Faculty image Paul W. McCracken

Comments, Discussion with Professor Emeritus Paul W. McCracken

With Prof. Emeritus Herbert W. Hildebrandt

October 24, 31, 2008

What follows are the subjective, human comments of Professor Paul McCracken in an interview on the above date in his office, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan.  The purpose is to collect his personal comments on the years he has spent at the University of Michigan and his reflections in working in Washington DC along with five Presidents:  Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Kennedy, Johnson.

While drafted by Prof. Emeritus Herb Hildebrandt, all of the following comments have been approved after editing by Prof. McCracken.

We are quick to admit there is relatively loose organization of the comments inasmuch as at aged 92 both the respondent and questioner let the ideas flow as they wish.  We occasionally will move from the first to third person in the discussion.

General Reflections, Prof. McCracken

1)  On a personal level, it is interesting and laudable that the University of Michigan in its long history can maintain its high academic standing when a major public University gives extraordinary publicity to athletics rather than academics.  Newspapers shout loudly, and vociferously, when the football team, above all other academic achievements, participates in or leads other teams in a winning season.

Of course major research achievements are noted, sotto voce on an inside newspaper page, as compared with blaring headlines of sports achievements; academic achievements rarely seem to surpass the gridiron success of a football team.

Finally, only the monstrosity of the edifice now under construction (Oct. 2008) surrounding the football stadium suggests a diminution in balance between academics and athletics.  It was never always so.

2)  When I came to the University, under the persuasion of Dean Stevenson to join the Business School, I faced a major decision.  At the time of the invitation I was the Director of Research at the Federal Reserve in Minneapolis, a city for which, even today, I have warm affection.  There I was happy in my job.  It seemed like a positive future and with affection looked forward to a career in the Federal Reserve.

On reflection, in comparing the agonies that Michigan faces today, especially in some of its larger cities, Minneapolis was pleasant, inviting, warm, friendly.

3)  I must interject a negative reflection.  That said after remembering that I was hired as an Economics Professor in the School of Business.  At the time we had outside our Business School a stand-alone Department of Economics with whom I tired to seek an affiliation and cordial relationship.

Today we use the words of a ‘silo mentality’, i.e., some scholars and departments seek to remain cloistered, absenting themselves from others who do not walk or breathe the same academic air of pure economics, or are housed with them in what was then a cold, gray building.  It later burned down.  A retribution?

Indeed, I was looked upon then as a useless citizen, an outcast.  Rarely do I use gentle profanity but my inner Presbyterian self said, “to hell with them”.

But I must stop. The then Chairman, Prof. Sharfman, of the Economics Department was warm, as were some other on the faculty.  Slowly, ever so slowly, that animosity faded, but I must say those initial years were personally difficult.

4) I add the following as additional perceptions of my early academic and slowly emerging Washington DC days.  Let me, thus, comment on some of my views regarding the political tastes of the early days of the American Economic Association.  Early on, in my opinion, there was overt political affection for the Democratic Party. And those of who know me realize my world was/is the Republican Party, a leaning I have held for many years.

Thus, on campus and nationally, there may have been an underground of political concern about my views.  I have no overt proof of that statement, but sense my political DNA may have interrupted the natural flow of events, even attitudes toward me as an individual.

As time mutes one’s attitudes, I today soften all of the above comments.

Today it is no mortal sin to be a Republican and a member of the American Economic Association.  But I had my doubts years earlier.

 5) One of the most often asked questions of me, after holding the position of  Head of the Council of Economic Advisors to President Nixon, was “How was he, what is your impression of him?”  Let me give a detailed answer, in multiple parts.

  • Prior to my direct involvement with President Nixon, I was appointed as a member of the CEA (Council of Economic Advisors).  There I learned, added to my knowledge of the working of the government.  The chairperson of the Council at that time was Herb Stein.
  • Prior to Mr. Nixon assuming the Presidency, he or his staff, recommended that three of us, Arthur Burns, myself, and one other person who I’ve forgotten, were to meet in NYC to discuss economic matters. Putting together initial thoughts on the US economy.  Intrigue, guesses, editorials as to who would be President Nixon’s Sec. of State, and other Cabinet members, ran wild.  Hints were given that possibly I would be asked to come back and head the CEA.
  • A later call from the Washington Post put my hairs on end and I indicated to the caller that no one had spoken with me about the possibility of heading the Council.  To be honest, I had little inclination to enter the inevitable world of politics that that position entailed.  Orally, I signed off on the idea.
  • Subsequently I received one of those phone calls one cannot hang up on: the  President of the United States,  President Nixon was on the line.

“How about it?” he asked.

I knew what he was asking.

