Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The economists' political adventures

"The Economist" wrote last week that its vote in the Spanish election would have gone for "Ciudadanos," a centre-right emerging political party. That is, emerging at the national level, because in Catalonia they have been around for more than a decade. However, the result of "Ciudadanos" has been disappointing, with 40 seats out of 350, much below the expectations. Instead, in the Catalan regional election two months ago, Ciudadanos obtained an excellent result, becoming the second group in Parliament after the secessionists. What happened between the Catalan and the Spanish election? Of course, a rigorous answer to this question deserves the attention of the best political scientists. My only suggestion to them is to look at the influence of their "getting out of the closet" in economic policy. By the Catalan election, "Ciudadanos" was an anti-Catalan nationalist party, concerned about corruption and political renewal (that is why it didn't use the word "party" in its name). It did not run on a very specific economic policy platform. Just one week before the last European election, their leader Albert Rivera said that they were indifferent between going to the socialist or the liberal group in the European Parliament (after the election, they went to the liberal group). But at the national election they couldn't escape the ideological issue. What they did was to commission their economic program to a high calibre Spanish economics professor from the London School of Economics with a PhD from Chicago University, Prof. Luis Garicano. This excellent academic economist wrote almost the perfect pro-market ("less and better government") program, with the help of one of his PhD students. This gave a perfect justification to "The Economist," the magazine, to endorse them, and through this back door, support a coalition between them and the right-wing Popular Party led by the unpopular Mariano Rajoy. The great magazine found the best excuse to de facto support a leadership that had been tarnished by corruption, which could be found contradictory with past positions such as vigourously and consistently campaingning for years against Berlusconi in Italy. The clear positioning of "Ciudadanos" in the center-right with a rigourous economic policy program perhaps did a lot to get a few votes from academic economists, but did little to allow them to reach new voters or even keep those that were inclined to vote for them two months ago. It is not the first time that the input of academic economists has been detrimental in the popular vote. Another excellent economist, Michelle Boldrin, had an incredible failure in a recent Italian election as leader of a new party (the same election I believe where Mario Monti lost when trying to legitimize his tenure as a technocratic prime minister). Another example is Andreu Mas-Colell, one of the best Catalan economists: he has been in the government of Artur Mas, the leader of the Catalan secessionists, trying to give an image of seriousness to the nationalist populism that his leader was promoting, but actually becoming an unpopular cabinet member contributing to the declining popularity of his leader's party. It is not the first time that the preferences of academic economists seem to be at odds with the preferences of the general population. I am proud to be an economist, and in many aspects I am an admirer of the academic career of these scholars. But they have not been good politicians.

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