Obama’s cabinet are the best and brightest (here we go, again)

Are you excited about the Obama Adminsitration?  They are one of the finest collections of Mandarins to rule us since the Kennedy Administration.   Here we see 3 perspectives on the new team.  At the end are links to other posts about the opening days of the Obama era.

  1. The Insider’s Crusade“, David Brooks, op-ed in the New York Times, 21 November 2008,
  2. Achievetrons“, Lewis H. Lapham, Harper’s Magazine, March 2009,
  3. And a warning from the past.

(1)  Pundit Brooks barks and rolls over at the mere prospect of their arrival

The Insider’s Crusade“, David Brooks, op-ed in the New York Times, 21 November 2008 — Excerpt:

Jan. 20, 2009, will be a historic day. Barack Obama (Columbia, Harvard Law) will take the oath of office as his wife, Michelle (Princeton, Harvard Law), looks on proudly. Nearby, his foreign policy advisers will stand beaming, including perhaps Hillary Clinton (Wellesley, Yale Law), Jim Steinberg (Harvard, Yale Law) and Susan Rice (Stanford, Oxford D. Phil.).

The domestic policy team will be there, too, including Jason Furman (Harvard, Harvard Ph.D.), Austan Goolsbee (Yale, M.I.T. Ph.D.), Blair Levin (Yale, Yale Law), Peter Orszag (Princeton, London School of Economics Ph.D.) and, of course, the White House Counsel Greg Craig (Harvard, Yale Law).

This truly will be an administration that looks like America, or at least that slice of America that got double 800s on their SATs. Even more than past administrations, this will be a valedictocracy – rule by those who graduate first in their high school classes. … Already the culture of the Obama administration is coming into focus. Its members are twice as smart as the poor reporters who have to cover them, three times if you include the columnists. … They’re thinking holistically — there’s a nice balance of policy wonks, governors and legislators. They’re also thinking strategically.

… Most of all, they are picking Washington insiders. Or to be more precise, they are picking the best of the Washington insiders. As a result, the team he has announced so far is more impressive than any other in recent memory. One may not agree with them on everything or even most things, but a few things are indisputably true.

  • First, these are open-minded individuals who are persuadable by evidence. …
  • Second, they are admired professionals. …
  • Third, they are not excessively partisan. …
  • Finally, there are many people on this team with practical creativity.

(2)  Not everybody shares Brook’s confidence

Achievetrons“, Lewis H. Lapham, Harper’s Magazine, March 2009 — Excerpt, reformated slightly:

Achievetrons learn to work the system, not to change it, to punch up the PowerPoints for Citigroup and Disney and figure the exchange rate between an awkward truth and a user-friendly lie.

… Which isn’t to say

  • that Hillary Clinton hasn’t read the letters of Abraham Lincoln, or
  • that Tim Geithner doesn’t know how to analyze (in 3 languages and 5 currencies) a Four Seasons hotel bill;
  • that Robert Gates isn’t familiar with the theory of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, or
  • that Larry Summers might make the mistake of turning to face Jerusalem instead of Mecca when begging money from a Saudi prince.

What it does suggest is that President Obama’s household staff, in accordance with the protocols observed by “the best of the Washington insiders,” can be counted upon to place their own self-interest first and foremost and to avoid fooling around with initiatives that threaten to leave a stain on the rug.

*  Clinton as senator from New York in 2002 voted for the invasion of Iraq not because she knew or cared why America was embarking on a mindless war but because what was wanted was a cheerful waving of the pom-poms and the flag;

*  Geithner as the president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank in the winter of 2007 neglected to address the impending trouble in the credit markets because to have done so would have upset the Wall Street achievetrons folding and refolding sets of imaginary numbers into paper hats and airplanes;

*  Gates as deputy director of the CIA in the 1980s painted his portrait of the evil Soviet empire to match the one walking around in Ronald Reagan’s head, unwilling to believe that the Red Menace was mortal until the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 exposed his intelligence estimates as works of science fiction;

*  Summers in 1998 as President Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of the Treasury served as one of the principal sponsors of our current financial debacle, facilitating repeal of the Glass- Steagall Act and joining with Secretary Robert Rubin (Harvard, Yale Law) and Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Alan Greenspan (New York University) to force the resignation of Brooksley Born, chair of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, who urged regulation of the markets in new derivatives.

