Against Summers

Brad DeLong is pushing Larry Summers as Treasury Secretary. His argument, in a nutshell, is that "we want really smart people" running things, that Larry Summers is a really smart person, and that if you have the intelligence, self-confidence, and communication skills to persuade Summers that you’re on top of your brief, he’ll have your back and "give you more responsibility than you thought you could handle".

Brad DeLong, of course, is a really smart person in much the same mold as Summers: great on the analytics, not so great on people skills or subtext. Such people tend to be justifiably proud of their intelligence. But even if great intelligence is a necessary condition for being Barack Obama’s Treasury Secretary, it’s not remotely a sufficient one. And as Hank Paulson (no intellectual slouch himself) has shown, right now a large number of the skills needed at Treasury are political, not technocratic.

Bill Clinton, first with Rubin and then with Summers, built a model whereby the president would take the political lead on economic initiatives, while letting the policy wonks at Treasury work out the details. That was fine, then. But the job is bigger, now, and includes persuading both Congress and the public that the government is doing the right thing — that’s something which no self-respecting Treasury secretary should leave to the president. And Summers, like Paulson, is really bad when he has to talk to people he doesn’t respect.

What’s more, in order to be able to work well with Summers, you need all three prerequisites: intelligence, yes, but also the self-confidence to stand up to Larry (and that’s a lot of self-confidence), and the communication skills necessary to be able to persuade him in the space of a few minutes that you know exactly what you’re talking about (more than he does) and are on top of your brief. Many very able public servants don’t fit that exacting bill, and installing Summers at Treasury would mean that they would largely go to waste.

Summers has surely learned a lot about staying on-message over the past decade. But Obama’s Treasury secretary should do more than simply stay on-message: he or she should be able to respond dynamically and persuasively to the public’s concerns, and should be able to talk clearly and directly to all Americans, not only pointy-heads with college degrees. Now more than ever, America — and not just the president — needs to trust the person signing their dollar bills. Which means that Summers, for all his qualifications, is not the best man for the job.

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