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Ann Arbor Advises the White House

Michael Barr at his U of M Law Quad office
Michael Barr at his U of M Law Quad office
It may not seem like there is an obvious relationship between Capitol Hill and Hill Auditorium, but Ann Arbor has historically had a strong relationship with the White House. Over the past century, American presidents have regularly shown due reverence to the venerated University of Michigan -- in total, there have been 13 presidential visits since 1892, including Taft, Roosevelt, Wilson, Kennedy, Carter, the first Bush, and Clinton. Gerald Ford was even a U-M alumnus and most recently, Barack Obama paid the university his second visit this past January, during which he announced a $1 billion "Race to the Top" competition incentivizing states to bring tuition costs down and ensure future leaders can afford the higher education they need to succeed.

Some of the country's leading experts on politically-charged issues are counted among the esteemed ranks of University of Michigan faculty. U-M, which has among the largest research expenditures of any American university (topping $1.24 billion in 2010-2011), is one of the top-ranked universities in the world -- which in turn means it attracts not only the brightest and best of the world's future leaders, but also the sharpest and most accomplished minds of academia to train them. It is not unusual for U-M professors to be recruited by the White House directly to serve on advisory panels or assist in policy writing.

President Obama's staff seems to continue that trend and then some. His Special Projects Coordinator and Confidential Assistant, Eugene Kang, is an Ann Arbor native and U-M grad (who ran for Ann Arbor's city council in 2005). His senior advisor Valerie Jarrett  is also a U-M alum, as is his domestic policy advisor Melody Barnes.

There are currently four active U-M faculty members currently residing in Ann Arbor who have served or are currently serving as advisers and policy writers to the Obama administration, each with tremendous experience in policy analysis and formation and specializing in fields that have been of pressing importance in recent years. It's no doubt: Ann Arbor has the President's ear.

Helen Levy, Ph.D. focuses on health economics, public finance and labor economics. She served as the senior economist on the Council of Economic Advisors for a year, having arrived in Washington about five months before the healthcare reform acts passed in August 2010.

"The main issue while I worked there was health reform, and that's been my focus," she explains.

The purpose of this Council is to provide the President with unbiased, independent advice on economic trends and policies. It is a council within the White House that doesn't have any permanent programs or permanent employees; it exists only to advise.

"Everyone is on academic leave from their ‘real' jobs," Levy says. "They're not jockeying for a position within the administration because they're going back to their tenured position at their [respective] universities. This makes us free to say what we want and speak our minds."

With her professional academic background in health economics, Levy was recruited by the White House to share her expertise and offer her informed opinions as she reviewed the healthcare reform laws that were being drafted. (The laws have since passed and will take effect in 2014; after the laws became final the long process of drafting regulations began.) The White House relies on academics such as Levy -- economists who cover all different aspects of the economy, nicknamed the "Economic Embassy" -- for their insight into different issues impacting the country and therefore the White House.

"It was an interesting time in my life," Levy reflects. "Here [in Ann Arbor] everything is very academic; by contrast that was different in every possible way." She describes her stint at the White House as being extremely fast-paced, a dramatic departure from the slow, careful pace of insular academia. Her experience in Washington forced her to think much more quickly on her feet. "It was fun for a change but also very much validating as to how great it is to be here [in Ann Arbor] in every way."

Levy is thankful for the time she spent in D.C. because she had the opportunity to see and understand what is really happening in healthcare reform. One thing that became very apparent to her upon returning to Ann Arbor was the level of misinformation regarding the health reform laws that seemed rampant even amongst educated people. Since then she regularly gives lectures to various organizations to clear up misconceptions about the health reform laws. "A lot of people say, ‘I don't understand healthcare in the first place; how can I understand changes?' It was fun to go and be immersed in ground zero while it was happening."

Levy found that many Ann Arborites vocalize that they think it's "crazy" we don't have a single payer system (like Canada's). "That wouldn't even be considered in D.C.," Levy states. "There is a big disconnect between how people talk and think about those things here, where there no one would even consider it because [it is considered unreasonable.]"

