Obama's economist

In just a few years, Austan Goolsbee has gone from being just another star professor at an institution brimming with them to the next big thing—an economist in a position to help shape public policy from the top down.

By Tim Murphy

Tom Tian / The Chicago Maroon

GREY CITY

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December 2, 2008

On September 15, after a weekend of anxiety over the rippling credit crisis on Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Average suffered its largest drop in seven years, closing 504 points down from the opening bell. Shareholders lost an estimated $700 billion, and the market went into a free-fall.

Over at Barack Obama’s national headquarters on Michigan Avenue, Austan Goolsbee opened up a bottle of high-end bourbon. The 39-year-old economist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business doesn’t drink bourbon very often, and his part-time vocation—advising the presidential candidate on economic policy—was not one best performed under the influence. But the bottle had, perhaps fortuitously, arrived on his desk, a gift from a donor for attending a fundraiser. Goolsbee’s name was even inscribed on the front.

If ever there were a time for bourbon, Goolsbee reasoned, this was it. He opened the bottle and took a sip, then passed it around the campaign office, everyone taking a sip. From that point on, whenever the markets plunged, the staff would open up the “emergency bourbon.” Eventually, as the bad days piled up, they finished the bottle.

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In just a few years, Goolsbee has gone from being just another star professor at an institution brimming with them to the next big thing—an economist in a position to help shape public policy from the top down. His role as an adviser to the Obama campaigns in 2004 and 2008, and now a an active member of the president-elect’s transition team made him a natural pick to help direct the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board in the next administration.

But nine days after the election, Goolsbee is back at his office on the fifth floor of the Charles M. Harper Center in Hyde Park. Back, at least for the time being, in his familiar role as a university professor. The only evidence of his ongoing double life, the one that made him a regular on cable news this summer and a persona non grata for a few weeks this winter, is the Blackberry that sits on his desk, buzzing every five minutes or so (an addition Goolsbee is still adjusting to), and the hate mail that he tapes to his door.

The current selection is a greatest hits, of sorts—there’s an info-graphic that ran in the Chicago Sun-Times, depicting Goolsbee alongside Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers, Louis Farrakhan, and Tony Rezko. Alongside that hangs a letter from a gentleman in Florida who, after watching Goolsbee on the CNBC show Kudlow & Company, wrote to the professor directly to renounce his support for Obama.

“A lot of times the hate mail will be like, ‘You’re a communist jerk, and you’re gonna ruin the world. Sincerely yours, Bob Jones,’ but, like, they sign their name!” says Goolsbee with a laugh.

Goolsbee says “like,” like, a lot, in addition to a healthy dose of “you know” and the odd “whatever.” He also has a tendency to mimic the voices of other people when retelling a story, except that every voice, from the president-elect on down to the composer of sternly worded letters, carries the same exaggerated tone. Coupled with a distinctive Texas lilt described by one college friend as “homespun,” this often leaves his stories sounding halfway between a 1950s radio serial and a fraternity brother recounting a particularly wild night on the town.

As he helps the new president resuscitate a floundering economy while integrating campaign pledges to cut taxes for the middle class, Goolsbee will have his work cut out for him. And though no one has ever accused the outspoken professor of lacking confidence in his abilities, friends and colleagues say the Goolsbee they know mixes an even temperament with a pragmatism that bodes well for his new line of work.

“The fact of the matter is we’re at a time now where it’d probably be better if more economists admitted they didn’t know as much,” says his colleague, James Heckman, a Nobel laureate who has known Goolsbee since his undergraduate days at Yale.

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Those who have worked with him in Hyde Park describe Goolsbee’s approach to economics as data-driven, focusing more on how an idea works in practice than how it looks in theory. The result is an outlook Heckman characterized as a “general agnosticism,” drawing on various schools of economics but not subscribing to a single, overarching theory.

“One of Austan’s skills is that he does have common sense,” said Canice Prendergast, a professor of economics at Chicago Booth. “He doesn’t take a lot of articles on faith. There are other people in the world who think that only behavioral issues are relevant, or only rational people are relevant, but that’s not really Austan’s style.”

