Economics

Bernanke's Philosopher

The Fed chairman is portrayed as a follower of John Maynard Keynes, but his real inspiration is Milton Friedman.

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When Ben Bernanke took charge of the Federal Reserve in 2006, the media made a few passing references that suggested he secretly subscribed to libertarianism. "I worked with him for years before I even knew he was a libertarian-leaning Republican," the former Fed vice chairman Alan Blinder told CNN. The Wall Street Journal reported that Bernanke, "though a libertarian Republican …displays few partisan leanings."

Last summer President Barack Obama re-nominated Bernanke to another four-year term atop the central bank, a reward for allegedly saving the world from a second Great Depression. Bernanke will arrive at his Senate confirmation hearings this January with an unbeatable recommendation. "As an expert on the causes of the Great Depression," Obama raved in August, "I'm sure Ben never imagined that he would be part of a team responsible for preventing another. But because of his background, his temperament, his courage and his creativity, that's exactly what he has helped to achieve."

"Mission Accomplished," the banner might have read.

Missing from Obama's speech was any mention of Bernanke's economic philosophy. These days, the media have taken to calling him a Keynesian—a believer in fiscal stimulus and the mixed economy. "We are all Keynesians again," the liberal Washington Monthly headlined a January 2009 feature on the Fed chief.

In reality, Bernanke is following a monetarist depression-prevention model laid out by Nobel laureate and libertarian patron saint Milton Friedman. The Fed chairman has invoked the late economist in support of lowering interest rates to zero and bailing out banks. Trillions of dollars have been staked on the insights of "monetarism," the economic theory of central banking and inflation-management associated with Friedman and Anna Schwartz. Though Schwartz now distances herself from Bernanke, opposing his reappointment on the grounds that he's gone too far, the irony remains that a series of Fed policies many libertarians find repugnant are being championed by a man claiming to take his chief inspiration from the most influential libertarian economist of the 20th century.

A Monetary History of Ben Bernanke

The story begins in 1963, when Friedman and co-author Anna Schwartz published A Monetary History of the United States, an opening salvo in what Friedman called a "counterrevolution" against Keynesian theory. Their chapter on the Great Depression was spun off into a stand-alone book, The Great Contraction: 1929–1933, an epic revisionist history that changed America's understanding of the causes of the Depression. Friedman and Schwartz contended that the Federal Reserve—not capitalism or Wall Street—was to blame for the dismal '30s.

"The fact of the matter is that it was the [Fed's] decision to tighten credit policy in 1928 that produced the Great Contraction," the 93-year-old Schwartz says by phone from her office at the National Bureau of Economic Research in New York City. The Fed hiked interest rates in 1928 to curb what it saw as rampant speculation on Wall Street—a conflagration of leverage, margin buying, and outright Ponzi scheming fueled in the first instance by cheap credit from the Federal Reserve. (Goldman Sachs' various pyramid schemes from that era, after they collapsed in 1929, generated losses of $475 billion in today's dollars.)

Friedman and Schwartz rejected the widely held theory that speculation had been a major problem, or that there had even been a credit bubble in the 1920s. Bad loans and reckless banking practices were a "minor factor," at most, in the Great Depression, they said. In this narrative, a Federal Reserve paranoid about speculation had needlessly constricted the money supply, imploding an otherwise sound economy.

After the Great Crash of 1929, the Federal Reserve drastically cut interest rates from a brief high of 6 percent to 1.5 percent by mid-1931. But during the first few years of the crisis, the Fed occasionally felt forced to abruptly raise rates again in complicated maneuvers to stem outflows of gold into Europe. Friedman and Schwartz blamed these sporadic interest rate hikes for smothering incipient recoveries, opening a vortex of deflation, and transforming a recession into the Great Depression.

"What the Fed had to do was increase the money supply," Schwartz tells me. "By taking that action, it would have revived the economy. That's the lesson of the Great Depression." In The Great Contraction, she and Friedman argued that the Fed squandered its ample latitude to combat deflation. "The monetary authorities," they wrote, "could have prevented the decline in the stock of money—indeed, could have produced almost any desired increase in the money stock."

