The Worst Case for Erskine Bowles in the Whole World

A blog about business and economics.
Nov. 12 2012 8:26 AM

The Worst Case for Erskine Bowles in the Whole World

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Erskine Bowles in September 2011 in Washington

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

The case against making Erskine Bowles Treasury Secretary is so strong that it's been so well-made already (by Tim Noah, by Jon Chait, and now by Paul Krugman) that I don't have a ton to add to the literature. But William Cohan entered the arena over the weekend with an extremely strange argument on this subject.*

It starts with a familiar, if overstated, argument that Obama has been too soft on Wall Street: "It turned out we were either naive or stupid to think that when candidate Obama spoke about 'change you can believe in,' he was including Wall Street."

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This is backed up with the usual hazy references not only to Robert Rubin himself but to the concept of an Obama administration staffed by "Rubin acolytes," a kind of hazy catch-all term for people who worked on economic policy in the Clinton administration. Cohan is against these acolytes. Doesn't like Larry Summers, doesn't like Mary Shapiro, doesn't like Peter Orszag, doesn't like Jack Lew, doesn't like Gene Sperling, and doesn't like Michael Froman. Too many acolytes. Too close to Wall Street. This is the point where we're ready for a pivot to some serious left-populist suggestions, some off-the-wall picks who'd outrage the Washington establishment and put the fear of God into the banksters. And it gets off to a good start when he tells us that "An essential first step is to sweep out the remaining vestiges of the Rubin-Altman nexus."

Then things go dangerously wrong:

For Treasury secretary, the best choice is Erskine Bowles, who has distinguished himself as co-chairman of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Although it is true that Bowles was chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, and thus rubbed elbows with Rubin and Altman, he isn’t in that Rubin orbit. He understands Wall Street -- he founded a small eponymous investment bank and a private-equity firm, Carousel Capital, and was a partner at private-equity giant Forstmann Little & Co. -- and did a fine job serving as president of the sprawling University of North Carolina system.

Putting in Bowles—a former private-equity guy whose claim to fame is a plan to reduce the deficit while cutting tax rates—strikes me as a moderately bad idea. Putting in Bowles as a progressive alternative to the likes of Lew and Sperling is simply ridiculous.

He goes on to suggest Slate columnist Eliot Spitzer to run the Securities and Exchange Commission, which makes perfect sense to me.*

Correction, Nov. 12, 2012: This post originally misspelled the first names of William Cohan and Eliot Spitzer.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.