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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 118

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This is the grave of William Niskanen.

When I say mean things about how the field of economics is permanently damaged from being filled with servile lickspittles for capitalists, having done tremendous damage to the working people of this nation and the world in the last half-century, Niskanen is part of the reason why. He was born in 1933 in Bend, Oregon, a fact no amount of amazing beer can entirely atone for. He later said that the outdoors around Bend solidified his moral foundation, based around property rights, contracts, and individual freedom. Me, I’ve hiked around that area a lot and it brought a moral foundation based on collectively protecting the land and ensuring that working-class people can access these beautiful lands, but then I am a wetsider from across the mountains and I guess lacked the exposure to high mountain air that attaches one atom of libertarianism to each atom of oxygen at that elevation.

Niskanen graduated from Harvard in 1954. He then went to Chicago for his Ph.D. Well, you can already tell where this is going. He came under the influence of Milton Friedman and the other reactionary radicals there, finishing his dissertation in 1962 and become one of that movement’s leaders in the fight to destroy everything good that had happened in this country over the previous three decades. He joined RAND in 1957, while still a Ph.D. student. As a sign that the Chicago School ideas were already becoming influential in the Democratic Party, as well as among Republicans, Robert McNamara, a man whose legacy on the world is nothing if not salutary, named Niskanen director of special studies in the Defense Department. He worked both within and outside government for the next two decades. He became chief economist at Ford in 1975, where, to his credit I guess, he told the recalcitrant leadership there that they needed to actually respond to consumer demands for small cars instead of fighting for restrictions on Japanese imports. This led Ford to fire him in 1980.

In the late 1960s, Niskanen had gotten to know Ronald Reagan. And it would be in the Reagan administration that his influence would peak. Reagan named him to the Council of Economic Advisers. His tenure here proved conflicted as well, largely because he thought the Reagan budgets were far too generous to the poor and far too penurious for the rich. He wanted to slash budgets throughout the government, which he felt Reagan was not committed to and thus allowed powerful interests such as farmers to have too much power and money. When what became the Tax Reform Act of 1986 was in its first iterations, he openly criticized Reagan officials, especially Don Regan, for a law that was “something Walter Mondale would love,” which was the greatest insult imaginable. This infuriated Regan, who blocked Niskanen’s future ascension in the administration after the former became Reagan’s chief of staff. He also hated all government regulations and was angry at Reagan’s other economic advisers for not pursuing their repeal with the fervor he favored. He also accused Reagan of supporting steel tariffs to get unnecessary votes in his 1984 re-election. He quit the administration in 1985.

Where do you think a radical right-wing extremist economist would go after leaving the Reagan administration? You probably already guessed it. Niskanen became chairman of the Cato Institute, where he would remain until 2008. He wrote a 1988 book titled Reaganomics, about his time in the White House. I suppose this would be worth a hate read if I ever have time. Repealing horrible repressions of freedom, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that mandated a minimal accountability to corporate boards, was also important to him. In 2000, he testified that recounting the votes in Florida would help Al Gore, a horror that could not be conceived. He went on rants about how welfare led to poverty, crime, children being born out of wedlock, and abortion. Evidently people on welfare had nothing to do but have sex, which seems Niskanen’s real problem here.

He argued the opposite of Farley on the Air Force, believing that competition within government agencies over things like air power would lead to greater efficiency and not allow bureaucrats, Niskanen’s self-declared nemesis, to make decisions. He wrote several books about the evils of bureaucracy. In his late life, he led the fight against doing anything about global climate change, more concerned that the hippies were too powerful in fighting it than denying its actual existence. Have to keep the priorities straight and all. Finally, Larry Summers called Niskanen, “the most honest man in D.C.,” which coming from a man as morally bankrupt as Summers, is a pretty damning statement in itself.

Niskanen died in 2011. Typically, and hilariously, after Niskanen’s death, a public battle ensued between the Koch Brothers and Niskanen’s widow over his ownership share of Cato and thus the money. No matter how rich you are, it’s always about greedily gobbling up every bit of possible cash.

William Niskanen is buried at Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

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  • Veleda_k

    “Friend of liberty”

    Is that the famous liberty for the poor to sleep under bridges?

    • Erik Loomis

      The freedom of my disabled mother to die many years before her time

  • Anna in PDX

    I absolutely love the way you bring the scorn for Oregon libertarians.

    • N__B

      Perfidious Oregon!

      • Anna in PDX

        It’s no picnic I can tell you

        • N__B

          Hanging Rock is fully six thousand miles away.

    • NeonTrotsky

      It has always slightly boggled my mind that there are people who look at the vast amount of natural beauty in this state that’s only accessible because it’s public land and go “Yeah this needs to be privatized, and suggesting otherwise makes you literally hitler”

      • Anna in PDX

        My dad lives in southern Oregon in the Siskiyous and there are still mining claims on public land where people shoot at you.

      • MikeG

        Only a Reaganite could look at a beautiful mountain forest and think,
        “You know, this should really be fenced off with guards and No Trespassing signs and logged for timber.”

  • Murc

    He argued the opposite of Farley on the Air Force, believing that
    competition within government agencies over things like air power would
    lead to greater efficiency

    There’s some indication that he might have been narrowly correct here.

