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Andrew Felton Brimmer, born in Louisiana in 1926 to sharecropping parents, became one of America’s premier public economists, serving as a member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System from 1966 to 1974 and as chairman of the Financial Control Board of the District of Columbia in 1996. He also founded and manages Brimmer and Associates, a private consulting company with many corporate clients since 1977.
In 1944 the young Brimmer moved to the state of Washington and worked as an electrician’s helper in the shipyards before joining the U.S. Army for two years. He later earned his BA (1950) and MA (1951) degrees in economics from the University of Washington. After a year of scholarly work in India supported by a Fulbright grant, he completed his PhD in economics in 1957 at Harvard University. Following a second Fulbright grant in 1958 that allowed him to help establish the Central Bank of Sudan, he served for five years as an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
In 1963 President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) appointed Brimmer to the post of deputy assistant secretary for economic affairs in the U.S. Department of Commerce. In this position, he authored an influential study documenting the effects of racial discrimination in public accommodations on interstate commerce, thus providing the constitutional justification for federal regulation of activities that otherwise might have been considered purely local matters to be left to the states. Brimmer summarized his contribution by noting that:
What I did was to design an [e]conomic [m]odel which enabled me to examine the differential impact of segregation and discrimination on African Americans—from the point of view of travel, entertainment, consumer expenditure patterns, and the level of money income.… I was able to do computer simulations that tracked travel along three separate routes from Washington, D.C., … to Miami, Florida, … New Orleans, and … Chicago. The net result was that we were able to demonstrate that African Americans had to travel about twice as far and roughly twice as long as white Americans. This violated the Guidelines of the National Safety Council.
Once the Public Accommodations Section of the Civil Rights Bill became law in the summer of 1964, it was challenged by the defenders of segregation. The case quickly got to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously upheld its constitutionality. The Court based its decision substantially on the testimony I prepared. (U.S. Supreme Court 1964; Brimmer 2006)
Brimmer has returned frequently to issues of black economic progress, arguing strenuously for more black entrepreneurship, increased adoption of the corporate mode of organization (Brimmer 1973), strong educational achievement (Horatio Alger Association 1974), and careful attention to personal finances. He has simultaneously noted that the economic costs of unequal treatment accorded African Americans has significantly hampered access to higher-paying jobs and slowed the rate of black entry to managerial professions. Noting the national interest in ending unequal treatment, he argued that such discrimination deprived the U.S. economy of $215 billion in 1991, roughly 3.8 percent of GDP (Brimmer 1995).
In 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) appointed Brimmer to a fourteen-year term with the Federal Reserve Board of Governors (of which he served eight). He was the first African American to serve in this elite position. Recognizing Brimmer’s objectivity and analytical skills, President Johnson declared:
I do not expect Dr. Brimmer to be an easy-money man or a tight-money man.… I expect Dr. Brimmer to be a right-money man, one who, I believe, will carefully and cautiously and intelligently evaluate the Nation’s needs and the needs of all of its people, and recommend the policies which his conscience and his judgment tells him will best serve the national interest. (Johnson 1966)
Brimmer returned to public service in 1996. Willing to grapple with the daunting budgetary crisis of the nation’s capital, Brimmer accepted President Bill Clinton’s appointment to serve as chairman of the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority (the Control Board) in 1996. The Control Board was given sweeping authority over nine major city departments, including public works, health, education, and welfare. The Control Board met with resistance from some sectors of the District, including from those who resented the loss of the limited sovereignty that the District had obtained in 1973 and from public sector trade unions that objected to the fiscal austerity that was the federal mandate given to the Control Board.
