Economists design their dream candidate. But could he ever get elected?

October 19, 2012
But will they rally for an economist's dream candidate?

Recently, the smart folks over at NPR's Planet Money decided, just for kicks, to ask five economists from across the political spectrum to design their dream candidate for president. Essentially, they wanted to know, what are the policies that virtually all economists will endorse, at least in principle? 

Here's the resulting platform:

* Get rid of the tax deduction for mortgage interest on homes, raising about $90 billion.

* Get rid of the tax benefit for employer health care, raising $184.5 billion.

* Eliminate the corporate income tax. Entirely.

* Reform the entire tax code so that we tax consumption (in a progressive way) rather than income, in order to boost growth.

* Put a tax on carbon emissions.

* Legalize marijuana--just tax it and regulate it.

Notice anything about this list? Most economists and policy wonks think these ideas are quite sound, but politicians seem to find them abhorrent. Virtually no one in the United States with dreams of higher office advocates this stuff. Oh sure, Mitt Romney has talked a bit about capping the mortgage-interest deduction, and Barack Obama once favored a cap-and-trade system (which is sort of like a carbon tax) but the above platform would generally be considered political suicide. So how would this dream candidate ever get elected?

Well, Planet Money also asked the nation's brightest political consultants to devise a campaign for this wonk candidate. Here's the resulting segment, which is hilarious (best moment: "You have a radical plan which will bankrupt families," says one consultant. "You're insane.") And here's the ad the consultants finally whipped up to sell the mortgage-interest repeal:

It's not a bad ad. We just wonder what happens when the wonk candidate's opponent fires back with a TV spot pointing out that a repeal of the mortgage-interest deduction would cause housing prices to fall "2 percent to as much as 13 percent, depending on the metropolitan area." Or that scrapping the deduction would raise the average family's annual taxes by $710. (And that's a fair, nonpartisan estimate from the Tax Policy Center — no doubt there would be unfair estimates, too.)

The good news is that there are wonky ways around these problems. In this case, the Tax Policy Center has looked at more modest proposals for housing, such as slowly phasing it out over time, or limiting the mortgage-interest deduction for high-income Americans, or banning the write-off altogether for second homes. But there's one hard fact about U.S. politics that make the wonk candidate a tough sell. In general, poll after poll suggests that voters really, really hate big policy changes in practice.

Still, the whole Planet Money series is great and worth a browse.

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