Barack Obama’s cabinet is highly qualified on almost every score. It’s the first cabinet to feature someone who has already received a Nobel prize in the field (Teddy Roosevelt as head of his own cabinet excepted). Obama pulled highly qualified people from a lot of important positions, from both major parties, and from across the nation.
Conservatives, religiously believing Obama’s administration cannot be allowed to succeed, erupted in bluster this past week when a chart mysteriously cited to an unfound (by me) “J. P. Morgan study” claimed Obama’s cabinet has less that 10% who have private sector experience. [See updates at bottom of post.]
“No business people!” the bloggers splutter. “However can the government function?”
Gullibles rarely ask good questions, so we don’t need to bother with an answer to the question, if it’s a stupid question. And in order to determine whether it’s a stupid question, we ought to ask whether the chart has any resemblance to reality.
According to the White House website:
The Cabinet includes the Vice President and the heads of 15 executive departments — the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs, as well as the Attorney General.
Six others have “cabinet-rank” status: White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, OMB Director Peter Orzag, U.S. Trade Representative Ronald Kirk, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, and Council of Economic Advisors Chair Christina Romer.
Vice President, plus 15 executive department heads, plus six others: 22 people.
If only 10% had private sector experience, that would be 2.2 of them. Each of the 22 people comprises about 4.5% of the cabinet. Two of them with private experience would be 9% of the cabinet. Three with private experience would reveal the chart to be in error. Would it be possible to create a cabinet of 22 people and have only two of them with private experience?
The bullshit detectors in the bloggers’ minds should have been clanging like crazy when they saw that chart.
No one has cited any methodology for the chart, so I figure it was created on a napkin by interns for the American Enterprise Institute at lunch, and it took off before anyone could check the claims made for accuracy. I’m a bit reluctant to blame it on J. P. Morgan, but maybe AEI can provide the interpleader to pin the blame on that private sector organization — which would be one more demonstration that private sector experience may not be all that AEI tries to crack it up to be. Before counting, I guessed that Obama’s cabinet has more like 50% with private sector experience; it turns out to be more like 80%. So the question now becomes, how and why did the chart originator discount real private-sector experience?
The “J. P. Morgan” chart from AEI is a hoax. Here’s the cabinet, listed in succession order, with their private sector experience; members were listed from the White House website; biographical data were taken from Wikipedia, supplemented by official departmental biographies:
- Vice President Joe Biden – Private experience: Yes. 4.5% of the cabinet. Biden’s father worked in the private sector his entire life — unsuccessfully for a critical period. Biden attended a private university’s law school (Syracuse), and operated a successful-because-of-property-management law practice for three years before winning election to the U.S. Senate. (I regard a campaign as a private business, too — and Biden’s first campaign was masterful entrepreneurship.)
- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton – Private experience: Yes, significant. 9% of the cabinet. Extremely successful private practice lawyer in Arkansas for the Rose Law Firm, one of the “Top 100 Lawyers” in a classically dog-eat-dog business.
- Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner – Private experience: Yes, significant. 13.6% of the cabinet (The chart’s error is established in the first three people checked — surely no one bothered to make a serious count of the cabinet in compiling the chart.) Geithner traveled with world with his Ford Foundation-employed father. He graduated from private universities, with an A.B. from Dartmouth and an M.A. in economics from Johns Hopkins. Starting his career, he worked three years in the private sector with Kissinger Associates. After significant positions at Treasury and State Departments, he again ventured into the private sector with the Council on Foreign Relations; from there he moved to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — in what is at worst a semi-public organization. Running a Federal Reserve Branch is among the most intensive jobs one can have in private sector economics and management. If an analyst at a bank named after J. P. Morgan didn’t understand that, one wonders just what the person does understand.
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – Private sector experience: Yes, at high levels. 18% of the cabinet. Bob Gates spent a career with the Central Intelligence Agency, finally as Director of Central Intelligence, an executive level position with no equal in private enterprise. He retired in 1993, and then worked in a variety of university positions, and joined several different corporate boards; in 1999 he was appointed interim Dean of the George W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M, and was appointed President of Texas A&M in 2002, where he served until his appointment as Secretary of Defense in 2006.
- Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr – Private sector experience: Yes, significant. 23% of the cabinet, total. After a sterling career in the Justice Department, as a Ronald Reagan appointment to be a federal judge, as a U.S. Attorney, and again at the Justice Department, Holder spent eight years representing high profile private clients at Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C. His clients included the National Football League, the giant pharmaceutical company Merck, and Chiquita Brands, a U.S. company with extensive international business.
- Secretary of Interior Kenneth L. Salazar – Private sector experience: Yes. 27% of Obama cabinet. Besides a distinguished career in government, as advisor and Cabinet Member with Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, Salazar was a successful private-practice attorney from 1981 to 1985, and then again from 1994 to 1998 when he won election as Colorado’s Attorney General. As Senator, Salazar maintained a good voting record for a Republican business-supporting senator; Salazar is a Democrat. Salazar’s family is in ranching, and he is usually listed as a “rancher from Colorado,” with life experience in the ranching business at least equal to that of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner.
- Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack - Private sector experience: Yes, significant. 32% of Obama cabinet. Vilsack spent 23 years in private practice as an attorney, 1975 to 1998, while holding not-full-time elective offices such as mayor and state representative. He joined government as Governor of Iowa in 1998, and except for two years, has been in employed in government since then.
- Secretary of Commerce Gary F. Locke – Private sector experience: Yes, significant. 36% of Obama cabinet. As near as I can determine, Locke was in private law practice from 1975 through his election as Executive in King County in 1993 (is that a full-time position?). He was elected Governor of Washington in 1996. After leaving office in 2005, he again worked in private practice with Davis Wright Tremaine, LLP, until 2009. 22 years in private practice, three years as Executive of King County, eight years as Governor of Washington.
- Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis – Private sector experience: Yes, but I consider it insignificant. 36% of Obama cabinet with private sector experience, 4.5% without. Solis’s father was a Teamster and union organizer who contracted lead poisoning on the job; her mother was an assembly line worker for Mattel Toys. She overachieved in high school and ignored her counselor’s advice to avoid college, and earned degrees from Cal Poly-Pomona and USC. She held a variety of posts in federal government before returning to California to work for education and win election to the California House and California Senate, and then to Congress.
- Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius – Private sector experience: Yes, significant. 41% of Obama cabinet with private sector experience, 4.5% without. Former Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius worked in the private sector for 12 years, at least nine years as director and lobbyist for the Kansas Association for Justice (then Kansas Trial Lawyers Association). One might understand why the American Enterprise Institute would not count as “business experience” a career built on reining in insurance companies, as Sebelius did as a lobbyist and then elected Kansas Insurance Commissioner.
- Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun L.S. Donovan – Private sector experience: Yes, only 4 years, but significant because it bugs AEI analysts so much. 45% of cabinet with private sector experience, 4.5% without. With multiple degrees from Harvard University in architecture and public administration, Donovan was Deputy Assistant Secretary of HUD for Multifamily Housing during the Clinton Administration; and he was Commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). In the private sector, he worked for the Community Preservation Corporation, a non-profit in New York City, and he worked for a while finding sources to lend to people to buy “affordable housing” in the city, a task perhaps equal to wringing blood from a block of granite.
- Secretary of Transportation Raymond L. LaHood – Private sector experience: No (not significant); school teacher at Holy Family School in Peoria, Illinois. [As a teacher, I'm not sure that teaching should count as government experience, but it's not really private sector stuff, either. Education isn't as wasteful as for-profit groups.] 45% of cabinet with private sector experience, 9% without. Ironically, it is the Republican former Representative who pulls down the private sector experience percentage in the Obama cabinet.
- Secretary of Energy Steven Chu – Private sector experience: Yes, extremely significant. 50% of cabinet with private sector experience, 9% without. Chu worked at Bell Labs, where he and his several co-workers carried out his Nobel Prize-winning laser cooling work, from 1978 to 1987. Having won a Nobel for private sector work, I think we can count his private sector experience as important. Chu also headed the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is seeded by a government contract to a university but must operate as a very highly-regulated business. (I’ll wager Chu is counted as “no private sector experience,” which demonstrates the poverty of methodology of the so-called “J. P. Morgan” study AEI claims.)
