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Austan Goolsbee: Beyond the Midway

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As the presidential race rages on--the dominant issue continues to be the economy. The three remaining candidates have been criss-crossing the country, talking about relief packages and trade deals. Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s go-to guy on the economy is a University of Chicago economics professor named Austan Goolsbee. It turns out that he’s helping shape one of the most essential parts of Obama’s campaign platform.

Austan Goolsbee. If you know that name, you’re probably either an economist or first heard it in late February when reporters were casting him as a villain. CBC: This man, Austan Goolsbee, an advisor to Barack Obama

It was Goolsbee’s most visible moment of the campaign. A blowup over NAFTA right before the Ohio primary. A Canadian television network reported while Obama was bashing NAFTA in front of Ohio voters-Goolsbee was telling Canadian officials don’t worry-Obama doesn’t really mean it. But then, in new reports, the facts came out.

CBC: That report turned out not to be entirely accurate.

Goolsbee had talked to Canadian officials, but it turned out he had not actually said the things reported. But the mix-up happened as the Obama campaign was dealing with a couple of other tight situations... and the campaign cycle churned on.

The story faded from view without anyone ever getting a good picture of the man who’d been caught in the middle of the whole deal-without a complete picture of who Goolsbee is...

CALHOUN: With a name like Austan Goolsbee, is there anything you think you could have been other than an economics professor?

GOOLSBEE: They said I could have been a J.K. Rowling character. I could have been I could have been your best friend on Wheel of Fortune if you bought a vowel. I got a lot of vowels in my name. In another world, what would be my dream job? Being the economics correspondent for the Daily Show wouldn’t be so bad.

In the real world, Goolsbee is economics professor at the University of Chicago, with a complicated backstory. He was born in Waco, Texas, and spent time on the west and east coasts growing up-and has an accent that’s impossible to place.

GOOLSBEE: When I was young, I was kind of trying to decide, did I want to be an astrophysicist or a country music singer-and I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to combine the two.

Today Goolsbee isn’t any easier to define. He’s a life-long over-achiever. In high school he competed in extemporaneous speaking-and was the first person to go an entire year without losing a single tournament. At the same time he grew up surfing in California and fishing for catfish with his cousins in Texas. He does triatholons-but also does improv comedy.

When he went to Yale, Goolsbee was chosen as a member of Skull and Bones, the exclusive secret society that both President Bushs and Senator John Kerry belonged to.

But Goolsbee and others caused a stir when they voted to admit women for the first time-in other words, join the club, then break the mold. Goolsbee’s story is often like that, for each thing that makes you think you’ve got him figured out, there something else that resists definition.

LITHWICK: If central casting sent you the economist genius. This guy would have been the opposite of that. This guy would not have made the casting call.

That’s Slate.com legal analyst and Day to Day contributor Dahlia Lithwick. She met Goolsbee at Yale, on the debate team-where she says the crowd was what you might expect.

LITHWICK: A lot of bow-ties. A lot of earnest, very smart guys.

Lithwick says Goolsbee was more cowboy hat than bow-tie. The two went on to become partners and were runners up for National Debate Team of the Year.

LITHWICK: I don’t think I’d ever met anyone that was that bright. But also that casual about everything. There was no drive to win and crush the other person. It always seemed like it was just a lark-like he could be doing this or he could be bowling. He just chose to be doing this.

But the reason Goolsbee matters to you, is because of what he chose to do after that-which was to go to MIT, and get a Ph.D in economics.

Goolsbee became part of a new generation of young economists that have ridden a tidal wave of data created by new technologies like the internet. Goolsbee’s made a name for himself as a talented researcher, studying public economics, like taxes and new parts of the economy, like the Web.

It’s an approach that’s lead economists like Goolsbee take on non-traditional topics, like studying the economics of crack cocaine. It’s also lead them to challenge old assumptions-which sometimes makes Goolsbee sound like the man he’s advising.

GOOLSBEE: It’s not here we got a left right divide and let’s pick some spot in the middle. It’s really more about trying to get away from that. And think of some different way to view it.

In 2006, Goolsbee came up with a new way to look at taxes-and wrote a paper proposing the whole system be simplified so that millions of people could file in less than five minutes. You can spot that idea now on Barack Obama’s platform.

Since he joined Obama in 2004, Goolsbee and the senator have also connected on ideas about wage stagnation, and tax relief focused on lower tax brackets. In terms of basic philosophy, both men are big supporters of markets-but think markets should be regulated to a certain extent.

OBAMA: Our history should give us confidence that we don’t have to choose between an oppressive government run economy, and a chaotic unforgiving capitalism.

POTERBA: Before I knew that Austan was working as a lead advisor to Senator Obama I would not have been able to characterize where his political leanings were based on reading his academic research.

Jim Poterba is a professor of economics at MIT, and taught Goolsbee as he was working on his Ph.D. Poterba says Goolsbee’s exceptional ability as a researcher would make him good for shaping policy.

POTERBA: He does have a very fundamental and solid command of principals and economic analysis, and thinks about policies from the perspective of good economics.

Calling around to other economists to get their thoughts on Goolsbee, I ended up talking with Gary Becker. Becker’s a Nobel Prizer winner. He’s also an icon of conservative economic thought at the University of Chicago.

Somewhat surprisingly, Becker said while he would definitely disagree with Goolsbee on some things-he would be pleased to have him shaping national policy.

Like Ph.D advisor Jim Poterba, he’s seen Goolsbee’s work, and he respects it.

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