The Aspen Institute is beginning a new economic policy project aimed at wrestling with some of the most challenging economic problems facing the United States, including tepid growth, sluggish wages, rising debt and the effects of artificial intelligence.
But the group is coming together at a time when policymakers increasingly dismiss bipartisan solutions, and the group's ultimate impact is uncertain.
The Aspen Institute’s Economic Strategy Group is being co-chaired by Henry A. Paulson, who was Treasury secretary in the George W. Bush administration, and Erskine Bowles, who was President Bill Clinton's chief of staff, Wall Street alumni who played central roles in Washington during their careers. In a joint interview, they said they thought that a group of economic experts from diverse backgrounds could help Washington tackle some of the country’s long-range problems.
The group they assembled includes numerous top policymakers and corporate leaders, including former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, former Federal Reserve chairman Ben S. Bernanke, and General Motors chief executive Mary Barra.
Other members include Ray Dalio, the co-founder of Bridgewater Associates, former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, former Treasury secretary Timothy F. Geithner, and Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.
Paulson and Bowles said the members will have term limits to ensure that new faces and fresh ideas are rotated into the fold. They also tried to pick experts from different generations, hoping to blend younger people with those who have more experience to come up with different approaches.
The economy is growing, the stock market is at record levels, and the unemployment rate has fallen sharply since the financial crisis. But the economy is going through a disruptive transition, with a large number of American workers feeling disconnected from the recent recovery and persistent frustration about weak wage growth.
Paulson and Bowles said their goal is to debate these issues from various vantage points and try to offer solutions, even if there is not a consensus.
“This is not a commission,” Paulson said in an interview, sitting beside Bowles. “This was not going to be something where everybody needed to agree.”
Rather, he said, the goal is to bring top economic minds together to discuss major economic challenges, and then present policymakers with possible solutions.
He said many members of the group were going to meet in Maryland on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss their goals for the next year, and then they will hold a summit in Colorado each August.
Paulson and Bowles are well-known in Washington, in part for being willing to work with the other party to cut deals on economic policy. It was Paulson who helped design the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program meant to stop the financial crisis in 2008. And Bowles played a key role in helping negotiate the budget deal during the Clinton administration that helped lead to the short-lived elimination of the budget deficit.
“Our goal is to come up with innovative, out-of-the-box but politically viable solutions to some of these problems,” Bowles said.
Paulson and Bowles acknowledged that the current policymaking process in Washington is strained (Paulson quipped, “Washington is dysfunctional"), but they believe that the most long-lasting solutions to the nation's problems come from bipartisan efforts like this one.
The group’s director will be Lanhee Chen, a former top adviser to Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign who is now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the group’s deputy director will be Amy Ganz of the Aspen Institute.