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Ben Bernanke: Hands Off Hamilton’s $10 Bill!

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During quantitative easing, the Federal Reserve was lambasted in many corners for merely “printing money” to paper over the crisis. However, the literal amount of U.S. currency printed in 2014 was a little over $250 billion.

But the big kerfuffle of the moment is not over how many bills are being printed or put into circulation or used to buy, but whose face appears on those bills.

In his most recent blog for the Brookings Institution, “Say it ain’t so, Jack,” former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke says he was “appalled” at the news that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has decided to “demote” Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill. (And baseball fan Bernanke also revealed his fondness for the national pastime with his blog title, a Shoeless Joe Jackson reference.)

Showing his (or perhaps his people’s) social media chops, Bernanke links to four like-minded members of the nattering class who agree with him. One example: The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri, who argued that “Hamilton built this country with his bare hands, strong nose, and winning smile.”  Another is National Review’s Richard Brookhiser, who lamented in The Wall Street Journal that “the man who made our money is losing his place on it.”

Bernanke says that Hamilton’s place on the bill is justified as being “among the greatest of our founders for his contributions to achieving American independence and creating the Constitution alone,” but also for being “without doubt the best and most foresighted economic policymaker in U.S. history.” Bernanke cites Ron Chernow’s “excellent biography” of Hamilton as detailing his role in putting “U.S. government finances on a sound footing, consolidating the debts of the states and setting up a strong federal fiscal system.”

Bernanke also does a little name dropping when he brings Hamilton’s heroics into the present day, mentioning the “problems that the combination of uncoordinated national fiscal policies and a single currency [have] caused the eurozone in recent years.” Bernanke says that when he was Fed chairman he recommended Chernow’s book to Mario Draghi, and that the president of the European Central Bank told him he “read it with great interest.”

Bernanke says “it’s a fine idea” to honor a “deserving woman on the face of our currency” — there was speculation that an unspecified American woman would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, though Lew now appears to have decided on a swap for the $10 bill — “but it shouldn’t come at Hamilton’s expense.”

Like many other critics of Lew’s plan, Bernanke suggests that if anyone should be removed from a piece of currency, it should be Jackson, who was “a poor president.” Moreover, Bernanke (a financial historian, remember) says that “given his views on central banking, Jackson would probably be fine with having his image dropped from a Federal Reserve note.”

In the government’s fiscal year 2015, the Fed ordered the printing of 627,200 new $10 bills (valued at $6.272 million) and 1,868,800 $20 bills (worth $37.376 million). The $20 bill is the second most widely printed denomination —  the Fed ordered 2,451,200 $1 bills for the year.

Printing of the new bills will begin in 2020, and Lew is expected to announce as soon as this fall who will appear on them.

Ever the pragmatist, Bernanke says his experience in government has taught him decisions like Lew’s have “considerable bureaucratic inertia and are accordingly hard to reverse. But the Treasury Department should do everything within its power to defend the honor of Jack Lew’s most illustrious predecessor.”

Bernanke likes history, but he perhaps likes baseball more.

In his recent speech at Pershing’s Insite conference, Bernanke reiterated that his primary tension reliever during the financial crisis was to attend games of his beloved Washington Nationals, though he also recalled that then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson would always seem to call him at the stadium during some important moment (both in the game and the crisis.) So his previous Brookings blog had to do with the no-hitter by the Nationals’ Max Scherzer that he and his family witnessed last Saturday, though investment advisors would likely concur with Bernanke on why he loves baseball so much.

“No other sport provides such a detailed record of performance, covering thousands of games and players back to the nineteenth century,” he wrote. “That means that every game takes place in a rich historical context.”

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