Ben Bernanke: Role Model

Great actors often model their performances after public figures. It would have been difficult to miss William F. Buckley’s idiosyncrasies so well captured by Dustin Hoffman in his 1991 film portrayal of Captain Hook. For his role in Pirates of the Caribbean, Johnny Depp modeled Captain Jack Sparrow on the Rolling Stone’s Keith Richards. The characterization was so effective that Richards himself was cast as the pirate’s father in a sequel. We’ll have to wait for the March release of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland to see, but some modern-day pirates could have provided excellent models for Depp’s portrayal of The Mad Hatter.

If not mad, there was certainly something maddening in the doubletalk of former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. In an era that needs nothing so much as clarity, Depp could have created an unforgettable anti-hero emulating Greenspan’s mumbled ambiguities. Another Fed alumnus provides equally rich material for characterization. Bewildered by TurboTax and befuddled by AIG, Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner’s earnest perplexity has enough madness to it that it provoked laughter among university students in Beijing.

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But not every performance has to be over the top. In the hands of a skilled performer the understated mannerisms of Fed chairman Ben Bernanke could become the stuff of movie performance legend. Imagine a motion picture character who matches Bernanke’s record for getting everything — everything — wrong, coupled with resulting widespread destruction such as the economy has suffered. As chairman of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors in October 2005, Bernanke told Congress that he wasn’t concerned about a housing bubble. A year and a half later, in March 2007, he testified as Federal Reserve Chairman that problems in the subprime market were "contained." But never mind the chairman’s inability to see the bubble as he helped froth it up. After the fact, there is something especially chilling in the chairman’s blank look of incomprehension about his role in the debacle. For when the deluge hit exactly as Congressman Ron Paul and others employing Austrian-school analysis had forewarned, the brazenness of Bernanke’s wide-eyed denial of Fed complicity in the real estate bubble was simply breathtaking.

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After all, considering the scale of destruction on his watch, wouldn’t anyone with healthy human consciousness at a bare minimum seek out the views of those who had warned of the calamity? Doesn’t the magnitude of the losses cry out for examination without prejudice? Not by our role model. Bernanke has to exonerate the Fed, because acknowledging the role of interest rate manipulation in the housing bubble is also an indictment of current Fed policy and an advance admission of authorship for the dollar meltdown to come.

Even Bernanke’s desire to be reconfirmed for another four years testifies to the persistence of his failed Keynesian dogma and his cluelessness about his hand in the creation of the coming currency crisis. As the Fed persists in its folly and one Fed bubble begets another, the motion picture Groundhog Day comes to mind. But Bill Murray’s protagonist in that film was eventually able to show some growth. It was that growth that made him, in the end, sympathetic. It is only by the madness of clinging to failed dogma and persisting in error that one becomes a true and unforgettable anti-hero.