Bernanke’s 2009 Commencement Address to the Graduates of Boston College School of Law

In a commencement address to the graduates of the Boston College Law School today, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke reveals in a very personal light how a South Carolina kid like him ended up as the most powerful economic policy-maker in the world. Here are a few excerpts from his speech:

From Fed: When I look back at my own life, at least from one perspective, I see a sequence of accidents and unforeseeable events. I grew up in a small town in South Carolina and went to the public schools there. My father and my uncle were the town pharmacists, and my mother, who had been a teacher, worked part-time in the store. I was a good student in high school and expected to go to college, but I didn’t see myself going very far from home, and I had little notion of what I wanted to do in the future.

Chance intervened, however, as it so often does. I had a slightly older friend named Ken Manning, whom I knew because his family shopped regularly at our drugstore. Ken’s story is quite interesting, and a bit improbable, in itself. An African American, raised in a small Southern town during the days of racial segregation, Ken nevertheless found his way to Harvard for both a B.A. and a Ph.D., and he is now a professor at MIT, not too far from here. Needless to say, he is an exceptional individual, in his character and determination as well as his remarkable intellectual gifts.

Anyway, for reasons that have never been entirely clear to me, Ken made it his personal mission to get me to come to Harvard also. I had never even considered such a possibility–where was Harvard, exactly? Up North, I thought–but Ken’s example and arguments were persuasive, and I was (finally) persuaded. Fortunately, I got in. It probably helped that Harvard was not at the time getting lots of applications from South Carolina.

We all have moments we will never forget. One of mine occurred when I entered Harvard Yard for the first time, a 17-year-old freshman. It was late on Saturday night, I had had a grueling trip, and as I entered the Yard, I put down my two suitcases with a thump. I looked around at the historic old brick buildings, covered with ivy. Parties were going on, students were calling to each other across the Yard, stereos were blasting out of dorm windows. I took in the scene, so foreign to my experience, and I said to myself, “What have I done?” At some level, I really had no idea what I had done, or what the consequences would be. All I knew was that I had chosen to abandon the known and comfortable for the unknown and challenging. But for me, at least, the expansion of horizons was exactly what I needed at that time in my life.

Bernanke had an interesting paragraph in his speech about the unpredictability factor of his present job.

As an economist and policymaker, I have plenty of experience in trying to foretell the future, because policy decisions inevitably involve projections of how alternative policy choices will influence the future course of the economy….Like weather forecasters, economic forecasters must deal with a system that is extraordinarily complex, that is subject to random shocks, and about which our data and understanding will always be imperfect. In some ways, predicting the economy is even more difficult than forecasting the weather, because an economy is not made up of molecules whose behavior is subject to the laws of physics, but rather of human beings who are themselves thinking about the future and whose behavior may be influenced by the forecasts that they or others make.

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