Sacrificing economics for politics

David Brat, and the incentive for an economist to ignore economics

On June 10, David Brat, an unknown professor of economics at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, shocked the American political establishment by defeating House majority leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary for Virginia’s seventh Congressional district.

But the economist — who repeatedly touted his academic training and expertise — seems to have eschewed sound economic principles when creating his winning platform, favoring ideology over evidence.

One of the keys to Brat’s success was his relentless criticism of Cantor’s support for a more open immigration policy — criticism which he rooted in economic theory: “Adding millions of workers to the labor market will force wages to fall and jobs to be lost.” A simple supply and demand story, but the story doesn’t end there.

An influx of immigrants may have a number of contrasting effects on wages and job creation. For example, to what extent would the increased demand from these immigrants bolster growth and wages? Are all immigrants surely going to be taking jobs that natives occupy? What about skilled immigrants’ potential contributions to technological and scientific innovation? At the very least, all that is safe to say is that the net economic effect of immigration reform is ambiguous. Declaring otherwise is intellectually dishonest.

David Brat isn’t the first politician to compromise intellectual honesty and nuance for political gain. So when David Brat, the congressional candidate, offers such a shallow rationale for a complex debate, we shouldn’t be surprised (and considering the attention span and impatience of the American electorate, it’s hard to blame him). But when David Brat, the economist, casts aside years of his peers’ research in order to exploit voters’ fears and misconceptions, we should notice consequences more dire than another politician being rewarded for abandoning principle.

One of these consequences is a blow to the influence of the economics discipline. Because economics is not an exact science, economists often have some latitude to disagree along ideological lines, based on sound, data-driven arguments. Even when there is considerable consensus among economists on an issue, the field’s best ideas face a difficult and often unsuccessful path to becoming law. So the future of economic research influencing public policy seems even bleaker when an economist can build a winning campaign around the same type of intellectual dishonesty favored by ordinary politicians.

More broadly, at a time when we should be wary of a rising tide of anti-intellectualism, Brat’s victory represents yet another obstacle to evidence-based policymaking. We are already too accustomed to a status quo in which candidates shun the work of economists and other academics in favor of provocative sound bytes.

When a professor of economics wins an election, one could be a little more hopeful that this status quo can change. But economists also know a thing or two about incentives, and perhaps the case of David Brat reveals the power of the incentive to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

1 Comment
Anonymous over 9 years ago

Hello Jacob. Fantastic article.