Justin Wolfers leaves Brookings, reflects on Washington, think tanks

Brookings fellow Justin Wolfers is leaving Washington now that his wife, Betsey Stevenson, chief economist to Secretary Hilda L. Solis at the Department of Labor, is done at her post and going back to academic life.

Wolfers offered his impressions of Washington, Brookings and think tanks at the Freakonomics blog. It’s a fair amount of gushing, but that doesn’t make it completely untrue.

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.

Allen McDuffee writes about politics and policy and covered think tanks for The Washington Post from 2011 to 2013. He blogs and hosts a podcast at governmentality.net and is currently working on a book about the influence of think tanks in Washington.


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