Jason Furman: President Obama’s Right Hand Man on Economic Policy

A bowling ball, an egg and a knife; these were some of the objects that Jason Furman could juggle at the peak of his short-lived street performer carrier in New York City. Twenty years later Furman still juggles, but he now does it at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. He no longer needs the bowling ball, the egg or the knife. On a daily basis Furman juggles tax policy, deficit reduction and job creation. Furman is now President Obama’s assistant for economic policy and the Principal Deputy Director of the National Economic Council (Jason Furman, 2012).

Furman spoke to an audience of an estimated forty people in the Public Events Room in Eggers 220 on Friday afternoon. The 37-year old London School of Economics and Harvard educated economist was invited to come to the Maxwell School by Public Administration and International Affairs Professor Leonard Burman. Burman and Furman had previously worked together on the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institute. Furman spoke for an hour on "Economic Policy making in the Obama Administration.”

He organized the lecture into three sections or what he referred to as “the three buckets” of economic policy. The three buckets were structural growth agenda, the immediate jobs agenda and deficit reduction. Furman noted that all of these areas interact with one another. “When you change one the others are affected. The goal is to improve all three at the same time,” he said.

Furman started the lecture off with a funny anecdote. He said that for the last four years all of President Obama’s economic policy advisors would start every speech with, “We are at a? critical moment for economic policy.” This would be followed by the reading of a script that highlighted how the economy has recovered from the recession in 2008. Furman said, “We would get emailed an updated script every month. The words were the same, the only thing that changed were the numbers.”

Before he discussed what the Obama administration is currently doing to improve America’s economic climate, Furman wanted to establish what caused the recession. Following the pop of the sub-prime mortgage bubble and the decline of the stock market the American economy of 8.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008. In November of that same year 584,000 jobs were lost, and 535,000 were lost in December, marking the first time in 70 years that over 500,000 Americans lost their jobs in consecutive months. According to Furman the U.S. Department of Labor who keeps track of all these statistics,originally only reported losses of 250, 000 jobs in those months, “So we didn’t even realize what was happening at the time.”

“When President Obama was elected to office we immediately had to deal with these issues.” Furman said the first goal of the administration was to get Americans back to work. This was the beginning of the immediate jobs agenda. One of the policies the Obama administration passed to help promote immediate job growth was the payroll tax cut extension in January of 2011. Furman talked about how this policy was not completely supported by Democrats in Washington, but the policy was needed to stimulate job growth so he worked with both Republicans and Democrats to formulate the policy. Furman said this policy immediately increased American business profits and decreased unemployment across the country, but it did not address the need for long-term job creation or long-term economic aid.

This led to into the second bucket of economic policy, the structural growth agenda. One of the main goals of this program was to invest in research and train workers for long-term sustainable economic growth. Furman talked about the development of community colleges and the process to make higher education more affordable and accessible for all Americans. One of the interesting policies that Furman discussed was President Obama’s plan to renovate American infrastructure.

In January, President Obama announced his plan to repair American infrastructure and put Americans back to work. The plan proposed that the Federal government would invest $40 Billion dollars in the repair and construction of bridges, highways and transit systems. During the state of the Union Address, President Obama said, “The goal of the plan is not just to make the nation safer, according to the proposal, but to create jobs that cannot be outsourced.” This plan resembles President Roosevelt’s recovery efforts during the Great Depression. Some Republicans have opposed this policy even though it directly benefits Americans because of the effect it will have on the national deficit (Schwartz, 2013).

The final bucket of economic policy Furman discussed was deficit reduction. He said while everyone agrees America needs to lower the unemployment rate and plan for long-term economic growth, deficit reduction is a more politicized or highly debated in Washington. One of the points Furman discussed was the upcoming Federal Sequester.

Furman said that he knows in reality, no member of Congress wants the sequester to happen because it will cut funding to programs that directly impact constituents such as unemployment benefits and school funding. Furman ended this part of the lecture noting that President Obama has presented Speaker Boehner and the House Republicans with an extremely moderate and sensible bill. Furman said, “President Obama is at the table waiting for them to decide.”

After he lectured for about forty-five minutes Furman sat down and took questions from audience members. He was only asked five questions; two from a professor in economics, one from Professor Burman, one from Dean Steinberg and one from myself.

I asked a question regarding what his philosophy was navigating through such polarizing topics as tax policy and deficit reduction. Furman said, “I am staff at the Whitehouse. I am a member of President Obama’s Administration, but my job is to find multiple solutions to solve fiscal problems. It is the job of the elected officials to decide what solution is the best. I need to make options that will be liked by both Democrats and Republicans.”

Furman stressed that President Obama “is not just the president of dealing with the impending fiscal cliff.” He said the President deals with policies controlling things from childcare to farm subsidies on a daily basis. It was his job to sort through the potential solutions and create policies that the President could offer to Congress.

While Jason Furman was not the best public speaker I have ever heard, he was better than most economists. He broke down complicated fiscal policies in ways that anyone could understand and his use of humor kept my attention. Furman did not get caught up in the complex economics of fiscal policy. He focused on policies that related to the big picture.

I am a somewhat of a “fiscal policy nerd,” so the topic of this lecture was extremely interesting to me. One thing that especially intrigued me about Furman was the fact that he did not take himself too seriously. He was a very down to earth person that I felt comfortable talking to. Overall I would give Furman an A-.