Washington Reflections

Laura Tyson's Years With the Clinton Administration

by Fernando Quintero

In her role as top economic adviser to President Clinton, Berkeley economics and business professor Laura D'Andrea Tyson flourished. A brief conversation with the former head of the National Economic Council and chair of the President's Council of Economic Advisers quickly reveals the secret to her success.

Like a doting parent who cuts her child's food into bite-size pieces, Tyson has a way of separating her thoughts into easily consumable sections and subsections. Her speech is peppered with "first" and "second" and "third."

It is no surprise that her return to campus in January to assume the Class of 1939 Chair and teach economics and business has been met with so much enthusiasm.

"Laura has always been a great teacher, and for the past four years, her classroom has included the cabinet, Congress and the American people," said William Hasler, dean of the Haas School of Business. "Her return to Berkeley is wonderful news for both students and faculty."

From her modestly small, light-filled fifth floor office at the business school, Tyson likened her experience in Washington to teaching Introduction to Economics.

"I enjoy taking complicated economic ideas and making them understandable," said Tyson, who received Berkeley's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1982. "When I'm in front of a large class, it's a great challenge to convey information and ideas and still be engaging. That was the approach I used while I was in Washington."

Business Professor David Levine, who served as a senior economist on Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, said Tyson's job was very often explaining not the most complicated economic issues, "but some of the most basic and important ones."

"If you can teach 800 Berkeley freshmen, there's a good chance you can communicate your ideas to Washington politicians," he said. "Berkeley faculty who have gone to Washington and succeeded there got their training explaining key ideas to undergraduates and graduate students."

In fact, Tyson's knack for teaching, along with her real-world approach to economics, is the special combination of qualities shared by an unprecedented number of Berkeley faculty members laying siege to Washington.

Over the past four years, nearly a quarter of the university's economics faculty from the business school and the College of Letters and Science has taken leave to go to Washington. No other university outside the Ivy League has provided the White House with so much economic brain power.

Berkeley business Professor Janet Yellen, who recently took over Tyson's former post as chair of the Council of Economic Advisors after serving as governor of the Federal Reserve Board, became the second Berkeley economist to reach top national policy levels.

Others include Jeffrey Frankel, an economics professor nominated to the Council of Economic Advisers, and Richard Gilbert, an economics professor who provided economic analysis for the Justice Department.

Gilbert was replaced by Carl Shapiro, professor of business and economics. Michael Katz, also a business and economics professor, served as chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission, and was replaced by economics professor Joe Farrell. And Brad De Long, associate economics professor, served as deputy assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Treasury Department.

"Certainly, talk of a Berkeley mafia would be premature," wrote the Los Angeles Times in a 1994 article titled "West Coast Economists Forge a Connection With Washington Political Power Base."

The fact is, a Berkeley mafia does exist. And Tyson is The Godmother.

It was Tyson, along with former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, who interviewed Yellen for her job at the Federal Reserve. Tyson helped bring Frankel, Levine and Jay Stowsky, a former research associate at the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy, to serve on the Council of Economic Advisers. And in 1993, William Dickens, an associate economics professor, was made an offer he couldn't refuse to serve as staff economist at the Council of Economic Advisers.

"Berkeley has great name recognition in Washington," said Tyson. "We have certainly built up a reputation there that continues to grow."

Back home, Tyson's reputation was such that she was considered a top candidate for Chancellor Tien's post, which he will leave in June.

"I thought it was a worthwhile option and an honor to be considered," said Tyson, who later withdrew her name from the list of potential candidates. "When I left Washington to come back to Berkeley, a number of things went into that decision. I decided I could serve the university more effectively being a lecturer, writer and speaker on public policy."

As a teacher, Tyson said her Washington experience will provide a rich source of anecdotal fodder for the classroom.

"I think my greatest strength to share with students will be showing them how economic decisions are made in Washington. In academia, you look for the perfect solution to economic problems. In the political world, you look for the most feasible solution," said Tyson. "People in Washington don't make decisions in a textbook way."

For example, Tyson cited the Clinton administration's controversial support for renewal of China's most-favored-nation trading status.

"Some critics say that the Clinton administration has sacrificed human rights goals for commercial ones. No one is questioning the role of human rights in China," Tyson said. "The question is, are trade impediments an effective means of improving human rights goals? There is compelling evidence that suggests using economic tools to change non-economic issues doesn't work. I want students to think these kinds of issues through."

Added Tyson: "Economics can be taught as a science, an empirical science. It's an important way of thinking and examining problems.' In addition to making her a better teacher, Tyson said her Washington experience provided a "great network" of contacts that will not only allow her to get valuable information about economic issues quickly, but will also help the campus attract top policy-makers to come and work as visiting lecturers and professors.

Not to mention, Tyson's first-hand insights on what President Clinton is really like.

"He has breathtaking intelligence," she said. "His command of public policy issues in Missouri versus Wisconsin versus California is amazing. If you bring up something he hasn't thought about, he asks the right questions and gets to the heart of the matter."

"He loves to talk," Tyson added. "He's a wonderful storyteller. The places he's been and the people he's met. He always has a personal take on a story," Tyson said. "I was on Air Force One with him coming back to Washington from an economic conference in Oregon. I don't like to fly in planes and there was a fair amount of turbulence. The president ended up telling stories for two hours. It helped alleviate the bumpy ride."

Tyson, who is married to screenwriter Erik Tarloff and has a 14-year-old son, said life in the high-power, high-pressure world of Washington politics has also made a lasting personal impact.

"I underestimated the value of personal networks, although I was never much of an Ivory Tower economist. Personally, I'm probably more outgoing. You meet many interesting people. You're afforded a great opportunity to develop relationships in a short amount of time."

On an even deeper level, Tyson said her White House years "forced me to think of issues of balance -- the whole issue of balance in life: my career, my family and friends."

In the end, Tyson and Washington proved to be a "perfect match."

"For someone of my academic and research interests, I had the best possible jobs. Here was an opportunity to give advice about something I had longed to give advice on, and bring economic logic to the table -- all at the highest level."


Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
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