Even as an undergraduate in New Haven, Goolsbee’s enthusiasm for economics was readily apparent. John Wertheim, who was a year ahead of Goolsbee at Yale, recalled spotting his friend one night at the school’s main library. “Hey, John,” Goolsbee said to Wertheim, holding up a notebook peppered with equations. “This is why the Berlin Wall came down.”

“It was interesting to have somebody as much of a goofball as [Goolsbee] is also be as disciplined as he was,” said Jonathan Zittrain, a Yale classmate who now teaches at Harvard Law School.

Goolsbee, who describes himself as “ a pure, data-hound kind of guy,” embodies the changing approach to economics towards the end of the 20th century. His outlook is decidedly post–Chicago School, receptive to the once-radical, now-mainstream field of behavioral economics, which contends that people don’t always act rationally, while still honoring many of the time-tested theories of his neo-classical predecessors at the U of C like the late Milton Friedman. Most notably, Goolsbee’s support of free trade put Obama in hot water in March after the Canadian consulate leaked a memo the professor had written toning down some of the candidate’s anti–NAFTA rhetoric. (The affair, dubbed “NAFTA–gate” by the press, led the Sun-Times to print the graphic that hangs on Goolsbee’s door.)

As a Ph.D. student at MIT, Goolsbee struck up a friendship with Steven Levitt, the U of C professor and Freakonomics author, who was also pursuing his degree at the time. Now, because of his youth, prominence, and institutional affiliation, Levitt has become a natural comparison to Goolsbee, and while the two work in largely different areas, the parallel is not unfounded. They share a level of agnosticism toward rigid theory, and Goolsbee, like Levitt, has made a name for himself in part by applying his empirical approaches to new areas, such as the Internet economy.

“I think he’s typical of the younger generation of economists here who are not very ideological and sort of reach conclusions based on the data they see rather than their preconceived ideas,” said Richard Thaler, an economics professor at Chicago Booth.

Goolsbee’s big-tent approach to economic issues extends not just to his research but to his work with Obama. Throughout the primaries and into the general election, he consulted with an informal network of advisers at the University and elsewhere, soliciting a wide range of often conflicting opinions before reporting back to the candidate. When the financial crisis hit in September, Goolsbee worked his Chicago Booth connections, walking down the hall to talk to experts in the field.

Douglas Diamond, a finance professor who considered himself an informal adviser to Goolsbee during the campaign, said he and Goolsbee would discuss the economy frequently, often for just a few minutes in the hallway.

“During the crisis, we’d actually close the door and talk a little bit,” he said.

“It gave a fresh perspective of...people who are amazing economists but aren’t on the radar screen of [Washington],” Goolsbee says of his economic kitchen cabinet. “They have perspectives on Wall Street, for example, that you really don’t get from just going back exclusively to the same old names that everybody knows from campaigns past.”

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In Goolsbee’s office, amid the sedimentary layers of mail, opened and unopened, characteristic of someone who has spent much of the last few months working somewhere else, three framed photos stand above the fray. One is of Civil War hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Bowdoin College professor who defied all stereotypes of bookish academics with his heroics at the battle of Gettysburg. Another is of Goolsbee and his wife. And the third, located directly next to that, beneath the whiteboard filled with a dense hodgepodge of equations, offers a peculiar sight: Goolsbee, in a tux and with a bit more hair than he has now, teaching a microeconomics class on his wedding day.

“If you look at that picture, you can always tell who’s a Chicago person and who isn’t, because most people look at the picture and say, ‘Wow, you’re teaching class in your tuxedo,’ and the University of Chicago person looks at that picture and says, ‘Hey, that’s the monopoly markup formula!” Goolsbee says, again inflecting his voice to mimic the characters.

As far as wedding photos go, there might be stranger ones, but not by much. Goolsbee’s ability to communicate a message to almost any audience—even on the day of his wedding—has served him well as he’s risen through the ranks of academia and into public policy.

