Who is Treasury under secretary for international affairs?

The job of under secretary for international affairs at the US Treasury is

a hugely important job which few people have ever heard of. It’s a political

position, which means the decision as to who gets it is made not by career Treasury

officials or by technocrats, but rather by the White House. The present holder

of the job is Tim

Adams, who most recently held a senior position in the Bush-Cheney 2004

campaign. But Adams is no Bush crony – or, at least, he’s not only

a Bush crony á la Michael Brown or Harriet Miers. Adams is a

very smart, very competent guy, on top of his brief, who will do the Bush administration

proud in an extremely difficult job.

I can’t find a listing online of Adams’s predecessors. But since I moved to

the US and started getting interested in such things, I can remember Larry Summers,

Tim Geithner, Randy Quarles, John Taylor and now Tim Adams holding the job.

(Do let me know if I missed someone.) All of them are super-smart guys with

a genuine ability and passion for the intricacies involved in building the international

financial architecture and navigating its more recondite nooks and corners.

Put it this way: the least able of the lot, in my opinion, is John Taylor, a

highly respected Stanford economics professor after whom the well-known Taylor

Rule is named. And he’s a very able guy: I’ve heard it said that he was

more or less single-handedly responsible for saving the Uruguayan economy from

collapse in 2002, and he managed the enormous problems of setting up the new

Iraqi central bank and national currency much more smoothly than anything else

has gone in that country.

Adams, Taylor and Quarles are the kind of Republicans that most Democrats can

easily embrace. Not because they’re moderate (Adams, for one, certainly isn’t),

but rather because they’re simply very good at their job. They quietly and efficiently

attempt to ensure America’s long-term economic health by looking after the economic

health of the world upon which America relies. The irony, of course, is that

they’re doing this despite the fact that the Department of the Treasury has

less power and influence today than it has had at any point since 1945. The

under secretaries for international affairs might have been great, but O’Neill

is mainly famous for gaffes and gallivanting around Africa with Bono, while

Snow has stuck to his talking points so closely he seems to be little more than

a White House spokesman.

What’s more, I suspect that Summers, Geithner, Quarles, Taylor and Adams all

agree on much more than they disagree on. Every last one of them is Davos Man

incarnate, a sophisticated believer in the virtues of globalization who nevertheless

is well aware of its limitations. If they’re not dealing with an international

financial crisis, they’re working very hard on crisis prevention and on setting

up a robust system for crisis management. And even the extremely wealthy Quarles

got his job through sheer ability and not because of political connections and

donations. Adams, here, is the big surprise: despite having unrivalled political

connections, it turns out that he’s actually qualified to do the job as well.

Not that this necessarily means a lot, but he co-founded the G7

Group in 1993, and ran it for a while before moving to the Treasury after

Bush’s election. And the G7 Group is full of extremely smart people: Alan Blinder

is vice chairman, while Arminio Fraga sits on the advisory board.

There are a couple of good reasons why it makes a certain amount of sense that

Adams’s job has not been hijacked by hotheaded political appointees who might

easily do far more harm than good. One is that although the job is extremely

important, it carries little prestige: those who would be big Washington fish

generally have no desire for the job in the first place. Secondly, the job generally

manages to avoid overlapping with US electoral politics. Even conservatives

who want to abolish the IMF stop short of wanting to abolish the international

affairs department at Treasury, or even wanting to change it. On the rare occasion

that Treasury is in charge of a politically-fraught issue, such as Cuba, it

generally does what it’s told, and the rest of the world is sophisticated enough

to understand that blaming Treasury for US Cuba policy would be silly.

All the same, the caliber of the holders of this position is truly striking.

I can’t think of any other full-time position with such consistently high-level

appointees, in business, politics or anywhere else. Maybe music director of

the Berlin Philharmonic – but that’s at the zenith of its universe, while

the career trajectories of the likes of Summers and Geithner show that the Treasury

job can be a mere stepping stone on the way to much greater things. The fact

that all the recent appointees have been so good is probably

more luck than judgment. I’d love to see a list going back a bit longer, to

see the degree to which the recent trend holds. But for the time being I’ll

try and reassure myself that at least there’s one small corner of government

which seems to be capable of simply getting on with doing a good job, regardless

of who’s in the White House.

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