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Celebrating Public Service

Fellow Spotlight: Linda Bilmes

By: Linda Bilmes

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There were two individuals who inspired my career in public service: Alice Rivlin and Jerry Brown. I met Jerry Brown when I was a 16-year-old student and he was the newly elected Governor of California. Dubbed “Governor Moonbeam” for his unconventional approach, Jerry assembled a brilliant, eclectic set of advisors who included poets, astronauts and farm workers. He hired me as a “youth advisor” because in his mind, it made sense to hear the opinions of a high school kid when the state was deciding on issues that concerned us. Jerry Brown was trained as a Jesuit. He asked rigorous, existential questions about every program, every budget item, every policy. I loved working as an intern in his office, and I saw the power of government spending to improve people’s lives. I decided that somehow, I wanted to be involved in public policy, and to help decide how public resources get allocated.

Back then, nearly all the people making financial decisions were men. But I read about one woman who seemed to be at the table, named Alice Rivlin. She had a career I was excited about! She was an academic (Professor at Georgetown), Presidential advisor (to Lyndon Johnson), trailblazer (first Director of the Congressional Budget Office, Federal Reserve Board of Governors, Office of Management and Budget) and MacArthur “genius” award winner. Decades later, when I finally met Alice, she was every bit as dynamic as I had hoped. Nothing seemed to daunt her. She fought for what she believed in (fiscal responsibility, bipartisanship, local and state government integrity, financial transparency). At the same time, she was pragmatic, down-to-earth. She had a “can-do” attitude that was inspiring because she was living evidence that it was possible. I have been fortunate in my career to be on the faculty at Harvard University and to serve in senior positions in government. I am grateful to Jerry Brown for taking a chance on me in the 1970s, and to Alice Rivlin for showing me and a generation of women what was possible.

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