The Right Kind of Economist
In the shadow of the White House, Diana Furchtgott-Roth ’79 sings the gospel of the competitive marketplace
Diana Furchtgott-Roth ’79 is the kind of person who savors opportunities to explain how economic theory affects the way we live our lives. “I prefer to translate economics into public policy” is how she puts it, her words coated in a polished English accent. And whether she’s talking about health care, green jobs, gender in the workplace, or any other of the near-infinite number of topics that pique her interest, she typically performs this translation while espousing a steadfast belief in the twin values of liberated markets and limited government—a stance the 53-year-old has honed throughout a long career in the nation’s capital.
Before 2011, when she became a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, she built a résumé replete with stints in some of Washington, D.C.’s most high-profile venues: Ronald Reagan’s White House (junior economist on the Council of Economic Advisers), George H.W. Bush’s White House (associate director of the Domestic Policy Council and the Office of Policy Planning), George W. Bush’s White House (chief of staff for the Council of Economic Advisers), and the U.S. Department of Labor (chief economist).
Toss in fellowships at the Hudson Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, staff economist positions with the American Petroleum Institute and the Policy Economics Group, and a consultant role with Booz Allen Hamilton, and you see the professional portrait of a woman with a deep intellectual investment in U.S. economics—and plenty of experience to feed her analyses of almost any corner of the American economy.
But her path to economics began long before the construction of this résumé. As a child, she left London, along with the rest of the family, to set roots in America, where her father had landed a job as a World Bank economist. Growing up in Chevy Chase, Md., just north of the D.C. border, she enrolled in a high-school economics seminar—and she realized pretty quickly she’d found her niche.
“Economics seemed to be a way of improving the world, of making people better off,” she says. She pauses a beat, then adds, “At that time, I didn’t really know that politics would dominate economic decisions.”
After earning an economics degree at Swarthmore, she returned to the U.K. to complete a master’s in economics at Oxford University. And then she went back to Washington, where the relationship between politics and economics became an integral part of her life.
The Manhattan Institute’s D.C. branch occupies a smattering of offices on the fifth floor of a nondescript building on New Hampshire Ave., NW, about a mile from the White House. The reception desk is no different than any other reception desk you’ve seen, and the lobby could pass for the one at your physician’s office (if only your physician would spring for cozier chairs and a more interesting selection of magazines).
Step into Furchtgott-Roth’s office, though, and there’s plenty to grab your attention. Opposite a wall of windows stands a long, tall stack of shelves filled with hundreds of books and periodicals, including many of her own publications. The walls at either end of the room are crowded with photographs: she and President Reagan in the White House on Nov. 6, 1987, the day before she became an American citizen; her five young sons shaking hands with President George W. Bush during the first-ever lighting of Hanukkah candles at the White House (her sixth child, a daughter, decided to skip the event because she had a dress rehearsal for a singing group that day—and, like all the children, she’d already met the president); Vice President Dick Cheney and Prime Minister Tony Blair outside of 10 Downing Street—a photograph she likes not only because it demonstrates Tony Blair’s support for the United States after 9/11 but also because it represents the two nationalities that have contributed to her own life story.
Despite the busy walls, the office itself is quiet—and that’s a good thing on a number of levels. She and husband Harold Furchtgott-Roth, also a high-powered D.C. economist, have six children between the ages of 14-24, which means “you go to the office to get a break,” she jokes. But this quiet office has given her the space to opine broadly on economic topics and their impact on policy and life. She writes a weekly column for the Washington Examiner, a free D.C. daily that’s handed out at the entrances of the city’s Metro stations. She’s a regular writer for RealClearMarkets.com and Tax Notes. You can see her talking politics on FoxNews and the BBC. And this year she’s published two new books.
The first, Women’s Figures: An Illustrated Guide to the Economic Progress of Women in America (AEI Press), co-authored with Christine Stolba, is an update of a 1999 volume aiming to debunk the notion that women in the American workplace still encounter glass ceilings and wage discrimination. Instead, she explains, holding a copy of the book in her hands, “Women now do have equal opportunity and don’t need special preferences.” She says that the desire for flexibility (working remotely, schedules that can bend to accommodate the demands of raising a family, etc.) goes a long way in explaining why fewer women choose to make the trek to the top.
Like Women’s Figures, the other 2012 release, Regulating to Disaster: How Green Jobs Policies Are Damaging America’s Economy (Encounter Books), is a response to what she sees as misguided thinking—this book sets its sights on the “green energy” revolution championed by President Obama. The point of the book, in short, is that the political pursuit of green energy is economically unjustifiable. “We now have 200 years worth of inexpensive natural gas, thereby making any talk of energy security through solar and wind power completely laughable,” she says.
Her march against green energy—and in favor of what she calls “reliable, cheap sources of energy”—is something that she took to Congress in July, when she testified in front of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. After remonstrating against a repeat of Solyndra, the solar-power company that gathered big loans from the government before declaring bankruptcy in summer 2011, Furchtgott-Roth stuck around to field questions. Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, a ranking member of the committee and a representative from Solyndra’s home state of California, asked, “Do you think that we ought to continue subsidizing oil and natural gas through the tax breaks we give them?”
“I don’t think oil and gas should have special tax breaks,” she said, her tone matter-of-fact. “I think they should have the same tax breaks as other domestic manufacturing, or other industries such as the pharmaceutical industry.”
“You just think we should have a level playing field and let everybody compete?” Waxman responded.
“Exactly,” she said. “Yes.”
And this, really, is the same point she makes about health care and about gender in the workplace and, for that matter, about most every topic she addresses in her books, articles, testimonies, and TV appearances: that we’re all better off when the government stays out of our hair and leaves us to the competitive marketplace, where the most economically advantageous ideas will prevail.
In this year’s presidential election, she’s throwing her support to Mitt Romney, the candidate that lines up more squarely with these ideals. “Lower taxes, less regulation” is her nutshell description of Romney’s economic stance—and if his vision comes to fruition, this will be an example of politics affecting economics that she’ll be happy to live with.