The man behind the Fed

Ben Bernanke’s taste in food, clothes and humor

By: Ryan James Kim
   PRINCETON — When Federal Reserve Chairman nominee Ben Bernanke used to be an economics professor at Princeton University, he and longtime colleague Alan Blinder often weighed the costs and benefits of the Atkins diet together.
   "I’ve been on — and I’m still on — the low-fat diet, and Ben was on the high-fat, (low-carb) diet," said Professor Blinder, co-director of Princeton University’s Center for Economic Policy Studies. "We used to quip to one another that one of us was probably killing himself, but we didn’t know which one it was."
   Professor Blinder painted a more personal picture of the man who may become one of the world’s most powerful and influential on the economic scene. In coming weeks, the U.S. Senate is expected to confirm his nomination. As chairman of the Fed, Professor Bernanke, a Montgomery Township resident, will take the leadership role in setting national interest rates.
   A former member of the Federal Reserve Board himself, Professor Blinder helped recruit Professor Bernanke to a tenured position in Princeton’s Economics Department 20 years ago. They were colleagues at the university until this past July, when Professor Bernanke resigned from the university after taking a three-year voluntary leave.
   "I was one of the people who were the most enthusiastic about getting Bernanke to come to Princeton" in 1985, Professor Blinder said. "I knew of his work and thought it was spectacularly good."
   During Professor Bernanke’s time as a professor, he was more likely to pick up a backpack than a briefcase. And rather than sporting the cool navy tie, pressed-collared shirt, and pitch-black suit he wore last month at his nomination announcement, Professor Blinder remembered Professor Bernanke wearing more casual clothing. A "prototypical" outfit would include a pair of khaki pants, a polo shirt and comfortable brown-leather shoes or sneakers, he recalled.
   Now, "he’s taken to suits, which he never wore here," Professor Blinder said. "In fact, I don’t think he owned a suit before he went to Washington. I certainly never saw him in one."
   Professor Bernanke’s clothing preferences as a professor fit with Professor Blinder’s description of a soft-spoken man with a "wry, sardonic sense of humor.
   "He’s not a domineering personality. He’s not the sort of person that, when you sit around the table, feels obligated to dominate the conversation," Professor Blinder said. Especially "when it comes to jokes, Ben is much more of a one-liner, apropos of what’s going on. Slips in a one-liner that makes you smile, often ironic."
   Laid back or not, Professor Bernanke did a terrific job as the chairman of Princeton’s economics department, said Professor Blinder, a position he himself held in the late-1980s.
   "Many people have said to me … that being department chair is the worst position in a university’s hierarchy … and being the chairman of the economics department is the worst position of all the chairmanships," he said. "I don’t have the first-hand experience with the rest of (the other chairmanships), but it’s basically believable. There’s a tremendous aggravation and a tremendous amount of work in this job."
   But, he said, Professor Bernanke "is unflappable — never loses his temper or, if he does, he keeps it to himself, never visibly. (He) seems to let aggravating things roll off his back, better than most people can, and accomplished a great deal as chairman."
   Speaking to Professor Bernanke’s potential at the Fed, Professor Blinder said he is confident that Professor Bernanke would continue to keep it out of politics. He said that despite recent media coverage harping on Professor Bernanke’s inflation-targeting opinion differing from retiring Chairman Alan Greenspan’s, no earth-shattering policy changes were in store.
   "He’s not the sort of person who walks in a room and sees a poker game in progress and tips over the table and knocks all the cards on the floor, saying, ‘Well, let’s start over again.’ It’s not his way," Professor Blinder said. "I’m sure he’ll not do that at the Fed."