Wherein I Concede McMegan is Right

by Brien Jackson

As a rule, I try to avoid agreeing with Megan McArdle but, broken clocks and such, I must concede that she is right in this post critiquing Glenn Greenwald, particularly this graf:

Glenn Greenwald once lashed out at me for asking an “ignorant” question on a topic I admitted I didn’t understand.  A petty person would point out that his post on Larry Summers displays not only ignorance, but a total lack of awareness of any gaps in his understanding.  (emphasis mine).

Putting aside the discussion of whether or not it’s true that the only people who really understand finance market issues are people whoare seemingly too close to the industry as to be unbiased (I think they are, but that’s not really material), I think this is a rather succinct, deadly accurate critique of Greenwald’s style, which is basically to assert a series of premises upon which to build an argument, and then to plow forward at breakneck pace to obscure any sort of quibbling with the underlying premises. It’s great rabble-rousing if you agree with Greenwald, and I’m sure you’re glad to see someone making your point so forcefully, but it’s not so good if you disagree with him. Worse still, it’s really not good if you agree with Greenwald on the fundamentals, but feel like he’s missing a point or going a bridge too far, especially if that’s built around a misconception of what he simply treats as a given (doubly so because he’ll turn his fire-breathing on you if you deign to point it out). As such, I feel like “Glennzilla” tends to be ignored more than he should be by all but a legion of netrooters who rarely disagree with anything he says. Not that that’s a bad bit of positioning, mind you, just ask Limbaugh.

On the substance of Summers, I think McMegan is simply more right than Glenn. Summers was basically an academic and policy maker for his entire career, prior to a scandalous departure from Harvard that seemed to have doomed his career in public life, at which point he entered the private finance world to make a lot of money. Whatever you feel about Summers policy positions, to use this as evidence that he’s unethically close to Wall Street interests doesn’t seem to me, in relative terms, to be quite accurate. This, in fact, is one problem I have with jumping onto the anti-Geithner bandwagon when it’s heavily couched in criticism of his “Wall Street ties,” even though Geithner has never worked in private finance, and has been a technocrat for his entire career. The closest he’s come to working on Wall Street was a stint running the New York Federal Reserve Bank. It’s perfectly fine to make the argument that moneyed interests are invariably linked to government and that Geithner and Summers are more caught up in that than most, but somehow I get the feeling that’s not the argument being made or, if it is, that the people making it are ok if the audience comes awa with a misconception, so long as they come away agreeing that Geithner and Summers are Very Very Bad.

McMegan is also obviously right to note that the idea that Summers would have seemed like a likely choice to be put into a high position in an Obama administration in April of 2008 is just laughable. Simply put, Summers was still a pariah at that point, and remained one until he enjoyed a rapid comeback after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Moreover, with the economic problems not seeming quite so tragically stark, I’m not sure a need for “star power” in these positions would have been felt, and I think it’s likely that either Jason Furman or Austan Goolsbee would have Summers’s position. But the rapid economic downturn necessitated a top line of economic officials with a higher profile. And, of course, the idea of high profile public figures and/or former government officials bringing in 6 figure payouts for speeches is hardly unusual, nor something that is widely seen as improper. It’s ok if Greenwald thinks it is, in fact, improper, but even then he shouldn’t be trying to give the impression that the practice isn’t common and, largely, seen as being an ok thing to do in a number of policy fields. To do so is simply rank intellectual dishonesty.

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