Last week, Council of Economic Advisers Chairman N. Gregory Mankiw ran into a buzz saw. He committed a major gaffe, which in Washington means he spoke the truth, by defending the concept of outsourcing -- contracting with foreigners for information technology services. With a lack of job growth being the central economic issue in the country today, Mankiw's comments were assailed across the political spectrum. President Bush quickly distanced himself from his aide's remarks, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., repudiated them, and many Democrats called for Mankiw's dismissal.
There is at least one person in Washington who knows precisely how Mankiw feels: Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Back in 1974, Greenspan held the same position Mankiw now holds. Shortly after his confirmation in September of that year, Greenspan participated in an economic summit. At the time, the United States was in the middle of the deepest recession of the postwar period and inflation was rising rapidly. That year, the Consumer Price Index would rise 12.3 percent.
Greenspan was asked whether the Ford administration's policies were benefiting the rich over the poor. He replied: "If you really wanted to examine who, percentage-wise, is hurt the most in their incomes, it is Wall Street brokers. I mean their incomes have gone down the most."
Needless to say, Democrats had a field day attacking Greenspan for seeming to worry more about the problems of rich Wall Street brokers than those of common people. Although he quickly apologized, many observers believe that Greenspan was permanently scarred by the incident and forever afterward became far more circumspect in his public and even private comments.
Of course, when one gets caught in one of these Washington firestorms, there really isn't much one can do except apologize, hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. That is what Mankiw is doing. Unfortunately, the result is that debate on serious issues is often short-circuited and the political establishment draws erroneous conclusions. In this case, it may conclude that the issue of outsourcing is radioactive and everyone may rush to support ill-conceived legislative fixes with harmful economic consequences.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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