(p. 1) Larry Summers has split his pandemic time between houses in Massachusetts and Arizona. He also seems to live inside the collective mind of the Washington economic establishment.
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Mr. Summers spent his last White House stint as a top economic adviser, when the administration settled for a smaller Great Recession stimulus package out of political practicality, and has since disputed criticism by saying he favored more spending then. He has spent 2021 protesting that the $1.9 trillion spending package the Biden administration passed in March was too large for reasons both political and economic, while fretting that the Federal Reserve will be too slow to sop up the mess. The result, he has warned, could be an overheating economy and runaway inflation.
Other respected academics were repeating variations on the same theme, though most economists argued that a 2021 price pop was more likely to be short-lived. But it was Mr. Summers, a longtime Harvard pro-(p. 6)fessor, whose brash declarations worked a sort of nerd magic, drawing the boundaries of the debate and forcing the White House — one he largely supports — on the offensive.
Mr. Summers had combined the swagger of a former Treasury secretary with the gravitas of a respected academic and punchy lines — the stimulus wasn’t just a bad idea, according to him, it was the “least responsible” policy in four decades — to set off a national conversation that was hard to ignore.
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. . . Mr. Summers has said he takes issue not with the idea of spending aggressively to break the economy out of a malaise, but with the magnitude and style — the trillions spent to combat the pandemic downturn exceeded the size of the hole it blew in the economy, basically. He seemed to worry that if he didn’t speak out, there would be too little discussion of the risks.
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Whether or not Mr. Summers turns out to be the sage of Scottsdale and Brookline, his staying power is perhaps best understood as a statement about what he represents: the belief that government spending has real if hard-to-know boundaries, and that trying to measure and work within economic and practical limits can lead to better policymaking.
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(Note: the online version of the story was updated June 26, 2021, and has the title “Why Washington Can’t Quit Listening to Larry Summers.”)