Reed Hundt was a member of the transition teams for the Clinton and Obama presidencies. He was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in 1993-97. He has taught at Yale College, Law School and School of Management, practiced law in California and Washington, D.C., started for-profit and non-profit firms (including Coalition for Green Capital and Making Every Vote Count), served as a board member for numerous technology and communications firms, and raised a family with his wife Betsy in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He is the author of You Say You Want a Revolution, In China’s Shadow, The Politics of Abundance, and Zero Hour.
Author Q & A
1. What was the impetus for writing A Crisis Wasted?
In 2008 and 2009, I was involved in the [Obama] transition. I thought that the decision making was extremely important, but that there had been no good, detailed book ever written about decision making in that time period. So, I interviewed about four dozen people in 2010, 11, and 12. But then I waited on writing the book because I couldn’t make up my mind about the conclusion—about the denouement. Unfortunately, in November of 2016, the conclusion was provided by the electoral college. So then, I decided that I had to finish the book and explain how this great president, who was put in a situation of needing to save the American and the global economy, somehow ended up making decisions that—like the road to hell—was paved with good intentions but unfortunate ideas.
2. What is your assessment of American politics today, in 2018? And where are we headed?
It hasn’t been so divisive since when I was very young, since 50 years ago in 1968 when students thought that they ruled the world. I don’t think America’s republic can continue long with such division, hostility, and such failure by the government process to serve the people.
We’re headed for big trouble unless we can figure out how to give—not just through government but through the government and business working together—good pathways to deliver what the American people want and deserve.
3. What was your process for interviewing dozens of important decision makers for this book?
I was very grateful that they participated. I made transcripts, which I sent to them. Years later, when the book was nearly finished, I sent them the quotes I wanted to use. I let them change anything they wanted. I let them decide what they didn’t want printed. They had the final say on their own statements. I think they each have made an impressive historical record that shows how thoughtful every person was and how concerned they were about solving the problems that they were presented with.
4. How was the experience of writing the book?
Really easy. I just wrote it about 50 times. And at the fifty-first time I thought I finally had gotten to what seemed to me to be the truth.
5. What do you do when you’re not writing?
I think about the mistakes I have written, and I try to get some exercise.
Outside of writing, I’m on the board of a number of technology companies. I’m the CEO of two nonprofits. One is trying to make sure the person who wins the national popular vote always becomes the president and the other is trying to move as quickly from carbon energy to clean power as possible.
6. In your opinion, what went wrong in late 2008?
I think the primary problem from September of 2008 to January 2009 was figuring out what was really wrong with the national and global economy and how severe the problem was going to be for working people and homeowners.
I think the diagnosis was extremely difficult. For 10 years, academics are still trying to do the diagnosis. Without successful diagnosis, no one could be sure how sick the patient really was. So under those circumstances, even treating the symptoms was hard to do.
I think what was decided was this: the diagnosis was that there was a lack of confidence in the major private financing institutions in the United States and in a few other countries. And the remedy that was administered was, in the United States, to rebuild that confidence in part by providing very generous, easy access to capital for the major financial institutions. And then the antidote for the American people (as employees, unemployed people, and homeowners): that came second. And it was insufficient to deal with the seriousness of the economic and social woes because imaginations were not stretched.
The author Henry James said it is important to have an imagination of disaster. The economic disaster was beyond the knowledge, experience, and imaginations of pretty much everybody in the winter of 2008-9. And then the other problem was that at least some people felt that there were limits on what government could do to make things better for citizens, and probably those limits were far too seriously constrained. Lastly, the president-elect himself needed to decide whether to launch his presidency on the basis of an accurate but very dramatic explanation of how serious the economic problem was. And he decided not to do that. That probably was a mistake.
7. What can be done differently in 2020?
I think the candidates in both parties, over the next two years, ought to be incredibly clear and specific about the problems that the American people deserve to have solved. And they should recognize that almost every one of them requires fresh thinking and new solutions because they’re not the same as the old problems. And the old solutions didn’t work well anyhow.
In 2020, I think the American people are going to stand up for the basic values of this country.
8. What was your time at the FCC like?
Exhilarating, intense, optimistic, and really meaningful to all of us involved. But also, I think, for America.
9. What was your time in the Clinton and Obama transition teams like?
The Clinton team—we were very young, and we thought that progress was inevitable, and we felt that we could solve every problem, and we were full of beans. We really got a kick out of living in Little Rock, although it was surprisingly cold.
The Obama transition was also very cold. The transition building was very grim. But everybody was thrilled that the country was starting to support and ultimately, by a huge margin, voted for this wonderful person, Barack Obama. The big difference was that the financial crisis had obviously horribly deepened the recession, and there was a tremendous sense of trouble. So there wasn’t nearly the optimism and confidence that existed in ’92, ’93. People were very confident that they were the masters of their own domains of knowledge. But they weren’t confident that what they knew was what needed to be known.