A Man Without a Plan

NEW HAVEN – During the United States’ recent presidential election campaign, public-opinion polls consistently showed that the economy – and especially unemployment – was voters’ number one concern. The Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, sought to capitalize on the issue, asserting: “The president’s plans haven’t worked – he doesn’t have a plan to get the economy going.”

Nonetheless, Barack Obama was reelected. The outcome may reflect the economy’s slight improvement at election time (as happened when Franklin Roosevelt defeated the Republican Alf Landon in 1936, despite the continuing Great Depression). But Obama’s victory might also be a testament to most US voters’ basic sense of economic reality.

Economic theory does not provide an unambiguous prescription for policymakers. Professional opinion in macroeconomics is, as always, in disarray. Because controlled experiments to test policy prescriptions are impossible, we will never have a definitive test of macroeconomic measures.

Romney had no miracle cure, either, but he attempted to tap into voters’ wishful-thinking bias, by promising to reduce the size of the government and cut marginal tax rates. That would work if it were true that the best way to ensure economic recovery were to leave more money on the table for individuals. But the electorate did not succumb to wishful thinking.