The First Medium.com Interview with a Sitting President

In which David Siegel talks with Barack Obama about war, the economy, minimum wage, obesity, education, climate change, and “unbundling science.”

After YouTube and Reddit have both had interviews with Barack Obama, I’m pleased to be chosen as one of the first people to interview him on Medium.com. As a long-form essayist, I hope to show that Medium.com fosters engaging interviews with people on important topics.

The Briefing Room

“Thank you, Mr. President, for taking the time to do this.”

“Call me Barack, Dave.”

“Okay, Barack. I want to start with a question Destin Sandlin, a popular YouTuber, asked you: he wanted to know how you manage the process in the briefing room; if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you to summarize your answer here for my audience.”

“Sure, happy to. Those are some bright blue shoes you’re sporting, by the way, Dave.”

“Glad you like them, sir.”

“Okay, well, y’know, what I said to Destin was that … I’ve learned to be pretty good at listening carefully to people who know a lot more than I do about a topic, and making sure that any dissenting voices are in the room at the same time. I want to know: is there any evidence that’s inconsistent with what was just said? And if there is, then I want to hear that argument in front of me. And, what I’m pretty good at is then asking questions, poking, prodding, testing propositions, seeing if they hold up, and that, I think, is pretty consistent with how scientists approach problems generally.”

“This is great, you’re good at making sure to listen to any dissenting voices. While the US gets a lot of things right, I think we can both agree that some amazingly poor decisions have been made in the White House over the years, wouldn’t you say, Barack?”

“I would have to agree with that, Dave. It isn’t easy being the most powerful person in the world, and nobody gets a perfect score.”

“No, for example, the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba the year you were born.”

“That would be one, yes.”

The Fog of War
“And the Cuban Missile Crisis? The decision to send troops to Vietnam and Cambodia, the Iraq War, putting American troops in Afghanistan, the War on Drugs, and your policy of backing “moderate” rebel groups in Syria, which ended up helping ISIS —these decisions all led to surprising results, wouldn’t you agree, Barack?”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss the last one, Dave, but let’s just say it’s very challenging to make good decisions under that much uncertainty, with that much at stake.”

“Could we say, Barack, that in the case of most bad decisions made in the white house, dissenting voices were heard?”

“Y’know … it’s never easy. And no president ever puts American lives at risk unless there is clear, compelling evidence that to do nothing is worse. But I always try to get a balanced view and look at all the options ahead of time.”

“Could the problem, Barack, be not with the process, but with the room?”

“What problem? I’m not going to take credit for getting everything right, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job with the hands I’ve been dealt.”

“Let’s take a little tour through the lens of the scientific method, shall we, Barack?”

“I will, on one condition, Dave.”

“Sure, anything. Name it.”

“That we do this in a fair way, and I get a fair chance to respond, without any cheap shots.”

“You thought the Syria comment was a cheap shot, is that it?”

“I did.”

“Okay, you have my word. As long as you agree not to give the party line but address each issue on its own merits.”

“Now we’re playing ball.”

The Great Recession
“Let’s start with the economy. We both agree that in 2007 there was a sub-prime mortgage crisis, banks had constructed elaborate schemes to collateralize that debt, and after the asset repricing there was a liquidity problem among banks. That’s up to September, 2008. What do you think caused the worldwide financial crisis that hit just as you were elected?”

“As I said in my final State of the Union, the crisis was caused by recklessness on the part of Wall Street bankers and insiders. And I’m sticking to that message.”

“What if I showed you that the US banking collapse, which was significant, was too small to cause a full recession and a worldwide financial crisis? What if I showed you that a relatively limited banking event that continued an 18-month slide in asset prices (housing prices had peaked in early 2007), was a second-order effect compared to the dramatic drop in NGDP in Q2, 2008?”

“What? How dramatic are you talking about?”

“In 2008 and early 2009, nominal GDP dropped more than any time since the 1930s.”

“Dave, you’re saying the Great Recession was about consumer confidence? That was part of it, but …”

“I’m saying, Barack, that after a fairly serious banking collapse, the immediate problem was deflation, and the recession that began at the beginning of 2008 became dramatically worse by fall of that year.”

“If that’s true, then the Fed caused the rest of it by not easing rates.”

“There you go, Barack. You’re quicker than I was on this — it took me several months. According to monetary policy scholar Scott Sumner, employment figures sent all the real-time signal the Fed needed, and the Fed then went the wrong way, tightening rather than loosening policy, and that caused the spiral that took most economies (but not Australia’s) down. Simply by easing monetary policy, we could have prevented most of the damage and lost jobs.”

