Ben Harris grew up on Bainbridge Island and graduated from Bainbridge High School in 1995. He is currently the Chief Economist and Economic Adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.
We recently checked in with him to find out more about what he’s been doing since leaving Bainbridge Island. Here’s what we learned:
Q: Tell me about yourself. How long were you on Bainbridge Island?
A: I moved to Bainbridge Island with my mom and younger brother in 1986 from a suburb of Seattle. We lived in a turn-of-the-century farmhouse in Rolling Bay on three acres of land with a big lawn. It was the perfect place to grow up.
My mom now lives on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. My dad still lives on Bainbridge, having spent the last 25 years on the Island. I have a younger brother who is a professor of linguistics at UCLA. With me living in D.C., our whole family is spread across the country.
I’m married with three little girls. I’ve taken my older two daughters back to Bainbridge a few times, but my youngest has never been there. I know the population has grown a bit since I left 20 years ago, but to me it feels like it’s hardly changed.
Q: What year did you graduate from high school?
A: I graduated in 1995. My class in
celebrating its 20th reunion this summer. I would love to attend, but probably won’t have the time to fly out. (He also added that he thought his education on Bainbridge Island prepared him well for college and beyond.)
Q: Were you in politics at all during high school? What were your interests?
A: I suspect that my friends from my youth are not surprised that I work at the White House. In high school I spent a fair amount of time engaged in public policy and politics. I was the student body treasurer. I spent my sophomore summer studying leadership and public policy at Seattle University. After my junior year, I went to D.C. for a few weeks as part of a program called Boy’s Nation where I met President Clinton in the White House. Whenever I walk by the spot where I shook Clinton’s hand, I remember how exciting it was to be in the White House for the first time.
In high school I also spent a lot of time playing sports — lacrosse, football, and basketball my freshman year and tennis as a senior. All in all, I had a great time in high school.
I still keep in touch with many of the graduates from BHS. A few of my good friends live in the D.C. area and we get together every so often. And every now and then an old classmate will send me an email when they come through D.C. and we’ll grab a drink. With Facebook, it’s much easier to stay in touch.
Q: Do you think Bainbridge High School prepared you well for your future work?
A: Yes. My transition to college was made easier by graduating from such a high-quality high school. Some of the teachers were truly excellent. Dave Layton had a huge impact on me because he was the first teacher to ever show confidence in me as a student. Dan McLean, who taught trigonometry, and Julia Thomas, who taught humanities, also stand out as teachers who really helped me academically.
Q: What led you into government work? Tell me about your time in college and the jobs you had that led to your work for the Vice President?
A: I became an economist by accident.
I was an undergraduate at Tufts University and had yet to settle on a major, but was considering political science. Tufts had a selective program where students could study policy in D.C. for a semester. The easiest way to get into the program was as an economics major, so I settled on economics and was eventually selected to go to D.C. It was a good early lesson in game theory — a branch of economics that accounts for the actions of others when deciding what’s best for you.
I’ve held a slew of different jobs over my career, mostly in economic policy. I’ve had four stints in various roles at the Brookings Institution, a reputable and well-known think tank with an especially broad focus. I was the senior economist for the Budget Committee in the House of Representatives. I spent a few years as a senior economist with the Council of Economic Advisers — which advises the President on economic policy — earlier in the Obama Administration.
I’ve also spent far too much time in graduate school, with a pair of master’s degrees from Columbia and Cornell and a PhD in economics from George Washington University, which I earned going to class in the evenings while working at Brookings. I lived for a year in Namibia on a Fulbright Scholarship working at a Namibian think tank.
Q: What is a typical day for you as Senior Economic Advisor? How much time do you actually spend with the Vice President?
A: Every day as the Vice President’s Chief Economist seems to be different — there is no typical day. I spend a lot of time in meetings, often with other staff within the Office of the Vice President, but also with other White House staffers and economists from the Treasury Department or other agencies. Some days involve travel on Air Force Two, others are spent helping the speechwriters or briefing the Vice President. There are almost no quiet days, but that’s how I prefer it.
Q: Is there anything about Air Force Two or the Vice President’s motorcade that surprised you?
A: On commercial flights, every passenger is assigned a seat, but I was still surprised that every staffer on Air Force Two is given a particular seat for each leg of a flight — and a person’s assigned seat can change based on who needs to be in the senior staff cabin for each leg.
I was a bit surprised by how quickly the motorcade will leave a location; you have to be on your toes to make sure you’re not left behind. I’ve actually been in motorcades where staff didn’t get back to the vehicle in time and had to find their way back. When the Vice President is ready to go, the motorcade is leaving.
Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?
A: When I’m not working, most of my time is spent with my wife and three daughters. Sometimes on weekends I’ll have time to play basketball or go for a run. For better or worse, I am short on spare time these days.
Q: People think economics is boring, what would you tell them?
A: Economics is simply the study of human behavior. To say that economics is boring is to say that people are boring. I think part of the problem is that undergraduate economics is taught in a dry, overly mathematical way. Once you get past the theory and into the research, economics becomes much more interesting.
In my career, I’ve focused mainly on taxes, budgets, and retirement and saving. Issues like taxes tend to be a bit of lightning rod — nearly everyone has an opinion. In my experience, few people find fiscal policy and personal finance uninteresting, but most like to share their opinions. This can be a mixed blessing.
Q: Do you enjoy being in Washington, D.C.?
A: I love D.C. In reality, life in Washington has little resemblance to shows like “House of Cards.” Most people I come across are straightforward, hardworking, and are just trying to make a difference in people’s lives. Everyone wants to help improve our country — the challenge is agreeing on a way to do it.