Monday Pedantry

Frank Rich usually writes a solid column, and his caution in Sunday’s column is understandable, but I think this is a bit off:

No, it’s the economic team that evokes trace memories of our dark best-and-brightest past. Lawrence Summers, the new top economic adviser, was the youngest tenured professor in Harvard’s history and is famous for never letting anyone forget his brilliance. It was his highhanded disregard for his own colleagues, not his impolitic remarks about gender and science, that forced him out of Harvard’s presidency in four years. Timothy Geithner, the nominee for Treasury secretary, is the boy wonder president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He comes with none of Summers’s personal baggage, but his sparkling résumé is missing one crucial asset: experience outside academe and government, in the real world of business and finance. Postgraduate finishing school at Kissinger & Associates doesn’t count.

Say what you will about Summers, but I’m not sure why Geithner’s extensive government experience is a bad thing. In the first, it’s a sort of overconfidence in the infallibility of the financial markets that created this current mess. A career regulator would seem to be the best suited to deal with problems created by inadequate regulations. Secondly, evidence (collected by the Bush Administration no less), shows that career civil servants are generally far more successful than  their politically appointed counterparts.

The political appointees were better educated, on average, than the civil staff. Many had stellar records in the private sector or on the campaign trail. Side by side, the political appointees just looked like a much smarter bunch than the careerists.

When it came to performance, however, the bureaucrats whipped the politicals: Programs administered by civil servants were significantly more likely to display better strategic planning, program design, financial oversight — and results. These findings, remember, were based on the Bush administration’s own evaluation system — the Program Assessment Rating Tool, administered by the Office of Management and Budget.

People tend to assume that simply anyone with intelligence can competently govern, but there’s nothing innate to the job of government which makes it different than other careers. That is, there is a great deal to learn about the inner workings, dynamics, and capabilities of an agency best learned by directly engaging with the apparatus itself. In the private sector, this is generally referred to as, “learning the business.” Why we should expect this doesn’t similarly apply to government, I don’t know.

I know I’m not engaging with the whole of Rich’s argument at the moment, but it seems unfair to criticize both for ties to Robert Rubin — notoriously a creature of Wall Street — and in the same breadth, criticize Geithner for lack of Wall Street experience.


One Response to “Monday Pedantry”

  1. mike Says:

    its just very postmodern of him.

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