Friday, September 10, 2010

No Laughing Matter

Today, President Obama named Austan Goolsbee to take Christian Romer's place as the new chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.  The 41 year old Goolsbee was chosen partly because he is already part of the President's  economic team, sending a message to detractors like John Boehner who are calling for the resignation of the president's current team.  Also, according to Politico  who is quoting an unnamed senior administration official, "It was hard to find someone on the outside who wanted to come inside."

Certainly in times of recession where unemployment is high, the real estate market is sagging, and Americans are very unhappy on the eve of a major election, taking on the chairmanship of the Economic Advisers Council  could be considered something of a suicide mission.  Goolsbee's qualifications for the job appear to be his Ph.D. in economics from MIT and his years as a professor of economics at the University of Chicago.  But according to the unnamed administration official quoted by Politico, his primary qualification is his great personality which he will use to sell the President's policies to a skeptical nation.  Politico quotes this administration official as saying, "He's young and energetic, and good on TV."

Apparently, he's very good on TV.  Goolsbee appears frequently on Comedy Central and last year won the 16th annual "D.C's Funniest Celebrity Contest."  He has been a guest on the Daily Show and is by all accounts comfortable in front of the camera and good with an interviewer.  Good skills to have no doubt, but do they qualify him to be the chief economic adviser to the president?  Does a man who has spent his adult life cracking jokes in an ivory tower really have a clear, real world understanding of how economic policies and laws governing finance affect the day-to-day lives of ordinary people?

In a personality driven, media driven society such as ours, where even the reality TV is staged, it is easy to blur the line between facts and fantasy.  We are surrounded by entertainment, so we expect to be entertained by everyone, including our government.  And as long as the messenger is personable, entertaining, attractive and outgoing, we tend to ignore the message.

The truth is that the economy is in bad shape right now.  For those working in real estate, things are very bad indeed.  For people buying and selling houses, these are tough times.  And the basic stagnation of the real estate market and fear of the higher taxes associated with new debt and new programs is causing many people to lose jobs and businesses and keeping many others unemployed.  So we don't need a court jester to make us laugh; we need a leader who can use real world experience to find solutions that will work.  "Young and energetic" with a winning personality may be a good wish list for your next E-Harmony date, but it is hardly a qualification for someone who needs to be providing answers to Americans who can't find jobs and cannot keep their businesses open.  I, personally, would prefer to see someone old and boring with many years of real world experience in this job.  At least he or she would bring some depth of knowledge to work everyday instead of just great sense of humor.

Rather than using his skills as a comic to defend policies that clearly are not working, maybe Goolsbee needs to get out into mainstream American society to find out what small business owners and regular people really need right now.  Unless his comedy routine includes lower taxes and less regulation and cutting government spending, he may find that this time, no one is laughing.

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