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Hack WatchNewsletter | March 29, 2024

Furman’s Frustration

Economic MediaEconomic PolicyHack WatchJason FurmanMedia Accountability

This article first appeared in our weekly Hack Watch newsletter on media accountability. Subscribe here to get it delivered straight to your inbox every week, and check out our Hack Watch website.

Jason Furman is someone that we mention fairly often in our economic media coverage, but not someone on whom we spend a whole lot of dedicated column space. Honestly, as bad as his views often are, they’re bad in a very normal way. He doesn’t seem to have as vast an inscrutable jumble of corporate ties as Larry Summers, nor is he filmed calling for workers to get canned while relaxing on a beach. Generally, Furman’s faults are largely lapses due to the inapplicability of his preferred traditional macroeconomic framework to the real world. His scandals are goofy and demonstrate a corporatist bent— notably this notorious defense of Walmart — but they aren’t outright evil or (potentially) illegal like some of the other hacks we cover. And he isn’t out to cut social spending into oblivion, like the Committee For a Responsible Budget (though he isn’t exactly a reliable defender of it, either). 

But today, let’s take some time to talk about Furman, the renowned juggler/economist, who he is, what he’s said recently, and why, despite the caveats above, he’s a problem. 

Furman is the son of New York City real estate mogul Jay Furman, who took over the business of building “office buildings in midtown Manhattan and shopping centers around the nation” from his father, Morris Furman. (Perhaps it is being raised by a shopping center developer that gave Furman such sympathy for Wal-Mart.) Furman attended the elite Dalton School before following in his father’s footsteps to Harvard. He later served as the deputy chair of the National Economic Council (NEC) under Larry Summers during President Obama’s first term and was appointed chair of the Council of Economic Advisors during his second term. 

Furman comes from the Rubinite camp of economists that rose to prominence during the Clinton administration and remained as a dominant force within the Democratic party until a reorientation towards more populist economics following the disastrous defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016. In addition to his deputyship to Summers at the NEC, he worked with Clinton’s other Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin himself, at the Hamilton Project. Despite this central influence of third-way economics, Furman also was mentored by liberal luminary Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and studied under renowned Republican (turned independent post-Trump) Gregory Mankiw. 

Now though, Furman, along with his fellow neoliberals like Summers and Rubin, is on the outs with the Democratic Party. Despite saying that the biggest lesson he learned from working in the Obama White House was that fiscal stimulus needed to be used early and aggressively, Furman went on to join Summers in badmouthing the American Rescue Plan, repeatedly blaming it as the cause of elevated inflation in 2021 through early 2023. 

Much of what makes Jason Furman tick seems to be related to the ousting of him and the rest of the beltway bunch from their near total control of economic advising in Democratic politics. He’s said as much; as my former colleague Max Moran wrote, at a Cato Institute function Furman called for economic policy to be handed back over to the mainstream macroeconomists. After all they had done such a good job, what with deregulating the banks, which facilitated the Great Recession, and with the lackluster response to the financial crisis that begat a lackluster recovery, not to mention how their free trade deals have been amazing for everyone and definitely did not hurt Democrats with labor or in any important swing states!

Additionally, as I covered in a recent Hack Watch, when Nobel laureate Angus Deaton had a thoughtful reflection on how economic assumptions need to be adjusted to better reflect the world, Furman tweeted that he was very happy with the way things are, thank you very much. He called on everyone to stop rethinking economics and to just get back to thinking about everything the way he likes. We should all see things from the perspective of someone who holds a professorship funded by Aetna, a company named after a volcano that used to sell slaveholders life insurance policies on their slaves. Definitely not a metaphor for being destructively backwards!

Besides clashing with Democrats over ARP, Furman has also taken issue with Biden era industrial policy and revitalized antitrust enforcement, probably the two most defining parts of Biden’s presidency. Overall though, his critiques are rather transparently empty. He mostly goes through the motions of regurgitating laissez-faire talking points like “this will stifle innovation” and the like. 

The great danger of Jason Furman in our media ecosystem comes from the banality of his positions. Despite being on the outs on a number of central Democratic pillars, he’s still got reasonable views on a range of other issues like taxes, the inanity of the Fed’s target inflation rate, and, despite arguing about it a lot, is mildly supportive of antitrust regulation, as long as it’s done using his preferred economic lens. While, much like Larry Summers, Furman is no longer a prototypical Democratic economist, the incongruence is harder to demonstrate. That leads to pieces like this, where Furman is used as a left-wing voice to counterweight more conservative sources. But that leads to omitting actual Democratic and liberal economic voices from the media conversation. 

Furman is, as much as anyone, a key reason why the economics we see on TV and in the pages of prestige news outlets is stuck well to the right of the actual economics profession and the actual Democratic party; when Furman is the left flank of your Overton Window, that helps keep ideas like trickle down economics and lowering corporate taxes as a form of job creation within the mainstream, when they really aren’t. 

Given his influential ties, heavy-hitting resume, and media familiarity, Furman could be a powerful ally for Democrats working to advance policies that rebalance the economy towards workers and ordinary Americans. And sometimes he is. But his fixation on clinging to the old guard’s framework he learned from Rubin, Summers, and Mankiw keeps him blind to better paradigms, even as his school of thought grows ever more tenuous. 

Furman’s corporatist bent and decades of insider politicking through the corps of economic advisors in the Clinton and Obama administrations has positioned him with a set of assumptions that simply don’t hold. And his insistence on relying on those assumptions without retrospection will keep him outside of the Democratic mainstream his clique once ruled. As long as this continues, the media’s reliance on Furman remains a dangerous gamble that helps to anchor coverage to a range of ideas that keep zombie Reaganite policies in the conversation.

In other words… maybe the media could redefine “Democratic economist” to mean someone who has worked for a Democrat in the last decade?

Economic MediaEconomic PolicyHack WatchJason FurmanMedia Accountability

More articles by Dylan Gyauch-Lewis

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