By Nicholas Wapshott
The views expressed are his own.
There is one thing every Republican candidate agrees on. Once in the White House, the first thing they’d do is fire Ben Bernanke. His crime is to follow the legal brief of the Federal Reserve to maximize jobs and keep prices stable. To this end he has been printing money to keep interest rates low to boost business confidence to invest and thereby create more American jobs. For many conservatives and libertarians, who dominate the early GOP caucuses and primaries, Bernanke’s cheap money policy has dangerously devalued the dollar’s worth.
Guaranteeing cheap money is a Keynesian way of restoring health to an economy in recession, though Keynes himself was aware that low interest rates do not automatically lead to jobs. However cheap money is, you can’t force people to invest. Or, as he put it, “You can’t push on a string.” He compared it to buying a bigger belt to gain weight. The fact that Keynes backed easy credit is enough to make the policy treacherous in the eyes of many con-libs. (They are far more tolerant of another Keynesian remedy–slashing taxes.)
Bernanke, however, owes his allegiance not to Keynes but to Milton Friedman. To encourage growth without hyper-inflation, Friedman prescribed gradually increasing the money supply. That way, prices would rise slowly and predictably. Bernanke is also an expert on the 1929 Crash and the Great Depression, catastrophes he, like Friedman, attribute to the 1920′s Fed keeping money too tight for too long. As Bernanke told Friedman on the father of monetarism’s 90th birthday, “You’re right. We did it. We’re very sorry. But, thanks to you, we won’t do it again.”
The legislation setting up the Fed in 1913 went out of its way to ensure that the Fed would be free of political interference so that monetary policy could be independent of politicians with short-term aims. It stipulated that the Fed should fund itself, depriving Congress of its traditional means of starving programs and institutions it doesn’t like. It gave Fed board members long terms, 14 years, with the chairman serving for four.
The sole means of influencing the Fed are through appointments and Fed board salaries. Bernanke’s current term ends in 2014* (see editor’s note), when he or his potential successor, nominated by the president, must be approved by the Senate. (The GOP candidates’ demand that Bernanke leave before his term ends would trigger an ugly constitutional crisis much like Franklin Roosevelt’s failed attempt in 1937 to pack the Supreme Court.) By demanding Bernanke’s head on a plate, however, the con-libs have served notice that the Fed’s days of independence are numbered and that every new appointment, like those to the Supreme Court in recent times, will trigger a pitched battle.