As anyone with passing familiarity of Better Markets knows, we have had our disagreements with Larry Summers. While he is indisputably intelligent and thought provoking, we have also found him to be dead wrong on a number of the most consequential economic issues facing our country. Worst of all, we remain disappointed in his ongoing failure to fully, deeply and publicly reflect on and account for the key role he played in some of the critical financial policy mistakes of the last 20-plus years. In our view, anyone aspiring to be a financial statesman or stateswoman owes that to the country.
However, we also believe that we should commend those we criticize when they are right and Mr. Summers is right in his recent, very important criticism of the Treasury Department. Those disparaging him for breaking the “unwritten rule” that Treasury Secretaries are not supposed to criticize their successors miss the point entirely: the rule (however questionable) is aimed at not undermining the credibility, integrity and authority of the Treasury Department. The rule is not meant to protect any particular individual from criticism, particularly one that is in fact undermining the Department and its mission.
When someone at Treasury is breaking the norms by a wide, if not historic margin and damaging the Treasury Department (particularly for short term political gain), then predecessors have, we would argue, a duty to speak up and speak out. That duty is not only to the Department, but also to the country. That is what Mr. Summers is doing. He is also mostly doing it with substantive arguments about specific proposals, actions and statements (sure, not always, but perfection can’t be the standard in Washington policy debates or no one would ever be allowed to speak).
While the media and too many others love conflict and personalizing policy disputes, people should not rely on quotes unavoidably pulled out of context. Everyone should read Mr. Summers’ Op Ed in the Washington Post and listen to Mr. Summers in Ben White’s Politico podcast and judge for themselves.
Importantly, the policy debates Mr. Summers is speaking out on relate to some of the most important issues facing our country and will impact every single American, their standard of living and whether or not the American Dream is available to them. Their economic security, opportunity and prosperity is at stake. The duty to speak out under those circumstances is clear and compelling and decidedly more important than adhering to an unwritten rule.
One final point: speaking truth to power is always important, but it is especially critical when those in power are making up “alternative” facts and attack those who disagree with them. Under those circumstances, speaking up is simply not an option for many people and, unfortunately, too many others lack the courage to speak up. That’s why it is all the more important that those who have sufficiently secure positions and/or reputations, those in positions of unique authority or otherwise insulated from retribution, and those who aspire to being statesman/women speak up clearly, forcefully and often.