“No one in the room suggested that.”

“Eventually, someone did. It’s likely that the signal given by the Fed’s policy of quantitative easing did more to speed the recovery than the TARP program and the banks’ deleveraging. It’s possible you should talk with other people — people who can’t get into the room, people who look hard at the evidence and try to figure out what’s going on in complex adaptive systems. Correlation is not causation, Barack.

“I say that often, myself. If Janet Yellen isn’t doing the right thing for the economy, then who would you …”

It’s not who, it’s what. We can hook the Fed’s open-market operations to a forward-looking NGDP futures market, bring in full transparency, and get rid of the $trillion-dollar volatility with all the meetings and speculation that go with using human judgment to try to steer the economy by looking in the rear-view mirror.”

“Okay, that’s interesting. We’ll have to bring in this Sumner guy. I can’t say this is the most comfortable interview I’ve ever had, but …”

“It’s a complex adaptive system, Barack. The Fed’s main job is to send signals — so consistent, predictable signals could be a better approach.”

“I understand about complex adaptive systems, Dave.”

Minimum Wage
“Let’s turn to the minimum wage. In your last State of the Union speech, you urged congress to pass a law setting the national minimum wage at $10.10, saying, ‘”If you pay people well, there’s more money in everybody’s pockets, and everybody does better.’”

“That’s right. We should probably raise it even higher.”

“And this is a conclusion you’ve reached by listening to dissenting voices, is that right?”

“We have a lot of data on this, Dave. There are hundreds of studies. Card and Krueger showed in a well-designed study that when wages go up, we don’t suffer a net loss of jobs. Since 2014, when wages go up, we don’t lose jobs. ”

“I agree that after Card and Krueger revisited their data, their findings were legitimate, but that was only for fast-food employees. On the second point, could it be that if you’re looking at years like 2013–16, whether wages go up or don’t go up, we don’t lose jobs, because the economy is busy adding jobs anyway? We’ve been in a net-jobs-gain situation for about five years now.”

“It could be, but there are a lot of people who agree with me, Dave.”

You’re referring to a letter from 600 economists and a bill sponsored by Senator Harkin and Representative Miller? That’s where the $10.10 figure comes from, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I think it’s a good bill, with good agreement from mainstream economists.”

“Well, if there are tens of thousands of economists, it doesn’t sound that hard to round up 600. I wonder how many of those people have really looked at the data on minimum wage?”

“That’s a kind of cynical approach, Dave, wouldn’t you say?”

“Skeptical, not cynical. You know, Barack, there have been so many studies on minimum wage, to come to a conclusion at the national level, I prefer looking at metastudies, rather than individual studies.”

“Which metastudies?”

“There are essentially three, plus an overview. Let’s look at them.

  1. “Neumark and Wascher reviewed over 100 studies, including Card and Kreuger, and conclude: … among the papers we view as providing the most credible evidence, almost all point to negative employment effects, both for the United States as well as for many other countries.
  2. “Doucouliagos and Stanley claim raising the minimum wage a bit has … an insignificant employment effect (both practically and statistically) on teen employment. That is, you can raise minimum wage and the kids won’t lose their jobs. They might even work a bit harder.
  3. “Belman and Wolfson conclude: If one were to summarize these results in a single sentence we would conclude that there is a negative and generally statistically significant employment effect which is between small and vanishingly small.
  4. “John Schmitt, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, summarizes the metastudies and concludes: The weight of that evidence points to little or no employment response to modest increases in the minimum wage.

“So, all in all, Barack, it could be positive or negative, depending on whom you believe, but increasing the minimum probably wage doesn’t help (or hurt) people much in the big scheme of things. The overall effect is probably very small.”

“Most of the people I talk with think it’s beneficial.”

“You have to admit you spend more time with Democrats than with Republicans talking about these things. I get the sense that, in general, you’re more consensus-based than evidence-based, would you agree? ”

“I do care about the facts, but I’ve learned, Dave, that you can’t get anything done without consensus. So if you want people to come around to your position, you have to listen more than give them the evidence.”

“Sounds like a tough job, Barack. But I think if you really want to help poor people, there are more effective ways. I also think that by combining a Republican idea, the Fair Tax, with an idea from the left — basic income — we might be able to help the poor in ways that are far more effective than we do now. Libertarians will like it, too — something for everyone.”

