Is There Any Precedent For Stanley Fischer As Fed Vice-Chair?

To get some sense of how revolutionary is President Obama`s nomination of Stanley Fischer, the head central banker for the Israeli government from 2005 to 2013, to the number two role at America`s central bank, I`ve been trying to look up American government officials who were previously high government officials for other governments. I haven`t yet been able to find a Wikipedia category for such a thing.

Wikipedia does offer a list of 20 U.S. cabinet officers and 4 other cabinet-equivalent level officials who were foreign-born. Most arrived in the United States as children. A few arrived as students in their early twenties. Not one of them appears to have been a foreign government official of the slightest importance before arriving in America, much less the top official in their fields for any foreign government.

Indeed, none of them appear to have started the post-educational phase of their adult political careers abroad, with the exception of Carl Schurz, a German student radical who rebelled against Prussian repression in 1848. Schurz arrived in the U.S. at about age 23. He served as a Union general in the Civil War.

Name Position Year
Birth country Party Administration Ref
Alexander Hamilton* Secretary of the Treasury 1789 British West Indies (Nevis) No party George Washington [2][3]
James McHenry* Secretary of War[a] 1796 Ireland No party
George Washington;
John Adams
Albert Gallatin Secretary of the Treasury 1801 Switzerland Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson;
James Madison
George Campbell Secretary of the Treasury 1814 United Kingdom Democratic-Republican James Madison [10]
William Duane Secretary of the Treasury 1833 United Kingdom Democratic Andrew Jackson [11]
Carl Schurz* Secretary of the Interior 1877 Germany Republican Rutherford Hayes [1][12]
James Wilson* Secretary of Agriculture 1897 United Kingdom Republican William McKinley;
Theodore Roosevelt;
William Howard Taft
Oscar Straus* Secretary of Commerce and Labor[b] 1906 Germany Republican Theodore Roosevelt [14]
Franklin Knight Lane Secretary of the Interior 1913 Prince Edward Island Democratic Woodrow Wilson [15]
William Bauchop Wilson* Secretary of Labor 1913 United Kingdom Democratic Woodrow Wilson [16]
James Davis Secretary of Labor 1921 United Kingdom Republican Warren Harding;
Calvin Coolidge;
Herbert Hoover
Anthony Celebrezze* Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare[c] 1962 Italy Democratic John F. Kennedy;
Lyndon Johnson
George Romney* Secretary of Housing and Urban Development 1969 Mexico Republican Richard Nixon [20][21]
Henry Kissinger* Secretary of State 1973 Germany Republican Richard Nixon;
Gerald Ford
Michael Blumenthal Secretary of the Treasury 1977 Germany Democratic Jimmy Carter [24][25]
Madeleine Albright Secretary of State 1997 Czechoslovakia Democratic Bill Clinton [26][27]
Elaine Chao Secretary of Labor 2001 Republic of China Republican George W. Bush [1][28]
Mel Martinez Secretary of Housing and Urban Development 2001 Cuba Republican George W. Bush [1]
Carlos Gutierrez* Secretary of Commerce 2005 Cuba Republican George W. Bush [29][30]
Sally Jewell Secretary of the Interior 2013 United Kingdom Democratic Barack Obama  

And here are foreign born holders of “cabinet-level” positions, some of whom overlap with cabinet officers:

Name Position Year
Birth country Party Administration References
Henry Kissinger* National Security Advisor 1969 Germany Republican Richard Nixon;
Gerald Ford
Zbigniew Brzezinski National Security Advisor 1977 Poland Democratic Jimmy Carter [31]
Madeleine Albright* Ambassador to the United Nations[d] 1993 Czechoslovakia Democratic Bill Clinton [26][27]
John Deutch* Director of Central Intelligence 1995 Belgium Democratic Bill Clinton [32][33]
John Negroponte Ambassador to the United Nations[d] 2001 United Kingdom Republican George W. Bush [34]
Zalmay Khalilzad Ambassador to the United Nations[d] 2007 Afghanistan Republican George W. Bush [35][36]
John Negroponte* Director of National Intelligence 2007 United Kingdom Republican George W. Bush [34]

The high-ranking officials to have arrived at the oldest age include Zbigniew Brzezinski, who arrived in the U.S. to get a doctorate at Harvard after obtaining a bachelor`s and master`s at McGill in Canada. Zalmay Khalilzad`s career is similar. Some others arrived around age 21, such as refugee Michael Blumenthal who then went to Berkeley as an undergraduate.

But none of these appointed officials had been important government officials in other countries. (You could claim that Douglas MacArthur`s title of Field Marshall of the Philippines in the later 1930s was similar to Fischer`s excursion to Israel, but, obviously, the Philippines were still an American colony only being prepped for independence.)

As an analog to the Fischer case, I guess you could name Werner von Braun:

Don`t say that he`s hypocritical,

Say rather that he`s apolitical.

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?

That`s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

Of course, von Braun was brought to the U.S. essentially as a prisoner of war and kept under guard at a military base in El Paso for five years as a sort of “prisoner of peace.”

Another example would be Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a gay pederast courtier who had to flee Germany due to scandal and wound up being the inspector-general of the rebel army during the Revolutionary War due to his being just about the only man in America with Prussian staff training. (The early U.S. tended to attract raffish adventurers fleeing their own reputations in Europe — my favorite is Mozart`s librettist Lorenzo da Ponte.) Of course, America in the 1700s was a small, not terribly well-educated country.

But those aren`t good examples because von Braun didn`t leave America in his sixties and, say, run France`s rocket program for eight years, then try to come back to the U.S. at 70 and be #2 man in the American space program. 

The more you think about the specifics of the Fischer case, the more bizarre it becomes, and more far-ranging the precedent it sets.

Fischer`s defenders (to the minor extent that they feel the need to defend him) tend to treat his eight years running Israel`s central bank as if he were engaged in rocket science rather than statecraft. They emphasize that, well, sure, it`s kind of hard to tell whose side Fischer is on, but, you see, he has a very high IQ and that ordinary Americans can`t begin to understand what all he has in his bag of economic tricks. So, why aren`t you reassured?

In reality, the key to Fischer`s success at keeping up the Israeli economy was his decision to boost Israeli exports at the expense of Israel`s trading partners (of which the U.S. is the largest) by massively devaluing the shekel. It wasn`t really complicated: Fischer`s big decision was good for Israeli exporters and it was bad for American exporters.

Undoubtedly, it didn`t come as a surprise to Fischer that as head of the Bank of Israel he would  he would have the opportunity to do things that would be bad for America, such as competitively devaluing the shekel during an American economic crisis. He`s a smart, experienced guy, and he no doubt realized that he was choosing to put himself in a position where he might decide to hurt America. 

Fischer was free to make his choice to spend most of his 60s as an Israeli citizen and high Israeli government official. He made it. And he should live with the consequences, not get some giant do-over that establishes a frightening precedent.

The single most fundamental question of political life is: Whose side are you on? There is a lot of talent available to the United States government, so why it should be necessary to appoint to high position a man who carefully chose to make that question unanswerable?

Of course, the real question is bigger than Fischer. The true issue is: What`s wrong with Americans these days that almost all of us are too buffaloed to notice?