Alice Rivlin '48 engages students at ASM

February 27, 2015
Alice Rivlin `48 chats with students in the Johnson Fiction Room

Madeira welcomed economist Alice Rivlin, class of 1948, as our All School Meeting speaker on Thursday, February 19. History teacher and alumna Anne Kristol Continetti '03 interviewed Dr. Rivlin, who discussed a number of topics ranging from the barriers to women in the field of economics in the 1960s, to how an all-girls education influenced her college and career paths. Rivlin spoke about how Madeira gave her leadership experience and how, after two years as a day student, she returned as a boarding student because her family had moved back to Indiana and she found herself far ahead of her public school classmates academically. She told the story of how her choice to attend Bryn Mawr College was almost accidental, and advised our Madeira seniors not to agonize so much over their choice of college.  After the ASM, Rivlin joined a group of alumnae and History students in the Johnson Fiction Room for a fireside chat, where the students continued their dialogue with her.

On all-girls education:

On women in economics:

On being nonpartisan:


The following is a transcript of the discussion:

AKC: I thought we would start with your experiences at Madeira. Do you have any memories of Miss Madeira and if so, how was she present in student life here?

AR: Let me reminisce just a bit about Madeira when I was here. Miss Madeira was not the head mistress at that time. Allegra Maynard was running the school. I remember them both as absolutely amazing people. Miss Madeira was a continuing presence in student life, even though she wasn't actually running the school. She was everywhere. She came to field hockey games. She came to assemblies and often conducted them. Miss Madeira knew students by name and she at that time was --well, I picture her as a very old lady, which is probably how you picture me, but she probably wasn't as old as I am now. She wore big hats. She loved big hats. But she was very focused on giving girls a sense of who you ought to be. She had these phrases that stick in the mind of every Madeira girl of my era. One of these was “Function in disaster.” It was never quite clear to us what "disaster" was. One day, we were all at the chapel service, which occurred on a Sunday, which was being conducted by a rabbi that day in the gym. During his sermon, a mouse crept across the floor, very visibly exploring things. Nobody moved. Miss Madeira congratulated us on functioning in disaster. We didn’t exactly think that that had been a disaster, but we had been good to not be distracted by the mouse.

Another thing that she would say very often was: be calm at the center of your being.  That's a very useful thing to think about. It's sort of Buddhist, I think. And it comes back to me. The other was "finish in style." It meant lots of different things, but I remember senior year after we had finished our exams and gotten our college acceptances. 

AKC.: That's really helpful for people like me who teach seniors who might be feeling the way you were feeling then. What kinds of activities, classes, or clubs were you involved with here at Madeira, and did you have any idea what you wanted to be when you grew up, or did that come later?

AR: I think any specificity about what I wanted to be came later. But I'll give you a little feel for what my generation was like. I came here in 1944 toward the end of the Second World War. The reason I came here was because my father was a nuclear scientist and we moved here so he could work in Washington. Mine was a generation very much aware of World War II, which was an all-consuming war. Everybody was aware of the war all the time. It made us very idealistic. It was our hope that we would not have another war. And we thought we could do something about that. And I was not alone in feeling that we had some sort of mission. We had very high hopes for the United Nations, which was just starting.

AKC:  How did attending an all-girls school influence your decision to head to Bryn Mawr and what are some of the lessons you have taken away from single-sex education?

AR.: I had come from a public school, which was co-ed. I had sort of an odd career here at Madeira because I was here for two years as a day student. Then I went back to my public school in Indiana and found that Madeira had put me too far ahead of my classmates to spend another year there and my parents suggested I come back to Madeira as a border. So I did that. I liked single sex education. Back in Indiana, I had a boyfriend, and that was nice, too (laughs from students). But I don't remember missing boys very much in high school. I do think it gave me leadership experience.

