Thursday, June 5, 2003

Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman who is often called the second-most-powerful person in the United States, was made an honorary black man yesterday.

He was also called “a bad brother.”

It happened when Mr. Greenspan and J. Alfred Broaddus, president of the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank, visited John Philip Sousa Middle School in Southeast D.C.

Mr. Greenspan and Mr. Broaddus came to teach 25 students a lesson in “financial literacy,” something most folks would probably describe as learning about money.

Operation Hope, a nonprofit group that teaches inner-city residents how to be self-sufficient, organized the event in the school’s library. The reporters, photographers and Operation Hope and school officials in the room outnumbered the students.

John Bryant, Operation Hope’s founder, chairman and chief executive, gave Mr. Greenspan his “honorary black man” title as he introduced him to the students.

A smile broke across Mr. Greenspan’s face, a rare display of “irrational exuberance” from a man who can move the stock market with a raised eyebrow.

Everybody knows Mr. Greenspan is chairman of the Fed, said Mr. Bryant, who is black. “What you don’t know is that he’s also what we call in my community ‘a bad brother.’”

Mr. Bryant called Mr. Broaddus “a cool cat.”

The central bankers took it all in stride as they stood on the orange carpet amid the sound of constantly clicking cameras.

Mr. Greenspan, 77, threw out his prepared remarks on the basics of money and spoke to the students instead about his childhood and career.

He told the students he was paid an allowance of 25 cents a week when he was a boy in the 1930s. “Twenty-five cents, I will tell you, bought a lot more then than it does these days.”

He also talked about how he learned fractions by following baseball batting averages, and how he studied the saxophone and the clarinet at the Juilliard School before becoming an economist.

Mr. Greenspan told the students he loves his job, and that his greatest inspiration was Arthur F. Burns, one of his college professors who later served as Fed chief during the 1970s.

For the most part, Mr. Greenspan managed to hold the children’s attention, although terms such as “wide theoretical abstractions” occasionally slipped his lips.

And he was greeted by a sea of blank faces when he asked the students if they had ever heard of Stan Getz, the 1940s jazz musician with whom he once played.

Mr. Greenspan also took questions from the children. Not that he actually answered all of them.

Sean Davis, 14, dressed in a crisp white polo shirt, khaki pants and red-and-white sneakers, raised his hand during the question-and-answer session. Mr. Bryant, who conducted the session, thrust the small microphone into the ninth-grader’s face.

“This is for Mr. Alan Greenspan. The next time you go on TV, are the interest rates going to be high or low?”

Mr. Greenspan waited a beat.

“Yes,” he said.

The grownups in the crowd roared.

Later, Mr. Bryant called on Sean again.

“I have another question for Mr. Alan Greenspan. How do you feel about the new tax law?”

“What’s the next question?” Mr. Greenspan replied.

More laughter from the grownups.

At the end of question-and-answer session, Mr. Greenspan turned to Sean and told him he had asked questions that the chairman of the nation’s central bank just shouldn’t answer. Would Sean like to try again with a third question?

“I’m fresh out,” the boy replied. This time he got the big laughs.

Later, Sean told a reporter a guidance counselor helped him formulate his tough questions. He also said he had never considered a career in journalism but would give it some thought.

Sousa Middle School is in one of the District’s poorest neighborhoods, around the corner from the D.C. Lottery Cash Payoff Center and liquor store that advertises money orders and check cashing.

Most of the actual money talk came from Mr. Bryant, who told the students how he started his first business at age 10, selling candy to his classmates.

The students were given a quick tutorial in the importance of good credit, balanced checkbooks and savings accounts.

At the end of the lesson, Mr. Bryant asked the students what was the most important thing they had learned. Twelve-year-old Shannon Wilkins raised his hand.

“I learned that you can never have too much money.”

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