Wonkbook: A dark horse for Fed chair?

July 26, 2013

Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.


(Larry Summers photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg; Janet Yellen photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg)

A few thoughts on the state of play at the Federal Reserve.

- Are the chances of a dark horse rising? There's a chance that the increasingly acrimonious fight between supporters of Larry Summers and supporters of Janet Yellen will render both candidates too toxic to pick.

Summers's critics are manifold. The latest -- and most significant -- salvo comes in the form of a letter signed by about a third of Senate Democrats endorsing Janet Yellen for chair. The letter doesn't mention Summers. But the idea that there are even a dozen Senate Democrats with strong, pro-Yellen opinions strains credulity. It's an anti-Summers letter, and everyone knows it.

But if Summers ends up sunk, there's a chance that Yellen's critics in the administration won't want to pick her, either. They'll have dug in too deeply during this process, and her supporters will have just dealt them a painful defeat. The ferocity of the backlash to Summers could end up helping an alternative candidate like Roger Ferguson.

- The Volcker rule backlash. The antipathy towards Summers isn't so much about monetary policy, where the famously loquacious economist has actually been quite tight-lipped, as it is about financial deregulation.

The White House sees much of this as unfair: Summers was a deregulator in the 1990s, sure, but he and everyone else has learned a lot since then. But the Hill Democrats say that they're not hung up on the 1990s. It's 2010 that they're thinking about, when Summers staunchly opposed the Volcker rule. Summers's reasoning was that the Volcker rule would be too difficult to enforce, would be watered down in the regulatory process, and would quickly be evaded by Wall Street. But the fight left many Hill Democrats convinced that Summers remains reflexively skeptical of financial regulation.

- Yellen and FinReg. To be fair, Yellen's Hill supporters admit they have no idea whether she'll be any better at regulating banks than Summers. They're more or less just hoping she will be.

- The administration's gender problem. The White House doesn't take kindly to being told they have a gender problem on their economic team, even though only there's never been a moment during the administration when more than one of the four economic principals (five, if you count the chair of the Federal Reserve) was a woman. They pride themselves on picking the best person for the job, even if that's a man, and even if that means they take a bit of heat.

But that misses the way in which "picking the best man for the job" means men get picked for future jobs, too. You can see this clearly in Annie Lowrey and Binya Appelbaum's deeply reported dive into the "gender undertones" of the Fed race (full disclosure: Lowrey and I are married). It was Laura Tyson, they report, who first recommended Yellen for a role in the Clinton administration, and who gave Lael Brainard -- now the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs -- a crucial promotion. It was Christina Romer who recommended Jan Eberly to serve as the top economist at the Treasury Department. More women in the top jobs tends to mean more women getting picked for positions that lead to future top jobs.

- Revenge of the Clinton years. Much of the anger at Summers goes back to his actions -- both political and personal -- during the Clinton years. Some of the internal skepticism of Yellen goes back to her clashes with, among others, Gene Sperling back when she chaired Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers. With the exception of Obama and perhaps Bernanke, pretty much everyone seriously involved in this decision held a major economic position in the Clinton White House. The stickiness of those players, and of the conflicts of that era, is striking.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 2 percent. That's how much college enrollment fell this school year. It's the first big decline since the 1990s, and it's likely to continue.

Wonkbook's Quotation of the Day: “At some point, you’re going to open the federal government back up, and Barack Obama is going to be president," said Sen. Richard Burr, urging his Republican colleagues not to seek to defund Obamacare in the Affordable Care Act, which would likely lead to a federal shutdown.

Wonkblog's Graphs of the Day: The notional total value of derivatives contracts (relevant to Summers).

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) Larry Summers and the Fed; 2) Obama's Jacksonville speech; 3) defunding Obamacare; 4) Amash and the NSA; and 5) solar's time to shine.

1) Top story: Is Larry Summers a Fed chair for all seasons?

