Courage And Economics In Washington

Courage And Economics In Washington

When FDR came to Washington in 1933 he was accompanied by dashing young economists and social scientists ready to remake the government, if not the world. Many were fresh from Columbia University, and quite unlike the Harvard—MIT contingent that now graces the Capital landscape, they were naive enough to believe that America’s ills could be solved forever by intelligent planning and good will. They had not heard of the realities tough-minded politicians were wont to talk about, and they exhibited just enough brashness to make one think they might really succeed.

Foremost was Rexford G. Tugwell, who liked to shock people with predictions that America would be remade in the image of the New Deal. Accompanying him was Adolph Berle, assuring everyone he knew more about high finance than the bankers. Berle’s intellectual partner, Gardner Means, went to work with imagination and vigor at the National Resources Committee, a sort of precursor to the Council of Economic Advisers. The NRC was the only agency that provided a haven for economic planners and while an internal conflict between Frederic Delano, the President’s uncle, and Charles Merriam, made it somewhat impotent, the very idea of central planning in the government was extraordinary.

There were numerous others, all young and intellectually alive and all anxious to rebuild an America seared by depression. Ideas flowed in abundance; Washington was a lively place to be.

A certain parallel to this experience occurred when John F. Kennedy brought his administration to Washington in January, 1961. It was thought that the Eisenhower ennui would be overcome by a vibrant new generation, just as the New Deal had displaced the confused placidity of the Hoover years. Among economists especially, there was the feeling that the newer theorists, having refurbished the Keynesian apparatus, would demonstrate how to make an economy move, not at a languid pace but with buoyancy.

Heading the parade was Paul A. Samuelson, perhaps the most brilliant contemporary virtuoso of mathematical economics. Although not now an official member of Kennedy’s corps of economists, he has great influence. In his middle forties, Samuelson has been rocking his academic colleagues back on their heels with penetrating theoretical analyses ever since his student days under Alvin Hansen at Harvard. He has continued to display his brilliance both at Cambridge and in Washington with self-consciously urbane lectures on a variety of economic problems delivered to such serious Congressional bodies as the Joint Economic Committee. Yet the Samuelson glow has had difficulty getting through to Washingtonians. The Task Force paper he wrote for Kennedy on economic policy could just as well have been prepared by a less sophisticated Keynesian. James Reston once expressed the town’s reaction when he revealed that he had been quite bored by all the split infinitives in it.