“I think you probably don’t appreciate how hard it is to change anything in Washington, Dave. You have to pick your battles.”

“I’m sure you’re right, Barack. Oh, my boys and I baked some chocolate-chip cookies last night — please have one.”

“Thanks. They look delicious. I don’t mind if I do.”

Obesity
“Okay, let’s talk about obesity.”

“Good choice. It’s a serious problem, as I’m sure you know, Dave. One in three American children is overweight or obese. In total, we are now eating 31 percent more calories than we were forty years ago — including 56 percent more fats and oils and 14 percent more sugars and sweeteners. The average American now eats fifteen more pounds of sugar a year than in 1970.”

“And so, it’s obvious to everyone in the briefing room that Americans are eating too much and exercising too little?”

“That’s right, Dave. I’m sure you as well as anyone … uh, … why are we then having this conversation?”

“Because there’s no scientific evidence to support that conclusion?”

“What??”

“Well, Barack, you and everyone else in the room reasons that since weight gain or loss equals calories in minus calories out, then if people are fatter they are either eating too much, exercising too little, or both.”

“Everyone knows that.”

“This is called the metabolic theory, and it was proven false a few decades ago. Researchers have fed test subjects extra calories and fewer calories, and they’ve taken had them exercise more or less, according to various scientific research protocols. Most lose weight for a while, and then their bodies “want the weight back” and refuse to cooperate. Their endocrine systems become more efficient and defeat the weight-loss regime. This is both on the exercise and the weight side. In general, it takes about as long to lose the weight as it does to gain it, and the willpower required to break that feedback cycle must be sustained for years — something most people can’t do. While we would love to find a magic bullet that cuts the corner — short of surgery, we haven’t found it.”

“So, let me … let me just see if I understand you. You’re saying that all our diet and exercise programs aren’t based on strong scientific findings?”

“I’m saying it’s worse than that, Barack. Despite thousands of Ph.D.s in nutrition, we still have essentially no idea what a healthy diet is. A single book written by a lone researcher has exposed the group-think and poor science. People have eaten nothing but raw meat, nothing but canned cat food, nothing but beer, or nuts and berries, or cow’s milk mixed with blood, and in all cases they don’t have any real health issues. The Morgan Spurlock movie, Supersize Me, wasn’t science and presented no evidence to the scientific community. Whole grains, antioxidants, fiber, organic, low-salt, vegetarian, vegan, carbs, no-carbs, starvation—we have no evidence for any harm or benefit.”

“Hold on, a second … Dave. You’re saying we don’t know if fast food, processed food, and sugar are culprits in the obesity epidemic? How do you know that?”

“Because we’ve failed to find this kind of cause-and-effect mechanism in any well-designed studies so far, Barack. It could have, for example, much more to do with what your mom ate and how much she gained while she was pregnant with you. We don’t know. Look at yourself, Barack: don’t you have the sense that you can eat a lot more chocolate-chip cookies than many other people, even though you’re not nearly as active as you used to be, and you still magically don’t gain weight?”

“That’s true. And you look about the same yourself, Dave. So … you’re saying we don’t really understand what’s going on with diet and nutrition at all?”

“I’m saying the research to-date has been short-term and plagued by design and statistical problems and confounding factors, and that you and I may be fundamentally different from others who eat and exercise the same amount and yet they gain weight and we don’t. Yes.”

“So Dave, let’s get to the bottom line here: what should we do?”

“We should fund unbiased research, like the preliminary work being done by NUSI and by John Ioannidis at Stanford. But most funding grants are impatient and want to see results too quickly. By putting together a center with both researchers and statisticians, and with a serious budget to do well-designed longitudinal studies, we’ll have a chance to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it. It doesn’t hurt to exercise, but programs like yours probably won’t affect the obesity epidemic. They certainly haven’t so far.”

“It does seem like we need a new approach.”

“Studies show, Barack, that the more people in the room agree, the more likely it is that there is some systemic bias at work, preventing you from seeing reality as it truly is.”

Education
“Did you just say the word, ‘Education,’ Dave?”

“No, but It’s a good segway to our next topic.”

“Well, as you probably know, I’ve called for over $1 billion to go into early childhood development programs, and all the scientific research I’ve seen has shown clear benefits to investing in kids and their families early.”

“I know.”

“And our ‘Race to the Top’ program is designed to set higher standards and put metrics in place to ensure American kids are ready for a dramatically different future. I’ve even …”

“Barack, excuse me, but after 8 years of No Child Left Behind and 7 years of Race to the Top, how are we doing against other developed nations?”

