Free Markets, Free People

intellectual curiousity

Intellectually Incurious

Yesterday on the podcast, we talked about Pres. Obama’s attitude towards certain aspects of his presidential responsibilities.  Apropos of that discussion, he is receiving some criticism for his indifference to the markets.

Some Wall Street economists think President Obama could have voiced some sympathy about the plight of frightened shareholders when he compared the stock market’s plunge to an election tracking poll that “bobs up and down, day to day.”

They worry that the president is underestimating the important role the stock market plays in the economy’s performance, and that the markets’ precipitous slide is actually a vote of no confidence in the administration’s handling of the economy. There’s also a suspicion that Mr. Obama and his advisers think only wealthy people own stocks.

“There is some of that feeling that rich people are the ones who have stocks. He does have somewhat of that feeling. But you’ve got to remember that most people who own stocks aren’t rich,” said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor’s, the influential Wall Street financial research and forecasting firm…

…Mr. Wyss and some of his colleagues on Wall Street – where investors have lost trillions of dollars in savings and the market is not so much bobbing as dropping straight down – think Mr. Obama could have shown more concern for the markets, which represent the economy and signal its future direction.

During Mr. Bush’s tenure, there was constant criticism that he was “intellectually incurious”, e.g., he showed a lack of interest in the portions of his job he wasn’t required to be engaged in on a regular basis.  I wouldn’t dispute those criticisms, of course, but it seems to be a trait that Pres. Obama shares with his predecessor.

Pres. Obama appears to be fascinated by aspects of politics such as “green jobs” and health care that aren’t actually part of the president’s core portfolio, while being uninterested in the foreign and military policies that are essential parts of the president’s purview.At the moment, we’re in the midst of an economic crisis–and I use the word intentionally–that stems from a credit bubble collapse.  The stock market is a predictor of future earnings and profitability for private sector firms.  As such, it tells you things about the expectations investors (which at this point includes more than half of the population) have about the future income that their investments will produce.  What the collapse in the stock market tells us is that investors are voting with their money that future earnings will be substantially lower, meaning that firms all across the country will be less profitable.

What happens on a day-to-day basis, of course, may be subject to a variety of market whims and fancies, but long-term trends do indicate the direction of the economy.  The market is a leading indicator.  So when there are several straight weeks of decline in stock prices, the market is telling us something.

This seems not to be a reality that the president comprehends.

Instead, the president’s main focus seems to be on health care, green jobs, more policemen and prosecutors, and the like.  All of which may be wonderful things, and none of which will happen if the economy implodes. To the extent the current crisis forces him to concentrate on economic policy, he appears to resent it.

Similarly, the president has made missteps in foreign policy this week.  The Obama Administration apparently attempted to sell our Eastern European allies down the river by offering to shut them out of missile defense if the Russians cooperate on nuclear non-proliferation in Iran–until they got caught out on it.  That was a  major misstep.It was quickly followed by two minor missteps.

First was Sec. Clinton presenting the Russian foreign minister with a button which was supposed to say, in Russian, “Reset”, to symbolize the new engagement with the world the Obama Administration was supposed to bring about.  What the button actually said was “overcharge” in Russian.  On top of this, it’s generally a bad idea, symbolically, to present the Russians with a button to push of any sort, considering that the major foreign policy goal of the last half of the 20th century was to prevent the Russians from pushing “the button”.

Second was the treatment of Gordon Brown, the prime minister of the UK, during his visit.  Rather than pulling out all the stops to showcase the visit of the head of government of what, by nearly any measure, is the United States’ most important ally, Mr. Obama treated it as if the Deputy Agriculture Minister of Azerbaijan had showed up on the White House’s doorstep.  In what may be a first in my lifetime, the various press organs in Britain, from the commies at The Spectator Observer, to the staid tories of The Times of London all agreed that Pres. Obama’s treatment of Mr. Brown amounted to an egregious snub of the United Kingdom.

In addition to the above, one has to note the retention of Sec. gates at the DoD, along with the retention of the great majority of the Bush Administration’s positions on executive privilege and the prosecution of the Global War on Terror.

What all of these things add up to is a picture of a president who is essentially uninterested in military policy, or foreign policy, or, really, economic policy, and who in effect simply ignores them to the extent he is able, and delegates their operation to his subordinates.  What he cares about is government, and its ability to intervene in the marketplace, and to provide goods and services.  It is in those areas where his interest and attention actually lie, and the remainder of the executive branch can, as far as he’s concerned, operate on auto-pilot.

Take all of the above together, and it appears to present an emerging picture of a man who is truly intellectually incurious, and who wishes to ignore, to the extent possible, those aspects of the president’s job that he doesn’t find personally appealing.

Sadly, he appears to be fascinated by aspects of politics such as “green jobs” and health care that aren’t actually part of the president’s core portfolio, while being uninterested in the foreign and military policies that are essential parts of the president’s purview.