When it comes to his academic specialty, Bernanke is a disciple of Friedman and Schwartz. In 2002, at Friedman's 90th birthday party at the University of Chicago, Bernanke was effusive. "Among economic scholars," he began, "Friedman has no peers." He developed the "leading and most persuasive" explanation of the Depression, whose impact on economics and the popular mind "cannot be overstated."

At the end of his encomium, Bernanke made a soon-to-be-famous apology on behalf of the Federal Reserve, where he was then president of the powerful New York branch: "I would like to say to Milton and Anna…regarding the Great Depression. You're right, we did it. We're very sorry. But thanks to you, we won't do it again." (The speech was published as the afterword to the latest edition of The Great Contraction.)

Schwartz was present at the birthday party. "I'm sure he was sincere when he said that," she says. And Bernanke stayed true to his word. In 2006 he replaced Alan Greenspan as chairman of the Federal Reserve. Greenspan, a self-described "libertarian Republican" who had once been part of Ayn Rand's inner circle, had engineered an era of low-inflation growth that won Friedman's endorsement. "There is no other period of comparable length in which the Federal Reserve System has performed so well," Friedman declared in The Wall Street Journal on January 31, 2006.

Monetarism and Freedom

When the economy collapsed two years into Bernanke's watch because of a massive credit bubble, he slashed interest rates to zero and ordered the money-printing presses to full steam. He also embarked on a course of "quantitative easing," where a central bank convolutedly buys its own government's bonds with printed money so as to sink interest rates even further.

This approach was not new. Friedman had prescribed quantitative easing, combined with "easy money" and inflation, as a cure for Japan's 1990s economic slump, which he described as an "eerie, if less dramatic, replay of the Great Contraction." As he did with the Depression-era Fed, Friedman emphasized that "there is no limit to the extent to which the Bank of Japan can increase the money supply if it wishes to do so." In 1998, a year after Friedman penned his advice in The Wall Street Journal, Japan introduced monetary stimulus: a cocktail of zero interest rates and quantitative easing. But deflation continued. Today Japan's exports are down an unthinkable 36 percent from just last year, and prices are plummeting at an all-time record pace.

Stateside, in the shadow of the Fed's multi-trillion-dollar balance sheet, it has been all too easy to categorize Bernanke simply as a Keynesian supporter of public works projects, socialistic safety nets, and profligate, government-led consumption. While it's true that the Obama ad-ministration is pursuing Keynesian fiscal stimulus, the Federal Reserve under Bernanke has consciously acted on the Friedman/Schwartz insight that loosening central bank credit is a fundamental tool in forestalling deflation and depression. Understanding that monetarism can mean both the management of low inflation in good times, and the creation of inflation in bad times, has proven too difficult for most of the media.

The New York Times, for instance, has identified Bernanke as "a student if not necessarily a devotee of the British economist John Maynard Keynes." Actually, Bernanke spent most of his academic career elaborating on Friedman's Keynes-refuting interpretation of the Great Depression. Athough his research sometimes strayed into nonmonetary subjects, it was always, as he said at Friedman's birthday party, "an embellishment of the Friedman-Schwartz story…and in no way contradict[ed] the basic logic of their analysis." In 2003, at a conference honoring Friedman's Free to Choose, Bernanke said, "Friedman's monetary framework has been so influential that, in its broad outlines at least, it has nearly become identical with modern monetary theory and practice." So great was Friedman's influence that Bernanke compared it with Shakespeare's contributions to English literature.

Even Bernanke's nickname "Helicopter Ben" derives directly from Milton Friedman. It came about during a 2002 speech entitled "Deflation: Making Sure 'It' Doesn't Happen Here," in which he quoted Friedman on the importance of conjoining fiscal and monetary policies. The ideal fiscal stimulus, Bernanke said, was a shower of tax cuts "equivalent to Milton Friedman's famous 'helicopter drop' of money." Friedman had originally used the phrase to counter Keynes' idea of the "liquidity trap," in which setting interest rates at zero leads to bank hoarding and leaves the Federal Reserve no room to maneuver. Friedman suggested that countries could escape the liquidity trap by handing out money to consumers, and he explained his argument in a tale about a helicopter unloading cash on a town. Likewise, Bernanke's Federal Reserve has created special "vehicles" to disburse consumer credit from on high.

