Behind the numbers: Romney's go-to economist

David Segal / New York Times News Service /


Published Oct 14, 2012 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

“I hope you’re sitting down for this,” said Ali Velshi, the CNN anchor, staring into the camera, his voice booming with incredulity about a campaign promise issued by Mitt Romney: that, if elected, Romney would create 12 million jobs in four years.

Having framed this idea as preposterous, Velshi introduced R. Glenn Hubbard, the dean of Columbia Business School, a Romney campaign adviser and a “very smart man,” as the host put it. So smart, Velshi told Hubbard, that “you couldn’t have been involved in the writing of that policy.”

Wearing a dark suit and projecting an air of geeky, avuncular calm, Hubbard appeared before a blue backdrop festooned with the words “Columbia Business School.” If he was supposed to be cowed or disarmed by the bluster or flattery, he did not show it.

“It is absolutely possible, Ali, both in terms of models of policy effects on the recovery and historical experience,” he said, in a tone that was professorial but not patronizing, “If you look at the recovery from ’74-75, or ’81-82, you can easily get job growth in this range. We have the wrong policy mix. We’ve had a nasty shock, we’re in a different situation, but we could do a lot better.”

Succinct, authoritative and unabashedly partisan. Leave aside that most economists see a vast difference between the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s and the crisis that began in 2008. This was exactly the sort of performance Hubbard has been delivering for the GOP candidate, both on television and in op-eds, for more than a year. Straddling the line between academia and politics, Hubbard is playing a role now familiar in modern campaigns: the in-house economist.

Hubbard has helped to draft many of Romney’s economic and tax policies, and, at least implicitly, lent his imprimatur to others he did not conceive. The benefits are potentially mutual. If Romney is elected, Hubbard would be considered a strong candidate for the job of treasury secretary and even, after Ben Bernanke’s term expires, chairman of the Federal Reserve.

To the job of in-house economist, Hubbard brings a rare ability to translate complex policy into plain English, as well as a conservative’s love for small government and a faith that cutting taxes will spur growth. During a stint as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers for President George W. Bush, from 2001 to 2003, Hubbard was known as the principal architect of the Bush tax cuts.

Hubbard also brings a certain amount of baggage. He appeared briefly in “Inside Job,” a scathing and Oscar-winning 2010 documentary about the financial crisis. The film has a segment about high-profile professors who blessed many of the financial instruments that led to the fiasco. Enter Hubbard, who is presented as a leading thinker far too cozy with industries he ought to be assessing at a critical distance.

Hubbard is hardly the only marquee economist to parlay his experience and stature into millions of dollars, for speeches, papers and expert witness testimony. Lawrence Summers, once the Obama administration’s top economic adviser, pocketed about $5.2 million in compensation for giving advice to a hedge fund. But in Hubbard’s case, some of his amply compensated work takes policy stands that buttress the viewpoints of the corporate interests that are paying him. That’s been true of the mutual fund industry, which has paid him more than $1 million over the years. Hubbard says the source of funding is irrelevant because his academic writing stands on its own.

Hubbard’s friends and fans note that he is a conservative leading an institution dominated by liberals and that some friction is inevitable. (Hubbard himself declined to be interviewed in person for this article, citing a busy schedule.)

Hubbard received his master’s and Ph.D. at Harvard and became a productive scholar. He is best known for research in tax policy and government spending programs.

On behalf of the Romney campaign, Hubbard has argued that the Obama administration has “stuck the economy in a slow growth trap,” as it was put in a recent position paper. The way out of this trap, he and his co-authors wrote, is to reduce federal spending, cut marginal income tax rates by 20 percent across the board and gradually reduce the growth in Social Security and Medicare benefits for more affluent seniors. He would also like to repeal the Dodd-Frank financial legislation and the Affordable Care Act.

That paper, of course, is a campaign document, but if Hubbard has any differences with Romney on economic matters, he won’t name them. “I support Governor Romney’s economic program,” he wrote in an email when asked if his candidate had any taken positions he does not support.

Romney’s focus: Ohio; Obama’s: The Boss

The Republican ticket has all but taken up residence in vital Ohio: Mitt Romney spent four days in the state this week and Paul Ryan two, with plans to return Monday.

Ohio, which two weeks ago seemed to be slipping from Romney’s grasp, has become a tighter contest. The Republicans’ barnstorming was in response to state leaders who pressed Romney to help turn out voters.

The Obama camp, meanwhile, has announced that Bruce Springsteen will be back campaigning for the president, joining Bill Clinton at a rally in Parma, Ohio, on Thursday, two days after the second presidential debate. (Obama will not be there.) Springsteen also will appear at a campaign event Thursday in Ames, Iowa.

Springsteen campaigned for Obama in 2008, but these will be his first political appearances of the 2012 cycle.

— From wire reports