The White House has decided to keep Fed Chair Ben Bernanke and the Justice Department has decided to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate allegations that the CIA broke the law by torturing prisoners. The special prosecutor, John Durham, has served both Republican and Democratic Attorneys General in the past.
These twin non-partisan appointments are both welcome at a superficial level: Both men seem perfectly well suited for their jobs. Bernanke especially gets high marks for making high-risk, and highly controversial decisions, to stabilize the economy but they apparently worked. But, they are interesting at other levels as well. As mentioned yesterday, the Founders were keen on keeping political decisions in the hands of the political branches, especially in the legislatures. The Presidency has grown in power over the past hundred years, and the Supreme Court has assumed enormous power that the Founders probably never intended but should have foreseen: There is always a need to interpret a Constitution and whoever is vested with the authority to do so holds an enormous amount of power. Mutatis mutandi, it is the same power the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has, the power to deliver an authoritative interpretation. But, the Founders also did not foresee the need for special prosecutors and Federal Reserve chairmen.
In both instances, finding people whose motivations are essentially non-partisan has a certain value: Continuity in the management of the economy and in the Justice Department’s probes of the CIA are important. Furthermore, the interests of justice and economic stability would be ill served if Obama were to appoint highly partisan figures to these posts. Especially in the investigations of the CIA, which may well include senior Bush administration officials, it is vital that the investigation be in the hands of someone who was first appointed by Bush’s Attorney General and who is in no sense conducting a partisan vendetta. I hope he finds who was responsible for the decision to commit torture in name of the United States of America, in your name and in my name, and will prosecute them to the full extent of the law.
Bernanke’s role is different. The Federal Reserve was designed to be free from political interference yet its Chairman has an enormous influence on the lives of most Americans without the accountability to them that government servants should have. A Fed Chair with pronounced views can shape the way both the government and the entire nations views economic issues as we saw during the tenure of Alan Greenspan. But, Greenspan’s most fundamental views, by his own admission, were wrong. I was suspicious of his idolatry of market long before he was: We were both at a small luncheon one day, when a mutual friend asked him what he liked most about being Fed Chair and he replied: "The data." My studies in Metaphysics at Catholic University taught me to be more suspicious of the Cartesian cogito and its detritus than that. Besides, Greenspan was a long-time officer of the Ayn Rand club in DC, a club to which only sophomores in college should be permitted to join.
Bernanke has been worshipping at the Keynesian altar, not the Greenspan one, most of the past year. His studies in the Great Depression have served him well and have helped him, and us, avert an even worse economic calamity than the one we are passing through. The invisible hand of the market has been put out, along with other fantasies from the laissez-faire house of mirrors. It would be good of him to mention in his press conference today that the invisible hand of the market has not done such a bang-up job at providing health insurance either. But, that would be too political.