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Former White House Economic Adviser Discusses Covid Policies at HUEA Event

Tomas J. Philipson — the former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, an agency within the Executive Office of the President — spoke at a Harvard Undergraduate Economics Association event on Wednesday.
Tomas J. Philipson — the former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, an agency within the Executive Office of the President — spoke at a Harvard Undergraduate Economics Association event on Wednesday. By Julian J. Giordano
By Kirsten O. Agbenyega and S. Mac Healey, Contributing Writers

Former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers Tomas J. Philipson discussed Covid policies and his experience in the Trump administration at a Harvard Undergraduate Economics Association event Wednesday evening.

Philipson, currently an emeritus professor of public policy studies at the University of Chicago, joined the Council of Economic Advisers in 2017, serving as its acting chair from June 2019 until June 2020.

Philipson opened the event — moderated by Jocelyn Y. Xu ’27 — by explaining the role of the Council of Economic Advisers within the White House as an “advisory body to the President on economic issues.” He then explained how his research in health economics translated into mitigating the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I was lucky because I’d been working in a field called economic epidemiology, which is essentially the economic analysis of diseases — why they occur and the consequences of when they occur,” Philipson said.

He detailed the difficulty of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s concern with rising Covid cases, when “it doesn’t see all of the costly behavior from trying to avoid the disease,” arguing that Covid-19 measures created “an enormous excess burden because there was a lot of foregone economic activity that took place to avoid face-to-face interactions.”

“We had such restrictive publicly mandated preventive measures that raised the cost of prevention to make it much more costly than the impact of the disease itself,” he added.

Philipson shared what his view of a better response to the pandemic would have been.

“If we get one of these again, we don’t want to act as excessively as we did with the Covid pandemic,” he said. “Isolate or focus on the high-risk individuals.”

“The problem with the government is that, once the problem is in the past, it has very little sort of memory for them to fight it in the future,” he said. “It’s kind of depressing, but it's true that the lessons learned from the Covid pandemic for the next pandemic have not been solidified.”

Philipson expanded on his personal experience with working with the Trump administration during the pandemic.

“I was unfortunate to bring into the president the worst employment report in U.S. history, where 20 million jobs were lost in April of 2020,” he said.

But Philipson said he found the CEA effective at working with President Donald Trump, saying that “most of the time when I walked out of the [Oval] Office, the decision was made that I wanted to be made.”

“[Trump] is a businessman,” Philipson said. “Economists had a higher standing in his administration than is normal because of his great interest. He’s not an analytical guy, but he has a very good intuitive sense of economic policy, of what the effects would be.”

“You might disagree on what his policies are but also think that many people believe that pre-Covid, we had a very, very strong economy, particularly with the wage growth of poorer individuals,” he said.

“But workers have really been hit hard, and that’s why we see the polls showing that people are discontent with the economy even though we potentially had big economic growth,” Philipson added.

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PoliticsEconomicsTrump