My parents both worked for the federal government (State) over three decades, and both exemplified the duty and virtue ethics approach to safe-guarding peoples’ interests from the politicians. They were supremely patriotic and sacrificed a lot personally to advance U.S. interests. This includes using their own funds to host public events overseas when the official budgets had run out, it includes working virtually every weekend and many nights without additional pay, it includes all the upheavals required to raise four kids while moving countries every 3-5 years.
This has affected my views of economics—for one, rejecting a simplistic account of people’s motives as only rapacious, as in a narrow reading of public choice economics.
It also informs how I view public servants who are part of the civil service system. They often earn good salaries, but raises may be rare compared to the private sector. Most importantly, they are—and should be—insulated from the political process as much as possible. In return, they owe us--the American people--their allegiance, their honor, and their ethical duty.
Economists who work in the Departments of Treasury, Commerce, Labor, Health, Agriculture, and similar posts in Congress or in the CIA, should be insulated from politics so that a careful and clear examination of the issues can be made.
Larry Summers, in a recent blog, laments the way professional economists at Treasury were blind-sided by Trump’s grandstanding move on tax cuts. Coming out of nowhere, the President’s proposal undercuts the notion that there is truth, and that truth arises from analysis and debate. Here is Summers:
“By all accounts the Treasury was on a path working with other agencies to come forth by June with a set of tax reform proposals. Treasury officials were shocked when the President, speaking in the Treasury building, announced last Friday that the Administration would unveil its tax plan today. There was no time for specification of a proposal, let alone consultation on its merits, estimates of its revenue impact, or evaluations of its economic impact.
“Instead the Treasury Secretary was asked to lend his prestige and that of his Department to a one page document that would have been judged skimpy on detail if it were a campaign proposal. I can only imagine how demoralized the Treasury tax staff-a group that rightly prides itself on its professionalism and analytic seriousness - must be.”
Further, economists at the CBO and elsewhere are under attack from politicians like Paul Ryan and others to do “dynamic scoring”. In case you’re wondering, “dynamic scoring” refers to imaged effects of policy changes on the dynamism of the economy, such as how fast it will grow and how hard people will work. In other words, it’s hooey, made up wishful thinking to justify tax cuts. No one can predict economic growth rates, and alleged supply side effects to boost growth have been unimpressive in the past, other than running up large budget deficits.
The bottom line is: if you’re a professional economist in the civil service, will you have to do bad economics to keep your job or get promoted in the Trump administration? I predict a brain-drain out of Washington, as sensible and honor-bound people seek employment elsewhere. No genuine economist wants to live the life of a hack.