Jared Bernstein: Missing in Action

Have you seen this man?

Have you seen this man?

The talk of blog-land this week is Ryan Lizza's long New Yorker profile of Obama administration economist-guru Larry Summers. It's an interesting and useful piece, although I think it's far too forgiving of Summers and the Obama administration for all the reasons Dean Baker provides here. I would only add that it's shameful to write a discussion of Summers' years at Harvard without mentioning the Andrei Shleifer affair, an episode of raw gangsterism in which Summers connived to protect a man who had enriched himself by immiserating the Russian people and wrecking their country.

However, what I want to focus on in the Lizza piece is the curious case of one Jared Bernstein. Formerly an economist at the very progressive Economic Policy Institute, Bernstein is now the chief economic adviser to Vice President Biden. More importantly, he is the only high-ranking economist in the Obama White House whom one could plausibly describe as "on the left." And in the photo that accompanies the Lizza profile, he appears alongside Summers, Tim Geithner, Christina Romer and Peter Orszag, a group that is described in a caption as "the advisers who meet with the President daily to discuss the economy".

In the actual article, however, he only appears three times in passing. The first is in December 2008, when the Obama economic team meets in Chicago to discuss their response to the economic crisis. Although we are given an extensive description of the contributions from Romer, Orszag and others in this conversation, we do not hear what, if anything, Bernstein had to say. More significantly, Lizza reports that at the end of the meeting, "Summers, Romer, Geithner, Orszag, Emanuel, and Jason Furman huddled in the corner to lock down" the amount of the stimulus package. Bernstein, apparently, was politely dismissed before this little summit.

Bernstein reappears in a discussion of Summers' alleged conversion from gung-ho deregulator to chastened Keynesian, averring that "I was reading Larry’s articles in the Financial Times over the past couple of years, and thought, Wow, it’s all too rare that you see the thinking of such a prominent economist move like that." But here he's being brought in as an outside commentator whose job is to burnish Summers' lefty cred (and give Lizza an excuse to repeat the often-told fact that Bernstein used to be some kind of hippie musician). The fact that he works in the White House is essentially irrelevant. His only other appearance in the piece is at the end, where Lizza reports that there is "a half-hour meeting each morning, in which Obama is briefed by the top members of his economic team: Summers, Geithner, Romer, Orszag, and Bernstein." From Obama's policies and Lizza's reporting, it's not hard to conclude that one of these five is pulling significantly less weight with the President than the other four.

I bring up all of this not just because I like Jared Bernstein and wish he had more influence than Larry Summers, but to raise a larger point about the relationship between the Obama administration and the left. Thus far, it seems to me that in every case where a solid progressive has entered the administration, they would have been better off staying outside. Bernstein, I suspect, would be more effective if he could do what Dean Baker and Robert Reich are doing: criticize the administration's economic policy from the left. Instead, he's in a position where he can't honestly speak his mind because of his official post, and yet he still seems to have minimal impact on policy-making. A similar case, I think, can be made about Van Jones, whose Glenn Beck-inspired defenestration from the White House may turn out to be a blessing if it frees him up to be a consistent and outspoken progressive about environmental justice issues. And the list goes on: Hilda Solis, for example, seems to have vanished without a trace.

There's long been a debate among leftists in this country about the relative merits of "inside" and "outside" strategies for moving the government and the Democratic Party to the left. I believe, as do many in DSA, that a successful strategy has to incorporate both. But the case of Jared Bernstein is, I think, a cautionary tale: being "inside" a Democratic administration means nothing if you don't have a voice there. In that case, it amounts to nothing more than a co-opting of progressive voices by a fundamentally conservative political project.

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