“I have a meeting in one hour with the Cabinet and really have nothing to tell them,” he continued.

I said, “I really should talk with my wife.”  (“I knew he had talked with Herb Stein and others; he and others had given their assent.”)

“I called my wife. “Ruth agreed  for a longer tenure in Washington.”

“…I agreed,” I told President Nixon, “to be his Chief Economic Advisor and Chair that committee.  President Nixon had something now to tell his new Cabinet.  “I was somewhat relaxed, and unnerved at the same time.”

“Good,” the President said.

I now jump ahead several years.!  I repeat the most often asked question asked of me:  “How was he, what is your impression of President Nixon?”

Most questions seemingly were couched in a negative tone; they came with an undisguised innuendo of sarcasm similar to the numerous editorial cartoons that depict him in a negative light. Even today.

Time dulls one’s memory and one is inclined to be gentle, never speaking ill of those who have gone before.  I’ll try to be unbiased.

He was a master politician, imbued with innate political skills that out-shown many of those around him.  My dealings with him were always warm, friendly, on a high level of friendliness.  Never did I feel he was condescending.  But I did sense he did let our conversations veer off the main topic, letting our thoughts lose a tight focus. He occasionally slipped away, slipstreaming as one would say of a small airplane, into other topics and concerns.

Regardless, I felt he was consistently deeply concerned about the economy.

One story.  We met at Camp David.  Lovely spot.  The purpose was to discuss whether we should have price controls or not. Forgot who was there, but the dominating theme was President Nixon’s insistence on price controls, in my estimation a no-no that I could never support.  Major counter arguments, on

both sides crossed our table..  President Nixon listened.  For one of the few times in our group meetings I vehemently opposed the President, arguing against any kind of price control.

He excused himself toward the end of the day.

He later announced he would support price controls, in my estimation a foretaste of an economic disaster.  In my estimation it was!

A sidenote.  I have the feeling that he spent the entire night wondering about the issue.  He, there at Camp David, seemed to sleep little.  One story.  Early in the AM he was taking a walk and at the crossroads of two paths, in the dark, ran into a navy man who was coming to work to prepare breakfast.  On realizing it was the President, the navy man blurted, “I’m sorry Mam, yes sir, I’m sorry.”

Soon thereafter, I resigned, knowing I had stepped out of sync with the President. He was gracious in accepting my resignation and asked if I would remain until the end of the year, which I did.

In sum.  He was warm, friendly in the years following our parting.  I visited him on occasions and in private got along well.  Attending his funeral was an emotional event, there being seated among leaders of the world, a bit heady for someone from a small Iowa farm.

6.  HWH:  “Paul, we’ll speak about four other Presidents, what was your relationship with President Gerald Ford?  Please bring us up-to-date of your interactions with him.”

…Entirely different relationship.  Indeed, we were personal friends, close friends for a long period of time, our paths crossing in more casual environments than in formal meetings. I’d have to say our human connection was one more of friendship than professional interaction.

A newspaper reporter – there were many that I knew over the years – asked me one day if I knew my name had been mentioned as one who had the ear of the President, my name allegedly being mentioned both in the paper and orally.  I was unaware of that pronouncement.  My personal guess was that a staff person may have drawn that inference.  Oh, occasionally, I did leave Ann Arbor to go to DC and responded to some questions on the economy, but those times were of a short duration.  To be honest, I was eager to return to Ann Arbor.

Thus President Ford and I had a personal friendship. It was comfortable to have affection for President Ford because of his genuine warmth, his commonness, his ability to talk with persons from all walks of life, with little awareness of their stature in life.  We got along well.  And as with other Presidents, it was a deep personal loss when he left us.

7.  While my political world was Republican, an interesting event occurred soon after President Kennedy was elected.  An old, long-time friend of  mine from Harvard days, a Democrat, called me.  His invitation was that President Kennedy wished a small bi-partisan group to meet and prepare for his review a memorandum regarding future economic policy suggestions.

Thus three of us met in NYC, a former head of the Federal Reserve of New York, a member of the Council of Economic Advisors, and myself.  For one week we reviewed options, finally arriving at a consensus document to present to President Kennedy.  Our main thrust was our concern over a lack of gold reserves on which the dollar was based.  Should that information become too public we felt there would be an economic calamity. Additionally adding to our concern, was that on the Congressional books was the requirement that enough gold had to be in our vaults to cover the value of the dollar.

President Kennedy accepted our concern and recommended that someone – I forgot who – appear before a Congressional Committee and have the requirement removed.  My memory further dims and thus do not recall the outcome.

In short.  I found President Kennedy an able person, likable and interested  in the economic situation in our country.  My brief time with him was pleasant.

