It's weird that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke was ever in the Bush administration. The former professor has always been lefty in spirit: He loves nature metaphors, blue sky ideas sessions, and is reportedly a big proponent of the repeat-and-rephrase method of communication (Such as: What I'm hearing is that you would rather acquire Merrill Lynch and stay in your position at Bank of America than make us have to fire you, am I right?). And so it makes sense that, as the Times points out today, he's been "out there" more than any other Fed chairman in memory; penning op-eds, being interviewed by 60 Minutes and, last night, holding a Town Hall–style meeting hosted by Jim Leher, where he engaged with actual citizens about the Fed's role in the bailout of the financial sector.
There, he had this heartwarming exchange:
David Houston, a third-generation local small-business owner, complained to Bernanke that when the U.S. government rescued those "too-big-to-fail companies" such as insurance giant American International Group, it was "hard to swallow" for small-business owners, who were also struggling to survive the recession.
"Nothing made me more frustrated, angry than having to intervene, particularly in a couple of cases where taking wild bets had forced these companies close to bankruptcy," Bernanke responded..."I had to hold my nose and stop those firms from failing. I am as disgusted about it as you are. I think it's absolutely critical as we go forward that we put in a new system that will make sure that when a firm does not succeed in the marketplace, that it fails."
The Times this morning likened this slew of public appearances to that of a candidate campaigning for office, and slyly noted the fact that Bernanke's term is up in January. Economist Barry Ritholz was more blunt: "This is obviously part of his re-election campaign," he said. But we think that's kind of cynical — and anyway, citizens don't get to pick the Fed chairman. Clearly, what Bernanke is trying to do is raise people's consciousness. To humanize the Fed. To say, 'Look, I may control all the money, but I'm not scary and evil. I'm just like you — a human, with feelings and emotions!' The fact that that is an area in which Larry Summers cannot compete is, we're sure, a total coincidence.