U.S. Treasury Department

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My interest in economics has always been intertwined with my orientation towards politics and policy. That’s not to say that I “wanted to make a difference” in the amorphous, bland phrasing of college applicants and beauty contestants. Rather, it’s that economics gave me a versatile framework for thinking coherently about policy problems and the specific ways that evidence can be brought to bear on them. For those of us who feel the need to develop a comprehensive worldview, this is powerful stuff.

As fascinating as economic problems can be in and of themselves, a person like myself is going to be unsatisfied by a career that lacks an outlet for this policy orientation. One option is to write papers as an academic that speak directly to important social questions. Policymakers and their advisers are avid consumers of this work, particularly when it is carefully and thoughtfully produced, to an extent that might surprise academics and graduate students. Another option is a career in public service.

Unlike the academic route, which is well-understood by the faculty advising graduate students, government can be a confusing option. This is partly because faculty often have little interaction with it, but also because government economists may do many different things. Some of the work comprises original research of the sort conducted in academia. Of equal importance, however, is the role of intermediary between the economics discipline and policymakers. This is not simply a question of translating between the languages of economics and policy, but involves applying standard theory and empirical methods to questions that are too recent, too situated in a particular institutional context, or otherwise unpublishable in an academic journal. Policymakers are going to find answers whether economists weigh in or not; the question is whether their actions will be informed by the best possible analysis. As economists, we are in a unique position to undermine the logic of collective action with credible, disinterested observation.