“Yeah, I know the numbers there — not good.”

“Let me spell them out for our readers: The most recent PISA results (2012) placed the U.S. 35th out of 64 countries in math and 27th in science. Among the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the PISA initiative, the U.S. ranked 27th in math and 20th in science.”

“Okay, but Dave, these are standardized tests, they don’t mean anything. If you only care about test scores, then you’ll just end up teaching to the test, and that doesn’t develop young people.”

“Then why are we doing it, Barack? Why is your K-12 program centered around homework, tests, and other metrics that have been shown not to matter?

“Because, frankly, it’s all I can get people to go for. I know it doesn’t work. I know we have to stop the tests, but … what will we replace them with? What can I tell the American people we’re doing to actually make schools better? Everyone wants tests, rankings, scores, and ‘actionable’ data.

“Have you heard of Alfie Kohn, Barack? Is he ever in your briefing room?”

“No, I haven’t, but we have tons of experts.”

“Alfie Kohn says: Standardized exams measure what matters least about learning & serve mostly to make dreadful forms of teaching appear successful.

“What you don’t have, I wager, is people who are willing to talk about education in holistic terms, teaching kids to learn and ask questions, rather than focusing on memorization, skills, and test scores. People like Christine Ortiz, who just left MIT to start a new kind of research university with no classes, no grades, no traditional roles of teachers — just projects, doing, learning, asking questions, and seeing where they lead.”

“There are a lot of interesting schools, Dave, but we have to figure out how to do this at scale, for tens of millions of kids.”

“I don’t know the answer, Barack. But I’m convinced we don’t need factory-style education, early-morning classes, homework, tests, and long summer vacations. My suggestion would be to publicly admit that both “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” have failed, and to bring in people like Alfie Kohn and Diane Ravitch — put them in the room and listen to them. They can help us put our educational system on track for the 21st century.”

Climate Change
“Okay, Dave, I really appreciate all this, and the cookies too. I’m going to need to think about it some and get back to you. I have a country to run, though, and my Blackberry is beeping — is there anything else you want to discuss before I go to my next meeting?”

“Just one little thing.”

“Okay, let’s get into it. What is it?”

“It’s the room, Barack. The briefing room. The briefs in the briefing room. The beliefs in the briefing room.”

“Like what? What beliefs?”

“What if I told you, Barack, that everything you have been told about climate change has been essentially made up — a case of mistaking natural variance for future disaster?”

“I would say this interview is over, that’s what I would say. It’s time for me to ask you a question, Dave: are you a Republican?”

“No sir, I’m a registered Democrat. I voted for you twice and contributed to your campaigns. And my guess, Barack, is that you believe what many people in the briefing room have told you: that we can see clear signs of global warming now, and that the models predict life-threatening temperatures and sea-level rise in the coming decades. And, even if you don’t believe the most extreme versions, you believe it’s probably true to at least some degree, so we should seriously hedge our bets and do our best to decarbonize, just to prevent the even small chance that life on earth as we know it could be forever changed.”

“Exactly. I talk with scientists. I don’t think we’re necessarily heading for the worst-case scenario, but I’ve got to do something on my watch, for future generations.”

“And, since you’re not a scientist yourself, it has a lot to do with what beliefs and what evidence are in the room with you when you look at these things, yes?”

“Of course. But … let me assure you, I have heard the other side of this debate.”

“Let me propose something new to you, Barack. Let me propose that you viscerally connect the other side of the debate with people like Ted Cruz, Jim Inhofe, Paul Ryan — you even have a list of these people on your web site.”

“I do, and as I’m sure you know, 97 percent of scientists agree that manmade global warming is real, so be careful here, Mr Rational. These people are motivated by money, not truth; it looks like they have gotten to you.”

“Ah, yes, consensus again. How do you know this 97 percent figure? Where does it come from?”

“It comes from a survey that has been validated.”

“I see. Could it be that climate scientists around the world do believe there is some man-made global warming, but a large percentage don’t believe it’s very much or very serious? That would give you the 97 percent consensus figure, but it wouldn’t mean anything.”

“I understand you have some expertise in the previous topics, Dave, and your brilliant blue eyes do match your shoes, but you’re out on thin ice here with global warming.”

