WASHINGTON — Cecilia Rouse, one of President Biden’s top economic advisers, almost didn’t take economics at all.
She arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1982 from Southern California with wide-ranging interests including classical flute, Israeli folk dancing, and the music of Prince — but economics initially wasn’t one of them.
Then she signed up for Ec10 for just one reason: Her mother told her to take an economics course. The first semester of abstract microeconomics lectures in musty Sanders Theatre was uninspiring.
But then the course broadened into macroeconomics, providing a broad overview after a decade plagued by recessions, gas shortages, runaway inflation, and high unemployment. When Rouse connected the concepts she was learning from professor Otto Eckstein, a former economic adviser to President Lyndon Johnson, to the troubles happening beyond Harvard’s manicured lawns, something clicked.
“I remember seeing the news about people with PhDs driving cabs because the unemployment was so high,” Rouse said, recalling, in an interview, the lingering pain of the early 1980s recession. “It just struck me that, aha, here’s a way to just think about what are the reasons why there might not be enough demand for workers.”
That revelation helped launch a career as one of the nation’s top labor economists, where she now is facing even trickier questions about unemployment as one of the key economic advisers around Biden, helping design policies to rebuild the economy after the trauma of the pandemic.
Rouse, who is chair of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, brings a unique background as an economist focused on inequalities in education and the workforce, including coauthoring a famous study showing that “blind auditions” conducted behind a screen increased the chances that a female musician would be hired by an orchestra.
Rouse, 57, is the first Black person to hold that job, providing economic research, analysis, and advice to Biden as he seeks to address longstanding inequalities such as the wealth gap between white and Black Americans. Biden’s commitment to that agenda, she said, was a major factor in her decision to take a leave as dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and return to Washington; she also served on the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration.
This time, though, the weight of the moment stood out.
“This is a moment of urgency and opportunity unlike anything we’ve faced in modern times,” she said when Biden introduced her as his nominee. “The urgency of ending a devastating crisis. And the opportunity to build a better economy in its wake — an economy that works for everyone, brings fulfilling job opportunities, and leaves no one to fall through the cracks.”
Her time in Cambridge inspired and prepared Rouse to enter a field uncommon for women, particularly Black women. But it also helped her hone a skill that continues to keep her grounded in the real world implications of economic policy: work-life balance.
Two of her former roommates still marvel at how organized and steady Rouse was in college — a Rock of Gibraltar one called her — managing to have fun and be adventurous without resorting to all-nighters to excel in her classes.
“You could be talking to her about whatever problem existed in your personal life at 9:59 and at 10 p.m. she said, ‘I’m going to bed,’” said Claire Finkelstein, Rouse’s roommate all four undergraduate years and now a law and philosophy professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “She’s very much now the way she was then, which is incredibly organized, steady, paces herself.”
Rouse said her college bedtime was more like midnight, but acknowledges the broader point — that time itself is an economic constraint. That became even clearer to her as the working mother of two daughters who are now in college.
“I’ve always felt like whether it was advising Obama or President Biden, they can have many economic advisers; my kids have but one mom,” Rouse said. “I’ve always put them first, but recognizing they don’t need me 24/7, I have supports in place. I’ve had flexible jobs and I’ve had enough income, so I’ve had the ability to do that and not everybody does. And I’m very aware of that.”
She said that experience helps her understand the importance of child care, universal pre-kindergarten education, paid sick leave, and affordable health insurance — all of which Biden wants to expand in his sweeping $1.8 trillion American Families Plan.
“We need to have an economic system … that recognizes that we’re human beings, we’re not automatons,” said Rouse, who is baffled by those who dispute Biden’s view that child care should count as infrastructure. “I’d just like to remind people that you really can’t go to work if someone’s not taking care of your kid.”
Education was highly valued in Rouse’s family. In 1956, her father, Carl Rouse, became just the fifth Black person nationwide — and the first at the California Institute of Technology — to earn a doctoral degree in physics. Her mother, Lorraine Rouse, earned a master’s degree in social work at the University of California, Berkeley, and became a school psychologist. Their three children all went on to earn advanced degrees.