Going to Bryn Mawr--I don't remember choosing it particularly because it was a single-sex school.  I visited Swarthmore College--where much later my daughter went--for one weekend, and I think my choice of Bryn Mawr, believe it or not, was accidental. I went Saturday to Swarthmore--it was raining, and a family friend whom I did not know was showing me around, and she wasn't very enthusiastic. I came away with the impression that it wasn't a terribly friendly place. That's actually not true. But the next day I went to Bryn Mawr. It was a Sunday, it was sunny, and we had a bubbly, enthusiastic student guide who took us all over the place and spoke enthusiastically, and I thought, "This is the place for me." I don't think it had much to do with single sex. It had to do with the weather and the accident of who was showing me around. I tell my grandchildren that there are so many good colleges in the United States, and the agony of picking "the absolutely right one for you" may not be worth it. You'll get a good education in a lot of different places, so seniors, don't agonize too much.

ACK.: Wise words. Now transitioning to your career here in D.C., you founded the Congressional Budget Office, the CBO. For people in the audience who don't have a great understanding, basically what the CBO does is they take a bill, or a piece of legislation, and they figure out how much it will cost for the federal government to enact it if it were to be passed. Correct me if I'm wrong, so if that's the role of the CBO and it is non-partisan, both Republicans and Democrats look to the office for budget analysis. I'm curious if this office was your idea, or if you were simply the first person to lead it. How did that come around?

AR: Yes, let me back up a minute. I'll mention some history, since you teach it. Madeira got me very interested in history and when I went to Bryn Mawr, I thought I was going to be a history major. Then I discovered sort of accidentally that economics was very interesting, too, and that I was good at it, so I made the switch from being a history major to being an economics major, and eventually got a PhD in economics. But I always thought I wanted to play a role in public policy. I didn't want to just teach economics at a university. I wanted to be part of the public policy in the world and try to make things better. My first big job was actually before the Congressional Budget Office in the 1960s, a very interesting period in American History when we had both the war on poverty and the war in Vietnam simultaneously, and I was in the department of Health, Education, and Welfare. We had nothing to do with the Vietnam War; we were trying to make the war on poverty work. And that was a very interesting place to be.

I went back to the Brookings Institution, where I still am, and worked on some books on the budget. That got me into the budget world. And congress was at that moment in conflict with the president. Not a surprising thing if you followed public affairs. The President was Richard Nixon and both houses of congress were Democrat--it had been that way for quite a while, and they could not agree on budget. The president wanted more spending for defense, less spending for domestic programs, and congress had the opposite priorities. The President did something that was a real no-no. He refused to spend funds that had been appropriated by the congress for domestic programs. If you read the constitution, you know that the congress decides what the government spends, subject to a presidential veto. And they were very angry. So they decided that they needed a new congressional budget process that would give them more control and prevent the president from refusing to spend the funds that they appropriated.

They passed in 1974 the Congressional Budget Act. And it created, for the Congress, a Congressional Budget Office. It was supposed to be the congresses answer to the president's Office of Budget and Management. So the CBO was written into that law, rather unspecific about what it should do--just a few lines in the act. And they needed someone to run it. It's kind of a funny story about how I got the job in the end.

Congress hadn't ever picked a CEO or Director before, so they did a dumb thing. They had two separate search processes: one in the house and one in the senate. They made two different decisions. The senate wanted me, and the house wanted a very qualified man, who would have been a perfectly good director --just a different kind of person: Sam Hughes. And Sam and I knew and liked each other. But this was an impasse. Neither side wanted to back down, and it went on for quite a while. I occasionally would call senator Muskee, who was my sponsor in the senate and say, you know, I have a job. If you want this to go to Sam, it would be alright with me. But he would say, "No, no, no. We need you." Then it got solved by a sort of weird thing. The chairman of the ways and means committee, who was a very powerful chairman, named Wilbur Mills from Arkansas, was, unbeknownst to the public, a heavy drinker. One night he was drinking and driving his car and had in the front seat an exotic dancer whose name was Fanny Fox (laughs from students). And they were in some sort of argument and Fanny leapt out of his car and into the Tidal Basin. The Tidal Basin fortunately isn't very deep. Fanny did not drown. She was rescued. But that was the end of Chairman Mills' career in the House. Well, what does that have to do with me? The then chairman of the house budget committee moved up to take his job. He had been adamant that he wanted Sam Hughes and there were sexist overtones. He had been reported to have said that over his dead body was a woman going to run the new organization. But he stepped aside to take this other chairmanship. That meant that Brock Adams, who was a congressman from the state of Washington, who hadn't been involved particularly with the choice of Sam Hughes and he said to Senator Muskee, "if you want Alice Rivlin, it’s okay with me."  So, I owed my job to Fanny Fox.

