The Fed's Men Behind the Curtain

The debate about the Fed is under way, and thank goodness. But as with many policy debates, there really shouldn’t be a debate at all. That’s because, if you think about it, the idea of central banking makes no sense.

We don’t have a government-created central repository that plans and manages shoe distribution. The market takes care of that. We don’t have one for cabbage, keyboards or curtains. Somehow, we get books, clothes, tree-cutting services and everything else we need and want without a central planning agency that manages the quantity available, fixes the prices of the products and bails out the firms when they overextend themselves.

Why should money and banking be any different? Money is a commodity. Banking is a business. They both originated in the market, not the state. They should have been left that way, so that the quality of the product could be subject to market discipline. In a market economy, things work themselves out. There is supply and there is demand. Entrepreneurs take notice of profit opportunities and jump in to pull the two together.

This is how the world works for us. This is how it has always worked. This is how we get our software, coffee, sheet music and beef. It’s how we get our cars, the parts that keep them running and the gas that fuels them.

The world is man-made in every respect, and the hands that made it productive, efficient, dynamic and socially beneficial operated within the market matrix. The simple relationships of learning, exchanging and competing gave rise to a glorious system that manages to sustain a global population of 7 billion people.

The Fed is a nonmarket institution, much like public housing and the space shuttle. It is a Dark Age creation that still exists for no apparent reason. By Dark Age, I mean, of course, the world before 1995, when the Web — meaning all information — became accessible to the world. Before that, the world remained mostly in the dark, when government controlled the information we could access and private truth had to be shared through paper sent through the government mail system.

During the Dark Age, only geniuses like Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek knew that the Fed was a hoax. Most everyone else imagined that the people at the Fed were doing magical, wonderful things inside hallowed walls so that the economy would be stable and grow. Its board of governors was populated by people who knew the economic future and held the power to steer it in a way that benefited everyone.

Thanks to the digital age, we now have access to what really goes on. In the last 12 months alone, we’ve been inundated by reports of what actually goes on at the Fed. In 2006, according to released transcripts of its board meetings, its wise men were busy reassuring themselves that absolutely nothing was fundamentally wrong with real estate and that all other economic structures were humming along beautifully.

It is fascinating to read those candid transcripts. Far from being an open forum for discussion, Greenspan and Bernanke preside with all power to determine results, practically daring any of their subordinates to disagree with the consensus they arrive at beforehand. The Fed economist sometimes pops up his head to say that all is not well, but it’s like a game of Whac-A-Mole: He gets the hammer on the head every time.

It’s the worst case of bad corporate management you can find on record. It makes Dilbert’s world look like a paragon of management success. There is no openness, no truthfulness. If the chairman makes a joke, you must laugh. If the chairman says all is well, you must agree. If the chairman says he knows the future, you must be in awe of his insight. All dissent must be coached within a puffy framework that raises only a slight and probably irrelevant concern, and it is still likely to be punished.

Then there is the problem that it is not entirely clear, even to the people in the room: what precisely they can do about anything. They know what they are doing is important and want to believe that they have tremendous power. But here’s the problem…The Fed really has only one significant power: to create the conditions intended to encourage a change in the supply of money and credit.

That’s a huge power, but it is not a precise one. The money supply is a lot like an unruly child. Lots of times, the kid will obey you. Sometimes, and unpredictably, it will not. It depends on the mood, the context, the prevailing temperament, the rewards and punishments. And even when the kid obeys, the results are not always what you intend. The council of parents can meet and plan all day, but in the end, the kid has a mind of its own.

Two notable examples follow. In the early 1930s, the Fed was desperate to expand the money supply as a matter of both policy and practice. There was no intention to let the supply collapse, as Murray Rothbard has shown. The problem was that the Fed had to depend on the banking system to make it happen through the loan markets. But the system was broke, and it never happened.

The same thing happened again from 2008 and forward. The Fed did everything possible to manufacture a far-reaching monetary inflation, but failed to make it profitable for the banking system to cooperate. Contrary to the Fed’s wishes, it never fully materialized. Their efforts only ended up subsidizing failure and preventing a much-needed and deep market correction.

The sheer power of the Fed was in full display in 2008, and all the public records indicate what it was used for. The Fed provided liquidity for its friends. They said that they did it all for the nation, but it is unclear that the nation got anything at all from the deal. What is clear is that its friends survived and thrived, whereas many institutions should have gone belly up, as the capitalist system would dictate. That’s the essence of its power and the core of what the Fed does.

This is nothing new at all. It’s just that it is now on full display for all the world to see. And this is one reason that the Fed is now under fire as never before. The digital age has pulled back the curtain. Instead of the mighty Oz, we find a few people pulling levers with smoke and mirrors.

Before 1989, the world was strewn with such central planning agencies. They were all over Eastern Europe and the old empire called the Soviet Union. Then one day, the whole thing melted away and the absurdity and arrogance of the central planners were revealed to the world. The Fed is no different in structure from these institutions. The whole thing is based on a lie that it takes government power to have a good monetary system.

In what sense is it good? The depreciation of the dollar since 1913 has been catastrophic for prosperity. The dollar is now worth less than a nickel. Savings have been expropriated. The Fed’s interest rate policy has negated any real advantage of saving money. Business cycles have become national, international and extended, rather than local and short-lived as they were in the 19th century. The moral hazard that the Fed has built into the system is that financial systems no longer take proper account of risk.

In the digital age, the opportunity costs of the money monopoly have been huge. We might have had a competitive money system emerge by now. It could have been based on gold, silver or any other commodity. But the market has not been allowed to work. The Fed, working with the government that created and sustains it, has cracked down hard on every attempt by the market to make something better than the Fed-managed dollar. People now languish in jail for the crime of trying to restore money and banking back to the market.

What is the worst cost of the Fed? It has made the federal government, no matter how big it gets, beyond failure. This is the ultimate moral hazard. It has puffed up the leviathan state beyond anything that should ever exist in the world. It’s not taxes that have done this. It is the Fed. In this way, it has made itself the ultimate enemy of freedom itself. And as goes freedom, so goes human rights.

The whole catastrophe is no longer possible to ignore. Ron Paul has made it a political issue. Newt Gingrich has jumped on the bandwagon to scrap the Fed. The former CEO of BB&T gave an interview in which he said, “As long as the Fed exists, Congress can effectively print money. And it doesn’t matter whether they are Democrats or Republicans, they would rather print money than tax people. They want to spend because that effectively buys votes, and they don’t want to tax people because that loses votes.”

The problem of ending the Fed is not a technical one. It is not much of an intellectual one, either. It takes only a few minutes to figure out that the whole thing is rooted in myth. The problem of ending the Fed is entirely political. The government is dependent on its powers. So yes, it makes some sense that the political class and its friends — let’s call them the 1%, for short — think the Fed should exist. The rest of us should know better by now.


Jeffrey Tucker