September 11, 1989

It wasn’t my intention, launching LittleSis with Kevin in January 2009, to be so consistently absent from our blog. Early on we made the decision to divide up our growing organizational responsibilities, with Kevin taking on research, writing, and outreach — the activity that keeps LittleSis fresh — while I focused on adding to our website’s features and fixing bugs. Division of labor is a notoriously double-edged sword, and while it’s arguably helped our productivity it’s made it hard for me to write anything but PHP and SQL. Now that our urgent web development needs have dwindled, I’m feeling ready for a return the mean streets of sentences and paragraphs.

Today politics nerds have been scrambling to outdo each other digging up old archival videos now available on C-SPAN’s new Video Library. Naturally I went fishing for a juicy Larry Summers clip, and quickly found one from September 11, 1989 called The Politics of Message: Economics, part of a conference of Democratic Party leaders. The purpose of this event, as far as I can tell, was to gather key corporate Democrats — including Summers, Robert Rubin, Roger Altman, and Laura Tyson — to present economic talking points for the re-branded business-friendly party that Clinton brought back to power three years later, landing Summers, Rubin, Altman, and Tyson with top-level positions in the administration, where they put their theories to practice. Their collective influence in economic policy remains huge in the Obama administration. (Not that they don’t have some conflicting views or interests.)

1989-2009: Larry Summers takes us to the "investment economy"

Despite our favorite economic superheros looking twenty years handsomer — Rubin’s dreamy eyes are in overdrive; Summers is a veritable Adonis — the video is long, boring, and should not under any circumstances be watched in its entirety. Skimming through it, I picked out a few moments that are particularly easy to mock. Summers opens the discussion with a fumbled joke and never recovers, predicting that “successful leadership … will supplant trickle-down economics with investment economics” — or does he mean investment bank economics? Altman, still reeling from Dukakis’ legendary war on corporate America in ’88, laments how Democratic “presidential campaigns too often end up, in the final stages, blasting business,” foolishly fearing “that sounding like republicans on economic matters is a bad thing”. You can see where this is going. Harry Freeman, EVP of American Express, awkwardly urges the party leadership to get over its underdog past, when “we talked about very traditional liberal values, we appealed to ethnics, blacks.” These guys are like prophets!

Bob Rubin, seeing that certain veils are being lifted, can’t resist: “I don’t know if I would punish speculators, as Larry Summers would, because I earn my living that way”. Gasps from the room are audible; such candor is rare in these circles and a sign of irresistible hubris. Unable to predict the advances in video storage technologies his tech bubble economy would later unleash, Rubin then lets a much bigger secret slip into the archive:

An awful lot of thoughtful people think … if you project out twenty years … the period that we’re in right now is going to look like the deterioration of the American economy, both in absolute terms and relative to other parts of the world.

C-SPAN’s new archive is an incredible resource for government watchdogs. It even indexes the people featured in the videos, so linking people in LittleSis to the old C-SPAN videos they appear in is not unrealistic.