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Antonio Weiss Nomination Post-Mortem

posted by Adam Levitin

There've been a bunch of post-mortems of the Antonio Weiss nomination in the press the last few days (see, e.g., here, here, and here). When I read them I often feel like I'm reading a story about a kid who went to a fancy eastern boarding school, where he was head of the literary society, lettered in three sports, and did lots of charity work, but didn't get into the Ivy League school where all of his family and family friends went. The result: shock and outrage that the kid was denied his birthright! 

Being nominated for Undersecretary of the Treasury isn't quite like getting into Harvard (or even Yale). Yet reading Weiss's defenders' (and their all-too-willing jouralist abetters), one would think that's the story. And that underscores precisely what the problem was with the Weiss nomination, and what Weiss's defenders just don't get (or want to admit they get): the assumption that Wall Street success entitles someone to an important policy position for which they have no apparent qualifications.

The problem with Antonio Weiss was never that he worked on Wall Street.  It was that working on Wall Street was his only qualification (besides giving lots of political donations). Yes, things like the Burger King tax evasion inversion deal didn't look good, but heck, the prior Treasury Secretary himself failed to pay taxes. The fact that Lazard didn't receive bailout funds directly (but surely benefitted from them indirectly) is also beside the point. The problem was that Weiss's Wall Street pedigree was that was touted as his only qualification (unless one counts bankrolling a little-read literary magazine), as if it should be self-evident that anyone C-suite type from Wall Street is qualified for any job at Treasury. That Weiss's defenders don't see the problem with this sense of entitlement is kind of shocking and underscores just what a problem there is with the "clubiness" and concommitant groupthink that has infected the economic advice received by several adminsitrations.  It's akin to treating Ivy League admission (and perhaps being punched for the Porc) as the birthright of a kid who was a stand-out at Exeter or Choate. Unfortunately, being Undersecretary of the Treasury for Domestic Finance just isn't a job for rich kids who want to play regulatory tourist, even in the final years of an administration. 

If one looks at the actual criticisms made of Weiss by his critics (as opposed to how they were characterized by his defendants), you'll see that the core complaint is that Weiss lacked relevant qualifications for the particular position for which he was nominated. Doing international M&A had very little connection to the position for which he was nominated. Being a wealthy liberal donor with good connections shouldn't result in an important policy position. (Why wasn't he just made an ambassador to somewhere? Isn't that what usually happens?) Weiss had no experience that was actually relevant to the Undersecretary position. No one could point to Weiss having weighed in on any topic that would be before him other than having put his name on a bland multi-author paper about tax fairness. But clearly his heart was in the right place because he publishes the Paris Review. 

If Weiss had been the head of a Treasury desk or the head of compliance at a Wall Street bank or had some record of weighing in on policy issues, I don't think you'd have seen the same pushback against his appointment. Yes, there are real concerns about intellectual capture at the Treasury and revolving door problems, but what it comes down to is that a Wall Street background alone should not block a nominee, but by the same token, a Wall Street background alone cannot be what qualifies a nominee


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