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Bush’s Economic Appointees Noted for Centrism, Savvy : Michael Boskin, Known for ‘Flexible Freeze’ Idea, Called a ‘Sensible Guy’

Times Staff Writer

Michael J. Boskin, named Tuesday as President-elect George Bush’s chief economist, shares a key trait with his new boss: The Stanford professor is more a collector of ideas than a crusading ideologue.

Boskin, 43, describes himself as a mainstream conservative who will push for spending limits as a way to cut the budget deficit. He generally opposes tax hikes and is wary of government regulation, viewing economic growth as the best way to enhance prosperity.

“He’s kind of seen in the economic profession like Bush is in the political spectrum,” said Jerry Jordan, chief economist at First Interstate Bancorp. “Mike is not identified as an ideologue of any stripe.”

When Boskin takes over as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, it will represent the peak of a career dedicated to finding economic solutions for public problems.

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The economist, who wears tortoise-shell glasses and has a neatly trimmed mustache, likes to conduct research in a tranquil office building on the Stanford University campus, where he focuses on tax matters, personal saving, Social Security and other issues germane to people’s lives.

He is perhaps known best as an architect of Bush’s “flexible freeze” to reduce the deficit by limiting budget increases to the rate of inflation, with the exception of Social Security. He has testified before numerous congressional committees and was about to be named chairman of the council last year, when the Oct. 19 stock market crash brought the search to a halt.

“He’s no wild supply sider or monetarist,” said Murray L. Weidenbaum, a former chairman of the White House council, referring to influential economic views that have lost luster in recent years. “He’s a very sensible guy.”

Boskin was born in New York City, but his parents moved to a modest neighborhood on the west side of Los Angeles when he was a child. He attended UC Berkeley in the mid-1960s where he sympathized with such popular campus causes as the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War.

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‘Very Political’

After considering careers in law and medicine, Boskin became an award-winning economics student, joining the Stanford faculty in 1970. An avid skier and tennis player, he lives in a ranch-style home near campus with his wife Chris, an advertising executive for Hearst Corp.

William A. Niskanen Jr., a former White House council member, described Boskin as a “first-rate economist,” adding: “He’s also very political.”

Boskin has said his economic views became more conservative as he observed America’s struggles with inflation and recession during the 1970s, a period of swiftly growing government involvement in the economy. Such free-market sympathies have drawn criticism from Democrats who argue that government should do more for society’s needy.

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Yet “His (Boskin’s) motivation isn’t to help rich people,” Gary Freedman, a Los Angeles attorney and lifelong friend of Boskin’s, maintained in a recent interview. “It’s to help the overall quality of life.”

In the coming months Boskin will have ample opportunity to promote his views. Pressed by reporters about his approach to reducing the deficit, he said Tuesday, “I’m absolutely convinced in my heart of hearts that the budget deficit can be brought under control without a tax increase,” adding that the safest approach is to “slow the growth of government spending.”

While that view may be debated, all agree that Boskin has a talent for navigating the crosswinds of academic theory and political reality. Unlike many conservative economists, for example, he has avoided the controversial step of calling for immediate Social Security cuts.

In 1983, he proposed raising the age of eligibility for retirement benefits--starting after 2000--a cut that drew little protest when it was included in Congress’ Social Security bailout plan that year.

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Some believe his political awareness portends a close relationship with Bush. “You want the president to say, ‘What does Mike think about that?,”’ said Jordan, a former member of the White House council.

Staff writer Tom Redburn contributed to this story.


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