A Gross Sense of Entitlement

Most public servants who move into the private sector do so honorably, but I’ve seen the minority who go money-grubbing.

A photomontage of a man with his feet up on a desk and with a cartoon face with dollar signs.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic; Getty

About the author: Andrew Exum is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. From 2015 to 2017, he was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy.

Two weeks ago, retired Marine General John Allen resigned as the head of the prestigious Washington think tank the Brookings Institution, following revelations of what federal prosecutors allege was his unregistered lobbying for the government of Qatar. I briefly worked with Allen in the Obama administration, and his record of public service is lengthy and admirable. But after reading through both the court documents and media reporting on what happened, the problem that most worries me is what I perceive to be a dangerous sense of entitlement among some of our most senior public servants.

That sense of entitlement undermines the esteem in which the American public holds its institutions. As the Tufts University professor Dan Drezner noted of the affair in comments to Politico: Retired military officers “feel like they’re making up for lost time. And the problem is because they’ve been in the military world, they have no idea what the rules are.”

I spend a good deal of time with former senior government officials, both uniformed and civilian. Almost all of them are humble about their accomplishments, and have a good attitude about what they can expect in the private sector. But there are also exceptions.

I have come across a few who reason that, having enjoyed success in either uniform or elsewhere in government, they should be rewarded for that achievement and status in the private sector. These people tend to make decisions, usually of a money-grubbing variety, that reflect poorly not just on themselves but on their peers and the institutions from which they hail.

I was reminded of the 2009 scandal that convulsed Britain after newspaper reports exposed lawmakers’ abuse of their parliamentary expenses. Members of the U.K. Parliament from all parties had sought reimbursements on everything from duck ponds to—and I am not making this up—moat cleaning. Altogether, lawmakers were shamed into paying back nearly £500,000, and more than a dozen parliamentarians were shamed into leaving their positions.

The most persuasive explanation for such misconduct boils down to a gross sense of entitlement.

We would be naive to assume we do not have the same problem here. Imagine a young person about to graduate from an Ivy League school, or a service academy, who decides on a life in public service. After a decade or more of climbing the ladder and serving as a senior congressional aide or field-grade military officer, they’ve achieved a good middle-class lifestyle, but something is amiss: When they look at their university peers who went into business, they all seem to be doing much better than they are, at least financially. I’m smarter than my friends who went into finance, the congressional aide or military officer thinks, but I can’t afford the vacations or country homes they can—it’s not fair.

And they are right, in a sense. Few people in finance should make the salaries they do. But they are also wrong about making as much as they do. They, after all, voluntarily chose a life of public service—with an emphasis on that last word, service. There is honor in public service, more honor than in most private-sector jobs, but to expect a public-service job to pay as much as the highest-paid jobs in the private sector is unrealistic. A lieutenant colonel in the Army with 20 years of service makes roughly $120,000 a year and could then be eligible for retirement by, say, the age of 42. (The mean annual wage in the United States, by contrast, is about $58,000, and the average American expects to retire in his or her 60s.) A career in the military or on Capitol Hill ensures a very comfortable life by any reasonable measure. But it is not supposed to make anyone rich.

I try not to judge the decisions people make about their career. Nor do I believe that we should go around placing too many formal restrictions on what former officials can and cannot do once they leave public service. But my stomach churns when I see government officials go to work directly in the industries most adjacent to their department or agency. Congress and each administration pass laws and issue guidance, but speak with any former senior official, and he or she can give you several examples of when the spirit, if not the letter, of these laws was blatantly violated by a former colleague.

The questions then arise: When did that former official give advice on that arms sale, or that financial regulation, and in whose interest were they working?

I’m not alone in finding such cases distasteful. If the outrage from their representatives in Congress is anything to go by, Americans do not like it when their public servants appear to be cashing in on their service, and our eroding trust in what had previously been highly esteemed institutions should concern us.

I made my own transition to the private sector more than a decade ago—and it wasn’t easy or painless. At the age of 33, I had grown interested in the world of commerce generally but figured that I had a limited amount of time to start my career anew, and this narrowed my choices. I ended up at one of the elite strategy-consulting firms that hire a few people with postgraduate degrees like me each year and throw us up against the wall to see who will stick. I nearly fell off the wall before a colleague at the firm—an executive more senior than I, though seven years younger—took me under her wing and got me back on track.

Now knowing something about how hard and uncompromising the private sector can be, I am sometimes astonished by the assumption some high-ranking officers have that they could have been just as successful at, say, JPMorgan or BlackRock as they were in the Army or the Marine Corps. The traits and experiences that lead to professional success in one field are rarely the same as those that lead to success in another.

Neither the military nor the private sector is a perfect meritocracy, but I am always staggered to hear former colleagues in the military remark how great it is that a certain general is also the son of a retired general. Really? I wonder. You’re not a little embarrassed by this? Far too many military officers rise through the ranks thanks to powerful patrons. The same thing happens in the private sector, of course, but folks at the top of any organization should admit how big a part fortune played in getting them there.

The advice I would give to any senior officials looking to join the private sector is, unhelpfully perhaps, to have done so 25 years earlier. Corporations love hiring junior military officers and government officials because they are still young enough to learn and have lower expectations of near-term compensation.

More helpfully, I would advise those making the transition to stay humble. The most successful retired officers and senior officials I have seen, including those who were giving up senior posts as colonels or ambassadors, know what they do not know and are not afraid to admit as much. Such success tends also to apply to the people who roll up their sleeves afresh without resting on the laurels of their public service.

My final piece of advice is that anyone who leaves public service should be prepared to stay gone. Public service is a privilege, and the minute we walk out that door, we cannot ever expect to walk back in. We should be grateful for the time we have been able to spend serving this country, and rather than obsess about the private-sector success of others, we should better appreciate the blessings we already have. That should be our only entitlement.