Backgrounder: My Years in Washington

January 8, 2019

by Norman Van Cott, Ph.D.

I was a professor of economics at three colleges over a period of 47 years. For two and one-half of those 47 years I was on leave with a non-teaching job I’ve always described as a great job to have had. So what was the job? I was an international economist at the Office of Foreign Economic Research at the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C.

Some of you are probably saying to yourselves: “Oh, no, that means you were a bureaucrat at a backwater, New Deal government agency.” That’s right. Our co-workers down the hall, at the Office of Foreign Economic Policy, were charged with, among other things, assisting less developed countries unionize their labor forces. Getting paid to help make poor countries even poorer makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Most, if not all of the people there were infected with New Deal mythologies and didn’t realize what they were doing. But this is not what prompts me to write.

Those years were broken into two stints. First, was the spring and summer of 1973 — the summer of the Watergate hearings. International economics was the last thing on anyone’s mind then.

My immediate superior, however, was one of my professors in graduate school and one of the best economists I have ever encountered — Donald F. Gordon. Gordon was on leave from the University of Rochester at the time. The deputy undersecretary of labor, who Gordon answered to, was Joel Segall. Segall was a fine economist in his own right, having come from the University of Chicago’s business school. One of Segall’s comments to Gordon, me and another colleague when we were discussing a policy issue figured critically in the latter part of my second stint. To wit: “Forget the politics, guys. You do the best economics you can, and I’ll deal with the politics.”

My second stint began in the summer of 1975 and went through the summer of 1977. Consequently, I was there when Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford in the 1976 presidential election. Consequently, I witnessed a change in administrations from Republicans to Democrat. While people say it doesn’t make a dime’s worth of difference which party is in control, for me the change was so dramatic and discouraging that it led me to convert my position into a had position.

So what happened? First, Joel Segall was out. He was replaced by Howard Samuel who had begun his career as an organizer with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and had risen in the ranks of the AFL-CIO. Samuel called a meeting with our shop (at the time, four doctorates in economics, two research assistants and two secretaries) and informed us that from that time forward, all policy conclusions would come from 16th Street. Our job was to support these conclusions with economics regardless of whether the recommendations were at odds with the first principles of economics.

It was like going from the penthouse to the outhouse as far as a job was concerned. Nevertheless, I was somewhat impressed that the conclusions were coming from 16th Street. After all, isn’t the White House located at 16th and Pennsylvania. Boy, was I naïve. A few days later, a colleague pointed out to me that AFL-CIO headquarters was located a few blocks up from the White House on 16th Street. That’s where the conclusions were to be coming from — conclusions, again, we were obligated to prove, many of which were not consistent with economics basics.

Most of my work involved working with “escape clause” cases. These involved domestic industries seeking “relief” from import competition. Bureaucrats from an alphabet soup collection of government agencies met to decide whether import relief was warranted. One high profile case stands out — footwear — but others were specialty steel, zippers, snaps, cut flowers, Chinese honey and flatware (spoons, knives, and forks). I managed to preserve a measure of my economist’s integrity by recommending policies that minimized the protectionist spirits that were running amok. All to little avail, however, as import relief was granted in every case on which I worked.

The most absurd thing that came out of AFL-CIO headquarters was a request to calculate the number of jobs that would be created in apple, orange, grape, peach, raspberry, blackberry etc. production if U.S. imports of bananas were outlawed. The only thing worthwhile about the project was the lunchtime humor it generated.

How did it all end? I escaped the nonsense at the end of the summer of 1977 to the academic world where the nonsense enriched my international economics course considerably. Hence the label “a great job to have had.” The other economics doctorates left shortly thereafter also. Joel Segall became the president of Baruch College of the City University of New York from 1977 to 1990. Segall and Howard Samuel both died in 2003.

T. Norman Van Cott, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, was head of the Ball State University Economics Department from 1985 until 1999.


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