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Posted at 10:56 AM ET, 12/16/2010

What should public servants do after government?

By Ezra Klein

My earlier post on Orszag got me thinking a bit about what we actually want from public servants after they've left government. And, to be honest, the more I think about it, the more confused I get.

After being in government for a while, the thing you know really well is government. So it stands to reason that you're somehow trading on that. There are a few jobs where the trade doesn't worry anybody: academia, for instance, and think tanks. But in pretty much every other job I can think of, the trade worries everybody. Nobody likes lobbyists, or the people who run the government shops for major corporations or trade groups. There are a few firms out there with high enough public approval that the concerns are muted -- a group that argues for veterans' benefits, say, or Google -- but the fundamentals of the job are still disliked.

But I think it's underappreciated how much the critique of lobbying is really a critique -- or a referendum -- on government. Washington is obviously a complicated place, with opaque processes that have huge implications for all sorts of firms and groups. It makes sense that there'd be a market for expertise in navigating it. And yet, that market is basically loathed, and the people in those jobs are both integral to the workings of the town and despised by most of the country. The reason, I think, is that the public sense that the government allows them to be much more effective, and have a much larger role, than is proper.

My hunch is that this is fundamentally because of money. If the public thought that expertise was the actual good being provided, they wouldn't mind very much. But the trail of cash suggests that the real trade is that firms and groups give money to former players, and then those former players give money to their former colleagues, and what the firms and groups end up getting isn't an explanation of how the committee process works, but some giveaway that they bought at the expense of the public. Put differently, the market isn't for people who can navigate the government. It's for people who know how to bribe it.

In some cases that's true and in some cases it isn't. But since it affects the public's view of most all cases, I think it has the perverse effect of unleashing former government employees to make more crass occupational choices, as everyone is getting painted with the same brush anyway, and there's no real reason to turn down the cash if even a more virtuous choice will leave people thinking that you're sleazy.

Which is perhaps to say that people should spend more time thinking about Lawrence Lessig's critique of money in politics. I think he goes too far in arguing that money buys outcomes in a predictable way, but I think the political system in general doesn't go nearly far enough in facing up to the way money discredits every level and every branch of the federal government, and pretty much every decision made by the people who work in it. Evan Bayh also has some good thoughts on this question.

That doesn't really answer my question of how government workers can use their knowledge in a non-sleazy way in the private sector. Rather, it suggests what they need to do before going over to the private sector: something that takes on money's role in politics in a way that's public enough and convincing enough that Americans are at long last convinced that Washington isn't being run by bribes.

Of course, back in the real world, the Congress can't even give up on earmarks.

By Ezra Klein  | December 16, 2010; 10:56 AM ET
 
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Comments

> My hunch is that this is fundamentally
> because of money.

This is remarkably similar to the Obama Administration's apparent tone deafness about what is actually happening to the US economy and US citzens outside of Washington DC in the wake of the 2008 recession/depression, and why people "out here" are so angry about the aftermath of the financial sector bailouts [note: NOT necessarily the bailouts themselves; the lack of action thereafter]. You don't bother to mention (1) conflict of interest (2) betrayal of trust. The people in high government positions were granted incredible levels of trust by the citizens who own/comprise this nation; in some cases the literal power of life and death. It is beyond our understanding why these people think that they should then takes the outcome of that trust, head directly for the industries that are doing so much damage to us "out here", and cash in for sums of money far beyond what we, our children, and our grandchildren collectively will ever earn as salarymen.

Take an hour or so someday and go talk to the WaPo's computer system administrators. There you will find people who hold positions of extraordinary trust; they have the passwords to and control over the corporate web site, e-mail server, payroll system, and the files on your home directory marked "private". They could abuse that trust at any time. Yet the vast majority of them don't and never will. Do they get a decent rate of pay? Probably. Do they get anything like the pay that the self-styled executives do, or that you can expect if your career continues its upward trajectory? No. They hold great trust, they don't get rewarded for it really, yet they don't abuse it.

