Justice Sotomayor’s Supreme Court Nomination and Janet Yellen

During my brief vacation last week, I read Jeffrey Toobin’s excellent new book The Oath that examines President Obama’s complicated relationship with the Supreme Court. The book gives a background of the justices and analyzes the major cases brought before the Court over the last couple of years. One passage in particular, on Obama’s consideration of Sonia Sotomayor for an open spot on the Court, struck me:

He sensed an authenticity in [Sotomayor], and no one had to remind the president of the political appeal of appointing the first Hispanic to the Supreme Court. If he had a chance to make history in this way, with an impeccably qualified nominee, Obama was going to do it.

What major appointment will Obama make in the near future that has an impeccably qualified nominee who would make history as well? Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve of course! The Supreme Court and the Fed are certainly different institutions and Obama has clearly shown an affinity to Larry Summers that he did not have for the other prospective Supreme Court nominee, Diane Wood. But the similarities are still striking.

Meanwhile, more reports are floating around that Obama is leaning towards Summers for the job. As I’ve said before, I’m very skeptical about any reporting on who the next Fed Chair will be. Maybe it’ll be Summers. Maybe Yellen. We’ll know in a short time. The decision will be kept under lock-and-key until the President announces his choice. Until then, we can hold out hope that Toobin’s intuition on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee holds true for his Fed Chair nominee as well.

It’s More Than A Gender Bias Working Against Yellen

Ezra Klein wrote an insightful blog post yesterday outlining the hidden sexism that has permeated the coverage of who will be the next Fed Chair and how it has harmed Yellen’s candidacy. Here’s Ezra:

People get understandably defensive when you use the word “sexist.” But here’s the simple fact: There’s no male candidate Andrew Ross Sorkin could’ve named who would’ve elicited fears from Fisher that the pick was being “driven by gender.” Not Don Kohn. Not Alan Blinder. Not Roger Ferguson. It would’ve been either a laugh line or a controversy if Sorkin had asked about Tim Geithner’s chances and Fisher had brought up his gender.

When a woman is up for the job — no matter how qualified — the lurking worry is that the pick will be “driven by gender.” When a man is up for it, gender never enters into the conversation. That’s how privilege works in practice: Gender is invisible when it comes to male appointees but a constant presence when it comes to female appointees.

That gets the situation backwards.

There’s never been a female Federal Reserve chief. There’s never been a female Treasury Secretary. There’s never even been a female president of the powerful New York Federal Reserve. This isn’t an accident, and it’s not because women can’t manage those positions. It’s because gender really has played a driving role in appointment processes for a long time. It’s just done so on behalf of men.

I don’t disagree with any of this, but I want to extend it a bit. The title of Ezra’s post is “Funny how gender never am up during Bernanke’s nomination. Or Greenspan’s. Or Volcker’s.” You know what also didn’t come up in those nominations? Race. Sexual Orientation. Religion. You know why none of those things are coming up this time? Because both Yellen and Summers are white, straight and Jewish. That’s nothing new at the Fed. But a woman as Fed Chair? That’s new.

This creates two different levels of bias against Yellen. The first is the explicit and implicit sexism in whether Yellen has the necessary “gravitas” to be Fed Chairman. Of course she does! No man with Yellen’s resume would face similar questions.

There’s also a second form of bias that I’m going to term “newness bias.” This is the bias that exists because everyone is ultra concerned that the Fed choice will be “driven by gender.” After all, for a position as important as Federal Reserve Chairman, it’s vital that the President select whoever is most qualified. He shouldn’t choose an inferior candidate just to break a gender barrier. But no male nomination can ever be “driven by gender,” because every Fed chair before has been male. It’s the same reason neither Yellen or Summer’s selection could be “driven by race.” When there’s never been a female in a certain position, the immediate reaction to breaking that barrier is that the President is doing so just to nominate a woman, not because it’s the right choice.

That’s what Yellen is working against. Ezra spells this out perfectly:

And then, when a female candidate does threaten to break into that top echelon, the whispers begin that the pick is really driven by gender, that more qualified men are being passed over, that it’s all just about political correctness. But the truth is typically closer to the opposite. A woman (or an African American, etc) can only get to the point where she can hold a top position after clearing a much higher bar than the male candidates.

