Fed chairman Ben Bernanke is not your ordinary Washington bureaucrat. He's a professor, one who, we have always suspected, would be far more at home sitting cross-legged on the quad at Princeton, eating a sprout sandwich and discussing ideas as the late-afternoon sun dapples his shiny pate, than wearily explaining basic concepts to Congress. The Washington Post today confirms that this is indeed his personality, and that he is revolutionizing the Fed with his hippie tactics. For instance, he is into dialoguing with his staffers, and after meetings will jot down notes and say them back, just to be sure he was picking up what they were laying down.
"Here's what I think I heard," he'll say, before running through the range of views. He sometimes articulates the views of dissenters more persuasively than they did. "Did I get it right?" he says.
Relationship coaches everywhere, we suspect, are tearing with pride. Also Bernanke does not schedule his meetings as rigidly as his predecessor, Alan Greenspan, did. With "Uncle Ben," as we imagine staffers call him, you can say what you are feeling.
"More than a few times over the past year, senior Fed staff members have logged into their e-mail accounts to find an unusual message. Subject: Blue Sky. Sender: Ben S. Bernanke. The point of the e-mails has been to encourage them to think of creative ways that the Fed can guard the economy from the downdraft of a financial collapse. This is an institution that not long ago could spend the better part of a two-day policymaking meeting deciding whether its target for short-term interest rates should be 5.25 percent or 5 percent. But in this crisis, rate cuts, the most common tool for helping the economy, have lacked their usual punch ... That's why Bernanke's Fed has been trying to dream up ideas out of the clear blue sky."
Sweet. If things get really bad, we expect he'll start sending out e-mails to staff that say, "I have these mushrooms. They'll open your mind."