Since yesterday brought my first appearance in that supposed paragon of journalistic excellence, The New Yorker, it’s important to present all the context that staff writer Adam Davidson left out, and that was somehow ignored by the magazine’s legendary but evidently slipping fact-checking staff.
The occasion was a Davidson article on Peter Navarro, the University of California, Irvine economist who has been a leading adviser to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Davidson’s main theme was that the input on China-related trade issues being provided to Trump by Navarro (a professional and personal friend of mine for several years) is “wrong and dangerous.” Major evidence for this proposition, according to the author, was his failure to find more than one other professional economist who shares these positions.
While researching the piece, Davidson asked Navarro for some examples to the contrary, and in an email response, Navarro suggested that the author “Start at least with Peter Morici and Alan Tonelson, two leading authorities.” Davidson pointed out (correctly), “I know Alan and he is not an academic economist. I will reach out to Peter Morici. Please do let me know of other academic economists, by which I mean PhD economists who have published peer-reviewed journal articles.”
Navarro contended in a rejoinder on which I was copied, “Tonelson is a fine economist.” I certainly appreciated the vote of confidence, but felt obligated to confirm to Davidson that “It’s true that I do not hold an economics degree. Nor do I write for peer-reviewed scholarly journals.” But I also added three points that I thought created at least some credibility, noting “At the same time, I wasn’t completely blindsided by the financial crisis” – unlike virtually all of the PhDs in whom Davidson places such stock. To document the claim, I provided a link to this article I wrote in early 2006.
In addition, I observed “Nor did I predict that liberalizing trade with China would prove an unalloyed success for the American economy” – unlike virtually all of the PhDs in which Davidson places such stock even though they proved sadly mistaken on this point as well.
Finally, I told Davidson, “Although I don’t know the full scope of your planned article, I do hope if appropriate it makes note of the many Ph.D. economists down the — literally centuries — who have dissented from Smithian-Ricardian trade theory in whole or in part, from Mill to Keynes to Samuelson.” (Abundant material along these lines can be found in a book review I wrote for The New York Times in 1996 of a history of the idea of free trade which unfortunately is not on-line, but which a friend did find in the Times‘ own archives. I would be happy to furnish a copy to anyone interested.)
I never heard back from Davidson on any of this, and learned yesterday when his article came out that his only apparent interest was my acknowledgment that I lack an academic degree in economics. In particular, he judged my track record in predicting damaging consequences from China-related and similar recent trade policy decisions as far less important than my lack of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval from a profession that as a whole has been whoppingly and even disastrously wrong on the most important issues it claims to analyze effectively.
Davidson is hardly alone in this media practice of worshiping the authority of a discipline that has been seriously discredited recently by the real-world standard of results. But it was more than a little dispiriting to see that this version of the herd instinct has even spread to The New Yorker – yes, The New Yorker.
Finally, for truth-in-advertising purposes, I have been asked to do research on trade policy by both the Trump and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns. I have not endorsed either candidate for president, though I do support many of Trump’s proposals and have criticized others as being overly timid.