8.  My work with President Johnson was of a lesser nature, but again honored that a democrat President, or his staff, would ask me to join a small group that had a single purpose:  the nature of the national budget, especially how it was to be formed and amended procedures in putting it together.  We all felt the entire process of budget preparation needed an overall, but knew that in a democracy the task would be difficult.  As part of that group, that discussion was my only tangential involvement in economic affairs during the Johnson tenure.

9.  All of the preceding governmental actions took me away from my beloved University of Michigan, at that time the School of Business, now called the Ross School of Business after a munificent financial gift from Mr. Raymond Ross.  Thus one has the right to ask, “did my Washington experiences have an impact on my teaching, research, and service to the University?

        An emphatic positive  “yes.” 

  •  There is merit in being able to bring to a class true-to-life stories on the complicated process of running a government, especially its economic policy.  To cast a stone is easy, but when one is involved in the process it is easy to discern that application of economic theory is a highly complex matter, rarely deeply understood by the casual newspaper writer.  Giving to classes the pragmatic and political nuances, both playing out simultaneously, was for me both invigorating and stimulating – or so I thought in discussions in the classroom.
  • In a sense I began to moonlight, as does Prof Paul Krugman the economist of Harvard who recently won the Nobel Prize for Economics.  He is probably better known for his articles in the New York Times than his economic theories.

Similarly, I was asked to write an occasional article for the Wal Street Journal.  Indeed,  I am told that as part of the preceding vitae, I wrote over 80 such statements.  (Editor’s comment:  Paul wrote all those statements in long-hand, relying on his long-time secretary, Margaret Oberle, to master the intricacies of the computer.  To this day, Paul still writes in long-hand).

These many WSJ statements were included in my class discussions and occasioned many letters to me and to the editors of the Journal.

  • Not said out of egotism, but adding personal stories also gave life to what some would call the somber world of economics.  I add one story concerning President Eisenhower, simply to suggest that a President may be the most powerful person in the land, yet is underneath as human as the rest of us, especially when lying in a hospital bed.

I got a call from one of President Eisenhower’s aides suggesting that the President while in the Walter Reed hospital, sought out long-time friends to come by and visit with him.  The aide suggested the President desired company, finding it lonely lying in a hospital room. My cup was full of responsibilities; my agenda was burdened with appointments.  But how to you tell a sick President that “I’m too busy to see you.”  ...“You don’t.”

I went, thinking that after fifteen minutes an aide would suggest time was up.  An hour slipped by; “ how does one politely tell a President that one would like to leave?”  …“You don’t.”  Our chat ranged far and wide.  One comment is still vivid in my memory.  He told me that he remembered when his brother attended the University of Michigan, visiting him there on several occasions. This fact I knew nothing about.  That comment gave me sincere pleasure.

In sum, our hospital visit with President Eisenhower was one of my more memorable Washington experiences.  His memory was astonishing, his ability to tell a story moving and interesting.  With sadness, three months later, I sat in the Washington Cathedral for his funeral, but with the pleasant thought that I had paused to spend time with him.  

10.  HWH:Any comments in general about the University as of now, the end of October ’08?

The University is in for rough water, financially.  One has only to read the financial papers to realize that tuition payments, especially for the smaller

private schools, is becoming more difficult for many parents.  We too, even though we’re a State school, will feel the financial ripples.  But not as much.

Surely we receive –  I’ve lost the precise percentage – some of our operating costs come from the State, but that figure has been deceasing over the years.  Increases in tuition cover some of that shortfall, but the University too will bump up against a financial ceiling where devoted parents will find it increasingly difficult to husband funds for their children’s education.

While we receive State funds, those who oversaw our endowment have done so carefully and diligently, and with significant success.  Should the State have serious financial problems – and that’s where the rough water come in – our two sources of funding, tuition driven and endowments, become a major sources of our funding.

My above comments in no way paint a picture of gloom and doom. Our great University has existed for over 150 years, slowly nearing two hundred.  We’ll continue to survive, but the financial waters will continue to disturb a smooth pattern of onward flowing success. 

All the above raises a specter that has been quietly voiced over the years:  are we approaching, capturing the aura of a private university?  My data is incomplete – and as an economist lack of data is a kiss of professorial

death – yet I sense we are yearly beginning to stand on our own bottom.  That metaphor is a silent mantra, or one not so silent at Harvard University, and is slowly joining the chorus of some here on our campus.  There is little doubt, in my mind, that we are on the doorstep of such a transition.  In a lifetime or two that assumption may become a reality.

It is with sincerity that I say the people I have worked with were highly capable; that fact made my journey at the University of Michigan all worthwhile.

Paul McCracken, November 2008. 

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