Alumnus Neil Irwin on the Power of Central Banking and the Value of Liberal Arts

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On Friday, Nov. 8, Neil Irwin gave the Annual Benjamin Bradlee Distinguished Lecture in Journalism. Mr. Irwin, an SMCM alumnus, is an economic analyst for the Washington Post and an editor of Wonkblog.com, as well as the author of The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire.

Before the lecture itself, Irwin met with members of the Economics Club at the Alumni Lodge to give some perspective on his time at St. Mary’s and the prospective paths of an Economics major. Irwin, who would go on six years after his undergraduate studies to pursue a Masters of Business Administration (M.B.A.) at Columbia University, emphasized what he saw as the value of a liberal arts major even in a business-driven career. Both Irwin and Dr. Michael Cain, Professor of Political Science here at St. Mary’s and the director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, agreed that the liberal arts had provided structure and a solid foundation for their post-undergraduate studies, and equipped them to think critically. Both saw their pre-professional studies as part of a learning experience for their more focused studies later in life.

Irwin also discussed some of his time as an editor for The Point News. A self-described newshound, Irwin would cover any story that he could get his hands on, and missed a fair number of classes pulling all-nighters to write these stories. While Irwin knew he loved journalism, it did not occur to him until his sophomore year that maybe he ought to try and make a career out of it. Irwin urged students to pursue what they had a passion for, as opposed to what they believed would be secure or better suited for them, and not to worry about the potential obstacles before you had even begun to pursue that area of interest. But, going back to the value of his liberal arts education, he  said, “But the idea that I would have a better job if I had gone to journalism school is wrong.” Overall, the talk seemed to emphasize confidence, well-roundedness and genuine interests as some of the tenants of a good professional, while making a good case for the value of liberal arts to the professional. As Dr. Cain said at the conclusion of the meeting, “Economics is constantly changing, and liberal arts will prepare you to change with it.”

Irwin’s lecture drew heavily from Irwin’s new book, The Alchemists. He began by describing the day of Aug. 9, 2007, as it had begun for three of the world’s most powerful central bankers, Ben Bernanke of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Mervyn King of the Bank of England, and Jean-Claude Trichet of the European Central Bank. His description of the day emphasizes the confusion and difficulties and miscommunications between the three banks. Before moving into a description of the actions of Bernanke, King, and Trichet in the wake of the crisis, Irwin gives some history on central banking, from its roots in Stockholm Sweden to the Wall Street crash of 1929. From this he illustrated not only the devastating universal effects of economic downturns, but also the tremendous powers of central bankers as unelected officials with the ability to create or destroy money.

Irwin then moved into the redistribution of currency and the bailouts that followed the financial crisis. While addressing some of the criticism received by the central banks, Irwin described how essential it was to act quickly and decisively to prevent the recession from worsening, and how it demonstrated learning from history.

He ended the lecture by pointing out that while central banking is not particularly democratic, the need for decisiveness makes it necessary. Because of this, he believes the best way to protect ourselves is to watch central banking authorities carefully and attentively, while trusting them in our time of need.

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