Even a Little Bit of Power Needs to Be Exercised Responsibly

by Neil H. Buchanan

The noted philosopher Ben Parker (uncle to Peter Parker, aka Spiderman) once said: "With great power comes great responsibility."  Or maybe it was Voltaire who said that.  In any case, it would seem to follow that with some modicum of power comes a requirement at least not to act irresponsibly.  And among people in academic circles, having even a modicum of power is actually rather rare.

Consider Paul Krugman.  He is the most honored economist of his generation, the only economist ever to have won both of the field's top prizes.  He also has a preternatural ability to communicate clearly and concisely -- an ability that is, to put it mildly, not nurtured by economics training -- such that he was given a perch as a regular columnist on the op-ed page of The New York Times.

Combine serious academic chops with a good bullhorn and the ability to use it, and good things ought to happen.  Krugman also had the good luck, if one can call it that, of having access to his bullhorn during the worst economic crisis in three-quarters of a century.  Even though he is quite good at writing on most other topics, the Great Recession and its aftermath were tailor-made for him to have an impact.

And boy oh boy, he tried.  Week after week, month after month, and year after year he called out hack economists on the right for ignoring evidence that contradicted their dogma, called upon a Democratic president to be bolder in dealing with the damage that timid policies and Republican obstructionism were causing, and laid out a case for a surprisingly simple and powerful approach to reducing human misery.

Did Krugman's prodigious efforts have any impact at all?  Perhaps, but one would be hard pressed to prove it.  Certainly, policy moved overwhelmingly in the opposite direction of Krugman's prescriptions, with even ideological allies like now-former Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen ignoring Krugman's advice to hold off on tightening monetary policy until "we can see the whites of inflation's eyes."

It is certainly possible that Krugman's interventions made matters less bad, causing the Obama Administration to take stronger stands even in retreat and the Fed to delay raising rates longer than it otherwise might have.  But if that is the most that one might hope to find regarding Krugman's impact on the world, that is a rather meager payoff from what seems like a powerful position.

What does that say about other academics who operate in the mortal realm?

Many professors long to place even one guest op-ed in a major newspaper, and their universities' media offices make a big deal about it when they do.  Some of us have more permanent presences in the world of policy analysis, and sometimes national publications even decide to publish our work on an ongoing basis.

Even so, the best that any academic can hope for -- short of being hired to work in an actual policy position, which itself offers very little opportunity actually to change outcomes and is in any case proof that one has to stop being a professor in order to make even that much of a difference -- is simply to be part of the bigger picture, contributing to the advancement of the policy conversation in ways that we know in advance will never be provable.

All of which is absolutely as it should be.  The idea of the lone intellectual whose brilliance can change everything is tenuous even in the sciences, but in the ultimately political realms of legal and social science analysis, that idea is unrealistic in the extreme -- and it is also reassuring to know that we are safe from being led astray by a brilliant crank.

Which brings us to the question of negative impacts.  Is there an asymmetry that makes it impossible for an individual professor to have a decidedly positive effect, but allows a purveyor of bad analysis to have a noticeably negative effect?

In the economic debates after the Great Recession, Krugman spent a great deal of time opposing and exposing what he came to call "zombie ideas," that is, policy arguments that had been debunked multiple times but continued to come back to life.  One such zombie was "expansionary austerity," the absurd claim that cutting government spending in a still-depressed economy would so enhance business confidence that private investment would more than offset the negative impact of any government cuts.

That idea of a "confidence fairy" was never sensible, but there were certainly academic economists who were willing to push it.  Similarly, there was a brief gusher of right-wing drivel generated by the idea that there was a magical threshold of 90 percent for the ratio of federal debt-to-GDP beyond which we must never go.  Two Harvard economists (who do not have a reputation for being Republican apologists) stood by their flawed analysis that had led to that damaging talking point.

It is thus possible that a well timed bad academic paper can catch hold and make matters worse.  It is also possible, however, that the professors who write such papers are simply being used to justify something that would have happened in any case.  Even without the silly theory of expansionary austerity, Republicans surely would have relentlessly obstructed the Obama Administration.  Everything else was pure rationalization.

Similarly, Republicans have been going after the Internal Revenue Service for decades, undermining its ability to enforce the tax laws against wealthy tax cheats whose obligations the Republicans were unable to reduce (far enough for their tastes) through legislative means.  In fact, Republicans even prevented the IRS and economists elsewhere in the government from collecting data on upper-income people in order to study income inequality.  Knowing the truth, after all, might lead to real change.

Even so, there are ways to make it easier for Republicans to do their dirty work, and similarly there are ways to make it more difficult.  Perhaps the most telling issue in the tax policy realm is how people responded to the non-scandal at the IRS that Republicans have been hyping for close to five years now.

