In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Fran Moore, an associate professor at the University of California, Davis, about what it’s like to serve as a senior economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). Moore discusses the function of the CEA within the executive branch of the federal government, the range of economic expertise within the CEA, and how economists can improve the utility and relevance of their research for policymaking.
Listen to the Podcast
- Economists make important contributions in the US government: “A lot of the senior economists are involved in interpreting the economic data that is coming in regularly. When there are things like GDP releases, jobs numbers, or trade data, [the Council of Economic Advisers] looks at those numbers and provides interpretation of them in the economic context.” (7:25)
- What it’s like to be an economist at the White House: “I would describe it as fast paced but not frantic. Things just move, and things need to happen quickly. But this is an organized administration. There is a clear sense of priority, timelines, and when things need to happen. There is a push behind that; there is a level of work and rapidity that’s different than academia. But it’s not overly rushed, at least from my perspective.” (16:15)
- Research relevance for policymakers: “When we start getting into policy advice, we start moving a little more into, What about what’s going to happen in the real world? So, magnitudes matter, details matter … Being able to have sufficient detail to make the case that this work does speak to the real world is important for the credibility of that analysis for policymakers.” (26:25)
Top of the Stack
- Frontiers of Benefit-Cost Analysis from the US Office of Management and Budget
- “A Progress Report on Climate-Energy-Macro Modeling,” containing a memo on tools to support management of near-term macroeconomic and financial climate risks, from the Council of Economic Advisors
- Losing Earth: A Recent History by Nathaniel Rich
- If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics by Marilyn Waring
- The Economist’s View of the World and the Quest for Well-Being by Steven E. Rhoads
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. Today, we talk with Dr. Fran Moore, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California, Davis, and, recently, a senior economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers, or CEA.
In today's episode, I'll ask Fran to describe what it was like working at CEA. We'll talk about the topics that came across her desks, how she carried out the work, and some of the aspects of the job that were particularly interesting, challenging, and rewarding. We'll also talk about how researchers working today can produce work that is as policy relevant as possible, informing the government with the best available analysis on a wide range of issues. Stay with us.
Fran Moore from the University of California, Davis, welcome back to Resources Radio.
Fran Moore: Thank you for having me.
Daniel Raimi: It is wonderful to have you. And Fran, you were actually one of the first guests we had on the show. I remember, back in the day, we talked about agriculture and climate change. But we're going to talk about something really different today, which is what it's like to be an economist—and an environmental economist—at the Council of Economic Advisers. So, we're going to pull back the curtain to some extent and get a sense of what it was like to do that job.
But before we talk about that, we always ask our guests to describe how they got interested in working on environmental topics. You did that a couple years ago when you were on the show, but it's been a while. If you could just remind us how you became interested in these issues, I think that'd be great.
Fran Moore: Yeah, for sure. So, I think I came at this, really, more from the natural-sciences side. So, unlike many of your guests on the show, I didn't have a big history as a child outdoors. I really came to it a bit more as an undergraduate when I was studying geology and earth science. Then, that gradually morphed over my postgraduate career into an interest in climate, in particular. Then, eventually, I realized economics is a really important way of understanding our current environmental problems and particularly policy solutions to them.
After I graduated, I drifted first into thinking not about ancient climates, which is what I'd done in undergrad, but thinking about modern climate change—human-driven climate change. That became an interest in policy. Then, I really picked up economics as part of my PhD studies, and gradually morphed into an environmental economist.
Daniel Raimi: That makes sense. So, as I mentioned, we're going to talk today about what it's like to be an environmental economist working at the White House Council of Economic Advisers, or CEA. We're going to use that acronym, CEA, today. But before we talk about your job and the job, can you tell us a little bit about CEA as an institution? What's its purpose? How many people work there? Just tell us a little bit about CEA.
Fran Moore: CEA is a component of the executive office of the president, which is the larger body that's sometimes called the White House. Its origins are in the mid-twentieth century; it was created by Congress as an institution that's providing economic expertise to the president's office. It sits alongside the other components of the executive office. So, those are things like the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of Management and Budget, which is really big, and Council of Environmental Quality. It is headed by the chair.