The motion to block the large-scale accumulation of toxic debt ran counter to the belief, then all the rage among the bankers at JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs as among the members of the Palm Beach Country Club, that money, deftly cultivated by its cronies, grows on trees.

… Our leading voices of informed opinion like to say that America now finds itself in a state of unprecedented crisis, the whole of our political and economic enterprise trembling on the verge of extinction. They call upon the president to be “bold,” to throw the moneychangers out of the temple, bail out the banks and the automobile industry, disgorge from the Augean stable on Capitol Hill its dungheap of cowardice and self-congratulation.

I don’t know anybody who questions President Obama’s willingness to perform the labors of Hercules, but where does he find the lionskin and the club? The redistributions of the society’s rich and poor require the hiring of domestic help willing to move the furniture. Achievetrons don’t do floors and windows. As individuals they make very good company, and at the tables down at Mory’s the magic of their singing no doubt casts its spell, but if they have paid attention to their studies, they can be trusted to know, as does the valedictocracy otherwise known as the national news media, that it’s a far, far better thing to live in comfort under a government they hold to be wrong than in discomfort under a government they hold to be right.

(3)  A warning from our past

It was a glittering time. They literally swept into office, ready, moving , generating their style, their confidence. … It was an extraordinary confluence of time and men, and many people in the know quoted Lyndon Johnson’s reaction to them at the first Cabinet meeting. he, the outsider, like us, looked at them with a certain awe, which was no wonder, since they had forgotten to invite him to the meeting.

… They were all so glamorous and bright that it was hard to tell who was the most brilliant…

What was not so widely quoted in Washington (which was a shame because it was a far more prophetic comment) was the reaction of Lyndon’s great friend Sam Rayburn to Johnson’s enthusiasm about the new men.

Stunned by their glamour and intellect, he had rushed back to tell Rayburn, his great and crafty mentor, about them, about how brilliant each was, that fellow Bundy from Harvard, Rusk from Rockefeller, McNamara from Ford. On he went, naming them all. “Well, Lyndon, you may be right ant they may be every bit as intelligent as you say,” said Rayburn, “but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.

From The Best and the Brightest, chapter 4, by David Halberstam (1969)

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts on the FM site about Team Obama:

  1. Secretary Gates would be a hero – if speeches could reform DoD, 6 May 2008
  2. I was wrong about SecDef Gates – here is a more accurate view of him, 7 May 2008
  3. Biden’s gaffes are a threat to American’s complacency!, 13 September 2008
  4. Obama’s national security team: I hope you didn’t really believe in change?, 26 November 2008

Posts on the FM site about change:

  1. American history changes direction as the baton passes between our political parties, 18 May 2008 – Importance of the November 2008 political landslide.
  2. “Don’t Let Barack Obama Break Your Heart” by Tom Engelhardt, 21 November 2008
  3. Obama’s national security team: I hope you didn’t really believe in change?, 26 November 2008
  4. Obama supporters mugged by reality (and learn not to believe in change!), 9 December 2008
  5. Change you should not have believed in, 10 February 2009

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39 thoughts on “Obama’s cabinet are the best and brightest (here we go, again)

  1. I’ve always admired Lapham. He came from an elite Eastern family, went to Yale, and could have gone straight to Wall Street, instead of a semi-liberal, intellectual magazine like Harpers, where he gently lampooned his own elite class for many decades. He was gentle, though; that was his only fault. I knew his younger brother. Gentleness, and a sensef public obligation, ran in the family.

  2. Obama’s “Achievatrons” – what a great bit of wordsmithing, that – are from the intellectual and cultural elite, and certainly have all of the “right” crendentials from the top-schools, foundations, think tanks, government agencies, et al. But these forms of knowledge represent only part of the spectrum of human wisdom and achievement; as Rayburn noted, it would be nice if one had at least “run for sheriff.” Obama’s appointments mirror him; scholarly, erudite, university-educated, and “wonky” to use the DC lingo. They don’t have experience, it seems, making things, doing research, running businesses, or just getting their hands dirty. They lack the knowledge of reality that one gets outside the library, empirically, by living life. Obama’s people are undeniably bright in a certain sense, and are accomplished by most any conventional yardstick, but they are inbred, insular and walled-off from the reality that the rest of their countrymen experience. If there is evidence to the contrary, by all means present it, but I don’t see a whole lot of evidence that any of these people get their hands dirty, literally or figuratively.

