My “Idiotic” Insistence on Being Fair in Criticizing Larry Summers

By William K. Black

My most recent column: Larry Summers Got a Bad Rap on Stimulus: Obama is the Problem so distressed one of my readers that he was moved to comment:

“Wow, this is a piece of shit column, full of straw men and idiotic praising of bad economists. You owe those of us who look up to you much much better than this.”

I have written a series of columns over the last several weeks criticizing President Obama’s reported desire to appoint Larry Summers as Ben Bernanke’s replacement to run the Fed.  I explained why I viewed Summers as a leading architect of financial crises because of his failure to understand fraud and financial regulation.  The reader who I distressed has a long and distinguished track record in fighting effectively for progressive causes.

My column about Summers getting a bad rap on stimulus was prompted by Obama’s Sunday interview in which he volunteered that he continues to seek agreement with the Republicans on what he calls the “Grand Bargain.”  In a number of prior columns I explained in detail why I view it as the “Grand Betrayal” because it endorses even more severe austerity and cuts to the safety net.  Other recent critics of Summers’ rumored likely appointment to run the Fed had blamed Summers for the Obama administration’s failure to support adequate fiscal stimulus.  In my column yesterday I put these two issues together and made the point that on the subject of fiscal stimulus (not regulation) the Obama/Biden administration’s three most senior advisors who were economists were strong supporters of stimulus while his advisors on economics who were not economists were strong supporters of austerity.  The three economists were Summers, Christina Romer, and Jared Bernstein.  The three non-economists who gradually became Obama’s dominant economic advisors were Timothy Geithner, William Daley, and Jacob Lew.

My earlier columns detailed how Geithner, Daley, and Lew – with Obama’s vigorous approval – sought to inflict the Grand Betrayal on our Nation.  Obama and this team were strong proponents of creating and maintaining in the 2011 budget law the provisions that created the fiscal cliff and the Sequester and large reductions in federal spending.  In 2012, they supported ending the partial deferral of the payroll tax.  Each of these positions represented an embrace of austerity by Obama, Geithner, Daley, and Lew.

My distressed reader’s objection to the “many straw men” that are supposed to be in my column  must mean that I advanced an argument against Summers that I knew was not real and that I chose because it was easy to refute.  To be a straw man argument my purpose in making it would have to be a desire to avoid presenting the real, stronger arguments against Summers.  None of the required elements of the “straw man” claim was present in my column.  A number of Summers’ critics did claim that he had failed to support adequate fiscal stimulus and I did not ignore the more compelling arguments against Summers’ appointment to run the Fed – I vigorously advanced those arguments in multiple, detailed columns.

That leaves the reader’s cry of pain and rage that I engaged in the “idiotic praising of bad economists.”  And that was my real sin – refuting an erroneous claim about Summers and showing that the real source of the administration’s embrace of austerity was Obama’s choice of and reliance on Rubinite non-economists as his increasingly dominant advisors about economics.  I want to stress that my criticism is not that Geithner, Lew, and Daley were not formally trained as economists.  My criticism is the substance of their economic advice – their hysteria about deficits caused by the Great Recession, their support for austerity, and their claims that we need to cut the safety net.

I do not “owe” my readers the easy, but often false, contemptuous dismissal of the officials whose actions and beliefs I criticize by labeling them “bad economists” (or lawyers).  People are often more complex.  I agree with many views of the economists and lawyers I criticize.  I believe that I owe my readers my candor, my efforts to get the facts and analytics right, and giving credit where credit is due even (particularly) if the person I am giving credit to is deeply unpopular with me and most of my readers.  Here I stand, I can do no other.

12 responses to “My “Idiotic” Insistence on Being Fair in Criticizing Larry Summers

  1. Thomas Bergbusch

    You tell ’em, Bill! I am a sucker for a good Luther quote, even one which is likely apocryphal! Truth first and politics after, which is why on balance Tcherneva has it over P.T. Harvey, despite his impeccable intentions.

  2. Amen. Give the devil his due. Always.

  3. Well done Bill.
    Don’t let the few, or in this case one, ruffle your feathers too badly!
    You have criticized Summers, it’s quite non sensical that one defense, I guess, invalidates that now. I admire you for being fair, we rarely see it in any media today. Kudos for defending him where it was right to do so, attacking Obama and others, including Summers, where need be.

    If we want to move foward as a country we need to put principle and fact before party and people. No one should be shielded from criticism, or unfairly criticized. It’s the ideas we need to support/shoot down regardless of party or person.
    Keep up the good work

  4. Bruce Bartlett: “Blaming WH staff for poor economic policy is stupid. Obama chose them and replaced them with similar in each case.”

  5. joe bongiovanni

    Dr. Black,
    Thanks, and like I said to your original post, we find Obama being more like Koch-Peterson and Simpson-Bowles than Summers, on the matter of immediate fiscal stimulus.
    And while perhaps the goal was merely objective criticism of Summers, the takeaway to me is much more about the vacuous and impotent policy positions of the party and its leadership as it continues to be steered away from people-oriented solutions, and toward those demanded by the market, under the continually expanding influence of the DLC.
    Either there needs to be a revolution WITHIN the national party, or the Democrats will remain just as hated and just as powerless to deal with the real problems that The Restofus face as are the Repugs.
    In the sense of the needed, big-picture, political-economic transformation, Larry Summers is an inconsequential also-ran.

  6. political economist

    Bill, always interesting to read what you write.
    I was wondering if you saw Greg Palast’s very recent article on Summers and if you we aware that allow all three of the economists supported a stimulus Christina Roemer unlike Summers did not believe that the unemployment rate would topout at 8% and called for a much larger stimulus. There are some other interesting facts in his article as well.

  7. Thank you Bill for your candor and analysis. It’s not always easy to separate the truth from belief, especially when the subject is both controversial and polarizing. That’s what we have come to expect from you, and you have succeeded again.

  8. John Rosenfield

    While Larry Summers appeared to be in favor of an economic stimulus, I must ask — at what level? Many respected economists were in favor of an economic stimulus at two to three times the level that was made into law. I have seen neither the details nor the evidence that Mr. Summers was in favor of an economic stimulus of 1.57 – 2.36 Trillion dollars in 2009.

  9. Bill, when I read your other article on Summers (September 17, 2013), my first thought was, ‘This is why I trust you. You put the bills and coins in their proper jars, and you don’t bullshit me’.

    I was going to write a quick note to you then to thank for two things, one of which is essential even if I disagree with a writer’s position or POV, and the other while not essential to most tells me I am dealing with a person with breadth of insight and a capacity to understand true public purpose. But i didn’t write it because I thought you’d think it was corny. The two things are intellectual honesty, and nobility.

  10. Pingback: Links 9/20/13 « naked capitalism

  11. I can only add my thanks to those above. It is too rare now that writers avoid the tribalism that says everyone on our side is good in every way, and everyone on the other side is bad in every way.