Does Jason Furman, the Obama campaign's new economic policy coordinator, really favor privatizing Social Security and cutting corporate taxes?
But these are just some of the inaccurate impressions left by last week's news and blog coverage of Furman's appointment.
The accounts portrayed Furman as a pro-Wall Street economist who previously headed the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project, which Robert Rubin helped establish; Furman was at Hamilton less than 18 months. Some accounts also mentioned that he was an economist in the Clinton White House. None of them mentioned any other part of his background.
Before moving to Hamilton, however, Furman was a Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where he churned out one hard-hitting progressive analysis after another on issues from Social Security and tax cuts to income inequality and the minimum wage. In addition, while his most recent affiliation was with Hamilton and, hence, Rubin, he earlier worked for Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate economist whose views are distinctly farther to the left than Rubin's. I did not see a single account that reported these facts.
Especially bizarre was a poorly researched Los Angeles Times article that suggested Furman may favor privatizing Social Security and, on that issue, holds views similar to President Bush. That's like saying Karl Rove is a liberal Democrat who wants to repeal the Bush tax cuts and withdraw from Iraq. Everyone involved in the 2005 debate over Bush's privatization proposal knows it was Furman's devastating analyses shredding the Bush plan and skewering the arguments of privatizers that formed the intellectual core of the successful opposition. Democratic Members of Congress, unions, and grassroots campaigns against the Bush plan built much of their critiques on Furman's work. The White House official in charge of Social Security later commented that Furman's analyses played a central role in killing the President's plan.
Equally egregious was a claim that Furman had attacked the minimum wage and progressive taxation in an appearance a few years ago on Larry Kudlow's cable TV show. Those making this charge mistakenly attributed to Furman the remarks that right-wing supply side guru Arthur Laffer, with whom Furman was jousting, actually made on the show.
To be sure, the transcript of the show was a mess because Laffer and Furman frequently interrupted each other. But those who took the time to read the whole transcript would not have gotten this wrong. If they had any doubt whether the offending statement came from Furman or Laffer, they could have checked the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities website, where they would have found a voluminous body of Furman's papers calling for more progressive taxation and an increase in the minimum wage and castigating the Bush tax cuts.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius also unwittingly contributed to the confusion by reporting that Furman had penned an op-ed last year calling for cutting corporate tax rates and eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax. This created the impression that Furman favors tax cuts for the corporate sector and affluent individuals. Ignatius failed to explain that Furman's op-ed was praising a bill by Rep. Charles Rangel to cut the corporate tax rate, eliminate the AMT, and also cut taxes for 90 million low- and middle-income households - and fully offset all of the cost by closing corporate loopholes and raising tax rates on the wealthiest Americans back to Clinton-era levels. All that would create a tax code that's considerably more progressive, simpler, and more economically efficient.
Finally, several news accounts, including a Huffington Post column, portrayed Obama's hiring of Furman as a move to the political center now that Obama has wrapped up the nomination. This, too, is dubious. Prior to Furman's hiring, Obama's two top advisers on economic and fiscal policy were University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee and Harvard economist Jeffrey Liebman. Goolsbee, Liebman, and Furman are all moderately left of center. In fact, reading the work of all three (each of whom is considered a top-notch economists) leads one to put Furman modestly to the left, not the right, of the other two. In recent years, Furman's work has focused, in particular, on how to change government policies so the gains of economic growth are more evenly shared, with more gains going to low -- and moderate -- income working families and fewer to corporate profits than has recently occurred.
Let's hope that, as the presidential candidates name more policy advisers, the media and blogosphere do a little more homework and produce reporting and commentary that's a bit better informed by the facts.
Readers deserve better.
Robert Greenstein is executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more