Robert Rubin, Philosophe. If you have ingested some bad seafood and are looking for a quick emetic, you cannot do better than Robert Rubin’s April 30 op-ed piece in the Times, in which Rubin explains how the study of philosophy under Professor Raphael Demos prepared him for a successful career in finance and then in government. Isn’t that nice?
Read it for yourself.
This little essay is a classic case of image-polishing masquerading as deep reflection, by a man who personified the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington. Rubin, first as chief economic adviser and then as treasury secretary, persuaded Bill Clinton to preside over an orgy of deregulation that enabled Citigroup to become a financial conglomerate, with Rubin becoming a senior executive only a few months after leaving government; and then the same deregulation crashed the economy in 2008.
Rubin also persuaded Clinton to embrace budget balance as a fiscal holy grail, a politically and economically disastrous idea that extended into the Obama administration, when several of Rubin’s close protégés held senior positions. And he convinced Clinton to let China into the WTO with few changes to China’s predatory behavior other than giving firms like Goldman Sachs (from whence Rubin came) a piece of the action.
Rubin does not address any of this, much less try to defend it. Rather, we get an affectionate self-description of his life as a Harvard undergraduate, discovering the appeal of philosophy. He writes:
I’m asked from time to time which undergraduate courses best prepared me for working at Goldman Sachs and in the government. People assume I’ll list courses in economics or finance, but I always answer that the key was Professor Demos’s philosophy course and the conversations about existentialism in coffee shops around campus. For me, embracing these two perspectives brought me a sense of calm in what were incredibly stressful situations.
Unfortunately, tens of millions of people who suffered from the economic collapse and the recession that followed did not get to enrich themselves the way Rubin did by surfing conflicts of interest between Wall Street and Washington, much less to find serenity in coffee houses or philosophy classes at Harvard. They did not find serenity at all; they were struggling to survive and millions lost their homes.
If you want a deeper explanation for the sort of nominal Democrat who brought America Donald Trump, you need look no further than Robert Rubin.
One of the aphorisms of Greek philosophy that Rubin must have missed is this one: “know thyself.” The self that Rubin knows is entirely benign, self-satisfied, feigning reflection and wisdom. History may judge him more harshly.