Over the weekend, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke gave the baccalaureate address at Princeton University, where he served as chair of the economics department before heading to the central bank. The Fed chairman's speech contained a big surprise. No, he didn't announce an end to quantitative easing. Rather, the stoic fellow that delivers carefully crafted testimonies is, as it turns out, a funny guy. Bernanke gave a speech both full of comedy and sound advice for the class of 2013. Below are the five best lessons he delivered.
1. Who needs a dictionary? Yes, he has a master's and a Ph.D., but that doesn't mean Bernanke's vocabulary is comprehensive. When directing graduates to be open to new paths on the road of life, the Fed chair quoted an 18th-century Scottish writer: "The poet Robert Burns once said something about the best-laid plans of mice and men ganging aft agley, whatever 'agley' means."
...or maybe he just didn't have time to pull out a dictionary when he was composing his remarks.
2. Politicians are generally good people: The central banker has lately been regularly admonishing lawmakers to avoid tanking the short-run economy via austerity. But despite whatever frustrations he may have with Washington politicians, Bernanke keeps a Pollyanna-ish outlook about governing.
"[M]y experience is that most of our politicians and policymakers are trying to do the right thing, according to their own views and consciences, most of the time," he told graduates on Sunday.
Of course, he wasn't about to get too warm and fuzzy about Washington.
"If you think that the bad or indifferent results that too often come out of Washington are due to base motives and bad intentions, you are giving politicians and policymakers way too much credit for being effective," he added.
3. The key to a good spouse? A healthy digestive tract: Bernanke kicked off his section about marriage with an impromptu biology lesson: "I hope that as you develop your own definition of success, you will be able to do so, if you wish, with a close companion on your journey. In making that choice, remember that physical beauty is evolution's way of assuring us that the other person doesn't have too many intestinal parasites."
His ultimate point turned out to be the cliched lesson that beauty isn't everything. Still, Bernanke chose a colorful, elegant way to get there.
4. He likes to mess with us: Bernanke opened his speech with a line designed to make business reporters perk up and start scribbling furiously in their notepads.
"I wrote recently to inquire about the status of my leave from the university, and the letter I got back began, 'Regrettably, Princeton receives many more qualified applicants for faculty positions than we can accommodate.'"
Though he didn't say so in his speech, the official version released by the Fed came with a footnote for anyone chomping at the bit for information on Bernanke's future plans: "Note to journalists: This is a joke. My leave from Princeton expired in 2005."
5. "Give 'em hell": This is the simple way Bernanke chose to close his address. Hopefully, the Fed chair will consider closing all future press conferences and Capitol Hill hearings that way as well.