Friday, April 13, 2018

How a Chairman of the Federal Reserve Made Strategic Use of the Media

Just as the US Senate was to take up the matter of Ben Bernanke’s re-appointment as Chair of the Federal Reserve in 2010, Time magazine came out with its announcement that he is to be its person of the year.  According to the magazine, “when turbulence in U.S. housing markets metastasized into the worst global financial crisis in more than 75 years, he conjured up trillions of new dollars and blasted them into the economy; engineered massive public rescues of failing private companies; ratcheted down interest rates to zero; lent to mutual funds, hedge funds, foreign banks, investment banks, manufacturers, insurers and other borrowers who had never dreamed of receiving Fed cash; jump-started stalled credit markets in everything from car loans to corporate paper; revolutionized housing finance with a breathtaking shopping spree for mortgage bonds; blew up the Fed’s balance sheet to three times its previous size; and generally transformed the staid arena of central banking into a stage for desperate improvisation. He didn’t just reshape U.S. monetary policy; he led an effort to save the world economy.”  Not to be outdone in service to the Chairman, CNN furnished its own reporters, who gave credit to Bernanke for these measures.  Interestingly, however, even though one reporter admitted that Bernanke had said in 2007 that the subprime market and its derivatives would not threaten the financial market and the banks, she attributed the fault there to the imperfections in the market rather than to Bernanke himself in being wrong.   So, he gets credit for cleaning up the mess (ignoring the foreclosed homeowners) but not the blame for being wrong about the contagion (and not urging regulation of the derivatives).  He could have urged the regulation of derivatives (he is a smart person), and once the crisis occurred, he could have tailored his response to the homeowners facing foreclosures that could have been stopped. For example, the Fed could have created dollars to subsidize the inordinate rates on the variable rate subprime mortgages (i.e. those bank assets would not have been toxic and the banks’ balance sheets would have been fine…two birds with one stone…rather than doing the bidding of one of the parties).  To be sure, if the Fed is inordinately friendly to banks because of the power they have in selecting their regulators (the NY Fed Chair’s appointing committee consists of bankers), then Bernanke might have simply been playing the good politics for staying in office.   “Our ships must all sail in the same direction; otherwise who can tell how long you will…last…with us.” (The Godfather, part III)  Bernanke is a player from the perspective of the real power behind the throne: America’s financial elite.  That elite literally owns the media companies. So what I want to point out here is that the timing of Time’s announcement and the asymetry in CNN’s laudatory coverage of the Chairman just as the Senate was about to consider his re-appointment led me almost instinctually to  be convinced that coincidence was not the driver here.  The Chairman undoubtedly had some powerful friends in the media who were giving him a publicity offensive, or campaign, just in time for the Senate debate on whether to appoint him.

Through all the admiration of this person of 2009, it should be remembered that he did not urge the regulation of sub-prime derivatives issued or held by the banks regulated by the Fed.  He was wrong about the subprime housing bubble being contained.  And he failed to protect homeowners sufficiently.  If the media was being used by the Fed Chair in his re-appointment campaign, it could be that what we are fed by CNN, Fox, MSNBC and the main network newscasts is not really as neutral or beyond their control as we think.   News as a campaign.  News because it is in some powerful actor’s vested interests.  While there is certainly coincidence in life, an alignment such as I have outlined here is far too transparent—or at least it ought to be.

The subtext here is that we, the American people, have become too much the pawns even as we think we are not.  The illusion of popular sovereignty is that we are in control.   I don’t think we have any idea of the extent to which we are manipulated by the powers that transcend our elected representatives and their appointees.  It is no wonder that real change does not get beyond the interests of the real power in America, whose interest is in the status quo or at best in an incremental change.   Essentially, we have allowed the anti-democratic power to concentrate to a degree that is dangerous to a functioning republic (i.e., a representative democracy).  We should not be surprised to find that powerful actors are operating at a subterranean level where transparency is intentionally lacking.    How do we get it back, you ask?  Hah!   We would have to see it first—realize its extent and depth—and I’m not holding my breath that enough people will wake up to see the light.

Too many of us are ensconced in Plato’s cave, taking what the puppets say for reality.  As Jack Nicholson said in A Few Good Men, “You want answers? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”    Even if we could stomach the emetic manipulation behind the scenes that is directed to us (and even our representatives—when they aren’t doing it themselves), we would have to be able to see it—and it is so well hidden.  We can only grasp at straws…confluences that seem like more than coincidences.  As a member of the black caucus of the US House (surprisingly) said to a reporter of Frontline on the TARP program passing the House just days after it had been voted down by that same body, “You have no idea how powerful the anti-democratic forces are here.”    You and I get only glimpses.  The puppets seem more real so we believe in them.   Please don’t take my thesis to be that there is one huge orchastrated conspiracy; rather, I’m simply suggesting that our system of representative democracy does not seem to be able to sufficiently constrain the invisible powers that are pulling strings without being accountable to the public power.  It is my ardent hope that the people will look beyond the status quo in voting for candidates—perhaps getting back to citizen representatives who do their duty then return to their preferred occupations—that we would elect people sufficiently principled and not desirous of a life in power to be willing to take on the financial power.   Do I think it will happen?  Sadly, no.  I’m sorry, but I just don’t think we have it in us…or we don’t have enough of what it would take to confront that which is in us that favors comfort and sleep.   In the story of the rise and fall of empires, the United States is not exempt.  The culprit, as with most things, lies within.   It is ultimately about what kind of people too many of us are.  Such a thing is very, very difficult to change, let alone see.  Decadence tends to be invisible to itself.

Note: A day after CNN covered the announcement, the Senate finance committee debated and voted on Bernanke’s re-appointment. See