Wow I am disgusted by Peter Orszag’s move to Citigroup

A moment to register my displeasure.

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.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

17 thoughts on “Wow I am disgusted by Peter Orszag’s move to Citigroup”

  1. Don't be disgusted with Orszag. Obama doesn't have any advisors who aren't on the pad. Members of the administration who aren't in it for the money (Biden, Solis) don't advise him.

  2. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said "on the pad." I should have said "respected members of the Washington/Wall Street establishment."

  3. " . . . charges from Tea Party marchers and religious HuffPo readers alike that he favors Wall Street over Main Street . . . ."

    Frankly, I've oftem thought the same about President Obama. Orszag's move seems to confirm it.

  4. Perhaps if we knew what Orszag had to put up with from Obama's administration, we would view his acts more charitably.

  5. I'd be annoyed, too.

    It's when this happens that I look at the people who say we should freeze or cut public employees' pay and just shake my head in wonder. If this guy can make a cool 3 mil for just showing up… What were we paying him, again, to help the country? Not that I think he should be paid that much by our treasury, but… The same thing holds true for the regulators who are supposed to be holding their own against well-heeled lawyers and businesses. They're seriously going up against people who shell out multiples of their paycheck.

    And we expect them to help the country out of the goodness of their hearts, and then we're supposed to reneg on their measly contracts?

  6. Crissa: "It’s when this happens that I look at the people who say we should freeze or cut public employees’ pay and just shake my head in wonder. "

    Well, obviously he is worth a lot of money, otherwise he wouldn't get paid so much. I mean, measly cops and meter maids – what a bunch of bums, right?

  7. People who don't want things to change blame individuals. People who do want change blame institutions. Guillotines also work.

  8. If Citi had been nationalized in 2008, as it should have been, Orszag would have been a perfectly good choice as government commissar. As it is now, feh.

  9. KLG: A man has to take care of his family.

    Good point. How can anybody expect to raise a family on a mere $450,000/yr salary? Oh, wait a minute…

  10. I've always assumed Obama will also take such job right after leaving the presidency. Is there anyone here who thinks otherwise?

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