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Election 2004

Economists mirror polarized country

By ROBERT TRIGAUX
Published October 20, 2004

ELECTION 2004 COVERAGE IN TODAY'S TIMES
[Times photo: Willie Allen Jr.]
President Bush speaks at Sims Park in New Port Richey on Tuesday morning. He earlier had visited St. Petersburg's Progress Energy Park.

PRESIDENTIAL RACE
Faithful welcome president
Presidential touch in downtown Safety Harbor
A George Bush kind of bash
Campaigning with Leonardo DiCaprio
Panelists wait for sign to follow gut
Sinclair cuts back plans for Kerry film
Robert Trigaux: Economists mirror polarized country
Susan Taylor Martin: Poll: World's opinion of U.S. dimming
John Kerry bio
George Bush bio

POLITICS 2004
UCF students report being tricked into party switch
Economists mirror polarized country
Glitches tracked as vote lines shorten
Martinez harps on Castor's war comments
Duval elections chief adds early voting sites
GOP wants voter form suit tossed
Expert: Electronic voting system is 'out of control'

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Regular citizens are not the only Americans deeply divided in this year's close presidential race.

Economists by the hundreds are pledging their allegiance for President Bush or John Kerry, or at least going on record to criticize the candidate whose policy they believe is the more deeply flawed.

Let the economic war of words begin.

"All in all, John Kerry favors economic policies that, if implemented, would lead to bigger and more intrusive government and a lower standard of living for the American people," concludes a statement issued last week by the Bush-Cheney campaign. The statement was signed, the campaign said, "by 368 of the nation's leading economists from 44 states" - including new Nobel Prize winner Edward C. Prescott of Arizona State University and at least seven economists from Florida universities.

This month, the Kerry-Edwards campaign won the backing of 169 business professors and economists, including four from Florida, who signed an "open letter" to President Bush critical of the rising poverty, declining income and growing income inequality in the country.

"The data make clear that your policy of slashing taxes - primarily for those at the upper reaches of the income distribution - has not worked," the letter said.

Another letter denouncing Bush's economic policies as "reckless and extreme" was made public in August and signed by 10 Nobel economists, from Paul Samuelson (1970 winner) to Daniel Kahneman (2002). And a third letter released last month, describing the rapidly declining economic opportunities under Bush for black workers in the United States was signed by 16 African-American economists, including a Florida State University professor.

The burst of dueling letters reflects how sharply divided the economics profession is in a polarized presidential campaign. The letters also underscore the personal philosophical underpinnings, which remind us that beneath all its mathematical modeling, economics remains a pliable social science.

The Bush and Kerry camps proudly lay claim to hundreds of economists who endorse their respective policies. In fact, both campaigns recruited economists to sign letters of support for their candidates and then publicized the lists to lend more credibility to their economic proposals.

Does it work? Economic endorsements always help. To a point. As the old economist's joke goes: Talk is cheap. Supply exceeds demand.

Just to be sure, I contacted several Florida economists whose names appear among the long endorsement lists of the pro-Bush or pro-Kerry letters.

Charles "Chuck" Skipton, an assistant economics professor at the University of Tampa's Sykes School of Business, said he agreed to sign the letter in support of Bush because the president's policies are more likely to generate more jobs and better economic growth.

"I believe growth can be achieved by low taxes and stability," said Skipton, careful to note his support of Bush represents his opinion. Kerry's programs will cost more than the candidate suggests, Skipton said. And while Bush is spending too much - witness the nation's rising deficit - his agenda is "the best hope for the economy," he said.

Not all Florida economists listed on the pro-Bush letter were as gung-ho. Mark Rush at the University of Florida laughed when I called to ask him about the letter. He has strong reservations about the economic proposals of both candidates.

"In truth, had Kerry sent me a letter, I might have signed it first," he said. As a Libertarian and a critic of big government, Rush said he has "not been thrilled with what Bush has done over the past four years." But he would be even less thrilled if Kerry is elected.

Rush's hot button is the minimum wage, which Kerry wants to raise from $5.15 to $7 by 2007. Rush argued that is a mistake and would most hurt the low-skilled and black teenagers who might lose their important first jobs if the costs of hiring increased.

At Florida State, economist Bruce Benson's name appears on the list of the pro-Bush letter. There's just one problem. Benson said he never signed the letter.

"I remember getting it and looking at it, and feeling I did not want to sign it because - even though I agreed with most of it - I did not want to lead people to say I supported Bush's policies," Benson said Tuesday.

"Quite honestly, I find both Bush and Kerry quite troubling," he said. "Usually in these elections you have to pick the lesser of two evils. In this one, I can't tell which is scarier."

Other Florida economists and business professors at the University of South Florida, the University of Central Florida and Florida International University whose names appear on Bush or Kerry letters did not respond by Tuesday evening to messages and e-mails seeking comment.

FSU economist Patrick Mason joined 15 other black economists and signed a letter blaming Bush policies for hurting African-Americans in the job market.

"A lot of us were concerned about the jobs issue and whether or not the issue would be heard in a campaign focused on Iraq and terrorism," Mason said. The letter endorses Kerry's proposals because they are more likely to create jobs and raise incomes of people, Mason said, "at the bottom of the economic ladder."

Will Bush or Kerry do a better job stewarding America's economy? That's a question the Economist magazine recently asked 100 academics. More than 70 percent of the 56 professors who responded rate Bush's first-term economic policies as "bad" or "very bad." Less than 20 percent gave high marks to Bush's second-term economic agenda.

Kerry fared better, but not by much. Forty percent rated Kerry's plan as "good" or "very good" but 27 percent gave it negative scores.

Less than two weeks before Election Day, it seems neither Bush nor Kerry can generate much enthusiasm from a strong majority of economic experts.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or 727 893-8405.

[Last modified October 20, 2004, 03:58:33]


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