A Small Correction

SYNOPSIS: Krugman corrects the misconception that he was a member of Reagan's Council of Economic Advisors. He was on the Council's staff. This piece has some good personal anecdotes

I've now seen several pieces with a small misstatement about my career. For once it's not a malicious thing, just an error. But I'd like to correct it - and tell the slightly interesting story that goes with it.

The error is the statement that I was on Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers. I wasn't - I was on the Council's staff. That's a significant difference. Council members are political appointees; they are expected togive speeches defending the administration's policies, and so on. Staff positions are, in principle, civil service jobs. Admittedly, in practice the Council's staff tends to reflect the ideology of its bosses, except in special cases. And my time there was a peculiar special case. Here's the story.

In the summer of 1982 the Reaganites panicked: the US economy was in a tailspin, the Latin debt crisis was exploding, and they briefly worried about economic disaster. So they called in a moderate Republican with sterling credentials, Martin Feldstein, to head the CEA. Feldstein in turn decided that he wanted a team of whiz-kids, so he brought a group of Cambridge-based young people down with him. To lure his top picks, he created two "super-staff" positions: domestic and international policy economist. The domestic policy economist was a guy named Larry Summers; I wonder what happened to him? I was the international economist.

A funny story: we weren't on the White House payroll. For obscure political reasons, many White House staffers were paid by other agencies, then seconded to the WH. I got my paychecks from the Maritime Administration; Feldstein occasionally called me "midshipman".

Larry and I made no secret of the fact that we were Democrats. So why did I do it? Not for career purposes, at least not in the narrow sense: I already had tenure, and what I needed to rise in the academic world was more technical papers, not a behind-the-scenes role in Washington. (My academic reputation - and my Clark Medal - are the result of a baker's dozen of theoretical papers on international trade, currency speculation and crises, economic geography, and macroeconomics.) Mainly I thought it would be interesting - a chance to see how the alleged real world works. And it was. As it happened, the politics were not a problem: since my job required no public defense of the administration, it was all internal stuff; Feldstein was to my right, but to the left of almost everyone else in the administration, so I never found myself having to defend a position I didn't support.

There's more about this in my essay Incidents from my career.

Originally published on the Official Paul Krugman Site, 8.29.02