Orszag and Citigroup
James Fallows gently chides me and my paper for not writing more on Peter Orszag's decision to take an executive position with Citigroup. He's probably right to do so, though my silence was in part motivated by terror at having to try and add anything to this brilliant post by Will Wilkinson, and in part just being busy with other subjects. But reading the coverage, I've been struck by a few things.
1. I'm not nearly so sure it's about the money as other people seem to be. Orszag is fairly wealthy already (my understanding is he sold off an economic consulting firm when he became director of the Congressional Budget Office), and his lifetime of public service positions does not suggest a man particularly motivated by income. Rather, I think people are underestimating the lure of the job itself.
Orszag has gone as high as he's likely to go in government, and he's 41 years old. The guy isn't done, but there's not much more for him in Washington. So what is left for him?
Well, he could do academia or a think tank. But that's a pretty sedate, low-stress existence compared with the tempo he's kept up over the past few decades. Let's say he doesn't want to move into a wiseman or advisory role. New York Times columnist didn't seem like a bad gig to me, but then, I've chosen to devote my life to similar pursuits. I'm not really sure why anyone would want to be a university president. You sometimes hear people say that he should've sat around and been fairly rich and respected, but I imagine that gets boring after the first decade or so.
Citigroup is a really big, really powerful institution. Orszag's position in it is the sort of position that could one day lead to being president of Citigroup. If you're him, and you're trying to figure out an interesting and high-impact way to spend the next 40 years, I can see why it's appealing. But it's the power and the job and the opportunity, more than the money, that make it appealing.
2. The problem is less why Orszag wanted to go to Citigroup than why Citigroup wanted to hire Orszag. In Citigroup, you're dealing with a bank that's simply much more reliant than other banks are on connections with the American government, and other governments. Bank of America has similar needs, and so too do a couple of others, but it's a short list.
Whether Orszag was a smart hire on these grounds is hard to say. It's difficult to overstate how much bad will has developed between Orszag and the White House he used to serve. Some of that comes from perceived disloyalty in Orszag's public statements -- like his first New York Times column, which called for a short-term extension of all the tax cuts when the White House was arguing for the permanent extension of most of the cuts and the expiration of the cuts for the rich -- but this move, which many in the administration consider politically problematic and personally distasteful, added considerably to the anger.
What Citigroup gets in Orszag is a brilliant policy mind and a deep understanding of government, not to mention a thick rolodex that certainly still has some friendly names on it. The reasons those things are valuable to Citigroup make most of us uncomfortable, and that goes double after the government bailed Citigroup out during the financial crisis. I highly doubt that the meetings between Orszag and Citigroup left him with the impression that he was getting hired to help with governmental affairs. His portfolio, in fact, is explicitly international. But I don't know anyone who believes that it will stay that way.
3. And on some level, it doesn't really matter if it does. There's no prior record of unscrupulous behavior with Orszag. He's someone who could've cashed out long ago but instead worked his way up through the government and was then instrumental in designing and passing a series of bills that will make the country a much better place. In my dealings with him he's been uncommonly honest about what is good policy and what isn't. He seemed, in general, much less intellectually captured by being in government than most people I've spoken to. His is a record to be proud of, and I doubt he intends to tarnish it.
But the problem isn't what he intends to do, and it's not even what he actually does. Federal law bars Orszag from even contacting his former colleagues as part of this job, at least for a few years. The problem is what it will make the public think. Orszag now becomes part of a long list of public servants whose subsequent career decisions make people trust the government less. Maybe that conclusion is incorrect on their part, but it's not unfair.
It's asking a lot of federal employees -- even famed and powerful ones -- to view themselves as having a duty not just to their ideals and their bosses and their constituents, but even once they're done, to the very idea of serving in government, and to the trustworthiness of others serving in government. But it's also asking a lot of the public to resist cynicism when they see bankers serving in White Houses and White Houses saving banks and banks hiring the people who saved them.
4. The question I've had trouble answering is what I'd have told Orszag to do instead. Life doesn't end at 41. Writing columns isn't for everybody. And what does serving in government -- even high up in government -- prepare you for in the private sector? And if the answer is "helping firms navigate government," which formulation of that answer wouldn't seem sleazy? Being a lobbyist isn't better than being global VP for Citigroup. If anything, it's worse. Perhaps becoming head of public policy for a company like Google plays better in the media, though it's really not different on a fundamental level, and in its explicit focus on Washington, may be worse. Waiting to take the job might have quieted some of the criticism, but the job might not have been there for him in five years, and at the end of the day, it would've had the same problems.
What's difficult about Orszag's decision to go to Citigroup is that I can see how it was the right decision for him even as it was the wrong thing to do. But pile up enough of those decisions -- this one, for instance -- and it is very hard to explain to anyone why they should trust government, even when the people in question haven't yet worked outside the public sector.
Photo credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP.
| December 16, 2010; 8:50 AM ET
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