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An Economist in Government

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AN ECONOMIST IN GOVERNMENT by Arthur F. Burns The practicing economist is a newcomer to the highest councils of our government. He is there by virtue of the Employment Act which Congress passed in 1946. Only a few economists have so far had the privilege of serving officially as a President's economic adviser. Professor Roy Blough of Columbia served Mr. Truman so. I have worked with President Eisenhower. A third Columbia professor, Raymond J. Saulnier, now holds this responsibility.

When I was invited by President Eisenhower to serve as the Chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers, I was in the midst of some research to which I was devoted. But that was not my only reason for thinking twice before accepting the opportunity. Another was a feeling of uncertainty whether a professional economist could function well in a political environment. In performing his duties under the Employment Act, a member of the Council will, to be sure, work with a technical staff and numerous experts both within and outside the government. But the great bulk of his time is of necessity taken up by conferences or preparing for conferences with the President, with members of the Cabinet or their principal deputies, with heads of independent agencies, with the White House staff, and with members of the Congress.

Now, these men are generally known as politicians. The term is a good one to the extent that it indicates that they are all mar:A:Red with issues of public policy. The term politician, however, sometimes suggests an absorbing pursuit of partisan interests, or of personal power and gain, by cynical men with uncultivated minds.

Such men exist. But I have found that they are fewer than I had supposed before I became a government official. As a group, politicians in high office are men of outstanding ability. They usually bring good minds, wide knowledge of affairs, and considerable experience in handling practical problems to their special tasks. Their minds are receptive to fact and reason. They work hard at their jobs and seek to promote the general welfare, rather than the advantage of this or that group. They are not lacking in vanity or personal ambition, but as a rule they seek to advance their fortunes by performing honorably and well at their appointed tasks. True, they are prone—perhaps excessively prone—to

identify the interests of the nation with the interests of their party, yet they do so in the sincere belief that their political party is the best instrument for promoting the general welfare.

An economist in government who seeks to be constructive must recognize these qualities of the typical politician in high office. He must realize that the general knowledge or intelligence which he brings to his tasks is probably no greater than that of the politician; that his devotion to the public welfare is by no means unique but is shared by his political colleagues; and that his sense of integrity and of right conduct is probably no higher than that of men charged with political responsibility.

The economist must also realize that he is not the sole possessor of economic knowledge. Some politicians have had deep experience in handling economic affairs in the course of their careers—for example, Joseph Dodge, Marion Folsom, Sinclair Weeks, Arthur Summerfield, George Hurfiphrey, Prescott Bush, and Ralph Flanders, among others. Besides, practically every politician who holds a major office is bound to acquire, simply by doing his job, intimate familiarity with some aspects of our economy.

Nor can the economist afford to forget that he is rarely able to speak with the impersonal authority of science. Not only is his ability to predict very limited, but in handling issues of policy he is inevitably influenced by his philosophic and ethical attitudes.

For example, at a time when inflationary pressures are running high, general price stability can be sought by reducing government expenditures —which can be done in many different ways; or by increasing taxes— which can be done in different ways; or by imposing credit restraints, or by altering the institutional arrangements under which collective bargaining takes place, or by modifying the procedures under which market prices are set, or by stimulating the output of commodities and services— all of which can be done in different ways; or by some combination of these several approaches.

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