These Guys Call the End of the Recession

That may well be true. But we won’t know for sure for sure until the committee makes a declaration.

Over the decades, the committee, by dint of its relatively early creation, its sterling reputation and the lack of competition from other think tanks or agencies, has become the unofficial official arbiter of the peaks and troughs of the U.S. economy.

Its status is strengthened by a general lack of dissension among the larger economist community. Indeed, one of the only raps against the committee is the length of time it takes to make decisions—anywhere from six to 18 months following a peak or trough. But its dawdling is understandable: It takes months, after all, for the economic indicators to align.

And the committee members are nothing if not methodically academic.

The chairman, Stanford University applied economist Robert E. Hall, didn’t respond to requests for comment. But his CV is teeming with academic laurels and citations of papers with titles like “Reconciling Cyclical Movements in the Marginal Value of Time and the Marginal Product of Labor.” He’s also the sort of academic who maintains a blog of family vacations called “Villages, Ruins & Good Food.” That blog, in turn, links to a page called “Our Cats,” featuring a video called “Kitties Frolicking,” in which the family’s two adorably well-fed house cats tussle.

Dr. Hall has chaired the committee since it started, according to Donna Zerwitz, NBER’s spokeswoman (an econ major who has worked at the Cambridge, Mass.–based National Bureau of Economic Research for 30 years and, as a result, is a de facto economist herself).

Dr. Hall; Martin Feldstein, NBER’s president emeritus and a professor at Harvard (and once President Reagan’s chief economics adviser); and Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon (who appears in his profile photo with an adorable black pup) have all served on the committee since its creation. The late University of Chicago economist Victor Zarnowitz was also an early and long-serving member (he died in February of this year). Also serving on the committee that named the recession we’re in now: MIT economist and NBER’s president, James Poterba; Berkeley’s David Romer; and Harvard economist Jeffrey Frankel, who has been on the committee since 1992. There are no current members based in the Great Recession’s birthplace, New York.

Dr. Frankel called the responsibility “fun,” though not particularly grueling. “For the first eight years, we had nothing to do,” said Dr. Frankel, the start of whose term coincided with a very long economic expansion. “I used to joke it was the perfect committee to be on.”

Except when there are devastating economic crises, and then the hibernating brain trust springs to life. And the members repair to their computers.