None of them will likely remember, but some of the tourists eating fast food at the shlocky roadside attraction “South of the Border” in Dillon, SC during the early 1970s were waited on by a poncho-wrapped college student who would one day be named the fourth most powerful person in the world by Newsweek magazine.
Yet while it’s hard to imagine a man of global economic clout like Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke coming from Dillon, a small town on the North-South Carolina border, there were inklings even during his youth that he was exceptional.
Like his SAT score – 1590 out of a possible 1600. Or his victory in the statewide spelling bee. Or his position as senior class valedictorian, or being chosen to the All-State orchestra as a saxophone player.
Like many exceptional young people, Bernanke (born in Augusta, GA Dec. 13, 1953) graduated from Harvard, where he achieved summa cum laude. He went on to teach at Stanford, New York University and Princeton, establishing himself at the latter post as a prolific and insightful writer and commentator on economic issues.
Bernanke was still at Princeton when he was appointed to the Federal Reserve Board in 2002. In 2006, when Fed chairman Alan Greenspan retired, President George W. Bush elevated Bernanke to that position.
Despite his relatively short time on the Fed (compared to Greenspan, for example), Bernanke has been intimately associated with the economic plans of three presidential administrations and both major parties. In 2005, Bush named him chairman of the Presidential Counsel of Economic Advisors, and Barack Obama has leaned heavily on him, as well.
Very early in his tenure as fed chairman, Bernanke – an advocate of more “transparency” in Fed dealings with the media -- discovered the sensitivity of that position. His aside to Maria Bartiromi of CNBC that the country hadn’t seen the end of rising prime interest rates sent a seismic shock through the markets within minutes after it was broadcast.
More mellow in temperament than his sometimes prickly predecessor, Bernanke was also a departure in background from earlier Fed chairmen, most of whom came from Wall Street. With his graying beard, Bernanke still looks like a college professor.
His even temperament has served him well in the current economic crisis, where he has been forced to decide between continuing to raise interest rates (thus aggravating “deflation”) and lowering them (risking inflation). Much of his philosophy came from an extensive study of the Great Depression while at Princeton.
As might be expected for someone in his precarious position, Bernanke has been both assailed by critics and praised by converts. Jim Cramer of New York Magazine gushed: “More than Obama, more than Geithner, more than anyone, it is the once-maligned Federal Reserve chairman who has saved us from the second Great Depression. ... I'll just come right out and say it: Ben Bernanke will go down as the greatest Federal Reserve chairman in history.
“President Obama pushed through a stimulus plan that will ultimately help the economy later this year, and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner chose to adopt Bernanke's strategy of allowing banks to raise money themselves rather than bowing to calls from politicians and pundits to have taxpayers bail them out even more than they already had. But it was the 55-year-old former Princeton professor who spent his teaching career studying how the Great Depression could have been prevented who deserves the bulk of the credit."