At the Fed, it's the California girls vs. the Rubin boys. "President Obama’s choice of a replacement for the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, is coming down to a battle between the California girls and the Rubin boys...But the choice also is roiling Washington because it is reviving longstanding and sensitive questions about the insularity of the Obama White House and the dearth of women in its top economic policy positions." Binyamin Appelbaum and Annie Lowrey in The New York Times.

Some Senate Democrats write to Obama -- pick Yellen. "The letter has been signed by roughly a third of the 54 Democratic and allied senators, Senate aides said. While the full list of signatories couldn't be learned, it appeared largely to represent the liberal wing of the Democratic caucus...Some Democrats said they signed because of concerns about Mr. Summers's views on financial regulation, rather than on monetary policy." Corey Boles, Janet Hook and Kristina Peterson in The Wall Street Journal.

@frankrichny: The fallout from a Larry Summers resurrection will obliterate Obama's welcome middle-class economic push in about 10 seconds.

Summers dismissed QE effectiveness. "Lawrence Summers made dismissive remarks about the effectiveness of quantitative easing at a conference in April, raising the possibility of a big shift in US monetary policy if he becomes chairman of the Federal Reserve. “QE in my view is less efficacious for the real economy than most people suppose,” said Mr Summers according to an official summary of his remarks at a conference organised in Santa Monica by Drobny Global, obtained by the Financial Times." Robin Harding in The Financial Times.

@jbarro: I like Larry Summers, but I'm for Yellen at the Fed: she'd produce way less drama, which would likely mean better policy outcomes.

Larry Summers isn’t popular in the blogosphere. But he’s got friends in high places. "The result is that if you’re just reading the economics blogosphere, you’re getting a skewed picture. The dominant thinking seems to be, How could the White House possibly name this guy that nobody likes? The key thing to remember here is there are other zones of influence too, and some of the most important ones are much, much friendlier to Summers. The world of economic and Wall Street heavyweights who’ve worked or fundraised at high levels in Democratic administrations tend to be very pro-Summers." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

@petersuderman: I don't have a strong personal preference in the Yellen/Summers contest. But the WH is not making the pro-Summers case well.

Yellen or Summers, it will be Obama's Fed. "[T]he chair isn't the only appointment President Barack Obama will make to the Fed's Board of Governors next year. In fact, he may have to fill as many as five seats, counting the top one...For the first time in his presidency, every member of the board will be an Obama appointee...That's about as clean a slate as one could have, and it suggests a different perspective on the race for Fed president: It won't be the Larry Summers Fed or the Janet Yellen Fed. It will be the Barack Obama Fed -- no matter who gets the top job. Here's something else we've missed: Every woman now on the board may be leaving...Commentators have zeroed in on a Yellen-vs.-Summers personality contest. That's a big mistake. Obama has the chance to set U.S. monetary policy on a fresh course in the next decade. Seize the day." Evan Soltas in Bloomberg.

Yellen vs. Summers: Who would be a better Fed chair? "Yellen is one of the key engineers of the Fed’s current strategy of pairing monthly bond purchases with “forward guidance” to explain to markets the future path of policy. Summers has been largely quiet about his views on the proper direction of monetary policy in recent years, no doubt in part to maintain viability as a possible nominee for Fed chair...Add it all up, and we just don’t know in advance how a Summers Fed might differ from the Bernanke Fed, though we do know that Yellen is almost certain to maintain continuity with the strategy she helped put in place." Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

@mattyglesias: Summers seem to have clearly stated views on every significant economic policy question except … the stuff the Fed does.

@JoshZumbrun: If the goal of floating Summers was to broaden the range of organizations that pay attention to Fed coverage then Mission Accomplished.

Up for debate at the Fed: a sharper message. "At their July 30-31 meeting, Fed officials are likely to discuss whether to refine or revise "forward guidance," the words they use to describe their intentions for the next few years...One [step] would be to match its publicly set upper bound for inflation with a new lower bound. The central bank has said it will raise short-term rates if inflation is seen as rising above the 2.5% target. It hasn't said what it would do if inflation drops much below the Fed's 2% medium-term objective. One option is to say that short-term rates won't rise if inflation falls below some threshold, perhaps 1.5%." Jon Hilsenrath in The Wall Street Journal.

