Education and Attainment of Members of the Council of Economic Advisers, 1946-91

Article excerpt

The Employment Act of 1946 made it the federal government's duty to "promote maximum employment, production, and purchasing power" and gave the president responsibility to design and recommend specific policies toward this general goal. To help the president fulfill this new responsibility, the Act created a three-member Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). The Council was charged with several specific tasks, among them to assist and advise the president; to gather timely information; to appraise federal programs and activities; to develop and recommend national economic policies; and to furnish studies. The 1946 Act said that the Council was to be

. . . composed of three members . . ., each of whom shall be a person who, as a result of his training, experience, and attainments, is exceptionally qualified to analyze and interpret economic developments, to appraise programs and activities . . ., and to formulate and recommend national economic policy . . . (emphasis added).

Obviously, these criteria are extremely general, and each successive president has defined what training, experience, and attainments were sufficient.(1) To discover how successive presidents have interpreted the three general criteria for Council membership and to reveal whether and/or how the interpretation has differed across political parties or through time, we have gathered information on training, experience, and achievements of Council members from the Council's beginning through the Bush Administration.(2)


For most CEA members, a doctorate in some area of economics seems to have been accepted as first evidence of adequate training. All but three of the first 51 Council members(3) were trained at this level. This fact raises several related questions. First, did Council members receive their degrees from highly regarded institutions? Have some schools dominated member training and, if so, has the pattern of dominance changed over time? Is there any evidence of a political preference for particular schools?

To judge the quality of an academic program is not an easy task. Still, several authors have attempted to rank academic departments by various criteria. There are two reasons why it would be wrong-minded simply to choose a single study to rank schools for the present purpose. First, the members under examination received their degrees throughout the first three-fourths of this century. Most departmental rankings are based on much shorter time spans. Second, although most departments may be consistently ranked by tier, individual rankings within tiers vary substantially depending on the ranking criteria. To reduce the influence of these factors, the rankings used here are based on the average ranking of several studies.

Graves et al. [1982] ranked U.S. academic economic departments using publication production as their ranking criteria. In the same article, they compared their rankings with the results of several similar studies dating from the 1950s through the late 1970s. Of the 15 studies reported, 10 included all 19 schools ranked by Graves et al. as being top schools. The rankings used here come from the average ranking of these 10 studies. Not everyone will agree with these rankings. They can, however, be interpreted here as a consensus ranking of economics departments/schools. The rankings and related information are shown in Table 1.

Table 1 shows that most Council members received their highest degree from highly ranked schools and that some universities were preferred over others. Harvard, Chicago, and Columbia dominated member training (45.2 percent of individual members providing 52.5 percent of months of service), while seven of the top schools are not listed as providing training to Council members. The evidence also reveals that university choices have changed over time. To show this, Council members were grouped into three sequential groups of 17 members each. The earliest group of 17 members was appointed during the period of August 1946 through August 1962. …