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A Changing of the Guard at the National Bureau of Economic Research

Few people outside of academic economists have ever heard of the National Bureau of Economic Research (N.B.E.R.). Within the profession, however, it plays an enormously important role as an information clearinghouse. Through a series of well-attended conferences and the ubiquitous, yellow-jacketed N.B.E.R. Working Paper series (which, by my estimates, may contain more than 13,000 papers by now), the N.B.E.R. serves the critical function of letting economists know what other economists are working on now, as opposed to two or three years from now, when the research actually appears in academic, peer-reviewed journals. (An N.B.E.R. committee is also responsible for deciding the “official” dates in which the economy is in recession.)

Martin Feldstein has been in charge of the N.B.E.R. for the last thirty years, and has enhanced its importance enormously in that time period. I owe a personal debt to Feldstein for treating me so kindly in the three years that I was in the Harvard Society of Fellows. Although office space was at a premium, and I was a complete nobody, Marty gave me a place to work for the full three years. When I accidentally overran the budget of my N.S.F. grant by $5,000, I thought I would have to pay for it out of my own pocket (my entire salary was only $35,000, if I remember correctly, so $5,000 was a substantial sum of money). But Marty stepped in and covered the difference. I hold Feldstein in the highest regard, both as a scholar and as a person.

It was announced today that Feldstein is stepping down as head of the N.B.E.R., and will pass the reins to my dissertation adviser and mentor, Jim Poterba. The choice was so obvious that I can’t say I’m surprised. Nonetheless, I couldn’t be more delighted, both for Poterba and for the profession. This is wonderful news.

Something tells me, though, that after the success of Freakonomics, Poterba is going to insist that I pay out of my own pocket the next time I overrun an N.B.E.R. administered grant!