February 15, 1996 in Nation/World

Economists Horrified By Buchanan’s Views

Paul Blustein Washington Post

A lot of economists sneered when proposals for a flat tax and a gold standard rose to national attention along with the presidential candidacy of Malcolm S. “Steve” Forbes Jr. But their reaction to Forbes’ ideas pales by comparison to their disdain for the protectionist trade policies espoused by the latest GOP phenom, Patrick J. Buchanan.

“This couldn’t possibly go too far,” moaned Jagdish Bhagwati, a trade expert at Columbia University. His views were echoed in economics departments at universities and think tanks around the country, where expressions of horror were voiced this week over conservative commentator Buchanan’s leap into the top ranks of candidates vying for the GOP presidential nomination following his second-place finish in Monday’s night’s Iowa caucuses.

Buchanan unabashedly favors raising tariffs on foreign goods and scrapping virtually every recent market-opening agreement that the United States has entered, including the North American Free Trade Agreement and the global accord that created the World Trade Organization. His ideas hold a powerful appeal to workers who fear that their jobs will be wiped out by competition from overseas.

But economists tend to hold such views with the sort of scorn biologists have for creationism, or the contempt doctors have for the theory that the HIV virus is unrelated to AIDS.

“The protectionism that Buchanan espouses is just totally out of favor with virtually every part of the profession except the lunatic fringe,” said Rudiger Dornbusch, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Strong words, those. But they reflect the fact that while economists disagree sharply over most economic issues such as tax policy or the importance of the money supply, they share an almost universal belief in minimizing barriers to the flow of goods across national borders.

“There are people in the field who buy the argument for a gold standard, although very few; and there are people who buy the argument for a flat tax,” said Paul Krugman, a Stanford University economics professor. “But in the case of what Buchanan favors, we’re outside the realm of things that even make sense” to economists.

Being out of sync with economic orthodoxy doesn’t bother the Buchanan campaign. “The economists who love to read books and write theories sometimes lose touch with grass-roots America,” said K.B. Forbes, a Buchanan campaign spokesman. “This is a question of being concerned with your fellow workers, whose jobs are being exported to Singapore, China and Mexico.”

To economists, it’s exasperating to see such rhetoric hitting home with voters. Many voice hope that Buchanan’s success in Iowa was attributable mainly to his appeal with fundamentalist Christians on issues such as abortion, rather than his economic views.

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