    William F. Buckley once famously quipped that he’d sooner trust himself to a government comprised of the first 100 names in the Boston phone book, than the politicians in Washington DC. Love him or hate him, one must admit WFB had a point.

    We can start by electing fewer attorneys. Why? What is the “product” of a typical lawyer? Litigation, and/or rules, regulations, and laws. That is, reams more paper and lots of hot air.
    We’ve plenty of both to spare already in Washington DC. How many of these folks have experience in a wealth-generating profession, such as manufacturing, business, engineering/science, or the like? Too few, I’d imagine.

    On the other hand, Hoover was an engineer, and the Depression stumped him, so… draw your own conclusions.

    1. Pete –

      I think Buckley said he would rather be governed by the first 100 names in the Boston phone book than the faculty of Harvard University.

      The thing that concerns me most about Obama is that he has never run anything where the entire team wasn’t on his side. That’s one of the biggest differences between, say, a campaign and the collection of personal fiefdoms that is the Federal government. Obama is no doubt a smart, inquisitive person, but he has an annoying habit of suggesting that any disagreement with him politically is just petty partisan bickering. Part of this is, no doubt, political posturing, but I am starting to get the feeling that he really doesn’t understand the difference between making a symbolic bi-partisan gesture (having the Republicans over to the White House for a talk) and actually making some concessions in order to garner real bi-partisan support. In other words, he may actually believe his own press clippings. He may actually think that the only problem in Washington was that Bush had the wrong tone.

  3. So smart they cannot learn from history! Just the sort of people we really don’t want running the government.

    Where does the strange belief in omni-competent government able to do everything, be everything actually come from? And where can we start beating it into people’s heads that they are responsible for their lives for good and ill?

    Because these ‘best and brightest’ sure don’t understand that last part. Their lives are too cloistered with servants that they expect government to be a servant to everyone, until no one has the ability to look after themselves and are wards of the State. Which describes them pretty well, the B&B group: insular, isolated from the common man, and never having to live with the outcomes of their decisions. Until it is too late.

  4. Laptham: “Clinton as senator from New York in 2002 voted for the invasion of Iraq not because she knew or cared why America was embarking on a mindless war but because what was wanted was a cheerful waving of the pom-poms and the flag;”

    Stalin was right, repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth. Clinton’s vote for the war was not mindless, nor was the war mindless. Any honest appraisal of the facts on the ground now, and what was known then, show it.
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    Fabius Maximus replise: This is not a “big lie”. It is political invective (“writing that abuses, denounces, or attacks; abusive language used to express blame or censure”). Not every political opinion with which you disagree is a “lie.”

  5. You know, I see David Brooks’s name thrown around as a “conservative”, and I want to ask, “in whose world?” I guess he does pass for a conservative at the NYT; or perhaps he might be considered a conservative by the same people who think John McCain is a hard right-winger. But how about we actual conservatives/libertarians dispense with the fiction that Brooks is one of us? He is, on his best days, no better than a lukewarm “moderate”, and other times falls right into liberal establishment lockstep…as in the linked column about how wonderful the Obama cabinet and staff is and how we should all be thankful they now hold the reins of power.

    As for the rest, my God, the blindness of the people who wanted all this. But the outcome may not be what the Achievetrons want, because for the first time in my 50+ years I think it is actually possible that Atlas might finally have had enough, and shrugging time could be just around the corner.
    .
    For a description of Brooks’ history and views see his Wikipedia entry.

  6. Labels like Conservative or Liberal are worthless without the rest of the sentence. Its only when you ask “What are you Conserving” or “What are you Liberal about” that you can understand what that person believes.

    Many of the Conservatives you see in the news are mostly about conserving the present power system , most Liberals are concerned with liberally expanding the present power system

    David Gergen was the “conservative” on the PBS NewsHour until he went to work for the Clinton White House where it was declared that he was a pragmatist. David Brooks took over from Gergen as the house “conservative” and now he falls in love with the Obama “Best and Brightest”.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Another perspective is that these are team names, not closely linked to actual political doctrine. So Bush Jr. was a conservative, despite his record of expanding the government, big deficits, foreign wars, “open borders” with Mexico, and diminished civil liberties.

  7. Latham: “that Larry Summers might make the mistake of turning to face Jerusalem instead of Mecca when begging money from a Saudi prince.”

