Money Makes Crazy
By Paul Krugman
Monetary policy probably won’t be a major issue in the 2016 campaign, but it should be. It is, after all, extremely important, and the Republican base and many leading politicians have strong views about the Federal Reserve and its conduct. And the eventual presidential nominee will surely have to endorse the party line.
So it matters that the emerging G.O.P. consensus on money is crazy — full-on conspiracy-theory crazy.
Right now, the most obvious manifestation of money madness is Senator Rand Paul’s “Audit the Fed” campaign. Mr. Paul likes to warn that the Fed’s efforts to bolster the economy may lead to hyperinflation; he loves talking about the wheelbarrows of cash that people carted around in Weimar Germany. But he’s been saying that since 2009, and it keeps not happening. So now he has a new line: The Fed is an overleveraged bank, just as Lehman Brothers was, and could experience a disastrous collapse of confidence any day now.
This story is wrong on so many levels that reporters are having a hard time keeping up, but let’s simply note that the Fed’s “liabilities” consist of cash, and those who hold that cash have the option of converting it into, well, cash. No, the Fed can’t fall victim to a bank run. But is Mr. Paul being ostracized for his views? Not at all.
Moreover, while Mr. Paul may currently be the poster child for off-the-wall monetary views, he’s far from alone. A lot has been written about the 2010 open letter from leading Republicans to Ben Bernanke, then the Fed chairman, demanding that he cease efforts to support the economy, warning that such efforts would lead to inflation and “currency debasement.” Less has been written about the simultaneous turn of seemingly respectable figures to conspiracy theories.
There was, for example, the 2010 op-ed article by Representative Paul Ryan, who remains the G.O.P.’s de facto intellectual leader, and John Taylor, the party’s favorite monetary economist. Fed policy, they declared, “looks an awful lot like an attempt to bail out fiscal policy, and such attempts call the Fed’s independence into question.” That statement looks an awful lot like a claim that Mr. Bernanke and colleagues were betraying their trust in order to help out the Obama administration — a claim for which there is no evidence whatsoever.
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Oh, and suppose you believe that the Fed’s actions did help avert what would otherwise have been a fiscal crisis. This is supposed to be a bad thing?
You may think that at least some of the current presidential aspirants are staying well clear of the fever swamps, but don’t be so sure. Jeb Bush appears to be getting his economic agenda, such as it is, from the George W. Bush Institute’s 4% Growth Project. And the head of that project, Amity Shlaes, is a prominent “inflation truther,” someone who claims that the government is greatly understating the true rate of inflation.
So monetary crazy is pervasive in today’s G.O.P. But why? Class interests no doubt play a role — the wealthy tend to be lenders rather than borrowers, and they benefit at least in relative terms from deflationary policies. But I also suspect that conservatives have a deep psychological problem with modern monetary systems.
You see, in the conservative worldview, markets aren’t just a useful way to organize the economy; they’re a moral structure: People get paid what they deserve, and what goods cost is what they are truly worth to society. You could say that to the free-market true believer, to know the price of everything is also to know the value of everything.
Modern money — consisting of pieces of paper or their digital equivalent that are issued by the Fed, not created by the heroic efforts of entrepreneurs — is an affront to that worldview. Mr. Ryan is on record declaring that his views on monetary policy come from a speech given by one of Ayn Rand’s fictional characters. And what the speaker declares is that money is “the base of a moral existence. Destroyers seize gold and leave to its owners a counterfeit pile of paper. … Paper is a check drawn by legal looters.”
Once you understand that this is how many conservatives really think, it all falls into place. Of course they predict disaster from monetary expansion, no matter the circumstances. Of course they are undaunted in their views no matter how wrong their predictions have been in the past. Of course they are quick to accuse the Fed of vile motives. From their point of view, monetary policy isn’t really a technical issue, a question of what works; it’s a matter of theology: Printing money is evil.
So as I said, monetary policy should be an issue in 2016. Because there’s a pretty good chance that someone who either gets his monetary economics from Ayn Rand, or at any rate feels the need to defer to such views, will get to appoint the next head of the Federal Reserve.