Tuesday, December 02, 2008

My Trip to the Fed, or Ben and Me


A few weeks ago, my Economics class took a field trip to the Federal Reserve. The trip was both awesome and a bit discouraging to me. Here goes . . .


We went to the big marble building on Constitution. Of course, we had to have our IDs checked and go through the x-ray machines and get frisked first. We all got big yellow name badges, which we sadly had to return when the tour was over. Once everyone had gone through security and assembled, we were led down a hall to an elevator which took us to the second floor. There we entered in the middle of a huge, marble columned atrium - a bit reminiscent of the Capitol and some of the Congressional office buildings. We were led around the railings to an anteroom where we could hang up our coats and then we were led across the marble floors, across the big gold seal of the Federal Reserve, to the Fed Board of Governors Board Room.


It was breathtaking. The room is huge and looks like what you would image the White House meeting rooms might look like. Huge oval table in the middle, with large, comfortable leather/cloth/wood fancy office chairs - you know, the kind executives get, not the crappy ones us worker bees usually have. The chairs that the Board Governors sit in have a brass plate engraved with the Board’s last names at the top. Mr. Bernanke (as his name was on his chair) sits not at the head of the table but in the middle of the side. Our professor said that when she worked there, Mr. Greenspan would definitely sit at the head of the table, which was much more intimidating. We were allowed to sit in any of the chairs at the main table that we wanted before the presentation started, which is how I got to sit in the Chairman's chair. Woo! Very cool!


Along the walls are frames with samples of the original Federal Reserve Notes ($1, $2, $100 bills, etc.) from various years (1917, 1922, etc.) Also, interestingly, the Board room was the site of some major diplomatic talks during WWII and there were several plaques in the room marking those occasions when FDR and Churchill met in the room, and also when FDR and the Joint Chiefs of Staff met. We weren't allowed to take pictures, otherwise I would have. (Remember this . . .)


We were not the only Random University class scheduled for this presentation - besides our Money and Banking class, there was also a class from the “Semester in the City” program. Their professor had actually scheduled the presentation first and our professor arranged it so our class was able to piggy-back onto theirs. The Fed is getting away from giving presentations to school groups since with all of the work going on with the current economic crisis; many Fed folks don't have time to take people around, so we were lucky that they didn't cancel our session. Like I said, my professor used to work there, so that helped a bit.


All of the students from my class were there on time – in fact, we made sure to arrive early for the aforementioned frisking and to get settled in. Beforehand, my professor told us not to bring cameras and she warned us that since this presentation would be "Fed 101" our class would already know a great deal about what was being discussed. On this day, we were lucky to have a Senior Advisor at the Fed briefing us, who had a very "money" name that almost would have come straight out of a Dickens novel. However, since we weren't the class that made the arrangements, we weren't allowed to sit at the big table during the presentation - the other class had dibs. Of course, the other class dribbled in 5 minutes late, after Mr. Moneyed-name had started speaking.


The presentation WAS a lot of the information that we had learned earlier in the semester, but Mr. Moneyed-name was able to add a bit of color to the Fed's rationale for its decisions. When he was finished (after an hour), we only had 15 minutes to ask questions. The first question was from the Semester in the City professor who asked about what the Fed could do about outrageous credit card rates. Now, as students of the Fed know (like me!), the Fed has no authority or oversight over credit card companies . . . and that pretty much was the answer. The Fed can suggest things, but it really isn't its place. Then someone from my class asked why the Fed doesn't do more coordinated efforts with the EU Central Bank and the Bank of England. This lent itself to a longer more thoughtful answer about how each country, thinking that the crisis really wasn't going to be that bad, preferred to do its own thing, but now we might see more coordination as the seriousness of the crisis becomes more and more evident. Then the other class asked a question, which I can't remember at this point, but I do remember it was kind of pointless so I didn't listen very hard. Some other people in our class wanted to ask questions, but by then our time was up and we had to leave.


As we were getting up to go and filing out of the room, the Semester in the City folks started taking pictures in the room. Our class was noticing this and getting really uncomfortable, but we didn't say anything because their professor (who was much older and bald with a bad comb-over) was *helping them* take pictures. But then the guard lady came in and yelled at them to stop, and we all were rushed out of the room. I hope they didn't ruin the experience for future classes . . .


Being in the room and listening to the Fed person was such a wonderful, exciting experience for me - I'm really glad I took the morning off and went. In a way, the experience was also a bit of a downer because to work at the Fed you either need (a) a Ph.D in Economics or (b) you can be a Research Assistant, but those jobs are mostly for kids straight out of college who want to spend 2 years figuring out if they want to grad school or law school. Either way, it didn't sound like I would have much of a chance . . .


Also, on the way to the Fed and on the way back, the professor took 6 of us in her large van. During the trip, the other students were talking with her about their studies abroad and their grad school plans - one woman had studied in Ghana for a year, one woman is from Nicaragua and is deciding whether to go to the University of Chicago for Econ grad school, another is leading a spring break study trip abroad to study poverty in Mexico, one person is interning at the Grameen Bank, one is interning at the IMF - and I just felt so . . . small and stupid. I just felt really bad and I really don't have any comparable experiences to talk about, so I just sat quietly in the back. I know that I shouldn't feel bad – that I have a ton of experience - but in the world I want to get into someday . . . I don't think I'll be able to, with so much competition who've actually been places and worked on these major things. I don't know what I should be aiming for anymore . . . I just want to do good in the world, and try to help people, and I don't know what that means or if I'll ever be able to do it on the scale I want to. I have a lot more thinking to do . . .


So on that downer note, I'll just say that being at the Fed made me want to really study Econ more, while at the same time I feel like I have these huge limitations on me that everyone else in my class doesn't have . . . and it kind of hurts . . . I have to be creative and figure out more non-conventional ways of making an impact in whatever I end up doing.


So that’s one thing I’ve been busy with during the past month – how about you?



4 comments:

citizen of the world said...

I've been there. At some point, I gave up on the idea of competing with others in my career and just started focusing on doing the best I could at what I wanted to do. It is a variant of learning to want what you have. I feel sure you'll find your way.

mommanator said...

First of all great post and glad to see you back
second- with maturity comes reality! Me thinks you are living in reality, not with rose colored glasses- you will find your way!

Anonymous said...

Good to hear from you! Glad your still hanging in there. And I understand what you mean about the limits. I've been very fortunate that lots of my professors for example, had kids when they were in grad school or shortly after. I'll give you some advice that was given to me, use your limitations to your advantage. For example, I can't do a lot of travel, but I can do a lot of writing at home, so I try to publish...but I so understand.
glad to see you in the blog-o-sphere again!
ilnisa

Virginia Gal said...

I am so envious you got to go see the Federal Reserve! When I took Econ, you realize how important these guys are and I would have loved to see where all this goes down. Lucky you!