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The Plutocrats Are Living It up: Larry Summers' Gilded Path to Money and Power

Larry Summers’ shuffling from Harvard to the White House is symptomatic of a new American plutocracy that keeps the gears of corruption greased.

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When Rubin left Treasury in 1999 to become Chairman of the Executive Committee of Citigroup, he persuaded President Clinton to name Summers as his replacement. Citigroup was a new banking conglomerate made possible by laws Rubin and Summers supported and implemented at Treasury, and it paid Rubin over $100 million in the next ten years.

Another new business model Rubin and Summers made possible was Enron. Rubin had known Enron well through Goldman Sachs’s financing of the company, and recused himself from matters relating to Enron in his first year on the Clinton team. He and Summers went on to craft policies at Treasury that were essential to Enron’s lucrative energy trading business, and they were in touch with Enron executives and lobbyists all the while. Enron meanwhile won $2.4 billion in foreign development deals from Clinton’s Export-Import Bank, then run by Kenneth Brody, a former protege of Rubin’s at Goldman Sachs.

Soon after Rubin joined Citigroup, its investment banking division picked up Enron as a client, and Citigroup went on to become Enron’s largest creditor, loaning almost $1 billion to the company. As revelations of massive accounting fraud and market manipulation emerged over the next years and threatened to bring down the energy company, Rubin and Summers intervened. While Enron’s rigged electricity prices in California were causing unprecedented blackouts, Summers urged Governor Gray Davis to avoid criticizing Enron and recommended further deregulatory measures. Rubin was an official advisor to Gov. Davis on energy market issues at the time, while Citigroup was heavily invested in Enron’s fraudulent California business, and he too likely put pressure on the Governor to lay off Enron. Rubin also pulled strings at Bush’s Treasury Department in late 2001, calling a former employee to see if Treasury could ask the major rating agencies not to downgrade Enron, and Rubin also lobbied the rating agencies directly. (In all likelihood he made similar attempts in behalf of Citigroup during the recent financial crisis.) Their efforts ultimately failed, Enron went bust, thousands of jobs and pensions were destroyed, and its top executives went to jail. It’s hard to believe, but there was some white-collar justice back then.

Over the years Rubin’s connections and financial experience had made him an influential figure at Harvard, his alma mater. He helped oversee Harvard’s endowment before joining Treasury and had been a key fundraising link to big donors on Wall Street and in the Democratic Party. When Clinton’s second term ended in 2001, Rubin lobbied to get Summers the job of Harvard president, and then joined Summers on Harvard’s governing board the next year.

Summers’ presidency at Harvard was plagued with scandals, including some that didn’t come to light until years after he left, including his decision to invest a large part of Harvard’s endowment in risky interest rate swaps that ultimately lost the school more than a billion dollars. While his personal admonishment of professor Cornel West for recording a rap album made headlines, Summers quietly consulted with a hedge fund founded by Rubin proteges Brody (see above) and Frank Brosens, and after being forced out of Harvard in 2006 he began touring Wall Street more frequently, and made $5 million a year working one day per week at hedge fund D.E. Shaw.

Summers also starting showing up around the Hamilton Project, which Rubin had just founded with hedge fund manager Roger Altman. Altman was another Clinton official who had come from Wall Street, following billionaire Peter Peterson from Lehman Brothers to Blackstone Group, and he left Washington to found a major hedge fund in 1996. The Hamilton Project is housed in the Brookings Institution, a prestigious corporate-funded policy discussion center that serves as a sort of staging ground for Democratic elites in transition between government, academic, and business positions. The Hamilton Project would go on to host, more specifically, past and future Democratic Party officials friendly to the financial industry, and to produce a stream of similarly minded policy papers. Then-Senator Obama was the featured political speaker at Hamilton’s inaugural event in April 2006.

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