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Michael Smerconish: Flying blind on the stimulus

WHY SHOULD we believe any experts who tell us what's wrong with the economy, or how to fix it, when none of them saw it coming?

President Barack Obama before his speech about the home mortgage crisis at Dobson High School in Mesa, Ariz., Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009. (AP)
President Barack Obama before his speech about the home mortgage crisis at Dobson High School in Mesa, Ariz., Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009. (AP)Read more

WHY SHOULD we believe any experts who tell us what's wrong with the economy, or how to fix it, when none of them saw it coming?

Heck, the best and brightest can't even agree on the president's plan. But at his recent news conference, President Obama said that despite "sincere" objectors who are "philosophically" wary of government intervention in markets, "most economists almost unanimously recognize" that the federal government should play a major role in stimulating the economy. "Most" is most probably a stretch.

Sure, on the president's side you have some serious expertise.

Consider Larry Summers, director of the National Economic Council, former Treasury secretary and one of the youngest tenured professors in Harvard history, who said the stimulus package was necessary to avert "a vortex of declining employment, falling incomes, reduced spending, increased financial distress, less lending, reduced employment, reduced spending, and so forth."

The list goes on. About 200 prominent economists, including a dozen Nobel laureates, signed a petition pledging support for the stimulus package. Paul Krugman, himself a Nobel economics winner, has called for an even bigger government footprint than the one the president signed. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner might have to run TurboTax on his computer, but he also ran the New York Fed. He's no dope.

So it should be easy to believe that Obama and his economic brain trust are poised to steer the country out of recession, right? Not necessarily.

ON THE OTHER side sits the conservative Cato Institute, which recently placed full-page ads in the country's major newspapers to express disagreement with the president's plan.

Among the 200-plus who signed that petition was Michael Munger, chairman of the political-science department at Duke.

Munger, who holds a doctorate in economics, told me the president had mischaracterized the nature of the objections. The issue isn't that the Cato petition signers are simply "philosophically" opposed to government intervention. It's that government intervention doesn't work.

"All we're doing is funding things that were already set up, that would have been done anyway by the state. So the point is not that I think the government has no business. The point is that what they're doing is going to do more harm than good. I find it outrageous that he would misrepresent the position of 400 professional Ph.D. economists," he said.

Like Summers, Krugman,

Geithner and the hundreds of economists supporting the stimulus plan, Munger and his allies are impressive. And these competing views leave many Americans stuck in the middle of two opposing "expert" opinions.

When I raised that with Mun-ger, he said stimulus supporters know that the statistical realities don't bear out their case.

"But they're desperate," he said. "They're hoping that by giving some sort of sense of confidence - the idea that someone is in charge - that they can reverse this by giving people a sense of confidence."

Which is starting to remind me of global warming. Loads of experts and a similar number of opinions. On one hand, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change deemed it "unequivocal" and "very likely" that global warming, if it truly exists, is spurred by human activity.

Meanwhile, Weather Channel founder John Coleman has called it "the greatest scam in history." Once again, the rest of us are stuck somewhere in the middle, unsure of whom to believe.

So what do many people do?

They suit up in their partisan jerseys and pick a side based on where the enemy is camped.

Unsure about global warming, but think Rush Limbaugh is God? It must be a fraud. Concerned about spending our way out of the economic morass, but a fan of the president? Endorse the stimulus.

How else to explain that every Republican member of the House sided against the White House? It's partisanship masking a lack of understanding of policy.

No wonder there are more pundits like me on TV offering opinions about a subject we know very little about than economists who presumably have at least an inkling of what's going on. And who'd want to listen to the economists who have gone the way of the weatherman: all sorts of gizmos, but no window to see outside?

Despite all the Bloomberg-driven data available - from unemployment rates to inflation to rising debt and stalled GDP - is there one economist who can honestly say: "I told you so?"

I don't think so. Instead, they make their living looking backward. Which anyone can do.

This is why despite the very

real threats posed by the economic malaise, the battle lines look like they always do.

Right to left, Republicans and Democrats have slunk into a proxy war: arguing about whether the New Deal actually worked. Expect it to last for the next two years, until a new debate begins at the time of the midterm elections to determine if this stimulus package was effective.  Democrats will say yes, Republicans no, and the economists will probably still be disagreeing among themselves. *

Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at