The Three Marketeers

Economist heroes? It sounds silly unless you understand how close we came to economic meltdown last year. This close

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The three men trying to cope with these mid-ether collisions of dollars and expectations are an unlikely team. Greenspan, the data-loving analyst with government roots sunk back into the financial and moral chaos of the Nixon Administration, and a shaman-like power over global markets. Rubin, the Goldman Sachs wonder boy who ran the firm's complex and dangerous arbitrage operations and then led it to rocket-ship international growth. And Summers, the Harvard-trained academic who is invariably called the Kissinger of economics: a total pragmatist whose ambition sometimes grates but whose intellect never fails to dazzle.

What holds them together is a passion for thinking and an inextinguishable curiosity about a new economic order that is unfolding before them like an Alice in Wonderland world. The sheer fascination of inventing a 21st century financial system motivates them more than the usual Washington drugs of power and money. In the past six years the three men have merged into a kind of brotherhood, with an easy rapport.

Spending time with them is like sitting in on a meeting of the M.I.T. economics faculty, a kind of miniature world in which everyone has his own idiosyncrasies and idea-wrestling is the pastime. The conversation is by turns uproarious and serious. They may not finish one another's sentences, but they clearly can finish one another's thoughts. And there is tremendous camaraderie. "Let me tell you this about Alan's tennis game," jokes Summers, an occasional opponent on the court. "He is very good [pause] for his age." Says Greenspan, with a broad grin designed to mask what is either sarcasm or a psych job: "Larry is really almost as good as a professional player."

Greenspan has a theory about what holds them together: "In analytical people self-esteem relies on the analysis and not on the conclusions." That must be it. The three men have a mania for analysis that has bred a rigorous, unique intellectual honesty. In the Reagan Administration economic policymaking was guided not by analysis but by conclusions--specifically a belief in so-called supply-side economics. No matter what the data showed, the results among Reagan-era economists like Arthur Laffer were always the same: tax cuts and less regulation were the solution. Rubin, Greenspan and Summers have outgrown ideology. Their faith is in the markets and in their own ability to analyze them. "It's unusual," Greenspan says. "In Washington usually you come to the table, and everyone meets, and no one changes their mind. But with us, you have something else."

This pragmatism is a faith that recalls nothing so much as the objectivist philosophy of the novelist and social critic Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged), which Greenspan has studied intently. During long nights at Rand's apartment and through her articles and letters, Greenspan found in objectivism a sense that markets are an expression of the deepest truths about human nature and that, as a result, they will ultimately be correct.

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