Economist Alice Rivlin died Tuesday at age 88. She was my favorite liberal (in the modern, not classical, sense) economist. She called it the way she saw it and was generally regarded by all sides as independent. That sometimes got her in hot water with her fellow Democrats.

I have two stories about her, one about an interaction she and I had at the American Economic Association annual meetings in New York in December 1988, and one about a very telling Wall Street Journal op/ed she wrote about Hillary Clinton’s health care plan in 1993 or 1994. (I can’t find it, but I recall the particular thing I want to comment on.) I’ll tell them in a blog post this weekend.

Here I want to hit some highlights of this very interesting and entertaining interview with Rivlin in 2002. It’s very long, but I recommend the whole thing. Some excerpts follow. Some more excerpts will follow this weekend.

How to Avoid Patronage Hiring

I would get résumés sent over [to her when she was head of the Congressional Budget Office] from members of Congress all the time, and they would say, Please consider my very able and qualified constituent, John Doe.And I would write back, Thank you very much, and we really appreciate the input. But I didn’t have to hire this person. Occasionally the nominees were really well qualified, and we were able to do so. But mostly not, and everybody understood the game. The Congressman had gotten the résumé off his desk and onto mine and was able to say, I have referred your résumé to Dr. Rivlin. That was what he wanted, and he got a nice letter back from me. I didn’t have to do anything unless this person was just the most amazingly qualified person, in which case that was terrific. There were maybe two or three incidents of that.

The Role of a Stripper in Helping Rivlin Get Her Job

Then we had a totally accidental event. Wilbur Mills, who was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, had his famous incident of jumping into the Tidal Basin after the stripper named Fannie Fox. Stacie may be too young to remember this. But that was all over the front pages, and it forced the resignation of Wilbur Mills. Al Ullman, who was the chairman of the House Budget Committee, then moved over to take the chairmanship of Ways and Means.

Brock Adams became the chairman of Budget. And Brock simply did not care. He hadn’t been involved in the original search process, and he was not committed to Sam Hughes. He just wanted to get the problem solved. He said to Ed Muskie, If you want Rivlin, it’s okay with me. So I owed my job to Fannie Fox. [laughter]

Predicting the Budget Deficit in the Early 1980s

And it all went very easily at the working level, at the staff level. I just assumed that was a good thing. But I did discover that my committee bosses, the members, were quite suspicious. There was a very dramatic incident late in my CBO history—it was the [Ronald] Reagan Administration. David Stockman was the Budget Director. I’d known Dave when he was in Congress. We’d had a huge controversy in early ’81 over the Reagan budget deficit and how big it was. They were minimizing the deficit. We said it was going to be a little bit bigger. We were both way wrong. It was much bigger.

Meeting Bill Clinton in the Late 1980s

I had met Clinton once before, some years earlier while he was Governor. Peter Edelman, whom I knew well, called me one day and said, There’s a really terribly bright, charismatic Governor of Arkansas named Bill Clinton, and I think he’s a potential Presidential candidate, and I’m setting up some interviews for him to meet important policy people in Washington. Would you be willing to meet with him? And I said, Sure.

I’d never heard of Bill Clinton, but they had a hotel suite, sort of like this, somewhere up on Capitol Hill. I went over and spent about an hour with Clinton and was bowled over. I just thought he was terrific. He asked all the right questions. He was very personable, all the Clinton things. And I just thought, Wow, this guy is really something terrific.


How to Appeal to Voters (Alice Rivlin Comes Close to Public Choice)

He [President Clinton] was constantly being bombarded with proposals to do some new federal thing, and the extreme example was crime. The political folks—and I don’t know how much the President had thought this through before he got to be President—but the political folks were saying repositioning the Democratic Party to be tough on crime is a really important thing to do. And they evolved this, Put 100,000 cops on the street. Now I thought that was crazy. If there’s any function that is obviously local and not federal or even state—it’s street crime. Getting the Federal Government involved in beefing up local police forces was going in the opposite direction that I was recommending in the book.

But I came to realize that the problem for a President is that the issues that are most on people’s minds are actually very local. People are worried about crime in their neighborhood, or deteriorating housing, or water pollution in the local stream, or whatever it is. That’s what’s most on their minds, and if you’re running for President and you don’t talk about any of those things, you talk about national defense or the macro economy—that does resonate. But if you talk about the things that are really federal functions, then you lose people in the campaign audience in the local place. The other example is education. Both candidates in that election, every election, go out and say, If I’m President. I’m going to fix your local school. That’s nutty. A President has almost no power to fix the local schools, and yet if that’s what people care about, you’ve got to say something about it. Then you get elected, and you have to do something about it.

Well, what do you do? You have another federal program. So the dynamic of this local focus of voters, and the need for a President to relate to it—and the subsequent need to follow through—is really what gives us this plethora of federal programs that mostly can’t affect what’s going on the local area very much.

“There Were All These Children”

My reaction to the [Clinton] White House staff, especially at the beginning, was that it was too big and too loose, and there were all these children. There was a generational problem that so many White House staff were kids right out of college who’d worked on the campaign and had never had a job before. This was their first job, and they were doing important stuff in the White House and throwing their weight around. From the point of view of the older professionals like me, this was not an asset.


The Chaos in the Oval Office

Yes, there were often lots of people in the room. The ones I particularly remember were before the President was giving a speech, a major speech, or even an announcement, we would gather in the Oval Office, and the President would have his speech draft. He’d be sitting there, usually at the desk, working at the speech draft. And everybody who wanted to get something in would still be talking about it. It was kind of chaotic compared to the economic team meetings, which were more disciplined because Bob Rubin imposed some discipline. We didn’t all talk at once, at least. We may have talked for a long time, but there was an order. People were recognized, and they talked, and then they’d shut up and somebody else talked. That was not true in those Oval Office meetings. Everybody was shouting at once and saying, Well, you ought to do this, and you ought to say that, and you ought to remember this. Maybe it would be before a press conference.

I just thought, If I were the President, I couldn’t stand this. I would say, Shut up, you guys, and get out of here. I want these three people. He never did that. He just let the chaos go on around him. Sometimes he would participate in it, and sometimes he would just tune out and sit there working on his draft and editing it—which he always did—and not listening to the chaos going on around him. I couldn’t believe it. I just would never have done anything like that. But he is extremely good at absorbing a lot of different things at once and also tuning out and concentrating when he wants to.

As I said above, more to follow in a later post.