“He’s very articulate and he’s personable, and I think that sometimes those two skills, in addition to being very smart, can matter a lot, especially when you’re dealing with non-economists,” said Dennis Carlton, an economics professor at Chicago Booth.

His Yale friend Wertheim echoed that sentiment, calling his college friend “a talented communicator.”

“He has a good way of mixing what I think is oftentimes brilliant insight into things, while putting it in very simple language,” he said.

In recent years, that gift has manifested itself in a variety of ways outside the classroom. Before the rigors of the campaign took hold, for example, Goolsbee was a regular contributor first to the online magazine Slate, and then later to The New York Times, where he had a regular economics column. He also hosted a television program on the History Channel called History’s Business, which examined the stories of famous entrepreneurs.

But the roots of his style go back much further to Milton Academy in Massachusetts, and then at Yale, where Goolsbee was a nearly unbeatable competitive speaker, bringing to the podium a deadly combination of wit, charisma, and timing. His voice, tailor-made for talk radio, didn’t hurt either.

“When I was a freshman [in high school] I was a middle linebacker on the football team,” Goolsbee says. “I like to think it’s because I was the toughest son of a bitch alive, but really it’s because I was the loudest, and that’s the guy who has to call the plays. So they were kind of steering me [toward debate].”

Dahlia Lithwick, a senior editor at Slate who was a year ahead of Goolsbee at Yale, called her former debate partner (the two were national runners-up in 1990) a “rock star,” with a flair for the dramatic.

“He had this quality—if it was, like, the Hollywood spaghetti-western movie, he would be the guy in the corner with his hat tipped over his nose pretending to be asleep, who just suddenly leaps into action and shoots all the bad guys with like 11 guns firing,” Lithwick said.

Goolsbee’s unique style of debating flashed to the surface during the waning days of the campaign. As the McCain team sought to raise questions about the Democratic candidate’s associations in Chicago and elsewhere, Goolsbee sat down with Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a top economics adviser for the Arizona senator, at an October forum sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations.

The two went back and forth on a myriad of economics issues, until the moderator, Floyd Norris of The New York Times, asked Holtz-Eakin if he thought Obama was a socialist. Without missing a beat, Holtz-Eakin said he had “no idea,” and added, “That’s our major concern.”

“Here we go,” Goolsbee said.

Sitting next to Holtz-Eakin, he looked like a kid on Christmas morning. Goolsbee flashed a six-inch smile at Norris and rubbed his hands together in an exaggerated fashion, to the obvious delight of the audience. When his opponent finished, Goolsbee calmly tore him to pieces.

“If you are prone to believe that he’s a Muslim terrorist whose done various, nefarious things in the driveway of plumbers and he’s a socialist, look, there’s probably nothing I can say that would convince you,” Goolsbee said.

“As for things that I can tell you,” he paused and clasped his hands together, “let us look at the budget.”

Goolsbee had won the crowd over. The audience laughed at his jokes as if on cue. The clip became a YouTube hit and reinforced a reputation learned long ago by pimply-faced debaters.

“I think he has a pretty unerring instinct for the absurd and has a certain delight in pointing it out, and often he can do so in a way that is just so funny it’s kind of subversive because it also does get at a truth,” Zittrain said.

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When Barack Obama took the stage on election night as president-elect in front of 200,000 delirious supporters at Chicago’s Grant Park, Goolsbee was there, too, standing with his wife a few feet from the podium along with a host of other campaign advisers. It had seemed improbable to many observers back in 2007, back when Goolsbee joined the team, but even then, he says, the mood at headquarters was on-message.

“The campaign was always a place that was sort of like NASA in 1969 or something, where you’d ask, all the way down to the janitor, ‘What do you do for a living?’ and the guy’s like, ‘I help put a man on the moon!’—that’s what I did,” Goolsbee says.

Goolsbee’s latest career twist, like that of his boss with whom he shares a skinny frame and a funny name, has been remarkable nonetheless.

“I don’t think there was any overarching plans with Austan,” Wertheim said. “In fact, this was quite the opposite.... This was not a plan at all. This was kind of a serendipitous moment.”