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Resting on their laureates

Kerry leads Bush in endorsements from Nobelists. But does expert opinion matter in politics?

A HALLMARK OF intelligent skepticism, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote, is to refrain from taking sides in a debate whenever the experts in the field disagree, unless you're an expert yourself. But that principle won't help much on Nov. 2. Economic and other experts are throwing their weight behind both George W. Bush and John Kerry. Yes, we're deep in the season of warring petitions.

In August, the Kerry campaign boasted that 10 Nobel laureates in economics -- ranging from the redoubtable 1970 laureate Paul Samuelson to 2001 winners George A. Akerlof and Joseph E. Stiglitz -- had endorsed their man's economic proposals. The gap between the candidates on economic issues is "wider than in any other Presidential election in our experience," the Nobelists declared, citing Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy and soaring deficits. Kerry, they contended, would "restore fiscal responsibility" and put Social Security and Medicaid back on solid footing.

Akerlof, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, reiterated in a recent interview that this year presented an unusually stark choice. "We are really appalled by Bush policies across the board," he said. "One can usually say there are good things about Democratic policy and good things about Republican policy. But you have to be extreme to support this administration."

Six other Nobel laureates in economics disagree, however. They include free-market icon Milton Friedman and this year's co-winner, Edward C. Prescott, of Arizona State University, who, together with 362 other American economists, signed on with Bush this year. "All in all John Kerry favors economic policies that, if implemented, would lead to bigger and more intrusive government and a lower standard of living for the American people," their statement read.

Before long, the Kerry camp was crowing about a "Nobel gap" and noting that even the ostensibly pro-Bush petition spent more time burying Kerry than praising Bush. But George Borjas, a Harvard economist who signed the petition, was quick to dash the suggestion that even right-leaning economists are less than enthusiastic about W."

If anything his tax cuts do not go far enough," he e-mailed. "I think Kerry's semi-socialist plans for tax increases and universal health care would have disastrous economic effects. Is that support enough?"

A recent poll, however, suggests that economists may have soured on Bush to an unusual degree. In the Economist magazine's quadrennial survey of academics who help select articles for the journal The American Economic Review, 70 percent judged Bush's fiscal policy to be bad or very bad, while 20 percent thought it was at least good. (There were 58 respondents in all.) Kerry hardly won raves, but only 27 percent thought his plan was bad or very bad, while 40 percent called it at least good. Four years ago, the spread was narrower: Under a different system, Al Gore got a B-minus and Bush a C.

The professorial Bush-knocking doesn't stop there. While making a point of not endorsing Kerry, 56 tenured and emeritus professors at Harvard Business School released an "open letter" denouncing 1975 HBS graduate Bush's policy of cutting taxes while increasing spending. (Even Harvard's Robert C. Merton, the 1997 Nobel laureate in economics who says he declines to sign partisan petitions, added his name to this one.) And then there is the case of the 48 Nobel laureates in science -- the real laureates, according to purists -- who have condemned what they describe as the administration's pattern of ignoring or suppressing unwelcome scientific evidence that contradicts its policy agenda.

It's at around this point that someone -- OK, this time it's Joshua Muravchik, a foreign-policy analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute -- invokes William F. Buckley's line that he'd rather be governed by the first 100 people in the Boston phone book than the Harvard faculty.

Muravchik brushes off a recent statement, signed by more than 700 foreign-policy scholars, that blasts the Iraq war as a "misguided" distraction from the war on radical Islamic terror and the need to curb nuclear proliferation. Its organizers call the statement an almost unprecedented display of consensus on a controversial public issue. But to Muravchik, the claim "sounds almost like a self-parody of political correctness."

Elliot Cohen, a military strategy specialist at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who has been called more than once "the most influential neocon in academe," suggests that the Bushies could drum up academic support if they wanted it.

But perhaps there's a good reason they don't. "Professors are, for better or worse, a rather unimportant class of people politically," says Cohen, who insists he has no party affiliation. "This is a painful truth that they do not, for the most part, choose to face."

Christopher Shea's column appears in Ideas biweekly. E-mail

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