Why Is the Path From Wall Street to Washington So Well-Trodden?

It's no wonder why Amtrak can charge so much for its express train tickets between Washington and New York: demand for the trip must be growing as the route from Wall Street to government continues to gain popularity. As President Obama struggles to fill two big vacancies in his staff, he's said to be leaning towards candidates who have worked for big Wall Street banks. Gene Sperling, a former Goldman Sachs part-timer, is reported to be at the top of the list to replace Larry Summers as National Economic Council director. William M. Daley, JP Morgan's Midwest chairman, is said to be a major contender to replace Rahm Emanuel as Obama's chief of staff.

This might seem surprising, as the President portrays himself as someone who wants to buck the old political order, and the Washington-Wall Street connection is hardly a novel trend. Unfortunately, he might be finding that ignoring strong candidates with Wall Street ties is extremely difficult. Why is a good non-Wall Streeter so hard to find?

Lots of Very Smart, Talented People End Up on Wall Street

First, there's the obvious: many people on Wall Street are actually very smart, talented individuals. That's why they manage to nab jobs that provide seven- and eight-figure paychecks. They have degrees from the best schools in subjects like economics and math, but also in subjects like philosophy and political science. Many have graduate degrees in law or business.

Often, their skills extend far beyond just math. In order to succeed on Wall Street, you not only need above average quantitative skills, but you also must have an insane work ethic, a lighting-fast mind, problem-solving prowess, and phenomenal interpersonal skills. In fact, a knack for forming strong relationships with clients is arguably far more important than knowing math once a banker reaches a certain level.

A lot of these same characteristics are very attractive in Washington. Indeed, that's why so many from Washington, like former White House budget director Peter Orszag, also make the easy transition to Wall Street. To avoid anyone with Wall Street experience would be to push aside some of the best and brightest minds in the world.

Real World Experience Actually Matters

But that's only part of it. Certainly there are other very smart, talented people out there who could fill government positions. There are career regulators and bureaucrats. There are academics. Why not choose from those pools? They lack real world business experience, which is often very desirable from political and practical perspectives. There's a difference between having an adviser responding, "Based on my knowledge of economics, I think that business will. . ." and "Based on my 20 years experience in the private sector, I know that business will. . . "

Still, why Wall Street? Surely there are other titans of industry to choose from. Why not a tech CEO? How about someone who runs a pharmaceutical firm? What about a manufacturing company head?

It's a little harder to explain why other industries don't have as substantial a showing in Washington. But here's a theory, based on three kinds of Wall Street types. Let's go through those first:

The Retired Career Banker Seeking Power or an Opportunity to Give Back

Presented by

Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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