The bloggers who attended briefings from a "senior Treasury Department official" last week have interpreted the concept of "deep background" in several different ways. I attended one of the briefings and initially didn't plan to write about it at all. Others did write about it. One writer named the official, while others did not. (I still won't.) Ezra Klein never discussed the meeting, but did address the "meta-discussion." Felix Salmon and Derek Thompson named the attendees, but due to an email mixup there was no name tag for me -- which is presumably why neither one mentioned my name, an omission that provided some undoubtedly much-needed ego deflation.
(But come on, guys! If somebody doesn't mention me soon I'll have to give my travel expenses back! Blue suit, gray hair, asked the follow-ups on Social Security and principal writedowns? Doesn't ring a bell? Ezra, will you vouch for me?)
Felix Salmon provided a good overview of the session (except for the omission of you-know-who), which Derek Thompson rounded out nicely. There will always be a Rashomon-like quality to these events. For example: As Brad DeLong noted, many of the participants felt that Politico's Mike Allen "dragged the conversation" away from substance and into meaningless political "horse-race" talk. Thompson disagrees, but I think that description's perfectly accurate. On the other hand, attendee Tim Ferhnolz thought Allen was wrong to report that the Administration's eying Social Security changes -- including probable cuts -- while it seemed clear to me that Allen was right.
Once other people started making the event public, it seemed right and appropriate to add to the record and correct it where I had a different impression. The two meetings last week have generated some blowback for the Administration. Shahien Nasiripour's reporting, for example, has been picked up by David Dayen and others to criticize the HAMP program. Does that mean the Administration regrets holding the meeting?
Yves Smith speculated on the Administration's motivation for taking the time and effort to meet with us. Felix Salmon explained why he thinks these meetings are off the record. Brad DeLong responded by noting Mike Allen's "gotcha" reporting about Social Security. Yet I still have a problem: I don't think Allen got it wrong, and I think it's important not to lull people into a false sense of security about the Administration's intentions.
I think these off-the-record meetings are very useful. You can get a better understanding of the Administration's perspectives and thought processes. You can continue to be a critic when you disagree, but with a better understanding that permits more effective criticism. And you're likely to find points of agreement that you can reinforce and support. I think these meetings should continue. But what's the best way to respond honorably and fairly in a situation like the Allen/Fernholz disagreement? Once the Allen story was out, it seemed important not to let it be discredited too quickly. But it seems as if we're in uncharted territory here.
One of the other topics of was housing policy. Shahien Nasiripour reported on that conversation in detail. The Administration is focused on low interest rates as a way to help struggling homeowners, although I had difficulty asking a follow-up question about encouraging banks to make refinancing more available. Low interest rates don't help anyone if nobody can qualify for a new loan. The official used at least one choice of words which provided an insight into the Administration's moral evaluation of the housing situation, but the rules prevent me from saying anything more. What I can do is bring this new understanding of their beliefs and values to future interpretations of their behavior.
The Administration official said commendable things about Fannie and Freddie and the proper role for government sponsored enterprises. He showed an understanding of the need to increase lending to small and medium businesses to stimulate hiring (and stem the job cuts at small firms). He seemed acutely aware of what's politically possible and what isn't, without any sense that bolder steps could be proposed in order to shift the political debate. But then, that's not his job -- which is why the Mike Allen digressions proved somewhat frustrating to the rest of us. I would prefer to see the President spend less time pre-emptively surrendering to the limits of political possibility and more time trying to change those limits. But that's a discussion for another day, with different players.
I still think the Administration's housing policy needs to be revamped. HAMP is a disaster. We should be seeing prosecutions for Wall Street fraud. We need to break up the big banks and restore Glass-Steagall, or something like it. I wish they'd invited consumer advocates to their housing reform panel. I still think homeowners (and renters, too) need a stronger voice in this Administration. Nothing in the meeting changed those views, nor do I think that was expected. But yes, I feel the process was worthwhile -- not just for us, but for the Administration. Online reporters and commentators will have deeper insight into their thinking -- whether they're supporting an Administration position or opposing it. And there's something to be said for reinforcing the habits of mutual respect and courtesy, while counteracting the narrative of hostility toward the "professional left."
And no, I don't feel I've been corrupted or compromised by the experience. Now, maybe if I'd had a nametag ...
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.
He can be reached at "firstname.lastname@example.org."
Website: Eskow and Associates