Monday, April 12, 2010

A "Very Well Paid Boob" on the Harvard Corporation?

The ongoing investigation of the global financial collapse may also shed some indirect light on what has gone wrong with health care.  Consider the recent testimony by two leaders of the nearly failed, then bailed out global financial giant Citigroup, as reported by the New York Times. One of the leaders was Robert Rubin,
Robert E. Rubin, the former Treasury secretary, faced withering questions from the panel, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, for his spare expressions of remorse. Repeatedly playing down his role as chairman of the executive committee of Citigroup’s board, he was met with anger and disbelief.

'You were either pulling the levers or asleep at the switch,' Philip N. Angelides, the committee’s chairman, told him.

Mr. Rubin stopped short of accepting personal responsibility. He grudgingly conceded that a few savvy investors saw the crisis coming, asserting that nearly everyone in the financial services industry had failed to see a dozen powerful forces — from excessive debt levels to trade imbalance — come together in a perfect storm.

'We all bear responsibility for not recognizing this, and I deeply regret that,' Mr. Rubin said.

Mr. Rubin’s stance left several members of the panel angry. Mr. Rubin earned more than $100 million during a decade at Citigroup.

Mr. Angelides, a former California state treasurer and a fellow Democrat, did not buy it. 'You were not a garden-variety board member,' he said. 'I think to most people chairman of the executive committee of the board of directors implies leadership. Certainly $15 million a year guaranteed implies leadership and responsibility.'

Attempts by Mr Rubin (and to some extent, former Citigroup CEO Charles O Prince III) to disavow responsibility met with more derision. For example, yesterday, see a New York Times editorial:
The latest public hearings of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, held last week, made headlines for eliciting more apologies from financiers who presided over the market collapse.

You may recall a similar flurry last year, when Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman and chief executive of Goldman Sachs, was widely credited for having apologized for his firm’s role in the financial crisis.

We did not buy it then; Mr. Blankfein never said what he was sorry for or to whom he was apologizing. And we are not buying it now.

Mr. Prince says he 'could not' foresee the impending collapse, when he could have and should have seen it coming. Certainly, others did. Mr. Rubin has said that under his employment agreement, he was not responsible for the bank’s operations. But he was a towering figure at Citi, a source of its credibility and prestige. That implies responsibility, no matter what his contract said. Add all that to the 'I wasn’t the only one' context of both men’s comments, and their regret translates as, 'We feel bad about an accident we were powerless to prevent.'

Except that the financial crisis was not an accident and they were not powerless. The crisis was the result of irresponsibility and misjudgments by many people, including Mr. Prince and Mr. Rubin. Citi, under their leadership, epitomized the financial recklessness that ruined the economy.

A Seattle Times columnist was even more harsh, calling Rubin a "very well paid boob," and:
Rubin was barely contrite and went back to his meme of 'who knew?,' adding the unintended comedic line about how leaders shouldn't be responsibility for the 'granularity' of little things -- such as $40 billion in essentially fraudulent collateralized debt obligations. Rubin was being paid more than $100 million as a senior adviser to Citi while it headed toward collapse and a $45 billion taxpayer rescue. So 'granularity' is in the eye of the beholder.

Commission vice chairman Bill Thomas said, 'Apparently you get to the top without having had to experience anything the people underneath you do. You don't have a comprehension. You're not informed, but you get to make all this money on the upside, but there's no downside.'

Indeed. Rubin and Citigroup epitomize the public policies and the corporate practices that brought the economy to the brink of a new depression.

As Bill Clinton's Treasury Secretary, Rubin championed financial deregulation and the financialization of the economy as manufacturing was hollowed out. Among other things he helped keep derivatives from being regulated and encouraged the creation of 'too big to fail' institutions such as Citi. Rubin led the battle to dismantle Glass-Steagall, so Citi and its giant siblings could gamble in investment banking, while also doing commercial banking and insurance. An alum of Goldman Sachs, Rubin was fine with big compensation for executives, even if their leadership wrecked the bank (Prince walked away with $120 million). Funny how Rubin was offered the lucrative Citi position after he left such 'government service.'

So what does this tell us about health care? As we noted before, while Robert Rubin is no longer on the board of Citigroup, he has been a member of the Harvard Corporation since 2001. The Corporation is ultimately responsible for the US' oldest and most prestigious university, its equally prestigious medical school and teaching hospitals. Yet under Rubin's stewardship, Harvard's endowment has fallen a prodigious amount, and Harvard and its Partners Healthcare hospital system have faced charges of conflicts of interest and various sweetheart deals. Perhaps this is to be expected when the ultimate steward may be a "very well paid boob."

While Rubin's impressive resume and wealth in 2001 may have provided a rationale for his appointment to the Corporation, what would be the rationale for his continuing service?

As we have pointed out, as the world economy was driven to near ruin by "masters of the universe," some of the same also became leaders of academia and academic medicine in their spare time. Maybe this made sense 10 or 20 years ago, but why does it still make sense? On the other hand, now that we understand how bad the leadership of finance really was, it is a little easier to understand why the leadership of health care has become so bad.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Poignant presentation, Roy. Alarm fatigue (as reported here
pervades the highest levels of this world class program. The Board ignores the alarms.