At the Aims of Public Policy address, Harris Associate Professor Damon Jones encouraged new students to remain open to the possibilities of a broad, long career.
What are the aims of public policy?

Two years ago, Associate Professor Damon Jones was on leave from his post at Harris School of Public Policy, and was serving as a senior economist at the Council of Economic Advisors.

One day he was called to attend a meeting in the Oval Office via Zoom.

“This moment was sort of a culmination of my career,” he told about 200 people in the Keller Center Forum in September for the annual Aims of Public Policy address. “I had always wanted to be in a role of giving policy advice and here I was talking to some very influential people…about a topic where I thought I had some expertise and a lot of interest and passion.”

Then his moment in the spotlight went a little sideways.

Before he explained how, Jones utilized the address—a longstanding Harris tradition in which a faculty member welcomes entering Harris students by encouraging them to reflect on the broader purpose of their education—to expand their perceptions of public policy.

“There’s not one aim for all,” said Jones, who also serves as associate director of the Stone Center for Research on Wealth Inequality and Mobility, “and I’m not sure if I agree fully with my original aims of getting into public policy, or if I wouldn’t amend them, but I’m going to walk you through some of how my thinking has changed over time.”

Today Jones researches where three fields intersect: public finance, household finance, and labor economics. His interest in the field started as a six-year-old in East Orange, N.J., where he noticed at that young age the striking difference between his community and neighboring South Orange, a short walk west but much more affluent, verdant, and white.

Those differences led him to pursue social sciences and urban studies in college. They also fueled his strong desire to find solutions to those inequalities and sustained him through the rigors of a college education.

“It created a sense of urgency,” he said. “I wanted to actually change things. That’s not always what the aims of education are but sometimes I think that can get in the way of you just fully immersing yourself in your classes.”

The Harris community, he added, often discusses and prioritizes impact. Students sometimes consider how they can make an immediate impact while they are in school.

“One thing I would note is that it’s okay here to slow down,” Jones said, “take some things in. There’s going to be enough time” to make an impact over time.

Perils of economic reasoning

Associate Professor Damon Jones with Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, interim dean and Sydney Stein Professor at Harris.

After graduating from college, he worked as a Research Associate at Brookings Institution and volunteered at a tax preparation nonprofit, which would inform his later work, before deciding to attend graduate school.

During that journey, Jones said, he got “really good” at “knowing when I didn’t know something.” Professors told him that instead of answering questions, as he’d done as an undergraduate, he would be expected to ask questions “that people hadn’t asked before.”

“That turned out to be very difficult,” he said. “It was very humbling,” which Jones viewed as beneficial.

“I actually think that might be an aim and a feature of a good education,” he said. “You should be engaging with important questions with great complexity, with ambiguity, and in that, there should be some moment of humility where you’re trying to grasp. There is a lot we don’t know. There’s a lot to learn and that should be a positive thing.”

For him, that humility presented challenges. Surrounded by people who exuded confidence, Jones said, his flagged. He “wanted to have the right answer” and kept asking himself if he was approaching his work correctly and how an economist would consider the topics Jones encountered.

The important question he failed to ask himself, he said, was if he always should think like an economist when addressing policy issues. The significance of that question revealed itself to him over the summer when he read the book Thinking Like an Economist (2022, Princeton University Press).

In it, University of Michigan Associate Professor of Organizational Studies Elizabeth Popp Berman writes critically of the “economic style of reasoning,” which focuses tightly on efficiency in creating policy and finding solutions to social problems. It became the dominant theme of federal policy and law between the 1960s and 1980s, Popp Berman states. The concept caused some to lower their ambitions over the decades.

Jones’ journey through graduate school and his work with the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) brought him face to face with the economic style of reasoning and the discovery that public policy schools are one of the channels that has popularized the approach. Thinking Like an Economist raises the issue that the economic style of reasoning limits policy’s possibilities.

“That’s a legitimate concern,” Jones said. “What are our aims? It’s possible that we could be playing a role in blocking out certain types of thinking and we definitely should interrogate that.”

He called on students to think more about policy in the context of the human experience. Considering policy through an economic lens is only one tool in the tool kit students will be given during their time at Harris.

“There are values involved in making policy,” he added. “There are ethical questions. Policies involve more than just economic reasoning, and so I encourage you to push yourself to think about ‘what are these new tools I have and what else is either implicitly or explicitly being added together with those tools to make policy recommendations.’”

The value of fumbling

Associate Professor Damon Jones takes questions from those assembled.

As important as it may be for public policy students to take a broader view of the work, Jones said it also is important to take a long view of their career—which brought him back to his shining moment in the Oval Office in 2021.

He had been called there to discuss the Child Tax Credit, which in 2021 was a cash allowance of up to $3,600 per child provided to families. In the meeting, Jones was asked what he called “a nuanced question” about the subject.

“There was a little bit of confusion,” he said, “and I gave what I thought was a nuanced answer. I really just fumbled. I just dropped the ball. I had one turn. I didn’t get the microphone back and that was it.”

The opportunity he considered “the culmination of his career” was over. He felt like he fell short.

But he learned a valuable lesson.

“The good news is that your policy career is not going to be defined by one moment,” he told the group. “I had a lot of opportunity during my time working with CEA to contribute to a lot of different policies. As opposed to being the culmination of my career, that was just like a major milestone.”“For you, this is also a key moment,” Jones said. “You’re starting your career here at the Harris School. It’s not a culmination. It’s just the beginning.”

‘Informative, refreshing’

Associate Professor Damon Jones poses for a selfie with Dana Bozeman, assistant dean, diversity and inclusion, and Milvia Rodriguez, program director, undergraduate public policy studies.

Jones’ call for students to be openminded about their time at Harris and their careers resonated with new Harris students Shalini Chadayammuri, Emmanuel Mayani, and Mariana Patino.

Patino, who has tailored her education to influence a specific public policy issue, said she initially was taken aback by Jones’ comment discouraging that approach. Then she was reassured that maintaining an open mind also keeps open the breadth of influence her work can achieve.

Mayani said Jones made him think about the value of his previous life experiences, even though he lacks a public policy background.

“I learned to think about how do I leverage my past experience,” he said, “that I should appreciate it and use it to contribute to the community here and to inform my way forward in policy.”

Chadayammuri found it “informative and refreshing” that the entire event—which included opening remarks from Kate Shannon Biddle, Harris’ dean of students, and interim dean Ethan Bueno de Mesquita—“told me exactly what I can expect from the program and provided some face time with professors with whom I’m going to be spending a lot of time over the next two years.

“I got a good sense of how they are going to interact with me,” she said. “I thought this was really well planned and it gave me a lot of confidence about the decision to come here.”