Over my year there, the original chair in the Biden administration was Cecilia Rouse from Princeton. Then, she left. Now, Jared Bernstein was confirmed by the Senate last year. The chair is a member of the cabinet, and then supporting the chair and also making up the council are two members. Together they form the council.
Then, there's a staff that is supporting the work of CEA. Below the council is this rung of senior economists; so, that was my position. And I think there were maybe about 12 or so senior economists, and each one has a particular issue area. There's a macro, finance, labor, trade, and international. I was in that role of climate, environment, and clean energy issues. Then, below that, there's a set of junior economists and staff economists that are people either on leave from PhD programs, or people out from undergrad, or, maybe, people with master's degrees that are working in CEA. So, we all work together to provide economic expertise—objective economic advice on policy-relevant issues that are coming up for the administration.
Daniel Raimi: That's great. When you are doing that type of analysis and providing that input to the process, are you primarily providing it to the office of the president, as you mentioned? Or are you also providing that analysis for the agencies? Or do the agencies do their own thing?
Fran Moore: It really varies. But primarily, this is input for the chair of CEA and then, more broadly, White House decisionmaking. But depending on what processes you're involved in, there's interaction with the agencies—particularly in the various interagency working groups that you could be involved in. We were leading one of those around climate change and macroeconomic modeling. There was a lot of work, particularly with the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Energy to try and integrate climate risks into some of the macroeconomic modeling that CEA does.
Daniel Raimi: Great. That makes a lot of sense. You mentioned earlier that there are, I think you said, 12 senior economists who have different areas of expertise. You played the role as an environmental economist. So, what does an environmental economist do in that position? What types of questions would come across your desk? And what are your responsibilities in handling them?
Fran Moore: It's quite interesting, because a lot of what CEA does—one of its core functions—is that a lot of the senior economists are involved in interpreting the economic data that is coming in regularly. When there are things like GDP releases, jobs numbers, or trade data, CEA looks at those numbers and provides interpretation of them in the economic context. The environmental economist is not … We don't have those regular data releases around environmental economics. So, that was a piece that I was really not involved in.
For environmental economists, we have a particular role in regulation and looking at the economic analysis of regulation, because it is quite important in environmental policy. That takes two forms. One is, the administration is putting out a lot of big energy and climate regulations. We’re taking a look at some of the economic analysis in that and supporting it.
We also work on things like … There was a revision to Circular A-4, which is the guidance from the Office of Management and Budget to agencies on how to do cost-benefit analysis. Because the environment is a really particularly important issue area for regulation—it's not the only one, but it's one where there's been a lot of economic thinking around good cost-benefit analysis of regulation. The particular role may be for the environmental economists in contributing to that process.
Then, something that all of CEA does—and it's another core function that everyone is involved in as part of the creation of CEA by Congress—there's a required report that's produced every year. This is called the Economic Report of the President. It comes from the chair, and then it's delivered by the executive office to Congress. It is a policy document that describes the economic policy issues of the day and provides economic analysis of them, but in ways that are … It's not quite an academic review document, and it's not fully a policy document, but it's somewhere in between. Everyone's involved in producing that. We had a chapter on climate change impacts in the United States in the 2023 report. That was something that I was working on.
Daniel Raimi: That makes sense. As you were talking about the other economists who are analyzing regular releases of data, it made me wish, like, Shouldn't we have those for environmental indicators? Or maybe we do have them, and they just come in daily or hourly or something like that. But were you ever jealous of your colleagues who had a formal set of data releases that they could regularly interpret to actually get their hands and heads around the scale of certain economic problems? Or did you feel like you had what you needed to do your analysis?
Fran Moore: It did make me think, Are there a set of indicators that it would make sense that we should be releasing? Just to take the temperature of our economic effects on the environment. Or something about our environmental policy that we can be measuring on a more regular standardized basis. I was joking around that maybe we should do seasonally adjusted temperature releases or GDP releases monitoring our climate. Or you could imagine a number of others. I do think it's interesting thinking about what those would be and those ideas about what that could be. But it's just not yet something that is in the set of standard economic indicators that are coming out regularly.
