James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

The case against Bernanke being reappointed as Fed chairman

Aug 20, 2009 17:52 UTC

David Rosenberg of Gluskin Sheff outlines the bear case on Ben Bernanke getting reappointed by Obama:

Bernanke was a giant cheerleader for the leverage-induced economy during his time as the chief economist at the White House and while he was aggressive (and likely broke every rule in the book of central banking) in getting the credit market and economy back on track, he failed at the outset to realize the severity of the credit collapse and treated it as a liquidity event only for months

The Fed’s economic forecast that was published just over a year ago for late 2008 and 2009 is an embarrassment, to say the least. Valuable time was lost under his watch and the question is (i) does the Administration look at his entire record as opposed to his period as a White Knight, and (ii) will Mr. B end up being a scapegoat once the economy relapses in the fourth quarter and the unemployment rate makes new post-WWII highs along the way. See the front page of the NYT for more — Bernanke, a Hero to his Own, Still Faces Fire in Washington. The search committee is already out, by the way, and the likes of Blinder, Yellen, Ferguson and Summers are on it.

Me: I notice that Intrade has Bernanke at 80 percent, but contract is pretty lightly traded. I just keep thinking about the House Government Oversight Committee meeting concerning BofA and Merill where members from both parties basically said Bernanke was lying about his role in the merger. That can’t be good.


They could eat their cake and have it too by keeping Bernanke and appointing a “Fed Czar” that Bernanke reports to. It’s a two-fer — the pesky Senate approval process could be skipped since “Czars” aren’t subject to that and Bernanke’s overlord would have the real power ;-)

Seriously though, how is anyone on that list a genuine improvement or change for the better?

Why not Paul Volcker? Agree or disagree with his philosophy, his appointment would represent a sea change.

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Ron Paul’s Fed audit idea: Are there any economists in favor?

Aug 4, 2009 16:04 UTC

I have taken a lot of heat about my coverage of Ron Paul’s idea to audit the Federal Reserve.  I would love to do a piece on economists in favor of the bill. So I am looking for names.  Now these have to be professional economists, people making a living from teaching or consulting. No self-taugt experts. Please leave names in the comment section below. And here is a bit from the good doctor himself on his bill:

The big guns have lined up against HR 1207, the bill to audit the Federal Reserve. What is it that they are so concerned about? What information are they hiding from the American people? The screed is: transparency is okay except for those things they don’t want to be transparent.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, argues that HR 1207, the legislation to audit the Federal Reserve, would politicize monetary policy. He claims that monetary policy must remain independent, that is; secret. He ignores history because chairmen of the Federal Reserve in the past, especially when up for reappointment, do their best to accommodate the president with politically driven low interest rates and a bubble economy.

Bernanke argues that the knowledge that their discussions and decisions will one day be scrutinized will compromise the freedom of the Open Market Committee to pursue sound policy. If it is sound and honest and serves no special interest, what’s the problem?

He claims that HR 1207 would give power to Congress to affect monetary policy. He dreamt this up to instill fear, an old statist trick to justify government power. HR 1207 does nothing of the sort. He suggested that the day after an FOMC meeting, Congress could send in the GAO to demand an audit of everything said and done. This is hardly the case. The FOMC function under HR 1207 would not change.

The detailed transcripts of the FOMC meetings are released every 5 years, so why would this be so different and what is it that they don’t want the American people to know? Is there something about the transcripts that need to be kept secret, or are the transcripts actually not verbatim?

Fed sycophants argue that an audit would destroy the financial markets’ faith in the Fed. They say this in the midst of the greatest financial crisis in history brought on by none other than the Federal Reserve. In fact, Chairman Bernanke stated on November 14th 2007, “A considerable amount of evidence indicates that Central Bank transparency increases the effectiveness of monetary policy and enhances economic and financial performance”.

They also argue that an audit would hurt the value of the U.S. dollar. In fact, the Fed, in less than a 100 years of its existence, has reduced the value of the 1914 dollar by 96%.

They claim HR 1207 would raise interest rates. How could it? The Fed sets interest rates and the bill doesn’t interfere with monetary policy. Congress would have no say in the matter and besides, Congress likes low interest rates.

