Economist Jason Furman is the wonkiest wonk in the White House


Jason Furman, chairman of the Council on Economic Advisers, has prospered at the White House, aides say, by focusing on his area of expertise: economics. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)

When Jason Furman was a freshman at Harvard in the fall of 1988, the brainy New Yorker had already earned thousands of dollars a month juggling in Washington Square Park, traveled to Africa and was teaching himself Swahili. He was so advanced in economics that he was considering petitioning to skip a required class.

His freshman-year roommate was a bit intimidated by this. All he was planning to do was make it big in the movie business.

“Jason was the first person that I met at Harvard, and I literally almost turned around and went home,” Matt Damon, the Hollywood A-lister, said recently. “I thought, ‘I don’t belong here.’ He remains one of the smartest people that I’ve come across.”

Since rooming with People’s onetime “Sexiest Man Alive,” Furman has ascended to a star position himself in the Hollywood for the more statistically inclined: Washington.

The 43-year-old economist, who as the chairman of the Council on Economic Advisers seems to relish a day spent describing “principal component analysis” to a befuddled White House press corps, has long been the ultimate wonk for the nation’s capital. His success in the Obama administration, ascending to the chief economist job in August, is a testament to how Washington celebrates nerds — and a lesson in what the president wants from his closest advisers.

In his White House role, in front of the television cameras, Furman plays a combination of offense and defense. He appeared during the government shutdown to explain why it was bad for the economy, taking a bit of pleasure in referencing the “mathematical derivations of all of this.” Last week, after budget analysts unexpectedly warned that the Affordable Care Act could lead millions of workers to quit their jobs or cut back on hours, he raced to brief the president and then to try to persuade reporters the analysis was being misinterpreted. “No surprise, Obama unleashed his economic nerd patrol to explain away the numbers,” quipped Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert.

But behind the scenes, in many appearances around town, Furman has been making a deeply researched case for why the nation’s safety net has achieved wonders at reducing poverty in the 50 years since Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “war on poverty.” At the same time, he argues that it’s time to focus on making changes in our economy so there are fewer poor people to begin with. It is the argument driving a big part of Obama’s second-term agenda.

A wonk from the start

Like many Washington imports, Furman has never given up his New York City roots and the sense that, one day, he’s going to move back. His father, Jay, made millions in real estate — but only after getting his law degree and partially pursuing a doctorate in economics. His mother, Gail, is a psychologist and social activist.

“You combine the two,” said his brother Jesse, a federal judge in Manhattan, “and it’s not terribly shocking to see him end up where he is.”

As a child, Furman displayed all the signs of the prototypical wonk. At 11, he created a fake stock portfolio and tracked prices in the Wall Street Journal. At 13, he began reading the Economist. He volunteered for the Walter Mondale campaign in the ninth grade.

Furman attended Dalton, a tony private school where most of the families lived uptown. But the Furmans lived in Greenwich Village, where Jason could pursue more eclectic interests. Under the tutelage of some of the neighborhood’s best street performers, Furman learned to be a master juggler, sometimes tossing six balls at a time or burning torches. He’d juggle on a unicycle and even indulged a bit of fire eating. It all had an economic rationale — he could earn $30 to $100 a show (inflation adjusted, as he’d surely insist, that’s $60 to $210) — and his parents’ blessing.

“I remember my parents being pretty supportive of the whole juggling thing even if it involved juggling rusty sickles,” Jesse Furman said.

Furman arrived at Harvard intent on studying math or perhaps science. Over occasional shots of bad vodka, he would hang out with Damon and Damon’s friend Ben Affleck, a year younger and still in high school. “We know where each other’s skeletons are buried,” Damon said, “but they’re not too terrible.”

Not terrible, no, but a little embarrassing, for their dorm in Matthews Hall had no shortage of 18-year-old ego. When they met, Damon told Furman he would likely be leaving Harvard later in their freshman year to star in a major Hollywood film. And when Furman came back from an economics class with a grade of 97 on a test, Damon joked, “You’re not so smart after all.” Actually, Furman replied, he didn’t miss anything. His score was reduced so that everyone else’s seemed better by comparison. “I was just ruining the curve.”

In college, Furman moved away from the theory of math and toward the real-world applications of economics. He set out on an academic track, going to the London School of Economics and then returning to Harvard for his PhD.

