Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the libertarian-leaning congressman and failed 2008 GOP presidential candidate, has been suspicious of the Federal Reserve since before first entering Congress in 1976. In a 1981 article that mentioned the then-obscure legislator, United Press International reported that Paul “has proposed abolishing the Federal Reserve, repealing laws which make the dollar legal tender, and switching to currency issued by banks, 100 percent backed by gold.”
That was the year Paul first proposed a bill to audit America’s central bank. He recruited 44 cosponsors, but the bill never made it out of committee. The congressman introduced another bill to audit the Fed in 1983 and got less than half as many colleagues to sign on.
On another six occasions, Paul introduced bills that would have abolished the Fed entirely. Those acts of legislative defiance accomplished nothing much besides giving the congressman a reputation as an eccentric gold obsessive, hectoring an institution that was seen by almost everyone, critics and supporters alike, as foundational to the functioning of the modern world. Roll Call, a newspaper covering Capitol Hill, chided Paul after he won reelection to Congress in 1996 for his “idee fixe” of “a return to the gold standard,” which it described as a “rallying cry that hasn’t been a real issue since 1971.”
What a difference an economic crisis makes. In 2007 and 2008, as Paul ran for president, the candidate found to his own surprise that his young-skewing crowds reacted to trash talk about the Federal Reserve more than any other element of his small-government, anti-war agenda. So in 2009, with many economists blaming the Federal Reserve at least partly for inflating a housing bubble whose crash continues to inflict the most economic damage seen in the U.S. for a quarter century, Paul started pushing another version of his “audit the Fed” bill, this one numbered H.R. 1207. And as of press time, the bill has attracted a remarkable 282 co-sponsors, more than a majority, giving it a nontrivial shot at passing through the House of Representatives.
H.R. 1207 would lift existing restrictions on what auditors from the Government Accountability Office are allowed to look into when examining the Fed’s books. Specifically, the bill would allow investigators to report on the Fed’s dealings with foreign banks and nations, its “actions on monetary policy matters,” and the operations of its Federal Open Market Committee, the wing whose decisions most directly affect the U.S. money supply. The legislation is cosponsored by every single Republican in the House as well as 105 Democrats.
For the first time in Paul’s long career of tilting at Alan Greenspan’s windmills, popular sentiment against the Federal Reserve has its chairman, currently Ben Bernanke, running scared. Last summer Bernanke launched an unprecedented public relations campaign, explaining himself in venues from 60 Minutes to town-hall-style meetings broadcast on PBS. In July testimony to the House Committee on Financial Services, Bernanke warned that H.R. 1207 would damage global trust in the Fed’s political independence and “could raise fears about future inflation, leading to higher long-term interest rates and reduced economic and financial stability.”
Paul, after shepherding his idea from fringe to mainstream, is almost giddy. “Now the Federal Reserve is less popular than the IRS!” the congressman told a July gathering of Young Americans for Liberty in Washington, D.C. “This issue is never going to go away. Who would have thought a politician could talk about Austrian economics and get applause?”
The Austrian Opposition
With its power over interest rates and the supply of U.S. dollars, the Federal Reserve System is the most influential economic institution on the planet. That influence comes surrounded by an impenetrable aura of mystery. Hardly anyone, citizen or congressman, completely understands what the Fed does, how it operates, or what the effects of its actions will be.
Here is a highly simplified outline. The Fed is a set of 12 regional banks under the command of a seven-member board of governors appointed by the president and approved by the Senate. Its 12-member Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC)—the board of governors plus five regional bank chiefs—is responsible for adjusting the federal funds interest rate, which is the rate banks charge each other for loans. The FOMC does this through “open market operations,” buying and selling securities to affect the amount of money in the economy and thus the interest rate paid by banks to get more cash.
This process is hard enough to describe, let alone comprehend, and previous Fed chairmen have found it useful to keep their public pronouncements about the central bank’s operations maximally vague and obscure. A classic from Paul Volcker, chairman from 1979 to 1987: “We did what we did, we didn’t do what we didn’t do, and the result was what happened.” Volcker’s successor, Alan Greenspan, who enjoyed the longest stretch of low-inflation prosperity in Fed history (now widely seen as possibly laying the groundwork for the crash), helped reinforce both the central bank’s reputation for effectiveness and the expectation that its actions would remain inscrutable.
