Our Elites Are Extremely Isolated from Real Life in America -- and That's Dangerous
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In 10th century Japan a “pillow book” was a form of diary, a place to gather notes, lists and other scraps of paper and reflect upon them before retiring to bed. A “court lady” to the Empress used hers to depict life in the royal household, and today “The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon” is considered an invaluable record of a pampered and long-vanished Imperial court’s customs and beliefs.
Someday we may look at former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s memoir “Stress Test” the same way.
Imagine for a moment you’re Tim Geithner. You’re intelligent, competent, and hard-working. Your friends like you. Your bosses appreciate you. You’re a good family man. You worked under extraordinary pressure to save the financial system. And all you get for it is grief. Naturally you want to write a book to set the record straight.
It’s all perfectly understandable, at least from Geithner’s point of view.
Now imagine that you’re a middle-class wage earner who’s worked hard all your life. You bought a house, perhaps sometime in the 1990s. The talking heads on TV said it was a great investment, your bank’s assessor said the house was valuable, and politicians from both parties had been telling you for decades that homeownership is the American Dream.
But you were defrauded by lawbreaking bankers, and then abandoned by presidential administrations of both parties. You’ve been unemployed for years now – thanks to a financial crisis that the banks created by manipulating people like you – but in Washington they’ve stopped talking about job creation. You’re slipping down the economic ladder, rung by rung. Maybe you’re suicidal, like some of the people who wrote to me back in 2010.
Nobody’s asking you to write your memoirs. In fact, nobody seems particularly interested in your story anymore. If you’re a little bitter at all the attention Tim Geithner’s new memoir is receiving, that’s understandable. A lot of the economists and bankers who ruined your life are featured prominently and flatteringly in Geithner’s book.
But you? You’re barely mentioned at all.
And that’s the problem in a nutshell. It’s not that Tim Geithner is venal, or evil, or corrupt. The problem is that he is deeply embedded in a social group whose worldview is insulated from the very experiences and viewpoints that could have enriched and improved Geithner’s public service immeasurably. If that worldview is allowed to prevail – if memoirs like Geithner’s are allowed to rewrite the economic narrative of our time – it will exert a tragic influence on the policy decisions we have yet to face.
Many fine economists and writers (including Dean Baker, Mike Konczal, Anat Admati, Joe Nocera, Amir Sufi, and others) have highlighted the flaws in Geithner’s book. Felix Salmonhas demonstrated that, at least in one case, Geithner tailored the facts in order to make himself look better.
But, while there are many economic arguments that need to be corrected in this book (and we’ll take our turn in a subsequent piece), its greatest value for future generations may well be as primary source material for sociological research. Timothy Geithner is a model courtier, if an unwitting one, for today’s economic and political hegemony.
Geithner comes off as surprisingly likable in this book. That alone is interesting, since he certainly did not seem likable the only time I met him in person. Either he’s a nicer guy than he seems, or he had a really good ghost writer.
(Geithner did, in fact, have a collaborator, whose name appears only in the acknowledgments. It’s Michael Grunwald, who took a leave of absence from Time magazine to work on the book. After that he returned to Time as its “senior national correspondent,” where we can only hope he is able to provide impartial reporting on the ongoing impact of Geithner’s policies.)