Fed Up

The political movement to curtail the Federal Reserve goes from fringe to mainstream.

(Page 2 of 4)

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.

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  • Suki||

    Now I am aware of the transparency part and that sounds good. I am still not getting abolishing the central bank part. Need to read that in more depth.

    Thank you Brian!

  • ||

    Do you believe in free markets? Then why is something so fundamentally economic (interest rate) not left to the markets? 'nuff sed.

  • ||

    Actually, the interest rates are mostly left to the markets. What the Fed controls is the federal funds rate, which is the rate banks loan to other banks.

    Other than an indirect influence via inflation, your home mortgage rate has nothing to do with the Fed.

  • ||

    As stated, that's a completely incorrect and asinine statement. The discount rate does indeed influence the prime rate which influences mortgage rates.

    At best you can say the Fed doesn't directly influence rates other than the discount rates, but you can hardly credit the fed for keeping mortgage rates low as that great Disney economist PK does then say they don't influence the interest rate.

  • ||

    Another good book is The Creature From Jekyll Island

    It looks like HR1207 is going to be incorporated into the new banking regulations being proposed. If the Fed is going to be made this new "systemic risk regulator", Frank has indicated, along with many other Reps, that that will only happen with a complete audit of the Fed, although this is all still up in the air.

    I believe the co-sponsor count is 307. Rep Alan Grayson (D-FL) was responsible for bringing on over 100 Democrats. However, the Senate version, S604, authored by Bernie Sanders, only has 30 co-sponsors. But that's up from 20, last month.

    I was watching the Banking Committee hearings on HR1207 (I don't have a link, go to C-SPAN and search it), and the biggest opponent was Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC). I did a little fact checking on Mr. Watt. Mr. Watt's constituency is Greensboro, NC. Sound familiar? BoA corporate headquarters is in Greensboro. Then I checked his campaign contributors. In 1998, his top 4 contributors were Labor Unions. Not surprising, for a Democrat. But, in 2008, his top 4 contributors were BoA, Wachovia, American Express, and some Banker's Association (not the ICBA). I thought that was very interesting.

  • Kolohe||

    BoA corporate HQ is in Charlotte not Greensboro.

    (Jefferson Pilot is (or used to be) in Greensboro)

  • ||

    My mistake, his constituency is Charlotte. For some reason I got Greensboro in my head. Wachovia is in Charlotte, also.


  • ||

    My memory isn't what it used to be. It was only a couple months since I checked this guy out, so I went back and double checked:

    1 Bank of America $14,500 $6,500 $8,000
    2 Wachovia Corp $12,500 $2,500 $10,000
    3 American Express $11,000 $1,000 $10,000
    4 American Bankers Assn $10,000 $0 $10,000

    1 AFL-CIO $10,500 $0 $10,500
    2 American Federation of Teachers $10,000 $0 $10,000
    2 American Fedn of St/Cnty/Munic Employees $10,000 $0 $10,000
    2 Assn of Trial Lawyers of America $10,000 $0 $10,000

    Ahhhhh, those dreaded trial lawyers.

  • Thomas||

    Damn right. I don't want the only publicity my city gets on this site to be false accusations of corrupt politicians/banks.

  • ||

    I take it you're from Greensboro? My apologies. It seems I had a Freudian slip. My ex-girlfriend lives in Randleman, NC. She's coming up next month for my class reunion.

  • ||

    You're going to need 290 votes in the House and 67 in the Senate to overcome His Hopiness' veto.

  • ||

    True but even barring that number it will be good to force him to veto to protect his masters.

  • ||

    When we talk about the Fed's "independence", are we talking about the government (POTUS and Congress), or the financial institutions they are supposed to regulate and "oversee"?

    Wasn't it then NY Fed President Tim Geitner that orchestrated the deal between JP Morgan to absorb Bear? Wasn't JP CEO Jamie Dimon on the Board of the NY Fed at the time? Isn't there some sort of "conflict of interest" in there?

  • ||

    He was appointed to a new *14* year term, not a new 4-year term; "Though he was appointed to a new four-year term in August...."

  • ||

    "Greenspan, who enjoyed the longest stretch of low-inflation prosperity in Fed history "

    Brian, Given the number of austrians who will read this article wouldn't it make sense to say "low-CPI growth prosperity" or somewhow make an attempt to point out that asset(house,internet stocks) inflation and fiat monetary growth were very much a part of Greenspan's tenure even thought the Mainstream economist used the slow CPI growth as their happyfeelgood # to ignore the real growing problems of malinvestment?

