Affirmative action for corporate CEOs

By Conor Clarke

The Politico has a piece pointing out that the underrepresented minority in the Obama administration is the corporate CEO:

In President Barack Obama's Cabinet, there is a Nobel Prize winner, a former mayor and a veteran CIA agent. Surrounding him in the White House West Wing are a former four-star general, one of the nation's most eminent economists and a handful of this generation's most talented political operatives.

This constellation of talent, however, has something of a black hole. There is virtually no one on Obama's team with outsized achievements or a high-profile reputation earned in the world of business.

This doesn't really seem like a great mystery to me. Republicans are historically more sympathetic to the concerns of big business (think about the party's position on corporate income and capital gains taxation) and Democrats are more sympathetic to complaints of crony capitalism. (Think about the party's position on Dick Cheney.) More importantly, populist anger needs to be sated: the impulse behind compensation caps and and congressional hearings/lashings for bankers is probably what's blocking CEOs' access to the cabinet door.

Nor does the lack of a CEOs really seem like a problem. There is a fairly persistent desire to think that success in making piles of money will predict success in other, unrelated walks of life. Merit in business is thought to be merit broadly construed. Indeed, the Politico story reminded me of the very brief pre-election infatuation with making Warren Buffett the next Treasury Secretary. That Warren would be great for the job was just about the only thing that Barack Obama and John McCain agreed on during one of their debates.

And maybe it's true that Obama needs to hear from a "plurality of voices" in the White House, but I don't think that business interests have historically had much trouble making themselves heard. Sure, the First Amendment doesn't give you a right to megaphone, but if you have a ton of money you can get yourself a pretty big megaphone.

And maybe it's true that "management experience" is completely and easily transferable from one sector for another. But you can get management experience in sectors besides the private, and it seems more likely to me that government experience is more relevant to job in government than experience somewhere else. So is the notion that Obama's cabinet doesn't have enough CEOs just a push for "diversity for its own sake"?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2009/02/affirmative-action-for-corporate-ceos/855/