It is argued that the Fed wouldn’t be free to raise interest rates if they thought it necessary. But Bernanke has already assured the Congress that rates are going to stay low for the foreseeable future. And again, this bill does nothing to allow Congress to interfere with interest rate setting.

Fed supporters claim that they want to protect the public’s interest with their secrecy. But the banks and Wall Streets are the opponents of HR 1207, and the people are for it. Just who best represents the public’s interest?

The real question is: why are Wall Street and the Fed so hysterically opposed to HR 1207? Just what information are they so anxious to keep secret? Only an audit of the Federal Reserve will answer these questions.



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What Ben Bernanke is telling Congress about Ron Paul’s Fed audit plan

Aug 3, 2009 18:12 UTC

This bit from the WSJ‘s interview with John McCain caught my eye:

“You have no idea the pressure I was under,” he says. “I remember being on the phone with President Bush, Vice President Cheney, the Treasury secretary and [Fed Chairman Ben] Bernanke. They assure me the world financial system is going to collapse if I don’t vote for the bill. So I do the impetuous and rash thing by saying, look, I have got to go back to Washington and see how I can help. And by the way, so did Obama—but it was McCain that was the impetuous one. Obama came back to Washington.” Mr. McCain grumbles, “He was at the White House with me. But he wasn’t impetuous.”

Me: I can tell you that Ben Bernanke is pitching a line to key congressional members in private about Ron Paul’s Fed audit bill that is not too dissimilar to what he told Congress back in the fall of 2008.  Except back then he was saying failure to pass TARP would kill the economy. Today, it is the passage of a bill that would kill the economy, the Fed chairman says.


We’re asking for a simple audit and Bernanke thinks the economy is going to collapse.. again. It’ll surely collapse if he has anything to hide.


6 economists on why Ron Paul’s Fed audit idea is wrong

Aug 3, 2009 17:01 UTC

I asked a half dozen economists who are very concerned about Federal Reserve independence what they thought about Rep. Ron Paul’s bill to audit the Fed. This was my specific question: “Given that Congress can already grill the Fed chairman during Humphrey-Hawkins (and occasional other congressional appearances), how would a GAO audit really threaten Fed independence in practical terms?”

Here is what they told me:

Robert Schiller, Yale University:

The GAO audit proposal is from Ron Paul, who has advocated abolishing the Fed and returning to the gold standard. Maybe people think that this is his foot in the door, a first step in the plan. When King Louis 16 called for a meeting of the Estates General in France, it led to a chain of events that resulted in his beheading!

Lee Ohanian, UCLA

My view is that there is a major difference between general economic questions from Congress to a Fed that isn’t open to a GAO audit and that doesn’t get its budget from Congress, versus a detailed audit by the GAO, which would create an explicit Congressional assessment of Fed operating procedures. An important reason why so many economists argue for independence is because there is substantial cross-country evidence that Central Banks which are more closely tied to the legislature have much higher inflation rates than in highly independent Central Banks. I do think Congress should be able to ask questions of the Fed during regular testimony, and Chairman Bernanke has certainly done more than his predecessors to explain what the Fed is doing and why.

James Hamilton, UC-San Diego

My own concern is not about a specific step such as a proposed audit but rather is a response to what I see as a changing political climate in which I fear it will be more difficult for the Fed to withstand pressure to monetize the deficit.

You ask, why should we be concerned about an audit if we’re not concerned about Congress grilling representatives of the Fed?  My answer is, I am concerned about the manner in which Congress has been grilling representatives of the Fed.

Anil Kashyap, University of Chicago

An audit suggests that they can force them to supply all the background information in real time that goes into a decision and presumably compel all members of the FOMC to share their thinking on any issue in real time.  This information is disclosed after 5 years, with good reason.

The spirit of the Paul bill seems to be that having FOMC meetings live on C-SPAN would be best way to make monetary policy.  That would be a disaster.  (Akin not just to having Supreme Court arguments on TV but also the process of them writing the decisions being televised.)

You want people to be able to change their mind and to be able to vigorously debate all sides of an issue.  If you put all this in public and subject to immediate second guessing it will shut down the give and take that is critical to reaching good decisions.

