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CT’s fortunes in hands of man without remorse

March 14, 2019

This is not a column about David A. Lehman.

It can’t possibly be.

Because if this is a column about David A. Lehman, it will be my third, a sure sign that I am losing my mind.

So let’s hope it’s not.

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On Tuesday evening, I met, at the State Capitol, with David A. Lehman, Gov. Ned Lamont’s choice to be Commissioner of Economic Development. I have written two columns questioning that choice, especially given Lehman’s background in what he calls “a leadership role” at Goldman Sachs during the run-up to the Great Recession.

Earlier in the day, a physical therapy appointment had the unintended effect of distributing new forms of pain through every nook and cranny of my body, so that I shuffled and limped like a minor character from “Treasure Island.” Hunchystump, bosun on the Hispaniola.

Lehman and I settled into an office on the second floor. Also present was Colleen Flanagan Johnson, a senior adviser to Lamont.

Good news: Lehman is fairly articulate and thoughtful about economic development. Although he doesn’t know much about how it has historically worked (or not worked) in the state, his own ideas — which rely heavily on a fairly new federal program where the feds create tax incentives for business projects in economically distressed areas — are appealing. His recent work includes public sector clients. There’s a lot he doesn’t know, but — let’s face it — previous holders of this office were not exactly T’Challa, wise King of Wakanda, either.

Lehman, whose nomination was in trouble a few days ago, will be easily confirmed by the Senate.

I made these points on WNPR’s “The Wheelhouse” Wednesday morning.

“They must have been doing a happy dance in the Lamont offices,” someone who heard the the show said later.

“Well, no,” I said.

“What?”

I also mentioned a few things that still trouble me, including Lehman’s lack of remorse over his Goldman work circa 2007. (What has troubled me is Lehman’s central role in creating investment instruments full of troubled mortgages and then betting against the instrument by taking “a short position” while the Goldman marketing staff encouraged other investors to buy in.)

Johnson reached out both during and after the show to insist Lehman had expressed remorse. She referred specifically to a moment when Lehman said that, if he could go back in time, he would “do things differently” and “instruct management to avoid the entirety of the mortgage market.”

I went back to the recording of our conversation.

I followed up Lehman’s comment with this: “When you say that, do you mean ‘I would have told Goldman to stay out this mortgage stuff because they were going to wind up with a lot of dead fish’ or ‘because of some choices that we ultimately had to make that I feel a little bad about?’”

“No, no, it’s different than both,” he said, and then launched into a slightly windy explanation of how the mortgage market turned into such an unreliable mess.

He said he didn’t feel bad about what he’d done, I wrote to Johnson. Feeling bad about what you’ve done is the definition of remorse.

She continued to push back, pointing out that Lehman had said to legislators that all the big firms trading mortgage-backed securities bore some responsibility for the crisis. Therefore, Goldman Sachs bore some responsibility. Therefore he, as a Goldman Sachs executive in a major role, bore some responsibility.

Which is how I, Hunchystump of the ship Hispaniola, have come to be writing another @!#$% column about David *$!$#% Lehman.

Look, he may be a good commissioner, a good technocrat. We could use one. But don’t tell me he feels remorse, because he’s adamant about not feeling remorse.

This isn’t a Lehman problem. It’s a national disease. It’s why people bribe crew coaches to help get their oarless kids into college. It’s why the owner of a chain of sexually sketchy massage parlors can also sell Chinese businessmen access to our First Family. It’s how a federal judge can say that an epically greedy influence peddler and abettor of tyrants has led “an otherwise blameless life.” It’s why corrupt mayors keep getting reelected.

We’re in a terrible mess, and it won’t get better until we talk in plain language about right and wrong and until we actually reward people for genuine moral reflection.

I asked Lehman if — as he transitions from the private to the public sector — he had any heroes who might inform his thinking and choices.

He answered with Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer who, shaken by the tumult of the first 40 years of the 20th century, wrote, “Freedom is not possible without authority — otherwise it would turn into chaos, and authority is not possible without freedom — otherwise it would turn into tyranny.”

No. I’m kidding. He couldn’t come up with any heroes, except other Goldman guys — Hank Paulson, Robert Rubin, Gary Cohn — who had left to serve in government.

I nudged: A favorite president? A musician? (Springsteen is still a great answer.)

The ever-helpful Johnson ventured: A superhero?

Nothing.

He should get some heroes.

We all need them. We alone are not enough. Unmoored, with no pole star to guide, us, we become hapless pirates, blown by capricious winds from one act of plunder to the next.

We talk about this a lot on the Hispaniola.

Colin McEnroe’s column appears every Sunday, his newsletter comes out every Thursday and you can hear his radio show every weekday on WNPR 90.5. Email him at colin@ctpublic.org. Sign up for his newsletter at http://bit.ly/colinmcenroe.

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