    I believe that, in Islam, there is a dispensation, so that it’s ok just to face in the general direction of Mecca rather than precisely toward it. Accordingly, from the vantage point of Washington, facing towards Jerusalem would probably be good enough.

  8. FDR’s cabinet was also a brain trust with probably as many Ivy Leaguers per square inch as Obama’s. They kicked and hacked at the limited government provisions of the Constitution until they moved the Republic off its foundation.

    At least many of FDR’s brain trusters were eventually honest enough to admit that their grandiose plans did little or nothing to positively affect the economy. The damage to the Republic, however, is irreparable. I doubt Obama’s team will be as forthright.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: That’s a powerful observation. After 50 years of analysis, most economic historians (including Ben Bernanke, per his 2005 book “Essays on the Great Depression”) have concluded that banking reform, monetary policy (esp going off the gold standard), and fiscal policy were the only effective aspects of the New Deal {added: by this I mean effective at fixing the Depression, not in a broader sense}.

    While some of the massive expansion of regulations and regulatory agencies may have been necessary and beneficial, in aggregate they probably extended the great depression. Worse, the decade of tinkering and experimentation (there was no plan and little analysis) almost certainly had a bad effect.

    1. Back in FDR’s day, anybody who went to Groton (or Exeter, St. Paul’s, or Choate ) could go to Harvard.

  9. And then there are the luminaries in Obama’s West Wing “on steroids”. Obama has assembled a star-studded cabinet, yet is turning many of their traditional responsibilities over to other people. A BIG team of rivals.

    As Tigerhawk noted, Hillary Clinton must be outraged at the lack of checks and balances to executive power.

  10. “Best and the brightest” is an old and entrenched part of Democratic party ideology (I learned it from my New Deal dad.) It’s part of the Progressive conception of government as neutral referee making sure that private interests follow the rules of the game and the public interest always comes first. The rugged individualism of Republican prty ideology is less shy about putting successful businessmen and the merely wealthy in important regulatory positions.

    The truth is, though, both parties regularly fill the top three cabinet posts — Treasury, State and Defense — with candidates from Wall St, the major law firms and corporations. That is, both parties are dutiful agents to the major baronies which control them.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: How sad, how true. As for the term “best and brightest”, from Wikipedia:

    The title may have come from a line by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his work “To Jane: The Invitation” (1822): “Best and brightest, come away!”

    Shelley’s line may have originated from English bishop and hymn writer Reginald Heber in his 1811 work, “Hymns. Epiphany”:

    Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
    Dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid.

    A still earlier – and more pertinent – use of the phrase is in the letter of Junius published February 7, 1769 in the Public Advertiser. There Junius uses it mockingly and ironically in reference to King George III’s ministers, whose capacities he had disparaged in his first letter the previous month. In response to Sir William Draper’s letter defending one of Junius’ targets and attacking their anonymous critics, Junius wrote:

    “To have supported your assertion, you should have proved that the present ministry are unquestionably the best and brightest characters of the kingdom; and that, if the affections of the colonies have been alienated, if Corsica has been shamefully abandoned, if commerce languishes, if public credit is threatened with a new debt, and your own Manilla ransom most dishonourably given up, it has all been owing to the malice of political writers, who will not suffer the best and brightest characters (meaning still the present ministry) to take a single right step, for the honour or interest of the nation.”

  11. Does this mean we can finally reclaim the phrase as pointed irony?

    It’s pretty strange to expect that a person’s political beliefs conform to a platform rather than dictating it. If this is what we want out of politics, ‘teams’ is exactly the right label. I think Brooks’ “defection” has more to do with the fact that after 8 years of disappointment with someone pretending to be dumber than he was, we almost spent 4 years with someone who is very undereducated and unprepared for the task of presidency should it fall upon her. Brooks is an educated guy, should be no surprise that he would go with a fellow UChicago alum and a team of educated wonks. The down homey small town anti-intellectual populism of US conservatism is tearing the GOP apart, and country club Republicans like him fear it.

    I think that Lapham’s analysis is probably closer to the mark, however, than Brooks’. Not in the sense that we need to bring a few good machinists into the government to show these know it alls how to do their job, but that recruiting out of the top universities and one previous administration runs a huge risk of single sourcing your advisers’ opinions. On top of that, Clintonistas weren’t exactly changemongers. I think it’s just as telling that Larry Summers once argued Africa was under polluted and we should dump toxic waste there. Not only are we tapping the same financial wizards who enabled this mess to get us out of it, there’s no evidence that the “comfort here at the expense of everywhere else” mentality has changed. Not sure we can rule that the entire administration will be a bunch of self interested evil geniuses, but we should be troubled by some of the faces we see.