Michael Woodford, Columbia University

The level of intrusiveness of the GAO would surely be significantly greater — indeed, there would be no point to this proposal, given Humphrey-Hawkins, if it were not the intention of the bill’s proponents to exert Congressional control of monetary policy decisions in a way that the Humphrey-Hawkins testimony alone does not allow them to.

It is important to remember that the GAO already has the authority to audit the Fed, and does, except that the bill giving the GAO this authority in 1978 specifically excluded certain aspects of the Fed’s activities from GAO audits — essentially, decisions about monetary policy. The only purpose of the new bill is therefore to decrease the Fed’s independence with regard to monetary policy decisions.
Considerable historical experience suggests that political interference with monetary policy decisions can lead to regrettable outcomes — which is why Congress itself decided to forswear such interference. The dangers are especially great at a moment like the present one, when the prospect of large government deficits for years to come could easily make short-sighted decisions to use monetary policy to facilitate the financing of those deficits all too tempting. It is ironic that many of the proponents of reining in the Fed claim that their concern is preventing the Fed from further weakening the value of the currency, when the opposite would almost certainly be the consequence of their bill if passed.

Michael Feroli, JPMorgan

That’s a fair question. At H-H the Chairman is accountable for the Fed’s decisions. But I do think there is a distinction between asking questions and having all the conversations audited. For one, that could stifle the openness of the debate: to take an example, the Chairman always has to dance around the issue of NAIRU because it can be misperceived by economically illiterate members of Congress as meaning the Fed wants to engineer a certain amount of unemployment.

With audited conversations, the debate could become stilted. I think a GAO audit would also risk appearing as an official verdict on Fed decisions, as opposed to twenty different Congressmen questioning the Fed, which is much more clearly the opinions of some politicians. Finally, even if the step isn’t a major one, it’s a move in the wrong direction: if the markets and foreign investors perceive it that way, it could immediately push up borrowing costs even if theaudit are only a symbolic increasing of Congressional oversight of monetary policy.


Ugh. Post rational, logical and fact-based arguments that clearly explain why Uncle Ron’s fan are psychotic fringers and they come out of the wood work. If you all truly want high inflation rates and larger lending fees then by all means, take full access of the Fed. I find it the height of hypocrisy that those who complain about the govt being too big and having too much power can simultaneously advocate for giving Congress control over monetary policy decisions.

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Libertarian economist disagrees with Ron Paul’s plan to audit Fed

Aug 3, 2009 16:39 UTC

I just got this email from an economist with strong libertarian leanings who also thinks that Ron Paul’s plan to audit the Fed is a bad, bad idea:

Congress delegating its monetary authority to the Fed is the only feasible approach. Opening the door to giving 535 politicians the authority to influence policy is a recipe for disaster. Sure a price rule would be great, and so would peace everlasting. It ain’t gonna happen. The most you can realistically ask for is to have policy conducted by people who get it right more than wrong. It’s an imperfect resolution, but we live in an imperfect world.

Me: Again, if don’t like monetary policy under Bernanke, would you like it any better under Pelosi and Reid? If you want monetary policy linked to market indicators, fine. But make that case directly. The Fed audit would only spook the markets, and with good reason.  Unless, of course, you expect a Fed audit to reveal a worldwide conspiracy like this one from the film I Married an Axe Murderer:

Stuart Mackenzie: Well, it’s a well known fact, Sonny Jim, that there’s a secret society of the five wealthiest people in the world, known as The Pentavirate, who run everything in the world, including the newspapers, and meet tri-annually at a secret country mansion in Colorado, known as The Meadows.
Tony Giardino: So who’s in this Pentavirate?
Stuart Mackenzie: The Queen, The Vatican, The Gettys, The Rothschilds, *and* Colonel Sanders before he went t-ts up. Oh, I hated the Colonel with is wee *beady* eyes, and that smug look on his face. “Oh, you’re gonna buy my chicken! Ohhhhh!”
Charlie Mackenzie: Dad, how can you hate “The Colonel”?
Stuart Mackenzie: Because he puts an addictive chemical in his chicken that makes ya crave it fortnightly, smart-ss!


