In which Lecture Hop Editor Pierce Stanley takes in the second of two economic forums held at Columbia last night.

Another spectacle of epic proportions has come and passed in Roone Arledge Auditorium.  Yet, last night’s Presidential Economic Forum courtesy of Columbia’s Program for Economic Research and co-sponsored by the Economics Department, the Committee on Global Thought, and the Business School seemed to pass quietly into the night with a whimper far more than with a bang.  While not quite on the level of spectacle that characterized the original Obamacain affair, yesterday’s Presidential Economic Advisors Forum, which pitted self proclaimed “data hound” Austan Goolsbee, Senior Economic Advisor of the Obama-Biden ticket and former Director of the Congressional Budget Office Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Chief Economic Advisor of the McCain-Palin camp against a serious panel of Columbia Economics department heavy-hitters, including Professors Richard Clarida, Janet Currie, Joe Stiglitz, and Michael Woodford, resembled a high school policy debate round moderated by a panel of seriously pretentious judges more than a forum of any academic import with serious implications for the fate of the economy.


The evening kicked off with a series of comments courtesy of PrezBo about the nature of the American economic meltdown and its impact on the rest of the world.  He suggested like he does at every major event he has introduced as of late, that there is no topic more pressing to be discussed than the one being covered at that very event.

With that, the respective Presidential candidates’ advisors were launched into their opening statements where they addressed the current state of the economy and presented the basic economic plans of each of their superiors.  What started as a slow dribble of talking points and vague accelerated quickly into the expected mudslide of partisan rhetoric as the two advisors went at it over the course of the evening.  Sadly, the Columbia economists could only look on in exasperation as their questions were flouted left and right, and the second economic forum of the evening that stressed the urgency of real solutions for the current economic crisis was reduced to a partisan bickering and a spewing of the talking points we have all grown accustomed to hearing over the last few months.


Obama advisor Austan Goolsbee, described by fellow University of Chicago professor and PhD classmate Steve Levitt as someone “who asks questions people care about” perhaps stole the show last night with his witty presentation of the issues, but maybe not for the best of reasons.  His ability to popularize economics to the layman via a husky voice quite popular over the airwaves, the web, and television was on display last night as Goolsbee seemed fully capable of charming the audience with clever anecdotes about Obama’s plan to ease economic woes but ultimately that all came at the expense of substance.  


Meanwhile the academic in Douglas Holtz-Eakin was on full display last night, as he was willing to stay on task and answer the questions in a line-by-line fashion. Goolsbee would have none of it as he clownishly reduced the McCain positions to truisms, at one point even suggesting that a portion of “this debate is courtesy of Aleve” because the McCain proposals give him such a headache.  The only point that both advisors could more or less agree upon was the need to improve funding programs for education and provide relief to college students who have undertaken burdensome student loans to pay for four-year institutions.  Yet, their differences were stark when detailing what seem to be quite intricate plans for balancing the budget, funding infrastructure, providing tax cuts, and alleviating unemployment quickly while rescuing the housing and lending markets. This is where the event had the most potential, yet both advisors fell into the trap of partisanship and were bitten by the asp of oversimplification.


While last night’s event, a collection of some of the finest economic minds in the nation, had the potential of shedding some real light on the issue that matters most to voters in a time of economic urgency, Columbia’s Presidential Economic Advisors Forum was a serious disappointment because it reduced some of the most important issues of the day to simple truisms seen time and time again on the campaign trail, reductions that even Joe the Plumber can see right through.


This Bwogger sincerely hopes that as soon as voters have pulled the lever a mere two weeks hence, these economic advisors can get off of their partisan high horses and truly begin to offer the American people, no matter who is President, some real solutions to the current financial mess we find ourselves in today.  Until then, what I witnessed last night was nothing more than a clownish policy debate, reminiscent of my days on the high school debating circuit.