It used to be that the Chairman of the Fed was regularly referred to as the most powerful man in the world. This was back in the day of Alan Greenspan and, at the time, it seemed it was in spite of the fact that people seldom understood what he was saying. Subsequently, we learned it was precisely because of the fact that we didn't understand what he was saying. And then, subsequent to that, we also learned ... largely because he had the good grace to admit it ... that he himself didn't understand what he was talking about.
The downward spiral of Greenspan from philosopher king of the global economy to mere mortal caught his successor, Ben Bernanke, in its vortex. He was handed an economy in which the doors and wheels were coming off as we drove and nothing like the power he needed to deal with it. Indeed, as the current crisis unfolded we saw that the Fed chair was not the most powerful job in the world, that title was reserved for current or former ceos of Goldman Sachs. This must be so because for a while people wanted to fire Bernanke after one term in office primarily because he had inherited a mess whereas when you screw up the global economy as the current or former ceo of Goldman Sachs, people want to help bail you out or make you Treasury Secretary or both.
I kid. It is highly unlikely any ceo of Goldman Sachs is Treasury Secretary again for quite some time. Possibly years.
And Bernanke did earn some of the flack he got initially, largely because he was swept along in the groupthink of Washington economic honchos, buying into the "leave it to the markets" regulatory philosophy that got us into the mess we faced for far too long. But when it became clear that approach not only did not work but that real change was needed, the quiet academic stepped up and became perhaps the leading dependable voice of reasonable change. That's why there is a consensus emerging today that Bernanke, who against all odds seems to be restoring the notion of Fed Chairman as Washington's most trusted economic oracle, should be reappointed when his term in office ends. Steven Pearlstein, in a typically thoughtful piece in today's Washington Post, gets on this bandwagon and adds a few suggestions as to how to modify the Fed (as well as an absolutely justified endorsement of David Wessel's terrific new book on the economic crisis called, "In Fed We Trust.")
The growing momentum of this bandwagon has put in doubt the once conventional wisdom that Larry Summers had accepted the reins of the National Economic Council as an interim step on his way to the Fed chairmanship. But Summers has done such a good job elevating the National Economic Council to unprecedented prominence in the day-to-day operations of the White House and has so effectively earned the president's trust, that it is now almost certainly better for all concerned (including those of us out here in tax-payer land) that he stay right where he is. If there was ever a situation that called for the president to have a strong economic quarterback at his immediate side in the White House, it is this one and in Summers, Bernanke, and Geithner, Obama has got a first-rate team that has the number one criteria you need for success in each of their respective jobs -- the trust of the president.
Now, as readers of this blog know, I don't think every move they have made is perfect. I am disappointed by the speed of regulatory reform here in the United States and internationally. I think they have not done enough to address some of the underlying causes of the crisis such as the creation of massive pockets of risk in the global economy related to the development of opaque derivatives markets. I think they have cut deals with Wall Street that are too sweet for the bankers. I think they have spent too much, bought into ideas (like tax cuts) in the stimulus that amounted to political pandering and they sure haven't given the president the kind of clear guidance he needs on how to sell the health reforms that are perhaps the economic reforms we most urgently require.
That said, their job was first to stop the bleeding and to stabilize the patient. It was no easy task and what they did in terms of swift and sweeping intervention, while imperfect ... almost necessarily imperfect given the speed at which they were operating ... has seemed to work. I still fear a second dip of the recession ... the "W" rather than the "V" shaped recovery. But today's papers show Germany and France creeping out of recession. Japan may too. Economists (a group with limited credibility at the moment, I must admit) seem to think we are at least plateauing here in the United States too. So I think it is fair that this team get credit for their efforts.
Frankly, I hope that the initial success they seem to have achieved emboldens them. If anything they have seemed too deferential to the Congress and to Wall Street and once stability seems assured aggressive measures to rein in the budget deficit, further strengthen regulatory oversight and strengthen international regulatory mechanisms will be called for with the same urgency that stimulus measures were called for earlier this year.
We have seen the dangers of too much deference to the markets, of regulatory indifference, of not believing that government could or should play a significant role in protecting our national interests by identifying and mitigating market risks with broader macro or social consequences. I hope the president makes the early decision to keep everyone where they are so that they can focus on the next wave of reforms that are so urgently needed.
(And to be clear, does the above actually suggest that I want a bigger role for governments in market regulation, stronger global governance mechanisms, tax increases if we need them in addition to substantial spending cuts and that I am a fundamental believer that government also needs to play a much expanded role in ensuring sustainable health care...which optimally would be through a single-payer system that is not even on the table at the moment ... and preserving the environment ... ideally through a simple, straightforward and substantial carbon tax? Yes, it does. Start rolling out your labels if you would like, but if the recent crisis has taught us anything it is that we can't afford the reflexive rejection of government solutions where they are needed ... rather we need to rise to the challenge of figuring out how to make governments more effective in these critical roles that only they can play.)
Spencer Platt/Getty Images