In February, Bloomberg News added to the philosophical confusion by reporting that "Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke is siding with John Maynard Keynes against Milton Friedman by flooding the financial system with money." Of course, Bernanke has said precisely the opposite. He's flooding the financial system with money during a deflationary crisis, he says, because that's what Friedman would have him do.

On February 10, Bernanke further underscored his allegiance to Friedman in an overlooked Capitol Hill question-and-answer session with Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). Their exchange is worth quoting at length.

"Chairman," Paul began, "you have written a lot about the Depression. There was a famous quote you made once to Milton Friedman, apologizing for the Federal Reserve bringing on the Depression. But you assured him it wouldn't happen again.…But the key to this discussion has to be: Was it too much credit in the '20s that created the conditions that demanded a recession/depression, or was it lack of credit in the Depression that caused the prolongation?…Here we're working frantically to keep prices up. What's wrong with allowing the market to dictate this…and prices to go down quickly so we can all go back to work again?"

In response, Bernanke repeated the lesson of The Great Contraction: "Milton Friedman's view was that the cause of the Great Depression was the failure of the Federal Reserve to avoid excessively tight monetary policy in the early '30s. That was Friedman and Schwartz's famous book. With that lesson in mind, the Federal Reserve has reacted very aggressively to cut interest rates in this current crisis. Moreover, we've tried to avoid the collapse of the banking system."

For her part, Schwartz is critical of Bernanke's application of her and Friedman's theories. "You don't have to lower the interest rates to the extent that he has in order to increase the money supply," she says. "The essential action should be increasing the money supply. That's the lesson of the Great Depression." She adds, "There's nothing contradictory in The Great Contraction with reference to what the Fed should be doing currently."

Schwartz is alarmed by the enthusiasm with which Bernanke has put "monetary expansion" into practice. She berates the Fed for going too far and predicts that it will have to raise interest rates "in the near future" to arrest inflation. Asked if she sees hyperinflation on the horizon, she exclaims, "Oh, yes!"

In a New York Times op-ed last July, Schwartz criticized Bernanke as a "man without a plan," warning that his "easy monetary policy is a sin." She concluded, "He does not deserve reappointment."

Schwartz also seems to have undergone a late-life conversion to at least some part of Keynesian theory. Asked for her current solution to the crisis, she repeats the ultimate Keynesian maxim: The government should pick up slackening demand in the private sector.

"People are saving, not spending. In order to revive this economy," she says, hesitating before continuing, "the government will have to resume spending. By spending, the government will require that the current inventory will be depleted and have to be replenished. And that will bring on additional production and jobs."

Bernanke's Money Mischief

Ron Paul, like Schwartz and Friedman, is a libertarian, but he embraces the "Austrian" school of economic theory that rejects the very concept of the Federal Reserve. He is critical of what he sees as the Fed's ongoing monetarism. "In essence," Paul says in a phone interview, "Bernanke is following Friedman's advice. He's a Friedmanite when it comes to massively inflating. Bernanke was able to justify [his policies] by using Friedman."

Does Friedman's enthusiasm for inflating the monetary supply in crises flout libertarianism? "Absolutely," Paul answers. "The monetarists said that you could overcome a natural market correction of a collapsing system by inflation—print money faster! Which contradicts Friedman's whole thesis. He wanted a steady, managed increase in the supply of money of about 3 percent." Here Paul is alluding to Money Mischief, Friedman's 1991 book in which he called on the Fed to grow the money supply at 3 percent annually, presumably forever. "Yet at the same time, Friedman said the Depression could have been prevented by massively inflating." Paul has kind words for Friedman, whom he praises as a staunch defender of economic liberty, but his final summation is damning: "Friedman's very, very libertarian—except on monetary issues."

With Bernanke at the helm, the Federal Reserve has unleashed monetary expansion, the very definition of inflation—and Friedman's blueprint for averting economic depression. According to Bernanke, Obama, and scores of economists, it's working. "Prospects for a return to growth in the near term appear good," Bernanke predicted in August.

But with lenders foreclosing on 358,000 homes that month, the commercial real estate market only beginning to collapse, a 20 percent annual fall in railroad freight, and unemployment projected to crack double digits any minute now, the much-vaunted recovery is no given. And if it isn't working, we might still relapse into recession, or worse.

