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Are You an Outsider Trying To Change A Broken System?

Joseph Tussman

Elizabeth Warren was one of the key architects in the U.S. government’s response to the financial crisis. In her memoir, A Fighting Chance, Warren draws our attention to the troubling reality of high-level Washington.

One particular anecdote is worth noting for its penetrating insight into how the world actually works.

Warren was a member of the Congressional Oversight Panel, which, she writes, “couldn’t change a system that seemed hellbent on protecting the big guys and leaving everyone else by the side of the road.”

In 2009 after the panel had produced its third report, concluding that the risks to the American taxpayers were far greater than Treasury let on, Lawrence H. Summers, then the director of the National Economic Council and a top economic adviser to President Obama, “leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice,” Ms. Warren writes.

Larry’s tone was in the friendly advice-category. He teed it up this way: I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.

And that is how the world inside government and organizations often works. You’ve been warned.