  12. 1. One ability truly brilliant people have is that to recognize and acknowledge that they don’t know what they’re doing and delegate to people who do. I’ve seen little evidence of that so far, but it’s early.

    2. Re the Ivy League brain trust, is there any evidence whatsoever that a MCL graduate from a top school is any better at running things than somebody from Unselective State U?

    3. It does seem the cabinet choices run a high risk of intellectual inbreeding.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: #3 is the one that concerns me. As Rayburn’s comment (no sheriffs) shows, Administrations following this pattern bring together people from a narrow circle of our political class. I do not have data for this, but I suspect that Kennedy’s Administration drew on a narrower base (in terms of professional history) than FDR’s, and that Obama’s is narrower than Kennedy’s.

    Clinton’s team was diverse, in the sense of comprising liberal attorneys from many ethnic backgrounds.

  13. The obsession with resumes is interesting enough. What if Brooks wrote about the Bush Administration that way? George W. Bush (Yale, Harvard Business) and Colin Powell (West Point, etc.). Of course he might’ve been able to write Laura Bush (Princeton, Harvard Law) if Mrs. Bush had been born black, since by all accounts (and certainly results) Mrs. Obama was an AA admittee. And which member(s) of Obama’s administration actually got a 1600 on their SAT? Any of them?

    The irony with this resume lust is that the Obama guy who strikes me as the very cleverest by far is Rahm Emanuel, who went to…wait for it…Sarah Lawrence College.

    Brooks reference to Obama’s team as “open-minded individuals” who are “admired professionals” who aren’t “excessively partisan” is just laughable. Brooks is not a conservative, and I cringe every time I hear him referred to that way. I eagerly await his appointment to the Obama team, ala David Gergen.

    1. Mr Roberts, get your facts right with respect to Colin Powell He was not a West Pointer. He graduated from CCNY and got commissioned through ROTC.

  14. Wow. Any evidence to support that Laura Bush wanted to be a lawyer instead of a librarian? Maybe she could’ve been one without having to be a minority and get affirmative action, which, by the by, applies to women as well as ethnic and racial minorities. Maybe Michelle Obama happens to be a pretty competent candidate for higher education.

    Any how, if enough of these cabinet nominees fall to tax and partisan issues, maybe Obama will have to look outside his comfort zone of intellectuals to fill key positions.

  15. What is your opinion of their performance so far? Didn’t Clinton have the same supposed expertise, only to find himself at sea on economic issues early in his administration, at least according to Bob Woodward. And they have nothing on Hamilton and Jefferson in Washington’s adminstration, among other examples. Somehow going to the right schools does not trump actually accomplishing something. It looks good on a resume however.

  16. Lewis Lapham … was it not he who gave his name to the derogatory term Laphamization?

    Still, I would mostly agree with his points, except for his characterization of Gates and Reagan, which ironically supports his greater point with himself as the example. The key point of Reagan’s heresy against the Achievatrons was that Reagan saw the Red Menance as mortal, capable of being defeated, something for which the Achievatrons of the day mocked him, and apparently Lapham still does. Even in his own self-awareness he cannot escape the effects of his Yale education.

    P.S. I suspect at Hoover, even though he was an engineer, had the Admiral Halsey problem.

    1. Herbert Hoover was an exceptionally successful engineer, and as Secretary of Commerce also was instrumental in the logististics of obtaining grain from Ukraine (remember, before the sacred Revolution the Russian empire was a net grain exporter) to ‘feed the starving Armenians’ who were at the time sorely beset by the Turks.

      But, like FDR, he had too much self-confidence in his ability to issue decrees steering the economy – and he signed the wretched Smoot-Hawley treaty. However, Roosevelt didn’t ask for its repeal, and his decrees which jerked the economy all over the map in his misguided attempts to legislate prosperity were no better – actually worse – than Hoover’s. Hoover, having been involved in attempting to feed the starving Russians suffering from civil war, also had a hell of a lot better appraisal of the Soviets than Roosevelt ever did.

  17. “…I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

    I’d feel a whole lot better had even one of them actually held a real job where they had to produce positive value, just once. But none of them ever have. They are our new masters, same as the old ones.

