Summers departs

By Felix Salmon
December 14, 2010

I enjoyed Dana Milbank’s farewell to Larry Summers today, complete with cameo from Reuters’s very own Caren Bohan:

It was the final question from the audience following Larry Summers’s final speech as President Obama’s chief economic adviser. “What,” asked Caren Bohan of Reuters, “will you miss most about being in the White House?”

Summers could have taken the chance to wax eloquent about the virtues of government service, but instead he glared at the questioner. “Reporters like you,” he said. Awkward laughter followed. Bohan’s eyes widened, and Summers chuckled at his little joke.

For a man delivering his valedictory, with TV cameras rolling, it was oddly petulant…

The parting shot was vintage Summers: a man who rose to national prominence because of his intellect but is now leaving government known more for his dyspepsia…

In his remarks, he spoke of not a single wrong decision he made.

Summers decided to leave public service with a long speech recapitulating a lot of the economic themes of his tenure at the NEC. There are notable parts to the speech; I’m particularly astonished that Summers thinks the government needs “to make it easier to patent a new idea or innovation”, for instance, in a world where patent-trolling is rife and where Nathan Myhrvold can rack up a multi-billion-dollar portfolio of more than 30,000 patents in a very short space of time, any one of which could stifle genuinely valuable innovation for years.

More notable, to me, is the fact that Summers did not, on leaving the White House, take the opportunity to thank the president for the opportunity to serve his country during this most tumultuous economic period. I don’t think Summers thinks that way: in his mind, the thanks should all flow the other way.

Summers is a virtuoso at not answering journalists’ questions, partly because he doesn’t feel accountable to the public in the first place. Instead, he feels that the public, and its elected representatives, are little more than political obstacles standing between himself and some kind of optimal policy which he would happily implement if only it were politically possible to do so. The public is often wrong; Summers himself, not so much, even as the unemployment rate has remained stubbornly elevated far above the levels that he foresaw when he joined the Obama administration.

It won’t take long, I’m sure, before Summers, like Peter Orszag before him, decides that a hefty academic salary is insufficient for his needs, and starts accepting millions of dollars from the financial services industry which was in large part responsible for the crisis he’s been trying to navigate. And as Summers revolves through that ignoble door, the president will surely be wondering who got the better deal out of the arrangement of the past two years.

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