Senator Elizabeth Warren is waging a campaign against Antonio Weiss, a former Wall Streeter who has been nominated to an undersecretary position at the US Treasury.
Not surprisingly, given the lingering anti-Wall Street sentiment stemming from the financial crisis, Warren’s supporters are getting behind her on this one.
But this particular campaign is a waste of Warren’s time and America’s time.
Warren’s considerable talents and efforts on behalf of America’s middle-class families would be more effectively targeted elsewhere. But instead of using her powerful bully pulpit to clean up Wall Street itself, or to push for measures that would help the economy or those less fortunate, Warren is turning this minor nomination into a symbol for Wall Street’s hold on Washington.
Warren also argues that Weiss — whose considerable talents could be used at Treasury — is not qualified for the job he’s being nominated for.
That dog won’t hunt.
Since 2009, Weiss has been the head of investment banking at Lazard — a small international asset management and advisory firm. Lazard is not one of the colossal mega-banks that imploded during the financial crisis, or one you’ll see getting sued for this, that, and the other thing, every other day.
Lazard is also not one of the firms that packaged and sold millions of near-worthless mortgage-backed securities, thus contributing to the housing bust.
Weiss was based in Paris for many years handling big international deals that often require an understanding complicated regulatory issues that vary by country. He’s a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and graduate of Yale and Harvard Business School.
Warren argues that this experience is wrong for the Treasury post, which deals with domestic debt management and regulatory issues.
Others, including a group of former Treasury officials who have actually done the job, disagree. They wrote a letter saying there’s no way any one person could be perfectly prepared for such a unique job — Undersecretary for Domestic Finance — and that Weiss’ preparation comes close. The Obama administration hasn’t backed down from supporting him, either.
Unfortunately, none of Weiss’s supporters come close to making the noise that Warren’s camp can make when they’re really into something. She has an amazing base of support, mostly well deserved, and many Americans who hadn’t even heard of her a year or two ago are now calling for her to run for president. But this campaign isn’t the place where Warren’s supporters should be focusing their ire.
One advantage of having a Wall Streeter in the Treasury is that they’re not afraid of Wall Street. The executives whose firms Weiss will have to regulate and negotiate with will be the same people he used to compete with and negotiate against, not people he one day hopes to get a job from. Weiss’s salary at Lazard made him more than financially secure. His job at Treasury will be a massive pay cut.
Weiss’s real-world expertise, in fact, is exactly what we need at Treasury, which is for the most part staffed with career bureaucrats. Weiss’ job as a top M&A banker was to get the best deal for his client. Now his client will be America.
So it’s a shame that Warren is wasting her formidable intelligence, charm, and leadership on this particular campaign. Her other crusades have been more useful. Forgiving some student load debt, for example, could help spur economic growth by putting more money in young people’s pockets and helping them start doing things that became impossible after the financial crisis — like putting a down payment on their first house. The creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Board, Warren’s first pre-Senate effort, is also a noble cause. If it works as envisioned, it will help protect Americans from shady financial products. That’s something everyone can use.
Elizabeth Warren has proven that she can make amazing changes that help ordinary Americans. Blocking Antonio Weiss from the Treasury won’t be one of them.