Joseph Stiglitz gives Obama a letter grade

And other tales from my evening with the Nobel laureate

Published February 23, 2010 5:55PM (EST)

Joe Stiglitz is not just a Nobel-prize winner, trenchant critic of the status quo, and tireless crusader for restructuring the global economy on a more equitable basis. He is also, judging by my opportunity to chat with him last night, both formally and informally, a heck of a nice guy. He's got a twinkle in his eye, and seems generally interested in what other people have to say.

By all accounts, (which includes my daughter's) the standing-room-only Commonwealth Club event went quite well. I don't think any news was broken in terms of enlightening us all about how we got into the financial crisis and how we are mucking up the process of getting out, but Stiglitz broke it down for everybody in useful, no-nonsense fashion.

The entire hour-long show will be broadcast on public radio starting March 12, and can be streamed at the same time from the Commonwealth Club's Web site, but I'll share two tidbits before the main feast is available.

One question from the audience: "What letter-grade would you give Obama's handling of the economy?"

Stiglitz (and I'm quoting from memory here). "When I'm asked this question, I usually note that in academia, we grade on a curve. So compared to the record of the last administration, I would give Obama an A+."

Big laugh from the audience

"But that's starting from a very low standard."

Bigger laugh.

Stiglitz then proceeded to sketch out four criticisms of the Obama administration (without offering a revised grade). The stimulus was too small, the administration has not offered enough help for homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages, has continued the Bush strategy of bailing out Wall Street without requiring anything meaningful in return, and has failed to articulate an ambitious vision of how the system should be restructured in the wake of the crisis.

But still! An A+ compared to Bush! Thank goodness for small favors.

My favorite moment of the evening came before the featured event. I was approached by a member of the Commonwealth Club who had seen me chatting with Stiglitz. He asked: "So, would you say he falls in with the 'Chicago school' of economics?"

Well, no, actually, I answered. His life work as an academic economist has been devoted to undermining some of the key precepts of Chicago school free market economic theory.

A few moments later, I was walking down a hallway with Stiglitz and I mentioned to him that I had just been approached by someone who wanted to know whether he was a Chicago school affiliated economist. He grinned. "I hope you told him I was their antithesis." We chuckled.

And I thought: How cool is this: <i>I'm chuckling about the Chicago school with Joe Stiglitz.</i> It was a good night.

By Andrew Leonard

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

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