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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 118


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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