  • LibAnCap||

    "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."

    I never understand why this type of comment needs to be there. The same thing can be said about any political train of thought, in regards to nut-jobs who happen to beleive the same thing.

    I guess anyone that is a vegetarian can be associated with Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust?

  • ||

    The fed will fall when liberals finally realize that keeping low interest rates to fund their big-government spending encourages overconsumption and environmental destruction. Their heads will explode.

  • ||

    George W Bush was a Liberal?

  • Jordan||

    Don't tell me you're surprised by that. Bush was only conservative on abortion and gay rights.

  • ||

    I still don't know what GWB was, and I've given up trying. What's it's come down to in this country, is which industries (or specific companies) does the President, whoever he may be, support, and which social programs will get him the most votes.

    However, it always seems to come down to "it's the economy, stupid". The economy today. "Are you better off today...". That's where the conflict comes in between the President and the Fed.

  • ||

    Bush-meister was not liberal nor conservative. He was nothing. An empty shell of a man steered by special interests.

  • Tsu Dho Nihm||

    I think GWB was an authoritarian. I can't think of a single thing he did (or even proposed) that furthered individual liberty.

  • Some Poster||

    I think that's a little inaccurate. He furthered liberty away from the grasp of citizens, didn't he?

  • ||

    He massively increased spending and regulation and started the bailouts. What was not liberal about Bush except the war?

  • Jim||

    While I enjoy the cognitive dissonance of this as much as the next (libertarian) guy, one of the trademarks of the liberal elite is that they think they are capable of managing the fine lines between 'stimulation' and 'overconsumption', and can achieve bursting economic growth with sustainable environmentalism. So, unfortunately, no such brain splatter will be had over this realization....

  • ray||

    WOW... what a crafty little hitpiece posing as praise!
    well done Brian.. I never credited you with being that subtle. Worthy of a true Hit&Run;

  • ||

    WW 2 vet, Von Brunn, walked into the Washington headquarters of the Federal Reserve System on Dec. 7, 1981, armed with a revolver, a hunting knife and a sawed-off shotgun. Claimed he wanted to take board members hostage to focus media attention on their responsibility for high interest rates and the nation’s economic difficulties. He was convicted in 1983 and served six years in prison for attempted kidnapping, burglary, assault and weapons charges."

    So he was in favor of greater monetary expansion! obviously not a austrian...sounds more like a militant Keynsian...why not smear keynsians as being white supremeicist nuts? or vets? sounds like bias Doherty. I wonder why the Feds let him out of prison so quickly?...was he working for the feds as part of a deal? perhaps he was under their control and this was part of their smear campaign?

  • LibAnCap||

    Doherty spends 4 pages talking about how the business cycle explains the crisis...nothing will be done to end the fed and still manages to slip in the remark about the nut job Holocaust shooter.

    Of course Reason can't fully praise Ron Paul. It is against their true nature. He is not hip enough on the important issues like gay marriage, drug use and porn.

  • ||

    Actually Paul is for decriminalization and pretty string 1A guy.

    The big problem with Paul is abortion, which I share but can overlook considering the overall package.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Yeah ray, it was so craftily done, only a tinfoil hat wearing paranoid nutjob could have found it. Good job, especially pointing out where the "hits" were.

  • ray||

    put on your normal person hat for a minute and read it. skip over the boring econ bits as any memeber of the general public would... focus on the people mentioned and the adjectives used. It doesn't take a masters in marketing to see the image being sold here..

  • BakedPenguin||

    The main takeaway I got from the piece:
    Criticism of the Fed, once a fringe position, is now mainstream. However, it's unlikely any real reform will take place.

    You're either much better at reading subtext than I am, or hypersensitive.

  • ||

    Great research on all the fair and open debates that congress held on the Fed leading up to 1913. I never knew how open and transparent Senator Aldrich was...what a great guy!

  • ||

    It's awesome that so many politicians actually recognize how intelligent Ron Pual is, yet just brush off his ideas.

    Also good article, I want the Federal Reserve out of here and the gold standard back.

