In Theory, Economists Support McCainPosted: Updated:
The endorsement could hardly have been stronger. On Monday, John McCain's campaign released a statement signed by 300 economists who "enthusiastically support" his "Jobs for America" economic plan, providing a heavyweight testimonial to the presumptive Republican nominee's "broad and powerful economic agenda."
There's just one problem. Upon closer inspection, it seems a good many of those economists don't actually support the whole of McCain's economic agenda. And at least one doesn't even support McCain for president.
In interviews with more than a dozen of the signatories, Politico found that, far from embracing McCain's economic plan, many were unfamiliar with-or downright opposed to-key details. While most of those contacted by Politico had warm feelings about McCain, many did not want to associate themselves too closely with his campaign and its policy prescriptions.
Howard Beales, an economist at George Washington University, explained that he signed the letter as "an expression of support for [McCain], not necessarily each and every detail of his plan, which I may not have had time to study closely."
Beales said he thought McCain had "a good plan," in general, and that his policy priorities were better than Obama's. In signing the letter, however, he did not intend to give a blanket endorsement to McCain's full agenda.
Professor James Adams of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute declined to elaborate on his decision to sign the letter. "I'm not involved in the campaign," he said. "I simply read a statement and signed on."
Constantine Alexandrakis, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, expressed second thoughts about signing.
"I would describe myself as an Obama supporter," he explained. "Maybe I shouldn't have rushed into signing the letter."
Alexandrakis said he added his name in order to show his support for certain principles in McCain's plan-such as free trade and a reduction in corporate tax rates. But there are other aspects of McCain's proposal, such as his pledge to make permanent the 2001 tax cuts, that Alexandrakis opposes.
"While I do not agree with Obama's plan 100 [percent] either," he wrote in an email, "I would prefer to see him being elected president."
It's easy to see why some of the economists might seem less than enthusiastic when asked directly about the McCain plan. The McCain campaign's economic team, led by adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, began collecting signatures from economists several months ago, with the intention of showing support for McCain's broad economic priorities, rather than the specific items in his Jobs for America proposal.
The statement they signed is 403 words long-and there is no mention of the gas tax holiday or the deficit, which the Congressional Budget Office projects will approach $400 billion this year.
But the Jobs for America plan is a 15-page document that touts a gas tax holiday proposal on the second page and prominently features the promise that "John McCain will balance the budget by the end of his first term" on the fourth page. The press release accompanying the economists' statement claimed it was "in support of John McCain's Jobs for America economic plan."
"This really is a general statement on the overarching principles of McCain's plan to grow jobs and spur economic growth," said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers. "Obviously it is what it is and it's a general statement about cutting spending and cutting taxes and making us more competitive to move forward."
For that reason, Gary Becker, a Nobel prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, said he definitely supports the plan, even if he is not completely familiar with its specifics.
"I like the main thrust of the plan," he said. "I felt that I could support it without knowing every detail."
Likewise, William Albrecht, professor emeritus at the University of Iowa, viewed the plan in general terms. "Overall, I thought [McCain's] economics was better than Obama's," he said.
While he favors McCain's overall outlook on the economy, Albrecht said he is not sure that he would agree with all the individual measures in the Arizona senator's economic platform. He sounded a particularly skeptical note when asked about McCain's pledge to balance the federal budget within four years.
"He's not going to balance the budget," Albrecht said. "Nobody's going to balance the budget."
John Bethune, dean of the business school at Barton College, called his own decision to sign the letter "a comparative endorsement."
"When I look at both the candidates, McCain's the one I agree with more," Bethune said, citing McCain's stances on taxation and government spending as reasons for his support.
But as much as Bethune prefers McCain to Obama, he has doubts about the Republican candidate, too.
"I'm not sure taxes will go down under McCain," he said. "I don't know if we'll get a smaller government."
Like many of the economists interviewed by Politico, Bethune became aware of the letter when a colleague forwarded it to him by email.
Donald Bellante, a professor at the University of South Florida, also followed Bethune's comparative approach.
"I'm not going to say that I agree 100 percent with everything" in McCain's proposals, Bellante said. McCain's plan for a gas tax holiday, for example, strikes him as an undesirable measure.
But, he noted, just as in the policy arena, there was no opportunity to pick-and-choose which part of the candidate's platform he signed on to.
"Unfortunately, it's the case that when it comes to policy it's either yes or no," Bellante said.