‘We better ask Ben’: The quiet architect of Biden’s plan to rescue the economy

In recent months, Joe Biden’s campaign developed a virtual road show to reassure executives, investment fund managers and financiers who were nervous that the Democratic candidate’s plans to increase taxes could hurt the US economic recovery.

Penny Pritzker, the billionaire former commerce secretary under President Barack Obama, would lead off with an overview of Biden’s plans. But the worried capitalists always wanted details, and for that, Pritzker would turn over the video calls to the little-known fulcrum of the Biden campaigns economic policymaking: a 43-year-old tax and budget specialist named Ben Harris.

Joe Biden's economic advisor Ben Harris
Joe Biden’s economic advisor Ben HarrisCredit:C-Span

Biden has a sprawling and secretive orbit of economists offering him policy advice as he seeks to pacify an insurgent liberal wing of economic thinkers within the Democratic Party and the business leaders who still feel mistreated by the Obama-Biden administration. Harris, an economist who is relatively anonymous even to other economists, has taken a starring role in both efforts.

A former chief economist for Biden in the White House, Harris helped fashion a campaign agenda from the work of a small inner circle and hundreds of outside economists and sell it to the donors, executives, labor unions and activists that Biden needs behind him to win the election. He has two other jobs but works up to 50 hours a week for Biden, unpaid.


In his efforts, people in and outside of the campaign say, Harris has become a sort of policy avatar for Biden, molding new ideas into the candidate’s longstanding brand of middle-class economics and changing his sales pitch to meet his audience. Before Biden even announced his campaign, Harris was attending senior staff meetings at the vice president’s home to help develop an economic platform.

The economy will present an immediate challenge for whoever wins the presidency. The nation is rebounding from its pandemic recession, but economic indicators show that the improvement has slowed or stopped in key areas. Economists are pushing Biden to quickly rally support for the type of trillion-dollar economic stimulus plan that Congress and the White House have yet to agree on, while also pressing him to bring about the kind of economic equality that Democrats say will require a big rethinking about tax and spending policies.

Harris has helped wrap Biden’s unabashedly liberal agenda in a blanket of technocracy, assembling more than 500 detailed recommendations. In discussions with supporters and sceptics across a wide spectrum of ideology and backgrounds, Harris has helped burnish the perception that Biden is responsive to others’ concerns about his plans.

“There are things in which we are not ideologically aligned, but he has the right values,” said Darrick Hamilton, an economist who has studied racial disparities extensively.

He served with Harris on a committee that brought additional liberal ideas to Biden’s platform.

“Ben is persuaded by evidence,” Hamilton said. “He can hear and listen.”

The economic agenda that Harris helped craft includes income and investment tax increases on top earners, higher taxes for corporations and a variety of spending increases in areas like clean energy, infrastructure and higher education. While those plans remain far less aggressive than the tax-and-spending ideas of Biden’s more liberal primary campaign rivals, he has managed to avoid sharp criticism from the left-leaning economists who have pushed for historically large tax increases on corporations and the rich.

When I and others assert something we often finish the sentence with, ‘but we better ask Ben.’

Jared Bernstein, who is another of Biden’s economic advisors

The strategy also appears to have helped Biden with a broader audience. While Biden has proposed the largest package of tax increases, in dollar terms, of any Democratic nominee, he has raked in donations from Wall Street, and some investment firm analysts project a Biden presidency driving stock markets higher, in part because of his desire to pass a large economic stimulus bill.

Harris, in conversations with business leaders, explains the details of Biden’s proposals to make the case that the candidate would help corporate America by making the economy more productive.

“Ben will go way deep in the weeds, and he has enormous patience for every question,” Pritzker said, adding that approach gets results. “The American business executive is willing to accept higher taxes, if they will fund a plan that will work and not just expand government for government’s sake. They need to know that the programs and ideas are going to work.”

President Donald Trump and his aides have argued the opposite — that Biden’s plan would crush US companies and the economy. In a recent television ad, the Trump campaign warns that Biden’s plan would leave “an economy in ruins.”

Harris has built his career in Washington, and in economics, around the mechanics of building policies that are data-driven and politically feasible. And he has developed a deep understanding of how Biden thinks about the economy.

Austan Goolsbee, the former chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, who is advising Biden from the outside, calls Harris “the Biden for econ Ph.D.s.” Another longtime Biden adviser, Jared Bernstein, said Harris “knows the current platform and agenda almost better than anyone except Biden himself.”

“When I and others assert something” in campaign policy debates, Bernstein said, “we often finish the sentence with, ‘but we better ask Ben.'”

The US economy has been battered by the pandemic.
The US economy has been battered by the pandemic. Credit:Bloomberg

Harris grew up on Bainbridge Island, Washington, a ferry ride away from Seattle, the son of divorced parents. He lived primarily with his single mother. Friends describe Harris’s childhood as middle class. The heat in his house came from a wood-burning stove. After college at Tufts University, he earned a Fulbright scholarship to Namibia.

He then rose through Washington’s think tank world, learning budget policy and economic modeling while at the Brookings Institution under the tutelage of William Gale, a renowned tax and budget modelling expert. Harris continued his economics studies and earned a doctorate from George Washington University in 2011. Gale recommended him around town.

“He might be simultaneously the youngest person in the room and the adult in the room,” Gale said.

Pritzker hired Harris to advise her in 2009 in her role as a member of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, set up by Obama. Goolsbee brought him to the White House —”a gamble” that he said paid off as Harris proved adept at synthesising economic research and translating it quickly to policy proposals.

Rich Prisinzano, of the Penn Wharton Budget Model at the University of Pennsylvania, said Harris’s experience with budget models appears to have helped him develop tax plans that would raise revenue at less economic cost than the wealth taxes proposed by Biden’s former Democratic rivals, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

“They tax the same people and the same income as Warren and Sanders; they just do it through the existing tax code,” Prisinzano said.

If Biden wins and brings Harris to the White House, those skills could help the administration craft policies that score well with congressional budget modellers, whose judgments often shape what can pass the House and Senate. Biden would also be bringing a centrist, white man — one who worries, long-term, about the buildup of the federal budget deficit. Progressives, like Hamilton, fear that such worries could constrain the Biden agenda as it moves from stimulus to bigger-picture economic policy.

Harris has spoken publicly about high deficits posing long-term risks to growth. But his most recent academic work is on a topic where he finds more agreement with the left wing of his party: He is co-editing a book on inequality in labour markets, filled with chapters on how rising corporate power has hurt workers’ wages. It might also be a blueprint for Biden’s thinking on the issue.

The New York Times

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