist, and eminently reasonable here. It makes me think that Sanders should have used him, or someone like him as an adviser/in house economist, rather than relying on external analyses like Friedman. It would possibly have given his program more gravitas – first amongst elites, and then more generally. At least it would have had a chance of changing the broader discussion. Whether you agree with it or not, right now the general MSM reporting on the Sanders plan is that it doesn’t add up.

    1. diptherio

      I want to know why he hasn’t been prominently featuring Prof. Kelton and her economic policy prescriptions. What’s up with that?

      1. John Zelnicker

        This is speculative, but since Prof. Kelton is actually the economist for the Minority (the Democrats) of the Senate Banking committee, there may be reasons of protocol that Sanders isn’t using her policy ideas at the moment.

        Another possibility is that trying to introduce a new economic paradigm while running for the nomination may be a bridge too far. If Sanders tried to explain to people that taxes don’t fund federal spending, etc., heads would explode.

        I’m also not sure how one would use Prof. Kelton’s ideas without bringing in a whole bunch of MMT concepts. Maybe if Sanders wins the nomination he can begin to bring some of these ideas into the conversation.

        1. Rodger Malcolm Mitchell

          He won’t use her ideas simple because the American voter in not yet amenable to the facts of Monetary Sovereignty.

          Try explaining even to your best friend that:

          1. Unlike state and local taxes, Federal taxes do not fund federal spending.
          2. Even if FICA were eliminated, Social Security and Medicare benefits dramatically could (and should) be increased. There are no federal “trust funds.”
          3. Federal deficits are necessary for economic growth
          4. Federal “debt” is nothing more than deposits in T-security accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank.
          5. America never has had, and is absolutely in no danger of, hyper-inflation.

          Perhaps, if Bernie wins the election, he will be freer to educate the masses, as well as the economics community, but meanwhile he has to claim the popular myth that federal spending has to be “paid for” by taxes.

          1. John Zelnicker

            Actually, Rodger, most of my friends with whom I discuss these ideas have never had any formal economics education so they have no problem understanding it. Some take a bit of explaining but they eventually get it.

            The problem, as I see it, is what you have written about many times. The politicians, media, etc., are bribed by the wealthy and follow their directions to propagate the Big Lie to prevent people from understanding the power of monetary sovereignty to fulfill the public good, which, of course would narrow the Gap.

      2. Kurt Sperry

        Is the American public, trained/indoctrinated to think of the USG budget in terms of a household budget analogy, ready for MMT? I think it’s politically OK to use MMT informed policies–“deficits don’t matter”–as the Republicans have, but not OK to openly acknowledge doing so. MMT runs head on into bedrock beliefs like the protestant moral virtues of thrift and fiscal responsibility. People cling to this stuff as tightly as they cling to their religion and guns.

        1. MaroonBulldog

          MMT is a volatile, explosive doctrine. Tell an ordinary off-the-street taxpayer that Federal taxes don’t fund Federal expenditures, that Federal taxes destroy the money they collect and so keep inflation at desired levels, and ready yourself to answer this:

          “If I’m just paying taxes so the money can be burned, why should I pay taxes? What good does paying taxes for that do me, or people like me?”

          And be prepared not to have your answer heard, comprehended, or accepted, after it is given.

          It could lead directly and quickly to the end of a system of tax collection based on voluntary compliance. It could ignite a revolution.

          MMT is an unpopular doctrine. Whether it is the true theory, or a truer theory than others, of the state of the world–is not the point.

      3. Yves Smith Post author

        She can’t. She’s his staffer (on the Senate Budget Committee) so she is now allowed to work on the campaign. It would be a big ethics violation and would produce a scandal. Staffers cannot work on any of their bosses campaigns, including re-elections. Remember, they are government employees, not on Sanders’ personal payroll.

        1. TheCatSaid

          Yves, did you mean to say “not” (instead of “now”)?

          Your point is that Kelton’s not allowed to work for Sanders’ campaign.

    2. Jim Young

      My old party has worked hard to try discredit James Galbraith. I was faced with some ridicule from a Bush era international negotiator for trying to read “The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too” in an airport waiting area.

      To me, too many of the supposed (and actual) intellectuals and high level advisers were experts in rationalizing and explaining the chosen party views, but still employed the Cato Institute suggestion to use “Leninist” propaganda techniques as put forth in the 1996 Newt Gingrich/Frank Luntz GoPac memo, “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.”

      I don’t oppose them (at that level) expressing their well thought out views, even using the “persuasive” techniques described in the document at but I do fault them for trying to prevent people from freely exploring far more comprehensive information and views.

      We left the party ancestors had founded and stayed loyal to for 5 generations, though, because of the lower level dirty tricksters (“opposition researchers”) that wanted us to corrupt the processes as one fund raiser told me, “We have to fight dirtier than Democrats.”

      Galbraith is a voice that must be listened to, just as there may be many others that we should be able to listen to (as I assume we could have under the old “Fairness Doctrine” before the corporate take over of almost all fully accessible media).

  4. susan the other

    stg Galbraith said casually about the thesis of his new book: This really is the new normal for capitalism – meaning low growth – because there is not much growth left. So maybe we are headed for a no growth world in which stability and sustainability dictate enterprise which is used to maintain a steady state – so that sounds more socialist than capitalist out of necessity. I believe this is our future too. And I think I understand Varoufakis’ and Galbraith’s “modest proposal” in a clearer light because growth must be used going forward not willy-nilly, but to achieve our ends. And also too – a while back the link that effectively said we had it backwards when we assume that capitalism supports socialism – because capitalism in reality lives off and is only possible under sufficient socialism. And it seems the 4 presidential advisors are more out to lunch than their letter showed.

  5. jack

    As somebody asked above, I am still left wondering where Justin Wolfer’s NYTimes piece fits into all this?

    1. DMSTM3

      The Wolfer piece doesn’t make sense. Sustained increases in bank lending and gov’t deficits have to occur forever to raise output until max capacity. Y=C+I+G+NX

      If the effect were temporary then we could tease this out empirically by looking at countries with a formal record of deficits and debt from around 980 to present plus their output. But, the data and common sense would suggest that output doesn’t fall all the way back to its prior level because of the idea that temporary increases in lending and deficits results in temporary effects on output. US total financial assets have exploded since its first fiscal year and while an economy can settle into an undesirable equilibrium as stimulus/automatic stabilizers fades it would never fall completely back to the level before they kicked in. That’s super dumb to argue IMO.

      Author also mentions one of the greatest economic minds of an era in Joan Robinson. But doesn’t figure it would make sense to do research on any other economists (where many of the economic concepts used today were derived) who refute in spirit or directly the temp view about what the federal gov’t can do.

  6. Bernard

    as usual, i hear a lot “they” failed conservatism, never, Conservatism is just the age old avenue to “scam” the other. Bush “failed” at conservatism, i.e., it was Bush’s fault not the ideology of Conservatism. on and on, this self repeated/reinforced “idea” that we have just not “found” the correct “application” of the ideal/reality that is Conservatism.

    it does get old, too. all the people killed due to Conservatism and its’ perpetrators. Greed, in other words, and the age old scam with “new and improved” tactics. These people have no concept of what “society” is, why we are all interrelated. to scam one is to scam us all. and these people are definitely not Christian in the “Jesus Christ” i’ve always heard about. Whatsoever you do unto the poor, you do unto me!

    i just suppose psychopaths use any avenue for their “crimes.” as i’ve heard, too, any great fortune is usually the result of a great crime.

    somethings never change.

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