This resort community is famous for its downhill skiing, its proximity to Yellowstone National Park and its spectacular Grand Teton mountain range.
It is not normally considered a hotbed for economists. But, there they were last week - Henry Kaufman, Benjamin Friedman, Rimmer de Vries among them - trading their pinstripes for khakis and talking debt at the annual meeting of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.Ostensibly they were there to discuss debt, that being the focus of the conference, yet when one looked around one saw these economists doing some very strange things.
There was Kenneth T. Mayland, chief economist of the First Pennsylvania Bank, talking about his love for trout fishing. There was Akira Nambara, U.S. representative for the Bank of Japan, deciding which iron to use from the fairway. And there were Fed Governor Henry Wallich and Rudiger Dornbusch, MIT economics professor, white-water rafting down the Snake River.
In the arena of science, the economist plays a unique role. Unlike most of his scientific brethren, the economist does not have the benefit of test models. He cannot conduct grand scale experiments in hopes of plugging the results into real life situations.
But while the economist has statistics available to him in great numbers, he must rely principally on theory.
The chief economist at one large East Coast bank summed it up this way: ''Economics is like meteorology. There's a lot of forecasting going on, but nobody really knows what the hell is going to happen next."
But when you strip away their debt-to-GNP ratios, their fiscal multipliers and their monetary aggregates, you'll find - surprise - economists are very much like you and me. Occasionally they too get bored with their jobs and wish for a change of venue, and what better tonic that a few days in Jackson Hole.
Besides, let's face it, debt is a pretty dreary topic for long discussion, no matter how pointed the subject may be.
In its infinite wisdom, the Kansas City Fed has grasped this. This was the fifth year they've had their annual meeting in Jackson Hole and those who attend are invited to bring their families. Its easy to see why so many keep coming back.
This hallowed collection of numbers crunchers, tied to their calculators in bleak urban surroundings for much of the year, are suddenly given a chance to see life from a slightly different perspective.
Mornings were filled with sessions like The Increasing Indebtedness and
Financial Stability in the United States, Regulatory Policies and Financial Stability and International Debt and Economic Instability. But the afternoons were devoted to hiking, golf and white-water rafting.
That the papers and presentations were a source of fascination is beyond doubt, yet one could definitely feel the pull of the Grand Tetons - named as such by lonely French fur trappers, who had obviously been without the embellishments of the fair sex for much too long - on everyone.
To ease the strain associated with lengthy debate on the horrors of our debt-ridden society, the K.C. Fed set the economists free each afternoon. At roughly 1 o'clock the conferees were unleashed on the population of Jackson - a population composed mainly of elk, moose and buffalo.
The white-water trip was the most popular choice among the conferees, with some 80 people signing up. The sight of three rafts ambling down the Snake, teeming with economists, was something to behold.
Behavior scientists would have had a field day. Here they were, men and women whose decisions shake the foundation of the nation's economy, throwing buckets of water on each other like so many naughty children at sleep-away camp. One fellow - who is an expert on developing nation debt and a product of one of our nation's great universities - took great pleasure in bellowing ''ride 'em cowboy" as he splashed his way over level 4 waterfalls.
They were fearless, these brave economists. To our heroes the dangers on the white-water seemed just another seasonal adjustment. And despite their important, and often lucrative, positions with some of the world's most important institutions, one wonders if these financial titans wouldn't trade their lot in life for that of the river guides, if only for one summer.
For a newspaper man the Kansas City Fed's annual meeting is a dream come true. After all,it's difficult for an economist to escape a reporter's probing questions when the economist is trapped with the reporter in a rubber raft careening down the snake river.
That's not to say that some didn't go to great lengths to avoid harassment
from the representatives of The Fourth Estate. Fed Governor Wayne Angell tried to avoid one journalist's constant inquiries by bolting up the Grand Tetons at breakneck pace in hopes of leaving the breathless reporter - no doubt straining in the 6,800 ft. elevation - in the dust.
Yet, even for the most dogged of reporters, the meeting held obstacles. Badgering Fed officials, checking notes and calling the office place a poor second to roaming the rocky trails of the Tetons.
Perhaps the World Bank and International Monetary Fund would consider holding next month's annual meetings in Yellowstone. The way Third World debt is mounting up, they'd feel right at home atop the Grand Tetons.