Daniel Raimi: Right. I was also thinking about the inclusion of natural-capital accounts, which we've actually done podcasts on in previous years. Margaret Walls did a great one with Eli Fenichel from Yale.
Fran Moore: That was a really important process that Eli definitely led and we were strong supporters of. It is certainly in that vein of creating government statistics that can be produced regularly and relied on to give good input into decisionmaking around how we integrate the environment into our economic management and our economic thinking. I feel like that's a really important process that the administration is undergoing based on the guidance that Eli really led as part of this natural-capital-accounting work.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, very cool. So, back to you in your position: All of us, when we start new jobs, realize that there are things we're really good at in the job right away, and we realize like, Oh, I really need to improve this skill if I'm going to do my job well. So, I'm curious, just from a personal perspective, what were some of the things that you were really well-suited to tackle right away? And what were some things that were hard at first that you really had to bone up on?
Fran Moore: I think in terms of being able to jump into the work right away, I do come from … I think it was a benefit being primarily a climate change economist, and this is an administration that is doing a lot of climate policy. The Inflation Reduction Act passed maybe months before I started. It did take everyone by surprise a little. It was like, Oh boy, okay, this is going to be an exciting year. And having some familiarity with that policy space and the academic work in climate policy generally was really important for this position at this time.
It helped a little bit that I've worked with a lot of different disciplines. I'm used to picking up new ideas, new language, and new mental models of how people think about things pretty quickly. That helps a lot. It helps in both learning new ideas in new issue areas and also communicating with noneconomist people in other components on some questions that, maybe, we're all working on. That was a flexibility that was quite helpful in this environment.
What was hard was, as an academic, we are used to the luxury of time and taking as long as it takes on a paper to make it really perfect. Also the feeling that you want to be the expert on this issue when you are writing on it or publishing a paper—maybe not the only expert, but one of a few people that understands this the most in the country, or even in the world.
That is just not conducive to this environment where you're being asked to produce things on a timeline that really matters. You don't have time to investigate it in as much detail as you would as an academic. You have to produce this in the next week or in the next couple days. You just have to be comfortable with drawing on the fundamentals, the essentials, and then finding good information sources and pulling that together and knowing, if I had more time or if I could talk to other people, maybe this would be much better. But it has to be good enough for now, because it is needed now. That's something that really takes a bit of getting used to, coming from academia.
Daniel Raimi: I'm sure. My next question actually is along similar lines, which is just asking you what the atmosphere was like, what the work environment was like. Many of us have seen West Wing or other TV shows about what it's like to work in the executive branch. Obviously, you weren't physically in the West Wing. But I'm curious, what were things like? Was it fast paced? Was it frantic? Was it more like a typical office setting that you might see in a regular office environment? Can you just describe it for us?
Fran Moore: I would describe it as fast paced but not frantic. Things just move, and things need to happen quickly. But this is an organized administration. There is a clear sense of priority, timelines, and when things need to happen. There is a push behind that; there is a level of work and rapidity that's different than academia. But it's not overly rushed, at least from my perspective.
I also watched the West Wing, and one of the characteristics of that is having the meeting as you are walking along the corridor. I do remember at least once talking to one of our junior economists, who had something he had to say, and I was like, "Just come and walk with me while I go down the corridors to the next meeting." I was like, Oh wow, this is like the West Wing.
I would say, from my perspective—and again, I think this does vary, depending on what issue areas you are working on—but in the evenings and on weekends, you weren't necessarily getting a lot of emails or a lot of phone calls. It was very full-on volumes of emails and numbers of meetings during the day. But that did taper off. It wasn't a full 24 hours a day. Again, I think it depends on what job you're in, and there are some jobs in the White House that are very much not like that. But there's not a huge number of major climate economic emergencies that happen that need to be addressed within the next two hours. That’s different than some other issue areas.
Daniel Raimi: That makes a lot of sense. I'm wondering, Fran, now that you're a little ways out from your time at CEA, what are some of the most interesting things you learned, whether professionally about yourself, about the government, about your colleagues, or anything that really stands out?
