Bryan Caplan  

Hope His Top Advisor Sort of Believes In

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New Commanding Heights Watch... Personality and Ideology: Comp...
Is it just me, or does Larry Summers damn his boss with faint praise?
"When I've heard him talk about economic issues--with the exception of NAFTA, where I just hope he doesn't believe what he says--he seems intelligent and serious. I wouldn't say I'm bowled over by the brilliance of anything I've heard, but everything has a kind of thoughtfulness to it that's sort of impressive."
Let me put it this way: If Summers put these sentences into a letter of recommendation for a job market candidate, he probably couldn't get an interview, much less a job.

I suppose that Obama's defenders might hail his willingness to employ non-sycophants like Summers.  And I guess that Summers might say that he's happy to raise the probability that this "intelligent and serious" leader will act as if he were brilliant.  But both of these observations strike me as the flip side of sour grapes: Since this is what we've got, it must be pretty good.  Isn't "Even his top economic advisor doesn't think much of him, so he's probably a borderline economic illiterate" the more reasonable lesson to draw?

HT: Mankiw


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Andrew writes:

If I remember correctly, Summers is known to have a rather abrasive personality. This may explain the quote rather than anything about Obama himself.

Sohaib writes:

I disagree. Larry Summers is clearly very very good at economics. He has done heavy research. Just about any human being in the world would not know as much economics as Dr. Summers. So why would such an individual find anything a layperson has to say about economics to be absolutely brilliant? We can't expect our president to be a wonk. I believe that would be expecting far too much. If the president is listening to his experts and drawing conclusions based on what they have taught him, shouldn't that suffice?

dWj writes:

I'm more or less with Sohaib. It wouldn't be a good recommendation for a practicing economist, but for a non-economist this counts as praise.

David J. Balan writes:

The earlier commenters nailed it. Summers is kind of a famous jerk, and the relevant standard for a president is what Summers said it was: intelligent, serious, and thoughtful. It's not reasonable to expect economic brilliance of a kind that would dazzle Summers.

stefan writes:

That's a nicer comment about Obama than what Summers said about most of the Harvard faculty when Summers was President of Harvard, at least according to 2nd hand reports of what Summers said in private.

Mark writes:

Agree with Sohaib. Also, President Obama is an incredible improvement in this respect over his predecessor and vs the realistic alternatives who might be occupying that office right now.

hanmeng writes:

Obama is "sort of impressive"? That almost sounds like calling him "articulate". So Summers can not only be labeled a sexist, he could also be called a racist. For those who go in for that.

More seriously, these were offhand remarks. According to the journalist, Summers was "musing about the presumptive nominee, whom he knew only in passing".

Charlie writes:

Does no one go back to the original source any more? Going back to the original article, the quote is from 2008 before Obama was the nominee, when Summers, according to the article, knew Obama "only in passing." Summers was just watching the campaign from the sidelines at the time, so his judgement is coming about listening to political speeches, not mulling over ideas in the oval office. How brilliant can you be in a political speech?

I had much the same feeling as Summers, and additionally, I concluded that he didn't believe what he said about NAFTA. So far it seems like a reasonable bet.

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