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Neither the Best nor the Brightest

I don’t often agree with Frank Rich, but he has served up a useful reminder that the brightest in government aren’t always the best. Unlike those who are infatuated with academic credentials, Rich provides a helpful bit of perspective:

In the Obama transition, our Clinton-fixated political culture has been hyperventilating mainly over the national security team, but that’s not what gives me pause. Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates were both wrong about the Iraq invasion, but neither of them were architects of that folly and both are far better known in recent years for consensus-building caution (at times to a fault in Clinton’s case) than arrogance. Those who fear an outbreak of Clintonian drama in the administration keep warning that Obama has hired a secretary of state he can’t fire. But why not take him at his word when he says “the buck will stop with me”? If Truman could cashier Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then surely Obama could fire a brand-name cabinet member in the (unlikely) event she goes rogue.

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.

Rich avoids mention of another group of brilliant young men and women who followed another President to Washington. How can we forget The New Dealers (e.g. Harold Ickes, Henry Wallace, Frances Perkins) ? Smart college grads and idealists (supplemented by another group of academics, collectively named the “Brain Trust“) who were going to fix the American economy. But again, they didn’t create wealth, hire workers, or build businesses. And their Keynesian fairytale did not end well, although their failure was obscured by the start-up of the wartime economy.

It’s a good thing to have very smart people in the upper echelons of government. But we should keep in mind that academic credentials don’t equate to wisdom, and that technocrats often have a shaky hold on the real world. Let’s hope that the current batch of New Dealer-imitators are more successful than the originals.  And that someone who has first-hand experience in the private sector manages, at some point, to get a word in edgewise.


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