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Five Things You Didn't Know About Ben Bernanke

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You know Ben Bernanke as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, but how much do you really know about the guy? The "most powerful nerd on the planet” became a household name during the Great Recession, and yet the real man behind that bearded, calm exterior remains something of a mystery.

Born in Augusta, Georgia, and raised in Dillon, South Carolina, Bernanke was the son of a pharmacy owner and a schoolteacher. He went on to become an economics professor and chaired the Department of Economics at Princeton. In 2002, he landed at the Federal Reserve as a governor, and in 2006, President Bush appointed him chairman. He’s been criticized for failing to foresee the nation’s financial crisis and for bailing out Wall Street. What you might not know: The 57-year-old used to be a theme-park waiter.

May I Take Your Order, Please?
If you’ve ever crossed the border between North Carolina and South Carolina along Interstate 95 and seen a giant Sombrero Tower, you’ve spotted where Young Bernanke worked as a waiter. During the summers between semesters at Harvard, the Fed-in-Chief returned to his hometown and slaved at “tourist mecca” South of the Border to pay his way through college. At the Mexican-themed roadside attraction, which features an amusement park and a mascot named Pedro, Bernanke served diners at the Sombrero Restaurant and wore a poncho. In a 60 Minutes interview, Bernanke revealed that his summer jobs taught him that “work is hard.”

A Man of Many Nicknames
“Helicopter Ben” is Bernanke’s most popular nickname. He earned the title after a 2002 speech, “Deflation: Making Sure ‘It’ Doesn’t Happen Here,” in which he referenced Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman’s “helicopter drop” theory that says deflation is best combated by a direct infusion of cash to the people. For this, Bernanke was rewarded with artistic renderings of himself dropping money over the country from a helicopter. Subsequently, he was crowned “Bearnanke” by the Wall Street Journal : “By harping on his worries about inflation and tight labor markets, Bernanke has implied there will be no cut in interest rates any time soon, and bond investors […] risk losing money as they come to grips with that.” Most recently, he has been rechristened “Bernie Mac," “Banana Ben,” "the Ben Bernank," and “He Who Sees No Bubbles.”

Foreclosure Crisis Hits Home
In 2009, Bernanke’s ranch-style childhood home in economically hard-hit Dillon was sold at a foreclosure sale to Travis Jackson, a 27-year-old loan officer. Bernanke declined to comment on the record specifically about his foreclosed-upon boyhood residence (the Bernanke family had sold the property over a decade prior), but he stated, “We believe that getting the credit markets going, getting banks lending again, increasing the demand for all products—including those made in Dillon—are part of economic recovery. […] That's what the Fed's trying to do."

Richard Schafer, who owns South of the Border, says post-recession revenue at the park is down 10% and he wishes he’d kept a photo of Bernanke as a serape-wearing server: “I'd probably get some economic-bailout money if I did.”

A Private Faith
Bernanke, almost didn’t go to Harvard because his family was concerned that he would “lose his Jewish identity.” At the time, Harvard grad student and former fellow Dillon resident Kenneth Manning, who is African-American and now an M.I.T. professor, reassured the Bernanke family “there were Jews in Boston.” When it comes to religion, says a friend, Bernanke “keeps his feelings and beliefs private … but it’s really embedded in who he is.” Bernanke learned Hebrew from his maternal grandfather, Harold Friedman, a professional hazzan and Hebrew teacher.

Upon his arrival in Washington, Bernanke’s leadership experience as chair of the economics department at Princeton was so limited that “he liked to joke that his major decisions involved what type of bagels to order for faculty meetings.”

Nice Beard
“Has Ben Bernanke's beard gotten significantly whiter since he started as Fed Chairman or is it just me?” tweeted @The Analyst of Bailout Ben. In terms of facial hair, Bernanke’s now-snowy iconic beard is the yang to Giants’ pitcher Brian Wilson’s yin. In fact, Mr. Chairman’s beard even has its own Facebook page. “I hate everything Ben Bernanke stands for,” the Info page reads, “but his beard is an epic win.”
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