If you look at this presentation I gave just after releasing the draft report of the Government 2.0 Taskforce, you’ll see me (at around the seventh minute) talking about how Web 2.0 turbocharges the ecology of reputation. As I did in this column of mine (one of my best IMO) I talk of Tanta and of Steve Randy Waldman. And I note that he’s ‘just’ a PhD student at Kentucky University. But that doesn’t stop him being linked to by the blogerati of economics, including the Nobelerati.
So I was really excited to see that this has taken it’s next logical step, as pointed out by Waldman himself on his blog. (His post also makes it clear that I missed an earlier meeting.)
Last Monday, I had the privilege to meet up with a bunch of bloggers and Treasury officials for what might be described as a “rap session”. The meeting was less formal than a previous meeting. There were no presentations, and no obvious agenda. Refugees from the blogosphere included Tyler Cowen, Phil Davis, John Lounsbury, Mike Konczal, Yves Smith,Alex Tabarrok, and myself. Our hosts at Treasury were Lewis Alexander, Michael Barr, Timothy Geithner, Matthew Kabaker, Mary John Miller, and Jake Siewart. You will find better write-ups of the affair elsewhere [Konczal, Lounsbury(also here), Smith, Tabarrok]. Treasury held another meeting, with a different set of bloggers, on Wednesday.
It is bizarro world for me to go to these things. First, let me confess right from the start, I had a great time. I pose as an outsider and a crank. But when summoned to the court, this jester puts on his bells. I am very, very angry at Treasury, and the administration it serves. But put me at a table with smart, articulate people who are willing to argue but who are otherwise pleasant towards me, and I will like them. One or two of the “senior Treasury officials” had the grace to be a bit creepy in their demeanor. But, cruelly, the rest were lively, thoughtful, and willing to engage as though we were equals. Occasionally, under attack, they expressed hints of frustration in their body language — the indignation of hardworking people unjustly accused. But they kept on in good spirits until their time was up. I like these people, and that renders me untrustworthy. Abstractly, I think some of them should be replaced and perhaps disgraced. But having chatted so cordially, I’m far less likely to take up pitchforks against them. Drawn to the Secretary’s conference room by curiosity, vanity, ambition, and conceit, I’ve been neutered a bit. There’s an irony to that, because some of the people I met with may have been neutered, in precisely the same way and to disastrous effect, by their own meetings and mentorings with the Robert Rubins and Jamie Dimons of the world.
Obviously the headline act was Timothy Geithner. Off the record (or “on deep background”), Geithner is entirely different from the sometimes stiff character who appears on television. He is fun to argue with, very smart, good natured, and intellectually wily. As Yves Smith quipped afterwards, Geithner “gives good meeting.”
And on it goes. All I can say is that I’m seriously impressed. And amazed that it has been written up in such detail. It seems the code being used is a kind of asymmetrical Chatham House rules where what the bloggers say can be reported, and what officials say can be described generally, but not attributed to specific officials. One blogger calls it ‘deep background’ but there’s a fair bit of information here about how officials think. This kind of information from Waldman’s post could set hares running:
Amid the talk about flagging demand, blogger John Lounsbury had the courage to “drop a stink bomb”, as he put it. He said that in his view, the United States needed to move from a consumption to a production oriented economy, and that we ought to use the tax system to get there, increasing taxes on consumption and reducing taxes on capital. I agree with John that the US economy needs to shift so that it produces as much value as it consumes (see below) but I’m entirely unenthusiastic about this sort of tax policy. John’s proposal amounted to a full U-turn from our how-to-inspire-demand conversation, but the Treasury official with whom we were speaking didn’t miss a beat. He nodded sympathetically, and said that while he couldn’t discuss specifics of what the deficit commission was doing, they were doing good work. I left with a serious case of heebie-jeebies about what the deficit commission might be up to, but no details at all.
What these guys have done is of course obvious, but somehow these kinds of things can take ages to happen. In any event, the principle is gregariousness. And it’s chronically lacking in large hierarchical institutions like big firms, and even more so in Governments. This is true of departments, but it’s also true, amazingly enough of politicians. It’s amazing that it’s true of politicians because virtually all the time they don’t spend inside doing deals, they’re out circulating. But with only a few exceptions they’re not really on the lookout for people who can help them understand the world.