In recovering economy, declining college enrollment. "The long enrollment boom that swelled American colleges — and helped drive up their prices — is over, with grim implications for many schools. College enrollment fell 2 percent in 2012-13, the first significant decline since the 1990s, but nearly all of that drop hit for-profit and community colleges; now, signs point to 2013-14 being the year when traditional four-year, nonprofit colleges begin a contraction that will last for several years...Hardest hit are likely to be colleges that do not rank among the wealthiest or most prestigious, and are heavily dependent on tuition revenue, raising questions about their financial health — even their survival." Richard Perez-Pena in The New York Times.

Business spending lifts durable goods orders. "The Commerce Department said on Thursday that orders for durable goods increased 4.2 percent last month. That followed a 5.2 percent gain in May, which was revised higher...Orders that signal planned business investment, which exclude volatile transportation and military orders, increased in June for the fourth straight month. The 0.7 percent gain last month was buoyed by more machinery demand. And orders in May were much stronger than previously reported." The Associated Press.

The complex story of race and upward mobility. "[T]he economists who did the study do not list race as one of the main factors that explains the variation in upward-mobility rates across regions...The simplest way to explain their conclusion may be to point out that upward mobility tends to be rare for both blacks and whites, as well as for Latinos, in low-mobility areas. In Charlotte, Atlanta and Indianapolis, low-income white children have also tended to grow up to be low-income adults...Whatever the differences are between high-mobility and low-mobility regions, they seem to apply to residents of every race." David Leonhardt in The New York Times.

KONCZAL: Say no to Summers. "The first, and most urgent, [priority for a new Fed chair] is to determine how to navigate our economy out of the current doldrums. The second is to decide how aggressively to enforce the new set of financial reform rules that emerged from the financial crisis. And the third, crucially, is to find a way to rebuild monetary policy and the Fed so that the United States won’t see a repeat of the current crisis. Yellen is clearly the superior candidate on all three counts." Mike Konczal in Politico.

SCHEIBER: The new Summers looks a lot like the old Summers. "On the other hand, in Summers’ case, this doesn’t really translate into populism on the subject of financial reform—in general, he’s about as far from a populist as you can get. I’m especially mystified by the idea that Summers would doggedly implement Dodd-Frank. In 2009 and early 2010, Summers was the most vocal internal opponent of the so-called Volcker Rule...As for the other key criticism of Summers—that he doesn’t play well with others, something that’s central to making the Fed work—the White House suggestion that it, too, is “outdated” strikes me as delusional or willfully ignorant. Unless Summers served in a high-ranking government job that I’m not aware of after leaving the White House in 2010, the critique seems rather perfectly up to date." Noam Scheiber in The New Republic.

O'BRIEN: Summers is misinformed. "It's not that Summers isn't a brilliant economist -- he most certainly is -- but rather that he doesn't have, well, any of Yellen's central banking expertise...[T]he few things he has said aren't encouraging...[H]e thinks the Fed pushing down real interest rates might only push companies to make bad investments they otherwise wouldn't make. It's a very Austrian view of things -- the idea that pushing interest rates "artificially" low makes businesses make mistakes." Matthew O'Brien in The Atlantic.

JOHNSON: Banking reform's fear factor. "Nearly five years after the worst financial crisis since the 1930’s, and three years after the enactment of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms in the United States, one question is on everyone’s mind: Why have we made so little progress?...There are three possible explanations for what has gone wrong. One is that financial reform is inherently complicated...The second explanation focuses on conflict among agencies with overlapping jurisdictions, both within and across countries...That leaves the final explanation: those in charge of financial reform really did not want to make rapid progress." Simon Johnson in Project Syndicate.

Music recommendations interlude: Tycho, "A Walk," 2011.

