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A Postcard from Brookings: Wolfers Bids D.C. a Fond Farewell

As my better half is preparing to leave the Obama administration for academic life, we’re packing up our D.C. apartment and, as typically happens while packing boxes, feeling a bit reflective.  So I thought I would share what has made our time in D.C. so special.
For me, the great joy of being here has been spending time at The Brookings Institution. It’s an extraordinary place, and I’m convinced that I’ll look back on my time here as pivotal in shaping my evolution as an economist.
The rhythm of life for Brookings economists is dictated by the lunch table. This isn’t the usual lunchroom gossip, but rather an ongoing inquiry into the policy debates du jour, with a relentless focus on economics. It’s an intense ordeal, and facts are the only currency accepted. Scholars who are heading up to the Hill, briefing journalists or visiting the White House, will test drive their insights over salads and sandwiches. Survive lunch, and the rest of your day will be easy. Those Formica tables have heard a lot of great ideas improved, and bad ones decimated.
The biggest difference between Brookings and my usual academic gig is the degree of engagement with real public policy questions. And so this year has served as a wonderful education on the messy reality of U.S. economic policymaking. I couldn’t have asked for more distinguished tutors. On any given day the lunch table might be populated by a couple of former Fed Vice Chairs, one of several former Chairs of the Council of Economic Advisors, a couple of former Budget Directors, as well as former Assistant Secretaries, former Presidential Advisors, and a couple of past AEA presidents. The folks who were here in 2008—Doug Elmendorf, Jeff Kling, Jason Furman and Peter Orszag—went on to serve in the full alphabet soup of economic policymaking, running the CBO, NEC and OMB. Given this track record, it’s a safe bet that the younger generation here will be among the leading lights of future administrations—both Democratic and Republican.
Unlike a traditional economics department, there are no theorists, Greek-letter econometricians, or folks doing “blue sky” stuff.  Sometimes I miss that side of academic life.  But I’ve enjoyed the benefits of institutional specialization instead. I’ve never met a collective group with such a broad grasp of both the first-order facts and the intricate details about inequality, international trade, national accounting, government budgets, monetary policy, exchange rates, regulation, social policy, finance and the labor market. After this sort of exposure, it’s little surprise that the research assistants here are highly prized catches for the leading PhD programs.
Think tanks often get a bad rap. Too many employ well-funded bomb-throwers whose half-truths further an ideological agenda.  Or they pick pundits with great hair rather than great insight. But neither holds for Brookings. As a professor, I never liked that old saying “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” But the scholars here can teach—and most have held prestigious academic posts—but they prefer to do. There’s a belief in public service—in the broadest and best sense of the term—that keeps them in D.C., rather than enjoying the cushy life of the ivory tower.
Does ideology matter? Tough question. Officially, Brookings is “independent.” But the press calls it “center-left.” Both are true.  More of my colleagues are Democrats than Republicans. But there’s a willingness to embrace free markets, even if it’s tempered by an understanding of market failure. Certainly, there’s no ideological purity test, and folks here have served both sides of politics.
And life at Brookings also involves being embedded in the broader D.C. policy community. This year I’ve given talks at the Fed, the National Academy of Sciences, at the IMF, Gallup, the World Bank, the Center for Global Development, the Congressional Budget Office and the Council of Economic Advisors. And that doesn’t count the serendipitous dinners and drinks with all manner of mentors, friends and super-wonks. Add up all the brainpower I’ve benefited from, and D.C. surely qualifies as among the world’s great centers of economic talent. Yes, it’s Hollywood for ugly people, but that’s where I belong. And I’ve loved it.
Life in D.C. is not just about public policy debates, it is also a wonderful city to live in. My usual running route takes me home past the White House, the Washington Monument, perhaps the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool, and for hill work, I head to the Capitol. There’s something special about running past monuments. There’s terrific trail running, too. Great restaurants are on every corner, although perhaps too many expense-account steakhouses.  The cupcake scene is incredible. I would say something about the happy hour culture, but, well, I’m now a parent. So instead, I can say that a typical weekend might involve taking my daughter to visit the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, burn off steam in the atrium at the National Portrait Gallery, picnic in the Sculpture Garden, or take a twirl on the Carousel on the National Mall.
So yes, we should continue to bitch and moan about the evils of D.C. But let’s be clear, we’re bitching about D.C. as the symbol of our barely functional political system—not the beautiful city I’ve enjoyed this year.