This week, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll on presidential contenders for 2016 came out. It was the usual sort of thing: Favorable versus unfavorable ratings for the candidates: Democrats like Hillary; Republicans like Jeb (but not as much as Dems like Hillary); no one likes Chris Christie or Donald Trump.
But you might have missed a fascinating tidbit buried on Page 7 of the survey.
Before I get into the details, here's what the poll-takers asked survey respondents: Now I'm going to read you the names of several public figures, groups and organizations, and I'd like you to rate your feelings toward each one as very positive, somewhat positive, neutral, somewhat negative, or very negative. If you don't know the name, please just say so.
When it came toFederal Reserve Bank Chair Janet Yellen, an astonishing 70 percent of survey responses were "I don't know name/not sure." Let's agree, before we delve deeper into this obliviousness, that the Fed is a big deal to those of us who work in finance. Yes, I also understand that we tend to be much more concerned with day-to-day financial noise than the average American. I get that acronyms such as ZIRP, QE, NAIRU and JOLTS are cocktail chatter for a some of us. Talking about this stuff is a social lubricant in some circles, similar to the way normal people talk about traffic, the weather or sports.
Maybe the survey methodology was flawed; maybe the pollsters only spoke with people who don't have cable or are never on the Internet. Regardless, this is a stunning indictment, evidence of a bewildering degree of ignorance.
The Fed has played a key, and in many ways overarching, role in the U.S. economy during the past decade. Whether it was the bailouts of the big money-center banks such as Citigroup and Bank of America, the rescue of Bear Stearns, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the bailout of AIG or pushing interest rates to record lows, the U.S. central bank has been front and center on just about everything with a dollar sign attached to it. Not knowing who runs the U.S. central bank is inexcusable for any citizen.
I understand that those of us who toil in the coal mines of the financial industry have very specific views on banking, economic growth, too big to fail, the Fed's balance sheet and whether the hawks or doves are correct about inflation and interest rates. Look, I don't care if you favor or oppose quantitative easing, or if you're tea partier who wants to keep the government's hands off your Medicare, or a mom ferrying kids to soccer practice, you simply HAVE to know who Janet Yellen is.
Wall Street, like just about every other profession, is a small community at heart. If you are reading this, you probably already know a few hundred people who are in jobs similar to yours. There is a long list of people we all know or know of that we shouldn't expect the general public to recognize. These are people who are well-known within the financial world, but probably would never be recognized outside of it.
Janet Yellen is not one of those people.
She not only is the head of the most powerful bank in the world, she is the single most important figure in determining the state of the U.S. economy and, to a slightly lesser extent, economies around the world.
Yet seven out of 10 Americans don't have a clue who she is.
Because of the way so many Americans get their information -- such as it is -- here's what Yellen needs to do. Start with an appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." Then it's on to "Rachael Ray" and Jimmy Fallon and "The Tonight Show." Most of all, Janet Yellen must go on"The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." Perhaps the Fed can set up a YouTube page for her. Or team up with Funny or Die to create an entire subset of viral videos to help enlighten the public.
True, this may not be a very dignified endeavor and I say this mostly, but not entirely, in jest. But I would be willing to bet that a majority of Americans would know her by then.
Why does this matter? Because we live in a democracy, where an informed public is crucial to the role of self-governance. Because rogues and demagogues and liars and other limelight- seeking charlatans appeal to the citizenry in the most disingenuous and offensive ways imaginable. Because all it takes to destroy a nation is for good people to stand idly by and do nothing because they know nothing. An ignorant electorate is the first step toward a crippled nation.
Joseph de Maistre's observation, that "Every country has the government it deserves," is no less true today than when he wrote those words in the early 19th century. It pains me to imagine the sort of government Americans' ignorance deserves.
Barry Ritholtz, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the founder of Ritholtz Wealth Management. He is a consultant at and former chief executive officer for FusionIQ, a quantitative research firm.