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Why The Heritage Foundation Hired An Activist As Its Chief Economist

By Zack Beauchamp  

"Why The Heritage Foundation Hired An Activist As Its Chief Economist"

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CREDIT: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons

It seemed like all anyone in Washington could talk about on Tuesday was Ezra Klein’s departure from the Washington Post. But another journalist’s new job caught my eye: Stephen Moore, the Wall Street Journal’s notorious economics columnist, joined the Heritage Foundation as its “chief economist.”

Moore’s hiring cements the emerging case that the Heritage Foundation, far from being a traditional think tank, has become a Tea Party lobby with a big research budget. It also tells us a lot about the real role that economic thought plays in a movement obsessed with its opponents’ supposed economic ignorance.

This isn’t Moore’s first dance at Heritage — he was a fellow there during the heyday of the Reagan Revolution. But as chief economist, Moore will wield far more influence over the direction of Heritage’s economic research than he did thirty years ago.

My bold prediction: this will end in terrible embarrassment. Moore is much more conservative activist than journalist. In 1999, he founded the Club for Growth, one of the hardest of hard-line conservative PACs, and served as its President until 1999. Moore, who had described his goal in founding the Club to be creating “the tax cut enforcer of the party,” called the Club’s birth “the defining moment of his career.”

He probably shouldn’t have quit his old day job: he’s got a terrible track record as economics pundit. Take this 2010 interview with conservative tabloid Newsmax: it reads like a laundry list of every wrong prediction made about the U.S. economy in the past 5 years. He called “the federal government pouring money into the economy as if we can print money and then print jobs” a “fantasy,” a claim that has been proven spectacularly false by aggressive Fed unemployment targeting.

He suggested unemployment would remain at 9 or 10 percent absent dramatic tax and spending cuts; it’s at 6.7 percent. Moore said our debt would spike inflation and send the price of gold to $2,000; neither inflation nor a durable rise in gold prices emerged. He got everything important wrong.

His Wall Street Journal work is identical or worse. In one, Moore made an elementary math error — the equivalent of saying the total of ten percent of all dogs and one percent of all other animals is 11 percent of all animals — that conveniently made it seem that public employees were overpaid moochers.

In another, he conceded that mainstream economic theory endorsed major Obama initiatives like the stimulus, and weirdly saw that as an indictment of economists. Economists must be wrong — and this is basically Moore’s whole argument — because their theories “defy common sense.” Or, in other words, the bulk of modern economic theory is mistaken because Stephen Moore thinks it smells funny.

That last column led Jonathan Chait, who’d been following Moore’s work for well over a decade, to conclude “that this is not just some oddball rhetorical game he’s playing.” Rather “he genuinely has no idea what he’s talking about.” Heritage’s new chief economist is a man who not only doesn’t have an economics Ph.D., but cannot even accurately describe the views of people who do.

This would be something of a problem at a traditional think tank. But in recent years, Heritage has been increasingly annexed by its pressure/lobbying wing, Heritage Action. The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe painted a deeply reported picture of how this happened, but briefly: Heritage gave considerable independence to Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham, a young guy with not much interest in scholarship and a lot of interest in throwing Heritage’s muscle around Capitol Hill. Needham outmaneuvered the wonks internally and ultimately captured the institution when former Senator Jim DeMint took over as president of Heritage proper in early 2013. Now there’s “a political check on all Heritage research papers to make sure they conform to the political and tactical line before they go out the door,” a line defined by an alliance with Congressional hardliners.

Moore is a perfect fit for this environment. The founder of the Club for Growth clearly knows what the message is, and his columns demonstrate he has no interest in deviating from it, economic research be damned. DeMint won’t need to police Moore the way that Ioffe’s reporting suggests he does other researchers; Moore’s more likely to aid in the policing efforts than anything else.

Indeed, Moore’s already road-testing his political spin. In his hiring interview with Heritage’s blog, Moore bashes Obama’s “leftist, big-government agenda,” pining for President Clinton because “we could actually work with Bill Clinton to get things like welfare reform done.” These comments bear no resemblance to what Moore said about Clinton at the time. He savaged the president for “gutting the welfare reform bill,” presenting “a bold and ambitious Democratic agenda of a re-invigorated and activist central government,” and spreading a “class-warfare virus” developed by “the greed-and-envy lobby.” The evil Democrat, for Moore, is whichever one’s in the White House at the time.

Incredibly, Moore admits that his work at Heritage will be this kind of politically motivated hackery. “One of the projects I’m going to be working on is how Obama has discredited liberal ideas more than anyone,” he told Heritage. The kind of “economic research” Moore explicitly says he wants to do doesn’t even have the patina of a fair approach to data; his “project” is simply hammering Obama.

For an ideological think tank, like Heritage’s rival AEI, this philosophy should feel out of whack. Their ostensible mission is to honestly analyze the data and develop policies that make sense in light of the group’s values, not adhere slavishly to a politically convenient line. But for a lobby shop, Moore’s approach to economic writing makes sense. A lobby’s research goal isn’t telling the truth: it’s making ammunition.

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