Who is Peter Orszag? In a thoroughly reported, super-sized profile of the former White House budget director and newly recruited high-salaried Citibank somethingorother, New York magazine’s Gabe Sherman gives a lot of potential answers to that question. He’s an “ambitious economist” with “a gilded resume,” a “deficit hawk,” who claims he quit his job “upset by Washington’s refusal to get serious about the deficit,” and a symbol of populist animosity who's been “branded a sellout” for taking a big-bucks banking gig. At the White House, he was “one of the most visible faces on Team Obama”—“a rock-star egghead” and “an unlikely hunk” who “[embodied] everything that was cool about the technocratic braininess of Obama’s Washington.”
Those are the answers Sherman gives us. Here’s my answer to the question: He's a pretty-boy pencil pusher whose business, as the top budget braniac in the administration, was to mislead the public about the budget.
But what about now? What exactly is ladies' man Orszag up to at Citibank? Apparently, he’s been given the title of “vice-chairman,” whatever that means. The best clue we have is the role given to Bob Rubin, one of Orszag’s mentors and in some ways the original Washington-to-Wall Street power player. Rubin went to Citibank after working on Bill Clinton’s economic team, and the bank created the job of “Chairman” specifically for him. That gig, apparently, did not involve “managing or trading or doing deals” or any sort of “direct responsibility in running Citi’s sprawling operation.” It did leave plenty of time for Rubin to pursue memoir writing and fly-fishing—which is even more impressive considering the job also paid Rubin $33 million per year and gave him “access to Citi’s fleet of private jets.” Is Orszag’s “vice-chairman” job a junior version of the same thing?
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what Orzag is doing for Citibank. His primarily job duties are intangible. Mostly it seems he's there to cast his sexy geek-boy light on the institution and serve as a conduit to Washington’s power centers.
According to Sherman, Orzag is a trophy hire of sorts, an open line to the hallowed halls of financial regulation at the bottom of the Acela, and an outward sign that the bailed-out Citibank is now on a straight-and-narrow path to rehab and renewed status as a good corporate citizen. Corporate entities can’t exactly check into therapy after crashing at taxpayer expense, but they can connect with their feelings (and perhaps some new friends in the administration) by hiring a White House wiz kid. Who needs clear job responsibilities when you’re Washington’s unofficial Wonk King?
For Citi, hiring a man like Orszag, like Rubin before him, signaled that Citi would be invested in the intellectual marketplace, no mere profiteering bank but a significant American institution. Orszag’s wisdom about markets is certainly valuable; but even more valuable is his role as an impeccable ambassador for the bank, a kind of rainmaker, but at the stratospheric level. Just about anyone will take the call of a former White House budget director.
A “rainmaker” at “the stratospheric level,” eh? That sounds pretty awe-inspiring. But what does it actually mean to make it rain? You might think of witch doctors and mystical dancers, but according to Urban Dictionary, it’s “when you have a wad of cash and throw it in the air in a strip club. It's also a song by Fat Joe.” Now, there are no strip clubs mentioned in Sherman’s story, but I’m guessing the effect is basically the same, except that it’s Washington raining money on Citibank (already the recipient of a taxpayer-funded $45 billion bailout). That sounds great. If you’re Citibank. Or if you’re Orszag. According to Sherman’s sources, the former public servant is likely collecting in the neighborhood of $2 or $3 million for his rainmaking services. Fat Joe would be proud, I’m sure. As for the rest of us, well, that's tougher to say. In the end, we may not ever find out who Orszag really is. But it’s clear enough what all the elite connections he made on the public dime are currently allowing him to become: rich.