Columbians Ahead of Their Time
"Professional economists should stick to their knitting...economic counseling and political advocacy could get in one another's way."

Arthur Burns (1904–1987)
'25CC, '34GSAS
Faculty 1941–67

Arthur Burns, an economist chary of governmental controls, supervised the U.S. economy throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s by serving as chair of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Council of Economic Advisors and, later, as chair of the Federal Reserve under Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. Burns's career an economic advisor began with academic work, first at Rutgers University and then at Columbia, where he remained on the faculty for over 20 years. While teaching, Burns became involved with the National Bureau of Economic Research; he began as a researcher in 1930, and by 1944 he succeeded Wesley Clair Mitchell as director. In 1946, Burns co-authored Measuring Business Cycles , a study showing that economies have ebbs and flows that can be predicted and gently ameliorated without major intervention. This position was antithetical to the views of the era's dominant economic theorist, John Maynard Keynes, who advocated vigorous use of governmental controls to build the economy. Though Burns himself was a Democrat, his views were popular with Republican politicians, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom Burns met when both men were at Columbia. When Eisenhower became president, he put Burns in charge of the then wobbly Council of Economic Advisors. In 1953, Burns advised the president not to embark on a recovery program for a small recession that looked threatening; when the economy righted itself in early 1954, Eisenhower remarked: "Arthur, you'd have made a fine chief of staff during the war." Burns continued to serve Republican presidents as an economic advisor and, later, as an ambassador to West Germany. As economist and historian Robert Lekachman notes, " Burns, a formidable figure in his own right, is the first professional economist to attain the summit of the mysterious realm of central Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, a job having great actual and still larger symbolic consequence."

The son of Eastern European émigrés Nathan Burnseig and Sarah Juran of Bayonne, NJ, Burns went to Columbia College on a tuition scholarship. He worked his way through school as a waiter, shoe salesman, house painter, postal clerk, and summer sailor. Soon after taking an A.M. degree in 1925, Burns began teaching at Rutgers University; while there, Burns embarked on his doctoral work at Columbia, which he completed in 1934. 10 years later, Burns returned to Columbia for good as a professor of economics. As influential as Burns was in his political roles, he was, perhaps, more influential as a professor: while at Columbia he nurtured several young talents—including Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and Alan Greenspan—who were to affect the U.S. economy well after his time.

Read more about Burns in the Columbia Encyclopedia

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the head ahead of his time.

Milton Friedman was ahead of his time, too.

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