As Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Donald L. Kohn was one of the people to whom Chairman Ben S. Bernanke consistently turned for input and counsel, as did Alan Greenspan before him. Kohn was part of the triumvirate — along with Bernanke and Timothy F. Geithner, then president of the New York Fed and now Treasury secretary — that led the central bank’s response to the 2008 financial crisis.
When Kohn retired at the end of August, after a 40-year career with the Fed, the New York Times called it the end of an era. “A staff economist who worked his way up through the ranks,” wrote Times reporter Sewell Chan, “Mr. Kohn was one of the last direct links to Paul A. Volcker and Alan Greenspan, the chairmen who defined the modern Fed.”
“Each day he brought to the role of public servant enthusiasm, dedication, intelligence, and a deep sense of purpose,” Bernanke told the Times.
Kohn joined the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank in 1970, after earning a bachelor’s degree in economics from Wooster and a doctorate from the University of Michigan. Five years later, he moved to the Fed’s headquarters in Washington, where he held a series of positions, including director of monetary affairs from 1987 to 2001. He was appointed to the Fed’s board of governors in 2002, and named vice chairman in 2006.
Though he jokes that as an undergraduate he devoted considerable intellectual energy to “figuring out ways to avoid chapel, in favor of a cup of coffee and a cigarette at The Shack,” Kohn also says that in his work at the Fed he relied on “patterns of thought that were developed and encouraged at Wooster.”
Kohn saw his I.S. — “Flexible exchange rates as a means to stable markets: theory, practice and evaluation” — as a warm up for his Ph.D. dissertation.
“It gave me a leg up on how to find an interesting topic that would remain interesting over a long time; how to organize a literature search to get the relevant background; and how to structure a logical examination of that topic,” he recalled. “It has served me well because I have been thinking about closely related issues my entire career. So it formed a strong foundation for a good part of my graduate work and my subsequent career in monetary policy.”
Kohn has returned to campus to speak several times in recent years, and on each occasion has taken the time to meet with individual classes and small groups of Wooster students. And while much of the conversation focuses on economic policy, Kohn also urges them to consider a career of public service.
“Governments at all levels have the power to help or harm,” Kohn told one such group. “To increase the odds on the former, we need to apply the kinds of knowledge and analytic skills you are obtaining here. I can tell you from personal experience that going to work each morning knowing that how well you do your job could affect the welfare of your fellow citizens can be a little scary, but it is also tremendously challenging and rewarding.”
While Kohn relinquished one set of challenges and rewards when he stepped down from the Fed, he skipped hardly a beat before taking up another: as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
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