    There’s a decent amount of evidence that in other countries which demarcate their armed services into totally separate branches, the UK for example, forcing those branches to compete via the political process for money and other resources really does improve efficiency and lead to salutary outcomes.

    The problem is that we don’t do this in the states. My understanding is that the separate services long ago teamed up and collude with each other to receive roughly equal shares of the pie regardless of need or merit; if the Army gets more stuff, the Navy also gets more stuff.

    • so-in-so

      There’s a decent amount of evidence that in other countries which demarcate their armed services into totally separate branches, the UK for example, forcing those branches to compete via the political process for money and other resources really does improve efficiency and lead to salutary outcomes.

      Right up until it turns out that the organization best at playing politics to get money, actually sucks at war fighting.

      • Goering’s Luftwaffe?

        • so-in-so

          That wouldn’t be my go-to example, they were fairly effective in the 1st half of the war. Goering himself made a ton of bad decisions (but maybe no uniquely so among the leadership at the time).

          • Yeah, the Luftwaffe was so competent at bombing the Allies at Dunkirk. OK, others screwed that up, too.

            • Lurking Canadian

              The mistake at Dunkirk was trying to do the whole thing from the air. I’ve never heard the Luftwaffe particularly bungled the job, just that they shouldn’t have called off the army.

              ETA: but there are certainly enough examples of Goering insisting on the Luftwaffe “owning” things (anti-aircraft fire and paratroops, among others) that I think your basic point stands.

              • But wasn’t Goering one of the people who convinced Hitler to halt the panzers?

      • Murc

        This is true, but if you have a way of preventing large institutions from playing politics in an effort to promote their own perceived interests, I should like to hear it.

        • so-in-so

          No, but I’m not sure that encouraging rank politics as a survival tool is the best solution either. Up through WWII we tended to starve the military in peace time, which still saw them fighting politically (heck, they fight politically WITHIN the branches). Then the MIC which Eisenhower warned about took hold in force.
          However, it isn’t clear that an additional entity, particularly one which it appears is least successful in operating on it’s own, is ideal. The Air Force cannot take and hold ground, cannot control the sea lanes… The Army and Navy could still fight over funding without a separate Air Force to soak up additional funding.

      • Yeah, “competition” does some really heavy lifting there. Competition on what basis, exactly? What’s the metric? If it’s “number of people you can kill at a single stroke, every branch with a nuke is tied, and those without are worthless. Which makes occupying a country more than a bit problematic.
        Sometimes it seems like every “brilliant” conservative/rightwing economist suffered fundamental brain damage at an early age.

  • so-in-so

    Amazing how these government hating types always seem to gravitate to jobs dependent on the government. Either in itself or in “think tanks” or public universities…

    • rudolf schnaubelt

      I was thinking about that this week with the whole McCain brouhaha. He has literally been supported and maintained by the federal government his entire life. Born in the Canal Zone in a government medical facility. Grows up on station as a military brat. Attends Annapolis (legacy enrollee & grad). Mandatory and voluntary military service. Staff member for Hon. John Rhodes; R-AZ, House Minority leader; Rhodes successor. U.S. Senator.

      He is opposed to all government activity except blowing shit up.

    • DN Nation

      Heh. Indeed.

    • LeeEsq

      There are probably plenty of government hating types working in private industry. Its just that the government hating types in private industry are good at being financiers, business people, doctors or a variety of other jobs. If your inclined towards libertarian beliefs but are also an academic rather than a business person, you don’t have much in the way of career options.

    • Anna in PDX

      One of the few hard right evangelical types I know, who is very anti-government, has worked as a government road engineer all his life. I just don’t get it…

      • david spikes

        Its like everything else, he is a good, decent person who completely deserves his benefits unlike those, insert minority, woman, Democrat, who never worked a day in their lives and get by on favoritism because white men are the most oppressed people in this damn country.

      • One of my father’s friends was a municipal fire fighter. Spent his entire life as a unionized government employee, and is now retired with a generous pension and excellent health benefits. He rails constantly against those worthless unionized government workers who should be stripped of their bargaining rights and forced to use Social Security like everyone else (except him, of course).
        Yeah, I don’t get it either. I can only figure it’s all part of “I got mine. Fuck you!”

      • LeeEsq

        I don’t think this particularly bad or the a sign of hypocrisy. You have to live in the world you live in and not the one you want. Your road engineer might really prefer to live in a world where roads were built and maintained by private business. He doesn’t live at that world and needs to work to survive. Its really not that different from a Marxist patronizing private businesses because that’s the world she lives in.

    • JKTH

      Especially when they could make a lot more money being a justifier of greed and assholery in the private sector.

      • Eh, not really. The private sector they worship so demands actual measurable results. Most of these people are incapable of working under real-world conditions, and thus would be unemployable outside of government and funded think-tank hothouses.

    • John Lahti

      Or law firms. I’ve worked for more than my share of attorneys who, with a straight face, have told me that government doesn’t create jobs.

