Q&A: Maskus discusses transition from Boulder to Capitol Hill

Published: Oct. 12, 2016
Keith Maskus stands with a blackboard behind him.

Economics Professor Keith Maskus has been named chief economist for the U.S. Department of State. Maskus, a professor of distinction who also was the director of CU Boulder’s Program on International Development, is beginning the two-year appointment — based in Washington, D.C. — this month.

What will you be doing as chief economist?

I will be managing a group of seven other economists, as well as advising on a daily basis the undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment, and occasionally the secretary of state, on emerging international economic issues. I’ll also speak in venues around the country and internationally on critical economic questions and interact with other governmental agencies.

The Office of the Chief Economist was created in 2010. Why was it needed?

When the secretary of state attended cabinet meetings or meetings abroad prior to 2010 to discuss issues with economic implications, often there wasn’t enough in-house economic research data available or enough staff experience, from the economic perspective, that should go into thinking about the issues. In order to discuss these issues fully, it’s necessary to have key people focusing on international monetary issues and international trade.

What types of issues is the Office of the Chief Economist involved in?

For example, refugees are a diplomatic question, but they’re also an economic question. What does bringing in refugees mean for our economy and the economy of their country of origin? And how likely are the numbers of refugees to increase?

Other issues the office has tackled include the British Exit, or “Brexit,” the 2016 referendum whereby British citizens voted to exit the European Union; sanctions on Iran; the Chinese exchange rate; the financial crisis in Greece; big trade agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); and global climate change.

When did you become interested in economics?

I graduated from high school when Richard Nixon was president, and he undertook policies that seemed mysterious to me. One was a wage and price freeze. The other was about the international economy, where the U.S. abandoned the fixed exchange rate system of the time, a kind of gold standard. I was just fascinated by this and wanted to know much more about what it might mean.

What do you hope to achieve while at the State Department?

I would like to make the Office of the Chief Economist more visible as a source of expertise. I want to make sure expert advice is provided in a timely manner for the secretary and undersecretary. I want to integrate more academic scholars, disclosing study results so people have a better idea of what the office is doing, without releasing confidential information. I also want to make sure the analysis and advice coming from the office is the best it can be by focusing on the best data and evidence and paying enough attention to what the data say.

How will you know when you’ve achieved those goals?

Mostly when the undersecretary and secretary are pleased with the work they are getting. But also by other means, such as increases in the number of visits to the website of the Office of the Chief Economist and professional publications by economists in the office.

Although you will be returning, what will you miss about Boulder?

I really like teaching, especially undergraduates. I’ll miss the intellectual atmosphere at a major research university. But, I’ll be bringing back my D.C. experiences to my classrooms. Boulder is a beautiful place. I will miss skiing and biking and the great neighborhood I live in. Why would you go somewhere else permanently?