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3zo7zjYk 2E

I strongly believe we need a federal reserve audit. The recent stock market action suggests to me the federal reserve is intervening in a free and open market. I believe the biggest beneficiary of this TRILLION DOLLAR stock market move in a couple of weeks was Goldman Sachs. Goldman Sachs sells derivatives in our equity markets its apparent that Goldman Sachs Has Total Control Over our stock market using the unlimited capital available from the federal reserve. I believe Goldman Sachs doesn’t have the best interest of our markets. They are misusing the federal reserve to manipulate the stock market and making huge 100 BILLION DOLLAR profits THIS IS ILLEGAL people expect our government to obey the laws just like citizen. Also this manipulation without regards for cost continues to put our government and the people more and more in debt




Imagine controlling the Federal Reserve portfolio of commodities and equities. TO DO WITH AS YOU PLEASE!!!!!!!

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Or maybe it is time to shutter the Fed …

Jul 31, 2009 18:01 UTC

It took my pal John “The Professor” Tamny of RealClearMarkets about a nanosecond to respond to my blog column about Ron Paul’s plan to audit the Fed. He let loose with both barrels:

The Constitution empowers Congress to “Coin Money, and Regulate the Value Thereof”.  For Congress not to audit/control the Fed would be unconstitutional.  And while I don’t think we need physical gold backing every dollar as Paul wishes, this notion that the Fed needs to conduct “monetary policy” is absurd.

All we need is price rule whereby the dollar has a fixed, redeemable value.  Why we allow a bunch of academics with terrible track records do much of anything is beyond me.  We don’t need policy, we just need a dollar-price rule and that wouldn’t require the Federal Reserve. The Fed’s ability to create money at will has zero to do with economic growth.

Come on Jim, don’t go all statist on me.

Me: I am concerned that we wouldn’t get a dollar price rule but a Congress actively influencing monetary policy. I don’t want to trade Bernanke for Pelosi & Company. I would like a price rule, though.


Fed monetary policy is obviously becoming less and less important in a globalized world market where foreign investment can increase the domestic money supply. Eventually, as we have already somewhat seen, other countries will dictate our monetary policy, not us. See China.

Posted by Greg | Report as abusive

Ron Paul’s Dumb Plan to Audit the Federal Reserve

Jul 31, 2009 16:58 UTC

The Federal Reserve is at least partially to blame for the economic crisis. It left interest rates too low for too long, and laxly regulated the megabanks. Given this reality, or at least this public perception, it’s not surprising that there are plenty of economists and politicos with oodles of ideas for re-imagining the central bank’s role and function. (Linking its policymaking operations more directly to the performance of market metrics such as the greenback, bond rates, and commodities would be a good start.)

[Find out five ways to boost the economy and create jobs]

Then there is Representative Ron Paul, a Texas Republican and libertarian who would rather imagine a fantasy world without a Fed. Throughout his political career, Paul has repeatedly called for the Fed’s abolition, preferring Congress to take full control of monetary policy and eliminate fiat money in favor of a gold-backed national currency.

Since Paul can’t eliminate the Fed outright, he’s trying to emasculate it. Impinging on, and eventually ending, the central bank’s independence is the purpose of the Federal Reserve Transparency Act, Paul’s bill which would “eliminate restrictions on audits of the Federal Reserve and open Fed operations to enhanced scrutiny.”

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And what’s wrong with a little more sunshine on the Fed? Nothing, many Americans apparently think. A Rasmussen poll finds that 75 percent “favor auditing the Federal Reserve and making the results available to the public.”

Now those results aren’t a big surprise given the public’s unease with the unprecedented measures the Fed has taken to bolster the economy, including the unpopular bailout of AIG. Another recent poll found that the Fed is the most unpopular government institution, ranking behind even the Internal Revenue Service.

This unease is also reflected in the nearly 300 House members who are supporting the Paul bill. It’s a worrisome level of congressional support that may be pushing Ben Bernanke to educate the public on what the Fed really does, for example through his appearance at a recent town hall meeting at the Kansas City Fed.

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Of course, most Americans surely don’t realize that the non-policy aspects of the Fed are already audited by the GAO, nor have they watched the Fed chairman’s twice-a-year testimony, once known as the Humphrey-Hawkins testimony, in front of House and Senate committees.

