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Men Behind the Man: Obamanauts

The Audacity of Data explores the wonks Obama has brought on board. With election pandering in full effect, I’m reminded to focus on what truly defined the Presidency of George W. — the men behind the man. (Hat tip to MarginalRevolution.com)

Excerpts:

“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.”

Bill Clinton favored what you might call a “deductive” approach–an all- encompassing, almost revolutionary idea, out of which fell lots of smaller proposals. In a series of speeches in 1991, he unveiled the product of all his late-night bull-sessions with people like Reich and Galston, which he called “The New Covenant.” The old model held that government had certain unconditional obligations to its citizens. Under Clinton’s reimagining, many of these obligations would disappear. The government would help only those who fulfilled their responsibilities as parents, workers, and taxpayers. For instance, the government would no longer provide unlimited welfare benefits. It would instead require recipients to work after two years of assistance.

For their part, the Obama wonks tend to be inductive–working piecemeal from a series of real-world observations. One typical Goolsbee brainchild is something called an automatic tax return. The idea is that, if you had no tax deductions or freelance income the previous year, the IRS would send you a tax return that was already filled out. As long as you accepted the government’s accounting, you could just sign it and mail it back. Goolsbee estimates this small innovation could save hundreds of millions of man-hours spent filling out tax forms, and billions of dollars in tax-preparation fees.”

Here’s a separate piece on Goolsbee, which has some interesting insights, though I am not completely convinced it was written by an impartial, undecided journalist.

Finally, I am already tired of hearing Ralph Nader talk. Regardless of his politics, I am convinced that every step he takes into the political ring is powered by his megalomania. I only wish Pat Buchanan was campaigning so we could have crazy people on both sides to balance each other out. Bloomberg made a good decision to stand on the sideline, given the quality of the presumptive candidates; Nader — not so much.

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