Ezra Klein Reviews “Confidence Men,” and Finds it Sorely LackingPosted: November 5, 2011
Ezra Klein (AKA Beltway Bob) is really coming up in the world. He somehow managed to get a gig writing a review of Ron Suskind’s book Confidence Men for the New York Review of Books. I’m impressed, I must admit.
As you probably guessed already, Klein is quite critical of the book. In fact he thinks Suskind should have written a completely different kind book instead–maybe even a couple of different kinds of books.
As I see it, Suskind set out to write an interesting and entertaining political book about Obama’s economic advisers, how they interacted with each other and the President, and how administration economic policy took shape over the first couple of years. The book is gossipy and very much focused on the people involved and their relationships with each other. As a psychologist, I found it fascinating to read Suskind’s insights.
Klein admits that
The work that went into Confidence Men cannot be denied. Suskind conducted hundreds of interviews. He spoke to almost every member of the Obama administration, including the President…He takes you inside…the Oval Office. He heads to Wall Street and back. He quotes memos no one else has published. He gives you scenes that no one else has managed to capture.
But that isn’t good enough. Klein disapproves of the gossipy, personality-centered tone of Confidence Men. He wants Suskind to provide evidence for his personal assessments of people. For example, Klein objects to Suskind’s description of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s appearance at Obama’s announcement that Elizabeth Warren would be working with Geithner to set up a consumer agency that she had first conceived of and then fought for. Although Warren didn’t know it yet, she would never head the agency, because Geithner had already made a deal with the bankers: they would accept a consumer agency as long as Warren wasn’t put in charge.
Here’s the passage that Klein found offensive:
This has caused discomfort not only for the president, but also for his top lieutenants, including the boyish man in the too-long jacket at Obama’s right hip, bunched cuffs around his shoes, looking more than anything like a teenager who just grabbed a suit out of dad’s closet. That’s Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, looking sheepish.
Klein so objected to this paragraph that he felt he had to go watch the announcement again himself, to see if Suskind’s description was accurate.
I prefer to verify. So I went back to the tape. I rewatched the September 2010 press conference where Obama introduced Warren to the country. I paid special attention to Geithner. Suskind’s right: his suit is too big. But he doesn’t look sheepish or ashamed. He looks, by turns, bored and interested. He clasps his hands behind his back. He nods attentively. He tries not to fidget. He looks like every experienced bureaucrat looks when they’re asked to stand like a prop near the president. Blank, and trying not to make any news. He failed.
But Klein doesn’t offer any evidence for his observations either. How can he know what Geithner was thinking–that he tried “not to fidget” and tried “not to make any news?” He can’t. Klein has shared his own observations and interpretations, just as Suskind did. But Klein finds it annoying. He didn’t want to read a book about people, based on the close observations and opinions of its author. No, Klein wanted a book about policy, and he felt that
…any account of what he [Obama] has done wrong, or what he could do right, needs to provide, first and foremost, a persuasive case of how the White House could have done more to promote an economic recovery over the last three years, or could do more to accelerate one now.
Klein wanted a wonky book, heavy on policy and light on human interest, and he can’t understand why Suskind wrote something different. Quite honestly, I think Klein should go right ahead and write a book like that if he wants to. It wouldn’t be as much fun to read as Suskind’s book, but it might make people like Matt Yglesias and Brad DeLong happy.
Still, Klein seems to have an inkling of why Suskind might have wanted to write an entertaining book that would sell well instead a book for policy wonks:
That account, however, doesn’t make for as satisfying a story. It’s not about heroes and villains, or dramatic meetings and angry confrontations. It’s about tough tradeoffs between what was politically possible, operationally plausible, and substantively wise. It is about whether more stimulus could have passed Congress or a different chairman of the Federal Reserve would have unleashed more effective monetary policy. And it’s much more about the collision of America’s political and economic institutions than the collision of particular personalities.
By the way, it’s quite clear from reading Suskind’s descriptions of the President that he (Suskind) deeply admires Obama and that he had and still has high hopes for this administration. Just look at the opening lines of the first chapter:
President Barack Obama dances lightly down the four marble steps to the Rose Garden and across the flagstones to a waiting lectern. He still glides, elegant and purposeful, in that tall man’s short-step–a ballplayer returning to the court after a time-out.
This kind of fawning praise of Obama’s style and grace continues throughout the book. It really stood out for me, but Klein never mentions it. Perhaps it seemed too subjective and biased to be worthy of note.
In the first chapter, Suskind mentions that Robert Wolf, President and CEO of UBS, often joked back in 2007 that he had “a non-sexual crush” on Obama the candidate. Because of his admiration for Obama, Wolf kept the candidate informed about what was happening on Wall Street and warned him way ahead of time about the crash that was rapidly approaching.
Obviously Obama’s ability to charm other men has paid off handsomely for him. Based on my reading of his book, I have the impression that Suskind himself had a man-crush on Obama, just as many male progressive bloggers did in 2008 and early 2009 at least. Maybe that was true of Ezra Klein too, and maybe that’s why it’s so hard for him to read or write anything critical of Obama.
Now let’s talk about what’s missing from
Beltway Bob’s Ezra Klein’s review.
Klein never mentions one of the more important conflicts that took place within the administration, caused by (IMHO) Obama’s dismissive attitudes toward women, which resulted in his allowing his female economic advisers to be treated disrespectfully and in Obama not listening to and following their advice. Apparently, Suskind’s detailed descriptions of the treatment of women in the administration were of a no concern to Klein at all–not even worth a single mention in a lengthy book review!