But Paul’s bill would go further. An audit would create an explicit and clear congressional assessment of the Fed’s performance. “Indeed, there would be no point to this proposal, given Humphrey-Hawkins, if it were not the intention of the bill’s proponents to exert congressional control of monetary policy decisions in a way that the Humphrey-Hawkins testimony alone does not allow them to,” argues Michael Woodford, an economics professor at Columbia University.

How might more influence be exerted? Economist Anil Kashyap of the University of Chicago thinks an audit suggests the GAO and Congress could force the Fed to supply all the background information that goes into an interest-rate decision and compel all members of the FOMC to share their individual thinking on any issue in real time. “The spirit of the Paul bill seems to be that having FOMC meetings live on C-SPAN would be best way to make monetary policy. That would be a disaster.”

The effect on the economy might not be so beneficial, either. Even if the result of the Fed bill is onlymore aggressive congressional questioning and criticism, financial markets might well fear the bank would start taking congressional wishes into account when making policy.

“If the markets and foreign investors perceive it that way,” says economist Michael Feroli of JPMorgan, “it could immediately push up borrowing costs even if the audits are only a symbolic increasing of congressional oversight of monetary policy.”

More congressional authority would more likely be biased toward pushing for looser monetary policy to bring down unemployment.  If Congress were full of hard–money guys like Paul, that would be one thing. But who really wants Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank deciding when to tighten and ease? And right now do Americans really want global investors to start questioning the Fed’s commitment to low inflation and a stable currency, right as Uncle Sam is running up record budget deficits?

The economy is only now pulling itself out of recession. Paul’s bill, if successful, could send it back the other way.



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The case against Ben Bernanke

Jul 30, 2009 15:01 UTC

Over at ClusterStock, former Merrill Lynch strategist Richard Bernstein tells us why it should be “one and done” for Ben Bernanke. (He compares BB to Burns and Miller from the 1970s. Ouch!)

1) He is a status quo chairman when big change is needed.

His policies both before and after the banking and credit crises have attempted to maintain financial market status quo. … Mr. Bernanke’s comments regarding his inability to proactively control financial bubbles, and the ease with which the Fed could manage a bubble’s deflation, were astonishing for their naïveté. The fact that the credit bubble’s deflation caused the worst recession of the post-war period seems to demonstrate that Mr. Bernanke has failed even according to his previously expressed expectations.
2) He is too close to Wall Street.
Wall Street thrives on financial asset inflation’s cheaper and more abundant credit. Mr. Greenspan and Mr. Bernanke made sure that the Street was not disappointed regardless of the longer-term detrimental effect on the US economy. The next Fed Chairman should be more concerned with the stability of the financial sector, rather than with the growth of the financial sector.
3) He doesn’t understand the dangers of financial asset inflation.

The future of monetary policy, in my opinion, will focus on the delicate balance between real and financial asset inflation. The US economy does not function well when there is excessive real asset inflation. The 1970s have proven that. However, the US economy also does not function well when there is excessive financial asset inflation. … Yet most central bankers, like Mr. Bernanke, do not yet appreciate this delicate balance. They continue to operate under the assumption that real asset inflation is bad and financial asset inflation is good.  In this respect, Mr. Bernanke’s term as Fed Chairman seems to mimic those of Arthur Burns and William Miller during the 1970s.

Bernstein’s bottom line:
The next Fed Chairman should probably come from one of the Federal Reserve’s district banks. The person should not primarily focus on Wall Street, but rather should fully understand how the optimal cost of capital in the financial markets drives efficient real investment and maintains a stable banking system. The next Fed Chairman should have a thorough understanding of small businesses lending (imagine if TARP money had gone to the Small Business Administration instead of to bank trading desks?) and how the future of the US economy depends on efficient real investment and not on financial engineering. That person undoubtedly exists somewhere within the Federal Reserve Board but, unfortunately, it is not Mr. Bernanke.

I was curious to see how Bernstein concluded his opinion on Bernanke. The beginning parts of his case were the general & dated talking points from the Obama campaign.

1) I don’t know how anyone could call Bernanke “status quo” especially in light of the extreme & heroic measures the Fed has undertaken over the last 10 months (which has had the not so small benefit of saving Obama’s bacon these few months later & more importantly the Country & the world economy– but never miss a chance to bite the hand that feeds you). I thought it was universally accepted that the heavy lifting by the Fed was a key component of averting complete disaster(?) and creating current stability. Today the President inexplicably stated it was his Stimulus bill that is goosing the “recovery.” What was in that Bud Lite?

