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Political rancor stifling economic policy debate

Michael Dwyer / AP

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney offers a detailed economic plan on his website. Other candidates are more vague.

With the U.S. still suffering from high unemployment and a sluggish economy, economists agree that reviving growth is the No. 1 issue of the 2012 presidential campaign.

But many of them are gun-shy about offering innovative ideas for much-needed solutions.

That's because the divisive partisanship that has thrown sand in the gears of the political process apparently has spread to the dismal science. 

"Because of the political atmosphere and the polarization we’ve seen, and the climate of distrust of expertise, economists are leery of coming out and talking about proposal A or B," said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University political historian. "There’s a feeling that you can’t have a needed, healthy intellectual debate over what policies we need. And that’s essential right now."

The rancor has prompted some economists to withdraw from the public debate altogether. When contacted to comment for this story, several economists and economic think tanks declined requests for interviews, saying they preferred to avoid the political fray. One Ivy League economics professor begged off citing "crank e-mails" that followed an interview he gave on the GOP candidates' economic proposals. "I do not need that kind of grief," the economist said.

To some extent, the polarization shouldn't come as a surprise, given the extraordinary events that have rocked the global economy over the past few years.

"It's not dissimilar from what happened in the Great Depression or the 1970s and early '80s," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. "There's this general sense that the economy is not working according to the script. And therefore you've got a lot of competing and very strongly held views about why that is."

Some economists argue that a few high-profile members of their profession have contributed to the problem by publicly supporting a specific candidate or party. Any economist who does so is "not to be trusted," according to Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff.

"They're basically trying to make their paymaster happy as opposed to trying to tell the public what economic science has to say," he said. "I think it's done great damage to our profession. And the public can't tell who's really an economist and who's not."

To be sure, economists have rarely agreed on anything: If you laid all the economists in the world end to end, the old joke goes, you still wouldn't reach a consensus. Kevin Hassett,  director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, thinks this perennial diversity of economic thought allows presidential candidates to pick and choose the theories that support their own political beliefs.

“(They're) introducing sample selection bias when they do literature review," he said. "The economists themselves are still scientists who have looked at things properly. But maybe the guys on the tail of the distribution are the ones that are the most attractive to the politicians.”

All of which has made it hard for voters to gauge the wisdom and utility of any candidate's proposals for getting the U.S. economy back on track and getting Americans back to work.

Comparing and contrasting the potential impact of the GOP candidates' economic policies also has been made more difficult by the wide range in the level of detail in their proposals.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has published a 160-page, 59-point outline of his plan to revive economic growth. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's website offers just a brief summary of his tax-cutting accomplishments and no specific proposals for boosting economic growth.

There is broad consensus, though, on the core economic policies staked out by the Republican and Democratic parties in the presidential election. Much of the divide centers on the role of government. The GOP candidates generally favor lower taxes and lower government spending. Since the Obama administration championed a $787 billion stimulus package in its first year, though, that bright line has become blurred, according to Zelizer.

"Obama has really shifted toward deficit reduction and backed away from all those of arguments about the need for government spending and stimulus," he said. "There are probably a lot of Democrats who like the sound of what he’s said but are very skeptical that, if given four more years, he'll really be able to do any of that or he'll really try to do that."

The debate over growth policies also has focused more on politics, and not economics, because the positions staked out by the Republican candidates are so similar. Virtually all the active candidates advocate cutting personal and corporate taxes, cutting spending and reducing government regulation.

"The striking thing is you don't have a Nelson Rockefeller debating a Barry Goldwater," said Michael Franc, head of government studies for the Heritage Foundation, another conservative think tank. "There's no real broad ideological spectrum within the Republican Party. They're all very similarly situated comfortably to the right of center."

With little daylight between the GOP candidates' economic proposals, there's been less argument among them about whether they would work. Gone are the days of the 1980 campaign when George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan fought about the merits of supply-side economics.

"Bush called it 'voodoo economics' and really challenged the whole premise that you can cut taxes at large rates and have more revenues come in at the end," said Zelizer. "That was a real division over core policy. You just don’t see that right now."