“We were bailing out the financial system in order to do something to right the financial system and then reform the financial system,” said Jesse Eisinger, a prominent journalist at ProPublica who shared a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on practices that led to the financial crisis. “Instead, we essentially got the status quo and banks that are in some ways larger and more powerful.”
That opinion — which Geithner and his defenders sharply reject — is shared by many in the progressive movement. It’s often cited as among the reasons the Democratic base is disillusioned with President Barack Obama, who picked Geithner and supported his choices, and may stay home during the fall’s midterm elections, possibly handing the U.S. Senate to Republicans.
These were Mr. Geithner's failures, but they were more deeply Mr. Obama's. The flaws we thought we were seeing during Mr. Geithner's tenure turn out to have replicated themselves in other Obama departments. And they have persisted after Mr. Geithner left. Why, it's almost as if the Treasury secretary wasn't the one making decisions and setting the tone after all.
Geithner presents himself as having a standoffish relationship with Wall Street bigwigs. “I rarely socialized with Wall Street executives,” he writes. “As I had warned the board, Carole and I did the minimal amount of Manhattan socializing I thought necessary to do my job properly, including a few awkward birthday celebrations for our modern-day tycoons at various museums in Manhattan.”
Or to use one of the medical metaphors Geithner likes, we can think of the economy as a patient who was rushed to the emergency room with a life-threatening condition. Thanks to the urgent efforts of the doctors present, the patient’s life was saved. But while the doctors kept him alive, they failed to cure his underlying illness, so he emerged from the procedure partly crippled, and never fully recovered.
How should we think about the economic policy of these past seven or so years? Geithner, while acknowledging the disappointments, would have us view it mainly as a success story, because things could have been much worse. And the middle third of his book, a blow-by-blow account of the acute phase of the financial crisis, carries the implicit and sometimes explicit message that things would indeed have been much worse but for the heroic actions of a handful of high officials, himself included.
But this still leaves open the question of whether things could and should have been considerably better, whether preventing a complete economic meltdown was all that could have been accomplished. Here Geithner implicitly says no—or at least that there was nothing more that he himself could have done.
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