Matt Stoller notes the following about former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner autobiography (boldface mine):
At Dartmouth, Geithner portrayed himself an “unexceptional and uninspired student,” finding economics dreary and political consulting boring. He didn’t even remember voting in 1980. Yet over Christmas break during his freshman year of college, he notes, he did a short stint as a war photojournalist along the Thai-Cambodian border for the Associated Press. It’s a short piece in the book, meant to describe one Christmas break. But I had to reread it several times, to make sure it was actually in there. I kept thinking, What the hell? Who does that? It’s not that it’s not true; it sounds like it is. But there’s more to this story than “Oh, I was a freshman in college and didn’t like studying, and then I did a stint as a war photographer over Christmas break and decided I didn’t want to be a photographer.” There’s something he’s not saying. He was not just a boring apolitical kid who didn’t notice very much about the world. Such people do not become photojournalists for a week over Christmas in war zones when they are 18.
And then there’s the mystery of how he managed to climb up the career ladder so quickly. He never really explains how this happens. He wasn’t a good student. He notes, as a grad student, that he mostly played pool. “During my orals, when one professor asked which economics journals I read, I replied that I had never read any. Seriously? Yes, seriously. But not long after we returned from our honeymoon in France, Henry Kissinger’s international consulting firm hired me as an Asia analyst; my dean at SAIS had recommended me to Brent Scowcroft, one of Kissinger’s partners.”
I’m sorry, but what? How does this just happen? And it goes on. One day, when Geithner was a junior Treasury civil servant, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen just called him out of the blue to ask his advice on a matter about which he knew nothing. Why? He doesn’t say—he’s just puzzled. Later on, he advances in Treasury without any real credentials in a department where a law degree or economics PhD is essential. Even Alan Greenspan eventually expressed surprise; he had just assumed Geithner had a doctorate. Power just always seemed to flow to Geithner, and he never says why. He knows why, of course—he’s an exceptional political climber. He just doesn’t say who was grooming him, why he ended up where he ended up, and what he paid to get there.
Geithner is at heart a grifter, a petty con artist with the right manners and breeding to lie at the top echelons of American finance at a moment when the government and financial services industry needed someone to be the face of their multi-trillion dollar three card monte. He’s going to make his money, now that he’s done living his life of fantastic power after his upbringing of remarkable mysterious privilege. After reading this book and documenting lie after lie after lie, I’m convinced that there’s more here than just a self-serving corrupt official. There’s an entire culture, of figures at Treasury, the Federal Reserve, in the entire Democratic Party elite structure, and in the world of journalism, a culture in which Geithner is seen as some sort of role model.
To be clear, I don’t think there’s some ‘Smoking Man‘ level conspiracy here–I disagree with Stoller. It’s much more mundane (and tawdry): Geithner rose on political skills, connections (lots of connections), hewing to the ‘company line’, and dumb luck. Those didn’t necessarily ensure that he would place bankers before the rest of us, but they certainly predisposed him towards the bankers’ perspective. It’s hard to sympathize with other people when your life is so uncharacteristic of their experience. I do think much of the Democratic establishment is Geithner writ-small though–the Congressional Retirement Plan™ is just one aspect of that.
This is yet another reason why we can’t have nice things.