The Plutocrats Are Living It up: Larry Summers' Gilded Path to Money and Power
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“So here is the evidence for an American plutocracy of a narrow and discrete but hardly harmless sort. Wall Street seduced the economics profession not through overt corruption, but by aligning the incentives of economists with its own. It was very easy for academic economists to move from universities to central banks to hedge funds — a tightly knit world in which everyone shared the same views about the self-regulating and beneficial effects of open capital markets. The alliance was enormously profitable for everyone: The academics got big consulting fees, and Wall Street got legitimacy. And it has kept the system going despite the enormous policy failures it has generated, not to exclude the recent crisis.”
—Francis Fukuyama, The American Interest, January 2011
Larry Summers’ path to the Obama administration, and his record within it, are symptomatic of a new American plutocracy, and his new job at Harvard will keep the gears of corruption greased.
Summers rose to power under the protective wing of Wall Street and Democratic Party mogul Robert Rubin. He aggressively advanced Rubin’s program of financial deregulation and faithfully rescued his cronies when deregulation went wrong. Despite the economic catastrophes these policies have contributed to, Summers and other Rubinites have continued their political ascendancy in recent years, filling top positions in the Obama administration.
Obama’s economic program, developed almost entirely by Rubin’s proteges, has received widespread popular condemnation for bailing out Wall Street while leaving Main Street out in the cold. Summers has become a defining symbol of the latest sold-out administration within a sold-out system of government. His departure from the White House is more a reflection of this public anger than a personal career choice.
But strategic sensitivity is not change. Summers’ exit does not significantly diminish Rubin’s shadow over the White House, nor does it mark an end or pause in the vicious cycle of today’s crony capitalism. Obama has replaced Summers with a less notorious Rubinite, and the Harvard research center Summers will now direct provides a name-brand intellectual cover for, not an alternative to, the dangerously insular politics his career has thus far embodied.
The Road to Obama is Paved with Rubin
“A relatively senior figure on Wall Street said to me years ago that many of the most important business relationships he had were with the people he met through his other activities. He had found that his business and non-business lives fed each other to the benefit of both.”
—Robert Rubin, Harvard Business School Commencement, 2000
Summers’ arrogant personal style is known to be politically toxic, so he’s been fortunate to have Robert Rubin as a guardian angel easing his way to political stardom. Rubin is what you might call a Wall Street godfather. He joined Goldman Sachs in 1966 and rose to co-CEO and then co-chairman before joining the Clinton administration in 1993 as the first ever director of the National Economic Council, the same position Summers is leaving from now. Summers, a lower level Treasury official at the time, had already endeared himself to Rubin in the 80s, consulting to Goldman Sachs and then working with Rubin on the Dukakis campaign. When Rubin rose to Secretary of the Treasury in 1995, Summers became his deputy.
While running Treasury over the next six years, the two, along with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, were chiefly responsible for the neoliberal economic reforms that allowed banks to market and trade derivatives without oversight or transparency, combine in dangerous ways, take excessive risks, and recover losses when big loans to companies and foreign governments went sour. During the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1998, Time Magazine famously labeled the three “The Committee To Save he World”, which is now a running joke because financial deregulation allowed big banks to almost destroy the world ten years later.