Fran Moore: For me, one of the really exciting things that I really enjoyed about CEA was interacting with this diverse group of economists coming from these other specialty areas. I have come into economics very much from the environmental side. That's my intellectual community. That's the work I know best. And I have had, because I didn't come in from an economics PhD program, much less exposure to these really major fields of economics like macro, finance, health, and labor. What's really exciting at CEA is that you have a specialist in each of those areas. These are really wonderful, incredibly smart people, but also they were great colleagues and willing to teach everyone about their area. That was such a privilege, too—to be able to learn from those colleagues about how labor economists think about things.
I learned a lot of macroeconomics. One of the big projects we were working on was related. There's a big executive order on climate-related financial risk that is driving a lot of work across agencies on trying to understand the risks of climate change and how that might impact what they do, along with the analysis of things like budgeting or risk management. As part of that, CEA leads this macroeconomic forecasting as part of the president's budget. We have this ongoing interagency working group that is really working on developing methods to bring climate risks into that process in a way that is, I would say, very new.
No one is entirely sure of the best way to do that. It's a very different application from a lot of climate economics that have been focused on cost-benefit analysis and policymaking around, say, the social cost of carbon. Macroeconomic forecasting is a totally different area. The tools you need for it are quite distinct. So, it was fascinating learning from the macroeconomist there about, How do they do this? How do they think about it? What do their models look like? And how could we bring these things together? So, that was, for me, just a fantastic piece of the year.
Daniel Raimi: That sounds like such a great learning experience. I'm sure they benefited from speaking with you, as well—having that group of colleagues around. It sounds like being at a university department where people are experts in all sorts of different fields, but you're constantly working together on projects versus doing your own thing in your own silos.
Fran Moore: I think that it is this mini-economics department fitting within the administration. And I think that is part of the design of it.
Daniel Raimi: That sounds really fun, honestly. One question, Fran, that actually you suggested that I ask that I'm glad you did, was, What economists or other policy researchers who haven't served in the type of role that you served in—what are some of the ways that they can produce work that allows folks like you and others who are in the government to pick up that work and use it in a way that is really relevant to the policy process? In other words, what can researchers do to have more policy impact so that people like you and your colleagues can readily use the work?
Fran Moore: So, I think this is one of my takeaways from the year, and that is about, What does it mean to be policy relevant or impact policy? And this is by no means a chief goal of academic economics, nor should it be. But I think, for some academics, it is something they're interested in. I would say it's also coming from the policy side—it's really valuable to have good, objective information to be able to draw on, because, like I said, when you are tasked with writing a memo in the next week on a new issue area, you're not going to be doing your original research, you really need to be relying on what is out there. Having that both ready and accessible for those moments—I did realize how valuable that is.
I have some of my recommendations. One is listening to what policymakers are saying they need. Actually, there's been a number of reports coming out of the administration that are really trying to speak to the academic community about, “This is where we see needs right now.” One example is there is an ongoing interagency process on the frontiers of benefit-cost analysis. They're putting out what are intended to be annual reports. The first one just came out. That is really saying, “This is where we see important gaps in our ability to do benefit-cost analysis.” It would be really great for academics to come and fill some of that in.
There has also been a recent similar memo from what's called the “Troika,” which is the group that does the macroeconomic forecasting. CEA, the Office of Management and Budget, and the US Department of the Treasury describe the need for this climate-macroeconomic modeling. Paying attention to that is certainly one.
Then, anticipating what is coming down the pipe and working on it. Once an issue is policy ready, there is no time to do original research, and so it really needs to be ready to go. Then, I think connecting to some of these bridging organizations. It is a full-time job just tracking these policy issues and knowing who is working on what and when. There are organizations that do that. I would say Resource for the Future (RFF) is a great one. There's others like the Brookings Institution or the Institute for Policy Integrity that are really tracking the policy processes but are interested in bringing in good analysis into that. So, I think those provide opportunities for academics to connect.
My final recommendation would be to really think that it does matter, trying to inform policy processes. It really does matter that your analysis is sufficiently detailed to represent the nuances of both the real world and the policies that are being undertaken. There is a lot of academic economics that wants to do very simple models. Those are really important for understanding and interrogating the dynamics of the system or, really, our fundamental understanding.
