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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Obama's Revenge of the Nerds

For those of you who care about housing policy -- I teach land-use regulation -- Obama's choice of Shaun Donovan as Secretary of HUD is wonderful news. Donovan is Bloomberg's head of Housing Preservation & Development and has won widespread praise for his efforts to increase New York's housing supply. His mastery of the mind-numbing details of housing law and economics (for instance, the filtering of used units downwards and upwards, low-income housing tax credits, the 80-20 program) has made him famous amolng land-use oriented New Yorkers (admittedly, an odd demographic niche) as an outstanding example of wonky professionalism in the Bloomberg administration.

Of course, you have to like highly trained and fairly apolitical wonks in high office. Obama certainly seems to like them: The ratio of wonks to politicos in his picks seems to favor the former. Take, for example, his choice of Steven Chu for Secretary of Energy: Chu is the Nobel Prize-winner current director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Or consider Lisa Jackson, who is Obama's pick for EPA Administrator: Jackson is a chemical engineer and was a 16-year veteran at federal EPA before becoming head of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection. (To Bush II's credit, his second ('05) nominee for EPA, Stephen Johnson, had a scientific background and a lot of prior experience working in EPA).

Many people supported Obama because of his reputation for being a sort of latter-day Jimmy Stewart -- an outsider and idealist who would transform government. I was betting that Obama would be a latter-day John Quincy Adams -- a well-connected, well-educated, wonky sort of guy who would hire seasoned pros and governmental insiders with blue-chip academic credentials and lots of managerial experience. From Jimmy Carter to Bush II, we have had horse doctor's doses of candidates who brag about their ignorance of government under the euphemism of being "outside the beltway," a "maverick," an agent of "change," etc. These outsiders usually come to D.C. accompanied by a bevy of loyal consigliere who have no familiarity with the programs that they are charged with administering. So far -- thank goodness -- the wonks (Chu, Donovan, Jackson, Geithner, Summers, etc) have been in ascendant with Obama.

Posted by Rick Hills on December 13, 2008 at 11:29 AM in Rick Hills | Permalink


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