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UC Economist Calls For Civil Disobedience

Tuesday August 05, 2003

When George Akerlof talks, the world listens. Especially when he tosses barbs at the White House. 

The Nobel prize helps, of course, but an observer can’t help wonder if much of the attention comes because the UC Berkeley professor has a knack for saying things that are widely covered everywhere else but in the American press—as in his recent call for civil disobedience to protest Bush administration fiscal policies he decried as “a form of looting” the poor and elderly to hand more wealth to wealthy supporters. 

A fixture at the UC campus since joining the Economic Department staff 37 years ago, Akerlof’s specialty is a much-neglected side of the Dismal Science. 

Traditionally, economists have posited the existence of Homo economicus, a thoroughly rational being who takes all facts into account, weighs them carefully, then acts in a manner designed to maximize self-interest. 

Of course, people don’t always act that way, as the long lines at Krispy Kreme and the Golden Arches make abundantly clear. 

Seeking to expand his understanding of humans as economic players, Akerlof reached beyond the traditional confines of his profession to the disciplines of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. 

Akerlof’s work has shown that self-perception, not just the rational play of market forces, enters into consumer decisions, a fact long known to any gifted seller. 

In a seminal 1970 paper, he looked at lemons—not the sorts that hang from trees, but those dumped on unsuspecting customers by used car dealers. Far from being the well-informed consumers of the traditional economic model, the customers Akerlof examined often wound up as dupes to unscrupulous sellers who worked very hard to make sure their marks didn’t have all the relevant facts. 

But it’s not his contributions to economic theory that have landed the celebrated professor in news pages and web sites around the world. It’s his harsh, unrelenting criticism of the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. 

Ever since George W. Bush started peddling his tax cut cure-all, Akerlof has been raising his voice, alone and with Nobel laureates like his frequent collaborator Joseph Stiglitz, calling the attention of public and press to what he charges are serious and dangerous flaws in the President’s economics policies. 

But the widely respected academic’s latest remarks have ignited a firestorm on the Internet while attracting very little attention from the American media. 

“I think this is the worst government the U.S. has ever had in its more than 200 years of history. It has engaged in extraordinarily irresponsible policies not only in foreign and economic but also in social and environmental policy. This is not normal policy,” he told the German publication Der Spiegel ( 

So far Akerlof had said little more than he had in past statements on President George W. Bush’s policies, albeit this is the first time he ranked Bush dead last in the Presidential sweepstakes. 

The electronic firestorm was triggered by the eleven words that followed: 

“Now is the time for civil disobedience.” 

Akerlof’s remarks received little attention on the day they appeared, but in the days since, they’ve popped up on an ever-growing number of sites at opposite ends of the political spectrum, especially in the world of weblogs, where partisans of every stripe have found the modern-day agora from which to air their diverse views. 

Links to the German site can now be found on Rush Limbaugh newsgroups, where Akerlof has been labeled a “pinko” and “socialist” just as he has been lionized as a hero by those of the newly invigorated Left. 

When the German reporter asked if he would advocate withholding taxes as did Henry David Thoreau, the great popularizer of the term “civil disobedience,” Akerlof demurred. 

“No. I think the one thing we should do is pay our taxes. Otherwise it’ll only make matters worse.” 

Akerlof hailed the President’s father for committing “a great act of courage by actually raising taxes,” which he described as George H.W. Bush’s “best public service.” 

The Nobel laureate is no stranger to politics, being married to his frequent collaborator, fellow UC Berkeley economist Janet Yellin, who served as chair of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors. Yellin too is a major critic of the current administration’s economics policies, most recently in a July 22 New York Times op-ed piece attacking what she called the White House’s “binge mentality.”