But when we start getting into policy advice, we start moving a little more into, What about what's going to happen in the real world? So, magnitudes matter, details matter, and the abstraction of, “We're going to represent every policy as though it's a carbon price,” which is pretty typical, I would say, in a lot of modeling. That doesn't resonate with policymakers that say, “But we don't have a carbon price.” Being able to have sufficient detail to make the case that this work does speak to the real world is important for the credibility of that analysis for policymakers.
Daniel Raimi: That all makes sense. It's so interesting. One other question along those lines is, how much did relationships matter in terms of your access to information when you were in the job? Did you reach out to a lot of people you knew personally to try to get information about a given subject that you needed to bone up on? Did people reach out to you? Were you looking for certain names when you were trying to find information on certain topics? Or was it somehow less personalized than that?
Fran Moore: I would say it's a mix. The one great thing about CEA is, if you are calling someone up for information, there's an expert on a topic, and you really just want to get, Please, can you give me a 10-minute distillation of how I should be understanding this? People are very willing to help and very willing to pick up the phone. We definitely need that.
Some issues I worked on—there's a lot of lobbying. There's a lot of interested parties contributing to the information environment. In that setting, having institutes and groups that are aiming toward an objective analysis and have good modeling work—that if they're producing something on this, maybe, I'm going to give that a lot more weight than something that is coming from, say, industry or other groups that have particular interest in the outcome. That is hugely important work. It is something that, because it has to be so timely, and because it is highly applied in its application, it's not going to be fully produced by academia. That's where I think these bridging organizations are really important.
Daniel Raimi: Well, we'll put that in the RFF annual report as credit to us. Fran, thank you so much for this conversation. It's been really interesting. I've asked you somewhat personal questions, so I appreciate you coming on, sharing your experience, and being open about all of it.
I'd love to close this out now by asking the same question we ask all of our guests, which is to recommend something that's at the top of your literal or your metaphorical reading stack—something that is related to the environment or not. We're not particularly picky. But what would you recommend to our listeners?
Fran Moore: Actually, I'm sitting at my desk, and I do have a literal reading stack right next to me. I didn't have a lot of chances to read at CEA. So, I have been devouring books since I got out. If I can, I'll recommend three that I've been looking at recently.
One is a book Losing Earth by Nathaniel Rich, which I would recommend for people working on climate. It's a really interesting history of the very early stages of recognizing climate as a policy problem in the United States. This is in the '60s and '70s. Exactly how that was understood, how that was discussed, the role of scientists, the role of economists, and the various reports that came out over that period—I think it's just really fascinating history and context for our current climate policy movement.
Secondly, I'm reading a book called If Women Counted by Marilyn Waring. This is really fascinating. She was a politician and elected official in New Zealand. As part of that, I was trying to understand the role of GDP statistics in our national discourse and national policymaking. The book is older now. It's from the '80s. But it's really a deep-throated critique of GDP. I think a lot of environmental economists are familiar with the critique of it—not including the externalities or the environmental externalities associated with production. She's really talking about a different aspect, which is the way in which GDP statistics remove household labor, which is particularly performed by women. That gets classified under this GDP accounting as a form of leisure, because it's not labor, so it's something else, and it doesn't get counted. I don't agree with everything in the book, but I do think, for people interested in these critiques of our economic statistics, it's very eye opening and interesting.
Finally, I'm reading this book, The Economist’s View of the World. I was just at the Allied Social Science Associations meeting. One of the great and dangerous things about this meeting is there's all these publishers there that are then selling their display copy at a deep discount. So, I picked up this book there. It's very interesting, with very accessible writing, about why economists see policy the way they do. I teach an introduction to environmental economics to masters students, and as part of that, what I'm really trying to do is give them the intuition for why economists think the way they do about policy. And this book is really interesting for that. It's written by more of a political scientist, so he's coming from outside the discipline. But I think he’s making a very fair case for why economists see policy problems the way they do and what are both the strengths and the weaknesses of that. It's something I'm considering introducing into my syllabus for next year.
Daniel Raimi: Fantastic. I will definitely check that out and we will have links in the show notes to each of those recommendations. One more time, Fran Moore from the University of California, Davis, thank you so much for coming on the show. It's been a real pleasure.
Fran Moore: Thank you so much.
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