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Farewell to Treasury

Brad DeLong
May 24, 1995

A short speech that I gave at my farewell party when I left my job at the U.S. Treasury Department, where I had been Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy.

Thank you. I do not think that I will hear so many people say so many complimentary things again until after I am dead.

I want to offer three toasts.

The first toast I want to offer is to the bureaucracy of OASIA [the Office of the Assistant Secretary for International Affairs]. You see, I was never supposed to work for Treasury Economic Policy. After Clinton won the presidential election and Larry Summers was chosen to be Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs, I told Larry that I would like to come down from Boston to Washington and work for him if he could find a space where I would be useful.

He said that that would be wonderful. And he would get to work on it right away.

Then there was silence.

A month or so later I gave Larry a call: "What's happening?" I asked.

"It's bureaucratic," he replied. "I'm not confirmed. I can't move people around until I'm confirmed."

"How many people do you have working for you?" I asked.

"About 250," he replied. "But I can't do anything for another month or two."

So one morning, after a conference that Larry Summers and I had both attended, he said: "Come with me to the Treasury right now. I want Alicia Munnell to interview you for a slot as her deputy. It's a better job than any I'll be able to find for you."

So I did. And Alicia has certainly been the best of all possible bosses over the past more than two years--Treasury Economic Policy has been the best of all possible places to work. But I would never even have thought about applying had the bureaucracy of OASIA not managed to stymie any rapid move from Boston down to Treasury International Affairs.

So my first toast is to the bureaucracy of OASIA: may it always have positive unintended consequences.

For my second toast, I remember that before I came to Washington I had a brief talk with Mike Boskin. "Brad," he said. "You'll have a choice: you can either be an analyst or a salesman."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You will be most effective if you realize that your principal job is taking the work that the career staff have produced, and bringing it to the attention of the political appointees. And, on the other hand, going back to the career economists and telling them what lines of substantive work are likely to have an impact on the political appointees. There are lots and lots of good analytic economists working for the government. But too much of the time their work has little impact--because low-level political appointees like Deputy Assistant Secretaries think that they are analysts rather than salesmen, think that they are supposed to do the analytical work themselves, rather than acting as channels by which the work of the career staff can be taken to where it will be useful."

So I took his advice to heart. I hope I have been a good salesman for the substantive work produced by the Treasury's career economists. But I have found that the Treasury's professional staff is a truly excellent group--and that the time I have spent trying to ferry their work up the bureaucracy to the High Politicians has been very well spent.

So my second toast is to the--excellent--career staff of the U.S. Treasury Department: a much higher quality staff than the country or the High Politicians have any right to expect.

For my third toast, think back fifty years. Think of Deputy Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White, and of John Maynard Keynes, his partner in the round of organizing conferences and decisions that set in place the framework for the international economy that set in motion the best decades the world economy has ever seen. I think of a toast that Keynes offered, I believe in Charleston SC, in the company of a group of Treasury officials and others almost exactly fifty years ago.

Keynes saw economics as a service profession--"rather like dentists," was the phrase he used in his essay on "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren". If there is something wrong with your teeth, you go to a dentist, and he or she fixes things. If there is something wrong with your economy, you go to an economist, and he or she...

Well, the analogy does break down...

He or she at least explains why things are unlikely to get better and why steps to try to make them better will probably make them worse. Our specialty is telling unpleasant truths to powerful people who do not want to hear them. This is not called the Dismal Science for nothing.

But in Keynes's view economics, rather like dentistry, was not especially desirable or worthwhile or beautiful or good in itself. It was not Civilization. Civilization--the things that were worthwhile--were things like the novels of his friend Virginia Woolf, the paintings of his friend Duncan Grant, the dances of his wife the ballerina Lydia Lopokova. The things that were the good and the beautiful--Civilization--were the insights of artists, the achievements of artisans, and the pleasures of culture.

But economics was part of the underpinnings: political democracy and cultural advance do depend strongly on economic prosperity. Without economic prosperity, the truly good and beautiful things are not even possible.

And economists have a good deal of good advice to give as to how to attain economic prosperity.

So let me echo John Maynard Keynes and offer a toast, a toast to our company: "To the economists. They are the guardians, not of Civilization, but of the possibility of Civilization."

Professor of Economics Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans
University of California at Berkeley; Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax