Notebook — From the March 2009 issue

Achievetrons

( 4 of 5 )

Which isn’t to say that Hillary Clinton hasn’t read the letters of Abraham Lincoln, or that Tim Geithner doesn’t know how to analyze (in three languages and five currencies) a Four Seasons hotel bill; that Robert Gates isn’t familiar with the theory of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, or that Larry Summers might make the mistake of turning to face Jerusalem instead of Mecca when begging money from a Saudi prince. What it does suggest is that President Obama’s household staff, in accordance with the protocols observed by “the best of the Washington insiders,” can be counted upon to place their own self-interest first and foremost and to avoid fooling around with initiatives that threaten to leave a stain on the rug. Clinton as senator from New York in 2002 voted for the invasion of Iraq not because she knew or cared why America was embarking on a mindless war but because what was wanted was a cheerful waving of the pom-poms and the flag; Geithner as the president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank in the winter of 2007 neglected to address the impending trouble in the credit markets because to have done so would have upset the Wall Street achievetrons folding and refolding sets of imaginary numbers into paper hats and airplanes; Gates as deputy director of the CIA in the 1980s painted his portrait of the evil Soviet empire to match the one walking around in Ronald Reagan’s head, unwilling to believe that the Red Menace was mortal until the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 exposed his intelligence estimates as works of science fiction; Summers in 1998 as President Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of the Treasury served as one of the principal sponsors of our current financial debacle, facilitating repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and joining with Secretary Robert Rubin (Harvard, Yale Law) and Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Alan Greenspan (New York University) to force the resignation of Brooksley Born, chair of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, who urged regulation of the markets in new derivatives. The motion to block the large-scale accumulation of toxic debt ran counter to the belief, then all the rage among the bankers at JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs as among the members of the Palm Beach Country Club, that money, deftly cultivated by its cronies, grows on trees.

Lewis H. Lapham is the National Correspondent for Harper’s Magazine and the editor of Lapham’s Quarterly.

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