But these days the Federal Reserve faces challenges to both its power and its mystery, thanks to both hot public opinion and cold academic analysis. Politicians are demanding a peek behind the curtain, and holdovers from Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign have kick-started an “End the Fed” movement. Even within the central bank’s natural fanbase of economists and financiers, many are complaining about its appetite for regulatory power and its massive expansion of the money supply. During the last year the Fed has nearly doubled the monetary measure over which it has the most direct control, the “monetary base” (defined as circulating currency plus the reserves that commercial banks keep with Federal Reserve banks).
Signs abound that public sentiment is turning against the bank. Meltdown, an anti-Fed tract by the historian Thomas Woods, sat on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a month. Woods, like Paul, embraces the “Austrian” school of economic thought, which sees central banking as a recipe for endless inflation and constantly growing government. Paul has invited him to Capitol Hill to brief a growing unofficial caucus of Republicans attracted to Paul’s hardcore anti-statism. Fed bashing has been a prominent component of Tea Party gatherings nationwide. The largely Paulite movement Campaign for Liberty has organized “contact your congressman” campaigns to get H.R. 1207 on representatives’ radar screens, and the results are pouring in.
“The bill has received as many cosponsors as it has in part because Dr. Paul’s presidential campaign really brought the Fed into the spotlight, opened people’s eyes,” Paul Martin-Foss, a legislative aide for Paul, writes in an email. “There was also a lot of grassroots support, with numerous offices telling me that they had received a lot of mail about the bill and wanted more information.” Colorado Democrat Betsy Markey specifically credits Tea Party pressure for getting her interested in the bill, which she decided to cosponsor. “There’s a lot of anger from both sides of the aisle towards the Fed, not necessarily coming from the same position or working towards the same goals,” Martin-Ross writes. “But everyone wants to be seen as being in favor of transparency.”
Paul recognizes that the growing support for auditing the Fed does not indicate similar enthusiasm for his more radical goal of abolishing the central bank. He has introduced another bill to do just that, and it has yet to attract a single cosponsor. H.R. 1207 supporters, by contrast, “sign on because it doesn’t do” anything like that, Paul says. “It doesn’t direct policy changes. I did that on purpose.”
Paul’s beef with the central bank is a by-product of his longstanding interest in the works of Austrian school economists, most prominently Ludwig von Mises and Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek. Paul was a fan of Mises and Hayek before he entered politics in the mid-’70s, largely as a result of his reading the publications of the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education.
Paul, like the economists he admires, thought it a mistake to have a giant government-run institution trying to fix prices—in this case, interest rates, or the price of loaned money, which is the Fed’s main mechanism for pursuing its stated goals of economic growth, high employment, and relatively stable prices. As a critic of state power, Paul also worries that once a government has total control over paper money that it can create at will, it becomes too easy and too tempting for the state to spend at will. Cash unbacked by gold will flow to help the government out of its jams, pay for its wars, and appease its most powerful private constituents.
To Austrian-leaning libertarians like Paul, this danger makes the Federal Reserve, central banking, and “fiat” money the key libertarian issue. If the government can manufacture all the money it wants, the fight for limited government is over before it begins.
Central to this critique is the Austrian business cycle theory, which helped win Hayek his Nobel Prize for economics in 1974. Hayek, Mises, and contemporary economists such as Roger Garrison of Auburn University and Steve Horwitz of St. Lawrence University argue that low interest rates set by the Fed fool investors and builders into thinking that consumer demand for future goods is higher than it actually is. Cheap money makes producers more likely to launch long-term projects and take on long-term expenses. When low rates are a product of government intervention, rather than a market expression of people’s desire for long-term goods as reflected in their willingness to save now in order to consume more later, those long-term projects—for example, building and buying homes—will turn out to be unsustainable “malinvestments.” Prices in those areas will plunge. Everyone will start to realize that resources were funneled to unprofitable ends. An exaggerated boom will turn into a catastrophic bust.
Austrians believe increases in the money supply don’t always manifest in economy-wide rises in the consumer price index, the standard definition of inflation. The excess cash might instead flow into specific areas of the economy, depending on real-world factors that vary from case to case. In the housing boom and bust, those factors included mortgage lending standards, the actions of the government-created mortgage holders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and reckless securitization of mortgages. In the Fed skeptics’ story about the last decade’s economic expansions and contractions, the housing bubble was a deliberate effort by the Fed to stave off economic troubles that began when the tech-stock bubble burst in 2000.
