This morning’s New York Times includes a nice column by Peter Orszag about disability. It begins with the words “I will begin a new job for Citigroup in January, so this is my last article.” Page 6 of the business section provides further information about Mr. Orszag’s nebulously-defined responsibilities as a vice chairman of Citi and as a member of its senior strategic advisory group.
I don’t know Orszag. I often agree with his fiscally-responsible policy perspective, though I am more liberal than he is. For matters of both substance and optics (if indeed these can be fully separated), I am disgusted by his latest career move.
With the exception of the president himself, Orszag was arguably the most important economic policymaker in the entire Obama administration. Orszag’s OMB role, his fingertip familiarity with policy, the budget process, and congressional policymakers made him central to the stimulus and health reform efforts. He was President Obama’s right hand man for much of that work, and more besides. He accumulated the ultimate rolodex of people inside and outside government, within the United States, and perhaps globally, too.
Now he is selling those contacts, skills, and experiences to Citigroup. His annual compensation is expected to be “at least” $2 to $3 million. I’m sure he will comply with applicable federal lobbying laws, and beyond that, with the various norms of decorum that seem to govern such things. This still stinks. A huge bank’s strategic interactions with government hardly begin or end with the legal or even the commonsense definition of lobbying. His inside knowledge of presidential policymaking, regulatory processes, and congressional politics will be valuable–sometimes for good ends, sometimes not—whether or not he ever does actual lobbying.
Was there a more politically toxic destination to sell these wares than Citigroup? The firm may or may not win the prize as the most galling corporate recipient of federal bailout funds. It is certainly on the medal stand. It perfectly symbolizes both the “too-big-to-fail” problem and the overly-cozy relationship between investment banking and Washington. This move undercuts efforts to curb the revolving-door culture between the government and the industries it regulates and affects.
It’s especially galling because Orszag has many more worthy, less troubling, and certainly less damaging opportunities to earn pretty serious cash. Austin Goolsbee, for example earned a reported $465,000 teaching in our business school. Then are books to be written, and more.
There’s also this. Orszag cashed in at the very moment that the man who rocketed him to stardom—and who is now trying to defend the very policies Orszag supports –faces a real knife fight for political survival. Burdened with the political consequences of 9.8 percent unemployment, a bad midterm election, and other challenges, President Obama faces a dangerous populist headwind: charges from Tea Party marchers and religious HuffPo readers alike that he favors Wall Street over Main Street in his mindset and his concrete policies. I happen to disagree with these critiques. Yet they are out there, and they are damaging. Having one of President Obama’s key advisors cash in like this doesn’t help at all.
As I mentioned, I’m disgusted.