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The Fatal Calculations of the Economists Steering Our Public Health

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One night in late March, President Trump, seized by one of his periodic bouts of dismay with his public-health officials, sought out a second opinion on how to handle the coronavirus pandemic. He called Arthur Laffer. After missing the president’s first three calls, the 79-year-old Laffer finally answered, and the two men connected for what Laffer described as “a very serious conversation,” shortly after which Trump tweeted, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.”

Trump gravitated back to his public-health advisers, but he is again lurching toward the opposite pole — one anchored by Laffer and his close allies: National Economic Council head Lawrence Kudlow and economic adviser Stephen Moore. They have seized on their historic role as the antagonists to the administration’s public-health wing because they have a particular competence of their own, honed over decades: persuading Republican officials to ignore experts.

Even before his current role, Laffer was perhaps the most successful policy entrepreneur in modern American history, at least if measured by political influence. In the 1970s, as an economics professor who had served in Nixon’s Office of Management and Budget, Laffer developed a friendship with Wall Street Journal editorial writer Jude Wanniski, whose job had previously included defending Richard Nixon’s conduct in the Watergate scandal. The two came to believe that Laffer had developed a blinding insight with world-historical ramifications. A tax rate of either zero or 100 would yield no tax revenue at all, Laffer posited. Drawing a sloping, sideways curve between those points, he further hypothesized that reducing tax rates might increase revenue.

The “Laffer curve,” which at one point Laffer drew on a cocktail napkin for an impressed Dick Cheney (the Smithsonian now claims to display the original), formed the basis of what became known as “supply-side economics.” The doctrine held not only that tax cuts could increase tax revenue, but that changes in tax rates were the primary driver of all economic events.........

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