Public Service as a Business Plan

For Labor Day, let's consider another portion in Chris Hayes' Twilight Of The Elites, where he tries to illustrate how the great overlap between the governing class and the 1 percent:


...consider the routine staffing changes in the Obama administration as it reached the midway point of its first term. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel left his position to run for mayor of Chicago. Emanuel got his start as a fund-raiser for Mayor Daley, moved to the Clinton White House, where he lasted nearly the entire eight years, eventually becoming a senior adviser to the President. After serving in the Clinton administration, at the age of thirty-nine he left to become an investment banker, spending two and a half years at Wasserstein Perella, where he amassed a fortune of more than $18 million. He then ran for Congress, became White House Chief of Staff, and left to run successfully for mayor of Chicago. 

To replace the multimillionaire Rahm Emanuel, the multimillionaire President Obama (net worth $5 million) named multimillionaire William Daley, the brother of the mayor that Emanuel was hoping to replace. Daley's résumé included stints as commerce secretary in the Clinton administration and as campaign manager for Al Gore's 2000 campaign, but at the time he was named chief of staff, he was Midwest chairman at JPMorgan Chase, making $8.7 million a year. His net worth was estimated at more than $50 million. When Bill Daley later left his post as chief of staff in January 2012, he was replaced by Jack Lew, who spent four years at Citigroup and received a bonus of $950,000 in 2009, even after it was disclosed that his division made high-stakes bets on the housing market. 

Around the same time Emanuel departed, the White House faced the loss of another key team member when National Economic Council director Larry Summers announced his intention to return to Harvard. Summers, who had served as a deputy Treasury secretary and president of Harvard University, also spent a spell as a consultant at the hedge fund D. E. Shaw: that gig paid him $5.2 million a year, or more than $100,000 per week, for one day of work a week. According to his disclosure forms, his net worth at the time he left the White House was between $17 million and $39 million. 

To replace the multimillionaire Summers, the White House faced a choice between two other millionaires: Roger Altman, a founder and chairman at Evercore Partners who'd served as deputy secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration, and Gene Sperling, the counselor to the Treasury secretary who'd served as deputy director of the National Economic Council under Clinton. Altman's 2010 total compensation was nearly $6.5 million. (Not to mention the fact he owns a private jet.) While Sperling had spent most of his adult life in public service and policy jobs, he managed to make $2.2 million in 2008 alone from consulting fees from financial institutions like Goldman Sachs and hedge funds. 

In February 2011, presidential adviser David Axelrod announced he was leaving the White House to return to Chicago and advise the President's reelection campaign. Axelrod reported income of $1.5 million the year of Obama's election, and his net worth is much more thanks to more than two decades of running the highly lucrative and successful political consulting firm Axelrod and Associates (later AKPD Media). Staying behind as one of the only remaining members of the President's original White House inner circle was his longtime friend from Chicago Valerie Jarrett. Before coming to the White House, Jarrett had been CEO of the property management firm Habitat Co., which had earned millions off government contracts developing low-income housing to replace the dismantled Chicago Housing Authority projects. When entering office, she reported a money market fund that held between $1 million and $5 million.

Hayes concludes by arguing:

...the 1 percent and the nation's governing class are more or less one and the same. If you are a member of the governing elite and aren't a millionaire, you're doing something wrong. And if the divide between the 1 percent and the 99 percent really is a defining feature of our politics, how can the 99 percent trust that same wealthy, governing elite to zealously pursue it's interest?

I think there's an argument that the people in key White House positions are going to be older and more successful and thus more likely to be millionaires. But it must also be true that a kind of myopia sets in when being a millionaire becomes an invisible barrier to getting in the room. As the market is set up right now, becoming a millionaire almost seems like the default for people who are successful in national politics. Is that wrong? If so how does one begin to correct it?

On a slightly different note this book did two things for me: 

1.) It made me more sympathetic toward Occupy's unwillingness to get involved in electoral politics. I still think it's wrong. But what you see in Hayes' book is that the game is really rigged toward the interests of the powerful. 

2.) Citizens United is going to wreak incredible damage upon this country. 
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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