What You Should Know About the Professor Who Has Trump’s Ear on the Economy

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Peter Navarro, a professor and author who became known during the presidential campaign as the only academic economist directly advising the Trump campaign, continues to be one of the most public voices on economic matters for President-elect Donald J. Trump as he prepares to take office next month. Last…

Peter Navarro, a professor and author who became known during the presidential campaign as the only academic economist directly advising the Trump campaign, continues to be one of the most public voices on economic matters for President-elect Donald J. Trump as he prepares to take office next month.

Last Friday, Mr. Navarro gave the transition team’s official response to the latest federal jobs report (although unemployment continued to fall, he maintained that the level of job recovery "further demonstrates an urgent need for President-elect Trump’s America First economic plan"). And later that day, when Mr. Trump broke nearly 40 years of diplomatic protocol and spoke directly to the president of Taiwan, at least one account highlighted the likely role that Mr. Navarro’s get-tough-with-China influence may have had on the president-elect’s actions.

Mr. Navarro, who is 67, is a Harvard-trained professor of economics and public policy who has been on the faculty of the business school at the University of California at Irvine since 1989. Before that, he spent two years as an assistant professor of business and government at the University of San Diego.

His ties to Mr. Trump began years before the campaign, when Mr. Navarro produced a film in connection with his 2011 book, Death by China: Confronting the Dragon — A Global Call to Action (Pearson FT Press). He sent the film to Mr. Trump, and soon got back an endorsement from the real-estate developer that called the film "right on."

This past October, a column in the The New Yorker speculated that if Mr. Trump won, "Peter Navarro would likely become the single most powerful economic adviser in the United States." The author of the piece also said he found some of Mr. Navarro’s ideas on China and trade "so radical" that he couldn’t find another economist who fully agreed with them.

Little-known nationally, Mr. Navarro attracted wider attention this summer, thanks in part to a Bloomberg View column by Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, who, while praising Mr. Navarro as a "one of the most versatile and productive American economists of the last few decades," also characterized Mr. Navarro’s recent writings on China as "a series of emotional diatribes against the Chinese government." He also wrote, "If you want to read one thinker to understand Trump on China, it is Navarro."

In an interview with The Chronicle this week, Mr. Cowen said Mr. Navarro’s broad protectionist ideas — like Mr. Trump, he urges slapping huge tariffs on Chinese goods to reduce the trade deficit — are out of step with generally accepted economic theories. "There are plenty of economists who defend some form of protectionism," said Mr. Cowen, to help a growing economy or to bolster selective industries. But "close to no one," he said, agrees with Mr. Navarro’s idea that a trade deficit is bad on its face.

In an email, Mr. Navarro declined to speak to The Chronicle "at this time." Officials with the Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment about Mr. Navarro’s current activities or possible future role in the administration.

According to Irvine officials, Mr. Navarro remains a full-time faculty member. In fact, during this academic quarter, even as he was publicly defending Mr. Trump’s tax, trade, and immigration policies — in some cases with bombastic language — Mr. Navarro continued with his full teaching load, teaching one undergraduate and two M.B.A. classes, mostly online. (Here’s an example of one of his arguments, from June, a response to a critique of Mr. Trump’s tax plan by Mark M. Zandi and other economists with Moody’s Analytics.)

That sums up why Mr. Navarro has been in the news lately. Here are five other things you might want to know about him:

He’s prolific. Mr. Navarro has written 13 books, including several that provide advice on investing — although at least one fellow Irvine economist, Amihai Glazer, says that his recent books and articles have been "more journalistic than academic" and "not what academic economists value."

Mr. Navarro’s latest book, published a year ago, is Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World (Prometheus Books). He’s also published dozens of articles in journals, and, early on, he wrote extensively about electricity and energy.

But according to Mr. Glazer, a professor in the economics department who has had reason to assess Mr. Navarro’s publications, his work from the past 10 years lacks a lot of the "rigorous analysis of data with statistics" that a top-ranked economics journal requires. Mr. Glazer said that university personnel policies prohibited him from saying why he had reviewed Mr. Navarro’s publishing record. The university system has a post-tenure review process that it uses for salary decisions, which could explain Mr. Glazer’s familiarity with Mr. Navarro’s work.

He enjoys public speaking. For the past 10 years, Mr. Navarro has been represented by the Sweeney Agency, a speakers’ bureau, according to the agency’s founder, Derek Sweeney. On his Sweeney Agency web page, Mr. Navarro appears in a video in which he describes his interactive speaking style (he likes to have the audience respond using electronic clickers) and his speaking philosophy. He says he’ll teach his audiences to become "their own economic forecasters." The expected self-promotion also includes a mention of the financial crisis, followed by the boast "which I did indeed accurately predict months before it hit." Mr. Sweeney would not disclose Mr. Navarro’s speaking fees but said that "he does an awful lot of stuff for free," especially when he can talk about trade issues.

He’s been honored for his teaching. Mr. Navarro has won teaching awards at the business school several times in the past 10 years. Those awards are voted on by students, which "speaks for itself," said Mary Gilly, senior associate dean. In November 2015, he was also honored with a universitywide Distinguished Faculty Award for Teaching presented by the Academic Senate.

He’s long had a public-service streak. After graduating with a B.A. from Tufts University in 1972, Mr. Navarro served in the Peace Corps in Thailand. He then went to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and received his master’s in public administration in 1979. He earned his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard in 1986.

Between 1992 and 2001, he ran (unsuccessfully) for seats on the San Diego City Council and the county Board of Supervisors, for mayor, and for the U.S. Congress. He considered himself a Democrat. As The Orange County Register put it in a profile of him this summer, "In those years, Navarro described himself as pro-environment, pro-choice, and pro-gay rights, and had little use for the GOP’s economic programs."

He was an early adopter of technology. Mr. Navarro has developed and taught at least two MOOCs. One of them was an experimental one-credit course designed to help undergraduates better understand their own finances. Another, which can be taken for free by anyone via Coursera or for credit through UC-Irvine, is "The Power of Macroeconomics: Economic Principles in the Real World." It is made up of 13 hours of videos and quizzes and, according to its listing on the Coursera website, has been highly ranked by participants. Interested? The latest offering of the course began just this week.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.


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