Government as a road to riches

Trent Lott is a millionaire. So is his lobbying partner John Breaux. And Tony Podesta. Now Peter Orszag, at age 41, has a salary reportedly around $2 million or $3 million.

Imagine these men never got into government: Would their wealth, income, and income potential be less or more?

It's hard to answer, but it at least raises this concern: some people enter government in order to cash out.

I remember one day, about six years back, drinking in David Freddoso's backyard and chatting with a 22-year-old new in town. He knew a friend of Freddoso, and that friend thought it would help this kid's job hunt to come to a Capitol Hill “backyard happy hour,” as we called them.

I asked the new kid what he wanted to do. “I want a job on Capitol Hill — ideally on a committee staff. Eventually I want to be a lobbyist.”

I don't remember this guy's name.  But getting off the metro at Farragut North a few weeks back, I saw him, suit-clad, heading to work on K Street (of course, I work on K Street, too, so that doesn't make this kid a lobbyist).

Was Peter Orszag thinking the same thing 20 years ago? I don't know him, so I won't posit as much. But at some point, the promise of a cashout operates in the back of the mind of every high-level government official, I'm sure — especially after they see how Bob Rubin, Larry Summers, and Henry Paulson all wear nicer suits and nicer watches. In other words, even if they don't enter government work in order to cash out, you have to wonder if their moves within government — career moves and policy decisions — are influenced by a hope to cash out.

That's why the Washington Post's Ezra Klein misses the point when he writes:

Orszag is fairly wealthy already (my understanding is he sold off an economic consulting firm when he became director of the Congressional Budget Office), and his lifetime of public service positions does not suggest a man particularly motivated by income.

But maybe “public service” was the income-maximizing path for Orszag, as I suspect it was for Lott. And Klein makes a similar over-simplification in this passage:

He's someone who could've cashed out long ago but instead worked his way up through the government and was then instrumental in designing and passing a series of bills that will make the country a much better place.

But cashing out earlier — before he played a central role in such important legislation — wouldn't have been as lucrative.

Klein's entire post is worth reading, though. I'm glad he's troubled by the revolving door. I think it would be good if the country universally saw it as tawdry to monetize one's “public service.”

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