MADELEINE BRAND, host:
But first, let's go back to presidential politics. There's been a lot of attention paid to each and every word uttered by the candidates, but what about the people behind those words, the advisors who are shaping their platforms. Here at Day to Day, we are taking a look at these behind the scenes players.
ALEX COHEN, host:
According to the polls, the top concern of many voters right now is the economy.
BRAND: And so this week, we're looking at each campaign's economics advisers. Today, we meet Austan Goolsbee. He's a University of Chicago economist who has become Illinois Senator Barack Obama's go-to guy when it comes to financial policy. Chicago Public Radio's Ben Calhoun reports.
BEN CALHOUN: 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.
Unidentified Man: This man, Austan Goolsbee, an adviser to Barack Obama
CALHOUN: It was Goolsbee's most visible moment of the campaign, a blow up 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.
Unidentified Man: That report turned out not to be entirely accurate.
CALHOUN: 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 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. With a name like Austan Goolsbee, was there anything that you think you could have been other than an economics professor?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. AUSTAN GOOLSBEE (Professor of Economics, University of Chicago, Obama Campaign Economics Advisor): They said I could have been a J.K. Rowling character. 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 some other world, what would be my dream job? You know, being the economics correspondent for the Daily Show wouldn't be so bad.
CALHOUN: In the real world, Goolsbee is an economics professor and the University of Chicago with a complicated back story. He was born in Waco, Texas and spent time on the West and East coast growing up and has an accent that's impossible to place.
Dr. GOOLSBEE: When I was young, I kind of was trying to decide, did I want to be an astrophysicist or a country music singer. And I spent a surprisingly long amount of time trying to figure out how to combine those two.
CALHOUN: Today, Goolsbee isn't any easier to define. He's a lifelong 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 triathlons, but he 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 Bushes and Senator John Kerry belong 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's something else that resists definition.
Ms. DAHLIA LITHWICK: (Slate.com Legal Analyst): If central casting sent you the economist genius, this would have been the opposite of that. This guy wouldn't have made the casting call.
CALHOUN: That's slate.com's 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.
Ms. LITHWICK: A lot of bow ties, a lot of earnest, very, very smart guys.
CALHOUN: Lithwick says Goolsbee was more a cowboy hat than bow tie. The two went on to become partners and were runners up for the national debate team of the year.
Ms. LITHWICK: I don't think I'd ever met anyone who was that really 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.
CALHOUN: 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 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 has led economists like Goolsbee to take on non-traditional topics, like studying the economics of crack-cocaine. It's also led them to challenge old assumptions, which sometimes makes Goolsbee sound like the man he's advising.
Dr. 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.
CALHOUN: 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 market, but think market should be regulated to a certain extent.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Our history should give us confidence that we don't have to choose between an oppressive government, one economy, and chaotic, unforgiving capitalist.
Dr. JIM POTERBA (Professor of Economic, MIT): Before I knew that Austan was working as a lead advisor to Senator Obama, I would not have been able to characterize where Austan's political leanings were, based on reading his academic research.
CALHOUN: Jim Poterba is a professor of economics at MIT and taught Goolsbee when he was working on his Ph.D. Poterba says Goolsbee's exceptional ability as a researcher would make him good at shaping policy
Dr. POTERBA: He does have a very fundamental and solid command of principal, of economic analysis and things about policies from the perspective of good economics.
CALHOUN: Calling around to other economists to get their thoughts on Goolsbee, I ended up talking with Gary Becker. Becker's a Nobel Prize 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 adviser Jim Poterba, he says he's seen Goolsbee's work, and he respects it. For NPR News, I'm Ben Calhoun in Chicago.
BRAND: There's more coming up on Day to Day for NPR News.
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