- Secretary of Education Arne Duncan – Private sector experience: Yes, significant. 55% of cabinet with private sector experience, 9% without. Duncan earned Academic All-American honors in basketball at Harvard. His private sector is among the more unusual of any cabinet member’s, and more competitive. Duncan played professional basketball: “From 1987 to 1991, Duncan played professional basketball in Australia with the Eastside Spectres of the [Australian] National Basketball League, and while there, worked with children who were wards of the state. He also played with the Rhode Island Gulls and tried out for the New Jersey Jammers.” Since leaving basketball he’s worked in education, about four years in a private company aiming to improve education.
- Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki – Private sector experience: Yes, but to give AEI and “Morgan” a chance, we won’t count it. 55% of cabinet with private sector experience, 13.6% without. Shinseki is a retired, four-star general in the army, a former Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While Shinseki served on the boards of a half-dozen corporations, all of that service was in the six years between his official retirement and his appointment as Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
- Secretary of Homeland Security Janet A. Napolitano - Private sector experience: Yes, significant. 59% of cabinet with private sector experience, 13.6% without. After a brilliant turn in law school at the University of Virginia, and a clerking appointment with a federal judge, Napolitano joined the distinguished Phoenix firm Lewis & Roca, where she practiced privately for nine years before Bill Clinton appointed her U.S. Attorney for Arizona. AEI probably doesn’t want to count her private sector experience because, among other irritations to them, she was the attorney-advisor to Prof. Anita Hill during her questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee on the issue of Clarence Thomas’s nomination to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
- White House Chief of Staff Rahm I. Emanuel – Private sector experience: Yes, significant. 64% of cabinet with private sector experience, 13.6% without. Emanuel’s major private sector experience is short, but spectacular. “After serving as an advisor to Bill Clinton, in 1998 Emanuel resigned from his position in the Clinton administration and became an investment banker at Wasserstein Perella (now Dresdner Kleinwort), where he worked until 2002. In 1999, he became a managing director at the firm’s Chicago office. Emanuel made $16.2 million in his two-and-a-half-year stint as a banker, according to Congressional disclosures. At Wasserstein Perella, he worked on eight deals, including the acquisition by Commonwealth Edison of Peco Energy and the purchase by GTCR Golder Rauner of the SecurityLink home security unit from SBC Communications.” J. P. Morgan and AEI wish that Emanuel had not had such smashing success is such a short time.
- Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson – Private sector experience: No, significant. 64% of cabinet with private sector experience, 18% without. Despite a brilliant career cleaning up environmental messes, with EPA and the New Jersey State government, Jackson has negligible private sector experience. She was a brilliant student, valedictorian in high school and honors graduate in chemical engineering.
- Office of Management & Budget Director Peter R. Orszag – Private sector experience: Yes, short but significant. 68% of cabinet with private sector experience, 18% without. Orszag is the youngest member of the cabinet, but he had a brilliant academic career (Princeton, London School for Economics) and a series of tough assignments in the Clinton Administration. During the Bush years he founded an economic consulting firm, and sold it, and worked with McKinsey and Company, mostly on health care financing (he’s a member of the National Institute of Medicine in the National Academies of Science).
- U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Ronald Kirk – Private sector experience: Yes, long and significant. 73% of cabinet with private sector experience, 18% without. Son of a postal worker, Ron Kirk used academic achievement to get through law school. He practiced privately for 13 years, interspersed with a bit of political work, before being appointed Texas Secretary of State in 1994 — the office that most businesses have most of their state regulatory action with. About a year later he ran for and won election as Mayor of Dallas, considered a major business post in Texas. Re-elected by a huge margin in 1999, he resigned to run for the U.S. Senate in 2002. After losing (to John Cornyn), Price took positions with Dallas and then Houston law firms representing big businesses, especially in government arenas.
- U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice – Private sector experience: Yes. 77% of cabinet with private sector experience, 18% without. Rice was a consultant with McKinsey and Co., sort of the ne plus ultra of private sectorness, for a while before beginning her climb to U.N Ambassador.
