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

SK: That’s a boatload of funding to oversee. What do you really have to do with all of it?

ED: I have to get the money out the door efficiently and fairly, and coordinate among agencies. We want to build support across the grantee community, states, local governments and within Congress, so that we can avoid doing stupid things. The Vice President at first seemed to envision a CEO-type to do this job. I didn’t think that would work because there are a bunch of people involved who are high-powered in their own right. What we needed was to get them all working together seamlessly to get the job done. I’m not a CEO — I’m a coordinator.

SK: How will you measure the success of the stimulus program?

ED: Lots of ways. One is job creation. And energy savings, which I care a lot about. We want to be able to quantify this responsibly and defensibly — for example, to quantify the amount of carbon our investments will save. We’re also working with program managers to determine what measurements matter to the American people. Once we’ve resolved that, we’ll make the data available on the Web so everyone can see it [recovery.gov].

SK: There’s a lot of risk for the Obama administration in the stimulus and bailouts. Does leaving so much power with the states and agencies exacerbate that risk?

ED: Well, the President and the V.P. have sent clear messages to governors, mayors and county officials: Guys, you have a lot of money coming and a tremendous responsibility to do the right things. That means no swimming pools. No Frisbee golf courses.

SK: Are you saying this administration harbors a prejudice against Frisbee golf?

ED: I guess I’ll be hearing from the Frisbee golf community now. But if we screw up, we want people to tell us, and then we need to fix it. Overall, there’s a need to bring some discipline to decision-making. In my view, that discipline has broken down. The Obama administration is trying to restore it.

SK: During the last mayoral campaign in Philly, you proposed that the city sell the ­airport. What discipline do you think should be applied when it comes to the assets governments own?

ED: Each asset should be looked at as to whether it was taken on because of a market failure or because no one else would provide the service. Look at the Gas Works. There’s no reason for Philly to be in the gas business. Plenty of entities could deliver gas. Sell the thing! Philadelphia got into the airport business in the 1920s because city officials believed we needed one. Until 1974, the city subsidized the airport; then a user agreement was established with the airlines and airport tenants that supported the airport’s borrowings. I believe that agreement expired. Can you believe that? It was a 32-year deal. You and I worked on that deal back in the day. Who ever thought that projects we financed would actually mature?

SK: Like us.

ED: Philly made the airport happen by guaranteeing financing, but has never gotten a return from its investment. Shouldn’t we consider a regional airport authority that allows Philadelphia to get out and realize that return?

SK: Seems like a no-brainer.

ED: It is, but we have to stop worrying about the city “losing control.” We don’t need to be in the airport business. Someone else can be, and the city can use the money somewhere else.

SK: So how does a guy with a career-long ­reputation for fiscal conservatism get comfortable with trillion-dollar deficits?

ED: One of the nice things about moving to the federal government from state government is that you get to add at least three more zeros to everything. Hundreds of millions at the local level gives way to billions at the state level gives way to trillions at the federal level.

SK: What comes after trillions?

ED: I’m not sure. I don’t know if it’s quadrillions or what.