Levy has also seen a lot of irrational hostility towards the reforms -- typically from the right. "It's puzzling to me. I don't really understand why there's hostility." For the record, the reforms are meant to benefit those who have no medical coverage through an employer -- the unemployed, under-employed, self-employed, or those employed at a small company that can't afford to offer benefits.

Levy says that her experience at the White House gave her the opportunity to implement her knowledge in a real-world way. "There aren't that many opportunities in adult life to do something like that," she says. "It applies [our] learning but in a totally different, day-to-day way. This actually made it so much more concrete."

Like Levy, Thomas Buchmueller, Ph.D. is an accomplished health economist whose research focuses on health insurance and other public policy issues. He is currently serving as an advisor to the Obama administration, addressing similar issues as Levy did previously. He's also her neighbor, living a mere two blocks away.

But the White House doesn't only seek out the council of U-M's finest in regards to healthcare reform. A markedly different example is Steven Croley, Ph.D., currently Obama's Special Assistant for Justice and Regulatory Policy (regarding issues of regulatory gun policy with a background in administrative law). Croley took a break from teaching duties to advise on both policy and ethics.

There is also Michael Barr, Ph.D., who conducts large-scale empirical research regarding financial services and addresses issues in financial regulation. Oddly enough, he too, lives within a few blocks of Levy and Buchmueller. Barr was recruited to assist the transition team in the White House from 2008-2010 as the Department of Treasury's Assistant Secretary of Financial Institutions. Prior to this he had served several years under the Clinton administration in the State Department, Department of Treasury and the White House. (The last year he spent as a Special Advisor to Clinton.) Barr teaches and writes about financial and international financial regulation. He is trained as a lawyer in international relations.

At the time Barr came on board with the Obama administration, "the country was falling off a cliff economically." He explains, "We had to arrest that fall, stabilize the situation, then pass reforms to ensure the financial sector wouldn't drive the country off the cliff again." He is of course referring to the onset of the economic recession that caused the bottom to fall out of the housing market and led to over $700 billion in bailout money for Wall Street.

Barr was instrumental in writing policy to stabilize the housing market and place tighter controls over the financial sector. "When I came in we worked on very large efforts to stabilize the housing market and to reform Wall Street." His responsibilities included developing, drafting and enacting the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which brought the most significant changes to financial regulation in the United States since the regulatory reform that followed the Great Depression. Barr also had operational responsibilities, oversight over the Money Market Mutual Fund Guarantee as well as the CDFI Fund, and developed housing policies.

Hailing from Michigan, the state hit the second-hardest by the housing collapse (Nevada got it worse), and also having done extensive empirical research on low-income families made Barr more attuned to the concerns of foreclosure problems and plummeting home values. After returning to Ann Arbor, Barr would have people asking him questions about the new policies -- what caused the financial crisis, what's different now, aren't the banks too big to fail? "We took the steps necessary to reform the financial system," he states. "The fundamental game has changed. There is comprehensive supervision of companies, regulation of derivatives, a new consumer financial protection bureau, and ways to liquidate a large, failing financial firm without causing crisis. The foundation for reform is there."

Barr echoes Levy's enthusiasm for the experience, and also her relief to come home. "It's a brutal place," he says. "In D.C. everything is around-the-clock." He was commuting weekly from Ann Arbor to D.C. and coming home to his family on weekends, during which time he would still continue to work. "It was a relief to come back and spend time with my family again and have a sane existence. Ann Arbor is a great place for that!"

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer, regular contributor to Metromode and popular Metro Detroit food blogger. Read her blog at http://www.eatitdetroit.com
Photos:
Michael Barr at his U of M Law Quad office
Michael Barr at his U of M Law Quad office
Eugene Kang at The White House
Valerie Jarrett at The White House
Melody Barnes at The White House
The University of Michigan Law Quad
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