The New York Times today has a fantastic profile of Tim Geithner and his thinking. It underlines, through a complex portrait, how urgent it is to replace Geithner with someone whose ideology was not fundamentally created by the institutions he is supposed to be regulating.
But two additional things struck me about the profile. The first is that he comes across as profoundly naïve. At one point he insists that he "would never put [him]self in a position where [his] actions were influenced by a personal relationship," but he has lived most of his life in Washington and New York, in communities where everyone around him has been attempting to use personal relationships to influence his actions. He doesn’t show a basic awareness of his position. For such a sentence to be plausible, he would have to demonstrate a canny, rigorous array of defenses against influence. Instead, he sounds like a boy at the beach with some friends.
The second thing is something that has nagged at me about him since his arrival at Treasury, and I’m only beginning to put my finger on it. It’s something about the way he talks. These sentences (from today’s article) run on like an endless string of pop off beads:
"we are going to be doing things which ultimately — in order to get the credit flowing again — are going to benefit the institutions that are at the core of the problem."
"requires we balance how to achieve the most benefits in terms of improving confidence and the flow of credit at the least risk to taxpayers."
At first it sounds good and stable: each idea is connected to the next, his tone is fluid, he communicates mastery. But after a while, the sentences continue too long, and resting place seems arbitrary. There is mastery, perhaps, but of what? After listening to him for a while, you get the impression he isn’t actually talking about objects in the world.
His thoughts resemble securitized assets–they refer to something, but the risk is not apparent on the surface of the nouns and verbs assembled, and the exact reference seems unclear. From last week’s testimony:
"At the conclusion of this process that the Fed is undertaking to assess the potential capital needs of banks going forward, where there is a need for additional capital, total capital and common capital, those banks will have a suite of options of how they meet that need. They will work out with their…supervisors what’s the best mix of those options."
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Even where he doesn’t technically "run on," he skirts the edge of a run-on sentence in almost every thought. In the same way that Sarah Palin’s language told us a great deal about how she makes policy, Geithner’s language tells us that he lives in a world with very few concrete objects in it. While Sheilah Bair might talk about taxpayers "holding the bag," you can listen to Geithner for a long time without the sense that he ever does things like "hold" "bags." He doesn’t use words with clear referents, like "chairs," "cars," "tables"; instead he prefers "the economy," "institutions," and "actions."
On bad days, he sounds most like a freshman lit crit student, delighted by the new set of words available to her. "I realize I am vulnerable to a different narrative in that context," he says in today’s article.
We all have run-on thoughts, we all use too many abstract words. But the man driving our economy right now seems to use nothing but run-on sentences, and seems to occupy a world where everything important is abstract. As my friend, the journalist Kelly Nuxoll, wrote about Palin last fall:
"Make no mistake. Language is political, and if one’s sentences lack transparency, accountability, and inclination to acknowledge the consequences of one’s actions, then one’s policies and governance are likely to be characterized by the same."
Geithner’s language lacks a beginning, an ending, and a referent. So too, do his policies. "I do believe it’s valuable and this is at the core of the objectives of this process that we worked out with the Fed…"
People are losing jobs, afraid of losing jobs, losing homes and apartments, losing health care, and trying to educate their children in weak schools. People are experiencing poverty, unhappiness, and pain. There’s a hole in our economy, and it hurts; and what Geithner is doing to fix it is just making the hole bigger.
I end up feeling conflicted about Geithner personally. Obama should clearly replace him, but I don’t end up thinking "throw the bum out!" (the way I do with Summers, say). Instead, I want a different rallying cry, something gentler, like:
can’t someone get the man a classic edition of Robert Penn Warren, and a decent job in a retail store in New Mexico, and give him a chance to learn something about human nature….