Yet another woman of color nominated for a high-profile government job is facing a smear campaign from the right.
This time they’re going after Lisa Cook, a professor of economics and international relations at Michigan State University. If confirmed by the Senate, she would be the first Black woman to serve on the Federal Reserve’s seven-member board of governors.
“The attacks are racist, sexist and just plain dumb. But make no mistake: There’s a reason behind them that goes to the heart of the matter ― and that is, she’s good. That’s why she’s under attack,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told HuffPost.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago recently named Cook to its board of directors. (To be clear, President Joe Biden plays no role in choosing the boards of the regional Fed banks.) Cook served on the White House Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama and as an adjunct professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She earned her doctorate in economics from the University of California, Berkeley, in macroeconomics and international economics.
But that is not enough for some conservatives, who claim she is unqualified and radical. And they’re not being subtle about the accusations.
“This is not the place in this time of great peril for purely race-based appointments,” former Donald Trump adviser Peter Navarro told the right-wing Daily Caller. “Professor Cook is more qualified to coach an NFL team than manage what may be a looming collapse of our economy from a perch at the Fed. When that collapse comes, nobody in the financial world is going to say ‘Find Lisa Cook.’ Ultimately, this is not fair to Cook herself, as it sets her up for an epic fall.”
John H. Cochrane, an economist at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said Cook is qualified only “if the job is to bring the Administration and progressive supporters’ racial policies to the Fed.”
A senior Republican Senate aide also told The Daily Caller that “Cook is one of the least qualified nominees in the Fed’s history.”
“If there is ever a time for innovation at the Fed, it is now. A stability of prices in a context of despair and growing inequality is not enough.”
Cook, who did not return a request for comment for this piece, has done extensive work on the effects gender and racial inequality have on economic growth. Warren said her research is exactly what the Fed should be considering right now as it looks at issues like employment and interest rates.
“One of the things we know is that Black unemployment stays persistently at about double the level of white unemployment. So just asking a question generally about unemployment doesn’t get to a fundamental problem about not just total how many people are unemployed, but how that pain is distributed throughout the economy and how different economic policies might change. That’s what Lisa Cook focuses on. And that frankly makes some people uncomfortable.”
Darrick Hamilton, a professor of economics and urban policy at The New School, also had nothing but praise for Cook’s work, pointing to her experience in both academia and government.
“What makes this an outstanding choice is her insightful ability to link and integrate nuanced data and information to explain and address problems well beyond formulaic status-quo decision making ― this has been evident throughout her academic and professional life,” he said. “If there is ever a time for innovation at the Fed, it is now. A stability of prices in a context of despair and growing inequality is not enough. In fact, it is a dereliction of duty. We need a Fed that can manage our price levels in a more just, humane and inclusive way; I am excited that Lisa Cook has chosen to do this.”
To her conservative detractors, Cook’s experience is not all that relevant for being on the Fed’s board of governors. They say that she lacks scholarship on monetary policy. But those objections largely fall apart when looking at the backgrounds of other Fed board members, who are not Black women.
Brad DeLong is a professor of economics at Berkeley and has known Cook since the 1990s, “when she was a go-getting graduate student here at Berkeley making things happen.” He said he would “easily put her in the top third in terms of most qualified” Fed nominees.
“She has the distinction of having made me change my mind in a seminar through argument about something important: how disastrous the progressive-era attack on the African American talented 10th was,” he told HuffPost. “That is very unusual, because I am a very arrogant SOB, and even when I lose a debate, I almost always attribute the loss to my poor performance rather than to the weight of reason.”
The Federal Reserve Act gives the president the power to choose the board of governors, adding that he or she “shall have due regard to a fair representation of the financial, agricultural, industrial, and commercial interests, and geographical divisions of the country.”
In other words, they don’t necessarily all have to be the exact same type of monetary economist with a certain number of scholarly citations.
“Almost all presidents have completely ignored this charge,” DeLong said. “It is nice to see Biden stepping up, even if only in a small way. Where is the unskilled-labor representing governor? Finance, wealth, technocratic economists and small business are almost the only people who have ever gotten a voice.”
Skanda Amarnath is executive director at Employ America, a left-leaning think tank that pushes for macroeconomic policies that benefit workers. He previously worked as an analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
“The dirty secret about macroeconomics is there’s not a lot of clear ideas about how the economy works,” Amarnath said. There’s a lot of stories, but there’s not necessarily a lot of insight into everything from semiconductor shortages and their impact to how do we know if inflation is going to last forever …? There’s a lot of people from a lot of different experiences that can actually be useful in terms of understanding how these processes work.”
Plenty of other nominees were also not primarily experts in monetary economics, let alone Ph.D.s in economics like Cook. Jerome Powell, the current Fed chair, for example, is a lawyer who was a partner at the private equity giant The Carlyle Group. Michelle Bowman, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, worked in the banking industry and the federal government. She has a law degree as well as a bachelor’s in journalism and advertising.
Daniel Tarullo, who served as a Fed board member from 2009 to 2017, was also a lawyer. And in a speech at the Brookings Institution a few months after he stepped down, he admitted that he was far from an expert on monetary policy when President Barack Obama nominated him.