    “Meet the new boss
    Same as the old boss”

  18. And which member(s) of Obama’s administration actually got a 1600 on their SAT? Any of them?

    That’s one problem with credentialism. The class of elites as a whole benefit from the assumption of equivalent achieved status.

    The Ivy’s foster this through deliberate grade inflation, where the majority of students receive A averages by default (70% for Harvard IIRC).

    This fact then creates a certain lock-in for their graduates for the rest of their academic and professional lives. It’s very difficult for students from colleges and universities that grade accurately to compete fairly for jobs and educational opportunities. They’re going up against individuals with Ivy League credentials – and they were all straight A students!

  19. Recall Michael Young’s 1957 essay book RISE OF THE MERITOCRACY. As there has been upward pressure to move into the careers which are entirely mental, pardon the phrase, one wonders just how much other fields are drained of good minds. Sitting here as a college dropout, caught as I was in the “middle class trap”, I recall reading articles which ask me to look around, and say just how many of my friends do NOT come from the Ivy League. Easy, all of them do not. Yet their wide and deep reading in many areas, life experience (especially in dealing with other persons), make me ache for the day a President goes outside the neat trinity of Wall St., govt., corporations. Of course, that should take time and careful measure. One can imagine the media’s squawking.

  20. Why don’t you give them a chance to earn your scorn? Try having an open mind. If this administration blows it, we’ll fire them all in four years. But I don’t know why you would spend so much emotional energy on hating someone before they’ve done a thing. Try not to focus on the negative. Try to remain positive.

    1. nothing wrong with being skeptical. in fact, being skeptical is the foundation of good government. i’d much prefer that they earn our trust through their deeds rather than have a blank check of public trust which they can squander.

  21. FM: “After 50 years of analysis, most economic historians (including Ben Bernanke, per his 2005 book “Essays on the Great Depression”) have concluded that banking reform, monetary policy (esp going off the gold standard), and fiscal policy were the only effective aspects of the New Deal. While some of the massive expansion of regulations and regulatory agencies may have been necessary and beneficial, in aggregate they probably extended the great depression. Worse, the decade of tinkering and experimentation (there was no plan and little analysis) almost certainly had a bad effect.”

    This GOP conventional wisdom flies in the face of the GDP rise and unemployment drop that occured between 1933 and 1940. And I suppose that fundamental reforms like Social Security count for nothing?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Partisan fervor gives no knowledge about things, although belligerent comments like this suggest that some believe otherwise. Several points about this.

    (1) I meant “effective at fighting the Depression.” While I believe that was clear in context, I have added it to this text.

    (2) “This GOP conventional wisdom flies in the face of the GDP rise and unemployment drop that occured between 1933 and 1940.”

    This is not “GOP” conventional wisdom, but that of most economists. Who do you know that disagrees with Bernanke and Christina Romer (Obama’s head of the Council of Economic Advisers) about this?

    Romer and Bernanke attribute most of the stimulus to fixing the banks (esp Bernanke, in his Essay’s on the Great Depression) and monetary policy (esp Romer, whose article in the Encyclopaedia Britannic says “Fiscal policy played a relatively small role in stimulatin recovery in the US.”

    (3) “suppose that fundamental reforms like Social Security count for nothing?”

    Social security was necessary and beneficial (as I say above), but was implemented in a disasterous fashion — collecting $2 billion in taxes during 1937 with the first income benefits paid in 1940. A tax on payrolls is a bad thing with millions unemployed (a cut would be very stimulative). A regressive (i.e., flat) tax on payrolls was horrific, one of the causes of the recession of 1937 (the G.D. was in fact two downturns separated by a 4 year recovery).

    One of the leading experts in the effect of taxes on the economy is (again) Obama’s adviser Romer: “The Macroeconomic Effects of Tax Changes“, November 2008.

  22. If “they” are the “best and the brightest,”, how come the nominee for Solicitor General, has never-ever appeared before the US Supreme Court or. for that matter, any Appellate. I guess she’ll receive “on-the-job training right along side our “very-experienced” President.

    “Never has so much been promised by so many who can’t do the job.”
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    Fabius Maximus replies: “Best and Brightest” does not mean experienced or qualified.
    * McGeorge Bundy was a Government Professor and Dean at Harvard before becoming Kennedy’s National Security Adviser. * Robert Strange McNamara was President of Ford before becoming Kennedy’s Sec of Defense.