  • Tyro

    He wrote several books about the evils of bureaucracy

    Bureaucracy does suck, but it is necessary for running large organizations. Colgate-Palmolive has a choice between having a massive bureaucracy to keep the company together or to devolve into tiny units with minimal bureaucracy. The shareholders seem to believe that the most massive bureaucracy works out better for them.

    • Jesse_Milnes

      why do we need a bureaucracy when the government could just set out a large bowl full of cash on Pennsylvania Avenue where everyone who is owed money can just come and help themselves? Actually this large bowl can replace the IRS as well.

      • so-in-so

        Somebody has to make sure the moochers aren’t dipping into the pot of cash. Not the “wrong” moochers anyway.

    • sigaba

      Bureacracy is required if you need accountability and compliance.

      This runs contrary to most modern people’s idea of success, which involves secrecy and breaking things whenever it can make you an extra buck.

    • MikeG

      The people who rail about the evils of bureaucracy, when they are put in charge of big organizations are usually big fans of authoritarian top-down control which requires lots of, you guessed it, bureaucracy (though they tell themselves it’s not bureaucracy when they do it).

      From Ross Perot’s political rhetoric you would think his corporation would be a very can-do, get-it-done streamlined organization, but it was the most suffocatingly bureaucratic and political place I have ever worked.

    • See Sears current experience as an example of what happens when you apply glibertarian principles to a real-world corporation.

  • John Lahti

    Plenty of room on that headstone to pay a mason to chisel “Christ, what an asshole.”

    • mathguy1015

      Please let this happen^^^^^

    • Lurking Canadian

      Or, “Aim urine here”

  • Joe Paulson

    Mostly off topic, saw a reference of Nathan Bedford Forrest III (his great-grandson) becoming a general and dying in action during WWII and later being buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

  • david spikes

    But my good man what you ignore is:
    A. hasn’t been enough time for policies to work. You ask how much time is needed? We’ll know that when they start working. or
    B. Policies did work, look at the Clinton boom-obviously Reagan has got to get the credit. or
    C. 2007-2008-obviously the result of Clinton’s policies. and
    D. Free market solutions would have taken care of any problems but the Obama administration refused to believe. and coming soon
    D. The next great recession was totally caused by the evil Democrats refusing to pass the Trump tax cuts which would have ushered in the greatest period of economic growth since-well. since forever.

    • Lurking Canadian

      Definitely the best thing about being a pro-free-market type is that you can never be proven wrong by history. If things go badly: well, that’s because of too much taxation and too many regulations. They should have listened to you.

      If things go well: well, obviously it’s either because of something you did years before or (all else failing) it would have gone EVEN BETTER if they had only listened to you.

  • lawguy

    Ooops, wrong post.

  • Phartus

    His headstone looks like Niskanen typed a page in Word and the mason put it on the stone, same margins and all.

  • Brownian

    OT: my apologies, but I’m looking for advice on a labour issue and I figure a Loomis post is the best place to solicit it: I was out at a casual/fine dining restaurant with my spouse and a few friends on Saturday night, and the restaurant had one of the most egregious disparities in dress for the male and female servers I’ve ever seen: crisp, long-sleeved shirts and black pants for the men, but backless cocktail dresses with high hems for the women. We could see our server station from the table, and the women were forever pulling on their hems to stop them from riding up.

    The context is Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and I’ve already spoken with my MLA’s constituency office, but I’d like to write an email or letter to the head office (the place is a new, local franchise, I think), and my wife would like to write one too. Any suggestions or examples of wording would be most welcome (I don’t know how to talk to restaurateurs), but if there’s more I should do I would appreciate it.

    • Lurking Canadian

      You were at the Keg and I claim my five pounds!

      • Brownian

        Ha, no, Sumo Sumo Sushi (Calgary Trail location).

        If I recall, both our host and our busser were women, and they wore appropriately professional clothing. It was just the female servers who seemed to have to have bare arms, legs, and backs.

  • Sentient AI From The Future

    I like this column, I’m just a little bit disappointed that lately you’ve seemed to focus on cemeteries where one is unlikely to get away with public micturition.

  • ForkyMcSpoon

    It seems there’s a bit of a contrast between William Niskanen, and the Niskanen Center, which is named for him and the founding of which was a result of the power struggle at Cato. Evidently, the center was named after he was dead, which partly explains that.

    Interestingly, the Niskanen Center at least attempts to argue in favor of action on climate change, even from a libertarian perspective (arguing that air pollution and global warming harms others and their property, and thus it is legitimate for government to address it), which dear William would probably not be a fan of. They’d better be careful, they might start questioning where land ownership comes from and conclude that it’s legitimate for government to tax land and the products thereof (coincidentally, that covers most everything).

    Beyond that, it generally seems to be home to reasonable libertarians. Or about as reasonable as libertarians can get.

  • Kolya

    “Niskanen’s widow over his ownership share of Cato and thus the money. No matter how rich you are, it’s always about greedily gobbling up every bit of possible cash.”

    Eh? Does Loomis think that Cato issues dividends? The battle over Cato’s shares was about ideological direction of the thinktank.

    • DocAmazing

      I never met Niskanen’s wife, but I (briefly) went to high school with one of his daughters, who seemed quite sane, actually.

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