An interview with Laurence Kotlikoff.
By PULKIT AGARWAL
It is hard to argue against the overwhelming consensus that this election has left voters choosing the “lesser of two evils” option rather than the best one. We see few glimpses of voters that feel utterly passionate about the candidate they support, in particular when one compares this to the attitudes of several million Americans prior to President Obama’s election victory in 2008. Perhaps it is understandable given the rocky, scandal-ridden, and seemingly power-hungry conceptions of the Clintons that have been perpetuated in the media, and the unpredictable, gaffe-prone, and sometimes outright nonsensical image of their Republican counterpart, Donald Trump. In such an election, wherein voters are compelled to support a candidate without falling in love with him or her, members of the electorate can often find themselves disillusioned and questioning whether they should exercise their Constitutional right to vote. It is the prerogative of this newspaper to advise against such irresponsibility, for we do not advocate people standing by in times of a high-stakes battle such as this one. While it is not our duty, nor, perhaps, in our best ability, to encourage our readers to vote one way or another, we do consider it within our purview to provide them with facts that may affect their choices. It is in that spirit that The Harvard Independent spoke with Dr. Laurence Kotlikoff, the William Warren Fairfield Professor of Economics at Boston University, who is incidentally also a candidate for President of the United States of America.
Professor Kotlikoff is the only write-in candidate to have been registered in all states across the country, which means that in order to cast a vote for him, one would have to write his name on the ballot oneself. This, he claims, should not serve as a major disincentive for the voters wishing to support him; more importantly, he ascribes the media’s ignorance toward his campaign to have stemmed from their underestimation of the American voter, who they believe would be unwilling, or worse still, unable, to carry out such a simple task. While it is fair to assert that news organizations may not necessarily be giving him little coverage for reasons other than their view of the voters’ ability, his claim that they are more interested in overplaying the Clinton versus Trump fight in order to win airtime does seem reasonable. He even wrote recently in The Huffington Post about how the media is rigging this election through its limited coverage of credible alternatives to the two mainstream candidates, despite continuously claiming that neither of them is particularly honest or well liked. Professor Kotlikoff’s candidacy, thus, raises an important question about the role that media houses play in democratic exercises such as this: Is the media’s agenda for winning viewership or readership at complete odds with its responsibility of delivering objective facts about all candidates? Even if one concedes that news organizations would be more intent on covering the mainstream candidates simply because their policy proposals are more likely to be realized, and hence should be evaluated more closely, one must recognize that even in an election where the independent candidate may have a realistic shot at victory, the media would have a nontrivial incentive in ignoring them, in order to draw attention to the battle that sells better.
As an economist, Professor Kotlikoff claims to be the best-qualified candidate for the Presidency. He considers, and perhaps justifiably so, his experience in shaping public policy to have prepared him far better for the job than Clinton’s several years in Washington, or Trump’s decades of experience managing his companies. He served in President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisors, and has been listed by The Economist as the 11th most influential economist in the world. When he cited these as reasons to me for why he would serve well in elected office, I was compelled to ask him a question that seems increasingly relevant today: How do you see the voters responding to an economist’s candidacy, given their apparent dislike for ‘experts’ telling them what to do? Over the summer, we saw the British vote to leave the European Union in the face of several warnings by experts of similar qualification as Professor Kotlikoff himself. There has been a similar cynicism towards the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the United States more recently, with economists both from within and outside the administration pointing to the gains possible for the economy as a result of the agreement, but supporters of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump rejecting such views as those of Washington “insiders.”
To this, he responded by pointing to his detailed proposal to reform the tax system, which involves a repeal of the personal income tax, the corporate tax, and the estate and gift tax in their entirety. He proposes, instead, a FICA payroll tax and a VAT capped at 20%, along with a replacement of the Food Stamp program with direct provision of food. This would allow all Americans to avoid dealing with a complex bureaucracy, and a system that many still fail to fully comprehend, alongside raising the total revenue for the government by 5% of GDP. It would further eliminate cyclical perpetuation of the poverty trap that many low-income households find themselves in, through a provision of basic health insurance to everyone, and through several other policy changes that he lists in his book, “Write Us In,” available on his website. Surely, his years of research into public policy and his engagement with several public finance experts from around the country have informed his proposals in ways very different from those of the other candidates. It remains unclear, however, as to how credible his proposals will seem to an electorate that finds itself as having been betrayed by expert opinion over the last few years.
Professor Kotlikoff is undoubtedly a unique candidate in that his approach to the election is increasingly academic. He is as much a scholar of policy as he wishes to be an enactor of it, and that is certainly refreshing in an election that seems grasped by the high volumes of prime time. Does he have as good a shot at winning as Clinton or Trump do? Probably not. But would we be better off seeing more people like him enter the discussion and contest for the Presidency in the future? Most certainly. Even those who would disagree with his endorsement of the TPP, his support for legalization of marijuana, or several other of his policies, would find it hard to disagree to the concept of Candidate Kotlikoff: A candidate willing to take on big money, special interests, and major parties, in order to assert the desirability of informed voices in politics. And isn’t that something worth fighting for.
Pulkit Agarwal ([email protected]) encourages readers to engage in this discussion and to vote!