100 years of the Federal Reserve
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By Dr. Mark Hendrickson
Editor’s note: A longer version of this article first appeared at Forbes.com.
On Dec. 23, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Owen Glass Act, creating the Federal Reserve. Looking back, what has the Fed accomplished during the last 100 years?
The stated original purposes were to protect the soundness of the dollar and banks and also to lessen the jarring ups and downs of the business cycle. Oops.
Under the Fed’s supervision, boom and bust cycles have continued. Three of them have been severe: the Great Depression, the stagflationary period of 1974-82, and the current “Great Recession.” Bank failures have occurred in alarmingly high numbers. Depending on what measurements are used, the dollar has lost between 95 and 98 percent of its purchasing power. (Amazingly, the Fed’s official position today is that inflation is not high enough, so the erosion of the dollar continues as a matter of policy.)
Having failed to achieve its original goals, the Fed also has had a miserable record in accomplishing later goals. The 1970 amendments to the Federal Reserve Act stipulated that the Fed should “promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.” In baseball parlance, the Fed has been “0-for-three.”
First, the premise that the central bank can “fix” unemployment is erroneous. It is based on the Phillips curve--the discredited academic theory positing a trade-off between inflation and employment. Unemployment is fundamentally a price problem, not a monetary problem; therefore, the cure for unemployment is a free market in wages, not any particular monetary policy. The Fed’s current policy of persisting in “quantitative easing” until the official unemployment rate reaches a targeted level is the wrong medicine.
Second, central bank tampering with interest rates is the fundamental cause of, not the cure for, the boom and bust cycles; thus, the Fed should cease from tampering with interest rates.
Finally, focusing on “stable prices” is looking at the problem backwards. The Fed shouldn’t try to influence prices any more than a nurse should influence the readings of a thermometer. The “fever” that causes prices to rise and purchasing power to fall is sick money. “Heal” the money (i.e., do away with a fiat currency and abolish fractional reserve banking) and prices will take care of themselves.
So, what has the Fed accomplished during its century of existence? Well, it has become adept at bailing out mismanaged banks. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the Fed orchestrated the big bailout of Wall Street. (Why the Occupy Wall Street movement didn’t focus their protests on the Fed mystifies me.) Its other “accomplishment” has been to become the enabler of runaway federal deficit spending through its manipulation of interest rates.
Politically, the Fed is repugnant to the American system. Its chairman is commonly referred to as the second most powerful person in the country. In a democratic republic, should the second most powerful policymaker be unelected?
The Fed is unaccountable. Former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul tried to get Congress to mandate an audit of the Fed for years, but a majority of his colleagues seem afraid to take this simple, prudent step. Here, let me share an experience I had in 1981: A young congressman (later the governor of his state) gave a talk in which he asserted that Congress essentially was helpless because of the Fed’s enormous power. Afterward, I approached him and said that the creator is superior to the creation, and that since the Fed was created by an act of Congress, it could be reformed or abolished by an act of Congress. The congressman turned ashen and fell silent. You can decide for yourself whether congressmen are afraid of the Fed or are using the Fed to get themselves off the hook, but unless something changes, Congress will allow the Fed to remain unaccountable.
The Fed is a rogue entity. As I mentioned in my article about Ben Bernanke, the Fed has arrogated to itself arbitrary powers to create however much money it wants and buy whatever financial assets--whether government, private, or even foreign--it chooses. The Fed even keeps its own Inspector General in the dark.
It is anomalous that there should be such a powerful, unrestrained institution as the Fed in our body politic. The Fed’s centennial is nothing to celebrate. Instead, this institution of awesome, arbitrary powers makes a mockery of constitutional checks and balances. It poses a threat, not just to our currency and economic well-being, but to liberty itself. It’s a tragedy that this institution has lasted as long as it has.
Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. © 2013 by The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. The views & opinions expressed herein may, but do not necessarily, reflect the views of Grove City College.
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