Three Carleton alumni have recently been nominated or appointed to positions in the Biden administration. Elizabeth Watson ’96 was nominated by President Biden on April 27 to fulfill the role of Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs in the Department of Labor. Anthony Bernal ’95 works as a Senior Advisor to Dr. Jill Biden. Kimberly Clausing ’91 joined the administration in February as a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Treasury Department, where she works to implement the tax policies of the administration.
The Carletonian recently spoke to Dr. Clausing about both her experience at the Treasury and at Carleton.
How are you spending your days working as a deputy assistant secretary at the Treasury Department?
I am working with the group that analyzes taxes, so since the Biden administration has proposed a large number of separate tax initiatives, I get to work with the group that analyzes all of those. We have about 50 economists and 30 lawyers in the Office of Tax Policy at Treasury, and they all work together to understand the proposed legislation and to estimate its revenue effects and the economic consequences. I supervise and guide that work.
It must feel like a very transformative moment right now, and I am just wondering how this political transition has been like.
I think the whole country felt an abrupt shift—the prior years were headed in the exact opposite direction that this administration is going in, in all sorts of ways. This includes tax policy. There is a difference in the priorities in terms of whether we’re raising revenue or cutting taxes or in terms of if we are trying to help those at the top of tax distribution or those at the bottom.
While the prior administration’s biggest achievement was a $2 trillion tax cut that disproportionately helped those at the top, we’re proposing a much larger tax increase that disproportionately falls on those at the top, as well as some big tax cuts for families and low-income workers. In terms of fairness and the revenue to fund urgent fiscal needs like infrastructure spending, research and development, and responding to climate change, we realize that we need tax revenue, so the emphasis is really very different from the last administration.
What does Washington feel like right now, in terms of energy and political atmosphere?
The dominant feeling in Washington, like the rest of the country, has been distorted by the pandemic; many people are still working from home, so there isn’t the vibrancy that there would be during normal times. As people get increasingly vaccinated, I think we’ll experience a return to normal in the Treasury Department. Right now, only about a quarter of workers are coming in on a regular basis, but by the fall when everyone is vaccinated and kids are back in school, things will hopefully feel a little more normal.
We’re also in this really unusual period in history where we’re dealing with simultaneous crises, like the pandemic and climate change, but also concerns about racial equity and policing and all sorts of tumultuous experiences that we’ve been through as a country. We’re continuing to work on these issues, but the work is far from over. The Biden administration is trying to create a more equitable economy, and that’s a long, long struggle.
How did your experience at Carleton influence your professional career, but also how you’re thinking about enacting all these different tax regulations?
Carleton was really formative in a lot of different ways. I was an economics major, so there I learned the economic basics that let me go on and get a PhD in this area and become someone who can really analyze all the nuances of economic policy.
But also, the broader liberal arts education exposed me to a more holistic way of looking at policy problems. As one example, I took a lot of political science courses when I was at Carleton, including a couple from Paul Wellstone, who went on to be a US Senator thereafter. I remember taking a class with him where he was framing all these different things that he thought the government should do better and having the great pleasure of writing a final paper for that course where I basically analyzed a Wellstone-type agenda but using economic analysis, showing that many of the ideas he talked about in a more political way could also be analyzed using economics.
So I blended what I learned in the two disciplines and found that synthesis to be an interesting way to view policy problems. Economics is very powerful but is also limited, and if you don’t understand those limits, there’s only so many things that you can do. Having a sense of history, politics, and culture is also important.
Are you still teaching at UCLA concurrently with your position?
I was teaching for a long time at Reed College, which I think I was partial to because of my Carleton liberal arts experience, and I took the position at UCLA in part to have more time for my writing and to enjoy the intellectual community there. That position began right before I was hired for the Treasury position. I had already started teaching a class when this position began, so I continued that class on a volunteer basis.
What do you miss the most about Carleton?
The whole spirit of the place, the beauty of the campus and the Arboretum, and the beauty of the people. I don’t mean physical beauty (necessarily) but rather the sweet good-naturedness and can-do spirit. All that wrapped into this bucolic campus, it just seems like a very idealistic place to be. I wish that sort of idealism was more common.