Failing ever upward

One of the great unsolved mysteries in American politics, and a running theme at this place, is the question of how the same foreign policy “experts” who got Iraq totally wrong are still considered foreign policy experts today. I say “foreign policy experts” rather than “pundits” because I get, for better or for worse, that a guy like David Brooks can be consistently wrong but as long as he’s spewing conventional center-right “wisdom” he’ll always have his NYT megaphone from which to spew it. Thomas “suck on this” Friedman hasn’t been right in print once in my entire adult life, but he writes and says the kind of things that rich and powerful east coast folks like to read and hear, so he’s got lifetime job security. I’m also not talking about the putzes manning the Wingnut War Machine, like Bill Kristol, Victor Davis Hanson, or John Podhoretz; nobody who isn’t already ensconced fully in the right-wing bubble turns to these jokers for serious analysis, because they have no credibility outside that bubble as analysts. But folks like Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack do not engage in punditry (in the sense of wanking on about a vast number of topics absent any particular expertise in any of them), and they’re at Brookings, which isn’t liberal, but isn’t what I’d call ideologically conservative either. They are foreign policy experts, Pollack on the Middle East in particular. Both were utterly wrong about Iraq, yet neither has seen his stature or expertise even questioned outside of hippie blogs like this one. I guess everybody is entitled to a screw up here or there, but these guys screwed up the most important foreign policy decision of at least the post-Cold War, if not the post-Vietnam, period, which is a pretty big mulligan to take, and as far as I can tell both have chosen to essentially falsify their own records to create some meaningful opposition to the war out of a handful of minor caveats, a sort of “I’m sorry other people screwed things up” kind of apology.

Foreign affairs and the Middle East are what I’ve studied, so that’s where my familiarity lies. But I’m always nauseated by interested in stories from other fields about “experts” who get big things completely wrong and suffer no consequences for it. Take Larry Summers, please.

Whatever, wake me up when you're done.
“Whatever, wake me up when you’re done.”

Two great pieces about Summers should be read in their entirety: John Cassidy’s in the New Yorker and Mike Konczal’s at the Washington Post. The short version (which I assume most folks know) is that Summers, as Deputy Secretary of the Treasury in the mid-late 90s, joined his boss Robert Rubin and everybody’s boss Alan Greenspan to quash efforts by the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, under then-chair Brooksley Born, to even study the use and potential impact of swaps, a recent financial innovation that, in its credit-default flavor, would go on to great success as one of the stars of the complete meltdown of the financial sector in 2008. Born was concerned enough about these things to want to investigate (not ban or even regulate, mind you, just investigate) their use a full decade before the crash, but the triumvirate of Very Smart Finance Men temporarily backed the CFTC off and then got Congress to block it from looking into swaps at all.

Again, everybody is entitled to be wrong now and then, even a supposed genius like Larry Summers, but the 2008 economic collapse is probably the biggest economic event of my lifetime, and Larry Summers was not just wrong about at least one of its causes (he also takes criticism for being pro-deregulation in general, and for the role that deregulation under Clinton played in the 08 crash), he was forcefully, proactively wrong. He wasn’t just wrong in his own thinking; he helped shut out voices that were right, or at least on the right path. That’s a hell of a mulligan to take, and just like O’Hanlon and Pollack, Summers has never apologized for any of it. Even Greenspan has apologized for being wrong on deregulation, which doesn’t get anybody back into their home or into a job, but at least suggests that he gets that his gang of Smart Finance Men was wrong. Does Summers get that they were wrong? I have no idea, yet despite being very, very wrong about some very, very important stuff, and not ever acknowledging that he was wrong, Larry Summers has been a top Obama economics adviser and is now a finalist for Greenspan’s old job, from which, if he’s wrong again, he could do some very serious damage.

Shouldn’t people who pass themselves off as experts have to regain that stature after they’ve messed up so badly? Shouldn’t we demand an apology at a minimum for being wrong in ways that tangibly hurt people later on? Shouldn’t they have to demonstrate that they’ve learned from their errors before we start taking their advice again, let alone actually entrust them with powerful policy-making and regulatory jobs? Why aren’t there any consequences for this kind of thing? Why can you be disgraced for sending out racy photographs of your privates or cheating on your spouse, but not for being really bad at your job? I don’t get it.

One thought on “Failing ever upward

  1. I don’t get it , either. Especially someone like Bill Kristol who makes my blood boil everytime I see him on Tv speaking like he’s the smartest person in the world.

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