“Although I had picked up some macroeconomics in that and other policymaking jobs over the years, and had worked on labor market issues both in and out of government,” he said, “I was far from immersed in monetary policy theory or practice.”
Tarullo said that, at first, his lack of experience was difficult. But by the end he came to see it as an advantage.
“Coming fresh to a place where much of the discourse was accepted or assumed by the very smart economists on the [Federal Open Market Committee], and the Fed staff helped me to see where some of that received wisdom was not holding-up well in the circumstances we were facing,” he added.
Despite his lack of scholarly work on macroeconomics, the Senate confirmed him 96-1.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), chair of the Banking Committee, said there’s “no question” that Cook is qualified.
“Dr. Cook has bipartisan support from top economists, former Fed governors, bankers and civil rights organizations. … She is a well-established economist who has worked in the public and private sectors, and academia ― and she understands how the real economy works, from the industrial Midwest to the rural South,” he told HuffPost.
Cook is not the first Fed nominee to face questions about her qualifications. In 2011, Peter Diamond withdrew his nomination to the Fed after facing opposition from Republicans ― primarily then-Senate Banking Committee chair Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) ― that he was unqualified and didn’t know enough about monetary policy.
Diamond was, and is, a professor of economics at MIT and won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2010. It was widely seen that the GOP opposition was less about Diamond’s actual qualifications and more about score-settling after Democrats scuttled a nominee under President George W. Bush.
And in a difference with Cook, no one accused Diamond of getting where he was because of his race or gender.
Democrats also took issue with several of Trump’s nominees for the Fed. But those objections were more substantive than arguments that they were token choices. Judy Shelton failed in the Senate after Democrats, and some Republicans, voted against her. She had advocated for a return to the gold standard and once called the Fed “almost a rogue agency,” questioning whether the federal government could even be trusted with oversight of the dollar. More than 100 economists signed a letter opposing her.
There was also bipartisan opposition to Stephen Moore, a conservative pundit and Trump economic adviser, in large part because of his history of demeaning and sexist comments about women. The late Herman Cain, a businessman and chair of a regional Fed bank, faced similar troubles ― but in his case, it was over sexual harassment accusations. Both men withdrew from consideration.
Conservatives aren’t just attacking Cook for being unqualified; they’re also saying she’s a radical ― a charge often faced by women of color who are up for top government jobs.
The conservative American Accountability Foundation tweets opposition research about Biden nominees. It’s gone after Cook for saying she donated to bail funds ― charities that help low-income people pay bail to get out of jail while they await trial. AAF spun it by saying Cook “bailed out rioters who burned down American cities last summer.” And it also has hit her for saying that there is still “systemic racism” in this country, saying that makes her unfit to serve at the Fed.
The tactics are reminiscent of what Republicans recently did to Saule Omarova, Biden’s pick to head the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. GOP senators went after the fact that she was born in the former Soviet Union, essentially accusing her of being a secret Communist who wants to destroy American capitalism from the inside. Omarova withdrew her nomination.
The Daily Caller’s article also accused Cook of embellishing her résumé, undercutting what it said “would be her single greatest academic accomplishment.” The dispute is over a paper she published in 2009 about Africa’s economic growth. The Daily Caller noted that her website used to say her work had appeared in “peer-reviewed journals, including the American Economic Review.”
Cook’s statement is correct; her paper did appear in the May 2009 issue. But it was part of the American Economic Review’s Papers and Proceedings, which are not peer-reviewed. Until 2018, P&P was published in the May issues of the journal; it is now a standalone journal.
At the very most, the choice of wording was slightly misleading, but it was hardly grounds to say Cook is unqualified.
“It’s kind of odd to point to qualifications and credentials, unless your point is, ‘Oh, you need to have the top credential and be the greatest monetary economist,’” Amarnath said. “There are a lot of people who have credentials in those spaces who are terrible at understanding monetary policy.”
It’s not clear exactly how much senators will grab onto these attacks. Democrats control the Senate, and Cook needs a majority to win confirmation.
Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.), ranking member of the Banking Committee, which will be considering the Fed candidates, has already raised concerns with Biden’s batch of picks, which include Cook, Sarah Bloom Raskin and Philip Jefferson. Raskin was deputy Treasury secretary under Obama and previously served on the Fed’s board of governors. Jefferson is an economics professor at Davidson College and began his career as an economist at the Fed.
Toomey is directing most of his criticism so far at Raskin, saying she has “demonstrated hostility” toward the oil and gas sector that makes her “unacceptable.” He has also said there’s not enough geographic and professional diversity among Biden’s choices, saying he’d like to have someone from the energy sector.
Amarnath said it’s completely fair for senators to have questions about Cook ― and the other nominees ― and what she would do on the Fed board. But so far the debate has not really been about her actual positions.
“The way to go forward from there is to really ask her more substantive questions on both sides,” he said. “This should be true for all the nominations. How would she be incorporating the current set of information, evaluating it in real time? I think that’s a pretty good standard to keep for everyone.”