Joseph Stiglitz and the minke whales

Finally, the true story of the Norwegian Olympic boycott that never happened.

By Andrew Leonard
Published May 1, 2009 8:43PM (EDT)

From Ryan Lizza's immense New Yorker profile of Obama's budget director, Peter Orszag, we get a clue, perhaps, as to why Joseph Stiglitz has no official role in the current administration.

Orszag cited his mentor and friend Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-laureate economist, as an example of someone who is "more of a thinker and an academic than an implementer." In 1993, Orszag and Stiglitz, who was then a member of the Council of Economic Advisers, attended a meeting to discuss how the Clinton Administration should respond to Norway's announcement that it would resume commercial whaling, which meant killing minke whales. U.S. law allowed the government to retaliate economically against Norway -- a country that had just helped negotiate a Middle East peace accord, and which was to host the Winter Olympics the following year.

According to Orszag, Stiglitz said, "As an economist, I object to imposing trade restrictions, especially against a country that just brokered this Arab-Israeli peace deal. I have an alternative proposal: how about if we boycott the Norwegian Olympics?" Orszag continued, "The Secretary of State" -- Warren Christopher -- "turned to him and said, 'Joe, do you realize that you're equating the killing of four minke whales with the invasion of Afghanistan?' He kind of leaned back in his chair and he puts a pencil in his ear. He said, 'You know, you're right. How about if we calibrate the boycott and only skip those events that we normally lose anyway? Like the one with the skis and the gun. We always lose that.'"

Now we know: Stiglitz is too funny to be allowed near the levers of power.

Lizza's profile, by the way, is essential reading for economic policy wonks, particularly if you're interested in the ins and outs of the budget process. That may sound tiresome, but Lizza keeps things moving merrily along.

Andrew Leonard

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

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