the national interest

Fear of a Female Fed Chief

Photo: Getty Images

The hard-money cranks of the right have spent the Obama years nurturing fears of incipient inflation that never seems to arrive, yet whose non-arrival never dents their airtight worldview. The current jostling between Larry Summers and Janet Yellen to become the next head of the Federal Reserve has introduced a new and even more primal fear into the minds of the hard-money cranks: the trepidation that their monetary essence will be drained by a woman.

The hard-money cranks don’t frame it this way. In their own minds, they are the upholders not only of firm currency standards but also firm intellectual standards. They insist Federal Reserve appointments be dictated solely by merit and are beset by liberal gender police insisting on compromising their standards in the name of diversity. “Are we entering the era of the gender-backed dollar?” asks the right-wing New York Sun. The Sun cares only about the soundness of the currency, which it defines as its value relative to gold, not of gender. But the whiff of masculine gender panic is not hard to detect. Here is how the editorial begins:

James Thurber once drew some cartoons of a woman playing poker. In one, she is seated at a table clutching her cards to her breast, eying the capacious pot, and inquiring, “What do four ones beat?” In another she is glaring across the table, demanding to know, “Why do you keep raising me when you know I’m bluffing?”

It’s funny because women are bad with numbers.

What this has to do with Yellen, the Sun doesn’t exactly say. The editors inform us “we were put in mind of the cartoons” by the debate over Yellen as potentially the first Federal Reserve chair, a mental association that tells you a lot about where the Sun is coming from.

The Sun’s point — captured in its headline, “The Female Dollar?” — struck the Wall Street Journal’s editors as so clever as to bear repeating in their own editorial today. Yellen, the Journal concedes, “doesn’t lack for professional credentials. But her cause has been taken up by the liberal diversity police as a gender issue because she’d be the first female Fed chairman.”

That is a pretty remarkable passage, especially the “but.” The “gender police” would argue that they support Yellen because she is so highly credentialed, not despite her qualifications. Indeed, the basic breakdown of the debate is that Yellen supporters argue she’s better qualified than Summers, and Summers supporters argue they’re equally qualified. Even if you accept the pro-Summers view, using gender as a tie-breaker in the case of two equally qualified candidates for a job that has never gone to a woman seems like the sort of ultra-modest application of affirmative action that even conservatives tend to endorse, at least rhetorically.

And of course the pro-Yellen argument is that the two candidates are not equally qualified, but that Yellen is more qualified, and only her gender is causing some critics not to see that. The Journal processes this argument as the slow destruction of our standards. The Journal frets that “Nancy Pelosi has bellowed her support.” Here is Pelosi bellowing her support. I warn you to turn down the volume on your speakers before you play this clip:

The Journal concludes by fretting that the gender debate has obscured the real issues here:

This political Big Top has everything—except a debate over what the Fed actually does…neither Ms. Yellen nor Mr. Summers seems likely to do what should be the next chairman’s priority—restoring the Fed’s independence by ending its post-crisis political interventions and focusing above all on maintaining price stability.

Here the circle is closed, uniting the Journal’s conviction that Fed appointments must be governed by strict intellectual merit with its conviction that the Fed must be run on the basis of “price stability” rather than “politics.” Here the Journal flicks at an idea that has in fact been proven its ridiculousness. The Journal has been waxing hysterical since the outset of the crisis. Inflation was just around the corner, the Journal has screamed. It’s here, it’s here! (For those of you who don’t follow this, it’s not here and has never been here, but the Journal refuses to acknowledge its terrible predictions.)

As it happens, the Journal’s news writers, who frequently infuriate and embarrass their editorial-page colleagues by reporting facts, published a report today measuring which members of the Federal Reserve board have made the most accurate predictions since the crisis. The Journal-style inflation hawks who have predicted rising prices around every corner have scored terribly. The highest scoring member — that is, the one whose predictions were most frequently borne out correctly by events — is none other than Janet Yellen.

Given this record, “the female dollar” looks awfully appealing. But it puts a fine point on the gender panic that is now infusing the hard-money cranks. They have constructed a fantasy world in which they sit in their plush leather chairs, calmly defending the rigors of tough-minded empiricism while feminists bellow from the street below. Yellen keeps analyzing the world in a sound and clear-minded way while they bay at the moon.