It’s Sept. 22, and I’m looking at the news about the departure of Larry Summers from the White House. I agree with most commentators on the left that Summers was a disaster for the country and the Democratic Party. He used his aggressiveness and the confidence Obama placed in him to narrow the range of options given consideration—already well reported in the case of the undersized stimulus, and to be reported in the future on financial reform. (I’m guessing at this, but only a little.) He contributed mightily to the miasma of disappointment that surrounds Obama and encourages the paleolithic right.
I wish I could say that policy post-Larry looks to improve, but it doesn’t. By all indications, Summers faithfully reflected Obama’s own economic predilections, and the next economic team will probably follow down the same path. From a PR point of view, it may matter who the public faces are, but I see no reason to expect a significant mid-course correction. I really, truly hope I’m wrong.
Incidentally, I never got the bit about Summers’ “brilliance”. (Try googling “Larry Summers” and “brilliant”.) I saw him in action only once, on an AEA panel, and, while he was very quick and sure of himself, his comments were not particularly insightful. I’ve read a number of his papers, and I think he’s competent, but his work generally lacks the element of aha-ness I associate with brilliance, as opposed to just getting the job done. Economists often seem smarter than they really are to the general public, because they are so well-schooled in a narrow, formulaic intellectual framework. They have fast answers that are clever, often technically sophisticated, and seem to tie up all the loose ends. In the lingo of an older style of scholarship, mainstream economics offers a “premature totalization”, and the appearance of brilliance without the substance.