Top op-eds

KLEIN: There's no such thing as 'the center.' "It’s not the center of public opinion. It’s more a reference to an amorphous Washington consensus. Insofar as that concept ever made sense, the idea was that it’s the legislative center, the zone of compromise where things can actually get done. But even that concept has begun to break down in recent years...When you’re judging policy, “good” and “bad” are descriptions that make sense. So are “popular” and “unpopular,” and “likely to pass” and “no chance.” But “the center”? It’s time to retire that one, or at least come up with a more rigorous definition of what we mean when we use it." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

KRUGMAN: Republican health care panic. "[E]ven as Republican politicians seem ready to go on the offensive, there’s a palpable sense of anxiety, even despair, among conservative pundits and analysts. Better-informed people on the right seem, finally, to be facing up to a horrible truth: Health care reform, President Obama’s signature policy achievement, is probably going to work." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

COHN: The right's latest scheme to sabotage Obamacare. "[Y]ou might be wondering if this is the way opposition parties and movements typically act when a law they don't like is about to take effect. The answer is no...We can debate honestly, and constructively, whether Obamacare gets the prices and penalties for this responsiblity right—and, if not, whether those should be adjusted. But the basic idea that Republican leaders are protesting so intensely is one that you would expect the defenders of "personal responsiblity" to support—and one, until recently, many of them did support. It's enough to make you wonder how much of this opposition is about Obamacare, and how much is about the guy who signed it into law." Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic.

Cheap shots interlude: A video of Rahm Emanuel dancing.

2) Obama's Jacksonville speech

Obama vows to bypass Congress on infrastructure projects. "President Obama vowed on Thursday to use his executive powers to bypass bottlenecks in Congress and accelerate infrastructure projects to bolster growth and add jobs...Last July, Mr. Obama signed an executive order that helped expedite federal review and permitting on seven infrastructure projects." Michael D. Shear in The New York Times.

Video: Watch President Obama’s economic speech in Jacksonville. Matt DeLong in The Washington Post.

White House hardens stance on budget cuts ahead of showdown with Republicans. "Senior White House officials are discussing a budget strategy that could lead to a government shutdown if Republicans continue to demand deeper spending cuts, lawmakers and Democrats familiar with the administration’s thinking said Thursday...White House officials also are discussing a potential strategy to try to stop the sequestration cuts from continuing, the lawmakers and Democrats said. Under this scenario, the president might refuse to sign a new funding measure that did not roll back the sequester. No decision has been made." Zachary A. Goldfarb and Paul Kane in The Washington Post.

...But mostly, he just hopes Congress will just stay out of the way. "What’s different this time – what will make this series of speeches over the next two months more politically convincing than those he delivered during the “recovery summer” and “Main Street” jobs tour – is the relatively modest request at the heart of Obama’s list of issues and ideas. More than adopting his activist vision of government, Obama wants Congress, specifically a recalcitrant group of House Republicans, to get out of the way. There is a lot Obama wants from Congress, little of which is likely achievable in the current political circumstances. For Obama, looking to put his second term on a more focused course, preserving the status quo might be a victory in itself." Scott Wilson in The Washington Post.

Obama says the typical family income ‘barely budged’ between 1979 and 2007. It grew at least 15 percent. "According to the Current Population Survey’s Annual Social Economic Supplements (ASEC) — a Census Bureau publication tracking income, health coverage, and poverty — the real median American family income increased by 17.7 percent between 1979 and 2007, and the real median household income (which includes people living alone and unrelated roommates) grew by 14.7 percent." Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

House appropriations bill would cut defense spending but prohibit 2014 furloughs. "The House approved a defense appropriations bill Wednesday that would cut $5 billion from the Pentagon’s non-war budget while prohibiting sequester-related furloughs. The measure, which passed by a vote of 315 to 108, provides $28 billion above current non-war spending under the government-wide spending cuts that took effect in March." Josh Hicks in The Washington Post.

