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Ezra Klein on the Deep Incoherence of Ron Suskind's "Confidence Men"


Ron Suskind’s Larry Summers problem: I’ve also been reading ‘The Confidence Men,’ and like Weisberg, I’m not impressed, but for a very different reason. Let’s call it, as Suskind does, the Larry Summers problem…. No one in the book gets a worse rap than Summers. And I don’t mean as a decision maker. I mean as a person. Suskind really doesn’t like the guy. But stop for a moment and consider what Suskind actually thinks about Summers: He believes that his remarkable ability to argue and debate and convince allowed him to hijack President Obama’s process and agenda. The book, which is largely about the White House’s internal processes, argues that this issue, the White House’s Larry Summers problem, has been the core impediment for the administration over the past three years.

And yet, when Suskind begins explaining, or at least implying, what the White House actually did wrong, the Larry Summers problem provides almost no explanatory power. In fact, it points in the other direction, the direction Suskind clearly wishes the White House had gone.

Suskind… makes a very big deal of the fact that Obama was leaning toward nationalizing the banks… [until] Timothy Geithner arguably killed the initiative. In the conclusion, this is really the only policy issue Suskind identifies…. So where was Summers and his remarkable powers of persuasion during this debate? Well, he was on the side of nationalizing Citibank. Indeed, Suskind suggests that he was actually trying to end-run Geithner’s reluctance by writing the policy proposal that Geithner refused to produce. “Larry and Christina worked the phones in early March to try to gather the information they’d need to field, at the very least, a strong counterproposal,” reports Suskind, “if not the kind of fully rendered alternative plan that only Treasury could provide.”

The other major issue that could plausibly have had a material effect on the recovery was the question of a follow-up stimulus package. In another of Suskind’s more consequential passages, he relays an argument that Christina Romer made to the president, in which she characterized Peter Orszag’s view that a small stimulus would be ineffective as “oh so wrong.” In the book, Obama comes down very hard on her, and this anecdote is mentioned in many of the stories about the dissatisfaction the White House’s female staffers had with the way they were treated. In the next passage, however, Suskind notes that in a subsequent meeting, “Summers stepped up, offering, almost word for word, the position Romer had voiced previously.”

There’s little doubt that Summers ran a poor process. I wrote a piece on this back in August 2010, for instance. But the question is whether that process led to substantially worse policy outcomes. And that’s less clear. You can see the tension in Suskind’s book, as in most of the cases where Suskind identifies a major inflection point for administration policy, Summers is running a fairly open version of his process, and Summers ends up on both the side that Suskind appears to support and on the side that ultimately loses the debate...