In an era where the phrase "spin free" often connotes the opposite, attempts to find middle ground in America's economic debate are too often shouted down, according to longtime economy watcher Nariman Behravesh. In his new book, Spin-Free Economics: A No-Nonsense, Nonpartisan Guide to Today's Global Economic Debates (McGraw-Hill), he lays out some partisan myths about the economy and notes where dismal scientists actually agree on hotly debated issues. Excerpts of a chat:
What's wrong with our public debate about economics?
The biggest frustration I have is how polarized it's become. The public hears either the very right- or left-wing view, or optimists versus pessimists, but the center gets lost. Economists agree about a lot of things, and that gets overwhelmed by the ideological debate. As a genre, the media, especially the electronic media, play into this because controversy sells.
What myths get recycled the most?
The notion that any tax increase is bad is a popular myth on the right. Raising consumption, carbon, or gasoline taxes can be a good thing because they raise revenue and move toward less dependence on imported energy and cleaner cars. Another on the right is that immigration is bad. The reality is that immigration, legal or illegal, is good for the economy. If we got rid of illegal immigrants, the cost of a lot of stuff would go up. I understand the notion of territorial integrity, but the reality is immigrants fill a big economic need.
And on the left?
On the left, it's the visceral, negative reaction to globalization. The reality is globalization on net is very positive. Clearly, some people get hurt. There's no debate about that. But the way to deal with that is not to stop globalization but to help the people who are left behind. The other myth on the left is that the way out of our fiscal dilemma is to tax the rich more. I just remind people that the top 1 percent of income earners pay 25 percent of total income taxes. The top 10 percent pay half. While it may be popular from a populist point of view to tax the rich even more, it's not going to do much for us in terms of more income.
Do economists really agree on those issues?
Economists agree the net gains of globalization are very real. They aren't really divided about this. I think politicians are. Most economists would agree the gains from immigration are largely positive. People can debate the compression on low-skilled wages, but even if you factor those in . . . the debate is how big the gain is from immigration.
What important debates get lost?
One is the tax structure. It's clearly too complex in the United States. Removing a lot of distortions in [taxes] makes a lot more economic decisions less dependent on the tax code. The second is healthcare reform, and tangled up in that is Medicare. There's a tendency of Democrats to focus on the coverage issue and Republicans to focus on the cost issue. You have to tackle both.
Gotcha question: Are you a Republican or a Democrat?
I'm a habitual ticket splitter. I make a religion out of it almost. I'm registered Democrat, but I've voted for Republicans for Senate, governor, and president. I'm not a straight-line party voter.