There’s a lot of talk in the blogosphere about John McCain’s pledge to balance the federal budget by the end of his first term in office. The NYT has two articles, by Michael Cooper and Robert Pear, about whether such a thing is possible. Brad DeLong is scathing, of course, saying that " the only proper response is derision and laughter," and adding for good measure that McCain is displaying "the budget policy of an underpants gnome". Mark Thoma has more links.
But here’s the thing: the pledge comes only in a 15-page briefing paper; it’s nowhere to be found in McCain’s actual speech on the subject. James Pethokoukis reports that McCain’s economic advisers haven’t crunched the numbers on the pledge: they can’t say, for instance, what level of economic growth would be necessary, or how much discretionary spending might have to fall. Which prompts Stan Collender to conclude that this is barely a policy, really:
What John McCain announced yesterday isn’t really a plan that holds together to accomplish something; it’s a laundry list the candidate will pull from whenever he needs a talking point…
According to a reporter from a national publication who called me, McCain never mentioned the worrd "deficit" and didn’t talk about deficit reduction. As a result, this paper decided not to publish a story on it. In the reporter’s terms, his editors "took a pass."
So should we. This isn”t a serious budget or economic plan and shouldn’t be treated as one.
Is the national publication in question the Wall Street Journal? I like the WSJ story: it treats the news as politics, rather than economics.
Sen. McCain’s campaign has dusted off some of President George W. Bush’s unfulfilled promises: balancing the federal budget within four years and revamping the nation’s Social Security system. But he left some questions unanswered Monday after a campaign appearance in Denver. Though aides said he pledged to balance the budget within four years, the campaign didn’t say how he plans to do this, beyond cutting pork, which many analysts and government watchdogs say is unlikely to get him there. Moreover, he has promised tax cuts in the past and promised them again Monday — "I will cut them where I can" — which will make it harder to close a spending gap.
Sen. McCain made his budget-balancing promise in the spring before backing off the pledge, saying it might take eight years instead.
Pledging to balance the budget in one term is easy and cost-free: it’s the kind of promise which is so improbable that no one’s going to hold you to it when you fail to meet your goal, especially if you make the promise only in briefing papers, meaning there are no soundbites to be used against you in future.
The more substantive news, in my view, is the list of 300 economists who claim to "enthusiastically support John McCain’s economic plan". Would most of them sign their name to the economic plan of any Republican nominee, no matter how vague it was? Possibly. But there are undoubtedly some very heavy hitters on there, including five Nobel laureates and four former presidents of the American Economic Association. (Gary Becker, for these purposes, counts twice.) An argument from authority can never be particularly convincing, but in this case it’s stronger and more compelling than a promise buried in a position paper. It’s one thing to say that McCain has no idea what he’s talking about: it’s another thing entirely to say that the same thing must go for every economist on the list.
Update: Brad DeLong, who knows a fair amount about economists in Washington, thinks the news isn’t the list of people who did sign, so much as the list of people who didn’t. If you want one of those political appointments in the event of a McCain victory, he hints, you’d do well to be on the list:
There is good news: a lot of economists who you would expect to have signed on–subcabinet appointees in past Republican administrations, et cetera–have not. One would expect, based on political loyalties and willingness to serve in Republican administrations, to see Greg Mankiw, Paul Wonnacott, Dick Schmalensee, Michael Mussa, Thomas Moore, Gary Seevers, Marina von Neumann Whitman, Kristin J. Forbes, Katherine Baicker, Matthew J. Slaughter, Andrew Samwick, and others on the list. They are not there. That is good news.