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A Quick Question

Here’s a quick question for anyone who takes seriously politicians’ pronouncements about what particular industries are “vital” or are “of the future” or are “crucial to meeting consumers’ needs”: Why do virtually none of these politicians, when they leave office, found their own non-political firms? Why do virtually none of these politicians, when they leave office, found their own non-political firms – firms that specialize neither in granting clients access to incumbent politicians nor in projects that depend upon getting subsidies or other favors from those same politicians?

This question occurred to me a few days ago upon hearing that former president Bill Clinton was off somewhere talking about something to some group concerned about some issue.  His career now is to make lots of money as a sort of high-brow social healer – to emit platitudes, attend state funerals, and (pardon my switch of imagery) be a show-pony for politically correct causes.  The post-Oval Office careers of every other recent president – to the extent that they haven’t simply retired to the golf course or the study – have been largely the same, with the groups and causes served by their attentions differing only as one former president’s political affiliations differ from those of another former president.

But surely if, say, President Jimmy Carter was as smart and as full of correct foresight as he would have had to be in order for sensible people to take seriously his late-1970s pronouncements on the future of America’s energy economy, he could have made a personal fortune, starting at 12:01pm on 20 January 1981, launching and running an energy company (or, more precisely, a synthetic-energy company).  Yet he didn’t even try.  He selfishly denied to Americans – indeed, to the world – the blessings of synfuels.

Sure, he did other things.  Built houses for poor people.  Visited foreign leaders.  But does the value that Mr. Carter supplied to the world through these deeds come close to the value that Mr. Carter would have supplied had he actually founded and successfully run a company producing ‘alternative’ energy?  Doubtful.

And what of Pres. Obama?  Even if he wins a second term in the White House, he’ll be only 55 years old when he leaves office.  Will he found and run a health-insurance company?  How about a ‘green’ energy firm?  Or will he, perhaps, found and run a firm specializing in offering middle- and low-income Americans better and more fully disclosed access to consumer credit?  Will he create a successful automobile firm?

I’ll bet (seriously) a good deal of money that he’ll do none of these things.  He’ll not even try.  And for good reason: not only does he know nothing about these matters, he knows nothing about finding investors willing to stake their own funds, or about finding skilled workers and managers willing to cooperate together in such upstart enterprises, so that such enterprises become realities with real prospects for success.

He knows no more about the economic matters upon which he pronounces than does a soap-opera actor portraying a physician know about cardiology or obstetrics.

His comparative advantage is as a talking show-pony, to trot out onto the public stage to mouth platitudes, to declaim the splendid ideas of his party, to decry the squalid ideas of the opposing party, and, after he is relieved of the burdens of office, to make millions so that people destitute of critical faculties can get cheap thrills – for which they’ll pay big bucks – by sitting for a few minutes in the same room as a former president of the executive branch of the United States government.

And it will never dawn on any of these people who Oooo! and Ahhh! in the presence of a former president that if that mortal, who once sat at the big desk in the Oval Office, were really as magnificent and wonderful and smart and wise and productively creative as he and his handlers and party apologists made him out to be while he was in office, he is now nothing but a bum wasting his remarkable talents that could be used to found and operate a private firm (or multiple firms!) that actually puts to a genuine market test the ‘big’ ideas in which he expressed such assurance while spending other people’s money.