The President may feel that if he is going to name Yellen as the next Fed Chairman, she must be by far the best candidate for the job. Because if not, he’ll face criticism for choosing her over Summers just to install the first woman at the helm of the Fed. It’s an absurd bar that only candidates facing the “newness bias” confront. If Richard Ferguson receives further consideration for the job, expect the fact that he’d be the first African-American Fed Chairman to come up more frequently. And expect analysts to start asking whether his selection would be “driven by race.” He wouldn’t face the blatant sexism about “gravitas” that Yellen faces, but he’d still confront the “newness bias.”

So remember this whenever you hear people questioning whether Yellen’s choice is “driven by gender.” The fact her selection would break a gender barrier doesn’t mean she needs to be more qualified than other candidates to justify her selection. She’s the best candidate for the job and that’s what matters. President Obama would do well to tune out any worries about her “gravitas” or that her nomination would be “driven by gender.” Those are just not-so-subtle ways for her opponents to use her gender to tear her down. It isn’t fair and it isn’t right. I hope the President doesn’t fall into that mindset as well.

Have Fed Chair Odds Really Changed?

First, current Federal Reserve Vice-President Janet Yellen was President Obama’s likely selection to take over for Ben Bernanke when his term expires next year.

Then, Ezra Klein reported that the race was between Yellen and Larry Summers with Summers the current odds-on favorite.

Then, Senate Democrats revolted and the liberal blogosphere exploded against Summers.

Last Friday, Klein posited that a dark horse candidate could emerge, such as Roger Ferguson.

Let’s take a moment to calm down, ignore “inside sources,” and look at what has really changed over the past couple of weeks.

1. Liberals are as hardened as ever against Summers
2. Summers’s few statements on monetary policy indicate he’d be more hawkish than Yellen.
3. WSJ analysis showed that Yellen’s economic predictions have been correct more than anyone else’s at the FOMC.
4. Wall Street overwhelmingly wants Yellen over Summers.

Numbers 1, 3 and 4 there overwhelmingly favor a Yellen selection. For most liberals, number 2 would also work in Yellen’s favor, but Obama’s recent interview with the New York Times indicates that he’s still concerned about inflation and may want a more hawkish Fed Chair, as Summers would be.

So, given all that, how can Yellen not be the favorite? Klein is well-connected within the Administration and if anyone had an inkling on which direction Obama was leaning, it’d be him. But it’s worth remembering how secretive this selection is. Here’s Wonkblog’s Neil Irwin just a few weeks ago:

The most important thing to know at this stage is this: The people who know aren’t talking, and the people who are talking don’t know.

For a decision of this much importance and sensitivity, the president is likely to rely on a very small number of senior advisers to come up with a short list of candidates and advise him on their strengths and weaknesses. For the Fed chairmanship, the process is reportedly being led by treasury secretary Jack Lew, and likely also includes Denis McDonough, the chief of staff. It probably includes Gene Sperling, the top economic adviser in the White House, and possibly Jason Furman, who has been nominated to lead the Council of Economic Advisers. Perhaps a close Obama adviser like Valerie Jarrett gets a seat at the table, and somebody from the ever-discreet presidential personnel office in the White House.

Whoever makes that exact list, those are the only people who actually know the state of play on the decision — who’s up, who’s down, what attributes the president really cares about. The details of the decision-making will remain closely held even within the White House until an announcement is imminent. And those on that short list of people actually in the know will reliably clam up and reveal absolutely nothing when the topic comes up, whether it is with a former colleague outside government or a reporter, even when off the record.

Former White House economic adviser Jared Bernstein said the same thing last week:

No one knows who it will be.  Sure, there’s a short list and Summers and Yellen top it–btw, I wrote those names in no other order than alphabetical.  I would very heavily discount anything you read that says anything much more than what I’ve just told you.

I’m actually a bit surprised to see Klein buying into all of this back-and-forth about who’s leading the race. Maybe he has great sources or the Administration was using him to see potential reaction to choosing Summers. Either way, the developments over the past few weeks would seem to increase the chances of Obama choosing Yellen, not hurt them. Will Yellen be the eventual selection? Maybe. Maybe not. We’re not going to know for a while. But don’t discount her because a few rumors hint at the President leaning in a different direction. The fundamentals still point to her and if anything, have only improved over the past few weeks. She’s still the odds-on favorite to be the next Fed Chair.