Back in 2005, I argued at Old Marginal Utility that “Greenspan exceptionalism” was not very well founded in that observers rarely engaged in a proper counterfactual analysis of how well Alan Greenspan performed relative to the next best monetary policy technocrat. That’s a fairly stringent evaluation criterion, and even Brad DeLong’s glass-half-full response revealed what could be considered major errors in Greenspan’s judgment. 2009 hindsight of course shows that there was another major error in inflating the housing bubble, failing to recognize it, and allowing his Rand discipleship to overcome common sense in using Fed powers even to skim the froth.
Now some elite opinion favors Ben Bernanke’s reappointment, but politicians are irritated over Fed stonewalling of bailout oversight and others (e.g. Dean Baker) point out that Ben Bernanke who put the Fed throttles to the firewall to save the world is also the Ben Bernanke who carried over Greenspan policy until it was too late among other things.
So what should the counterfactual-based evaluation of Bernanke say? What would the hypothetical panel of smart graduate students have done? It seems even harder to suggest that Bernanke was essential than Greenspan — in this case, because well-read economists should have had it from Ben Bernanke the academician that in a depression-level crisis you don’t skimp on the monetary policy intervention. Meanwhile, Bernanke gets no points for prescient instincts as the save-the-world interventions have seemed to be firmly of the close-the-barn-doors-after-the-horses-have-bolted variety.
Meanwhile, significant elements like the opaque lending programs have the appearance if not reality of being in part the predator state (a la Jamie Galbraith) in action. There’s a line of ‘b-b-but Bernanke and Paulson saved the world’ opinion along the lines of this bit of fail from the often incisive Joe Nocera:
So why the anger? Why the suggestions of “cover-up” and “lies”? On Thursday, as I watched Mr. Paulson being castigated, it dawned on me. Seven months later, with the palpable fear of a financial collapse largely subsided, it really all boils down to how you view what happened last year. Was it, as Mr. Towns believes, a bailout of a handful of unworthy but too-big-to-fail institutions? Or was it, in the eyes of Mr. Paulson, a rescue of a teetering financial system? My vote is for the latter.
To which the obvious response is, duh, who says it has to be one or the other? A reality-based critique of the bailouts allows them to be both effective at saving the world and unconscionable screw-jobs that kept an array of bad actors from paying for their greed and incompetence. (The latter clearly feeds a lot of the underlying sentiment of the tea partiers, even if it’s ultimately the greedy and incompetent who are marshalling it.) However, considering Team Obama’s political tone-deafness, it’ll be a pleasant but major surprise if they let Bernanke go back to Princeton for some R&R.