As President Barack Obama considers his nomination to lead the Federal Reserve Board, some of his advisers are urging him to choose on the basis of gender. His choice should be based on brains and temperament for the job, not chromosomes.
The leading candidates to succeed Ben Bernanke when he steps down Jan. 31, 2014, are Janet Yellen, vice-chair of the Fed and former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary, former Harvard president and former economic adviser to Mr. Obama. Both have formidable resumes.
Unfortunately for Ms. Yellen, her candidacy has become a cause for some who feel that it’s a woman’s turn to run the Fed. Christina Romer, a University of California professor who served as President Obama’s first chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, told The New York Times she viewed the choice of the next leader of the Fed as a test of the administration’s commitment to inclusiveness.
However, Ms. Yellen’s strongest suit is not her sex, but her professional skill and discretion.
The Wall Street Journal recently found that she was by a good margin the most accurate economic forecaster among her colleagues on the Fed’s board.
Also, the world hangs on every word uttered by the chairman of the Fed, trying to discern when and in which direction interest rates will change.
Ms. Yellen seems temperamentally more suited to the guarded speech required by the job than Mr. Summers, who has a history of damaging remarks.
For example, while president of Harvard he incurred the wrath of faculty women who accused him of asserting that women were not capable of filling the most demanding scientific research jobs.
Though not entirely fair, that charge was prompted by Mr. Summers’ ill-advised remarks in which he raised, as questions for more research, the possibility that women were under-represented in highly technical fields because they chose to avoid the time demands, or because of gender bias, or because of differing abilities.
His enemies seized on the latter question as evidence that Mr. Summers believed it was the right answer.
While chief economist at the World Bank, Mr. Summers also slipped up when he signed a private memo against certain bank policies with this sarcastic jab: “I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly underpolluted.”
The memo was made public by bank staffers trying to discredit him.
President Obama would make a big mistake if he nominates Mr. Summers.
He should choose Janet Yellen — not because she is a woman but because, of the two leading candidates, she is much more likely to get the economic picture right.
She is also far less likely to put her foot in her mouth.