In the latest issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas I have a piece about progressives, the Federal Reserve, and the need to confront the centrality of monetary policy to economic issues:
On the merits, these conservative complaints are absurd. After then-Fed Chairman Paul Volcker and Ronald Reagan beat inflation in the early 1980s, annual increases in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) hovered around 4 percent per year for the rest of the decade. After the recession of the early 1990s, the Fed held inflation mostly below 3 percent for almost 20 years. Since the onset of the Great Recession in December 2007, the CPI’s rate of increase has been steadily lower than even that. At the same time, unemployment has been sky-high, real growth has been first negative and then disappointingly slow, and overall consumer demand has been well below the pre-crisis trend. The idea that a time of unusually high unemployment and unusually low inflation would be a good moment for monetary policy-makers to start caring less about growth and more about price stability, especially when we already have price stability, is bizarre.
In response, Paul Krugman has called on progressives to “denounce Republican attacks on the Federal Reserve and defend the Fed’s independence.” But we need something better than a simple circling of the wagons around the powers that be. After all, people are angry for the very good reason that economic performance is currently very bad. And unlike a lot of the targets of popular anger in the Obama era, from autoworkers to hedge fund managers, America’s central bankers are in fact the ones who are supposed to deliver decent macroeconomic outcomes.
Which is just to say that while there are a lot of greedy bastards in America, it’s generally their job to be greedy bastards. The members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and the presidents of the regional Federal Reserve banks, by contrast, are specifically tasked with the job of preventing giant recessions. They’ve failed. Utterly. And it’s a big deal.