Pay attention to the man behind the curtain!

By Megan McArdle

Noam Scheiber has a really, really good piece on Obama's advisors:

And, yet, it's not just the details of Obama's policies that suggest a behavioral approach. In some respects, the sensibility behind the behaviorist critique of economics is one shared by all the Obama wonks, whether they're domestic policy nerds or grizzled foreign policy hands. Despite Obama's reputation for grandiose rhetoric and utopian hope-mongering, the Obamanauts aren't radicals--far from it. They're pragmatists--people who, when an existing paradigm clashes with reality, opt to tweak that paradigm rather than replace it wholesale. As Thaler puts it, "Physics with friction is not as beautiful. But you need it to get rockets off the ground." It might as well be the motto for Obama's entire policy shop.

Sociologically, the Obamanauts have a lot in common with the last gang of Democratic outsiders to make a credible run at the White House. Like Bill Clinton in 1992, Obama's campaign boasts a cadre of credentialed achievers. Intellectually, however, the Obamanauts couldn't be more different. Clinton delighted in surrounding himself with big-think public intellectuals--like economics commentator Robert Reich and political philosopher Bill Galston. You'd be hard-pressed to find a political philosopher in Obama's inner wonk-dom. His is dominated by a group of first-rate economists, beginning with Goolsbee, one of the profession's most respected tax experts. A Harvard economist named Jeff Liebman has been influential in helping Obama think through budget and retirement issues; another, David Cutler, helped shape his views on health care. Goolsbee, in particular, is an almost unprecedented figure in Democratic politics: an academic economist with a top campaign position and the candidate's ear.

One major reason for these differences is the candidate himself. Cutler told me Obama is adamant about consulting bona fide experts. "The staff kept saying, 'What he wants to know is that he's really talking to experts in the field. When you go see him, you know, make it clear that you're an expert.'" When it comes to economics, it's very difficult to achieve expertise without an academic background. It's a field that prizes rigorous results, supported by reams of painstakingly sifted data. (Though Reich was labor secretary, he was trained as a lawyer, not an economist.) Cutler, for example, has made his name with a series of detailed econometric studies suggesting that, contrary to the conventional wisdom on the left, Americans actually have quite a bit to show for the trillions they spend on health care.

Given the New Republic's focus, it's not surprising that this is a compare-and-contrast of Democrats. The differences between Obama's team and McCain are also stark, but in a different way: his advisors are more technocrat than Ideologue.

If Obama's team has a fault, it is that they spend far too much time saying "Don't listen to him--listen to us!"

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2008/02/pay-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain/2821/