Trade policies, climate change, sanctions, the refugee crisis, internet policies—all of these issues have global economic ramifications.
And each one is a concern for Rodney Ludema ’83, the chief economist for the U.S. Department of State.
Ludema and his team in the Office of the Chief Economist are charged with keeping the Secretary of State—and the nation—aware of how U.S. and global actions affect the world economy.
“Our goal at the State Department is to promote a world that is safer, freer and more prosperous,” said Ludema. “We as U.S. citizens are very fortunate to live in a country where this worthy goal also happens to be in our national interest. We promote our own security and prosperity by promoting them in other countries. That is consistent with our belief system, but it is necessarily not the world norm.”
Ludema was hired by Secretary of State John Kerry to help the department gain a better understanding of the world economy, develop smarter policies and make the economic case for U.S. policies abroad.
“Being smart globally involves trade but goes far beyond that,” Ludema said.
For example, understanding the ramifications of sanctions on Iran or Russia is complicated. What should be a target for sanctions? And what are the ripple effects of sanctions on other countries not targeted?
Another current conversation involves the global availability of an open Internet. While the U.S. advocates for such around the world as a means of promoting democracy, Ludema says it is more effective to show the economic advantages of Internet freedom to other countries.
Ludema took the chief economist position while on leave from Georgetown University, where he has been a professor of economics since 1995. In 2013, he worked for the White House Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama, and early in his career spent a year working for the U.S. International Trade Commission.
“When I travel on behalf of the department it can be a variety of things—in some cases I am conveying a message, sometimes comparing notes with those in other countries, other times simply to learn,” he said. “I often make speeches or give interviews with the foreign press.”
These (communication and cooperation) are God-honoring methods, and it is easy for a Christian to operate in this endeavor and feel positive.Rodney Ludema ’83
Ludema finds synergy with his Christian faith and the assignment he has been given by the department.
“I believe in these goals as a Christian, to build consensus abroad. The main tools we’ve been given are communication and cooperation,” said Ludema. “These are God-honoring methods, and it is easy for a Christian to operate in this endeavor and feel positive.”
He admits that the political calendar in Washington affects his work. Since his position is tied to those currently in office, “everything turns into a sprint.” What one intends to accomplish has to be done quickly.
Ludema thinks his Calvin education prepared him well for his wide-ranging work because of the breadth and depth of the liberal arts classes.
“What I appreciated about Calvin was that I could really explore among many good professors and departments,” he said. “You could find wonderful courses and teachers and test various ideas. There was an emphasis on vocation, to be of some service to the kingdom of God.”
Ludema received his master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia University and then taught at the University of Western Ontario before settling in at Georgetown.
He plans to return to teaching after his current assignment at the department ends.
“We live in a globally connected world,” he said. “That will not change. So are we going to engage that world in a way that shapes individuals and countries to work together?”
He concluded, “We can make this world economy better, and that is in the national interest. You know, some call economics ‘the dismal science,’ but I see economics as a hopeful path. That’s a heartfelt affirmation.”