Saturday, October 13, 2007

Strange Bedfellows

Consider a person who

A. takes an important truth developed by others,
B. exaggerates it for dramatic effect,
C. as a result, draws public attention to this important truth, and
D. also brings acclaim to himself as a profound, far-sighted, truth-telling guru.

Who do I have in mind?

Maybe you think it's Al Gore, and if so, you are correct. But I also have in mind the supply-side economists of the 1980s. The more I think about it, the more similar Al Gore and the supply-siders appear.

They both noticed something that many serious scholars had been working on (human carbon emissions are causing the planet to overheat, high tax rates are causing the economy to underperform.)

They both overstated the scientific consensus (if we do nothing, temperatures will rise so quickly that sea levels will increase twenty feet; if we cut tax rates, the economy will grow so quickly that tax revenues will rise rather than fall).

They both were alleging to convey a scientific message, but drew more attention to themselves than their scholarly contributions warranted (neither Al Gore and Arthur Laffer became known for their numerous highly cited peer-reviewed publications).

They both ended up more famous as a result (a Nobel prize, an eponymous curve).

They both infuriated those on the opposite side of the political spectrum (the right has about as much respect for An Inconvenient Truth as the left has for supply-side economics).

But, through it all, they both educated the public about something important (according to the best evidence, both carbon emissions and high tax rates are true problems which we should avoid to the extent we can).

Herb Stein once said, "There is nothing wrong with supply-side economics that division by ten wouldn't fix." I thought of this quotation when I saw Al Gore's movie. The more I think about it, the more I realize how parallel these two efforts of public education, or perhaps political propaganda, really are.