Commentary Type

Essential Elements of Effective Economic Policymaking

Karen Dynan (PIIE)

Address to the Society of Government Economists


Thanks so much to Susan, Amelie, and Austin for inviting me. I am really honored to be able to speak to this group.

Susan and I went back and forth on various catchy titles for this talk. At some point, the working title for the talk, also alliterative, was “Ten Take-Aways from my Time at Treasury” because I knew I wanted to reflect on things I learned during the 3½ years I just spent at the TreasuryDepartment. But I changed the title because I realized that really the lessons go much further back in terms of my time in Washington.

Before I get to those lessons, I want to start by thanking all of you for all of your service. The work you do is so important.

To expand a little on that point, I went to a lot of goodbye parties for my counterparts during my time in the Administration—particularly in the last 3 or 4 months. One striking recurrent theme in departure speeches, particularly from those who had been working in policy shops, was just how grateful they were to have had such terrific staffs working with them.

Sometimes it was expressed with a little surprise; you have to bear in mind that some people had swooped temporarily from Wall Street or academia so were a bit naïve about the government workforce. Sometimes there would be a little indignation, with people saying how they get so mad now when they hear people using the expression “good enough for government work.”However, it was expressed, there was an underlying deep appreciation. And, I know I left Treasury feeling the same way.

People in jobs like mine come away so impressed partly because they have found their colleagues to be smart and well-trained and energetic and dedicated. But it is not just that. It i s also because they have realized that government economists have truly special skills.

It is kind like we have superpowers. Knowing how to use data, knowing how to combine data with models, knowing how to apply findings from the economics literature to pressing policyquestions: Those are not things that most regular human beings (meaning, non-economists) can do. It i s not that the non-economists do not want to be using these tools, it is just that they often do not have access because this stuff can be hard. As a result, during my experience these tools were really one’s ticket into the important discussions about what policy steps we should be taking.

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