The Best and the Brightest Meme — Eight Years Too Late?

Ken Houghton

CR beat me to commenting on this Mankiw whine post, partially because I couldn’t think of anything reasonable to say about it. (CR could. That’s why he gets the big bucks.)

But now that CR has done the heavy lifting, let’s look at the other aspect: Mankiw’s standard:

Based a standard ranking of economists’ academic accomplishments as of October 2008…[emphasis mine]

    11. Larry Summers
    21. Greg Mankiw
    35. Ben Bernanke
    99. Eddie Lazear
    132. Glenn Hubbard
    249. Harvey Rosen
    391. Christy Romer*
    653. Austan Goolsbee

[emphases Mankiw’s; Bush administration officials]

Leaving aside whether the ranking used makes sense, we ask the next question: What does this have to do the performance of the individual in a government role?

So I realised we’ve been thinking about the Obama Administration in exactly the wrong way.

Several people are referencing the late David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, a biography of the Kennedy Administration’s well-educated pedigree and their policy missteps. Krugman used it as a cautionary phrase in the exact post about which Mankiw whimpered. As John McCain once wrote:

The term “best and brightest” has become an insult, not an accolade, thanks largely to Halberstam’s magnificent, scabrous epic about the policymaking blunders that swept the United States into Vietnam. This classic work is part of the Vietnam canon, but it is not really about Vietnam; it is very much a Washington book, focused on the surety of the hawks stateside rather than the misery and warfare in Indochina. [italics mine]

But look at (most of*) Obama’s picks:

    Orszag – Currently at the OMB. Prior experience at CEA, and then as a Special Assistant to the President during the Clinton Administration.
    Summers – veteran of the Clinton Administration
    Geithner – veteran of the Clinton Administration
    Paul Volcker – veteran of the Carter and Reagan AdministrationsModule Water Slide best, named Chair of the Federal Reserve by Carter.
    Melody Barnes – Eight years as Chief Counsel to Senator Kennedy on the Senate Judiciary Committee
    Heather Higginbottom – Eight years as legislative director for Senator Kerry

The list goes on, but what is notable is that—with the exceptions of the Advisors Goolsbee and C. Romer—all have extensive government policy experience.

Let’s look at the Bush people:

    Mankiw – columnist for Fortune, textbook author. As Bruce Bartlett noted in 2003, “Mankiw endorsed the election of George W. Bush because, unlike Al Gore, he would cut taxes, reform Social Security and antitrust policy, and try to implement school choice.” Spent one year as a CEA staff member—twenty years prior to being named CEA Chair.
    Lazear – No policy-making experience prior to being named to the CEA.
    Hubbard – No policy-making experience prior to being named Chair of the CEA.
    Harvey S. Rosen – Deputy Assistant Secretary (Tax Analysis), Department of the Treasury, 1989-91, then no government experience again until named to the CEA in 2003. (Fairness note: the interim is largely a Democratic Administration. No indication what he did from 1991 to 1993, save possibly returning to Princeton to teach). Note that he officially did exactly that in 2005, though he had warned that might happen.

Comparing the actual policy experience of the two Administrations, references to Halberstam’s work are much more applicable to the Bush Administration than the incoming Obama Administration.

Despite having a relative disadvantage in looking for people with policy-making experience (eight years with a Democrat in the executive branch over the past 28 years v. Bush’s twelve of the previous twenty), the Bush Administration’s combined highlights list has less total experience in policy-making than Summers alone.

Knowing how to make sausage is a Comparative Advantage when one is working in a sausage-making environment. Otherwise, you just end up with a “hack.”

*Mankiw uses Greg and Ben and Eddie as well, so I assume the use of “Christy” is not meant to pejorative. Firedoglake’s mileage may vary.
**Goolsbee is the notable exception, and he is in a Senior Advisory role, specifically the Economic Recovery Advisory Board, where he will be working with Paul Volcker.