Yet you see no reason why those of us in flyover country might get upset about Ozrizg, Summers, etc abusing their trust at the expense of us and our children. I hate to use the word "naive" but that's about where it sits.

sPh

Posted by: sphealey | December 16, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

"That doesn't really answer my question of how government workers can use their knowledge in a non-sleazy way in the private sector."

i think i can answer this question


i think that person who has benefited from the fruits of their hard work, talents and opportunities, as a public servant...who leaves with recognition and financial reward, can just ask themselves these questions.....
"where can i use my expertise to accomplish the most good, for the greatest number of people?"
"being a young, successful and contributing individual,where can i continue to try to make a difference for the greater good?"
"when i am old, and my most fruitful years are over, can i look back at my choices, and feel that i tried to leave a legacy that made a positive difference in the lives of others?"

"to those who have been given much, (talent, intelligence,ability, opportunity) much is expected."

Posted by: jkaren | December 16, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

I would argue that this is part and parcel of a governing philosophy that views it as proper to pick winners in the marketplace (see ethanol), set a limit on how much water your toilet can flush, and redistribute income and wealth based on it's own ideas of what's good for the country. With this much at stake, the logical course of action is for large players to bribe the government to achieve the outcomes they desire.

Hence, as you point out "Put differently, the market isn't for people who can navigate the government. It's for people who know how to bribe it."

The reason there hasn't been more outcry over Orzag going to CitiGroup is because everyone has assumed that TARP was corrupt to being with due to the involvement of former Goldman Sachs people such as Paulson & Rubin and the fact that Goldman Sachs got 100 cents on the dollar from AIG as a result of the bailouts.

You seemed to have glossed over the answer suggested in the Economist article you referenced:

"The classically liberal answer is to make government less powerful. The monstrous offspring of entangled markets and states can be defeated only by the most thorough possible separation."

http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2010/12/rigged_revolving_door

Posted by: jnc4p | December 16, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

also, it seems that so many people who depart from high public positions, even if they found their own global initiatives for doing humanitarian things, dont appear transformed in a spiritual way by their success...
they stay involved with moneyed people in circles of power, and wealth funds...they use their status, celebrity and credentials to raise lots and lots of money...and become more and more financially enriched.
years of living in a cocoon of power, money, glamour and authority seems to isolate and cause disconnection...and does not seem to lend itself to people then leading an ascetic life, and going through a journey indicated by gratitude, sacrifice and self -examination.
even if they do humanitarian things, they often seem to take plentifully for themselves. regardless of what their humble origins might have been, their good works no longer represent any kind of "an american dream."

"Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it."
~~~~~matthew 7:13

Posted by: jkaren | December 16, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

People aren't just upset about money, they are also upset about preferential access.

The theory is supposed to be that government works for everyone. If processes are so convoluted and opaque that non-experts can't navigate them, then it's fundamentally undemocratic.

Here's an analogy: people get upset at line-jumpers at the DMV, AND they get upset at people who bribe the guy behind the counter. Both are an offense to our notion of fairness.

Posted by: theorajones1 | December 16, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

Orszag sucks. The guy's personality is lemon, personal life - better that I do not go there suffice to say hardly anything good there...

His signature achievement - health care reform - may unravel too.

So what is the Public Service Left? Looks like he always wanted to be money guy back on Wall Street and that is where he has reached.

It is a free country so shut up.

Posted by: umesh409 | December 16, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

theorajones:

Most people I know who have good jobs, got them because they knew somebody. I'm sure Ezra wasn't plucked from obscurity because somebody emailed a blog of his to somebody at the top.

Fairness is doing a good job, AFTER someone helped you get that job in the first place. That's the only REAL advantage of Ivy-League schools. The people you go to school with already belong to the "owning class".

Posted by: 54465446 | December 16, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

let's imagine that Lessig's dream world of public financing was implemented. I don't agree with him here, but suppose he's right and wins.

Even then, it'd still be sketchy for Orszag to go work for Citigroup, a company the government bailed out, and lobby for regulatory changes. How would it be any less sketchy? It's not like Orszag's presence brings Citigroup more money-he brings them influence, something that would be even more valuable if political money was banned.

Posted by: jfcarro | December 16, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure it's the money. I think that the public perspective is that it's self v big business on a daily basis. Now big business is getting an inside track on government while self has to go through hassle to get a new social security card or passport and is felt up at the airport. Self is sure that if had access to a top government official this wouldn't happen.

Posted by: ideallydc | December 16, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

"Rather, it suggests what they need to do before going over to the private sector: something that takes on money's role in politics in a way that's public enough and convincing enough that Americans are at long last convinced that Washington isn't being run by bribes."

Ain't going to happen. Everyone knows Washington is and will be controlled by bribes.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | December 16, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

--*That doesn't really answer my question of how government workers can use their knowledge in a non-sleazy way in the private sector.*--

Since those who gravitate to government are ipso facto morally and intellectually suspect, it is exceedingly unlikely there is any way to reduce the sleaze factor when they exit.

Government attracts idealists (fanatics and incompetents), narcissists, meddlers, and power seekers. And then there are the groupies, like Klein.

Posted by: msoja | December 16, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad you finally wrote on this.

Incidentally, I'm not sure you're right that "academia" doesn't bother anyone. Certainly when New Jersey politicians leave office and promptly get a job at the nearest state college it looks weird. Some have even gone to jail for no-show college jobs while still in office.

Posted by: Hopeful9 | December 16, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

The American public is not sitting out there concerned that Peter Orszag went to work for Citigroup. This is an entirely made up concern in Washington.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | December 16, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, as someone who has been in both the private sector and government (and who is married to someone who has gone back and forth between the government and private sector more than once, including stints in lobbying), it struck me that several of your points on this topics are spot on, but that it is missing something, and perhaps that is because it oversimplifies the problem, at least in one respect.

Not all behavior in the lobbying category involves money/bribes. There is a substantial part of lobbying that goes beyond currying favor with legislators. It also goes beyond knowing how to navigate government, although that is, indeed, a very important part of the process. But the most important part of what a lobbyist does is provide information. Sometimes, it is about the real world perspective of how a proposed law or regulation would impact a particular business or even a whole industry. Sometimes, it is technical details about how something in an industry actually operates, so that laws and regulations can be accurately drafted. Of course, the information comes with spin, but the government employee who gets the information can generally separate the spin from the necessary information. And, in fact, if the spin gets too egregious, the lobbyist loses credibility as a valuable information source. In fact, credibility is what separates lobbyists from each other. Within the government, and even among lobbyists, some lobbyists are known for being sleazy (either because their tactics are underhanded, or they aren't a credible source of information, for one reason or another), while others are more highly regarded because they can be trusted, in varying degrees. It is possible to be regarded as a trustworthy lobbyist and still bring home good results for your employer/clients. And perhaps that is, in part, because not everything that is the subject of lobbying presents a moral dilemma of public vs. private interest, or a winner-take-all strategy where the public loses if private industry wins anything. We certainly see those big moral dilemmas in the newsworthy policy issues, but that's a pretty small percentage of total policy issues that lobbyists impact.

I have certainly been concerned about what certain people have done with their experience in government (what immediately comes to mind are the former transportation department employees who came into focus last year when Toyota was having their recall problems, and it was shown that Toyota hired those people away from the agency specifically because they knew how to stop or slow a government recall, for example). I think problems like this arise because (1) the government employee in question doesn't have a secure moral compass to begin with, and/or (2) they didn't care enough about the corporate culture where they went to use their government expertise, and/or they didn't ask enough questions about what they would be asked to do with their "expertise".

