Andrew Leigh was one of 21 economist signatories to an apparently Nick Gruen-iniatiated open letter (open op-ed?) defending government debt as an appropriate policy response to the GFC. In broad terms, it supports the orthodox pro-debt view being advanced by the government and most though not all commentators.
But when he blogged on the subject, two commenters used conflict of interest arguments in a way they are regularly used in public debate – to cast doubt on the person making the argument rather than directly tackle the argument itself. One alluded to Andrew’s recent but now completed secondment to Treasury to suggest that he was ‘conflicted’. Another suggested that Nick may be ‘less than disinterested’ because he had received consulting fees from the government.
Perhaps the open letter/open ed genre invites this kind of claim. Presumably the point of having 21 economist signatories/authors is to use their general professional standing to give the conclusions more weight than the argument as stated can provide, and so their professional standing is a legitimate target.
But as with many conflict of interest claims, this attack is an appeal to readers’ cynicism rather than providing any substantive reason to doubt the conclusions reached. If the argument is so flimsy it needs past government employment to explain why it is appearing, how come 19 other economists put their names to it? Isn’t it more likely that these 21 economists are among the many economists who support this general line of reasoning, and the precise signatories depend on social and professional networks rather than past financial interests?
Personally, I am more concerned about the stimulus package than the 21 economists – partly because I think their caveats about quality spending aren’t likely to be observed in practice. As Andrew L himself often points out in his call for proper testing of social programs, government spending is not routinely rigorously assessed, and is even less likely to be properly evaluated in the rushed search for ‘shovel ready’ stimulus projects. But the fact that some signatories once worked for the government provides no greater or lesser reason for doubting the prudence of the government’s policies.
(My own disclosure: I know Andrew L and Nick, as well as several other of the 21 economists.)