Obama's shout-out to Joe Stiglitz

In an interview with the New York Times, the president says he has "enormous respect" for the Nobel Prize winner. So maybe Stiglitz should be hanging out in the White House more often?

Published April 29, 2009 8:44PM (EDT)

David Leonhardt's huge interview with President Obama, due to be published in the Sunday New York Times Magazine but available online now, is a good read for many reasons.

You might disagree with his banking plan, but overall, the guy once again comes across as in command of the issues and fully engaged with the complexities of the present day. When you compare his rhetoric to the unhinged propaganda about "radical leftism" foaming from the mouths of Republican political operatives, well, it's just no wonder that Arlen Specter changed parties. Who doesn't want to hang out with the sane people?

Those HTWW readers who believe Obama is a pawn of Wall Street unhesitatingly doing the bidding of Goldman Sachs will want to go straight to Page 4, where the president makes an unconvincing case that Larry Summers has become more Robert Reich-ian as he has matured, and also talks about his own "enormous respect" for Joseph Stiglitz. But I don't think anyone's already-made-up mind will be changed by that section.

However, later on the interview, Obama gives Stiglitz a perhaps unintended shout-out in the context of a discussion of reforming the healthcare system. While discussing the different levels of medical knowledge that patients and doctors have, Obama says:

And so, in that sense, there's always going to be an asymmetry of information between patient and provider.

Set aside your first reaction: Yes, that's the president of the United States discussing information asymmetry with a member of the press. Not quite George W. Bush's cup of tea, eh? More interestingly, I don't think anybody in the world is more associated with the concept of asymmetric information than Joseph Stiglitz, who won his Nobel Prize (along with George Akerlof and Michael Spence) for the work he did demonstrating how markets are affected by the various degrees of knowledge that different players have about what's going on. It's a pretty fundamental insight that has helped to undermine the "efficient markets" theory that itself has long been used to justify the idea that markets know best.

There's a smart guy in the White House. I wish Joe Stiglitz were a little closer to the premises, and I hope that Obama, who says he reads "[Stiglitz's] stuff all the time," was telling the truth when he said he is "looking forward to having these folks [Stiglitz, Krugman, Reich] in for ongoing discussion. Because if you want a real asymmetry of information -- all you have to do is put Stiglitz and Summers in the same room.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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