31 Jan 2010

Do You Love Big Ben (Bernanke)?

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In one of His most famous and controversial teachings, Jesus instructs His followers to love their enemies:

27″But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. 30Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32″If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. 33And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. 34And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. 35But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6: 27-36)

So for me, I don’t really have any “enemies” in my personal life. It’s probably partly because I’m a consultant and so I don’t have any corporate rivals or a jerk boss I can’t stand.

But there still is a temptation for me to hate the official power brokers in DC and other heads of state and militaries around the world, for all the carnage that they unleash on innocent people. If my worldview is correct, then the world could be incredibly better on so many levels, if these guys (and a few gals) would abandon their lust for power.

So in that context, it’s a useful exercise as a Christian to work yourself up into at least trying to love someone like Ben Bernanke. (Or if you don’t really have a strong feeling for him one way or the other, try Barack Obama or George Bush or Dick Cheney or Kim Jong Il.)

So for Bernanke, even though I am positive he is wrecking the US financial system and I am 90% confident that he is at least vaguely aware of what he is doing, I occasionally will try to recalibrate my indignation by stepping back and trying to understand “how could this have happened?” And in the process of doing so, I end up being a lot less angry. So I think (as usual) Jesus’ command wasn’t some pointless task of obedience that He threw out there for us; if you actually try to love your enemies, you gain a much greater understanding of how the world works. (And note I use that common phrase quite deliberately–in an important sense the ruler of the world is Satan, and it’s important to analyze how he manipulates things without focusing your judgment on the weak people who facilitate his plans.)

OK then, if you’re starting out in a fury and you think there’s no way in the world you could ever sincerely have feelings of sympathy and compassion for someone like Ben Bernanke–and yet you are a Christian and intellectually know that you should–here are some methods that I use.

First, notwithstanding John Steinbeck’s theory in East of Eden, I don’t think we should assume that a particular adult who is doing really evil things, came out of the womb with no conscience. Steinbeck may be right that some people just never really had a conscience, but I think that’s too easy and incorrect when trying to understand the development of adults who do astonishingly wicked things. So even though I haven’t researched it, I’m willing to say that Benny Bernanke was a cute little kid who played with kittens and read Moby Dick to shut-ins every other Saturday at the nursing home.

Second, realize that Bernanke probably faces far more constraints on his actions than you realize. C’mon, do you really think the most powerful bankers and other men in the world, would sit back with bated breath to see what a former Princeton econ chair decides with regard to the fate of the world economy? So when you are trying to interpret some of his actions–such as bailing out foreign banks–keep in mind that part of that might be Bernanke trying to buy himself some friends to give himself more options. It doesn’t make those actions right, but my point is simply that we don’t really know what’s motivating him. I don’t for one second believe we’re seeing the maximization of Bernanke’s utility function, where the two inputs are his paramaters for distaste of inflation and the “output gap,” but on the other hand it’s probably also not correct to view Bernanke as sitting in his quarters twirling a mustache and saying moo-hoo-ha-HA!

Third, realize that whatever awful decisions Bernanke is “forced” to make right now–and which he himself probably recognizes as placing his own career / family’s survival above the interests of average people–he probably didn’t realize that, going into things. He must have been an incredibly ambitious and very talented guy, to even be a candidate for Fed chief. He probably was very familiar with previous Fed actions and thought he could do a better job, or at least thought he would do at least a good a job as any of the other people in the running.

For the above point, consider your own job experiences. Haven’t you ever been disillusioned once you got into a job, and actually became somewhat disappointed (or even disgusted) with how it “made” you act? For example, I used to have this hallowed conception of the mighty Peer Review Process for journal articles. I was picturing scientific economists sending journal articles into an editor, who would then distribute them to the world’s experts on the subject. The experts would spend days carefully vetting the submission, reproducing its claims and subjecting it to all sorts of stress tests to judge the robustness of its results. After such a grueling process, only the most airtight articles would see the light of day. And if any economics professors are reading this right now, I hope I gave you a good belly laugh. (I’m not even talking about the CRU email scandal; I’m talking about regular academic discourse here. In practice referees don’t have nearly enough time to provide more than a cursory line of defense against erroneous journal submissions.)

So for Bernanke (or Obama or Bush) think of how much “on the job” training he must have received. Whatever promises (implicit or explicit) he made in order to get the job, he had no idea what certain powerful people were going to ask of him. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in reality, Bernanke’s true job is to take his marching orders from other people, and then come up with the way to sell it to the financial markets so it sounds like a coherent plan. Now even if that’s true, note that Bernanke isn’t a complete puppet. He always has the option of pushing the boundaries of what his handlers want him to say or do, because ultimately it would look really weird if all of a sudden his brakes didn’t work next Tuesday. So once he got into power and (let’s suppose) realized the people “coaching” him weren’t doing their level best to help average Americans, even if he wanted to repent at that point, it would be pretty difficult. It would be very very very easy–and I bet many of us have thought like this in some of our jobs–for him to say, “This whole organization is going down the wrong path, but I’ll do what I can to check its worst excesses and avoid disaster. Mr. X and Y and Z are some seriously bad influences, but I can steer things away from what they want.” I’m not saying that is what’s going on, but it could be.

I’ll stop here because I think you get the point. As crazy as it sounds, try to work up some sympathy for the Fed chief. Jesus told us to.

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