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Priceless: How the Federal Reserve Bought the Economics Profession

The Federal Reserve so thoroughly dominates the field of economics that real criticism of the central bank has become a career liability for economists.

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Just how dominant is the Fed today?

The Federal Reserve's Board of Governors employs 220 PhD economists and a host of researchers and support staff, according to a Fed spokeswoman. The 12 regional banks employ scores more. (HuffPost placed calls to them but was unable to get exact numbers.) The Fed also doles out millions of dollars in contracts to economists for consulting assignments, papers, presentations, workshops, and that plum gig known as a "visiting scholarship." A Fed spokeswoman says that exact figures for the number of economists contracted with weren't available. But, she says, the Federal Reserve spent $389.2 million in 2008 on "monetary and economic policy," money spent on analysis, research, data gathering, and studies on market structure; $433 million is budgeted for 2009.

That's a lot of money for a relatively small number of economists. According to the American Economic Association, a total of only 487 economists list "monetary policy, central banking, and the supply of money and credit," as either their primary or secondary specialty; 310 list "money and interest rates"; and 244 list "macroeconomic policy formation [and] aspects of public finance and general policy." The National Association of Business Economists tells HuffPost that 611 of its roughly 2,400 members are part of their "Financial Roundtable," the closest way they can approximate a focus on monetary policy and central banking.

Robert Auerbach, a former investigator with the House banking committee, spent years looking into the workings of the Fed and published much of what he found in the 2008 book, " Deception
and Abuse at the Fed
". A chapter in that book, excerpted here, provided the impetus for this investigation.

Auerbach found that in 1992, roughly 968 members of the AEA designated "domestic monetary and financial theory and institutions" as their primary field, and 717 designated it as their secondary field. Combining his numbers with the current ones from the AEA and NABE, it's fair to conclude that there are something like 1,000 to 1,500 monetary economists working across the country. Add up the 220 economist jobs at the Board of Governors along with regional bank hires and contracted economists, and the Fed employs or contracts with easily 500 economists at any given time. Add in those who have previously worked for the Fed -- or who hope to one day soon -- and you've accounted for a very significant majority of the field.

Auerbach concludes that the "problems associated with the Fed's employing or contracting with large numbers of economists" arise "when these economists testify as witnesses at legislative hearings or as experts at judicial proceedings, and when they publish their research and views on Fed policies, including in Fed publications."

Gatekeepers On The Payroll

The Fed keeps many of the influential editors of prominent academic journals on its payroll. It is common for a journal editor to review submissions dealing with Fed policy while also taking the bank's money. A HuffPost review of seven top journals found that 84 of the 190 editorial board members were affiliated with the Federal Reserve in one way or another.

"Try to publish an article critical of the Fed with an editor who works for the Fed," says Galbraith. And the journals, in turn, determine which economists get tenure and what ideas are considered respectable.

The pharmaceutical industry has similarly worked to control key medical journals, but that involves several companies. In the field of economics, it's just the Fed.

Being on the Fed payroll isn't just about the money, either. A relationship with the Fed carries prestige; invitations to Fed conferences and offers of visiting scholarships with the bank signal a rising star or an economist who has arrived.

 
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