Why Washington Can’t Quit Listening to Larry Summers

Why Washington Can’t Quit Listening to Larry Summers

Larry Summers has split his pandemic time between houses in Massachusetts and Arizona. He also seems to live inside the collective mind of the Washington economic establishment.

When the 66-year-old veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations talks, Washington’s policy apparatus — journalists and think-tank types, economists and communications people, administration researchers and Capitol Hill staff — stops to listen. It disputes, debates and ultimately disseminates his ideas. Sometimes, it does so almost in spite of itself. Deploring the way he dominates the narrative is its own catalyst to his dominance, though his critics often miss the paradox.

Mr. Summers spent his last White House stint as a top economic adviser, when the administration settled for a smaller Great Recession stimulus package out of political practicality, and has since disputed criticism by saying he favored more spending then. He has spent 2021 protesting that the $1.9 trillion spending package the Biden administration passed in March was too large for reasons both political and economic, while fretting that the Federal Reserve will be too slow to sop up the mess. The result, he has warned, could be an overheating economy and runaway inflation.

Other respected academics were repeating variations on the same theme, though most economists argued that a 2021 price pop was more likely to be short-lived. But it was Mr. Summers, a longtime Harvard professor, whose brash declarations worked a sort of nerd magic, drawing the boundaries of the debate and forcing the White House — one he largely supports — on the offensive.

Mr. Summers had combined the swagger of a former Treasury secretary with the gravitas of a respected academic and punchy lines — the stimulus wasn’t just a bad idea, according to him, it was the “least responsible” policy in four decades — to set off a national conversation that was hard to ignore. Reactions spilled out of the White House and Janet Yellen’s Treasury, which voiced respectful but firm disagreement. Republican lawmakers now invoke the stalwart Democrat’s wisdom. Liberal commentators on Twitter smart at his statements.

“He has always attached a large magnitude and a lot of force to whatever he’s arguing at any point in time,” said Jason Furman, a Harvard colleague who was also an Obama administration official.

He said Mr. Summers’s recent concerns about economic overheating were a “combination” of helpful and harmful. They raised a valid worry, Mr. Furman said, but in a way that “polarized the debate.”

Being divisive makes Mr. Summers no less relevant, and maybe more. President Biden talked with him last month, The Washington Post reported. White House officials respect his opinion and regularly engage with him along with a variety of other economic thinkers, an administration official said.

When Mr. Summers began to warn about overheating early this year, it appeared, for a moment, that his clout might crack. Leading Democrats dismissed his ideas, and his loudest critics labeled them the dying gasp of a failed ideology of economic centrism, coming from a man who found himself disempowered in a more progressive Democratic administration.

“Larry Summers Is Finally, Belatedly, Irrelevant,” The New Republic declared. The American Prospect labeled his arguments “churlish payback” from an egotist who didn’t get a big administration job. (Mr. Summers, who was Treasury secretary from 1999 to 2001 and director of the National Economic Council from 2009 through 2010, has said he didn’t want to work in the administration.)

But Republicans seized on his arguments as evidence of the administration’s imprudent largess. Inflation became a primary political talking point on the right, and as the data confirmed that prices were rising — widely expected, albeit not so rapidly — the White House was forced to answer question after question about them.

“I want to ask you about some of the criticism by one of your former colleagues, Larry Summers,” was how one reporter put it, among the several who invoked him by name.

Mr. Summers became “a political problem to deal with,” said Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project, a progressive advocacy group. His ideas can influence moderate congressional Democrats and make it harder to pass administration policies, Mr. Hauser explained.

“Summers is not irrelevant,” he said.

All evidence suggests that the Biden administration has accepted Mr. Summers’s role as unofficial economics whisperer and frequent gadfly. While it has disputed his most damning critiques — “It’s just flat-out wrong that our team is, quote, ‘dismissive’ of inflationary risks,” the economic adviser Jared Bernstein protested during a February news conference, referring to a particularly snippy Summers-ism — his students and protégés pepper its ranks.

Natasha Sarin, one of his co-authors, is a deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the Treasury Department. Brian Deese, the head of the National Economic Council, was one of his aides during the 2008 financial crisis. The White House also benefits from Mr. Summers’s support for Mr. Biden’s infrastructure spending push.

Many people who have served in top government jobs do stick around, commenting favorably on how their former team is doing. Others, like the former Treasury secretaries Timothy F. Geithner and Steven Mnuchin, fade out of the limelight. Few remain as front and center as Mr. Summers, or as apolitical and provocative.

Mr. Summers could turn out to be right, and is already taking a partial victory lap after the Fed increased its 2021 inflation forecasts. Most Fed officials now expect to raise rates by the end of 2023, a nod to faster-than-expected price gains. Mr. Summers has welcomed those developments, while seeing them as too little.

But he could yet be proved wrong, since part of the increase in prices was broadly expected and much of the rest came from categories affected by reopening wiggles, like airplane tickets and used cars. If price gains fall back into line after a bout of pandemic weirdness, there’s little reason for them to be destabilizing or problematic, from the Fed’s perspective.

Whether or not Mr. Summers turns out to be the sage of Scottsdale and Brookline, his staying power is perhaps best understood as a statement about what he represents: the belief that government spending has real if hard-to-know boundaries, and that trying to measure economic and practical limits can lead to better policymaking.

Those ideas are out of vogue among progressives, who embrace deficit spending and assessments of policy success that put more weight on the risk of underreacting. But Mr. Summers’s continued resonance in Washington — his words shaping policy debates that he is no longer, technically, integral to — shows that going out of fashion isn’t the same as going extinct.

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