Revenge of the Nerd

Dean for the Social Sciences David M. Cutler ’87 has some beef with K-Fed. When Cutler first heard that he

Dean for the Social Sciences David M. Cutler ’87 has some beef with K-Fed.

When Cutler first heard that he was ranked 28th on Details Magazine’s 50 most influential men under 45, his reaction was, “What exactly is Details Magazine and what did I do?”

And then he joked, “I wonder why I’m not on the cover.”

According to Details, the 50 men chosen “are the ones who control your viewing patterns, your buying habits, your anxieties, your lust—the things you think about.” The list also includes Harry Potter (#41), Ellen DeGeneres’ dog, Iggy (#29), and–of course–Kevin Federline (#7), who snagged the front page.

Apparently, Cutler, a self-professed nerd, wasn’t quite as deserving as K-Fed, the self-professed “sucker for booty.”

All jokes aside, it seems fitting that Cutler isn’t stealing the spotlight. Known for his energy and creativity, 42-year-old Cutler is a man behind the scenes, making strides in the fields of public policy and health economics as a health care adviser to big names such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But he hasn’t quit his day job: Cutler emphasizes that his passion lies with his teaching and research as a professor of economics.

The prolific professor also published a book in 2004, “Your Money or Your Life: Strong Medicine for America’s Health Care System,” where he argues for a system that would reward doctors not for the quantity of treatments performed, but for the quality of patient health, thereby cutting down on unnecessary procedures and unfocused care.

“He’s doing five times as much as a normal human being is doing,” says Cutler’s former teaching fellow and current doctoral advisee, Alexander M. Gelber ’03. “The fact that he manages to do all those things incredibly well is mind-boggling.”


Cutler was raised in Los Angeles and spent his undergraduate years at Harvard, where he concentrated in economics and became interested in healthcare policy.

“I always loved public policy because, if you were a nerd like me and you wanted to make the world better, that was how you were going to do it,” Cutler says.

“Yeah, he was definitely a nerd,” says Cutler’s freshman-year roommate, Mitsuharu Hadeishi ’87. “But he was the classic nerd. He wasn’t a nerd into ‘Star Trek.’”

Despite Cutler’s interest in health care economics and policy, no courses were offered in the subject during his time at Harvard. Cutler has no formal medical training, attributing his knowledge to “months and months in basements of libraries learning about medicine.”

Cutler got his foot in the door with health care while doing research for former Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers, who helped get him involved in Michael S. Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign. Cutler then advised Bill Clinton during his 1992 campaign, later serving on the former president’s Council of Economic Advisers.

“I realized pretty early on that I didn’t actually like politics,” Cutler admits. “What I like much more is thinking about how you would make the world a better place.”

“Everyone running for office, from president to dogcatcher, has some view about health care,” Cutler explains. “The job of the adviser on health care matters is to say, here’s what you’re seeing...let me tell you about how the people who study this make sense of it and how they might recommend dealing with it.”

Since then, Cutler has served as a health care adviser for former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley and U.S. Senator John Kerry. Even though Cutler’s theories are also reflected in Hillary Clinton and John Edwards’ campaigns, his allegiances are now with Obama.

“It’s kind of like dating,” says Cutler. “You can’t date lots of people forever.”

Obama is currently endorsing a plan for universal health care, using money from tax cuts to pay for coverage. “He knew from very early on that he wanted to cover everybody and that there was so much waste in the system...which is exactly right,” Cutler says.


While making a name in the political arena, Cutler was also finding his footing in Cambridge. Four years after graduating from the college, Cutler became an assistant professor of economics, and was given the opportunity to bring his health care interests into the classroom with a course on the subject.

Cutler received tenure in 1997, and currently teaches courses in public policy and healthcare alongside economic powerhouses Martin S. Feldstein ’61 and Jeffrey B. Liebman.

“[Cutler] always has original ways of tackling tough problems,” says Liebman, who co-teaches a public economics course with Cutler.

“It is good to teach with David because we agree about many things but disagree enough to make things interesting for students,” says Feldstein in an e-mailed statement, the more conservative counterpart to Cutler’s liberal leanings in Economics 1410, “Public Sector Economics.”


Much of Cutler’s free time is spent with his family; his wife, Mary Beth Landem, and his two young daughters. “They didn’t seem overly impressed that I was in Details Magazine,” Cutler muses.

“He can be very goofy,” says Landrum of her husband. “I think that’s why he’s so popular with the 3-year-olds…he sings silly songs.”

Cutler is also a runner who, in a good week, logs in ten miles.

“It’s hard to study healthcare and decide you don’t want to be fit,” Cutler says.

Watch your back, K-Fed.