Budget cuts force scale back of health-care fraud investigations. "Facing major budget and staff cuts, federal officials are scaling back several high-profile health-care fraud and abuse investigations, including an audit of the state insurance exchanges that are set to open later this year as a key provision of the Affordable Care Act. The Department of Health and Human Services’s Office of Inspector General, which investigates Medicare and Medicaid waste, fraud and abuse, is in the process of losing 400 staffers, about 20 percent of its workforce from its peak strength of 1,800 last year." Fred Schulte in The Washington Post.

In tax talks, would Democrats accept no new tax increases. "A sizable bloc of the 16 Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee is contemplating agreeing to Republican demands that any tax overhaul not include tax increases, bucking their party on what has become a signature issue...It would be a coup for Republicans to win even one Democratic vote when the still-unreleased legislation comes before the panel." Brian Faller in Politico.

Cantor: House won't vote on clean debt limit extension in September. "Cantor was asked by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) whether that would happen, and made it clear it would not. "I would say … the answer to that last question is 'no,' " Cantor said. Cantor later clarified that he was only closing the door on a clean debt ceiling vote by September." Pete Kasperowicz in The Hill.

As ye shall sow so shall ye reap interlude: Young immigrants deliver cantaloupes to Rep. King's office on Capitol Hill.

3) GOP raises the ante on defunding Obamacare

Congressional Republicans are now organizing to defund Obamacare in the continuing resolution. "More than 60 Republicans have signed a letter urging Speaker John Boehner to defund Obamacare when Congress funds the government in September. The letter, being circulated by the office of freshman Rep. Mark Meadows, doesn’t explicitly say that supporters will vote against a government funding bill if it does not strip funding for Obamacare." Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan in Politico.

...But they're feuding over the tactics. "A growing number of Republicans are rejecting calls from leading conservatives, including Sens. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, to defund the president’s health care law in the resolution to keep the government running past Sept. 30...The debate is happening behind closed doors and over Senate lunches, as well as during a frank meeting Wednesday with House leaders in Speaker John Boehner’s suite where fresh concerns were aired about the party’s strategy. On Thursday, the dispute began to spill into public view, most notably when three Senate Republicans — including Minority Whip John Cornyn — withdrew their signatures from a conservative letter demanding defunding Obamacare as a condition for supporting the government funding measure." Manu Raju and Jake Sherman in Politico.

Watch out, Republicans! You're helping Obamacare succeed. "[T]here’s something else Republicans have been doing that, in a weird way, will likely help the Affordable Care Act. Namely, they have predicted the law’s complete and utter implosion when it launches on Oct. 1...Republicans have set Obamacare expectations so incredibly low that, if Godzilla doesn’t march in on Oct. 1 and gobble up our health insurance coverage and legions of IRS agents fail to microchip the masses, that could plausibly look like a success." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Republicans had a plan to replace Obamacare. It looked a lot like Obamacare. "Four years ago, however, they did. It was called the Patients’ Choice Act, it was proposed by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), two of the most influential Congressional Republicans on the issue, and it was a credible way of covering almost all Americans...There are plenty of differences, of course. Obamacare expands Medicaid; the Patients’ Choice Act restricts it to low-income disabled people, moving the rest of its beneficiaries onto private insurance. Obamacare cuts Medicare provider payments; the Patients’ Choice Act mean-tests premiums and does competitive bidding for private Medicare Advantage plans. Obamacare has individual and employer mandates; the Patients’ Choice Act instead auto-enrolls people." Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

KLEIN: Will Obamacare kickstart a healthcare revolution? "[I]n a cavernous room in New York’s SoHo district, a group of entrepreneurs is working to render the entire Washington conversation over Obamacare obsolete. There, Obamacare is no longer a political controversy: It’s a business opportunity. And a trio of young technologists have raised $40 million to take advantage of it...Sign into your Oscar insurance account online and you’ll see a few carefully chosen options on a page that’s otherwise white and clean. At the top, you can type in your symptoms and be taken immediately to a guided set of options, including a button that lets you talk to a doctor." Ezra Klein in Bloomberg.

