ArthurBurns USArmyPhoto 1955

Arthur F. Burns is best known for having been chairman of the Federal Reserve System from 1970 to 1978. His appointment by President Richard Nixon capped a career of empirical studies of the economy, and particularly of business cycles. In a 1934 study based on his Ph.D. dissertation, Burns had noted the almost universal tendency of industries to slow down after an initial growth spurt. Burns pointed out that this tendency did not imply slow growth for the whole economy because new industries continued to appear.

Measuring Business Cycles, coauthored with Wesley Mitchell and published in 1946 by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), is a massive empirical study of previous business cycles. In it, Burns and Mitchell distilled a large number of statistical indicators of recessions and expansions into one signal of turning points in the U.S. business cycle. The NBER, a private nonprofit research institute, is now the organization that announces when recessions begin and end. Much of the institute’s approach is based on work done by Burns and Mitchell. Their book, more than any other single accomplishment, gave Burns a reputation as an expert in business cycle forecasting.

Burns earned all his degrees at Columbia University. He began teaching economics at Rutgers University in 1927. In 1945, he became became a professor at Columbia University and, in 1959, became the John Bates Clark professor of economics. From 1953 to 1956 he was chairman of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisers. He was president of the NBER from 1957 to 1967, and president of the American Economic Association in 1959. From 1981 to 1985 Burns was the U.S. ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany.

Selected Works


1934. Production Trends in the United States Since 1870. New York: National Bureau of Economic Research.
1946 (with W. C. Mitchell). Measuring Business Cycles. New York: Columbia University Press.