[FOUNTAIN]An ambiguous genius

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[FOUNTAIN]An ambiguous genius

Few people can say things so Delphic that they could be interpreted both ways and still have people hang on their words. Alan Greenspan was one of the few. He served as the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System for 18 years and was called the economic president of the world. Mr. Greenspan was the only central bank chairman who was as famous as Tom Cruise or Michael Jordan.
Greenspan’s words could always be interpreted according to the prejudice of the listener. In 1999, Senator Phil Gramm remarked that whether a Republican or a Democrat, whoever hears Mr. Greenspan’s words will interpret them favorably.
This duplicity came from ambiguousness. The terms “soft patch” and “considerable period” which Mr. Greenspan used right after the September 11 terror attacks are examples of his masterfully vague rhetoric. One newspaper published in San Francisco called his rhetoric “aesthetics of confusion” and said it had reached an artistic level.
Even Mr. Greenspan himself enjoyed the confusion. During a hearing, a congressman said, “After hearing your statement, I think I now know your thoughts.” Mr. Greenspan immediately retorted, “Then I think my words have been misunderstood.”
In his vague terms, there lies carefully calculated humor and cautiousness. The anecdote with U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Arthur Levitt is famous. “How are you?” Levitt asked, but the chairman immediatly cut him off, saying, “I will not answer this question.” In Congress, a reporter asked, “Are you in good shape?” and Mr. Greenspan responded with a “no comment.” Even the health and well-being of the chairman of the federal reserve itself was a security issue.
Mr. Greenspan called his bath time at 5:30 a.m. his “eureka moment” ― a moment of discovery. Most of his speeches were thought up during this time. Since his vague words were written when his mind was at its clearest point in the day, how confusing would it have been for others to understand? There were reasons Milton Friedman praised Mr. Greenspan’s form of speech as the work of a genius.
Alan Greenspan retired as the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board yesterday. Even the good and bad things about the departing chairman are confusing. Those who worship him praise him as the “godfather of the new economy” for creating an unprecedented long economic boom. Others accuse him as the criminal responsible for the mounting budget and trade deficits. It is a walkout worthy of the “master of confusion.”


by Yi Jung-jae

The writer is a deputy business news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.
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