I’m not going to go through all the examples of Obama’s “woman problem,” because we’ve talked about them here and I know you’ve read about them in the media. But what if Obama had listened to the women he had hired to advise him?
What if he had fought to give Elizabeth Warren a powerful role in his administration? What if he hadn’t let Tim Geithner shut Sheila Bair out of meeting and conference calls and keep her in the dark about important policy decisions? What if Obama had met with Brooksley Born and asked her how she predicted that failing to regulate derivatives trading would lead to a financial crisis? What if he had listened to Christina Romer when she tried to explain to him (during the transition) that more could be done with monetary policy? Or when she argued for much larger stimulus? Of course listening to these women might have helped.
As Klein points out, the thesis of Suskind’s book is that the younger, more innovative economists who surrounded Obama during the campaign might have advanced more exciting and effective policies than Summers and Geithner, who clearly had been involved in causing the financial crisis in the first place.
That makes sense to me, but Klein doesn’t buy it. In fact, he is very protective of Summers and Geithner. He argues that Suskind tries to make them into bad guys, but then, paradoxically, sometimes they come off in the book as good guys–especially Summers. Frankly, most human beings behave inconsistently, but Klein seems not to know that. Suskind probably assumed that his readers would have some basic understanding of human nature.
I can think of many other alternatives to what actually happened. For example, it might have helped if Obama had focused on the economy and jobs from day one, rather than spending a year on a “health care reform” plan that Americans will see almost no benefit from until after 2013 at the earliest. Klein mentions the possibility and then dismisses it. I’m sure you can think of plenty of other possibilities, but Klein can’t. In the end, he thinks Obama was pretty much powerless against Congress and the bureaucracy (or something) to do anything differently than he did. Some examples of Klein’s excuses:
It is easy to tell the story of what the White House did wrong in its response to the financial crisis: it underestimated it. It had good reason to underestimate it, of course. Almost everyone was underestimating it. In the fourth quarter of 2008, when Obama’s economic team was meeting in Chicago to map out their policies, the Bureau of Economic Accounts thought the economy was contracting at a rate of 3.8 percent per year. It wouldn’t be until this year that we learned the economy was really contracting at a rate of 9 percent. And it wasn’t just the BEA. The Federal Reserve has been continuously overoptimistic. So have the leading private forecasting firms, like Macroeconomic Advisers and Moody’s Analytics. And so have Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan.
The observers who got it right were the ones who could tell a story that didn’t rely on the early data. Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, who would publish This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, their epic history of financial crises, in late 2009, saw that the recovery would be slow and tough. Economists like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, who were more knowledgeable about the struggles over recession in Japan and had their own Keynesian understanding of financial panics, were also suitably pessimistic….
The problem is political. Having very publicly passed a very big policy that you promised would revive the economy, the country blames you when the economy does not, in fact, revive. Your policies are discredited and your opponents are emboldened. You lose seats in the next election and your leverage over lawmakers. So you can’t, with any prospect of success, go back to the well and ask for a bigger stimulus or more money to buy up bad mortgages. And then, when the economy gets worse, you’re simultaneously in charge and out of options. You came to Washington promising change and now you’re begging for patience. It’s a crummy situation, and there’s no combination of policy proposals or speeches that can get you out of it. But this is the vise that has tightened around Barack Obama’s presidency.
Can’t, can’t, can’t. Is the presidency really that weak an office? Klein claims that no one predicted that the economic crisis would be as bad as it was; yet Suskind provides examples of Wall Street Insiders like UBS’ Wolf who warned Obama long in advance about how bad the meltdown would be. Early in his administration according to Suskind, Obama was carefully reading Krugman’s columns in order to be able to argue with Larry Summers during their meetings.
Would younger advisers who, unlike Larry Summers, were still doing academic research have made a difference? Klein says different advisers could only have led to different results “around the margins.” One by one, Klein sets up straw horses and knocks them down, finally concluding that the most powerful man in the post powerful country on earth was too weak and too “constrained” by politics to do what needed to be done.
Has Klein ever read anything about Franklin Roosevelt and the first 100 days of the New Deal? In the depths of the Great Depression, the country facing disaster:
FDR quickly won congressional passage for a series of social, economic, and job-creating bills that greatly increased the authority of the federal government—the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which supplied states and localities with federal money to help the jobless; the Civil Works Administration to create jobs during the first winter of his administration; and the Works Progress Administration, which replaced FERA, pumped money into circulation, and concentrated on longer-term projects. The Public Works Administration focused on creating jobs through heavy construction in such areas as water systems, power plants, and hospitals. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. protected bank accounts. The Civilian Conservation Corps provided jobs for unemployed young men. The Tennessee Valley Authority boosted regional development. Also approved were the Emergency Banking Act, the Farm Credit Act, and the National Industrial Recovery Act.
About three-quarters of the way through Confidence Men, Suskind quotes from FDR’s first inaugural address. Referring to the bankers of his day, Roosevelt said:
Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.
The speech continues:
Yes, the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of that restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy, the moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days, my friends, will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves, to our fellow men.
What if Obama had said something like that in his inaugural address? And what if he had gone on to follow Roosevelt’s example, creating a new CCC and a new WPA, as Robert Reich has repeatedly recommended? What if Obama had used his bully pulpit to rouse the American people from their stupor and inspire them to fight back against the forces of greed and despair?
Unfortunately, Obama wasn’t capable of that, even if he had had the imagination to conceive of it. But it’s what a true leader would have done. Like Obama, Ezra Klein has so little vision that he can’t imagine something like this happening–even though it did happen many years ago at another time when our nation needed saving.