In Praise of the Wonk: Dissecting the CEA Letter and Sanders’s Other Proposals

There are three points to keep in mind about policy debates: Policy specifics are only one of many considerations voters have when evaluating a candidate, and they’re unlikely to mobilize the base in a polarized age; ideological constraints often determine policy positions; and wonk policy “discussions” can easily become a barrier to exclude people and ideas from the conversation. This has become relevant in the Clinton versus Sanders race, which, as Matt Yglesias notes, is an ideological battle like “Ronald Reagan’s battle with Gerald Ford,” one in which wonks have less of a role to play.

That said, I will defend the wonk. I think the wonk analysis is an essential part of the ideological work currently being done and is capable of advancing the progressive project in crucial ways. Working the numbers and the specifics creates clarity, and it forces people to put their cards on the table.

In this specific moment, the work of the wonk forces one to justify constraints, lets you know if you are looking in the correct places, gives you a sense of whether the scope and scale of your changes is sufficient, and lets you know the obstacles and enemies you’ll face. And it can be fun! Or fun enough.

Let’s go through each of these points with specific examples. We’ll begin with the letter from former CEA chairs attacking economist Gerald Friedman’s estimates of the impact of Sanders’s plan, and then look at some cases where wonk analysis would help the Sanders campaign.

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