Writing interlude: The best first lines of books, as selected by authors.

4) Amash goes to war

Justin Amash almost beat the NSA. Next time, he might do it. "Last night’s remarkably close House vote on the NSA’s bulk surveillance program can be read one of two ways. You could say it was a symbolic win for the agency’s critics. Or you could say the House rejected an attempt to weaken the program. Which side you fall on this morning depends mostly on whether you think symbolism carries any weight in this debate." Brian Fung in The Washington Post.

NSA snooping is hurting U.S. tech companies’ bottom line. "[N]ow it’s starting to look like the snooping is hitting U.S.-based cloud providers where it really hurts: Their pocketbooks...[A] recent Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) survey found 10 percent of 207 officials at non-U.S. companies canceled contracts with U.S. providers after the leaks, and 56 percent of non-U.S. respondents are now hesitant to work with U.S.-based cloud operators." Andrea Peterson in The Washington Post.

Attention Tyler Cowen, there is no great stagnation interlude: Innovation in bottle openers.

5) Solar's time to shine

World's largest solar plant ready to shine. "More than six years in the making, the Ivanpah plant is now slated to begin generating power before summer's end. It was designed by BrightSource Energy to use more than 170,000 mirrors to focus sunlight onto boilers positioned atop three towers, which reach nearly 500 feet (150 meters) into the dry desert air. The reflected sunlight heats water in the boilers to make steam, which turns turbines to generate electricity—enough to power more than 140,000 homes...At 377 megawatts (MW), Ivanpah's capacity is more than double that of the Andusol, Solnava, or Extresol power stations in southern Spain, which previously were the largest in the world." Josie Garthwaite in National Geographic.

Where is all of the water going? "[N]uclear or fossil fuel power plants, which require 190 billion gallons of water per day, or 39% of all U.S. freshwater withdrawals." Kate Zerrenner for the Environmental Defense Fund website.

White House to focus comprehensive energy review on infrastructure. "The White House will focus its first four-year, interagency review of the U.S. energy landscape on infrastructure, Energy Department counsel Melanie Kenderdine said Thursday. Two of the Quadrennial Energy Review's chief goals are to bolster defenses against climate change and to strengthen energy security, Kenderdine said, noting the U.S. energy sector has some work ahead to match the resiliency of other nations' systems." Zack Colman in The Hill.

Federal report: World energy consumption to grow 56 percent by 2040. "Those are some of the conclusions in federal Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) big new “International Energy Outlook,” which examines estimated supply, consumption and emissions trends over the next three decades. China and India will together account for half the increase in global energy use, according to the EIA, which is the Energy Department’s independent statistical arm, and more broadly, the developing world will largely drive vast bulk of the increase." Ben German in The Hill.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

Can an international agreement stop the global taxation shell gameLydia DePIllis.

Here’s how hackers could crash your carTimothy B. Lee.

There’s no such thing as ‘the center’. Ezra Klein.

Larry Summers isn’t popular in the blogosphere. But he’s got friends in high placesEzra Klein.

Yellen vs. Summers: Who would be a better Fed chairNeil Irwin.

Republicans had a plan to replace Obamacare. It looked a lot like ObamacareDylan Matthews.

Don’t you wish this ‘Daria’ trailer was for a real movie? Sarah Kliff.

NSA snooping is hurting U.S. tech companies’ bottom lineAndrea Peterson.

Obama says the typical family income ‘barely budged’ between 1979 and 2007. It grew at least 15 percent. Dylan Matthews.

Watch out, Republicans! You’re helping Obamacare succeedSarah Kliff.

Today’s hearing on innovation and copyright is short on innovatorsAndrea Peterson.

Et Cetera

Gay spouses have same rights as straight couples, FEC rulesMatea Gold in The Washington Post.

Congress could fill longstanding IG vacancies under Senate proposalJosh Hicks in The Washington Post.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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