Monday, December 08, 2008

Bestest and Way Brightest

Frank Rich has a column up at the NYT that draws some comparisons to the language used recently about some Obama nominations and the David Halberstrom book "Best and Brightest." The particular focus is that the phrase was used sardonically to describe Kennedy appointments who shepherded the Vietnam War.

You could take it as a cautionary tale, an exhortation to keep an eye on this bunch. Taken this way, it would be entirely reasonable regarding any group in government. There are what I would characterize as some missing pieces in the analysis that help create a tone of approaching danger. The primary focus seems to be more on the outcomes of the National Security team under Johnson regarding Vietnam than the Kennedy piece of the appointment history. This part ignores the issues surrounding Johnson and dissent from his existing views. This logical leap is extraordinary in such an article, I have found no evidence of that similarity between Johnson and Obama.

Another piece that seems to be swept under the journalist rug is the difference between a shooting war and and economic recovery effort. There is an entirely different mindset surrounding a killing war and economics, both at governmental and public level. Anytime a shooting war exists a certain jingoism will occur, there is a definable (perhaps loosely speaking) enemy. Couple with that the fact that there are a limited number of solutions in a shooting war - it does involve killing - and the picture begins to look a bit different than the situations involved in an economic recovery.

In the process of doing anything people will make mistakes and when you toss political realities on top of that unfortunate reality, the mistakes can morph into real nastiness quickly. The very real question is whether those people can recognize the mistakes and make good changes to their decision processes to avoid more. This is the piece that truly conflicts with the Johnson model, these people have been outside the political process, not participants and further start from and work with an administration with a different ideological bent than the previous one.

It is always a good idea to pay attention to history, but history isn't a simple recounting of dates and names and events. Conditions surround such things and simply picking apart the personalities and background of some of the participants without having regard for the surrounding participants and existing realities makes such an analysis virtually pointless.
For some of J.F.K.’s best and brightest, Halberstam wrote, wisdom came “after Vietnam.” We have to hope that wisdom is coming to Summers and Geithner as they struggle with our financial Tet. Clearly it has not come to Rubin. Asked by The Times in April if he’d made any mistakes at Citigroup, he sounded as self-deluded as McNamara in retirement.

This is where this thing runs off the tracks, McNamara and Rubin's job descriptions had little similarity, McNamara ran the DOD, Rubin was an advisor with no particular power or access at Citigroup. Worse yet for such comparisons is that Rubin has at this time no obvious official role with an Obama administration - why are we even reading about him in reference to McNamara?
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.

While this may account for Rubin's appearance in the article it attempts to tie entirely disparate events together, just because you can draw dots doesn't mean they should be connected. Summers was President of Harvard, here he is going to be working for the President, his tone deafness and asserted disregard for colleagues has relevance for consideration for the ego intensive atmosphere of top academia but considerably less for the results driven culture of an economic team. Geithner bears little responsibility for the Wall Street dive, this makes an entirely questionable assertion that Wall Street's trading values had anything to do with rationality for years. The crash of investment banks may have triggered Wall Street, but the underlying problem was that stock prices had nothing to do with the actual values of the companies being traded - that is another kettle of fish entirely.

Frank Rich is an accomplished writer and sometimes his analysis of situations is entirely reasonable and worth real considerations. Had he run a couple sentence article stating what should be obvious, that media's enthusiasm should be tempered with close attention, he'd have had something. The problem is that he goes on from there to make arguments that hold very little water and seem more aimed at stoking ideological differences that already exist within certain circles.

There is a new boss coming with significant ideological differences with the accepted wisdom of thirty years of Republican propaganda. This is actually something new and that boss has a majority party and currently the backing of the voters. Let us begin to look at realities regarding this economy, this is the world's largest and most powerful economy, even in its current straits, no incompetent ideologically blinkered idiot can drive it this hard into the wall in eight years. This is not about George W Bush, this is about 30 years of stupidity instituted by St Ronnie Reagan and drummed into the public consciousness as reasonable. In the face of not one historical instance of such "theory" ever working in the manner they proposed, it is accepted as truth. It is much easier to sell ideas to the public that don't require more than bumper sticker explanation than complex arguments but that certainly doesn't make them work. The damage from these faux theories is now systemic and George II's incompetence coupled with system wide failure accelerated the wreck, but certainly isn't the cause. This is the real challenge, to put the argument within the framework of reality, not personality.

Anyone who has read this blog knows that I regard GW Bush as a criminal failure as President on so many levels and areas that writing single sentences about them would result in a book. This does not blind me to the actual causes and their history nor does it blind me to the complicity of the Democrats in that wreckage. All of that said, which may seem to echo Rich, Obama needs the people he has assembled and their varieties of experience and (dare we say it) ideological bents. This mess needs to be sorted out and taking a sledge hammer to it is not conducive to sorting. I'd like to see what they propose and how they try to implement it before I start throwing rocks. I'll also only manage the qualified endorsement of the team of, "I'm watching." There you go, your article - "I'll be watching."

1 comment:

Mberenis said...

Obama is making it better for us already! The bailout is spilling over into deals you'd never imagine. Most will miss out because they don't do the research. Bailout for Citizens