Alice Rivlin, who died on the 14th May 2019, was a legend in the Washington policy community. In "Alice Rivlin: A career spent making better public policy," Fred Dewes interviewed Rivlin for the Brookings Cafeteria Podcast on March 8, 2019.
If you would like some additional detail about Rivlin's career, there's a shorter interview from 1998 by Hali J. Edison, originally published in the newsletter of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (although a more readable reprint of the interview is here). A 1997 interview David Levy of the Minneapolis Fed is here. If you want more Rivlin, here's an hour-long podcast she did with Ezra Klein, Alice Rivlin, queen of Washington's budget wonks," from May 2016.
Rivlin was an economics major at Bryn Mawr College. From the Edison interview:
I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on the economic integration of Western Europe, which was a pretty prescient topic choice in 1952. I even had a discussion of European monetary union! By then I was sufficiently hooked to be thinking about graduate school, but I went to Europe for a year first, where I had a junior job in Paris working on the Marshall Plan.
She entered Harvard's PhD program in economics in the 1950s. Here are some thoughts about graduate study and the academic job market at that time, from the Edison interview:
Harvard was having a hard time adjusting to the idea of women in the academy. Indeed, since I was already focused on policy, I applied first to the graduate school of public administration (now The Kennedy School), which rejected my application on the explicit grounds that a woman of marriageable age was a "poor risk." I then applied to the economics department, which had about 5 per cent females in the doctoral program. They were just working up their courage to allow women to be teaching fellows and tutors in economics. I taught mixed classes, but initially was assigned only women tutees. One of my tutees wanted to write an honors thesis on the labor movement in Latin America--a subject on which one of my male colleagues had considerable expertise. He was willing to supervise my young woman if I would take one of his young men. However, the boy's senior tutor objected to the switch on the grounds that being tutored by a woman would make a male student feel like a second class citizen. People actually said things like that in those days!
The second year that I taught a section of the introductory economics course, I was expecting a baby in March and did not teach the spring semester. The man who took over my class announced to the class that, since no woman could teach economics adequately, he would start over and the first semester grades would not count. It was an exceptionally bright class and I had given quite a few "A's," so the students were upset. The department chair had to intervene.
In retrospect, the amazing thing was that the women were not more outraged. I think we thought we were lucky to be there at all. Outwitting the system was kind of a game. One of the university libraries was closed to women, and its books could not even be borrowed for a female on inter-library loan. I don't remember being upset. If I needed a book, I just got a male friend to check it out for me. ...
Realistically, moreover, academic opportunities were limited for my generation of women graduate students. Most major universities did not hire women in tenure track positions. Early in my career (about 1962), the University of Maryland was looking for an assistant professor in my general area. I was invited by a friend on the faculty to give a seminar and then had an interview with the department chairman. He was effusive in his praise for my work and said how sorry he was that they could not consider me for the position. I asked why not, and he said that the dean had expressly forbidden their considering any women. That wasn't illegal at the time, so we both expressed our regrets, and I left with no hard feelings.
She ended up at the Brookings Institution. In the late 1960s came as stint at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare during the Johnson administration, then back to Brookings. In the mid-1970s it was decided to start the Congressional Budget Office, which Rivlin ran from 1975-1983. Here's Rivlin's description of how she was chosen as the original director, from the Dewes interview:
I was the candidate of the Senate. They, rather stupidly, had two separate search processes, one in the Senate and one in the house. I told them they should never do that again, and they haven't. But that left them with two candidates. I was the candidate of the Senate and a very qualified man named Sam Hughes, who had been the deputy at OMB—no, at the Government Accounting Office— was the other candidate. But the chairman of the House Budget Committee was a man named Al Ullman, and Mr. Ullman had said in an off moment, over his dead body was a woman going to get this job. So, there was kind of a standoff, and then it was solved by an accidental event. The chairman of Ways and Means was a powerful congressman from Arkansas named Wilbur Mills, and he was a mover and shaker in the Congress and a very intelligent man. But he had a weakness—he was an alcoholic. And one night he and an exotic dancer named Fanne Fox were proceeding down Capitol Hill toward the Tidal Basin in his car and Fanne leapt out of the car and into the Tidal Basin. She didn't drown in the Tidal Basin—it's quite shallow—but it was a scandal and Wilbur Mills had to resign. And Al Ullman, chairman of the Budget Committee, was ranking member on Ways and Means, so he moved up. And that left a new chairman who wasn't committed to the previous process, Brock Adams, and he said to Senator Muskie, who was my sponsor, if you want Rivlin it's okay with me. So, I owe that job to Fanne Fox.
Rivlin later ran the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration in the early 1990s. From 1996-99 she was vice-chair on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Here's her description of the switch, from the Levy interview:
Off and on over my career, I've been asked if I wanted to be on the Federal Reserve, usually when I was doing something else that I loved doing. One time I was running the Congressional Budget Office. I was doing something very exciting that I wanted to go on doing. And then later, when I was in the Clinton administration, I was asked about the Fed, but I was fully engaged at the Office of Management and Budget and didn't want to leave that. But after I'd been there for almost four years, it did seem, perhaps, time for a change.
For some reason, that description makes me smile. For some people, being on the Fed is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But if you have the capabilities and judgement of Alice Rivlin, it's an opportunity that gets offered to you every few years, until the time is right. From 1998 to 2001, Rivlin was chair of the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, which had legal authority to oversee the finances of the District of Columbia.
Along the way, Rivlin went back to Brookings a few times, where she started her career 62 years ago in 1957. She taught classes at Georgetown and gave talks and wrote. Rivlin was working on one more book, hoping to publish it this fall. I hope it was close enough to complete that economists and everyone else can hear from her one more time.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.