How to Write a Memo to Convince a President: Walter Heller, Policy-Advising, and the Kennedy Tax Cut
22 Pages Posted: 15 Jan 2019
Date Written: January 9, 2019
Walter Heller's success in convincing JF Kennedy to pass a "tax cut" when he was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors in the 1960s is often heralded as the poster child for economists' policy influence, yet also sometimes seen as a lost golden age. The purpose of this paper is to reinvestigate how Heller channeled his expertise into policy, and what lessons he drew on how economists should engage with public reason. The paper first zooms onto the historical "footsteps" of Heller's CEA tenure: his memos. I show that Heller considered himself as "an educator of presidents," but that in educating, he was also led to commission some academic work that altered the science he was trying to disseminate. The underlying emphasis, thus, is not just on how economic knowledge affects public reason, but also how public reason shapes economics science. I then analyze how Heller "theorized" his and his colleagues' practices in the late 1960s, in particular what stance he took on three contentious issues: the place of science and persuasion in advisers' interaction with their publics, how much normative values are involved in advising, and whether advising should rely on a disciplinary consensus. I conclude that the institutional and personal context of the 1960s entailed a highly personalized vision of advising, at odd with the tool-based vision underlying the subsequent "economicization" of economic policy in the following decades.
Keywords: Heller, fiscal policy, tax cut, Keynesianism, Tobin, Kennedy
JEL Classification: A10, A13, A14, B20, B29, B31
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation