Of all the exhibits at the Congressional Black Caucus’s annual conference, which started Wednesday and will run into the weekend, the one I least expected was tucked in the back corner, behind rows of booths hawking Coca Cola and wood carvings, silk suits and ornate hats, and a cornucopia of Obama kitsch. The booth promoted the Federal Reserve. When I first saw it, I thought it might be a part of Ben Bernanke’s recent charm offensive, an effort to demystify the central bank and ease fears about its reach into the financial markets over the past year. But according to Jyl Dupont, the Consumer Financial Services Analyst who was running the booth, the effort began under Alan Greenspan, to provide people with a sense of what the central bank does, as well as basic consumer safety measures. Her table was littered with bilingual pamphlets and tip sheets advising how to shop for mortgages, children’s books explaining how money works, and little packages of shredded cash. (I’m still not sure what to do with the shreds. Capitalist potpourri? Make it rain? Line my hamster cage?)
Dupont told me that, though the outreach isn’t new, they are getting around quite a bit this year—she ticked off conferences she’d attended in Jacksonville, Albuquerque and Chicago, and noted that she has a number of them lined up for next year. And she said people do seem more interested in the Fed than they were previously—even though she’s been with the organization for 30 years. I’ve had anti-Federal Reserve populism on my brain lately, so I asked her what she does when someone approaches with suspicious or hostile questions about the central bank’s monetary policy. The outreach staff’s policy is not to argue politics, she said, so they try to keep it strictly about consumer services and giving the bank a friendlier front. But most people who stop by are curious, and plenty are friendly. Educators, in particular, love Ben Bernanke. When I asked her about her boss, she said “Girl, you don’t know how nice he is! He’s just a nice, sweet, honest man who leads the Federal Reserve. He’s great!” For example, she told me, Bernanke eats in the bank’s cafeteria with the rest of the employees. I admitted that it was sort of sweet. “I feel like they let the fox out in the hen house,” she told me. “I love what I do so much.” It was apparently true. I haven’t seen anyone so excited about the Fed since Ron Paul ran for president.