TCS Daily


Jude Wanniski, 1936-2005

By James K. Glassman - August 31, 2005 12:00 AM

Jude Wanniski, one of America's great contrarians and polemicists and the man who turned me -- and thousands more -- on to free-market economics, died suddenly Monday afternoon of a heart attack. He was 69.

Wanniski was always cheerful, always provocative, always spoke his mind. His writing was innovative, surprising and confident in a manner largely unknown in journalism today. Wanniski, a disciple of the Columbia University economist Robert Mundell, who won a Nobel Prize in 1999, valued history and -- at least until the final years -- logical clarity.

Wanniski was no shrinking violet. The preface to the fourth edition of his influential book on supply-side economics began:

        "When I sat down at an electric typewriter to write 'The Way the World
         Works' on January 2, 1977, I felt absolutely confident it would be a
         great book, perhaps one of the most influential of the twentieth
         century."

In fact, he turned out to be right. I read "The Way the World Works" (a title which Wanniski's brilliant editor, the late Irwin Glikes of Basic Books, called "mildly megalomaniac") in 1978, essentially by accident, as editor of an alternative weekly newspaper in New Orleans.

I had taken economics courses at Harvard that solely stressed the Keynesian view that the well-being of citizens was shaped by government interventions to increase or lower demand. I had voted for McGovern and Carter, but, as a young entrepreneur, I was troubled by a model that held that, if the feds extracted more money from business owners and spent it on government projects, the beneficial economic effect would be multiplied many-fold.

Wanniski painted a different picture. By lowering taxes, government could get out of the way of people's normal propensity to create, work hard, and produce -- that is, boost the supply of goods and services. This idea is at the heart of classical economics, which Wanniski resurrected when he and economist Alan Reynolds coined the term "supply-side fiscalism" (later revised to supply-side economics) and popularized the notion as an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.

Eventually, as Bloomberg.com noted in an obituary on Tuesday, Wanniski persuaded "then-California Gov. Reagan to make supply-side economics the centerpiece of his 1980 campaign for the presidency." Today, classical or supply-side ideas are taken for granted, even by economists and politicians on the left.

One of the reasons I was drawn to Wanniski was his faith in the innate intelligence of average citizens, both American and otherwise. Here too, he was ahead of his time. The left wing, which has turned more and more elitist, now rejects ideas like Social Security personal accounts because, it believes, most people won't be able to invest reasonably.

By contrast, Wanniski understood that common folks comprise an army of capitalists. He started Chapter 4 of his book this way:

        "The global electorate is, and always has been, striving toward an 
        ideal system of political economics that can maximize welfare for all its
        component parts. More specifically, the driving force of civilization is a
        quest for a system that will maximize capital, for only when capital is
        maximized can welfare be maximized."

Another of Wanniski's accomplishments was to highlight the role played by the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in the Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Now, it is widely believed that the tariff, which touched off a trade war that throttled commerce among nations, at the very least prolonged the global Depression.

Wanniski lost his job at the Journal in 1978 when a top executive of Dow Jones & Co., which owns the newspaper, caught him handing out campaign literature for Jeff Bell, a Republican candidate in New Jersey for U.S. Senate. Bell, like former Rep. and vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp, was an enthusiastic follower of Wanniski's ideas.

Wanniski went on to found a consulting firm, Polyconomics, Inc., with Reynolds, who is now a fellow at the Cato Institute.

In the mid-1980s, he began publishing a remarkable annual "Mediaguide," which included his own astute reviews of journalists, much as a food reviewer might review restaurants.

But as time went on, Wanniski's views became more rococo, and, falling victim to his desire for attention, he strained so hard to be provocative that he alienated many of his original acolytes (including me; I wrote him numerous times asking to be taken off his e-mail list, his opinions had become so sadly loopy) and poisoned good relations with important figures in government.

The epitome of this nonsense was his political romance with Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam and anathema to most conservatives. Wanniski became a severe critic of Israel and a fierce opponent of both the original Persian Gulf war and the current war in Iraq.

One of his last pieces, published on his website, Wanniski.com, was titled, "When Do Pundits Apologize?" It was a memo (he was fond of this form of literature) addressed to Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. It began: "At some point, Bill, aren't you going to have to look back and say you really goofed, in the myriad articles you wrote...promoting the war in Iraq?"

Wanniski was born in Pottsville, Pa., in 1936. He was raised in Brooklyn, where he father was a caretaker for an apartment building. He received a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's in journalism from UCLA. He was truly an American original -- with not a successor in sight.

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