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CBO director meets with SIEPR scholars, students

Nov 12 2021
Meeting with Phillip Swagel

CBO Director Phillip Swagel meets with students at SIEPR.

Photo by Ryan Zhang

For Elisa Jácome, the desire to shape government policy existed long before she settled on a PhD in economics. Now a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), she recently found herself in an enviable position: talking one-on-one with Phillip Swagel, arguably one of the most influential officials in Washington, D.C. 

Seated in a conference room at SIEPR, Jácome and Swagel — the director of the Congressional Budget Office — discussed health care policy for a half hour. Jácome described her research on Medicaid, and Swagel told her that policymakers are eager for even more insights into the reasons why the public insurance program has been hugely beneficial for low-income children. 

“We were able to connect my research to the questions that his agency and policymakers have been asking,” says Jácome, who earned her doctorate from Princeton earlier this year and studies the link between Medicaid’s mental health services and crime rates. “It is motivating to know that mental health is a topic that policymakers care about.”

Jácome’s interaction was just one of many opportunities that SIEPR researchers and affiliated students had to engage directly with Swagel during his daylong visit, which was planned long before Congress began debating President Biden’s $1.75 trillion spending bill — a plan that the CBO has been actively analyzing.

“As director of the CBO, (Swagel) has an enormous amount of responsibility on his plate, especially nowadays,” Mark Duggan, the Trione Director of SIEPR and The Wayne and Jodi Cooperman Professor of Economics, told the SIEPR community in one of several events held throughout the day. He noted that the CBO and SIEPR have similar goals: to provide nonpartisan, independent analyses of the benefits and consequences of various economic policies. The CBO’s mission, he said, “neatly aligns with the work we support here at SIEPR.”

SIEPR regularly hosts policymakers, regulators, academics, and business leaders to discuss key topics in economics with members of its community. For Swagel, this meant delving into the complexities of the CBO’s mandate, the need for more research on policy-relevant topics, and the importance of keeping the agency above the political fray. 

“We support the Congress,” Swagel said. “We provide technical assistance to policymakers and then we provide cost estimates. We don’t provide our opinion.” 

Nonpartisanship, he said, “is firmly in the DNA of the agency.”

‘Grateful to be at Stanford’

Daniel Fetter, an assistant economics professor and SIEPR faculty fellow, also met privately with Swagel for a discussion about how the CBO and policymakers use research as a guide.

“I got a much better sense than I had before about the mapping of research to policy,” said Fetter, whose work focuses on economics through the lens of history. “I came to appreciate what’s helpful about how I can interpret empirical results that I find on, say, the history of Social Security through exercises that could be more directly relevant to the CBO.” 

Along with creating a robust pipeline between academics and policymakers, SIEPR attracts and cultivates up-and-coming economists — not just newly-minted PhDs like Jácome, but also students who are just beginning to explore career paths. 

More than 50 Stanford students — along with Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO and a current SIEPR Advisory Board member who co-teaches a class with Duggan — gathered at SIEPR to hear Swagel speak. During a Q&A session, they asked about the economic impacts of climate change, the role of artificial intelligence in the agency’s work, and the challenge of maintaining impartiality.

“Spending time, in person, with the director of the CBO was really exciting,” said Sudharsan Sundar, a first-year student who approached Swagel after the talk for insights into how he developed the skills necessary to lead such a powerful agency.

“He could have said ‘take an econometrics or macroeconomics policy course,’ but he didn’t,” Sundar said. Instead, Swagel shared personal details about his early-career lessons. “He came across as personable, down-to-earth, and a critical thinker,” he said.

Emma Casey, another first-year student, was also awed by the experience. 

“I’ve never had a chance to talk to someone at his level before,” she said. 

Casey, who plans to major in economics and computer science, became interested in the CBO’s work after using its data for a high school project on the long-term implications of rising U.S. national debt. “It was one of those moments when I felt so grateful to be at Stanford.”

Casey and her fellow students weren’t the only ones to draw inspiration from the conversations throughout the day.

“It’s a pleasure to meet with so many undergraduates who are interested in policy and thinking about the future,” Swagel said. “It’s a hopeful sign that (they) are thinking about how to serve the country through economic policy.”

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