Fed Chair Bernanke tells Princeton grads: 'Call your parents'

At Princeton University Sunday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke delivered the baccalaureate address. It had very little to do with the economy and a lot to do with lessons for life.

Rich Schultz/AP
Prof. Jeff Nunokawa holds Princeton University's ceremonial mace as Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, leads the processional out of the university chapel after giving the Baccalaureate address Sunday.

It must be tough being Ben Bernanke, the weight of the economic world on your shoulders, or so it might seem. Sneeze out the wrong expletive and the dollar tumbles, hiccup and the stock market hiccups with you.

“Following Bernanke comments, dollar hits three-year high” reads a recent Monitor headline.

We can’t really know the Fed chairman’s deep personal philosophy or theological underpinnings, but there seems to be a Zen-like quality about him, a certain calmness – which is a good thing. Wouldn’t want that hand on the economy’s tiller to be shaky in any sense.

So when he speaks, whatever the venue, we pay attention.

On Sunday, it was his baccalaureate address to graduating seniors at Princeton University, where he taught from 1985 to 2002 when he joined the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, eventually appointed to chair the Fed by President Bush in 2006.

Quoting poet Robert Burns, the New Testament (“I am sure my rabbi will forgive me,” he said.), and 20th-century philosopher Forrest Gump, Mr. Bernanke laid out his advice. Being an economist, his had bullet points.

He considered using as his text the Ten Commandments.

But, he said, “I don't have that kind of confidence, and, anyway, coveting your neighbor's ox or donkey is not the problem it used to be, so I thought I would use my few minutes today to make Ten Suggestions, or maybe just Ten Observations, about the world and your lives after Princeton.”

“All of what follows has been road-tested in real-life situations,” Bernanke noted, “but past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

Princeton grads are by definition part of the elite, many destined to join the wealthy 1 percent the Occupy movement demonstrated against.

To them he quoted the New Testament: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded" (Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible).

“Kind of grading on the curve, you might say,” he added.

He also recommended a “close companion on your journey,” chosen for the more enduring qualities.

“Don't get me wrong, I am all for beauty, romance, and sexual attraction – where would Hollywood and Madison Avenue be without them?” he said. “But while important, those are not the only things to look for in a partner. The two of you will have a long trip together, I hope, and you will need each other's support and sympathy more times than you can count. Speaking as somebody who has been happily married for 35 years, I can't imagine any choice more consequential for a lifelong journey than the choice of a traveling companion.”

Here’s a summary of the Fed chairman’s guide to life after the Ivy League, courtesy of

  1. Almost everyone ends up along a different life plan than they intended. You can try to map out your life, but it probably won't end up that way.
  2. That being said, it's still wise to think about goals, and the people you want to be around.
  3. A meritocratic system is the best, but no system is truly meritocratic. And within meritocratic systems, many are successful due to pure luck (i.e., background, upbringing) and so those successful have a duty to work for the betterment of everyone.
  4. The people who best use their advantages, or overcome adversity, and work honestly are those most worthy of admiration.
  5. Cynicism is bad.
  6. Economics isn't good for predicting the future, but it can help people to avoid horrible, illogical ideas.
  7. Money matters, but making big decisions based just on money is a bad move.
  8. Failure is essential. If your uniform isn't dirty, you weren't part of the game.
  9. In picking a life partner, think beyond beauty and sexual attraction.
  10. Call your parents.

"A time will come when you will want your own grown-up, busy, hyper-successful children to call you," said Bernanke, who has two adult children. "Also, remember who paid your tuition to Princeton."

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