  • ||

    That would be the tastiest red meat for the opposition EVER if The Anointed One were to be politically foolish enough to veto Fed transparency. It would become a major theme for attack ads in 2010 and 2012.

  • ||

    Why haven't the Obama daughters taken Swine Flu Vaccine? really why?

  • ||

    Pro-Fed, Anti-Fed; if we don't get our nation's financial house in order, restrain politically profitable government spending, reduce the power of bureaucratic rule-makers unaccountable to the electorate, and get more folks working and fewer on the dole, the Fed will be replaced. Willy-nilly, politically and economically we are heading for a major and potentially violent change in our nation, driven by President Obama's radical agenda of personal power grounded in his cult of personality. Either we restrain the forces of choas being unleased or they will destroy our nation in all ways.

  • John and Dagny Galt||

    Dear Brothers and Sisters, Sons and Daughters of Liberty,

    There are only two types of human beings.

    One type just wants everyone to leave everyone else alone and these humans are students and advocates of the Philosophically Mature Non-Aggression Principle.

    The other type refuses to leave others alone and these humans are the Mobocracy Looter Minions with their hords of bureaucrats, jackboots, and mercenaries that perpetuate the perpetration of the loot and booty gravy-train. Rob-peter-to-buy-paul's-vote bread and circuses of the doomed Amerikan Empire.

    You are either the one...or the other.

    The John Galt Solution of Starving The Monkeys is the only solution. Stop funding and forging your own chains and shackles. What are you leaving for your children and grandchildren and prodigy!?!

    The Mobocracy Looter Minions must be allowed to consume everything around them, then each other, and finally themselves. There is no other way. Ayn Rand wrote about it over fifty years ago and it rings as soundly today as it did then.

    Get your copy of Starving The Monkeys by Tom Baugh today, before the book is banned and the author is hunted down and Vince Fostered!

    John and Dagny Galt
    Atlas Shrugged, Owner's Manual For The Universe!(tm)




  • ||

    What are you leaving for your children and grandchildren and prodigy

    Dude.. that's just embarrassing.

  • ||


  • Fiscal Meth||

    Ike, you're basically right but John Galt(if that is your real name) is super duper right. With a fiat economy, something will probably replace it. That's why the gold standard is so important. Not because it is gold but because gold is rare and durable. It simply can't be inflated by anything short of alchemy. You can only increase its value by producing goods faster than they are consumed (which is good) or decrease it by doing the opposite(which means people are too stupid and lazy to survive which isn't the case as evidenced by our existnce). That is poison for big government. It makes it impossible to feed off of us while claiming to take care of us. and that is why it is quickly squashed. Not because it doesn't work but because it does and that is why some founders of this country threatened not to even sign the constitution unless it banned paper money...Which it did!

  • Jeff||

    I predict that if the Fed is subjected to an honest and complete audit, and the results are made public, it will be exposed for what it is; a pack of corrupt gangsters.

  • Flex Nasty B.I.G.||

    The key to understanding Austrian Business Cycle Theory is to first understand time preferences.

    Basically, the idea is that simply by saving money, you send a market signal indicating your demand for higher-order goods. (those which require lots of capital, years of lead time to develop, etc.)

    Conversely, by *not* saving money you send a signal that you *don't* demand higher-order goods, because you're too busy meeting your immediate needs.

    Here's how it works: when you save money, that increases the supply of money available for lending. That increase in supply results in lower interest rates. At those lower rates, capital-intensive, long-term investment projects now become more viable. Voila - customer demands higher-order goods, customer gets them.

    Again, the opposite holds true as well. When saving rates drop, interest rates go up, which makes those multi-year, multibillion-dollar investment projects a lot less viable.

    At least, that's the way it should work, according to Austrians. It doesn't work that way now because the Fed effectively sets interest rates centrally, instead of allowing them to float naturally according to supply and demand. And, say the Austrians, that sends all sorts of horrendous shock wave effects throughout the economy.

    I don't buy all of ABCT thus far, but time preferences make a tremendous amount of sense to me.

    (someone correct me if I misstated any of that, or if there is a logical fallacy in the theory.)

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  • Mortgage Girl||

    Well sometimes we have to choose the lesser evils I guess.

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  • batteries||

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  • abercrombie milano||

    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won't get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there's more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I'm not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It's just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight...the Bible's books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on...the Bible's books were written by people with very different mindsets...

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