From the Great Inflation of the 1970s to the Great Recession now hobbling the economy, Donald Kohn has been at the center of the nation’s policymaking. Until his retirement this fall after almost four decades with the Federal Reserve, he played an outsize role largely out of public view.
Kohn began his career in 1970 as an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and five years later moved to the Fed’s DC headquarters. There he rose to become a key adviser to five Fed chairmen, from Arthur Burns to Ben Bernanke. In his last four years there, he was vice chairman of the board of governors and Bernanke’s close confidant.
Kohn gained a reputation for sharp economic analysis and a soft-spoken demeanor. During the financial system’s meltdown in the fall of 2008, he was part of a core crisis-management group—along with Bernanke and now–Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner—that worked around the clock to keep the wheels from coming off the economy.
A Philadelphia native, Kohn discovered his love for economics at the College of Wooster in Ohio. His career path was set when he earned his doctorate at the University of Michigan, which had served as a farm team for economic thinkers in the Johnson administration.
Kohn, 68, raised his family in Arlington, a good location from which to ride his bicycle to work occasionally. The parents of two children, Kohn and his wife, Gail, now split their time between an apartment in their son’s Takoma Park home and a house in Annapolis.
In his office at the Brookings Institution, where Kohn is now a senior fellow, he talked about what he’s learned.