Who Else Is Afraid of the Federal Reserve?
A small but enthusiastic audience, largely connected with explicitly libertarian institutions, has kept the Austrian theory of Fed culpability alive in the decades since Mises and Hayek left the scene. (Mises died in 1973, Hayek in 1992.) But the Austrians aren’t the only opponents of the Fed’s practices. Although history tends to craft auras of inevitability around what exists, the Federal Reserve would have seemed an exotic and dangerous change in American monetary practice in the 19th century.
According to a popular Fed creation myth, the bank, established in 1913, brought an end to a chaotic, boom-and-bust environment of unregulated banking, replacing it with managed economic stability. This story is widely believed despite the fact that America’s most severe banking crisis and economic downturn, the Great Depression, occurred two decades after the Fed was created. As the popular historian (and no Austrian ideologue) Jack Weatherford wrote in his 1997 book The History of Money, “the final stripping of local banks of their power to control money came not because of financial failures but as a result of political movements to centralize power in Washington.”
Opposition to central banks and paper money runs strong through American history. Many of the Founding Fathers came to despise paper currency after their experience with the quickly worthless Revolutionary War “continental.” President Andrew Jackson crushed the Second Bank of the United States in 1832 in the name of the people. President James Buchanan noted after an 1857 bank panic that “our existing misfortunes have proceeded solely from our extravagant and vicious system of paper money.” The Civil War “greenback,” our first national government pure paper currency, was initially declared unconstitutional until a later Supreme Court bowed to political reality. And then there was the debate over establishing the Federal Reserve itself, in which opponents such as Sen. Elihu Root (R-N.Y.) noted the dangers of a potentially unlimited money supply.
In the postwar era of normality and economic centrism, noisy mistrust of the Fed was the province of gold fanatics, radical libertarians, and financial newsletter writers and readers who saw the bank as a machine the government used to debase the currency and steal from the thrifty. But the Fed also earned the ire of progressive leftists who saw it as the citadel of moneyed interests helping creditors at the expense of debtors by keeping inflation too low. The critique, which was especially audible from the Volcker era forward, is exemplified by the progressive journalist William Greider’s best-selling 1987 book on the Fed, Secrets of the Temple. It follows the grand tradition of the three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who famously wanted to rescue indebted farmers through using cheaper and more abundant silver as money rather than crucifying them on a “cross of gold.”
During a time when the Fed actually lived up to its much-vaunted, often spurious “independence from political pressure”—when Paul Volcker was using the shock therapy of high interest rates and lower money supply growth to crush inflation in the early 1980s—the Fed came under political pressure from across the ideological spectrum. Its critics included Sen. Robert Byrd (D–W. Va.) and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) as well as many members of the Reagan administration. But for most of the tenure of Alan “Maestro” Greenspan, the Fed was broadly seen as doing little wrong.
Yet Paul discovered during his presidential bid that anti-Fed feeling had somehow morphed into a popular youth phenomenon. At an Iowa campus stop in 2007, the candidate and I expressed mutual wonder at the fact that his biggest applause line was not about ending the war but about reining in the Fed. At other Paul events, I’m told, kids burned Federal Reserve notes (dollar bills to you) to show their hostility toward the unrestricted and damaging flow of fiat currency.
As that flamboyant gesture indicates, anti-Fed feeling has long overlapped with powerful populist passions. Sometimes that attaches itself to misleading history and misaimed anger. Conspiracy theorists often cite the fact that the Fed is officially owned by its 12 private member banks as evidence that the whole system is a means for private bankers to mulct the public. But in its creation, purpose, and function, the Fed is a branch of government. Its board of governors is selected by the president and approved by the Senate, and most of its income ends up in the U.S. Treasury. And contrary to claims that the law creating the bank was pushed through Congress in the dead of night before Christmas 1913 solely as a result of a banker’s conspiracy forged on Jekyll Island, the Fed arose from long public and congressional debate.
