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Alice Rivlin, queen of Washington's budget wonks

Bernanke, Former Fed Officials Discuss Role Of Federal Reserve In 21st Century Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There is no budget wonk in Washington with a résumé as thick as Alice Rivlin's.

Rivlin was the founding director of the Congressional Budget Office. She was the director of President Bill Clinton's Office of Management and Budget. She was vice chair of the Federal Reserve Board.

She's also co-authored policies with Paul Ryan, served as president of the American Economic Association, worked as a member of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, and, in 2008, was named as one of the greatest public servants of the past 25 years by the Council for Excellence in Government.

It's a helluva career.

I spoke with Rivlin on the latest episode of The Ezra Klein Show. You can stream the interview live and for free on SoundCloud here, or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Spotify. Among the topics:

  • Why she became an economist in the first place
  • How economists think about problems
  • How a sexist senator almost blocked her appointment to the Congressional Budget Office, and how an angry stripper saved her nomination
  • What the Congressional Budget Office does, and why it's so quietly powerful
  • What she's learned working with Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Paul Ryan, and Barack Obama
  • Whether economics has lost its ability to answer the big questions
  • Whether Obamacare's insurance exchanges are working
  • How to make service sector jobs pay better

Here's Rivlin, for instance, on how our tools for studying public policy's impact have dramatically improved over time — even if that hasn't necessarily translated into better policy itself.

"When I first came to Washington I first worked in the Johnson administration. There, in the late '60s we were sending a slew of bills to the Congress often without any analysis of what they might cost in the long run, what the effects might be; the idea you could attach credible numbers to these things were very new.

I think [our policymaking] is more informed but not necessarily better. The problem is now we're not making much policy at all because our political system has become so polarized that there's almost nothing our two parties can agree on, especially in an election year. But if they do talk about what they can do on some big issue — investment infrastructure, for instance — they will have at their disposal much better information about what things will cost and what taxes would have to change to pay for it. ...

Medicare seemed like a good idea after many years of trying on the part of the liberals to cover all seniors with a public health insurance plan. Nobody had a really good idea what it would cost; it just seemed like a good idea whose time had come, and they had the votes to pass it. It turned out to be much more expensive than anybody thought, and over the years adjustments were made in various ways. But I think you could argue that if anybody knew what Medicare would cost it wouldn't have passed.

As always, there's much more in the interview. If you're interested in how policy is really made in Washington, you should listen to this conversation. For more of The Ezra Klein Show — including interviews with Bill Gates, Rachel Maddow, Grover Norquist, Arianna Huffington, Robert Reich, Cory Booker, and David Chang — head here.