The Idea That the Fed Is ‘Independent’ Is Absurd

By: Robert P. Murphy
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President Donald Trump sparked controversy — as is his wont — when he recently told CNBC that he was “not thrilled” with the Federal Reserve’s announced hikes in short-term interest rates, which he claimed would hinder the economic expansion for which his administration had worked so hard. “I’m letting them [the Fed] do what they feel is best,” he added, but this assurance was not enough to prevent journalists and policy experts from pronouncing Trump’s remarks as unprecedented interference with the central bank’s independence.

It may be unusual for a president to openly voice such criticism, but it wouldn’t be the first time one has pressured the Federal Reserve for short-term political gain. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson considered firing then-Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin, but upon learning this would probably be illegal, he opted instead to dress down the recalcitrant central bank chief at his Texas ranch. By Martin’s later account, a heated argument erupted that resulted in the president shoving him against a wall. According to financial journalist Sebastian Mallaby, as LBJ pushed Martin around the room, he yelled, “Boys are dying in Vietnam, and Bill Martin doesn’t care.”

Better known is President Richard Nixon’s tape-recorded collaboration with Fed Chairman Arthur Burns, Martin’s replacement, who maintained an easy-money policy to stimulate the economy before the 1972 election, which contributed to Tricky Dick’s landslide victory and fueled price inflation for the rest of the decade. In terms of the resulting capital destruction and economic dislocations, this episode is one of modern U.S. history’s greatest object lessons about the risks of executive power reaching beyond its constitutional authority.

For another example showing that Trump’s behavior is nothing new, consider that President George H. W. Bush had a running public dispute with then-Fed Chair Alan Greenspan over monetary accommodation. Bush would later blame “The Maestro” for his 1992 reelection loss.

Far from being unthinkable, the idea of government officials manipulating monetary policy for political gain is so intuitive that economists have a name for it: the political business cycle. The classic model was published in 1975 by Yale University economics professor William Nordhaus. For most countries that he analyzed, Nordhaus found no smoking gun proving political interference with the central-bank policymaking, but he concluded that it appeared the United States had a very politicized business cycle….

Trump committed a faux pas with his public complaints about the Fed. But his actual “mistake” was in letting the American people in on a dirty secret: The central bank is by its very nature a political institution that exists to serve the nation’s rich and powerful class, not the average Joe.

So by all means, let’s champion Fed independence from political interference, and start by taking away its government-granted power to create legal tender. If the Fed were a private bank like any other, we could be sure the president would no longer micromanage its policies.

Read the full article at the Fiscal Times

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