A Real Economist With Long Odds Joins the Presidential Fray

Larry Kotlikoff is a Social Security expert who wants to fix what he calls a $199 trillion “fiscal gap.”

A photograph from professor Larry Kotlikoff’s website.

A photograph from professor Larry Kotlikoff’s website.

Photograph: Laurence J. Kotlikoff

Move over, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. There's an economist running for president. Laurence J. "Larry" Kotlikoff is jumping into the race as a write-in candidate. The co-author of a best-selling book on how to maximize your payment from Social Security is hoping to apply the principles of economics to fix what ails the United States.

Kotlikoff, 65, is running as a conservative on fiscal issues and arguing that the U.S. faces a $199 trillion "fiscal gap" while taking liberal positions on abortion, gay marriage, legalization of marijuana, incarceration, and gun control.

"Nobody who has actually studied this stuff and written about it has run for president," Kotlikoff said of his economic expertise in an interview.

Typical of a professor, Kotlikoff has lavished attention on his platform—a 131-page document available for download through his campaign website—without bothering to line up endorsers and donors. In fact, Kotlikoff claims to be uninterested in campaign contributions. His website features a slogan: "Write Me In But Don't Send Me a Penny." His media strategy seems singularly reliant on stories like the one you're reading now to raise his profile.

Photograph: Laurence J. Kotlikoff

Write-in candidates face long odds. In the 2012 presidential election, all of them together collected 11/100ths of 1 percent of the vote. So far there are 82 of them, not yet including Kotlikoff, according to the website mytimetovote.com. Among the declared write-in candidates: "Mouse, Mickey," "Vader, Darth," and "Bunny, Soul."

Kotlikoff insists that he isn't running just to raise awareness about his economic platform. This write-in campaign, be believes, can go viral. "I value my time very highly," he says. "I wouldn't do this if I thought my chances were small."

If knowing public finance cold were the criterion, Kotlikoff would win the election in a landslide. He's an expert on Social Security and generational accounting, which is essentially the study of how much debt the current generation is heaping onto future ones. The $199 trillion fiscal gap that he highlights is how much the government expects to pay in the future minus how much it projects to receive, stated in today's dollars.

Kotlikoff has a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate from Harvard University. He's an endowed professor at Boston University and a fellow of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

His company, Economic Security Planning, created the software used for the calculations in his 2015 best-seller, Get What's Yours: The Secrets of Maxing Out Social Security. Written with Philip Moeller and Paul Solman, the book spent five months in the top 10 on the New York Times list of advice, how-to, and miscellaneous best-sellers. The book brought so much attention to two lucrative Social Security strategies that Congress stirred itself to kill them last year, a turnabout covered last month by Bloomberg's Ben Steverman.

Kotlikoff's positions on the issues are intriguing whether or not you think he has a prayer of reaching the White House. A sampling from his platform:

  • "Our true fiscal indebtedness is 15 times larger than the $18 trillion you’ve been told our government owes. Its tremendous size can be summarized with these five words: Our government is dead broke." 
  • "Social Security, with its maddening rules within rules within rules, [is] like a million Russian nesting dolls."
  • "Legal immigration is ... fueling a veritable population explosion. Unless we reduce legal immigration, our population will rise by one-third – over 100 million people – in just 45 years."
  • "I [will] eliminate the corporate income tax, the personal income tax and the estate and gift tax. In their place, I institute a business cash flow tax, also called a value added tax (VAT), a progressive personal consumption tax, an inheritance tax and a tax on carbon."
  • "Traditional banking is unsafe at any speed. ... You [should] just make all the financial intermediaries operate as 100 percent equity-financed mutual funds."

Kotlikoff doesn't have a background in foreign policy or social issues, but he does have ideas. "As President," he writes, "I would deliver a clear message to North Korea that our patience has run out and that we will permit no further testing of nuclear weapons." He states unequivocally that the Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms before raising a question: "But does it permit us to own tanks and drive them around town or, for that matter, jet fighters?"

Kotlikoff is obviously more into policies than polling. During an interview he grabbed a piece of paper to sketch out a graph of lifecycle consumption patterns. "What people are going to hear from me is the truth," he said, "and that's going to be refreshing." Hmmm. Maybe Kotlikoff has a future in politics after all.

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