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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Revolution at the Crossroads: Igniting the Socialist Resistance Against Trump

February 17, 2017 · $20.00 USD

Location: MayDay Space
Where: 176 St Nicholas Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11237
When: Friday, February 17th at 6 PM to Sunday, February 19th to 4 PM

Political Context

This Presidents’ Day weekend, the Young Democratic Socialists will gather for our annual winter conference in New York City titled Revolution at the Crossroads: Igniting the Socialist Resistance Against Trump. We did not choose the name lightly. In doing so, we call for leftists to collectively confront Trump and Trumpism at every possible opportunity. When a Trump administration attempts mass deportations of undocumented workers, when it attempts to register Muslims or roll back worker protections, when it attempts to take away reproductive, LGTBQ, civil, or any other rights, then we must militantly resist to prevent such measures.

To succeed, this must be explicitly socialist resistance. With liberalism having repeatedly shown itself incapable of combating the far right, it is now the time for socialists to openly declare our place in building the mass, multi-racial, and working class movement necessary for defeating the Trump administration. In this struggle, millennials will play an outsized role. That is why this conference comes at such a critical time—together we must create spaces for democratic and strategic discussion, spaces to gain organizing skills, and most importantly, spaces to form networks of young radicals for the future struggles ahead. These spaces will only come together if socialists come together. Join us this Presidents Weekend and help ignite the movement to defeat the Trump administration, continue the political revolution, and build the socialist alternative.

Key Deadlines

  • January 8th: Travel Scholarship for Air Travel (for application see below)
  • January 15th: Travel Scholarship for Non-Air Travel (ex: bus, car, train, etc.)
  • February 3rd: Early Bird Registration Ends - Tickets prices go up from $5 to $10
  • February 10th: Free Housing - We have limited free housing. You need to first register, then you will be sent an application for free housing.

Apply for a travel scholarship here! (First Deadline January 8, 2017)

Check out the working program (subject to change)