    Kagan Confirmation Hearing Doubles as Vetting for Potential New Justice“, Fox News, 10 February 2009 — Excerpt:

    Kagan was asked a number of pointed questions about her background and suitability to argue on behalf of the government in front of the Supreme Court. Kagan has never done so and her overall courtroom experience is very limited.

    Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said he was very concerned about her nomination and told her one “learns by doing.” Kagan said her personal attributes of intelligence and earnestness and her experience as a law professor make her qualified for the position.

    Kagan was also asked about one issue that could certainly come up in a Supreme Court confirmation hearing — her efforts to keep ROTC programs off college campuses. She joined a friend-of-the-court brief in the case that ultimately lost before the high court.

    As solicitor general, Kagan would be expected to defend government laws and policies with which she may personally disagree. On multiple occasions Kagan said her job was to represent the statues passed by Congress and policies articulated by governmental agencies even if she personally disagreed with them.

  23. bright doesn’t mean transparent obviously, nor ethical, nor concerned for America’s future nor safety, nor fiscally adept (never mind conservative), … should i keep going?

  24. It looks like Brooks isn’t too enamored of late: “Money for Idiots“, op-ed in the New York Times, 19 February 2009 — Excerpt:

    Our moral and economic system is based on individual responsibility. It’s based on the idea that people have to live with the consequences of their decisions. This makes them more careful deciders. This means that society tends toward justice — people get what they deserve as much as possible.

    Over the last few months, we’ve made a hash of all that. The Bush and Obama administrations have compensated foolishness and irresponsibility. The financial bailouts reward bankers who took insane risks. The auto bailouts subsidize companies and unions that made self-indulgent decisions a few decades ago that drove their industry into the ground.

    The stimulus package handed tens of billions of dollars to states that spent profligately during the prosperity years. The Obama housing plan will force people who bought sensible homes to subsidize the mortgages of people who bought houses they could not afford. It will almost certainly force people who were honest on their loan forms to subsidize people who were dishonest on theirs.

    … Right now, the economic landscape looks like that movie of the swaying Tacoma Narrows Bridge you might have seen in a high school science class. It started swinging in small ways and then the oscillations built on one another until the whole thing was freakishly alive and the pavement looked like liquid.

    A few years ago, the global economic culture began swaying. The government enabled people to buy homes they couldn’t afford. The Fed provided easy money.

    … These oscillations are the real moral hazard. Individual responsibility doesn’t mean much in an economy like this one. We all know people who have been laid off through no fault of their own. The responsible have been punished along with the profligate.

    It makes sense for the government to intervene to try to reduce the oscillation. It makes sense for government to try to restore some communal order. And the sad reality is that in these circumstances government has to spend money on precisely those sectors that have been swinging most wildly — housing, finance, etc. It has to help stabilize people who have been idiots.

    Actually executing this is a near-impossible task. Looking at the auto, housing and banking bailouts, we’re getting a sense of how the propeller heads around Obama operate. They try to put together programs that are bold, but without the huge interventions in the market implied by, say, nationalization. They’re balancing so many cross-pressures, they often come up with technocratic Rube Goldberg schemes that alter incentives in lots of medium and small ways. … Personally, I hate the idea of 10 guys sitting around in the White House trying to redesign huge swaths of the U.S. economy on legal pads.

    But at least they seem to be driven by a spirit of moderation and restraint. They seem to be trying to keep as many market structures in place as possible so things can return to normal relatively smoothly.

  25. “remember, before the sacred Revolution the Russian empire was a net grain exporter”

    You might want to give a better look at that. Czarist Russia was exporting double digits percentage of its grain production even while suffering famines and shortages. Foreign customers could pay better than local poors of course…

  26. IMHO, “the best and the brightest” everywhere are best and brightest when everyting goes on well.
    When everything goes bad, just like now, they usually lack a kind of personal experience which cannot be improvised, or substituted by intellectual thinking: the experience of how the things are when they go very bad FOR YOU: something which Mr. Nixon, for example, knew very well; and he was, indeed, one of the best political minds ever, among American Presidents.
    Mr. Obama has something like that, but just in his infancy, when his father abandoned him: a psychic mark which you can read in his eyes and mouth, and in his continuous effort at being/seeming spontaneous and sincere (he is a gifted and hard-working actor). But his youth and early maturity have been spent inside a magic circle of respectability.

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