[con't]

Posted by: reach4astar2 | December 16, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Will Orzag fall into one or both of these categories? I guess we don't really know, but we're somewhat uncomfortable because his post-government work calls his values into question (depending on your perspective, of course). But could he exercise his integrity and refuse to cross moral lines in his new position? Arguably, he would have had more power to do something like that than a lower level employee. But we'll never really know.

One thing that is worth watching, even beyond the Orzag situation, is the impact that Citizens United is having on lobbying restrictions, too. At least a couple of state lobbying limitations have been struck down under Citizens United, as impinging on lobbyist 1st amendment rights. If public trust in government is already low, and lobbyists are generally despised, imagine what happens if the few restrictions that do exist to reign in lobbyist influence are eliminated?

Posted by: reach4astar2 | December 16, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Here's an analogy: people get upset at line-jumpers at the DMV, AND they get upset at people who bribe the guy behind the counter. Both are an offense to our notion of fairness.

Posted by: theorajones1 | December 16, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

Bravo Theorajones1. I totally agree. So then you're against the Dream ACT and against the legalization of illegal immigrations who are essentially looking to "line jump" as you put it not something so minor as a trip to the DMV but rather legal status in this country.

Posted by: visionbrkr | December 16, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

It's hard enough getting anything done in D.C. by 535 people whose primary allegiance is to their party, not their constituents, and whose second allegiance is to keeping that job.

Now add thousands of lobbyists with millions of dollars to offer — many of whom are familiar, former colleagues — and it's amazing anything gets done, much less anything useful or worthwhile.

Where is Frank Capra when we need him?

Posted by: tomcammarata | December 16, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

--*If public trust in government is already low, and lobbyists are generally despised, imagine what happens if the few restrictions that do exist to reign in lobbyist influence are eliminated?*--

The entire matter of government corruption, even the soft corruption of lobbying, would be completely irrelevant were it not for the fact that the government now controls and increasingly seeks to control a substantial portion of the country's endeavor. That fact is the real disgrace. The corruption is merely a byproduct.

Posted by: msoja | December 16, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

It's hard enough getting anything done in D.C. by 535 people whose primary allegiance is to their party, not their constituents, and whose second allegiance is to keeping that job.

Now add thousands of lobbyists with millions of dollars to offer — many of whom are familiar, former colleagues — and it's amazing anything gets done, much less anything useful or worthwhile.

Where is Frank Capra when we need him?

Posted by: tomcammarata | December 16, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Maybe we just think the private sector is inherently sleazy? Yes.

Posted by: janinsanfran | December 16, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Maybe we just think the private sector is inherently sleazy? Yes.

Posted by: janinsanfran | December 16, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse


I just LOVE this line of buffoonery. So what pick a random person and they're somehow "cleansed" when they move from public to private and the converse happens when they do as Mr. Orszag did?

how about this. Everyone's different and have their own motivations for doing things, some good some bad and public or private sector have little to do with it and upbringing and moral charachter have much more to do with it.

Posted by: visionbrkr | December 16, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

"you're against the Dream ACT"

No. It's stupid to pretend people who grew up here are not Americans. Because, um, they obviously are. It's not line jumping to be a citizen of the country you grew up in!

And it's also not line jumping to be a citizen of the US even though you didn't earn it by taking a citizenship test or oath, but because you were simply given it at birth or inherited it from ancestors who earned their citizenship under far more lenient rules--or worse, whose immigration status has never been legally proven but has been lost to the mists of time...

Posted by: theorajones1 | December 16, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

theora,

ya well i get that but just wanted to point out the inconsistencies of your arguments.

So by your count how long do you have to live here illegally to be legal in your eyes? One day? One month? One year? Ten years? Where's the line of demarkation for you?


Also if they're "lost to the mists of time" as you put it how do YOU know that they were far more lenient?

Posted by: visionbrkr | December 16, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

--*Maybe we just think the private sector is inherently sleazy? Yes.*--

If it weren't for the private sector participants who play by the rules that the increasingly corrupt government writes, the government wouldn't be the two trillion plus dollar behemoth that it is.

Posted by: msoja | December 16, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

This whole question is faulty. Why do they need to leave the public or nonprofit sector at all? The vast majority of government civil servants have a rewarding career continuing to serve the public in government. Also, why aren't you even thinking of them getting a "real" job in hte private sector like actually making things, designing things, or customer service? Do you look down on those jobs? Why is it only executive stuff you're thinking of?

Posted by: jfung79 | December 16, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Since the Federal govenment has stopped giving out pensions has the number of people who jump from being regulators to regulation fighters gone up?
Of course since then the amount of money and power the Gov't has has increased so that would also figure into the equation.
But it still leaves me wondering.

Posted by: nathanie1 | December 16, 2010 9:57 PM | Report abuse

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