Power Lunch: Trillion-Dollar Man

Just weeks after Wharton grad and Philly fiscal guru Ed DeSeve was named Obama’s ­stimulus czar, Sam Katz gets down and nerdy with his former colleague on bringing ­discipline back to big spending, Philly’s money mistake, and hanging out with Daschle

Thirty-five years ago, I interviewed Ed DeSeve about the city’s fiscal crisis, and was — I’ll admit — dazzled by his intellect and analytics. Soon after, he invited me to join him at the finance group Public Financial Management, where we worked together until he moved on to a series of posts including Philly’s finance director, an adviser to Governor Bob Casey, CFO of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, deputy director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget under Clinton, a management consultant, and now a lecturer at Penn. In March, President Obama tapped DeSeve, 64, to honcho America’s new stimulus and economic recovery program, a job in which DeSeve says he’ll “get the money out the door, get it under contract, be sure we have an infrastructure to account for it, continue to build support for it, and report to the American people on what happened.” Over lunch at Penn’s University Club, he chatted about the behemoth task before him.

Sam Katz: So a few months back, you’re sitting home thinking about …

Ed DeSeve: Spring. Grading midterms. Fly-fishing. Getting back on the tennis court.

SK: Contemplating the good life?

ED: No, living the good life!

SK: Weren’t you already working on the President-elect’s transition team?

ED: I was working with HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan on housing and urban development issues.

SK: What was that like?

ED: One of the fun things about the transition is that everyone is squeezed into one building. The entire economic team is on the third floor — Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, Gene Sperling. Just below is the whole domestic policy team: Tom Daschle, Shaun Donovan, Ray LaHood. I’d bump into these folks every day.

SK: Working with such luminaries must have been intoxicating.

ED: There were a lot of “Let’s get the band back together” conversations, but I really wasn’t anxious to go back into government. Yes, it was fun seeing old friends and colleagues, but the point was to make sure the new folks got the benefit of the knowledge and experience the rest of us had. The new Secretary of HUD is committed to making significant changes, and seeing those priorities established was very satisfying, but I’m too old to be intoxicated about government the way I was when I was 30.

SK: Is the new assignment overwhelming?

ED: Good choice of word. When I first went to D.C. with HUD in 1993, our budget was $25 billion. This new job involves a budget of $787 billion — over 30 times more.