Notes on the News

Paul Greenberg

11/12/2007 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg
With apologies to Walter Winchell

Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea. Let's go to press.

The stock market is having a tizzy again, which is halfway between a hissy and the vapors. It can't decide whether to jump with joy or out the nearest window . . . It compromises by doing both on alternate days. Happy days may not be here again, but zany weeks are . . . What an initiation this has been for the Fed's still new chairman, Ben Bernanke. It's been almost as upsetting a welcome as the one Allan Greenspan got when he became chairman just in time for Black Monday in October of 1987. He met the test, and Chairman Bernanke is staying on top of this buckin' financial bronco, too. So far.

Of course there's been criticism. And there will be more. As well as praise. It all depends which source gets quoted in the papers . . . But after decades in academia, where the viciousness of the politics varies in inverse ratio to the size of the stakes, the political infighting at the Fed must strike Professor Bernanke as tepid by comparison.

The Fed's policies won't win universal approval. No economic policy ever does. Line up all the economists in the world and they still wouldn't reach a conclusion . . . Some of us old fogeys think the Fed's new chairman is too soft on inflation - much too soft - and too willing - much too willing - to bail out the bankers and sub-prime lenders who've made loans they had no business making. The financiers call it moral hazard . . . Keep bailing out those lenders and driving the U.S. dollar down, and the Fed is asking for trouble. The longer the immediate crisis is averted, the greater it'll be when it does hit. Better a mild downturn now than a dramatic recession later or, the worst of both worlds: stagflation. One Jimmy Carter was enough.

Some cynics are already calling the increasingly inflated version of the dollar the bernanke, though American exporters love it. It may not be widely noticed, but the national deficit, fiscal and trade, continues to drop. A cheaper dollar lets American goods compete abroad. But how long before we'll be referring to the dollar the same way we used to talk about the peso or yen? ("The price is $98.50? How much is that in real money?") The Canadian looney is now worth more than the U.S. dollar, for goshsakes.

Let this much be said for Chairman Bernanke: He doesn't think his job is to sit on the sidelines like some mysterious guru and occasionally issue opaque communiques in some mystic tongue (Greenspanian) as the economy flits between euphoria and melancholia . . . Instead, the man consults widely (not just with everybody who's anybody in the Fed but with the cognoscenti on Wall Street and in academia) and then acts. Even when he does nothing, Ben Bernanke seems to do it actively.

This new chairman's more transparent approach to the economy may stem from all those years he's spent on his academic specialty - the country's financial system and how it's interacted with the economy in general, especially during the Great Depression. Back then, the two didn't interact much at all except to collapse in tandem . . . So when a crisis strikes, the Fed's new chairman can be counted on to do something about it. Whether it's the right thing, results will tell. But as a general policy, when everything's coming apart, it's best to do something even if it's wrong. To do nothing is only to drift mindlessly downstream . . . toward the cataract.

Speaking of disaster, scriptwriters and producers in Hollywood have broken off their contract talks. A strike is under way, a dire shortage of repartee impends, a dialogue deficit looms, a verbal crisis threatens . . . Oh where, oh where, will we snappy talkers get our next one-liners, our instant cliches, our canned witticisms, our celluloid references, our handy-dandy substitute for any actual thought? . . . Are we going to have to go back to old film clips and start sounding like Bogie and Bacall again? . . . Yo! What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Then we have those conscientious objectors at the State Department who are balking, noisily, at being sent to Iraq. Hey, you could get killed over there! Which is a possibility our troops face every day. But the striped-pants brigade, or at least its more raucous elements, seem to think they deserve a pass . . . Do you think these characters have ever read the oath they took? Or noticed they were applying for the foreign service? . . . Did they think they were signing up only for posh posts in London and Madrid? Come to think, those locales haven't proved immune to terror attacks, either.

True conscientious objectors - pacifists on grounds of moral principle - are allowed an exemption from combat, and should be. But they're not allowed to pick and choose which of their country's wars they will participate in. Forget wars of choice; we now have foreign policies of choice . . . What ever happened to an honorable course like just resigning? But the new breed of diplomat and dissenter (not necessarily in that order) wants to protest without risking pay and perks.

Tune in again next week. Till then, this is your devoted correspondent signing off for Jergen's with lotions of love.