The Rouse family sought a middle-class life, but racism loomed in the background, thwarting opportunities and changing plans. Carl Rouse was unable to get a position at a research university in the late 1960s so he took a job at General Atomics, a San Diego energy and defense company, and did astrophysics research on his own in the evenings, said Rouse’s sister, Carolyn, chair of the anthropology department at Princeton. Black people were prohibited from owning property in one San Diego suburb, Rancho Santa Fe, so the family settled in nearby Del Mar, she said.
“We grew up with a kind of patience with racism,” Carolyn Rouse said. “We have to find a way to live in this world without needing the world to change right now for us. We need to be able to be happy and enjoy life even if we can’t get the things we wish we had.”
Del Mar was a sleepy surfer town in the 1970s, Cecilia Rouse said, but she remembers seeing poverty when her family would visit Tijuana, Mexico, or travel with her father to international astrophysics conferences in places like Mexico City.
“I’m sure this comes from my parents. I’ve always been concerned about those who were not as fortunate as I was,” she said.
Rouse’s own experience with race and gender — and her laser focus on the economic inequalities they drive — have set her apart in a field long dominated by white men.
“When I first met Ceci back decades ago, there just weren’t that many what I would call progressive economists who were willing to put issues of power, of racial discrimination, of inequality into their thinking,” said Jared Bernstein, a labor economist who serves with Rouse on the Council of Economic Advisers. “What was always striking about Ceci is that she was never afraid to take that stand.”
Rouse stayed at Harvard after she graduated in 1986 to pursue her doctorate in economics, and one of her advisers was Lawrence Summers, who would go on to be a top economic adviser to President Barack Obama and recently has criticized Biden’s coronavirus rescue spending as risking high inflation. Rouse wrote her dissertation on the economic effects of attending community college rather than a traditional four-year college.
“That was very bold. People weren’t working on community colleges at the time,” said Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economics professor who was Rouse’s graduate adviser. She and Rouse then collaborated on a study that would break even more ground.
Goldin mentioned to her in passing one day that some orchestras conducted auditions with musicians hidden behind screens, to obscure their identity from those doing the hiring. Rouse, then a graduate student, jumped at the possibilities, saying that the process would be worth studying to see if it weeded out gender discrimination. It was a dicey proposition: Nobody had ever studied blind auditions, and the research could come up entirely empty.
“She recognized this was risky but she wanted to take the risk,” Goldin said.
The two spent several years seeking records from top national orchestras such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, sending faxes, cajoling people, and traveling around the country to dig through boxes of yellowed paper files going back decades. Their research paper, published in 2000, found that the blind auditions increased the probability that a female musician would advance through the audition process and be hired.
The findings made national news and have been widely cited by other researchers, although there has been some recent criticism that the data, which Rouse and Goldin conceded in their paper had limitations, were not conclusive. Goldin said the research demonstrated Rouse’s skills: tackling important subjects, thinking outside the box, and being undeterred by difficulties.
Those are important skills in the White House. The three-member Council of Economic Advisers has been called the president’s economic think tank, providing advice based on analyzing data and research. Its past chairs include legendary economists Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, and Janet Yellen. It has a more academic bent than the White House’s National Economic Council, which focuses on coordinating policymaking and implementation.
But Rouse has policy experience as well, having worked as an economist at the NEC from 1998-99. In an impressive move for a young economist, she was able to get $40 million in President Clinton’s budget for a proposal she worked on to boost college completion, said Gene Sperling, who headed the NEC at the time. That background makes her “unique and highly valued” in the White House, he said.
“She can bring the economic rigor and analysis of a leading person at the CEA, but she also can be helpful in understanding the practical policymaking challenge,” said Sperling, who is working for Biden overseeing implementation of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue plan.
Now, with the nation reopening, Rouse is making the case for Biden’s plan to spend about $4 trillion on infrastructure, education, and child care over the next decade. Those proposals try to address what Rouse has studied her whole career— inequality in its various forms.
With the economy emerging from the pandemic, the next step is “to try to right the ship so we’re investing not just in tax cuts to make the wealthy wealthier,” she said of the Biden proposals she helped craft.
After decades of work spanning two elite universities and three different White Houses, Rouse thinks now might finally be the time.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Sanders Theatre.