The Peter Orszag Dilemma

How should we address the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street?

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Late last week, in response to former White House budget director Peter Orszag taking an estimated multi-million dollar position at Citigroup, a major beneficiary of federal bailouts, The Atlantic's James Fallows penned a blog post lamenting Orszag's "unfortunate" decision. While Orszag technically did not do anything unethical, Fallows wrote,

The idea that someone would help plan, advocate, and carry out an economic policy that played such a crucial role in the survival of a financial institution--and then, less than two years after his Administration took office, would take a job that (a) exemplifies the growing disparities the Administration says it's trying to correct and (b) unavoidably will call on knowledge and contacts Orszag developed while in recent public service--this says something bad about what is taken for granted in American public life.

When we notice similar patterns in other countries--for instance, how many offspring and in-laws of senior Chinese Communist officials have become very, very rich--we are quick to draw conclusions about structural injustices. Americans may not "notice" Orszag-like migrations, in the sense of devoting big news coverage to them. But these stories pile up in the background to create a broad American sense that politics is rigged, and opportunity too.

In the days since, a number of commentators have grappled with the structural questions Fallows raised:

  • Raise Public Sector Pay, suggests Karl Smith at Modeled Behavior: "Even in the most noble of circumstances smart folks will notice that they can get to the front of the line pretty fast in the low competition public sector, build an impressive resume and then jump ship to the private sector to make a load of cash."
  • This Is The Progressive Paradox, states The Economist's Will Wilkinson:

Progressives would rather worry over trivialities such as campaign finance reform than dwell on the paradoxes of political power. But it really isn't the Citizens United decision that's about to make Peter Orszag a minor Midas. It's the vast power of a handful of Washington players, with whom Mr Orszag has become relatively intimate, to make or destroy great fortunes more or less at whim. Well-connected wonks can get rich on Wall Street only because Washington power is now so unconstrained. Washington is so unconstrained in no small part because progressives and New Dealers and Keynesians and neo-cons and neo-liberals for various good and bad reasons wanted it that way.

  • This Isn't a Flaw of Liberalism, responds Jonathan Chait at The New Republic: "It's impossible to create a government weak enough that having deep knowledge of government will not be a marketable commodity. Given that fact, the only answer is to create social norms and regulatory barriers to minimize excessive special interest as best as possible.
  • We Must Consider Public Perception, adds Ezra Klein at The Washington Post, who also says he thinks Orszag took the Citi job less because of money and more because he thought it would be interesting and high-impact, after having risen as high as he could in government. The problem, Klein writes, isn't ultimately what Orszag does but rather how the public reacts:

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.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.