AKC: Was it hard to run this non-partisan office in a city that is obviously very partisan?

AR: That's a question that is still on people's minds. The Congressional Budget Office of which I am very proud--and it does more than just cost bills, it does analysis, what happens if we pass this bill, what the options are. I thought it was extremely important to be non-partisan. We set it up--the people I hired 40 years ago--we're about to have an anniversary next week--we were insistent that we be non-partisan, and one of the things that I decided early on, which turned out to be important, was that the CBO does not give recommendations to the Congress on what it ought to do. It gives options, it give alternatives, it gives cost estimates, it gives the numbers and as good an analysis as it can about what might happen if you did this or did that, but it never says "this is what you ought to do." I think that was really important, because if you are making a recommendation, then everyone descends on you to try to get it to come out their way. And if it is options and alternatives, they may make a speech on the floor and say, "this alternative is clearly better."  Then someone else makes a speech saying it should go the other way. Or they may say the CBO's estimates are biased.  You get criticism from both sides.

The CBO has held to that non-partisan "just the facts" stand now for 40 years, and it's had very able leadership, including the current director, Doug Elgendorf. Sure, there was lots of partisan back and forth in an attempt to show were biased one way or another, but as long as it's coming from both sides, you don't care.

AC:  Thank you. We are going to open it up for questions.

Q: Julia Berley - four-year senior day student from Washington, DC: I was wondering what it was like to study economics in the 50s and 60s, because I can imagine it was a rather male-dominated field, and if you had to face a lot of sexism, and what changes you've seen.

AR:  A lot has happened in the period of my career. It was really very different at the time I graduated from Madeira and went on to Bryn Mawr, and subsequently on to Radcliffe. I don't think I actually realized how much of pioneer the little group of women I belonged to was. It was fairly unusual then for women to go to graduate school, especially in economics and the reason my degree says Radcliffe, actually...Harvard University did not give degrees to women. They had Radcliffe College, which had been a separate institution before World War II. It was originally called The Harvard Annex, which gives you an idea of what the status of women was, and Harvard professors, moonlighted to make a little extra money, and gave classes for Radcliffe girls after hours. That had disappeared by the time I got there.

During World War II, the men all disappeared and they didn't have enough students to have separate classes. So they put the classes together. But the vestiges of sexism were still there. There was a library which was closed to women, under the terms of the donor's will. If you wanted to check out a book, you got a male friend to go get it for you. When I was a teaching fellow at Radcliffe, they hadn't had female teaching fellows. I think I was in the second class where they allowed women to teach, and I had a very great class--the introductory course in economics that I was teaching, but I was married by then and I was pregnant. And the second year that I taught this class, the rules were that you couldn't teach if you had an infant, so I couldn't teach the second semester. The man who did teach the class who I had been teaching from September to January said it was obvious that a woman couldn't teach economics, so the first semester grades wouldn’t count. I think he thought he was ingratiating himself with the boys. Actually, he wasn't. My "A" students were furious! They saw their good grades going down the drain. They went to the chairman of the department--well, they came to me first--and I said to go to the chairman and he'll straighten this out. He lectured the teacher about that was not how we did things.

But things like that kept happening. Somewhere in my career, not too long after that, I was invited to give a seminar at University of Maryland. And I did it, and it went well. And they had a job opening for a junior professor and I thought well, I have little kids, the academic life might not be so bad, because it would give me my summers off and a little more flexible schedule, and the head of the Economics department at the University of Maryland said, "You know, you're the best candidate that we have for this job, and I'm terribly sorry that we can't hire you." And I said, "Why can't you?" And he said, "Well, the dean says that we can't hire a woman."  People just said things like that in those days. It wasn't illegal. We could not say that now. It would be illegal to either say that or to do that. The law requires employers to consider all candidates, regardless of gender, race, whatever. But that was the case in those days. The funny thing is, I don't remember being particularly outraged. That was the way life was. He said he was sorry, and I said I was sorry, and that was the end of it. A few years later, women were marching in the streets, and they won, and now we have Title IX and all the things with which you are familiar.