Opposing something that has long been deemed as essential as air tends to attract eccentric people with eccentric beliefs. When I ask Ron Paul where this unexpected upsurge in youthful disdain for the Fed was coming from, he says the most important source was the website of the Mises Institute, an educational foundation for Austrian economics and libertarian political thought. But beyond the economic arguments against fiat currency, Paul says the biggest feeders of popular fear of the Fed are the conspiracy-minded documentary America: Freedom to Fascism and radio host Alex Jones, staunch opponent of the New World Order. In both cases Fed opposition is part of a general theory of sinister and subterranean forces struggling to keep Americans enslaved.
It certainly was no credit to the anti-Fed movement that Holocaust museum shooter James von Brunn had previously been arrested for attempting a “citizen’s arrest” of the Fed’s governors. And when the U.S. Army Reserve issued a “Force Projection Advisory” in November 2008 specifically targeting that month’s anti-Fed protests for “situational awareness and recommended mitigation measures,” it allowed those on the fringe to feel validation that they were not only right all along but a genuine threat to their enemies.
But the profound effects of the Fed’s avowed purpose—manipulating interest rates and making paper currency—are damaging enough, at least for those who see its fingerprints all over the current crisis, to make more baroque conspiracy theorizing superfluous. And when it comes to mistrusting the Fed, the Alex Jones crowd is not alone.
We’re All Austrians Now
Economists, pundits, and financial analysts are not exactly gathering by the hundreds in front of Federal Reserve buildings and chanting “End the Fed!” But it has become almost impossible to avoid respectable voices in respectable venues laying some of the blame for the economic crisis at the Fed’s discount window.
The Berkeley economist Brad DeLong, a popular blogger and former Clinton Treasury Department official who once dismissed Mises’ general monetary theory as “batshit insane,” still told this story in the October 2008 issue of the liberal American Prospect: “The current financial crisis has its roots in Greenspan’s decision to keep interest rates very low in 2002 and 2003 to head off the danger of a deflation-induced double-dip recession.…Six months ago, I would have said that his judgment was probably correct. Today… I can no longer state that Greenspan made the right calls with respect to the level of interest rates and the housing bubble in the 2000s.”
Fed bashing in a roughly Austrian style has gotten so popular that the theory’s opponents now feel embattled. Scott Sumner, a monetary economist at Bentley University who writes the much-cited blog The Money Illusion, thinks the Federal Reserve was and is too tight with interest rates and money for optimal economic performance. “As everyone knows by now,” Sumner complained in June, “the once kooky and discredited Austrian business cycle model has now become conventional wisdom.”
Blame-the-Fed sentiment now stretches across the spectrum of economic thought, from Keynesians such as DeLong to monetarists (who generally want the bank to maintain a fixed rate of money supply growth). In October 2008, the monetarist Anna Schwartz, co-author with Milton Friedman of one of the most important books of monetary economics, A Monetary History of the United States, told The Wall Street Journal: “If you investigate individually the manias that the market has so dubbed over the years, in every case, it was expansive monetary policy that generated the boom in an asset. The particular asset varied from one boom to another. But the basic underlying propagator was too-easy monetary policy and too-low interest rates that induced ordinary people to say, well, it’s so cheap to acquire whatever is the object of desire in an asset boom, and go ahead and acquire that object.”
In February 2009 the Stanford economist John Taylor, a monetary whiz so influential that there is a rule for setting interest rates named after him, told The Wall Street Journal: “The Fed held its target interest rate, especially in 2003–2005, well below known monetary guidelines that say what good policy should be based on historical experience. Keeping interest rates on the track that worked well in the past two decades, rather than keeping rates so low, would have prevented the boom and the bust.”
Even the Obama administration has gotten into the act. “Monetary policy around the world was too loose too long,” Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told PBS interviewer Charlie Rose in March. “And that created this just huge boom in asset prices, money chasing risk. People trying to get a higher return. That was just overwhelmingly powerful.”
As with any issue in political economy, there’s disagreement. There are a variety of arguments to parry or blunt the Austrian theory. Former Federal Reserve Board economist Arnold Kling, for instance, argues that the modern world of money and credit is so convoluted, with so many avenues for the creation of money-like instruments outside of direct Fed control, that the Fed shouldn’t be seen as the main villain in any credit-driven collapse. At worst, Kling thinks, it’s a hapless bungler pretending to power it can never have. Bryan Caplan, a libertarian economist at George Mason University, thinks people are generally too smart to be fooled enough by false interest rate signals that they precipitate an economic crisis.
