Ben White ’94 is the chief economic correspondent at Politico. After graduating with a history major, and as the president of Delta Phi, he became a researcher at the Washington Post. He worked his way up to Wall Street correspondent at the Post, then went on to cover financial news for the New York Times and the Financial Times. He moved to Politico in 2009. On Oct. 18, he launched a new podcast called Politico Money, a podcast about the intersection between Wall Street and Washington. In the first episode, he interviewed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
What financial advice would you give to the class of 2018, who will be entering the job market soon, and to Kenyon students generally?
Obviously, student loans are the big concern for a lot of folks coming out of places like Kenyon that are very expensive. Keeping on top of that is important; finding out if you can consolidate at the lowest possible interest rate to keep those payments low is a good piece of financial advice. In the workforce, the important thing is maxing out on 401(k) contributions early and often — just put away as much as you can, as quickly as you can. Don’t think retirement is that far out there even after you’re just out of college. You’ve got a working life of 20-30 years and you want to be saving, so keep an eye on your student loans, get the lowest possible rate you can, save for retirement.
What’s your process like when you’re preparing for interviewing someone like Secretary Mnuchin — someone who has a dedicated set of talking points?
A lot of it is just doing research on the counter arguments to the arguments that I’m pretty certain that he’ll present. When it comes to the impact of corporate tax cuts in particular, I look into how much that will really benefit the average worker. The White House is convinced, and trying to make the case, that all of those tax cuts will ultimately lead to higher wages and a better way of life for American workers. I’m not sure the economic data really support that. I push back with him on some numbers on that front, and the same thing with the impact on the deficit of tax cuts. We’ve seen tax cuts in the past — 2001, 2003 — some of the Reagan-era tax cuts that led to higher debt. They just don’t pay for themselves, historically.
I have to prepare myself by putting together that evidence and those numbers and seeing how he responds to them. He’s pretty good, as most of these people are at this level, at responding with the talking points, so it can be hard to nudge people off of those. At least, when I prepare for interviews like this, my goal is not simply to let this stuff pass, but to say, “This is what the numbers say, how do you respond to that?” and see how they do it. The podcast is a mix of, let’s get into the weeds and wonky on taxes and tax reform, but let’s also explain to people how Steve Mnuchin got to know Donald Trump, how he decided Trump would be a good president, and then present him with some of the more troubling aspects of the Trump presidency, like some of his Tweets about Puerto Rico. We talk about some of that. I really try to not let the talking points slide by.
What’s a critical financial story that’s not receiving enough attention?
We probably don’t talk enough about whether the stock market that we’re in, the high evaluations that we have, are legitimate and sustainable and whether there are risks out there that we’re not paying attention to. I think a lot of what’s going on with markets right now is exuberance over the Trump tax plan and getting corporate tax relief and individual tax relief. I’m not sure how sustainable all of that is, particularly if we don’t get a tax plan done.
I also think we’re not talking a lot about the fact that we’re in the eighth or the ninth year of an economic expansion, which is a really long time for the economy to grow, and historically, we should be due for a recession within the next couple of years. We’ve got a Federal Reserve that has very little ammunition at its disposal to fight a recession. Usually, they slash interest rates and try to get growth moving again, but we’re still close to zero with interest rates. You get to a point where markets teeter and maybe fall and then we hit a recession and we’ve got a U.S. Central Bank that has no real tools at its disposal to fight it. I think a little bit more probing into that and writing about that would be useful for me.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.