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Summers’ Advice

April 26, 2010

Here are the opening paragraphs from a Bloomberg article:

April 26 (Bloomberg) — Immigration and climate-change legislation should both be acted on, White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers said, sidestepping a dispute over which issue Congress should take up next.

“They are both important,” Summers said yesterday on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “There is no either-or between energy and immigration reform.”

Even though the story goes on focusing on plans regarding an immigration bill and a carbon bill that have nothing to do with Summers, the story’s title is “Immigration, Climate Measures Can Both Be Passed, Summers Says”. It appears that an economic adviser’s opinion on a purely political matter is a great teaser.

Here’s what’s funny, though. The French Cowboy doesn’t know in which context Summers was asked about the legislations on “Face the Nation”. But it’s interesting to see how it’s taken for granted that an economic advisor has something to say worth hearing about whether immigration or carbon emissions should be on top of the legislative to-do list. (And, judging by the attention Bloomberg is giving Summer’s non-answer, it’s not a bad idea to think so if you want to sell “news”.)

In theory, an economic advisor to the administration is there to supply the president with facts, and presumably opinions, that help him to make informed decisions on economic issues. Summers’ job is to give economic advice, not political advice. Weighing the pros and cons of economic policies on the political front is other people’s part. So in asking Monsieur Summers which side he’s on in the ‘immigration vs climate change bill’ debate, the media reveals that they see Summers as a politician, not an economist. Otherwise it would be a bit like asking the White House gardener what he thinks about Nancy Pelosi’s choice of footwear. He may have an opinion, but is it relevant?

That the question wasn’t aiming at a purely economic assessment is clear by the answer Summers has given. Had it been a question asking which of the two bills is economically more urgent (a question one would hardly expect from anyone except an economist), Summers could’ve given an honest answer. Instead he gave a politician’s answer, ie a “diplomatic” non-answer. He knew it was an invitation to give a political opinion and reacted like a careful politician – or like an economic adviser who wants to keep his job.

Here’s another thing that’s funny. Seeing how the media considers Summers a politician rather than a fact-armed economic advisor who leaves the politicising to the pros, isn’t it likely that they’re correct in assuming that Summers is at least as much a politician as an economist? The French Cowboy would say yes. Of course Summers has politics on his mind, and very unlikely only when he’s on CBS but also when he’s “advising” the president. What ideally would be clear, just-the-facts-M’am economic advice is actually politics-burdened, “let’s call a spade a diamond” collusion between those who are supposed to advise and those who are supposed to receive advice.

It’s important to note that Summers can’t be both a no-spin economic adviser and a politician loyal to the White House. That means that whatever he says in public should be considered while taking into account not Summers’ degree in economics, but who his current boss is.

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