2) Next the nonsense about being “too close to Wall St.” — another deeply held article of faith for Obamacrats. This has proven to be one big obstacle to first class government appointments. Accordingly, it’s best to apponit someone who is removed from the source, academics are best or even someone who has an arcane or tangential connection to the subject at hand(!!!?) They lost out on appointing Rodgin Cohen. This extends to foreign policy where even Sec. of State Clinton has groused about the appointment procedures. Is the Treasury Dept. even close to half staffed yet?

To his 3rd point, who the heck puts any kind of “asset inflation” on the top of the list right now –really -? The bigger risk is hyper-inflation, which would be a result of the Fed not having an exit strategy for quantative easing. It’s going to be tough to turn off the spigot & we’d all prefer someone who won’t be leveraged by the politicos.

Last, Bernstein’s concluding argument was rife with nonsense. TARP, Small Biz, etc. Does he forget how TARP came to be, what it’s purpose was? It was meant to avert collapse.

Is his concluding argument an opening salvo for gov. involvement & investment in small biz? Does he forget that all this commenced with “real investment” – homes? He wants to expand the recklessness further when the first mess isn’t cleaned up?

Kinda dumb.

Posted by Siobhan Sack | Report as abusive

The Fed more unpopular than the IRS

Jul 28, 2009 13:54 UTC

Ben Bernanke isn’t just campaigning for his own reappointment — though that certainly is part of what’s going on. He is also bolstering the public image of the Fed, which could use some help:




I don’t think anyone could credibly argue that Bernanke should not be re-appointed. He’s done a great job,is genuinely motivated to do the right thing, is the foremost authority on the US Depression & all the permutations. He has held his own in Congressiional hearings — maybe even found his sea legs in that forum. Who knows, maybe he’ll throw out a smart ass answer to some of the boob questions next time ;-)

It boils down to a basic intelligence test. The most critical aspect for America ( and actually the world) is the Fed’s independence. Any other appointment from the current administration, at this juncture, would seriously compromise at the least,the appearance of independence. They may as well nominate Rob Blagojevich or some other bagman.

Larry Summers’s track record (Clinton admin. & Harvard) is crapola and it appears the bubble the Obama admin. floated very early (remember the rumblings right after the election?) on that nomination have popped. Triste ;-)

It seems pretty likely that anyone else the current administration would appoint would be their tool, perhaps with the “appearance” of being independent but with no juice.

Next, and really important, we’ve only seen Bernanke’s opening salvo. Yes, it was a big one, but just as criticsa, he has intimated a plan to relax the quantitative easing. This is the tricky, perhaps surgical part and not a job for the ham fisted or politically indebted.

This decision is really easy, if it’s not Bernanke, we should all worry — alot.

Posted by Siobhan Sack | Report as abusive

Bernanke: I saved the economy. Give me another term

Jul 21, 2009 22:23 UTC

This from Mike Feroli of JPMorgan (bold is mine):

Beyond the issues surrounding the economy and exit strategies, another aspect of the testimony that was of interest was the political angle. Bernanke made his strongest case to date that Fed actions have helped prevent what could otherwise have been an economic catastrophe. His very first sentence of the testimony read “Aggressive policy actions taken around the world last fall may well have averted the collpase of the global financial system.” After listing the notable imporvements in credit markets, he goes on to say “Many of the improvements in financial conditions can be traced, in part, to policy actions taken by the Federal Reserve to encourage the flow of credit.” These statements should be seen in the context of the whithering criticism of the Fed’s conduct of policy, some of that criticism coming from within Congress.

Me: Interestingly, the betting markets dropped the chances of Bernanke’s reappointment to 67 percent, down 3 points.


this persons you all call bernanke and geither paulson they are all people that cause all this mess that where all in and the funny part about all this is that the people that are over this deceitful humans just turn there heads away like nothing happen and how can bernanke tell us about employment when all he is a privatily own banker,you all got to be joking,is this real,this is one big nightmare,will this ever end.

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