Wonks Beware

By | March 18, 2014

We’ve been following with more than passing interest the recent controversy concerning a letter signed by over 500 leading economists, in opposition to a $10.10 minimum wage.  Essentially a response to an earlier letter signed by over 600 economists in support of a wage hike, the recent circular raises perfectly legitimate questions that any college student should expect to encounter in a macro-economics class: is a higher minimum wage the most effective means of raising people above the poverty line, or does it have the opposite effect of encouraging employers to eliminate jobs and raise prices – two unintended consequences that might bear down hardest on people living in poverty?  Indeed, many progressive economists contend that the minimum wage is a less effective means of fighting poverty than more redistributive measures like the Earned Income Tax Credit.  Surely that’s what many of the 500+ economists had in mind when they wrote that poverty is a “complex issue that demands a comprehensive and thoughtful solution that targets those Americans actually in need.”
So why the controversy?  Because it turns out that the opposition letter originated with the National Restaurant Association, and many if not most signatories – including Vernon Smith, a Nobel Prize winner from Chapman University, who agreed to distribute the letter – had no idea that the association was spearheading the effort.  Smith was approached through a third-party intermediary, and he in turn contacted other economists, thus shielding the restaurant lobby from exposure.  Or not, as it turns out.  The association didn’t hide its tracks all too well, and its detractors now have ammunition to discredit the letter. For his part, Smith stands by his effort, affirming that he is “only interested in the ideas and the content,” though adding that he “really [doesn’t] know” who created the content.
Is this a black eye for the National Restaurant Association? Not really.  We expect advocacy and industry groups to line up third-party experts and endorsements. It’s what their members pay them to do, and realistically, it’s a perfectly legitimate form of persuasion – certainly more substantive and far less offensive than buying influence through (the legal) bundling of campaign and PAC contributions.  After all, the pro-minimum wage letter signed by 600+ economists was distributed by the Economic Policy Institute, an organization that receives almost one-third of its funding from organized labor. We can do worse than to have labor and industry groups disseminating the thoughts and wisdom of professionally trained economists and inviting an informed debate about the merits of the minimum wage and the EITC.
But there’s a reputational lesson in this for scholars, who often labor for years in anonymity and then jump at the chance to stake out a public position when their work becomes immediately relevant to the debate.  Their currency is their knowledge. You wouldn’t write a $1,000 check to an organization you’d never heard of, so why would you sign a letter for that same outfit?  A few years ago, I got a call from an old friend with whom I’d worked on several political campaigns. He knew that I was a professionally trained historian and asked me if I could help engineer a letter challenging the conservative argument that FDR and other New Dealers had opposed the right of public employees to bargain collectively. The idea was to get other historians to sign on.  For the record, I strongly support the right of public employees to bargain collectively.  But I couldn’t spearhead such a letter: first, it’s an inconvenient fact that many leading liberals did oppose public sector unions through the 1960s; and second, I really didn’t want to compromise my hard-earned reputation as a scholar by endorsing a campaign without knowing its provenance.
So academics beware.  When a nice man knocks on your door and asks you to sign a letter, find out who sent him.  He’s getting paid a lot of money to line up your endorsement.  You’re not.  Don’t stake your reputation, which you earned over many years of hard work, on momentary relevance. It’s not worth it.

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