It’s easy to forget that the weighty orders sent down from on high by the Federal Reserve’s open-market committee were originally hashed out by humans—humans who grow restless during meetings, who bicker, who get confused about bureaucratic acronyms, who have to get up and use the restroom every once in a while.
These humans, serious professionals though they may be, also occasionally make jokes.
How do we know? Because the Fed’s transcripts have painstakingly documented every instance of laughter for decades. Unhelpfully, the transcripts make no distinction between nervous laughter, charitable chuckles, and room-filling guffaws. But they do note, for instance, when committee members referred to drinking with Janet Yellen and then collectively engaged in "[laughter]."
After the Fed released its 2009 transcripts two weeks ago, we undertook the task of parsing every laugh going back to 1990, the earliest year with searchable transcripts. (This task was made less groan-inducing by the fact that Ben wrote a program to do it for us.) We set about this project without any hope of finding a meaningful trend in the data, yet we came away with a telling one: Starting in 2000, the frequency of laughs per transcript page grew steadily until late 2007, when the effects of the housing crash were starting to be felt—and then the laughter dropped precipitously.
We also looked at who among the Fed was the funniest. During his 18-year reign, Alan Greenspan successfully landed about 559 jokes—the most of anyone we analyzed—though Ben Bernanke’s nearly 300 is impressive given that his span as chairman has been much shorter. Both of them presumably benefited from the committee members' perceived obligations to laugh at their leader’s wisecracks. (A full version of this chart can be seen at the bottom of this post.)
The most likely explanation for why Greenspan and Bernanke racked up so many jokes is that they were speaking so frequently, so it's also worthwhile to look at the ratio of how many times someone elicited laughter to how many times that person spoke. Observe, then, the heroic performances of John Moore and Barbara Driggins, who embody the comedic ideal of a 100 percent hit rate: one statement, one “[laughter].” At the other end of the spectrum is the stoic Silas Keehn, who only let his playfulness show itself once in 235 statements.
What was so funny? Most of the time, the committee was joking about themselves: their own formality, their own hypersensitivity to the implications of their press releases, their own uncertainty about the economy. They also made plenty of earnest, slightly nerdy jokes that would probably have fallen flat if delivered in other rooms. Other jokes relied on low-hanging comedic fruit: the stubborn confidence of Southerners, the evil nature of lawyers. We’ll spare you the pain of reading scores of these, but here is a sampling of what made the Fed laugh in 2009:
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