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What You Need to Know About Austan Goolsbee (and Then Some...)

[Guest post by Noam Scheiber:]

One of the least suspenseful decisions in Washington became official today when President Obama named Austan Goolsbee to be the chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers. Goolsbee, who’s on leave from the University of Chicago, is a longtime Obama adviser currently serving as a member of the three-person Council. He also directs the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

Substantively, Goolsbee is both pro-free market (he favored letting Chrysler fail rather than propping up an entity that would siphon market-share from Ford and GM) and pro-regulation (he is the administration official closest to Paul Volcker, the revered former Fed Chairman known for his hawkish views on financial reform). His deepest area of expertise is taxes—he’s produced seminal work on the taxation of e-commerce and has punched devastating holes in the case for supply-side tax cuts.

Above all, Goolsbee is a devoutly empirical economist who shuns ideology. To the extent he has any precommitments, they are, as the president would say, to “what works.” One pet interest of Goolsbee’s is performance pay for government employees (an idea that sometimes drives unions to distraction). Another is a policy-innovation he’s dubbed the “automatic tax return.” Under Goolsbee’s proposal, the IRS would send a filled-out tax return to everyone with straight-forward finances. If the taxpayer agreed with the government’s accounting, they could just sign it and send it back. (If not, they’d be free to prepare their taxes independently.) Goolsbee has estimated that this change could save Americans billions in tax-preparation fees each year.

As a practical matter, choosing Goolsbee had the advantage of avoiding a confirmation fight, since he’s already received the Senate’s imprimatur for his current position. The major disadvantage is that it means the Obama economic team will become even more male-heavy—his predecessor, Christina Romer, was the administration’s only female economic principal. But the White House does have one clear way to defuse this problem: name Elizabeth Warren to head the newly created Bureau for Consumer Financial Protection. In fact, I’ve long believed Goolsbee’s elevation would mean Warren was all but a done deal.

In the end, though, the most important factor here was surely comfort level. It certainly didn’t hurt, for example, that Goolsbee has solid relationships with Obama’s top political advisers. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he actually shared an office with David Axelrod and a handful of other consultants, and the two became friends. (Goolsbee and Axelrod would get into periodic “pun-offs”—the most legendary of which involved the names of obscure New Hampshire towns.)

More importantly, Goolsbee enjoys a very good rapport with the president himself. In fact, he’s the senior policy aide with the longest personal relationship with Obama, dating back to the 2004 Senate campaign. Obama had been reading “Professor Goolsbee’s” erudite memos for months, but the two didn’t meet until Goolsbee turned up at a debate late in the campaign. When Obama walked into the green room afterwards, he was accosted by a youthful-looking 35-year-old he didn’t recognize. “Who are you?” Obama asked. “I’m Professor Goolsbee,” the economist responded. “You’re Professor Goolsbee? You don't look anything like a Professor Goolsbee! I thought you were a guy with a beard and a tweed jacket."

Suffice it to say, both Austan Goolsbee and Barack Obama have come a long way since then.