- Council of Economic Advisors Chair Christina Romer – Private sector experience: Yes, but academic. We won’t count it to make AEI out to be less of a sucker. 77% of cabinet with private sector experience, 23% without significant private sector experience. Dr. Romer’s chief appointments have been academic, and at a public university, though her education was entirely private. A specialist in the Great Depression and economic data gathering, she’s highly considered by her colleagues, and is a past-president of the American Economic Association.
All totaled, Obama’s cabinet is one of the certifiably most brainy, most successful and most decorated of any president at any time. His cabinet brings extensive and extremely successful private sector experience coupled with outstanding and considerable successful experience in government and elective politics.
AEI’s claim that the cabinet lacks private sector experience is astoundingly in error, with 77% of the 22 members showing private sector experience — according to the bizarre chart, putting Obama’s cabinet in the premiere levels of private sector experience. The chart looks more and more like a hoax that AEI fell sucker to — and so did others (von Mises Institute, Wall Street Blips, League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Volokh Conspiracy, Econlib).
Others bitten by Barnum’s Law:
- Coyote Blog — stepped right into the punch: “Ever get that feeling like the Obama White House doesn’t have a clue as to what it takes to actually run a business, make investments, hire people, sell a product, etc?”
- Say Anthing
- [Update -- when did this guy erupt?] The Daily Mush, mushing the name of the author here, among nearly almost everything else.
Important update: Thanks to the comment of Jake, below, I found this article in Forbes, by J. P. Morgan Michael Cembalest, chief investment officer for J. P. Morgan. In notes to the article Cembalest reports on his methodology:
A variety of sources were consulted for this analysis, including the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. In the rankings, I did not include prior private-sector experience for the following positions: Postmaster General; Navy; War; Health, Education & Welfare; Veterans Affairs; and Homeland Security. In the rankings, private-sector experience at a law firm counts for a 33% score, which I think is very generous. My wife strongly suggested raising this to 50%, but I refused.
Cembalest doesn’t reveal much. Does he include all cabinet-level posts outside the few he excluded? Why did he exclude Navy and War, but not Defense? Why would he exclude Homeland Security, with such obvious and extensive hits on private enterprise (think airlines and rail and ships)? If no Homeland Security, why not exclude Transportation, too?
I’m particularly perturbed by his exclusion of lawyers. If lawyers are excluded, why not investment bankers? Lawyers are more directly engages in day-to-day competitive enterprise — and certainly most lawyers have more experience in hiring, firing, and as a commenter notes, “product placement” and advertising, than investment bankers.
In the end, Cembalest doesn’t provide enough details of his methdology, but we can see it’s a quick-and-very-dirty count, not much different from a SWAG. I’m dying to see how Cembalest dealt with Energy Secretary Chu’s winning a Nobel from his work at Bell Labs, a bastion and symbol of private enterprise power and strength — or rather, how I suspect it was discounted in Cembalest’s counting. And I wonder how his method dealt with the academic careers of George P. Shultz and Henry Kissinger, and the law career of James P. Baker III. [end of update]
Update #2, March 16, 2010: I failed to post this last fall, for which I owe an apology to you, Dear Reader, and to Michael Cembalest.
About a week after I posted this I got a late afternoon call from Michael Cembalest. It was a courtesy call. He said he was striking the chart and the post from his website and recalling the newsletter. We had a pleasant discussion, he explaining that it was originally, as he had said in Forbes, a Thanksgiving dinner table conversation. He wrote about it on a slow investment week, meant to be a humorous barb to thought. The experience and outlook of cabinet secretaries is indeed a good topic of conversation (how different would history have been had Herbert Hoover had anyone other than the filthy rich Andrew Mellon as his Secretary of Treasury, someone who hurt with the Depression and might not have had the personal wealth to survive any downturn no matter how long). Mr. Cembalest explained that he had intended to count only those secretaries with a dog in the jobs fight — so Sec. of State Clinton wouldn’t count, for example — but he agreed that any methodology should be more clear than he indicated, and not so dodgy as it had become in internet discussions.
At that point, he felt, any serious point was irretrievable. So he took the post down.
I’ve left this one up because I think it had spread too far by that time to call it back. See the stories of Mencken’s hoax about putting a bathtub in the White House, and you may understand my reasoning.
Astounding update, July 23, 2010: Neil Boortz spread the hoax on his blog this morning. There is no end to a hoax, once, it’s out of the bag.