Looking At The Economy On The Campaign Trail

Weekend Edition Sunday guest host Linda Wertheimer talks with Russell Roberts of George Mason University and the Hoover Institution for the final installment of her series of interviews with top economists.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Once the Republican convention gets underway, we can expect to hear a lot of talk about jobs and the economy. That is the ground where Mr. Romney wants this fight to happen. Just this past week, the Congressional Budget Office said the country would see a significant recession if Congress fails to resolve differences over a series of automatic tax increases and budget cuts, scheduled to happen in January. With so much at stake, just how constructive is the level of economic discourse in this presidential campaign?

Over the last few weeks, we've asked economists at the top of their field to talk about big issues like taxes, debt, jobs. Our series of conversations continues today with Russell Roberts. He's a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and a professor of Economics at George Mason University. Welcome.

RUSSELL ROBERTS: Good to be with you.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we wanted to ask you about how these very important things make their way into the presidential campaign, about the quality of debate. So, first of all, do you think either candidate, either party is presenting what you would consider a coherent and sensible, or either coherent or sensible plan for the economy?

ROBERTS: Of course proponents of each candidate will tell you how wise and farseeing and savior-like their candidate is. But I think, as an economist, we should be honest about what we know and what we don't know. And much of what goes for economic discourse in political campaigns is storytelling. It's not science. It's nothing remotely like science, although it does use numbers and sometimes fancy analysis to back it up. But we don't have a very good idea of which candidate is really going to be the best candidate.

WERTHEIMER: Now, I think one of the things that always gets into the way of trying to understand what anybody means by what they plan to do, is what I would call the dire warning school of political discourse...

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: ...which is that my opponent's budget will cost jobs in this country. My opponent's policies would end Medicare, as we know it. Don't you want Social Security for your grandchildren? You won't have that. You know, those kinds of things; those - fear.

ROBERTS: Sure. Now fear is a great motivator. And, of course, negative campaigning, people like to complain about it. It's only as old as the republic.

WERTHEIMER: But do you think those warnings - are those warnings fact-based?

ROBERTS: I think there are things to be scared about. I think there is a risk. I don't know how large it is and I can't quantify it. I think there's a risk that we're playing with fire when we continue to spend a trillion more dollars than we take in revenue as a federal entity. So I'm worried about that.

Am I afraid of Social Security not being around for my grandchildren? Not so much. I think my grandchildren will plan to live without it. They're not counting on it anyway. Most young people don't expect to get Social Security, and are planning accordingly. They may be too fearful. So that fear may be, you know, overstated.

But I think you're right. I think fear is a tremendous factor. It's one of the most depressing things to me actually, about American politics these days. It's not so much the partisanship, which has always been a part of our lives. It's the unwillingness to imagine that someone on the other side of the ideological fence might have an interesting idea, and I think that's a very dangerous situation for a democracy.

WERTHEIMER: So, three questions that should be put to a candidate to get them to defend their economic plan and create a basis for making a decision.

ROBERTS: Let's start with, you say that government should be smaller, what role does government plays now that it shouldn't play that should be turned over to the public sector? You want government to be bigger, what's wrong with the private sector doing what you argue, it does it too well; make the case that the government will do it better. So that'll be my first question on either side of the fence.

The second question I would ask is America has a demographic challenge. We have a bunch of people who were born in 1945 to the 1955 period, called the baby boomers. I'm one of them. I'm at the end of it. We have made a lot of promises in legislation to all Americans. And as that group continues to age, those promises will be harder to keep. What are you going to do about it?

My third question would be we are currently spending roughly a trillion dollars more than we take in, in taxes. What would you do to close that gap and why?

Those I think should be the fundamental questions of the political campaign. Then, of course, to be honest, the national political scene is not the best forum always for debating those questions or hashing them out. I'm worried that our political process is not going to do a very good job of muddling through, as we try to solve those. But we're going to find out.

WERTHEIMER: Russell Roberts is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and a professor of Economics at George Mason University. We spoke to him in our Washington studios. And thank you very much for coming.

ROBERTS: My pleasure.

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WERTHEIMER: You're listening to NPR News.

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