Au Revoir, Robert J. Samuelson

Au Revoir, Robert J. Samuelson

 For quite a few years not so long ago I was regularly posting here variations on “Today is Monday, so on the WaPo editorial page Robert J. (not related to Paul A.)* Samuelson is calling yet again for Social Security benefits to be cut,” and he did indeed do that very frequently over a long time.  However, today was his final column for the Washington Post, so we shall no longer have RJS to kick around, sob! It was titled, “Goodbye, readers, and good luck – you’ll need it.”  There is also a letter to the editor from former publisher, Donald Graham, praising RJS and reminiscing knowing him as a freshman in 1962 at Harvard.  Graham noted RJS eschewed a nominal non-partisan position and studied and thought hard about his columns, even as Graham himself disagrees with some of RJS’s long-held positions, noting in particular RJS’s longstanding support for privatizing Amtrak.  He also noted, as RJS himself stated in this final column, he is not an economist; he has merely reported on economics for a long time, starting at the Post in 1969 and columnizing on economics since as far back as 1977 in various venues.

I also disagree with RJS on privatizing Amtrak, although this is not a topic he has written much in recent years, although he did mention it in this final column.  I would argue that he has ignored that governments fund highways, which gives vehicles a competitive edge on trains, which governments do not provide or support.  So I certainly see a case for government aid to railroads, with Amtrak certainly one of the more heavily used lines in the nation.

I should note what RJS spent most of his last column writing about. He argues the biggest story of his career has been “the rise and fall of macroeconomics.”  But then he turned to economists. Much of it is on the money.  He says some nice things about us in general: “With some exceptions most are intelligent, informed, engaged and decent.” But then we have been wrong about a lot of things, such as deciding at various points that recessions will never happen again, although RJS admits that he did not recognize the housing bubble or foresee the Great Recession (some of us here or associated with us here did, but RJS largely ignored us). He also accurately notes that many economists take stronger positions than they might otherwise out of a desire for power and position in this or that administration, and also claim to have more influence on the economy than we do.  And then he notes the unwillingness of most to change their minds after a certain point, something he himself exhibited on some of his more strongly held views.



Of course the one he pushed so hard for so long that I and some others of us bashed him for repeatedly was indeed his constant refrain to cut Social Security benefits, with a final swing at this in general terms in this final column: “From 2010 to 2030, the elderly’s share of the population (65 and over) is projected to rise from 13 percent to 20 percent. Spending on Social Security and Medicare will skyrocket and already is. Yet we have done little to prevent spending on the elderly from squeezing the rest of the federal budget.”  So, there we are; it is Monday and yet again, if for the last time, Robert J. (not related to Paul A.) Samuelson is calling for cuts in Social Security benefits!

Of course, this statement took its more general form, throwing Social Security and Medicare in together.  I must grant that this time he left them together and did not pull Social Security out separately as he did so many times in the past.  But this was an old trick: point at rising trends in spending in both, which we know are much more due to rising Medicare costs, which are driven heavily by longterm rising medical care costs in general, but then he would pivot to focus on calling for cuts in Social Security benefits.  This seems to reflect an old view that “nothing can be done about medical care politically” (despite Obama passing the ACA with much effort), but that somehow a compromise was politically possible on Social Security, reflecting a memory of Reagan and Tip O’Neill cutting one in 1983 with the Greenspan Commission, which raised taxes and cut benefits for Social Security.  The idea that another round of this was needed was pushed by Bill Clinton in the 90s, and several bipartisan commissions were formed to pull it off, but somehow they all ran into political problems. It became this established delusion in various VSP circles that such a deal should be made, and it has remained entrenched on the WaPo ed page with Fred Hiatt and others, not just RJS.

I must note that while I beat up on him relentlessly over this matter, I have done so less in the last few years.  It is not that he changed his mind, but he wrote about it much less.  He noted in this final column that he is “repelled” by Trump, and so I found myself much more frequently agreeing with him as he would criticize Trump’s economic policies ranging from his “help the rich” tax cuts through his trade protectionism to his awful environmental policies.  He would occasionally reprise these old views to maintain his independence, but much more of this attention was focused on the Trump policies.

A final point he made that has me thinking personally is that a reason he gave for retiring now, even as so much is going on, is his feeling of being “a man of the 20th century, but we are now facing the problems of the 21st century, which demand new policies and norms.”  This may well be a major factor for him, with indeed his views on Social Security really seeming leftover from the 1990s.  As he is just a few years older than I am, it makes me think that the same could be said of me, perhaps.  But I did see the housing bubble and the Great Recession.  I think I shall stick around for some more time.

*Regarding people related to the late Paul A. Samuelson or not but with the same name commenting on economics, it should be noted that Paul’s son, William F. Samuelson, is a fairly respectable economist who has published on risk and auctions and some other topics, now an emeritus prof from the Management Dept. at Boston University.  He does not share the last name, but the prolific and prominent Lawrence Summers is Paul Samuelson’s nephew.  There is also a non-relative, Larry Samuelson, a highly respected evolutionary game theorist at Yale University. In any case, Robert J. Samuelson is neither related to Paul A., nor has he been an economist, although he is probably a better non-economist economist than some others who pose as one, such as say, Larry Kudlow.

Barkley Rosser

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