Monday, November 24, 2008

John Cassidy's Bernanke biography

I linked to Roger Lowenstein's piece back in January. Cassidy's offering is also quite good:
The eldest of three siblings, Bernanke learned to read in kindergarten and skipped first grade. When he was eleven, he won the state spelling championship and went to Washington to compete in the National Spelling Bee. He made it to the second round, but stumbled on the word “edelweiss,” an Alpine flower featured in “The Sound of Music.” He hadn’t seen the movie, because Dillon didn’t have a movie theatre. Had he spelled the word correctly and won the competition, Bernanke tells friends, he would have appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which was his dream.

In high school, Bernanke taught himself calculus, submitted eleven entries to a state poetry contest, and played alto saxophone in the marching band. During his junior year, he scored 1590 out of 1600 on his S.A.T.s—the highest score in South Carolina that year—and the state awarded him a trip to Europe. In the fall of 1971, he entered Harvard, where he wrote a prize-winning senior thesis on the economic effects of U.S. energy policy. After graduating, he enrolled at M.I.T., whose Ph.D. program in economics was rated the best in the country. His doctoral thesis was a dense mathematical treatise on the causes of economic fluctuations.
“I always thought that Ben would stay in academia,” Mark Gertler, an economist at New York University who has known Bernanke well since 1979, told me. “But two things happened.”

In 1996, Bernanke became chairman of the Princeton economics department, a job many professors regard as a dull administrative diversion from their real work. Bernanke, however, embraced the chairmanship, staying on for two three-year terms. Under his stewardship, the department launched new programs and hired leading scholars, among them Paul Krugman, whom Bernanke wooed personally. Bernanke also bridged a long-standing departmental divide between theorists and applied researchers, in part by raising enough money so that the two sides could coexist peaceably, and by engaging in diplomacy. “Ben is very good at respecting minority opinion and giving people the feeling they have been heard in the debate even if they get outvoted,” Alan Blinder said.

The other event that changed Bernanke’s career occurred in the summer of 1999, at the height of the Internet stock boom, when he and Gertler were invited to present a paper at an annual policy conference organized by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. The topic of the conference—which takes place at a resort in Jackson Hole, Wyoming—was New Challenges for Monetary Policy. Then, as now, there was vigorous debate among economists about whether central banks should raise interest rates to counter speculative bubbles. By increasing the cost of borrowing, the Fed, at least in theory, can restrain speculative activity and prevent the prices of assets such as stocks and real estate from rising excessively.

Bernanke and Gertler argued that the Fed should ignore bubbles and stick to its traditional policy of controlling inflation. If a bubble inflated and burst of its own accord, they said, the Fed could always bring down rates to alleviate damage to the broader economy. To support their case, they presented a series of computer simulations, which appeared to show that a policy of targeting inflation stabilized the economy more effectively than one that targeted bubbles. The presentation got a mixed reception. Henry Kaufman, a well-known Wall Street economist, said that it would be irresponsible for the Fed to ignore rampant speculation. Rudi Dornbusch, an M.I.T. professor (who has since died), pointed out that Bernanke and Gertler had overlooked the possibility that credit could dry up after a bubble burst, and that such a development could have serious effects on the economy. But Greenspan was more supportive. “He didn’t say anything during the session,” Gertler recalled. “But after it was over he walked by and said, as quietly as he could, ‘You know, I agree with you.’ That had us in seventh heaven.”

In December, 1996, Greenspan had warned that investors could fall victim to “irrational exuberance.” Subsequently, though, he had adopted a policy of benign neglect toward the stock market, ignoring warnings that a bubble in technology and Internet stocks had developed. The paper by Bernanke and Gertler provided theoretical support for Greenspan’s stance, and it received a good deal of publicity, something neither of its authors had previously experienced. “Ben was a bit taken aback by the public attention,” Gertler said. “The Economist attacked us viciously.”

In 2002, when the Bush Administration was looking to fill two vacant governorships at the Fed—there are seven in all—Glenn Hubbard, who is the dean of Columbia Business School and who was then the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, proposed Bernanke. “We needed a strong economist who understood the financial markets, and Ben had expertise in that area,” Hubbard recalled. “He is also an extremely nice person. In terms of getting on with people, he is very affable, and I thought that would help him, too.”

Although the Fed is an independent agency, it is subject to congressional oversight, and Presidents typically appoint people who are sympathetic to their world view. Hubbard knew little about Bernanke’s politics. “I was aware he was an economic conservative, but I didn’t know whether he was a Republican,” Hubbard said. Robert Frank, a liberally inclined economist at Cornell and Bernanke’s co-author on “Principles of Economics,” believed that Bernanke was a Democrat. When the White House announced that it was nominating Bernanke to be a Fed governor, Frank was shocked. “I asked Ben, ‘Why is Bush appointing a Democrat?’ ” Frank told me. “He said, ‘Well, I’m not a Democrat.’ ’’ In writing their book, Frank was impressed not only by Bernanke’s openness to opposing views but also by his wry humor and his lack of ego. “In most situations, he is the smartest guy in the room, but he doesn’t seem too eager to show that,” Frank said.

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