In 1996, a Harvard professor suggested to Joe Stiglitz, then President Clinton’s chairman for the Council on Economic Advisers, or CEA, that Furman come to Washington for a stint as a staff economist. The grad student had a unique incentive: He was in love with a Harvard Law student named Eve Gerber, who was coming down to join Clinton’s reelection campaign and had helped revive Furman’s interest in politics. “I would have followed her anywhere,” he told a Senate committee last year at his confirmation hearing, his wife, a writer, sitting behind him.

At the Clinton White House, Furman eventually joined the National Economic Council, where strategists aim to turn economic ideas into politically winning proposals.

“The first thing I was struck by when I first met with Jason, and continue to be struck by, was that there are a certain number of people who are first-rate analytically, like economics professors at top schools,” said Larry Summers, Clinton’s Treasury secretary. “And then there are a certain number of people who are very shrewd about Washington. Jason is [just] about unique in being both.”

At the end of the Clinton administration, Furman joined the Al Gore campaign as economic policy director, ultimately wrapping up that disappointing chapter of his life with a statistical analysis of hanging chad. He went back to Harvard to finish his doctorate. He felt he needed to spend a decade in academia and develop those credentials as a scholar. He got his PhD, and soon enough calls came to join the 2004 presidential campaign — first Wesley Clark’s and then John Kerry’s — and he couldn’t resist.

After the Kerry campaign, Furman joined the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and continued to fight against George W. Bush — this time arguing against the president’s plans to partially privatize Social Security, which ultimately failed.

“I remember him wandering around with this laptop at the Center on Budget,” said David Kamin, a research assistant whom Furman later recruited to the White House. “It sort of taught me the power [of] a nerdy guy wielding a laptop.”

Putting his knowledge to use

Furman is used to being that data-driven guy, using an Excel spreadsheet as a weapon. So years after he caused problems for Bush, Furman, now CEA chairman, immediately recognized the problems his own boss could face when a study arrived a week before last month’s State of the Union that threatened to generate headlines contradicting one of Obama’s major second-term claims.

The president had suggested that the odds of Americans rising up the economic ladder were declining — calling it “a fundamental threat to the American Dream.” The new study showed that mobility was low but had been flat for 50 years.

The problem was that it wasn’t Republicans behind the analysis but top economists such as Harvard economist Raj Chetty, whom Obama had met with and trusted. Sensing a potential problem, Furman worked behind the scenes to convey the White House’s position to reporters the day before the study came out.

Then he co-authored a memo to the president explaining that the study confirmed the essence of what the president was saying — that the negative consequences of being born to a poor family rather than a wealthy one were growing — even if it showed that it didn’t make it less likely that any given poor child would ultimately be able to climb the income ladder.

“It was a classic Jason Furman moment,” said Gene Sperling, the director of the National Economic Council. Furman knew the study was coming out and was “savvy enough to know, if misinterpreted, it would be used against the president.”

Furman declined to comment on the record for this story. About two dozen current and former colleagues and others close to him were interviewed, some speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private moments.

Obama aides say one reason Furman has prospered in the White House is that he does something that the president looks for in his advisers: He concentrates mainly on his area of expertise.

“The overwhelming majority of people who work in the White House are amateur legislative and communications strategists, and the president’s someone who believes people should have a role and swim in their lane,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser. “And while Jason has a good sense of those things, he focuses his advice to the president on the core economic issues.”

‘An economist all the time’

Furman has never had the personal relationship with Obama that some of the president’s longest-serving advisers have, nor does he have the back-slapping rapport that aides who play basketball or golf with the president enjoy. But for someone who’s often been criticized for being a little bit too much of an egghead himself, Obama has reserved a special place for the small number of advisers who are even wonkier than he is.

In one of Obama’s maiden voyages on Air Force One, the president was asked which newspaper and magazine subscriptions he wanted on the plane. “Furman’s going to want to get Econometrics Daily,” he replied. Four years later, at an inaugural ball, the president told his soon-to-be CEA chairman, “You dance well for an economist.”

If he minds being typecast as a bit of a professional nerd, Furman hasn’t shown it. He would have his assistant schedule time on his calendar so he could see, with Harvard professor and former administration official Cass Sunstein, almost every sci-fi and time-travel film that came out. He drops oft-quoted maxims like, “If you never miss a plane, you’re arriving too early” — a commentary on the fact that passengers should seek to minimize the amount of time waiting for takeoff. He has strong feelings on statistical software, showing a keen preference for Matlab over Stata.

