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Leaching away of inside-the-beltway economic expertise


Sound economic guidance is essential for government to insure that it can fund the domestic and international policies that it considers essential, thus my eye was caught by the comment that "much of Washington's expert economic team has disappeared." Vacant or soon to be vacant are two Federal Reserve Board seats formerly filled by academic economists, assistant secretary of the Treasury for tax policy, the chair of Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) and the director's chair at the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

Said to be facing a "shallow bench" in terms of seasoned talent, a Republican administration and congress do not seem to have an identifiable process to fill the slots. This should be of concern regardless of which side of the aisle one sits as vacancy, inexperience, and lack of government service conspire to rob government of guidance to shape the financial underpinnings of those domestic and international policies.

Clearly I'd not been paying attention as the problem was not recent as evidenced by the outgoing CEA chair, appointed in 2003, had "condemned supporters of some Reagan-era tax cuts as "charlatans and cranks" [and] suggested replacing part of the income tax with higher taxes on gasoline. It is not a good sign when an administration cannot get the talent that respects its precepts and economic policies.

While I agree that Republicans generally have more difficulty that Democrats in filling macroeconomic positions (Republicans favor microeconomic and regulatory billets), I see the problem as a dissolution of the center resulting in polarization and an adversarial relationship between the parties as well as between government and academia:

  • Low reputation of POTUS in the academic community
  • Partisan politics (adversarial working environment and "name taking" of those who disagree)
  • Centralized policy decision-making (appointees not listened to)
  • Seminal issues, e.g., deficits, spending and Iraq
  • Loss of prestige in assuming a federal position
  • Inability to support administration positions (or to be able to return to academia after having done so)
  • Policy push-downs that obviate professional practice, e.g., health, science and environment
  • Proliferation of political appointees over legitimate credentials
  • Working environment that demands "heavy sacrifices and large commitments of time" in the best of years
  • Family separations (spouses often unwilling to relocate)

These are nothing short of disease symptoms in terms of attracting the 'best and the brightest' in economics. I cannot remember such unremitting gulfs between so many parties in and out of government.

As one old enough to remember the weekly Republican Leadership press conferences first known as the "Ev and Charlie Show" after Senate leader Everett Dirksen and House leader Charlie Halleck, and later the "Ev and Jerry Show," after Dirksen and the House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, I recall a congressional give-and-take that is positively avuncular by today's standards.

It is worth reaching back to the Oral History Interviews of Lawrence F. O'Brien, Special Assistant to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and National Chairman of the Democratic Party for his opinion of Dirksen and Halleck:

On the House side, Charlie Halleck, the minority leader during my first years of involvement and intensely partisan, held no animosity. Charlie Halleck wasn't going to deviate from his established position. The one deviation we discussed in the civil rights legislation, where he was extremely helpful. What are you going to do with a guy who is pleasant personally and his opposition is total--he'll do everything he can to block you, but there is no venom? You meet, you have a drink, which I did on occasions.

Little incidents would crop up from time to time, but overall, whether it was Ev Dirksen--my recollections of Ev Dirksen are all pleasant and really I enjoyed his company, it was a pleasant experience--there were occasions here and there when Ev Dirksen was willing to be helpful. Jerry Ford replaced Halleck as we launched into the Eighty-Ninth Congress. I have no recollection of Jerry being nasty or mean in waging the legislative battles. I recall Ford, Les Arends, and others on the House side and other Republicans in addition to Dirksen, George Aiken, as fine human beings. They had their very strong views, which didn't coincide with our views. But it was never personalized, and I think that is a factor which existed to the degree it did in our years because of the progress that was made in person-to-person, individual contacts, social contacts. You weren't strangers to each other and there was mutual respect and understanding.

As it is difficult to discuss the contribution of the White House to this current air of divisiveness without immediately gaining a partisan label or drawing a partisan attack, I recommend Karen Hult's The Bush White House in Comparative Perspective as she offers a sound underpinning of comparison to previous White Houses as she looks at three primary tasks of contemporary White Houses:

  • Coordination and supervision of the activities and people that comprise the modern presidency
  • Policy formulation and deliberation or "policy processing"
  • Outreach to external interests and the general public

Hult goes on to describe how the Bush43 White House responded to each, drawing similarities and differences with previous administrations. Worthwhile to get a sound basis for comparison as opposed to polemics from either the left or right.

Beyond that, there is personality which can shape performance of the administration and the White House. One could move to NYT Ron Suskind's Without a Doubt. After that, one could look for underpinnings of those actions in Justin Frank's Bush on the Couch, an unauthorized applied psychoanalysis of the president which created a tiff when released. The profile is not attractive and a new edition contains an "expanded epilogue that reviews the 2004 election and the start of Bush's second term" in which Frank concludes that the 2004 election "may have only made things worse." Frank is not easy to dismiss as two other unrelated profiles offer a similar analysis. The WP's Dan Froomkin held a public Q&A with Frank that is interesting.

Few former White House staffers or SES civilian appointees speak at length about White House politics or personalities, which makes Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's observations so interesting. As Hult delicately observed in speaking of the December 2002 dismissals of O’Neill and National Economic Council director Lawrence Lindsey, "both were faulted for their weak presentations of administration policy." (Lindsey was a believer but made some embarrassing admissions of fact.) Today, it would appear that they had presented fact which did not fit political precept and so were removed.

While it may be too much to ask the reader to put aside a red or blue lens in traversing this material, I submit that the current environment is hardly a recommendation for a strong, skilled economic candidate to join the administration.

See Redirect comments to this note

Help Wanted: Academic Economists, Pro-Bush
New York Times
November 27, 2005

Without a Doubt
New York Times
October 17, 2004

The inner W.
By Laura Miller
June 16, 2004

White House Talk
Dan Froomkin with Justin Frank
White House Briefing Columnist
Washington Post
June 16, 2004; 1:00 PM

Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President
Justin A. Frank
Regan Books
June 2004

Conservatives Restive About Bush Policies
Fresh Initiatives Sought On Iraq, Domestic Issues
By Dana Milbank and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post
May 10, 2004

US Treasury to probe O'Neill book
BBC News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 January, 2004, 04:55 GMT

The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill
by Ron Suskind
ISBN 0743255453
Simon & Schuster
January 13, 2004
Snippets from documents

Karen M. Hult
Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University
Included in
Princeton University
April 25 - 26, 2003
Other papers in this
series are useful

Interview by Jim Lehrer
Online NewsHour
February 6, 2002

Transcript, Lawrence F. O'Brien Oral History Interview XI
7/24/86, by Michael L. Gillette, Internet Copy, LBJ Library

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Strategic Risk Public  


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