Rockefeller Center Direct Line - Winter 2013

During the December break, I had the opportunity to speak to the Dartmouth Club of Utah about interesting developments both at Dartmouth and in the world of public policy.  With the fiscal cliff looming, the topic of budget policy was on everyone’s mind.  (See this recent Faculty Forum and Op-Ed for my views on the underlying issues.)  During our discussion, I made the suggestion that, in the future, if we want our public policy done sensibly, we should favor its devolution to the States from the Federal government.  The reaction to my suggestion was decidedly mixed – the Beehive State is known, for example, for spending the least amount per pupil in its public schools, and is ranked at about the middle of the fifty states.  Many of the alumni in attendance that evening were working or had worked in the public and non-profit sectors on issues that, like education, benefit from an attentive government presence.

The rationale behind my suggestion is simply that most state government policies have to be done in an environment that is closer to budget balance than at the federal level.  The inability to run perennial budget deficits to pay for current expenditures requires policy makers at the state and local level to be mindful of the tradeoffs of costs and benefits inherent in their policies.  (The most glaring exception to this pattern – the underfunding of public sector pensions – proves the rule that binding constraints are needed.)  The contrary reaction of some members of my audience was an acknowledgement that their advocacy for specific causes might go further in an environment in which budgets were not as tight. 

The way the fiscal cliff played out – with a Democratic president making permanent almost all of the elements of a prior Republican president’s fiscal irresponsibility – only serves to reinforce the point that the Federal government is not up to its current challenges. It is a disservice to future generations to conduct policy as if perennial deficits are an option, and as educators, we at the Rockefeller Center try to show our students examples of how policy gets made when the generations that reap the benefits of a policy must also pay its costs.  We do this in the curriculum specifically with courses focused on policy making at the state and local levels.  The lessons continue in the Policy Research Shop, a unique opportunity for Rockefeller Center students to work in groups to produce, disseminate, and defend non-partisan research on issues that are under consideration in New Hampshire and Vermont.  And students who want to apply what they have learned on campus in the real world of policy making can secure internship funding to work in the public or non-profit sectors at all levels of government.

This winter, we are very excited to use the inaugural Perkins Bass Distinguished Visitorship to bring to campus former New Hampshire Governor John Lynch.  Over four consecutive terms, Governor Lynch led the state government through good economies and bad, always working to balance costs and benefits of public policy to promote better outcomes.  He will bring his insights and experiences to the whole Dartmouth community through public lectures and to our students and faculty in particular through class visits and meetings with student groups.  Our hope is that by connecting our students with distinguished visitors who have wrestled with policy challenges directly, we will educate, train, and inspire the next generation of public policy leaders.

Andrew A. Samwick is the Director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences, the Sandra L. and Arthur L. Irving '72a, P'10 Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College, and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. In 2003 and 2004, he served as chief economist on the staff of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.
Since joining the Dartmouth faculty in 1994, his scholarly work has covered a range of topics, including pensions, saving, taxation, portfolio choice, and executive compensation. Professor Samwick has been published in American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Journal of Finance, Journal of Public Economics, and a number of specialized journals and conference volumes. He graduated summa cum laude with a degree in economics from Harvard College and received his Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He blogs about economics, politics, and current events.