‘When the President Calls’: A Look into the World of Political Economics

Written by Jinny Kim

Professor Bowmaker’s office is very, very, messy. There are piles of books,papers and unpacked boxes everywhere. He apologizes for the mess; “I’m still unpacking,” he explains. After having spent a year in London teaching at LSE, Imperial College London, and NYU London, Prof. Bowmaker is back at Stern. With some changes, of course. One big change (perhaps the most saddening for Stern students) being that, after more than a decade of gaining fame as the Microeconomics professor, he has decided he will no longer helm the course. “[It’s] time to hand on the baton to someone else…” His teaching course load is now skewed toward MBA students; this year, only two out of his eleven courses will be for undergraduates. 

Another major change is the recent publication of his book, ‘When the President Calls,’ which was eight years in the making. It features interviews with 35 economic advisors to the POTUS—including those for Trump—spanning almost 50 years of policymaking. “It’s an insight into what it’s like to get a call from the president to come to Washington to advise him on economic policy, and to get a handle on what it’s like to be in the room with the president in a stressful situation where important decisions have to be made. What are the pressures like? What kind of issues do you deal with? How does it impinge on your personal life?” 

The book is around 700 pages, which is longer than Moby Dick and a little over half the length of War and Peace. However, Bowmaker says that the segmented nature of the interviews make it a book you don’t have to read “from start to finish;” one can go from reading an interview with Glenn Hubbard (W. Bush) to George Shultz (Nixon, Reagan). All sides of the political spectrum are represented in the book. And, despite the recent trend of political polarization, whatever political differences the interviewees may have had, he says just a few were willing to criticize other people, and most were careful about what they said about others. 

There was a sense of camaraderie, perhaps, amongst the interviewees. “Most of the people I interviewed seemed to develop what might be called an institutional sense of responsibility. And so even though their political views were not necessarily the same, they would make themselves available to whoever served next in the role. That would mean, for example, that Hank Paulson – Treasury Secretary under George W. Bush would call Jack Lew – Treasury Secretary under Obama – if he had something to say that Lew might find thought provoking or helpful.”  

One aspect of the interview-heavy format of the book is that it leaves readers to draw their own conclusions on policies. But what exactly shapes how the average person thinks about economics; their income, race, or education?

To that question, Prof. Bowmaker immediately responds “Self interest,” with a laugh. “Sorry!” It may seem like the advisors in Washington, and those surrounding them, are also motivated by self-interest; after all, isn’t ego the root of all political ambitions? However, he is quick to respond otherwise. “The people I interviewed shared the view that when the president calls, a sense of duty arises within you. Of course, it is a big personal thrill to be hired by the White House for a top job – Larry Summers, Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton, told me it was his dream to see his signature on the dollar bill – but ultimately it is an opportunity to serve your country…and at least according to the people I spoke to, you make the necessary sacrifices and do it!” This should serve as encouragement to those weary and disillusioned by politics; perhaps the U.S. isn’t in (as bad) hands as previously thought. 

Going forward, as the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election nears and candidates lay out more specifics of their economic visions for the country, voters’ abilities to properly evaluate a candidate’s economic policies becomes more and more important. Essentially, what makes good economic policy? This question gives him pause. “Hmm. I will give an economist’s answer: It depends. But I will say that I have learned two things related to your question through my book. First, good economic policy might make for bad politics, and I am afraid to say that in Washington, politics trumps economics. Second, making economic policy is the hardest of all to make.” Maybe because economic policy is so difficult to create, and so many external forces influence the economy, there can never be a concise answer to what makes certain economic policies effective, what exactly is causing the economy to grow, or what has led to economic malaise. 

In many of the economics classes at Stern, students study simplistic economic models where countries live in isolation and people flit in and out of different job markets. That’s not true, of course. The real world is complicated and twisted and messy, and regardless of if you like it or not, globalization is real and withdrawing from it is increasingly painful. The same goes for the field of economics—for the field to continue to move forward, it is important that it is not insular. 

Where do we stand in all of this? Assuming most of us will go through life without a PhD in economics, how are we to process this knowledge?  Maybe this is a question not even Prof. Bowmaker can answer. “It is important that voters have a sound grasp of the fundamentals of economics. As it stands, there is often a misunderstanding of some of the basics, from the difference between the national debt and the federal deficit, to the impact of taxes, and to the gains from international trade. Greater economic literacy would make voters more aware of thinking about trade-offs, not only in their own lives, but also in relation to government policy, and that is partly why I wrote my book.” 

So, 35 interviews with the past economic advisors to POTUS cannot clarify all the ambiguities and complexities that surround the intersection of economics and politics. That’s an impossible task not one person or even the greatest minds can capture to its full extent. But Professor Bowmaker takes a stab at this impossible task, and at educating students on how to better understand the world through the lens of economics, and we are all here better for it. 

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