Bryan Caplan  

The Party Line Continuum

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Two veterans of the Council of Economic Advisors object to my claim that political appointees have to toe a party line.

Jeff Frankel:
Bryan, When I was a Member of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, I never said anything I didn't believe. I think the same has been true of others to serve on the CEA, in both Democratic and Republican administrations. I once wrote an article on what advisers did when the disagree with the presidential party line on an important issue: "What Can an Economic Adviser Do When He Disagrees with the President?", Challenge, 46, no. 3, May/June 2003, pp.1-24. In every case, the adviser managed to avoid saying something he did not believe to be true.
Econlog's own Lauren Feinstone (Landsburg):

I completely agree with Jeffrey Frankel. When I was an economist at the CEA during the year of transition between Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush, I certainly never said anything I believed to be untruthful.

I did witness a substantive change in the role of the Council when the Administration changed, though.

Under Beryl Sprinkel, Reagan's CEA Chairman (and also a Cabinet member), we were to always summarize for the President the truth as best it was known to us--including concise summaries of arguments and evidence on both sides if there was disagreement in the economics profession. (Budget deficit matters hinging on Ricardian equivalence were one kind of example of disagreement in the profession at the time.)

Under Michael Boskin, Bush's CEA Chairman (not a Cabinet member, which partly accounts for what I'm about to describe), the structure of the questions soon changed in a critical way. We were now explicitly tasked with presenting the best economic arguments in support of the policy the President wanted to see enacted. For example, we were no longer to answer "What are the arguments pro or con a free trade agreement? pro or con raising farm subsidies? What would be the best policy to strive for on behalf of the economy and country?" We were to answer: "If the only way to get a free trade agreement through Congress is to raise farm subsidies, what are the best economic arguments that can be made to those who oppose raising farm subsidies to convince them to give in to the compromise?"

I certainly always answered such questions with honesty. However, the disinterest in weighing all sides increasingly stifled presenting the best economics arguments. The new emphasis on supporting the exogenously given policy immediately shifted the previous role of the CEA as a group of independent academic advisers--or at least a group of non-bureaucratic, academic government-outsiders--to a more political role.

I was not the only person who left the Council soon after and very much because of the change.

Interesting observations, but I don't think they contradict my thesis.  Still, I blame myself for any confusion.  I should have elaborated my position more fully the first time around.  Here goes:

"Toeing the party line" isn't binary.  It's a continuous variable.  At one extreme we have lone-wolf free-thinking, where you constantly publicize the unvarnished truth as you see it.  At the other extreme we have abject Stalinism, where you constantly struggle to find out precisely what you're supposed to say, then say it as loudly and vociferously as possible.  In between these poles, there are endless intermediate positions.

1. Happily share the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on any topic.

2. Happily share the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on any topic, but only with other members of your administration.

3. Happily share the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on topics directly assigned to you by the administration.  If you disagree in other areas, tone it down or keep it to yourself.

4. Happily share the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on any topic if your view coincides with the party line.  Reluctantly share the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on any topic if your view diverges from the party line. 

5. Happily share the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on any topic if your view coincides with the party line.  Otherwise say, "no comment."

6. Happily share the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on any topic if your view coincides with the party line.  Otherwise disguise your disagreement with evasion.  E.g., if you disagree with the President about X, respond to questions about X with, "The President's position on X is..."  And don't make the President sound stupid!

7. Disguise your disagreement with the party line with evasion.  If pressed, lie - unless your administration's position is totally abhorrent to you.

8. When you disagree with the party line, lie if pressed - even if the administration's position is totally abhorrent to you.

9. Actively lie in defense of the party line even if you disagree.

10. Pressure other members of your administration to evade or lie.

11. Proactively lie in service of the party line.  E.g., originate new specious arguments if the party line seems vulnerable.