And pinning even partial blame for the current economy on the Fed is different from questioning its legitimacy. By limiting his bill to the narrow question of transparency, Paul is making it possible to create a broad political coalition that can agree the Fed needs to be kept in check without necessarily agreeing on why, or on what the Fed ought to be doing.
The Fed Forever?
Despite the palpable momentum behind H.R. 1207, the idea of inconveniencing the Fed with anything more severe than an audit still seems like a far-off fantasy. Meltdown author Woods notes that, although many mainstream analysts are jumping on the Austrian bandwagon to explain the causes of the crisis, none of them are really embracing the Austrian solution of ending the Fed’s power to manipulate interest rates at will. They just call for the power to be used more prudently next boomtime.
The Fed was an ideological and institutional response to a convincingly told story of crisis and solution—basically, that the 19th-century system of mostly private banks issuing their own mostly gold-backed paper was leading to too many small economic crises of the sort that used to be called “bank panics.” Milton Friedman, a critic of central banking practice, at the same time dismissed attempts to return to a commodity standard such as gold. One of his reasons was that it was “not feasible because the mythology and beliefs required to make it effective do not exist.” But with best-selling books, activists in the street, members of Congress, and economists across the ideological spectrum casting aspersions on Fed practice, we may see the crafting of a new set of myths and beliefs.
In this time of political ferment, Stephen Axilrod, a longtime Federal Reserve staff director and monetary policy guru, has issued a memoir from MIT Press titled Inside the Fed. Axilrod admits that Fed interest rate actions precipitated the crisis without letting that fact dent either his admiration for the institution or his belief in its necessity. Still, Axilrod notes something that should encourage Fed skeptics of all varieties: that “a country’s monetary policy is almost necessarily limited by conditions generated from the political, philosophic, and social ethos of the time.”
We are now seeing attempts to move the ethos in an anti-Fed direction. While it’s hard to imagine an America without an institution that has become so central, it’s interesting to contemplate something former Rep. Eldridge Spaulding (R-N.Y.) said in 1868, in the midst of the legal controversy over Civil War greenbacks: “No one would now think of passing a legal tender act making the promises of the Government…a legal tender in payment of ‘all debts public and private.’ Such a law could not be sustained for one moment.”
What anyone would think can change dramatically. Ron Paul, through his Fed audit bill, is trying to get his colleagues, and the American people, to change what and how they think about the central bank. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, told a Massachusetts town hall meeting in August that he believes the House will indeed pass H.R. 1207 in October.
All the anti-Fed agitation we’ve seen in the last couple of years may eventually feel like a footnote if the current binge of monetary expansion creates something Americans haven’t seen for a quarter century: substantial and painful inflation in the consumer price index. For now, Bernanke is trying to assure Congress and the public that the Fed governors are skilled and knowledgeable enough to know when they need to “neutralize” the new money by, for example, selling bonds to the market and essentially swallowing the money back up before prices spike.
But the Fed doesn’t have a stellar track record of timing monetary shifts with scientific precision, and any actions that rein in inflation, thereby cutting off the short-term stimulative effect that governments love, are bound to be politically dangerous both to the Fed and to the president who appoints its overseers. As Bernanke admitted at his televised town hall meeting in July, the Fed can maintain its independence only if it can “show that we are producing good results,” and while he added lip service to independence, the people he must show those results to are Congress and the administration. Though he was appointed to a new four-year term in August, if he flubs inflation, Bernanke will be facing a whole new wave of political attacks.
More generally, the Fed’s independence is threatened by a growing understanding that the Austrian interpretation of central banking’s risks might be correct: Keeping interest rates too low for too long can precipitate severe economic busts. “It’s hard to imagine the little spark that can make big change,” says Austrian business cycle theorist Steve Horwitz, “but it can happen if the drumbeat stays going. The Fed was created by Congress, so we won’t get major change until members of Congress perceive their constituents or people with political, cultural, and social power saying there’s something really seriously wrong here.”
Senior Editor Brian Doherty (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of This is Burning Man (BenBella), Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs), and Gun Control on Trial (Cato Institute). This column first appeared at Reason.com.