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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