McGeorge Bundy Lives! (Or Harvard’s Revenge on Itself and America, Larry Summers edition)

While I’m trying not to start drinking Mezcal at noon, reading stuff like this (h/t Atrios) and this doesn’t help.

By now, sitting up here at one end of Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, watching Larry Summers’ heirs pick up the pieces at Harvard (seriously — who puts operating budget into endowment investment?), while standing in silent respect for the departing Christina Romer, who more or less got the stimulus notion right, but was blocked by Summers from making that case to the President in the winter-spring of 2009, I find myself drifting back to those Best and Brightest Days of the early 1960s.

That would be when the Yale-educated wunderkind McGeorge Bundy went from having been the youngest Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard to be National Security Advisor to John F. Kennedy, and from within that position to serve as one of the architects of such triumphs as the Bay of Pigs fiasco and, of course, the Vietnam War.

Bundy’s preparation for his role as the lead Presidential advisor on security and defense was marked by acknowledged intellectual brilliance and a lack of real-world validation of his ideas and world view.  He served in World War II as a junior staff officer. (his eyesight was bad enough that he memorized the eye chart to fool recruiters.  No one ever said the man didn’t want to serve — which hasn’t been one of Summers’ sins either). But then, from 1945-1961, he lived the life of the professionally smart:  aiding former Secretary of War, Henry Stimson in writing his autobiography; then becoming first a Harvard professor of government and then, in 1953, the dean of the faculty.  He was by all accounts as clever and intellectually nimble as can be; a member of Boston’s aristocracy, a good dancer, a ferocious wit, a success…until he was placed in a position where his ideas about the use of American power hit the brutal reality of the forests, hills and lowlands of Vietnam.

Larry Summers was a wonder boy too. He too was a brilliant student, starting out at that notoriously relaxed institution of higher learning, MIT, at 16, completing his economics Harvard by the time he was a greybeard 28, becoming one of the youngest tenured professors in Harvard’s history just one year later.  He too was born of an aristocratic family — this time peers of the mind, and especially economists, being as he was the nephew of two econ Nobels in Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow.*

And now we see that also like Bundy, Summers’s undoubted power of intellect has not met the challenge of making policy in the hard world of power and competing interests.

The parallels aren’t exact.  I’d argue that in Summers’ case we already knew he was a dangerous administrator.  No one can say that his tenure as Harvard President was a model of smooth administration, and hints that the financial management there had been weak, to say the least, on his watch, were already discernable at exactly the time Obama was assembling his economic team.  Bundy presented a much cleaner slate in 1961 than Summers did in 2009.

But the results: disaster in human terms and lasting damage to causes of social equity and national wellbeing to which both men subscribed, are much the same.

The moral: not that brains aren’t useful–essential– in governance.  Not that economists are evil, or political scientists naive — some are, some aren’t.  Not that arrogance is itself a besetting sin. Rather, I’d say, beware of wunderkinder.  If you’ve always been the most brilliant person on your block — and you’ve only competed for that title in essentially protected environments (trust me; there are few more protected ecological niches than that in which tenured Harvard professors live), then what you have to offer is advice, not decision.

Nominally, of course, both Bundy and Summers were/are advisors.  In fact, at the ranks they engaged in that advice, they were decision makers.  The stories linked above document how Summers constrained the flow of options and information reaching the president.  He was the wrong person to be doing so — and I would argue that he was predictably so.

I only hope that he winds up having done less damage to the country than some; the blunt trauma the Democratic Party is already suffering in this political season may already be beyond repair. If that’s true, then we are in for hard times, as the not-so-loyal opposition is simply not credible as a governing body.

*Now that, pace McArdle, is an intellectually intimidating family. (See the bottom of the linked post.)

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7 Comments on “McGeorge Bundy Lives! (Or Harvard’s Revenge on Itself and America, Larry Summers edition)”

  1. aimai Says:

    I,too, found that article depressing. What struck me was the emphasis that Summers and his peers put on his early arrogance. Imagine! He wrote a paper on some then conventional economic wisdom and contradicted more important people (!) He called them stupid! From that day on he was a man to be reckoned with. Here’s the thing: most of the kind of unquestioned economic thinking that is conventional wisdom in economics is just this dumb. Everything you learn in Ec 10 then they spend the next year explaining isn’t actually so. And as far as I can see all of free market theories are based on cheap, fake, misunderstood, psychological darwinism. Its the kind of thing outsiders are always pointing out is stupid–we are always saying “the emperor has not clothes.” Larry Summers and his pals think that he got recognized for what he said because he’s so brilliant, but really he got recognized for what he said because he came from an academic aristocracy and his right to say shit to his superiors was recognized and respected.

    I saw in that part of the story one of the things that I’ve noticed in Megan’s writing: economists and their hangers on mistake arrogance and insolence for authority and mastery all the time. No one can review Summers’ pathetic showing at Harvard and not see that here was an asshole who was in way over his head dealing with actual people, or people who couldn’t be intimidated by hectoring and blowharding (can I use that word? It seems like there should be such a word. And I don’t want bloviating because its not hard enough.) And no one can read this article and not think that Summers remains more in love with power and theories that prop up the wealthy than in getting something significant done for the economy. Again, the telling quote is that line “sure that the number would only go up….” they settled on the lower end of the stimulus. Apparently, none of these clever bastards are poker players and none of them know how to bluff, and how to bid.


  2. Tehanu Says:

    This reminds me of something in fiction (or fantasy, actually), namely, good wizards vs. bad wizards: good wizards are always and only advisers to the civil power; bad wizards try to take power for themselves. I don’t know about Bundy, but I do think Summers qualifies in the bad-wiz category.

      • aimai Says:

        You know, I don’t think this seems like the right analogy. I don’t see Summers as really wanting to take over civil power. He just wants to be the big pig at the trough when the meals are dumped in. I see Summers as someone who was an enfant terrible, highly competitive, and highly agressive. He rose through the ranks and got high enough in certain settings, like Academia, that he was bored and out of projects. The only people left to fight with were his peers, not all of whom recognized his brilliance or fell completely under his power. He was booted from a top job that he clearly didn’t feel was as important as he deserved and he moved up and out to be the biggest fish in a much smaller group: Obama’s advisors. He’s a person who can’t share, and doesn’t know how to share. He’s always had to dominate the situation. The article makes clear that he’s learned a few tricks of the trade for group meetings, but ultimately he’s trying to dominate the new situation by dominating the flow of information to Obama. Its a servile position, actually. He’s set himself up to be Sulla’s henchman Chrysognonus (sp?). Luckily for him Obama isn’t going to have him thrown from the Tarpeian rock when he discovers that Summers’ advice wasn’t the best in the biz, just the most vocal.


  3. Batocchio Says:

    Hmm, sounds a bit like Cheney, especially in information-flow control. Although Summers is less evil, and a bit less arrogant, since no one can outdo Cheney, Rumsfeld and Addington on that score.

  4. Bibliyo Says:

    […] McGeorge Bundy Lives! (Or Harvard’s Revenge on Itself and America,That would be when the Yale-educated wunderkind McGeorge Bundy went from having been the youngest Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard to be National Security Advisor to John F. Kennedy, and from within that position … Tags: Christine Romer, Larry Summers, McGeorge Bundy, Requiem for the American Economy… […]

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