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Larry Summers Trips Out

Photo Source New America | CC BY 2.0

In a recent Financial Times article, Harvard economics professor and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers describes his excellent adventure driving from Chicago to Portland. As Summers writes, it “was a trip different to any I had ever taken,” full of revelations for someone who usually only travels long distances by plane.

Summers and his wife took two weeks to drive on two-lane roads across prairies and mountains, from Dubuque to Cody to Bozeman and beyond, “marveling at how much of this vast country is uninhabited.” They were sometimes far from any gas stations and even farther from phone chargers. Occasionally they had no mobile phone service at all!

Okay, so not exactly a Jack Kerouac odyssey, but well outside the Summers Comfort Zones of Cambridge, the Vineyard, Georgetown, Manhattan, et al.

Braving flyover country, separated from his usual tribe of “business leaders and cosmopolitan elites who are more worried about the concerns of their conference mates in Davos than those of their fellow citizens,” Summers marveled that local people in bars and restaurants where he stopped did not seem concerned with the ongoing saga of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation process.

And Summers noted with some puzzlement that “People in most of the places we visited have tended to vote Republican in recent decades.”

By far the most surprising revelation of the Summers travelogue was how surprised he seemed to be by what he was seeing.

Because, Larry, Larry, Larry, you’re the reason! Those were your economic policies during the Clinton years that shaped the country many of us have long known, but where you’re just now arriving. You were a senior Treasury official during that entire era and top dog, Secretary of the Treasury, from 1999 to 2001.

You advocated repealing key provisions of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that regulated banks for more than sixty years. And you helped frustrate efforts to regulate the derivatives that many analysts blame for the 2008 financial crisis. Foreshadowing Trumpian environmentalism, you argued that the U.S. should not honor the Kyoto Protocol or take the lead in greenhouse gas reductions.

You signed off on NAFTA! Even Ross Perot knew that was a bad idea, sending millions of jobs overseas and creating many of those “romantic ghost towns” and “abandoned cafes, gas stations and hotels” across the nation you are now so astonished to behold. From such ruins an opioid epidemic has arisen, with its suicidal rituals of despair. Did you happen to catch any whiff of that?

How complicit were you? Did you also advise Bill to end “welfare as we know it,” destroying the safety net for millions of our poorest citizens? Did you sign off on Bill’s “three-strikes” crime laws that mandated life sentences for repeat offenders, even non-violent offenders, creating the mass incarceration for which the USA is justly infamous?

You and Clinton were nominal Democrats, but you bent over backwards to placate Newt Gingrich so Bill could get re-elected (only to be impeached). What’s the point of voting for Democrats like you? Of course, we didn’t vote for you.

You returned to government in the Obama years to direct the National Economic Council response to the 2008 economic meltdown that you had helped to create. You bailed out the big banks but not their client victims. That may have pleased your friends in Davos and the Hamptons, Larry, but it didn’t help many people in Dubuque or Bozeman. You’re probably lucky that no one on your journey knew who the hell you were or they might have spoiled your lunch.

Do you really wonder why so many denizens of devastated communities voted Republican in recent decades?

Of course, political choice for the 99 percent consists of Tweedledumb or Tweedledumber. Why would anyone outside the Bos-Wash corridor bother with Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation process? The fix was in for his Supreme Court appointment from the git go, regardless of what evidence anyone, especially any offended female, might produce to undermine his fitness for the job.

Government of the people, by the people, for the people is a catchy, empty phrase for most of those who live between the coasts or on them, outside the privileged enclaves you frequent, Larry. The incessant media chatter is so much white (and token black) noise. Blah blah. Nothing to do with day-to-day reality.

And those Depression-era public works you admired – the libraries and courthouses, the bridges and national parks – are stately reminders that federal government largesse in communities big and small has vanished in recent decades. “Infrastructure” is just another content-free political buzzword. Like “public schools.” Our permanent war economy leaves less and less for the common good. We are really waging war on ourselves.

So, well, anyway, Larry, despite some of your dubious conclusions about your amazing journey into America’s dark heartland, it’s probably good that you finally caught a glimpse of reality on the ground, where many of your actions have had devastating consequences and most of your fellow citizens actually live.

But Larry, Larry, Larry, what took you so long?                                               #

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James McEnteer’s most recent book is Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty DepartmentHe lives in Quito, Ecuador.

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