The Corner

The Missing Case for Summers

Word that Larry Summers would face a challenging nomination fight, largely (at this point) because of Democratic opposition, raises a very basic question about the man who seems to be the president’s preferred choice for Fed chair: What exactly is the case for naming him?

Everybody says he’s very smart, and of that I have no doubt. But smarts are cheap. Everyone on the short list (and the medium list, and the long list) for Fed chair has a high IQ. Summers also has a great deal of experience in economic policymaking at the highest levels, but again so do the president’s other plausible options. In fact, Summers has far less experience with the sort of work the Federal Reserve chairman would have to do than one of the other leading candidates for the job, Janet Yellen, who (along with some White House experience in the 90s) has a great deal of experience on the Federal Reserve Board and has been the vice-chairwoman of the board since 2010. Summers’s academic work has also had fairly little to do with monetary policy, and he hasn’t even had all that much to say on the subject in recent years. 

All the other arguments made in Summers’s favor basically amount to responses to criticisms of him. He’s not that arrogant, he’s not as obnoxious as people say, he’s not incapable of tactfully leading a group of people with big egos. If all that’s true—and if it is, then much of what we’ve known about Summers for decades is not—then maybe he shouldn’t be completely dismissed from consideration. But why should he be chosen? 

The real answer seems to be that he’s someone the president likes and thinks well of. That’s no small thing. But is it enough to merit such an important job? Should the Fed chairman really be that sort of inside pick? 

The biggest worry about Summers, for me, is that he’s more inclined than the next Fed chairman ought to be to see imaginary bubbles and non-existent inflation, and so to keep the reins too tight. The president himself, on the rare occasions when he discusses the issue, appears to be so inclined too (as, it should be noted, are most Republicans and many Democrats in Washington). Yellen seems to be significantly less so. 

If the president wants to name Summers precisely because he would be inclined to tighter money, then he ought to make that case and let the Senate consider it. If he wants to name him because he thinks Summers possesses some other mysterious quality that the other leading candidates don’t, he should make that clear too. But if he wants to name him because he knows and trusts him personally, then he should surely reconsider. And after the coming vote on Syria—regardless of how it goes—he should ask himself whether even his own party will be in any mood for a “trust me” argument on a crucial nomination. 

Yuval Levin — Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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