Tuesday, October 16, 2012

In Memoriam: Andrew Brimmer (1926-2012)

Andrew Brimmer
When I was growing up I saw Andrew Brimmer's picture in JET magazine. Usually there was some very short story about him and often he was recognized as almost a 'Black History' subject, but I confess I never read those stories. 

Andrew Brimmer, the son of sharecroppers,  was the first African-American appointed to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Brimmer died Sunday at the age of 86. 

What I also didn't know until now, was the breadth of respect for his wisdom, his expertise and competence as an economist. 

Brimmer, who served 8 1/2 years of his 14 year term before joining the faculty at Harvard University,  also successfully worked to restore fiscal the fiscal integrity of Washington D.C. when he chaired the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, in 1995. According to the Washington Post...

"...the Harvard-trained economist served as de facto mayor until he stepped down in 1998. “Clearly, this is the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced, ” he said at the time. Thankfully, he and his four colleagues on the control board proved more than up to the task."

"By the time he departed the board, which continued for another three years, he had succeeded in bringing order to the city’s finances, right-sizing a bloated workforce and establishing a culture in which performance and results mattered. It was, as Alice Rivlin, who later took over the control board, observed, a thankless job. Mr. Brimmer endured unceasing — often racially tinged — attacks from the likes of then-Mayor Marion Barry, who fought Mr. Brimmer all the way and once likened the actions of the control board to those of Hitler’s Germany. Mr. Brimmer’s thick skin, cool competence and perseverance proved to be more than a match. “I do not discuss the mayor anymore . . . ,” he told the New York Times in 1997. “Why should I produce drama when I can produce action?”"

"In announcing his departure from the board, Mr. Brimmer said it was time to say goodbye and “thank you very much.” It was one of the few things he got wrong; it was the city that needed to thank him."

This NPR interview from 2009, about a week before the inauguration of the country's first black president. The conversation gives insight into his mind and also is a reminder at how dire our world looked in January of that year and the policies that a number of economists were suggesting to pull us out of what has come to be known as 'The Great Recession'. 

And lest one is tempted to think that Andrew Brimmer was a partisan fiscal ideologue, this story  totally contradicts that view...

"One little-known achievement in his distinguished career was his partnership with President Ronald Reagan in 1982. Red ink was mounting, and the markets were worried. Reagan reluctantly decided that he had to rescind some of the 1981 tax breaks. He needed support. Chief of staff Jim Baker instructed me to reach out to Mr. Brimmer, a board member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which was opposing the tax increase."

"Mr. Brimmer met with the president and announced his wholehearted support for the plan. He then contacted dozens of distinguished economists and opinion leaders in support of the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act. The bill passed with broad, bipartisan support. Mr. Brimmer’s spirit of bipartisanship is sorely missed and needed in today’s Washington."

'Sorely missed and much needed', is a good way to put it. Whether you knew of Andrew Brimmer or not...

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