May 25, 2018

Alumni Spotlight: Q&A with Washington insider Jared Bernstein (MM ’78)

MSM Alumnus Jared Bernstein (MM ’78) has served as the Chief Economist and Economic Adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, Executive Director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, and as a member of President Barack Obama’s economic team from 2009-2011.

Mr. Bernstein joined the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in May 2011 as a Senior Fellow. He is also an author and has published in The New York Times and Washington Post. Mr. Bernstein is also an on-air commentator for the cable stations CNBC and MSNBC, contributes to the Washington Post’s PostEverything blog, and hosts On The Economy blog at www.jaredbernsteinblog.com.

We asked Jared about his path from musician to economist, and what it was like to work for the White House

Photo credit: University of Michigan’s Ford School

How was music a part of your upbringing?

I did grow up in a musical family. My sisters played music and my mother had all these great jazz albums. I remember listening to Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants, an album that was recorded on the day I was born, and being very influenced by the beauty therein. When I was quite young, my mother forced me to go to a concert featuring Mozart’s flute and harp concerto. I was being bratty and refused to sit with her. I sat there being angry and then the concert began. Despite my best efforts, I got completely absorbed by that piece. To this day, I probably listen to it about once a month when I need to reconnect with what is fundamentally important in life.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a musician. I grew up with the Beatles and Bob Dylan and listened to jazz and classical. As soon as we could afford and play musical instruments, my friends and I started a band, so that was an early aspiration.

How did you choose MSM?

I grew up in the suburbs of New York and coming to New York City was really important to me. As soon as I was old enough to get to the city, I would go to the Village Vanguard to hear amazing jazz. I was very excited and proud to have been admitted to MSM so I could both pursue music and be in New York.

How is your work like playing music in an ensemble?

I actually think about composing music when I write about the economy. To me, a good economics article is like a good composition. It’s clear and it’s engaging…it’s not too confusing and maybe a little challenging. So, I recognize that when I write I try to think about some combination of Mozart and Keynes.

What is your favorite MSM memory?

My girlfriend back then was a composition major named Sue Maskaleris (’77). I remember when I first met her she’d written an amazing fugue in the style of Bach for a composition class with Ludmila Ulehla. I’ll never forget sitting there watching this 19-year-old girl playing this fugue she’d written. In fact, I can still recall and play the theme! I had to get to know her a lot better after that. By the way, Sue’s gone on to write dozens of amazing compositions.

What is the most useful or inspirational piece of advice you received from an MSM teacher?

My first bass teacher was Orin O’Brien, who was the first woman in the New York Philharmonic. She was downright inspiring and an awesome bass teacher. She used to say, “When you’re playing Mozart, envision yourself weaving a tapestry.” I never sewed but somehow that metaphor worked for me.

 

Photo credit: World Economic Forum

“I actually think about composing music when I write about the economy. To me, a good economics article is like a good composition… I try to think about some combination of Mozart and Keynes.

Tell us about your path from MSM student to Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

I was raised to believe that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, which by the way is the name of a Joe Henderson album. I feel like there were contradictions in my life wherein I wasn’t doing enough to help people who were left behind. So I decided to become a social worker at Hunter College of Social Work and then went to Columbia University to get a PhD. I wanted to try to help correct some of the social and economic injustices that were swirling around me at the time.

How did you become Vice President Joseph Biden’s Chief Economist and Economic Adviser?

I had been working as an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank in D.C. for many years. I had actually gotten into the Clinton administration for a little while in the Chief Economist Office at the Labor Department, so I was already associated with Democratic economics. When Barack Obama was running for President, I helped his team with the campaign. I had met him when he was a senator and found him to be a brilliant and inspiring guy whom we needed to be President. When he won, they offered me the position of Chief Economist to the Vice President.

What was one of your greatest challenges in your career?

When President Barack Obama’s economics team first met in December of 2008, after he won this historic victory but hadn’t taken office yet, it was clear that the economy was in the midst of a very deep recession. So here I was, a part of this awesome, historic administration but at a time when the economy was falling off a cliff. It was our job to do what we could to correct that market failure. It was an amazing combination of awe, shock, and fear, and the urgency of the moment was palpable.

 

Photo credit: Brookings Institute

As you think about all of your accomplishments, what are you most proud of achieving?

I’m proud to have been part of successful campaigns to raise minimum wages in various incarnations. I’ve helped move a macroeconomic agenda, which emphasizes the importance of full employment and very tight labor markets. I’ve also helped elevate the issue of inequality and the key role played by power and its imbalances in our economy and society.

What is the most fun or interesting part of your job?

When the Obama administration took office in January 2009, we had what were called “daily economic briefs.” Every morning I found myself in the oval office talking to the President of the United States about how our economic interventions were playing out and that was amazing.

What projects are you currently working on?

Right now we have an economy that’s actually pretty strong, with unemployment rates that are pretty low, and yet there are lots of people and places that are left behind. For a long time I worked on helping get the economy to full employment (and stay there)—but I’m having to face the fact that not everybody gets reached by that. So I am working on policies, ideas, and interventions to help people who are left behind even when the rest of the economy is doing well and that’s a great challenge.

 

Orin O'Brien, MSM Faculty member and Double Bassist in the New York Philharmonic (shown here with a current MSM student), was Jared Bernstein's teacher in 1976-78.

What career and life advice would you give to new grads entering the “real world”?

Don’t be too self-critical. If you have an idea for accomplishing something outlandish or fiercely ambitious, it’s easy to listen to your inner voice saying “that’s crazy.” If I had to do it all over again, I’d try to shut that voice down and pay less attention to people who tell you what you can’t accomplish.

What was the most inspiring performance you witnessed at the White House?

Paul McCartney came and played in the East Wing, and I was sitting a few seats away from him as he sang “Michelle” to Michelle Obama.

What was the food like at the White House?

This question reminds me of a funny story. There was this mess hall right by the West Wing and they used to have these delicious fresh baked cookies. One day I was standing in line and was about to get my cookies. I look behind me and there was Michelle Obama…so I ordered an apple instead, proving that peer pressure works!

What is one surprising thing people don’t know about you?

The other day there was this street fair in my neighborhood and I was playing bass in a rock band. Some of the people there just knew me from my economics life, so, interestingly, I think it would surprise people that I’m a former musician who does my best to play when I can.