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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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To get a mainstream take, HuffPost called monetary economists at random from the list as members of the AEA. "I think there is a pretty good number of professors of economics who want a very limited use of monetary policy and I don't think that that necessarily has a negative impact on their careers," said Ahmed Ehsan, reached at the economics department at James Madison University. "It's quite possible that if they have some new ideas, that might be attractive to the Federal Reserve."

Ehsan, reflecting on his own career and those of his students, allowed that there is, in fact, something to what the Fed critics are saying. "I don't think [the Fed has too much influence], but then my area is monetary economics and I know my own professors, who were really well known when I was at Michigan State, my adviser, he ended up at the St. Louis Fed," he recalls. "He did lots of work. He was a product of the time...so there is some evidence, but it's not an overwhelming thing."

There's definitely prestige in spending a few years at the Fed that can give a boost to an academic career, he added. "It's one of the better career moves for lots of undergraduate students. It's very competitive."

Press officers for the Federal Reserve's board of governors provided some background information for this article, but declined to make anyone available to comment on its substance.

The Fed's Intolerance For Dissent

When dissent has arisen, the Fed has dealt with it like any other institution that cherishes homogeneity.

Take the case of Alan Blinder. Though he's squarely within the mainstream and considered one of the great economic minds of his generation, he lasted a mere year and a half as vice chairman of the Fed, leaving in January 1996.

Rob Johnson, who watched the Blinder ordeal, says Blinder made the mistake of behaving as if the Fed was a place where competing ideas and assumptions were debated. "Sociologically, what was happening was the Fed staff was really afraid of Blinder. At some level, as an applied empirical economist, Alan Blinder is really brilliant," says Johnson.

In closed-door meetings, Blinder did what so few do: challenged assumptions. "The Fed staff would come out and their ritual is: Greenspan has kind of told them what to conclude and they produce studies in which they conclude this. And Blinder treated it more like an open academic debate when he first got there and he'd come out and say, 'Well, that's not true. If you change this assumption and change this assumption and use this kind of assumption you get a completely different result.' And it just created a stir inside--it was sort of like the whole pipeline of Greenspan-arriving-at-decisions was
disrupted."

It didn't sit well with Greenspan or his staff. "A lot of senior staff...were pissed off about Blinder -- how should we say? -- not playing by the customs that they were accustomed to," Johnson says.

And celebrity is no shield against Fed excommunication. Paul Krugman, in fact, has gotten rough treatment. "I've been blackballed from the Fed summer conference at Jackson Hole, which I used to be a regular at, ever since I criticized him," Krugman said of Greenspan in a 2007 interview with Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now! "Nobody really wants to cross him."

An invitation to the annual conference, or some other blessing from the Fed, is a signal to the economic profession that you're a certified member of the club. Even Krugman seems a bit burned by the slight. "And two years ago," he said in 2007, "the conference was devoted to a field, new economic geography, that I invented, and I wasn't invited."

 
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