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Eyeing Senate Seat : Economist Laffer: Life in Fast Lane

March 22, 1985|VICTOR F. ZONANA | Times Staff Writer

Arthur B. Laffer, professor, businessman and possible candidate for next year's Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate from California, speeds down the freeway in his telephone-equipped BMW 733i, sipping a can of Diet Pepsi and reflecting on his life in the fast lane.

The impatient energizer of the nationwide tax-cut movement--a tenured professor at age 28, chief economist of the White House Office of Management and Budget at 29--has long prided himself on his ability to keep several balls in the air at once. But he acknowledges that his high-speed juggling act can sometimes get him in trouble.

"When you move very fast, you rustle the fields," said Laffer, whose choirboy looks belie his 44 years. "You cause a commotion. Without meaning to, you create squalls."

Controversial Figure

As a result, his life has been marked by controversy as well as achievement. Squalls spawned by Laffer's frenetic pace have cost him a marriage and two college professorships.

Most recently, the designer of the Laffer Curve--which illustrates his disputed theory that cutting taxes can actually increase government revenues while a tax hike might reduce them--relinquished his post at USC's School of Business Administration last September after a bitter dispute with the school's dean. Toward the end, Laffer, who by all accounts is an excellent teacher, and the dean, Jack D. Steele, refused to even speak to each other.

USC blames Laffer's schedule for the rupture. "With all his outside affairs, he was spreading himself too thin," said Cornelius J. Pings, USC's provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. "He just wasn't meeting his obligations on campus."

He Disputes View

Steele confirmed that Laffer's extracurricular activities were a problem, although Laffer disputed that view.

As if to prove that he can run his $2.7-million-a-year economic consulting business and explore the possibility of seeking public office and advise President Reagan and teach, Laffer recently joined the faculty of Pepperdine University's School of Business and Management. It was a step down in the academic world, though in many ways he and his new employer are well matched.

Pepperdine, founded in 1937 by a conservative auto-parts magnate, shares Laffer's passion for the free enterprise system and his knack for self-promotion. Indeed, Pepperdine recently ran advertisements picturing "the renowned originator of the Laffer Curve" in the Wall Street Journal and The Times.

Although Laffer's economic views mesh well with those of the Church of Christ-affiliated school, he is no fan of Pepperdine's strait-laced social scene. Drinking is banned on campus and chapel attendance is mandatory.

Laffer, on the other hand, maintains an extensive cellar of German and California wines at his Rolling Hills Estates home. And, though raised as a Presbyterian, he doesn't attend church--and says he won't start should he decide to run for office.

About the only concession the plump professor has made to the image makers while testing the political waters has been to shed 15 pounds by substituting Very Vanilla Sego, a diet drink ("Yuk--I hate it!"), for his beloved sushi. Currently weighing in at 175, the 5-foot, 7-inch Laffer figures he has another 15 or 20 pounds to go.

Although considering a run for the Senate, Laffer is openly contemptuous of Congress. "If you look at congressmen and senators," he tells audiences across the state, "you see a group who invariably prefer complex error over simple truth." It is his biggest applause line. "If you ever saw what those guys actually did for a living, you'd recognize their banality and you'd throw them out of office."

Six Children

Laffer's personal life is as packed with activity as his professional one. Besides Traci, the 25-year-old second wife he fondly calls "my Valley girl" (she grew up in Ontario), the Laffer clan includes six children ranging in age from 6 months to 20 years, 15 rabbits, 10 parrots, 4 macaws, 3 tortoises, 2 horses, a Jack Russell terrier and a Norwegian blue fox. Laffer, an amateur biologist who once considered forsaking economics for a career in biology, manages to find time for all of them.

The menagerie used to be bigger. Fern, a pet weasel, drowned in the Laffers' swimming pool, though her place in family folklore is secure. Laffer cackles when he remembers the time his daughter, Rachel, then 6, tossed the wriggling creature onto First Lady Nancy Reagan's lap at a 1980 dinner party.

"I don't think I've ever come so close to heart stoppage," said Laffer, who at the time was trying to sell his supply-side theories to presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. "Everyone held their breath waiting to see how she'd react, but Mrs. Reagan was quite the lady about it."

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