In a discussion with his wife over whether he should chop firewood in the backyard of their Northwest Washington home, he argued that it wasn’t his comparative advantage, and he’d be better off outsourcing the task. His wife reminded him that, even if it makes most sense in an economics textbook, it’s better sometimes just to do it yourself.

Even his kids – Henry, 6, and Louisa, 5 — have fallen victim to his hyper-rational mind. In hopes of giving them a good scientific education, Furman told his children several years ago there’s no such thing as fish. How could that be? It's actually true, because “fish,” as we think of them, don’t actually have a common ancestor, and so they are not considered by scientists to be a cohesive biological unit.

But his kids weren’t buying it, and a trip to an aquarium was all they needed to disprove their dad. It’s been a source of perpetual teasing ever since. (A recent juggling performance involving apples and an egg at a school talent show, to howls from the other kids, may have won some points back in his favor.)

“I’m always puzzled by these economists who are economists on the job and go home and are not economists anymore,” said Betsey Stevenson, a member of the Council of Economic Advisers. “He’s an economist all the time.”

Furman, a member of the team that helped shape the Affordable Care Act, used his data savvy to begin his own personal health reform journey. Long hours, plentiful sweets and a slow metabolism had conspired to expand his girth over the years, and he had struggled to shed the pounds. Zeke Emanuel, a former White House health adviser, told him that he was the most unhealthy eater he had ever seen.

At the suggestion of his wife, Furman went on what she dubbed a “data diet,” tracking every thing he eats on his iPhone and measuring every step he takes with an electronic pedometer. He dumped the data into a spreadsheet and calculated moving averages because, as he has told colleagues, recording his weight and calories every day can produce “noisy” and “biased” data.

He dropped 50 pounds, and his colleagues have begun to compare his physique to that of a character in Mad Men. The president, a fitness addict himself, has also taken notice, remarking on how skinny he’s gotten.

A change in focus

When rumors swirled last year that Obama would tap Furman as his top economist, something odd happened: Some on the left were angry, and some on the right were elated.

An activist liberal group blasted out a news release: “The Top 5 Reasons Jason Furman Shouldn’t Be Obama’s Top Economic Adviser.” Greg Mankiw, a former professor of Furman’s at Harvard who was CEA chairman under George W. Bush and an adviser to Mitt Romney, wrote: “Jason is smart, knowledgeable, and sensible.”

The whiplash response came because Furman embraces a brand of Democratic economic thinking that stresses what’s feasible over what’s theoretical — and often involves compromises that frustrate the liberal wing of the party. He has drawn particular criticism for his advocacy of a cut in corporate tax rates and his argument that, by providing low-cost goods, Wal-Mart provides an important benefit for society.

Still, some initial skeptics have come to value his role in the White House, saying he has been a strong advocate for using government policy to reduce poverty and inequality.

Judith Conti, the federal advocacy coordinator for the National Employment Law Project, said that a number of people in the liberal community weren’t quite sure about his “bona fides.” But, she added, “I see Jason as one of the most progressive voices for economic justice in that White House.”

In the first term, Furman focused on spending to help the economy, the Affordable Care Act and more generous tax credits for the poor and working class. Now he is shifting focus, saying it’s time to defend those gains and make progress in new areas.

It is a wonky argument, but it also explains Obama’s second-term economic policy, with his aggressive advocacy of a hike in the minimum wage and an expansion of education. And wherever Furman goes, the president’s top economist tries to make this an urgent case.

At an event late last month in Washington, Furman displayed a chart showing how food stamps and other social programs had lowered poverty dramatically over the past half century. This was a big success, he said.

But the graph also showed that the economy itself had done nothing for the poor: Only government dollars had. Here he stressed that the economy needs to work better, so people can enjoy higher incomes without relying on the government’s assistance.

“When a few of you are here 50 years from now to talk about the 100th anniversary of the War on Poverty, if they show a graph that looks a lot like that,” Furman told the crowd, “. . . we will have really failed as an economy and as a society.”

Zachary A. Goldfarb is a staff writer covering the White House, focusing on President Obama’s economic, financial and fiscal policy.
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