Giri Viswanathan, Photography Editor

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen GRD ’71 reflected on her experiences as an economics student and teaching assistant for professor James Tobin in a recent talk on campus.

Speaking at Evans Hall on April 3, Yellen told a packed auditorium about being one the few women studying economics in the late 1960s at Yale. She also discussed her trailblazing career as the first woman to serve not only as Secretary of the Treasury but also as the Chair of the Federal Reserve and the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors. 

The Tobin Center invited Yellen to campus for her talk, which was moderated by University President Peter Salovey. During the event, Yellen explained that recent Yale research has informed the government’s decision making related to economic policy. The Tobin Center, which is located at 87 Trumbull street, opened its doors in January, and the center is now celebrating the end of its inaugural period. 

“I’m very happy to be here to celebrate the opening of the Tobin Center and to see the Center have a wonderful new building that really integrates the economics department as well,” Yellen said. “I found myself using the [Center’s] resources, even in recent days, myself. It’s a tremendous asset to the world’s financial stability community.”

Tobin, who served as a member of President John F. Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisors, won the 1981 Nobel Prize for Economics for his work on financial markets “and their relations to expenditure decisions, employment, production and prices.”

Yellen shared with attendees that she decided to come to Yale for her graduate studies because Tobin visited her undergraduate alma mater, Brown University, to speak on his research on lifecycle savings and balanced growth. 

“I thought that this was the work I wanted to do so I came to Yale,” Yellen said. “The way he presented the data was beautiful … Tobin was a brilliant teacher, but he was also an inspiration because he had an incredibly strong sense of social justice.” 

Yellen told attendees that Tobin’s work centered on ensuring that the field of economics focused on influencing policy and helping people rather than intricate mathematics. 

According to Yellen, Tobin’s economic policy followed in the footsteps of John Maynard Keynes, whose economic theory was used widely by policymakers developing economic solutions to the Great Depression.

“He was worried about society’s well being, but also the well being of future generations and what we owe our children,” Yellen said. “Here, at Yale he was also responsible for developing an endowment policy where the really critical question was how much money can we use today versus stashing the money away to make sure future generations are taken care of. 

While Yellen was a student at Yale, Tobin was her dissertation advisor and she served as his TA. Her dissertation at Yale was titled “Employment, Output and Capital Accumulation in an Open Economy: A Disequilibrium Approach.”

Her notes for his lectures allegedly circulated among generations of Yale graduate students and became known as the “Yellen Notes.” 

“In his class, he wanted students to be able to concentrate on understanding what the lecture was about and responding to questions and not spending all of their time taking notes,” Yellen told attendees. “So I would take notes and Xerox them and hand them out to students and this became kind of an underground classic reader for years after I graduated where people would tell me that they had studied for his class from my notes.”

Yellen said that, when she started as a graduate student at Yale in 1961, she was one of just three female students in the economics program. While economics is more accepting of women today, Yellen said, there is a lot of progress left to be made. Even today, women make up only around one third of economics PhD graduates in the nation.

Near the end of the event, Yellen discussed the Biden administration’s economic philosophy of Modern Supply-Side Economics.

Yellen told attendees that modern supply-side economics aims “to boost economic growth by increasing labor supply, raising productivity, and reducing inequality and environmental damage.” The federal government’s economic agenda, which is rooted in these principles, has won bipartisan support for its role in driving recent legislative victories, like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and CHIPS Act

One attendee, Ryan Wang ’26, told the News that he found Yellen’s rationale informative and convincing. 

“I came into the talk not knowing what ‘modern supply-side economics’ meant, but Yellen did a nice job explaining policies and recent legislation in support of the new agenda,” Wang said. “Based on what she talked about — focusing not only on private capital but also on human capital, education, infrastructure, climate — it seems like a very effective policy for achieving growth and also decreasing inequality.” 

A recent Yale College graduate, Charles Simonds ’22 told the News that while he enjoyed the event and would have felt inspired if he “were a first-year thinking about studying economics,” he wished more of the discussion centered around actual economic policy.

 Simonds added that, in any case, “Yale is pretty cool for being able to get her in a room.”

Janet Yellen was confirmed by the United States Senate as Treasury Secretary on January 25, 2021.

Evan Gorelick is Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. He previously covered Woodbridge Hall, with a focus on the University's finances, budget and endowment. He also laid out the weekly print edition of the News as a Production and Design Editor. Originally from Woodbridge, Connecticut, he is a junior in Timothy Dwight College double-majoring in English and economics.
Yash Roy covered City Hall and State Politics for the News. He also served as a Production & Design editor, and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion chair for the News. Originally from Princeton, New Jersey, he is a '25 in Timothy Dwight College majoring in Global Affairs.