Robert Rubin's Contested Legacy

In an Uncertain World: Tough Choices From Wall Street to Washington By Robert Rubin and Jacob Weisberg, Random House, 448 pages, $35.00

In 1992 the incoming Clinton administration had, broadly speaking, two strategic options for domestic policy. The first was a double-or-nothing "social democracy" strategy. Federal spending at the time was running at 22 percent of gross domestic product, hardly changed from 1980. Contrary to conservative mythology, the Reagan revolution hadn't shrunk the government, but it had changed its shape: As a share of federal spending, domestic expenditures outside of the entitlement programs were down by one-third, while debt interest and military spending were up. Forecasts showed deficits continuing -- indeed, rising -- as far as the eye could see. If policy had stayed unchanged, the federal debt -- which had already risen from 26 percent of GDP in 1980 to 48 percent in 1992 -- would have continued climbing to 72 percent in 2000.

Bill Clinton could have said: Let the deficit problem be the responsibility of some future Republican administration. We'll pursue Democratic priorities while keeping the deficit constant, or maybe even allowing it to grow a bit in relation to the economy. Spend more to give every American good medical care (instead of using health-care reform for cost containment). Raise public investment in roads, bridges and other crumbling infrastructure. Expand social insurance to provide better benefits and retraining for workers who lose their jobs. Provide incentives -- such as a carbon tax -- for industry to rest lightly on the environment.

Some liberals will not forgive Clinton for failing to pursue this approach, but it was politically infeasible. In Congress, the Democrats had an organizational but not an ideological majority. Many centrist Democrats would not support a social-democratic program, as was evident in the spring of 1993, when Clinton's short-term economic stimulus program (which included money for infrastructure) went down to defeat.

The double-or-nothing strategy also carried serious economic risks. The long-term growth trend had slowed markedly in the late 1970s and stayed low throughout the 1980s. (Only by the most egregious data manipulation have conservative ideologues claimed to find "seven fat years" in the 1980s.) Governments that run large and persistent deficits find that their appetite for cash diverts spending that would otherwise flow into productive investment, and that investors get nervous and capital starts to flee the country. Low investment means stagnant productivity and wages, not just in a recession but over the entire business cycle. Would it have been good for the country if Clinton's inauguration had been followed by year after year of slow growth? And what would have been the chances of passing any Democratic legislative priorities if the macroeconomic news was never very good?

Faced with those considerations, Clinton rejected the social-democracy strategy in favor of the second possibility -- call it the "Eisenhower Republican" strategy. Make economic growth the first priority. Attempt to get the Federal Reserve to be dovish on interest rates in exchange for seriously reducing the deficit. Take other steps such as trade liberalization to try to boost growth. Reform rather than expand social insurance so that you can argue that taxpayers are getting good value for what they are buying. Hope that these policies will boost investment. And make the Clinton legacy a high-investment, high-productivity growth expansion. If all goes well, a decade of rapid growth and a resolution of the deficit will open up new possibilities for progressive policy.

This was the strategy that Bob Rubin executed, first as head of the National Economic Council and then as treasury secretary under Clinton. Rubin's new memoir shows why he was able to do such a superb job, close to the very best job that could be done. Even the title page gives a clue. How often in a political book does the person who crafts the prose (in this case, Jacob Weisberg) get his or her name on the cover as a full co-author? Rubin listens to the people who work for him, and he is not shy about giving them credit. As an economist at the U.S. Treasury from 1993 to 1995, I had a chance to see him at work, and his people-management skills are remarkable. I have never seen anyone else able to guide a meeting to the consensus he wanted by occasionally raising his eyebrows and saying little other than, "That's very interesting, very important. Now I think we should hear what X has to say."

Rubin himself emphasizes his habit of "probabilistic thinking," always asking such questions as, "What else might happen?" and, "What if we're wrong?"; looking at the full range of possible outcomes rather than the most likely or the most comfortable; and recognizing that just because things came out well in one case, you didn't necessarily make a good decision, or that just because things turned out badly, you didn't necessarily make a bad one.

These qualities made Rubin an ideal first lieutenant in economic policy, but another critical factor in his success was the president himself. Clinton took policy seriously and was usually willing to be convinced that what was good policy would turn out to be good politics (or, at least, that this was a reasonable bet).

Where, if anywhere, did Rubin go wrong? He certainly placed a lot more trust in markets than in laws and in regulatory agencies as devices for monitoring and disciplining corporations -- especially financial corporations. Hence his support for the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act (which limited mergers in the financial industry) and his distrust of regulations that restricted financial corporations. You can argue (and, on odd-numbered days, I do) that this orientation left him blind to the problems of large- scale corporate fraud that later surfaced in Enron, WorldCom and Adelphia and (although here I was blinder) to the gathering international financial storms that hit Mexico, East Asia and Brazil.

But on even-numbered days I think that when international financial crises did erupt, Rubin's reactions were swift, powerful and well thought-out. Modern finance provides ample evidence of government failure as well as market failure, and no one knows for sure the appropriate point of balance.

But there is a bigger question. The Clinton-Rubin economic policies certainly contributed substantially to the economic boom of the 1990s, though economists will debate whether they deserve 20 percent, 40 percent or 60 percent of the credit. In the end, however, the resolution of the deficit did not widen the politically realizable possibilities -- at least not in the way we hoped. Rubin's success helped George W. Bush to return us to the budgetary ground zero of 1992 through enormous tax cuts for the $200,000-plus-a-year crowd, higher military spending, and pork for Republican legislators and favored companies such as Dick Cheney's Halliburton.

Might the social-democracy laissez-deficit strategy have been better for the country after all? Of course, neither Clinton nor Rubin could have foreseen the outcome of the 2000 election. And if they had bequeathed deficits rather than surpluses, would the current crew in power have been any less inclined to the reckless fiscal policies it is now pursuing? It's George W. Bush who has gone for a double-or-nothing strategy, and the country will someday pay the price.

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