Ben Shalom Bernanke (/bərˈnæŋki/ bər-NANG-kee; born December 13, 1953) is an American economist at the Brookings Institution who served two terms as Chair of the Federal Reserve, the central bank of the United States, from 2006 to 2014. During his tenure as chair, Bernanke oversaw the Federal Reserve’s response to the late-2000s financial crisis. Before becoming Federal Reserve chair, Bernanke was a tenured professor at Princeton University and chaired the department of economics there from 1996 to September 2002, when he went on public service leave.
From August 5, 2002 until June 21, 2005, he was a member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, proposed the Bernanke Doctrine, and first discussed “the Great Moderation” — the theory that traditional business cycles have declined in volatility in recent decades through structural changes that have occurred in the international economy, particularly increases in the economic stability of developing nations, diminishing the influence of macroeconomic (monetary and fiscal) policy.
Bernanke then served as chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers before President Bush nominated him to succeed Alan Greenspan as chairman of the United States Federal Reserve. His first term began February 1, 2006. Bernanke was confirmed for a second term as chairman on January 28, 2010, after being renominated by President Barack Obama, who later referred to him as “the epitome of calm.” His second term ended January 31, 2014, when he was succeeded by Janet Yellen on February 3, 2014.
Bernanke wrote about his time as chairman of the Federal Reserve in his 2015 book, The Courage to Act, in which he revealed that the world’s economy came close to collapse in 2007 and 2008. Bernanke asserts that it was only the novel efforts of the Fed (cooperating with other agencies and agencies of foreign governments) that prevented an economic catastrophe greater than the Great Depression.
FAMILY & CHILDHOOD
Bernanke was born in Augusta, Georgia, and was raised on East Jefferson Street in Dillon, South Carolina. His father Philip was a pharmacist and part-time theater manager. His mother Edna was an elementary school teacher. Bernanke has two younger siblings. His brother, Seth, is a lawyer in Charlotte, North Carolina. His sister, Sharon, is a longtime administrator at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
The Bernankes were one of the few Jewish families in Dillon and attended Ohav Shalom, a local synagogue; Bernanke learned Hebrew as a child from his maternal grandfather, Harold Friedman, a professional hazzan (service leader), shochet, and Hebrew teacher. Bernanke’s father and uncle owned and managed a drugstore they purchased from Bernanke’s paternal grandfather, Jonas Bernanke.
Jonas Bernanke was born in Boryslav, Austria-Hungary (today part of Ukraine), on January 23, 1891. He immigrated to the United States from Przemyśl, Austria-Hungary (today part of Poland) and arrived at Ellis Island, aged 30, on June 30, 1921, with his wife Pauline, aged 25. On the ship’s manifest, Jonas’s occupation is listed as “clerk” and Pauline’s as “doctor med”.
The family moved to Dillon from New York in the 1940s. Bernanke’s mother gave up her job as a schoolteacher when her son was born and worked at the family drugstore. Ben Bernanke also worked there sometimes.
As a teenager in the 1960s in the small town of Dillon, Bernanke used to help roll the Torah scrolls in his local synagogue. Although he keeps his beliefs private, his friend Mark Gertler, chairman of New York University’s economics department, says they are “embedded in who he (Bernanke) is”. The Bernanke family was concerned that Ben would “lose his Jewish identity” if he went to Harvard. Fellow Dillon native Kenneth Manning, who would eventually become a professor of the history of sciences at MIT, assured the family “there are Jews in Boston”. Once Bernanke was at Harvard for his freshman year, Manning took him to Brookline for Rosh Hashanah services.
Bernanke was educated at East Elementary, J.V. Martin Junior High, and Dillon High School, where he was class valedictorian and played saxophone in the marching band. Since Dillon High School did not offer calculus at the time, Bernanke taught it to himself. Bernanke scored 1590 out of 1600 on the SAT and was a National Merit Scholar. He also was a contestant in the 1965 National Spelling Bee.
Bernanke attended Harvard University in 1971, where he lived in Winthrop House, as did the future CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, and graduated with an A.B. degree, and later with an A.M. in economics summa cum laude in 1975. He received a Ph.D. degree in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1979 after completing and defending his dissertation, Long-Term Commitments, Dynamic Optimization, and the Business Cycle. Bernanke’s thesis adviser was the future governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fischer, and his readers included Irwin S. Bernstein, Rüdiger Dornbusch, Robert Solow, and Peter Diamond of MIT and Dale Jorgenson of Harvard.
Bernanke met his wife, Anna, a schoolteacher, on a blind date. She was a student at Wellesley College, and he was in graduate school at MIT. The Bernankes have two children, Joel and Alyssa. He is an ardent fan of the Washington Nationals baseball team, and frequently attends games at Nationals Park.
When Bernanke left Stanford to accept a position at Princeton, he and his family moved to Montgomery Township, New Jersey in 1985, where Bernanke’s children attended the local public schools. Bernanke served for six years as a member of the board of education of the Montgomery Township School District.
In 2009 The Wall Street Journal reported that Bernanke was a victim of identity theft, a spreading crime the Federal Reserve has for years issued warnings about.