You’d think the well-heeled and enlightened eggheads at the Aspen Ideas Festival—which is running all week in this fashionable resort town with heady panel discussions and earnest disquisitions involving all manner of deep thinkers and do-gooders—would be receptive to an intellectually ambitious president with big ideas of his own.
In a way, the folks attending this cerebral conclave pairing the Aspen Institute think tank with the Atlantic Monthly magazine might even be seen as President Obama’s natural base.
Apparently not so much.
“The real problem we have,” Mort Zuckerman said, “are some of the worst economic policies in place today that, in my judgment, go directly against the long-term interests of this country.”
Obama’s top economic adviser, Larry Summers, and his departing budget director, Peter Orszag, can expect heavy weather when they land in Aspen later this week to make their case to this civic-minded clique of wealthy skeptics.
“If you’re asking if the United States is about to become a socialist state, I’d say it’s actually about to become a European state, with the expansiveness of the welfare system and the progressive tax system like what we’ve already experienced in Western Europe,” Harvard business and history professor Niall Ferguson declared during Monday’s kickoff session, offering a withering critique of Obama’s economic policies, which he claimed were encouraging laziness.
“The curse of longterm unemployment is that if you pay people to do nothing, they’ll find themselves doing nothing for very long periods of time,” Ferguson said. “Long-term unemployment is at an all-time high in the United States, and it is a direct consequence of a misconceived public policy.”
Ferguson was joined in his harsh attack by billionaire real estate mogul and New York Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman. Both lambasted Obama’s trillion-dollar deficit spending program—in the name of economic stimulus to cushion the impact of the 2008 financial meltdown—as fiscally ruinous, potentially turning America into a second-rate power.
“We are, without question, in a period of decline, particularly in the business world,” Zuckerman said. “The real problem we have…are some of the worst economic policies in place today that, in my judgment, go directly against the long-term interests of this country.”
Zuckerman added that he detects in the Obama White House “hostility to the very kinds of [business] culture that have made this the great country that it is and was. I think we have to find some way of dealing with that or else we will do great damage to this country with a public policy that could ruin everything.”
Ferguson added: “The critical point is if your policy says you’re going run a trillion-dollar deficit for the rest of time, you’re riding for a fall…Then it really is goodbye.” A dashing Brit, Ferguson added: “Can I say that, having grown up in a declining empire, I do not recommend it. It’s just not a lot of fun actually—decline.”
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• Lloyd Grove: Ruth Ginsburg’s Abortion WorryFerguson called for what he called “radical” measures. “I can’t emphasize strongly enough the need for radical fiscal reform to restore the incentives for work and remove the incentives for idleness.” He praised “really radical reform of the sort that, for example, Paul Ryan [the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee] has outlined in his wonderful ‘Roadmap’ for radical, root-and-branch reform not only of the tax system but of the entitlement system” and “unleash entrepreneurial innovation.” Otherwise, Ferguson warned: “Do you want to be a kind of implicit part of the European Union? I’d advise you against it.”
This was greeted by hearty applause from a crowd that included Barbra Streisand and her husband James Brolin. “Depressing, but fantastic,” Streisand told me afterward, rendering her verdict on the session. “So exciting. Wonderful!”
Brolin’s assessment: “Mind-blowing.”
In a session Tuesday morning, Silicon Valley guru Michael Splinter piled on. “From an industry standpoint, it’s below what a lot of people in industry have viewed as the solution to the jobs problem,” Splinter, president of the Applied Materials solar energy company, complained about Obama’s economic performance. He was speaking to an agreeable audience in an interview with Atlantic Media owner David Bradley. “When I talk to venture capitalists, their companies are starting to move their manufacturing operations out of the United States…Our corporate tax rate, on a worldwide competitive basis, is just not competitive. Taiwan is lowering their rate to 20 to 15 percent in order to stay competitive with Singapore. These countries have made it their job to attract industry. You don’t get that sense here in the United States.”
The consensus was similar in an afternoon panel discussion on the decline of the American middle class. “He said jobs were going to be his No. 1 priority—there’s a huge disconnect between Washington and what’s going on out in the country,” nominal Obama supporter Arianna Huffington said. “The president’s economic team kept talking about a ‘cyclical’ problem. Larry Summers said jobs were a lagging economic indicator. All these things are simply wrong. The president put all his trust in the wrong economic team—an economic team that didn’t understand what was happening.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.