Steve Chapman

Washington, D.C., is a generous and forgiving place. It's full of people who have had successful careers and made lots of money in spite of having been tragically wrong on the great issues of the day. But one sin warrants no mercy: being right.

That's the problem faced by Janet Yellen, the vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, who is a leading candidate to replace Chairman Ben Bernanke when he steps down next year. Her chief competition is Larry Summers, who was Bill Clinton's Treasury secretary and director of Barack Obama's National Economic Council.

Underlying the debate is the dispute over how the Fed has done its job.

Conservatives think it has been reckless in expanding the money supply. Liberals say it deserves credit for keeping a severe recession from being much worse.

Liberals prefer Yellen, who has been tabbed a "dove" on inflation, favoring easy money. Conservatives are apt to prefer Summers, who leans the opposite way. Bentley University economist Scott Sumner says he has been "unable to turn up a single instance of Summers criticizing policy as being too tight over the past five years."

Also playing a role are attitudes about the desirability of giving this powerful job to a woman for the first time. The New York Times reports that Christina Romer, who served on Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, views "the choice of the next leader of the Fed as a test of the administration's commitment to inclusiveness."

A Wall Street Journal editorial, meanwhile, dismissed Yellen as the darling of "the Democratic Party's gender liberals." Summers, a white male, appeals to those who resent preferences based on race or sex. He wins bonus points for daring, as president of Harvard, to suggest that females are less likely than men to be exceptionally good at math.

It's an article of faith among conservatives that efforts to promote diversity are at war with the principles of meritocracy. But the alleged conflict is absent this time. There is a powerful case to be made for Yellen strictly on how she's done her job.

Her notable achievement has been to assess the dangers faced by the Fed and to distinguish the real from the bogus. Since the financial meltdown of 2008, Bernanke's critics have been haunted by the specter of inflation. Yellen has seen it for the illusion it is.

By 2009, conservative economists were warning that an explosion in prices was on the way. Last year GOP presidential candidates agreed that Bernanke was, in Newt Gingrich's words, "the most inflationary" Fed chairman ever. But the claims have proved baseless again and again.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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