Econbrowser readers are well aware that there are a number of issues on which I have concerns about some of the decisions the Fed has made, such as
dropping the ball on regulation (,
keeping interest rates too low for too long over 2003-2005 (,
taking some real risks with the Fed’s new balance sheet (,
pretending the Fed had nothing to do with the commodity price boom of 2008 (,
). Notwithstanding, there is no question in my mind that Bernanke should be reconfirmed as Chair of the Federal Reserve Board. Here’s why.
I sometimes hear Bernanke’s critics speak as if there is some kind of shallowness to his world view, as if he is somehow incapable of seeing what is obvious to those with common sense. If you want a bumper-sticker-size summary of what he’s all about, here it is– Bernanke believes strongly that a credit crunch can be devastating to regular people, and has done everything in his power to mitigate that damage. You may agree or disagree with his claim that the extraordinary steps taken under his leadership “averted the imminent collapse of the global financial system.” But you must agree with two things: the global financial system did not collapse, and preventing its collapse is the reason Bernanke did what he did. If you think his motives were anything other than this, you have been sucked into a groupthink far shallower than the world view sometimes ascribed to Bernanke.
I asked a senior Fed staff economist in 2008 how Bernanke was holding up personally under all the pressure. He used an expression I hadn’t heard before, but seems very apt. He said he was extremely impressed by Bernanke’s “intellectual stamina,” by which he meant a tireless energy to continually re-evaluate, receive new input, assess the consequences of what has happened so far, and decide what to do next. That is an extremely rare quality. Most of us can be very defensive about the decisions we’ve made, and our emotional tie to those can prevent us from objectively processing new information. On the recent occasions I’ve seen Bernanke personally, that’s certainly what I observed as well. Even with all he’s been through, the man retains a remarkable openness to hear what others may have to say.
Please permit me to suggest that intellectual stamina is the most important quality we need in the Federal Reserve Chair right now.
I wonder which of previous Fed Chairs critics think would be better for the job than Bernanke. Surely you don’t think we’d have been better off bringing Alan Greenspan back? G. William Miller fumbled badly with much simpler problems. Arthur Burns is a case study in how not to conduct monetary policy. And while I believe that Paul Volcker was the right person for the job at the time, I’d worry about whether he could adapt his hard money views to the subtlety of balancing the current short-run deflationary pressures with the inflationary potential of longer-run budget deficits. If you roll the dice, statistically you’re likely to get someone more like the previous four than Bernanke. I shake my head when I look at the list of senators who say they’ll vote “no.” How could there possibly be an alternative whom Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Jim DeMint (R-SC) would both prefer to Bernanke?
Perhaps some senators reason that a “no” vote could score them political points. If so, it’s all the more reason to be alarmed. One of my big criticisms of Bernanke has been that he has put in peril the independence of the central bank from political pressure to help solve the nation’s fiscal challenges. Even if the present skirmish over reconfirmation proves to be just a shot across the bow, it is not an encouraging development in terms of the long-run health of U.S. monetary policy.
I’m with Abraham Lincoln: don’t swap horses in the middle of the stream.