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The Economist

Established in 1946, the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) is an Executive Office agency that provides the U.S. president with objective economic policy counsel. 

Traditionally, it maintains a staff of about 50, mostly Ph.D. economists or professors from around the country taking one year’s leave to serve in the White House.

Because of that timing, when Kevin Hassett ’84 was nominated to become the CEA’s 29th chair in 2017, only six staffers were slated to still be around when he arrived.

“I had a lot of recruiting to do,” he laughs. “But it was easy, because the history of the CEA is so storied, with something like 11 Nobel Prize winners having worked here.”

Arguably even more impressive, Hassett hired two additional Swarthmoreans for the vacant seats: Joel Zinberg ’77, a cancer surgeon and legal professor, as general counsel; and Paige Willey ’16, a political science alumna, as manager of the executive office.

Having that connection is meaningful—not only did Hassett return to Swarthmore in 2016 for a good-natured “Debate of the Century” with his former professor Mark Kuperberg, but he also credits the College’s economics faculty for first lighting his imagination.

“They’re legendary,” he says, “and dedicated to teaching really hard stuff to undergrads in a way you can only get at a place like Swarthmore.”

So much of his actual work reminds him of College days, especially the deep research with real-life stakes Hassett and his team dig into, like that necessitated by the 2017 flooding in Houston.

“Because we’re the nerds in the White House, we got satellite data on water levels and merged it with Zillow housing data to create a real estate damage estimate,” he says. “We were staying up every night and weekend, getting this big data job together so that key decision-makers had the information they needed to allocate resources as efficiently as possible.”

Ultimately, his ability to help people through his work is what makes him proudest.

A few years ago, he and Jared Bernstein—Joe Biden’s chief economist during the Obama administration—were working on a tax bill to remedy geographic inequities. Hassett felt strongly that the bill should include a policy proposal to incentivize businesses to target and revive “opportunity zones,” like Turners Falls, one of the most distressed communities in Massachusetts.

Now that this proposal is part of the law and investments are beginning to take off, Hassett is preparing metrics to see if the policy is working as intended.

“I grew up just across the river from Turners Falls,” he says. “Of everything I’m working on, what I’m most excited about is the trip I’m planning there to speak with their city planner.”