But that was a long time ago. There is still, I think, a good deal of unconscious sexism in much of the business world. I deal with banking and finance, because of a subsequent stint at the Federal Reserve. And I think the banks are still not used to having women in high-level positions. But now we have a Federal Reserve Chairman, my friend Janet Yelin, and she's doing great. I got a lot of phone calls because I'd been at the Fed and people knew I knew Janet. They'd ask, "What do you think of having a woman as the head of the Federal Reserve?" And I'd say, "I think Janet is the best-qualified person you could find at this moment, and it's totally irrelevant that you're asking this question. It seems so 20th Century. Get with it. You don't ask questions like that in the 21st Century."

Q: Lily Yun a 3-year junior from South Korea: I'm taking economics in U.S. History right now. We recently learned about Federal Budgets and budget surpluses. In my opinion, I think a balanced budget is a good thing for a country, but I was wondering if there are any cons to having a balanced budget. Why is it so hard for a country to balance a budget?"

AR: That's a very good question and I've worked a lot on the budget problem. My answer is a little complicated. At the time I was a director at the Office of Budget and Management, another thing I'm quite proud of, besides running the Congressional Budget Office, at that time it was in the mid-1990s, we were worried that the budget was out of balance, that our deficit was too high, and that we were running up debt. We were determined in the Clinton administration to bring the budget deficit down to get to a balance budget, and we had to work across the aisle to do that. Although we started with a Democratic congress, two years into President Clinton's term, he had the experience that President Obama also had--he lost control of Congress. So we were working with a Republican Congress, a Democratic administration, but we had the common goal of reducing the deficit. We didn't want to do it in the same way. We went back and forth and had lots of negotiations, but we did get the deficit down, and the economy was doing so well at that moment that we surprised ourselves. We didn't aim for a surplus, but we got one.  So, for three years the Federal budget had a surplus, and we have not been there since. I've worked very hard with--and I believe in bi-partisan effort--to try to get the budget under control. It doesn't always have to be in balance. It depends on what is happening in the economy. If we have a serious recession, as we did in 2008-9, then the budget automatically goes into deficit. People aren't earning as much and aren't paying as much in taxes, and some kinds of spending goes up automatically (unemployment insurance, for example). But as soon as the economy gets back into shape, you have to begin to strive for a balance budget. That's where we are now. The deficit has come down a lot from a few years ago, but we still have looming deficits as the baby boom generation retires and becomes eligible for Medicare and Social Security. That spending will go up, and we have to figure out what to do about it, whether to cut other programs, or to raise taxes. That what the discussion is about. I'm not in favor of writing "balanced budget" into the constitution. It's not appropriate to do it every year, but we need to work toward a sustainable budget where the debt is not growing faster than the economy.

AKC: We have time for one last question.

Q: Kita Konerth, a three-year junior from Howard County, Maryland:  You're talking about deficit and I read that the U.S. has the highest deficit from World War II. And I'm wondering what the cause of that is, considering we aren't in any major wars.

AR: The cause of the high deficit and debt--because they go together--in World War II was the war. It was an all-out war effort, very much more consuming then. And the Federal Government was spending large amounts of money for war materials, tanks, guns, and for millions of men fighting in Europe and the Pacific --very expensive. You couldn't raise taxes enough to cover that, although tax rates were very high. They were much higher than they are now. And remarkably people forget that. People with high incomes now complain a lot about paying tax rates up to 35 percent. It was 90 percent in the top dollar bracket in those days. We ended the war with a very high debt. The deficits came down rapidly, and the economy recovered very well. But the debt was still high. Did we pay off the debt? No. We didn't. But our economy was growing so rapidly for several decades after the war that the debt became less and less important, because it was a smaller percentage of our economy. Now it's going up, not quite to WWII levels. That was all because of the recession.

(Bell rings)

AKC: That’s all the time we have. Thank you so much for talking with us today.

AR: Thank you very much.

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