Whatever the Treasury Department's bailout is, it is not an experiment. Or so that's what Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson would have his audience believe.
The current secretary shared a stage with two former ones, Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council's meeting in Georgetown, providing some Monday night dinner theater. When Alan Murray, the WSJ's deputy managing editor and the moderator of the Treasury panel suggested Mr. Paulson had experimented with different rescue strategies-like the one for Bear Stearns, and another for AIG-Mr. Paulson bristled.
Mr. Murray tried a bit of flatter: "Many of us appreciate your F.D.R.-like approach to policy, the sort of relentless experimentation," he said to Mr. Paulson, who was slouching beside him in a swivel chair. "But at this point we're wondering-some of these experiments haven't turned out like you thought they would."
"It's hard to get credit for what didn't happen," Mr. Paulson replied. "What you prevented." He said the Treasury's many iterations had been not experiments but adaptations to a changing environment.
That kicked off an hour of parrying among the three panelists and their interlocutor. "Past, present and possibly future," as the WSJ's Managing Editor Robert Thomson called three Treasury officials in his introduction, seemed equally disdainful of Mr. Murray. The political differences between them also came out, in spats between Mr. Paulson and Mr. Summers over corporate taxation and supply-side economics.
The constant theme of much of the evening was Mr. Summers' rumored appointment to lead Treasury. He would not admit it, but the notion was especially apparent in the fact that his most lengthy discussions were of possible stimulus packages. "In January," he said, "I suggested a fiscal stimulus that would be timely, targeted and temporary. Now, we need a fiscal stimulus that is speedy, substantial and sustained."
Mr. Summers was cautious with details. He threw the audience half a formula for the proportions of a stimulus as compared with the gross national product and the percentage of tax revenue-the "multiplier effect"-it would produce. But he shied away from numbers, refusing to say whether a $500 billion or $700 billion package would be too much or too little.
Toward the end of the talk, the audience was invited to participate. An attendant handed Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein a microphone and from his table he explained his decision to forego his annual eight-figure bonus. "We don't live apart from the world," he said of Goldman executives, who, like everybody else, had had a miserable year.
Just because he doesn't live apart from the world doesn't mean Mr. Paulson doesn't want to be apart from him. "Goldman Sachs is no longer my institution!" Mr. Paulson exclaimed at one point, in response to a question of Mr. Murray's about public suspicion of the Goldman-Treasury connection.
A lighthearted moment came when Mr. Murray abruptly announced a change of subject. "Let's talk about cars," he said.
"We have a Prius!" Mr. Paulson yelped. The audience laughed and Mr. Murray, buoyed, asked Mr. Rubin what he drove-"Or are you driven?" Mr. Rubin, after a prolonged stare, said, "I get around."