In my most recent Verdict column, I go back over the familiar ground of the non-scandal, in which an understandable but bone-headed error by some IRS employees was turned into a cause célèbre by Republicans who claimed that a cabal of Obama's minions had abused the IRS's powers in order to harm the then-president's political opponents.  The argument never had any factual backing, and Republicans were never able to come close to proving it, despite years of effort and millions of taxpayer dollars spent in futile pursuit of their Holy Grail.  Even so, Republicans continued to use the non-scandal to justify their harmful attacks on the IRS.

As I have noted repeatedly over the course of this farce, a blog called TaxProf has been obsessively focused on the non-scandal since the story first broke.  Most readers will not be familiar with a blog that is frequented by tax professionals and tax law scholars, and that is as it should be.  I am sure that there is a blog for, say, chemical engineers, but if there is, I would never have reason to find it and read it.

Mostly, that kind of blog will post items of interest to insiders: abstracts of recent scholarly articles by tax professors, news items about tax proposals in Congress, rulings by courts on tax matters, IRS guidance, and so on.  In other words, this is the kind of resource that is useful for professionals but few others.  But because TaxProf was a "first-mover" in the creation of professional blogs in the early 2000's, it developed a must-read status among tax specialists like me.

TaxProf's founder is oddly obsessed with rankings (of all kinds), and he also delights in passing along stories about exaggerated campus controversies and other nonsense, so over the years readers of the blog have had to develop ways to ignore click-bait stories that regularly make their way onto the blog.  It has been annoying, but not a real problem.

The IRS non-scandal, however, was a different matter entirely.   Initially under the guise of aggregating the many stories that were being published about the non-scandal, the blog began to run daily "IRS Scandal, Day xxxx" posts, with a counter of the numbers of days since the story was first reported.

This led to a backlash among many readers of the blog, who pointed out that the term "scandal" at the very least was one-sided -- and, if one were taking sides, calling it a scandal certainly put the blog on the evidence-free side. The professor who runs that blog refused to budge, however, and the daily counter continued for years.  And because of the modicum of power he holds as the editor of the only blog that a critical mass of tax professors feel the need to read, even senior professors ultimately let it slide.  (It is worse for junior professors, of course.  One untenured tax law professor told me that she was terrified of alienating the TaxProf editor because her work might never again be highlighted on the blog, thus damaging her career.  Better to remain silent.)

After a few months, the daily counter had become a punch line among tax specialists, and the credibility of the blog and its proprietor had been seriously compromised.  Many professors told me that they had simply stopped clicking on the daily aggregation of stories about the non-scandal, especially because the right-wingers who believed that there was a real scandal were writing the same thing over and over again, and the blog would link to anything on the topic.

It was actually worse than that, however, because there were days when there were simply no stories to which the blog could link.  The supposedly neutral aggregator then started publishing pieces that were written specifically for the blog and thus continued to push the myth that there was a real scandal.

Any claim to neutrality on the part of TaxProf was extinguished when its proprietor wrote an op-ed for USA Today spinning a conspiracy theory about how the Obama people were responding to coded signals to attack conservatives, assuring his readers that there most definitely was a scandal -- not a possible scandal pending further evidence, but a scandal based on what we already knew.  I discussed that op-ed in a Verdict column at the time, and I followed up a year later with an analysis of how the IRS non-scandal fits into Richard Hofstadter's description of the "paranoid style of American politics."

It thus surprised no one when TaxProf dropped the "IRS Scandal, Day xxxx" daily posts after Trump was elected.  The idea that this was never partisan was always a sham.  Even so, when any news does arise about the Republicans' continuing efforts to drag out the non-scandal, the counter is revived.  (I will not be surprised if TaxProf ends up linking to this column and ironically adds the daily counter to it.)

Did this level of irresponsibility hurt the career of TaxProf's editor?  Hardly.  He became the dean of a conservative, religious law school a few years ago.  I should emphasize that he is broadly well liked in spite of his tireless promotion of the non-scandal, and the few contacts that I have had with him over the years have been congenial.  (I was once even a guest blogger for TaxProf, a few years before the non-scandal started.)  If one can say that a person deserves a deanship, I have no doubt that he earned his.  I am saying, however, that propagating a partisan sham did not prevent his elevation within our profession.

Does any of this really matter?  I think it does, in the sense that I described at the beginning of this column: "with some modicum of power comes a requirement at least not to act irresponsibly."  The problem is that one of the main sources of professional and technical information for tax specialists became part of the life-support system to keep the IRS non-scandal alive.  Indeed, conservatives readily cited the "nonpartisan" TaxProf blog's ongoing coverage as proof that the non-scandal was real.

Professors and deans spend surprising amounts of time arguing over things that only we could possibly care about, such as whether we should "slot hire" or hire "best athletes" when searching for new professors.  That is as it should be.  But when we do have the ability to exercise small amounts of real-world influence, we should at least not pretend to be neutral while actively taking sides, especially when taking a side that can only be justified by misrepresenting reality.