As chairman of the Control Board, Brimmer was vested with a wide range of powers to deal with the fiscal deficits that the city had incurred. It was a contentious period. For instance, during his tenure, Brimmer sought as a top priority to improve the D.C. school system, which was in shambles (District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority 1996). The Control Board took the institutional step of transferring authority from the Board of Education to an Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees that it had created. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found that the Control Board could not legally do this, modifying Brimmer’s efforts at educational reform. Brimmer’s critics were harsh on both his management style and his policies. One even argued that “Brimmer’s imperiousness runs up and down the organization: never retreat, never admit you were wrong, and never, ever say you’re sorry. Brimmer believes that he and his cohorts are on a mission and that he has a sovereign right to run over all objections” (Stabile et al. 1998). During this period, controversies were legion. For instance, in 1997 Brimmer was forced by outraged District residents, Control Board members, and members of Congress to withdraw approval of a $625,000 lease of a luxury suite requested by the city’s elected mayor. At the end of his term, Brimmer was succeeded by Alice Rivlin. Brimmer returned to his consulting and scholarly role, proud that he had, in his view, resisted the politicization of important economic and management issues facing the District of Columbia.
A pioneering economist, Brimmer was elected to the Washington Academy of Sciences in 1991 and has held leading elected roles in the American Economics Association, the Eastern Economics Association, and the North American Economics and Finance Association. He has served as an economics professor at Michigan State University, the Wharton School of Finance, and Harvard University, and holds a faculty position as the Wilmer D. Barrett Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Brimmer has also been a member of the Black Enterprise Board of Economists and the Board of Overseers of Harvard University, and he continues to serve as chairman of the Tuskegee University Board of Trustees.
Brimmer’s scholarly interests have focused on monetary issues (see, e.g., Brimmer 1986, 1989, 1993, 1998) and the economic costs to society of racial discrimination (Brimmer 1973, 1995, 2000). Brimmer has long been known for his rigorous mentorship of promising young economists, especially African American scholars. He has brought many of them into his firm, where they have absorbed the critical role of rigorous evaluation of data in advancing their professional economics careers.
No stranger to the private sector, Brimmer’s firm has provided expert economic analysis and testimony for many of the nation’s leading corporations. He has held board positions in such companies as DuPont, Gannett, United Airlines, BlackRock Mutual Funds, and Bank of America. He remains a leading force in the economics profession and corporate America.
- Brimmer, Andrew F. 1973. The Road Ahead: Prospects for Blacks in Business. Journal of Negro History 58 (2): 187–203.
- Brimmer, Andrew F. 1986. International Banking and Domestic Economic Policies: Perspectives in Debt and Development. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Brimmer, Andrew F. 1989. Central Banking and Systemic Risks in Capital Markets. Journal of Economic Perspectives 3 (2): 3–16.
- Brimmer, Andrew F. 1993. Origins and Causes of the S&L Debacle: A Blueprint for Reform. Washington, DC: National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement.
- Brimmer, Andrew F. 1995. Economic Costs of Discrimination against Black Americans. In Economic Perspectives on Affirmative Action, ed. Margaret C. Simms, 11–29. Washington, DC: Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
- Brimmer, Andrew F. 1998. Financial Regulation and the Fragility of the Banking System. North American Journal of Economics & Finance 9 (1): 105–119.
- Brimmer, Andrew F. 2000. Economic Prospects for African Americans, 2001–2010: Politics and Promises. Washington, DC: Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies.
- Brimmer, Andrew F. 2006. Andrew F. Brimmer: Kenneth Boulding Fellow. Speech delivered at the American Academy of Political and Social Science Installation of Fellows. http://www.aapss.org/section.cfm/1141/1143.
- District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority. 1996. Children in Crisis: A Report on the Failure of D.C.’s Public Schools. Washington, DC: Author.
- Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans. 1974. Andrew F. Brimmer. http://www.horatioalger.com/members/member_info.cfm?me mberid=bri74.
- Johnson, Lyndon B. 1966. Remarks at the Swearing In of Andrew F. Brimmer as a Member, Federal Reserve Board, March 9. The American Presidency Project, eds. John Woolley and Gerhard Peters. University of California at Santa Barbara. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=27477.
- Stabile, Tom, Ken Cummins, Jonetta Rose Barras, et al. 1998. Step Down. Washington City Paper (February 20).
- S. Supreme Court. 1964. Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States et al. 379 U.S. 241. Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. No. 515.
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