“The ice might be thicker than you think, Barack. Let me put it bluntly: What if all the scientists, all the modelers, all the university and grants administrators, and all the editors at all the world’s top journals were suffering from in-the-room groupthink, not allowing dissenting research, getting grant money from people with a similar agenda, starting with the desired result first and corrupting science to a degree that goes far beyond climate science. What if I could show you that in no uncertain terms? What would you believe then?”

“I believe that is extremely unlikely.”

I agree it’s unlikely, but it becomes more likely if you’re willing to put in a little time looking at the evidence. What if I could show you that NASA, NOAA, Nature, Science, and the IPCC are all acting in concert, cherry picking the data to suit the same “save the world” narrative, biased against research that shows otherwise? What if you realized that you are no longer a neutral disinterested party looking at the evidence, but you have been willingly disregarding strong signals in hopes that your story will turn out to be true?”

“Look … if I learned that my position on climate change wasn’t based in the best science available … that would be … I wouldn’t want that.”

“Then I submit to you, Barack, that you may never have been impartial on this topic, that you have always looked for people who told you what you wanted to hear, saw what you wanted to see, because you are so fully committed to your “green” identity that the single scientific paper that sheds true light on the science in question would not make it to your desk, you would not look at it, you would have to pretend it didn’t exist and make sure to run away from it, for fear of who you are as a father, a human being, an environmentalist— you cannot look at that evidence, you cannot allow such blasphemous ideas to enter your mind, because that would mean that so much of what you and others have worked so hard for is simply a set of bankrupt ideas, and that the opposition would love nothing more than to take advantage of your weakness, bringing a host of mean-spirited beliefs and their evil agenda to life. The narrative you cling to, Barack, is based on the science you prefer.”

“Seriously, did you really just say that?”

“It’s worse, I’m afraid. According to Richard Horton, former editor of The Lancet:

The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.

Science really is broken. Part of it is grouping people and ideas together, calling them liberal or conservative. It didn’t start with you, Barack, but it can end with you. Scientific ideas have to be pursued on their own merits, not as a part of a liberal, idealogical mash-up that runs from polar bears to coral reefs. The goal of science is to find out what’s really going on and then shape our beliefs around that, and change them again when we learn more, not drive our research with preconceptions and foregone conclusions. If learning solar science and questioning model predictions that keep not coming true is something you cannot do, then you are no longer using the scientific method you told me about at the beginning.”

Unbundling Science
“Y’know, I’m kind of glad, Dave, that … this conversation is all just a figment of your imagination, because I don’t think I would have stuck around this long if this were a real interview. I appreciate the chance to hear your views, but this isn’t really an interview, is it? It’s another one of your essays, with a clever hook, using me as bait.”

“I’m asking you a real question, Mr President: if I had in my hand an essay that challenges the foundation on which all your beliefs about climate and energy are based, that I could show you by introducing you to lone scientists — people with Ph.D.s — whose work has surprised even them, by educating you on statistical methods and models and confidence intervals, that the Earth is a complex adaptive system, that reading this essay with open eyes may be one of the hardest things you have ever done, because after reading it you could not go back to your full-platform approach to science, but you would instead have to look assumption by assumption, fact by fact, and try to learn what’s really going on — would you accept that responsibility?

“Y’know, Dave, I put a lot of effort into this last year; frankly I’d rather …”

“Furthermore, Mr President, I suggest we hastily put an emergency two-day learning session on the calendar before January 20, 2017, because it will take a lot of work to unbundle the politically-correct approach to science, and we don’t want the next administration to continue it. And, if I learn that my assumptions are wrong, I’ll gladly write another phony interview with you on Medium.com and tell the world. But if I’m right, then everything is at stake, especially the minds and lives of future generations. What we will have to do, Barack, is nothing less than rebuild the foundations of scientific research, funding, teaching, publishing, and career competition in light of what you are about to learn, and there’s no time to waste. If you care about getting the facts and learning the truth, you may want to put time into this after you leave the White House. Our children must grow up learning for themselves, one question at a time, not accepting a package deal from any university, political party, or figure of authority.”

“I don’t know, Dave … I have a pretty good idea what I want to accomplish in the next …”

“I’m asking you to read an essay, Barack, and read it critically.”

(silence)

“So, do we have a deal?”

“Okay, deal.”

“Thank you for the interview, sir. It’s been a real honor.”

“Thank you for not actually taking my time with this, but now that everyone is talking about it, I guess I’m more climate curious than I was before. I’ll let you know how it turns out.”

David Siegel is a consultant, writer, and entrepreneur. Learn more at dsiegel.com.