Treasury Nominee Paul O'Neill: Just in Time for Trouble
Something doesn't add up about the new Treasury Secretary nominated by George W. Bush. The supply-side conservatives who live for more big tax cuts on capital and upper-bracket incomes are actively leery about Alcoa chairman Paul O'Neill. Some grumble that he may be a talented corporate manager but that he's ill equipped for the top economic post in the Bush Administration. Meanwhile, George Becker, president of the Steelworkers union, loves the O'Neill selection. "I'm not an economist, I just go on gut beliefs," Becker said. "But Paul is a person working people and labor people can talk to. He is an industrialist who believes in the United States and has maintained a strong industrial base in the United States. I think this is far better than having another bond trader in that job."
Bush's choice has startled many quarters, including Wall Street, because O'Neill comes to the job from old-line manufacturing and with a reputation for independent thinking, albeit in the moderate Republican manner. Above all, he is not a banker or financier--the first Treasury Secretary since the Carter Administration to originate from the business realm that actually makes things (aluminum, in O'Neill's case). Yet, oddly enough, O'Neill is also a government pro. He spent sixteen years as a systems analyst and budget economist in the federal government, rising to deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget under Gerald Ford, before a brilliant business career at International Paper and Alcoa (both multinational companies are reviled by environmentalists--he's not Ben & Jerry's). But unlike the laissez-faire crowd, O'Neill understands the power of activist government to intervene in the private economy and has demonstrated a taste for doing so. At a minimum, he represents a refreshing shift from the free-market mantra that has ruled at Treasury for the past two decades.
"I negotiated with Paul for years--he's very tough but fair--and we've always been able to get a fair, decent contract," said Becker, whose union represents 22,000 Alcoa workers. "I had people I could talk to in the Clinton Administration too. They would listen and tell me how much they understand our pain. Then they went out and deep-sixed us. I like [former Treasury Secretary] Bob Rubin, but Rubin killed us in steel. He would say, Let the marketplace decide. Except, when financial firms got in trouble, they went to the rescue."
In contrast, as a business executive, Paul O'Neill artfully engineered a worldwide rescue for the aluminum industry and persuaded President Clinton to make it happen. Prices were collapsing in 1993 because the former Soviet republics were flooding the world market with cheap aluminum--devastating US producers like Alcoa. The temporary agreement amounted to a government-negotiated cartel--every producing nation reduced its output to prop up world prices--and it worked. Yet the political deal was done so skillfully that few in the media even noticed. And nobody complained about the scheme's contradicting Clinton's free-trade rhetoric. O'Neill knows where the levers are located and how to pull them.
While it would be nice to imagine that the Bush/Cheney team is sending a message about new ideological priorities with this appointment, their motivation is probably more pedestrian--personal trust, not policy. O'Neill comes from the same "old boy" circle of policy advisers that includes Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and, yes, Alan Greenspan during the Nixon/Ford years. He is a familiar old friend to all of them, experienced and capable, above all loyal. During George Bush Senior's ill-fated presidency, O'Neill took Alcoa out of the US Chamber of Commerce in order to endorse Bush's deficit-reducing tax increase--the one that got the President into permanent trouble with the party's right-wingers. Around the same time O'Neill proposed a $10-a-barrel tax on oil to force greater energy conservation. He supported Bill Clinton's more modest energy-tax proposal, which failed in 1993. He is quite willing, in other words, to break eggs over the GOP's antitax doctrine.
In another season, these qualities would have made for intriguing possibilities, but O'Neill's strongest asset--he's not from Wall Street--might also become a handicap in present circumstances, because the Bush Administration is assuming power amid a breaking storm--the collapsing stock-market bubble and deteriorating economic growth worldwide. Whether this event turns out to be good luck for Dubya or the ruination of his presidency will depend crucially on the smarts of O'Neill and a team of White House economic advisers that includes former Federal Reserve governor Lawrence Lindsey as principal counselor and, presumably, Stanford economist John Taylor at the Council of Economic Advisers. The old boys from business and finance gathered at the governor's mansion in Texas to throw in their advice, a private conversation that did not include the press and public.