12. Only tell the truth if it supports the party line.  Otherwise, proactively lie.

13. Embrace abject Stalinism - best articulated, amusingly enough, by Trotsky:

None of us desires or is able to dispute the will of the party. The party in the last analysis is always right... I know that one must not be right against the party. One can be right only with the party, and through the party, for history has no other road for being in the right.

When I say that economists have to toe the party line, I'm saying that (a) virtually no political appointee is close to position #1, and (b) the large majority of appointees are at #5 or worse.

When Jeff Frankel objects, "In every case, the adviser managed to avoid saying something he did not believe to be true," I admit I'm skeptical.  Every case?*  But even if Frankel's right, he's damning appointees with faint praise.  An independent thinker doesn't merely "manage to avoid" lying.  An independent thinker constantly raises inconvenient topics and defends unpalatable truths.  He goes out of his way to make the truth known - not just to his fellows, but to the world.  Many bloggers and pundits - and some academic researchers - actually try to do this.  What appointee even potentially qualifies?

You could object, of course, that every functioning organization has and needs a party line.  Otherwise people would just sit around arguing all day.  Maybe so.  But the idea that an economist can take a political appointment without submitting to a party line just isn't credible.

* In contrast, when Lauren says, "I certainly never said anything I believed to be untruthful," I'm not skeptical at all.  One honest outlier is far more believable than a culture of honesty.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (6 to date)
mattw writes:

There were a few times where Austin Goolsbee said something like, "The president thinks..." and would proceed with the party line. Lying? No. Equivocating? I think so.

Matt writes:

There should also be a continuum for willingness to change ones mind. This could be due to peer pressure, group think or enlightenment. This seems at least partially intertwined with your point.

Brian Clendinen writes:


Even in well managed companies, this is often true. It is hard to tell the truth and get promoted when you are not giving good news. Also, you have to consider one has political capital. The problem I made in my current job after 3 and a-half hears is always trying to sell people on a wide variety of issues of ranging importance. It did not matter that is it was the truth or I was right 80% to 90% of the time and pretty much all the project managers (who for the most part were very experiance and good at their jobs)agreed with the positions. The non PM department managers/executives just get sick of hearing it. I should of keep my mouth shut for only what was really important or for issues that were just wrong. Selling for changes that are the most important is what I should of kept. Now people automatically turn me out a lot more, which they did not due the first year or two, when I try selling changes.

So I think position 5# is required unless it is a really important issue that has huge ramifications.

However, the real problem I see is when one gets at the presidential/Fed level any policy recommendation is going to have huge ramifications, the smallest has the impact that is at least equal to any major decision a CEO of a fortune 100 company makes.

So I understand your argument about, however, learning to shut-up any only get into the fire when something is blatantly wrong or something that is going to have a major harmful others effects others don’t seem to realize. Sometimes I keep my mouth shut when I know the leaders already know its harmful effects. I might remind everyone the harmful effects doing what is wrong had last time but I don’t say anything else. If history the decision makers know about do not change their mind, nothing will and arguing the point is going to be an exercise of futilely. You brought up the point that needed to be made and the decision makers will have to live with the consequences.

However, you are right arguing to do the right thing when it is not pleasant even if you are selective of when you go it is usually is not the path to promotion or it at least slows it down. The larger more corrupt the organization this becomes more true.

Glen Smith writes:

First, don't confuse what is true with what you believe. Obviously, there are at least some things people believe true that are false. Further, all people usually just alter their beliefs to fit their real goals and objectives rather than just saying and doing things they don't believe.

ajb writes:

[Comment removed for ad hominem remark. Email the to discuss a possible edit to this comment and to request restoring your comment privileges. --Econlib Ed.]

Jacob AG writes:

"You could object, of course, that every functioning organization has and needs a party line. Otherwise people would just sit around arguing all day."

But what's the problem with arguing all day? That sounds like a perfectly reasonable thing for a blogger, academic, or adviser to be doing.

If I were President, I'd want my advisers to toe nothing, and yes, argue all day long for my entertainment and edification. Wouldn't you?

And if so, the question is, are you and I representative of political appointers?

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