Meet Cecilia Rouse, new Brookings president

Cecilia Rouse being interviewed for The Current podcast

For the first episode of 2024, the new president of Brookings, Cecilia Rouse, sits down with The Current to share her thoughts on priorities facing the nation today and how Brookings can provide sound research to inform policy to improve the lives of those across America.


PITA: 2024 is already being written about as a crucial year for democracy, with more than 60 countries representing about 4 billion people holding national elections over the course of the year. You’ll hear Brookings experts weigh in on the stakes at issue in many of these, especially at the U.S. elections in November.

But for our first episode of the year, we thought we’d start a little closer to home. This year, Brookings welcomed a new president of the institution, Cecilia Rouse. Dr. Rouse most recently served as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, her third white House tour of duty doctor, and has also had a long career at Princeton University as Princeton’s dean in the School of Public and International Affairs and as the Castleman Burns Professor in Economics and Education. Dr. Rouse, welcome to Brookings, welcome to The Current. Thanks for talking to us.

ROUSE: Thank you. I’m very happy to be here.

PITA: So our show talks about issues that are in the headlines, but also that are part of the ongoing policy conversation, even if they’re not breaking news. What are some of those issues that you feel are going to be the top national priorities for the coming year?

ROUSE: Well, there are many, and it was very hard to choose, but there are there are a few that I think are really salient and come to the forefront. One is obviously the role of government. We’ve got a large public debt. We’ve been through a pandemic, now we’re coming out of the pandemic. So really, how do we use federal resources responsibly so that we ensure that we take care of Americans today and going forward for future generations? Another is about jobs and opportunity. Again, that’s a livelihood for most Americans. We know that we need to have a vibrant labor market so people have a job. It is a meaningful job. We need to make sure that that’s open to all. National security, we see that around the world, what is America’s role in the world and how do we balance that against domestic priorities? Are we going to be the world’s police person? But what is our role in the world? And then we also know we have this existential threat of climate change. So what are the effective policies going forward in terms of addressing climate energy? And then another existential threat, because that’s what we we’re dealing with right now, but we have, this new technology, AI, artificial intelligence, especially with the generative AI, and how do we appropriately regulate that? How do we think about it? How do we ensure that we harness the the best of it while also minimizing the potential costs?

PITA: Our colleagues in Economic Studies have recently held an event in which, in which they looked at the gap between how national economic well-being is measured, but how everyday Americans feel the economy is doing for them in their day-to-day lives. As an economist, what are some of your thoughts about that, that gap and how we talk about and how policymakers examine those national big picture metrics and how we talk to Americans and how those statistics translate into their ordinary lives.

ROUSE: This disconnect between how economists are attempting to measure economic activity and the health of the economy, and how people are feeling, really goes to the challenge of collecting data and measuring really conceptual issues, such as well-being. So when economists ideally what we would think of is, how people are doing and the health of the economy, we don’t really want to understand what kind of a job do they have. Do they have a job that pays enough so they can pay their rent and buy food, and take care of their families without having to have 2 or 3 jobs in order to do so? What is their mental health do they have? Are they healthy and do they feel well? Because that goes to the heart of well-being. But how does one measure that in asking questions on a survey? Or if you think about, a lot of our data, for example, in the labor market comes from administrative data that is, payroll data from companies or what they know. And so I think some of the disconnect comes from the fact that our data are collected at a rather high level.

In the end, the data don’t necessarily fully match what the concepts are. And so they measure, they tell us what they’re, they’re meant to measure, which does not fully reflect how people feel. In my view, that the role then for researchers such as those at the Brookings Institution, is that we need these quantitative measures, but to supplement that with more qualitative research and qualitative going out into the communities and talking to people and really understanding what are the gaps, what is it that our national statistics and these higher-level statistics are missing? That’s how we start to fill in the real picture. And I think that helps provide better guidance for policy and to help craft a better understanding of what’s actually happening in the lives of everyday Americans.

PITA: I’ve heard that one of your sayings, one of your favorite sayings, is “it takes an idea to beat an idea.” How does that, how has that played out in your approach to public policy issues?

ROUSE: Well, it does in a couple of ways. The first is when we sit around and we debate, there’s a problem. We want to understand what are potential ways to address that problem. It’s not super constructive to just criticize one person’s idea, or an existing idea about how to address the problem. We just sit around, it becomes a very negative space and we don’t necessarily make progress. You know, obviously by criticizing, we might better understand what are the challenges with the current approach, but it doesn’t necessarily move the needle.

So first of all, I think it’s just more constructive, right. We can talk about what’s the problem with the current idea or some one person’s proposal. But if we’re really going to move the needle, we have to move past that and bring some new thinking to the table. And two, I think that’s just how policy progresses, which is we may be addressing a problem, I don’t know, the child tax credit is on the table. Right. So we want to help, I think many people want to help children. Question is, how do we address child poverty? So the child tax credit is one way to do so. If you don’t like the child tax credit that’s fine, but how are we going to address poverty? So it’s just a more constructive way of trying to move the needle to advance policies to address real world problems. As a team in meetings, and as with my team, it’s it’s just can be very negative when we’re just pointing fingers and criticizing one another. Don’t just criticize your teammate. Let’s bring an idea. Let’s be constructive. That’s great if you disagree, but what’s your idea?

PITA: Gotta have the  next step.

ROUSE: Yeah,  what’s your next step or what’s your alternative?

PITA: So then how does that affect specifically the way you’re thinking about the role of Brookings and the role of the think tank world, the policy research area more generally?

ROUSE: So again, I think that that’s how we constructively move forward. So I think the role of Brookings is one we have to analyze what maybe the problem is we have to analyze why we may not like a particular approach to solving the problem. But I think we can’t just stop with the analyzing what we don’t like or even just identifying the problem. Right, if Brookings is really going to contribute to making public policy better, then what new ideas are we bring to the table? If we’re going to make progress, we have to bring new ideas to the table.

PITA: All right. I thought we’d end on a little bit of a lighter personal note. Let our listeners sort of get to know you a little bit. So to start off with, what is your movie?

ROUSE: My movie. So I love watching movies, and my tastes can run from the, you know, highbrow to the I’m not even going to mention how low we can go, but I will, here was a movie that I just watched, I rewatched with one of my daughters recently, which is The Shawshank Redemption. It is such a great testament to redemption, to quiet determination. It’s slow. Right? But, you know, set a goal and just day by day, make slow progress on the goal. And if we just keep at it, we can do great things. It’s also a great friendship, you know, generosity. It highlighted the the humanity of prisoners, and it just, you know, it’s a it’s a feel good movie wrapped in so many, societal layers. But I just I just think that that’s just one of my favorites.

PITA: And if you could travel anywhere in the world for fun, where would that be?

ROUSE: I do love to travel. Haven’t traveled as much due to the pandemic and and jobs. So what I would say to that is there are many places that I have yet to visit. So I have never been to South America, so almost anywhere in South America would be fun. Galapagos Islands is on my bucket list. Alaska, South Pole. So there are, there are the extremes of actually crossing the Sahara desert would be fun too. So I love to travel and have many places yet to explore.

PITA: Wonderful. Well, thank you very much for talking to us today.

ROUSE: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.