The total cost of the Fed's monetarist-inspired program is mysterious. Paul, whose bill to audit the Fed is now co-sponsored by more than half of the House of Representatives, declares: "We don't know for sure how much the Fed has spent—I've heard it could be $6 trillion. But we have no knowledge of what the Fed's doing. All these dealings are very secret." A Reuters estimate in late September pegged the Fed's balance sheet around $2.1 trillion, with $111 billion doled out to banks every day through the Fed's overnight discount window. Bloomberg News has sued the Federal Reserve for full disclosure, and we may soon find out the exact number. Manhattan Chief U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska has ordered the Federal Reserve to open its books, though the bank has filed an appeal.

Friedman and Schwartz, those champions of low inflation, have helped inspire the greatest monetary expansion in Federal Reserve history, a program of limitless market interventions and tireless money printing whose end game is likely to be a return to the bad old days of inflation that they fought for so long. For two libertarian champions of free markets and limited government, this unintended legacy has the ring of a world-historic irony.

Penn Bullock (penneth@gmail.com) is a freelance writer for Village Voice Media. He lives in Florida.

 

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78 responses to “Bernanke's Philosopher

  1. Friedman was one of the better mainstream economists from a free market perspective, but he was still wrong on the Depression. Too bad Bernanke didn’t take his inspiration from Hayek and Mises, or we may not have even gotten into this mess.

  2. yep.. problem with monetarists.. their capital theory is as bad as keynesians’… (see link)

  3. PROUD FATHER OF GLOBAL MISERY

  4. It’s easy to confuse Chicago with Keynes.. 80% of their methodology is shared.
    The key is fractional reserve banking and it’s central banking enablers at the Fed.
    Friedman was a good guy (well, except for the witholding tax peccadillo) but as long as he was inconsistent…”price controls are bad.. but not for the price of money”… he helped the central planners more than freedom..

  5. ron,

    He was young and stupid at the time of the withholding tax error. He admitted this later on. Dont see why people hold that against him instead of his real problems (which you also mentioned).

  6. Young, stupid and helping expand the government is no way to go through life.

  7. So funny to listen to the fed now. “The output gap is high so inflation is not a threat.” I hope they keep interest rates at zero for another year as CRB doubles, then triples….and keep repeating the crap about the output gap. Smart people don’t want to hold dollars when they know the fed has to try and inflate away trillions in bad debt and pension obligations.

    What is more politically feasible,

    1)Obama gives a big speach tomorrow telling all the government workers that there is really no way that there pension defined benefits will be honored or

    2)the Fed will inflate the shit out of the dollar while all the illiterate state workers get the wool pulled over their eyes by the great wizard. The smarter 5% makes lots of money speculating in commodities and the dumber 95% is still as dumb and poor as ever. This is evolution at work.

    1. all the “output gap” talk is meaningless… more money + fewer goods = higher prices (ceteris paribus)… all that cash has to go somewhere… and it will.

      1. ..but don’t ask me where. If I knew for sure I’d be getting a mortgage to buy rice/oil/gold/ammo/chinese stock…

        since I don’t know, I’m just buying gold, but only with money I can spare (no leverage..)

        1. Why not borrow?

  8. While it is tempting to use leverage, the bad guys hold the strings to that and they are not afraid to shake all the leveraged folks out when it would most help their side….or that is just how it seems. Use a balanced and reason approach witha healthy fear of leverage and fraud…pretty sure those ETF’s will end up fucking people over in the end.

  9. “all the “output gap” talk is meaningless… ” it also is implying that goods and production is homogeneous…but in reality it is not…it takes time to switch over our capital base from producing condominiums to producing….uh…well it is easy to produce nothing(see present)…but it is kinda hard for unemployed mortgage brokers to make super conductors that haven’t been invented yet.

    1. exactly… capital goods are heterogenous..

  10. Infaltion isn’t much of a concern as long as the velocity of money is still decreasing. Moreover, the velocity probably won’t return to what it did for quite a while due to less financial innovation etc.

    As far as the crises goes, there is still a lot of pain to go through, the question is whether it’s better all at once, or spread out a bit.

    I think the main concern is that if they picked all at once, it would have gotten out of control.

    For example, at the hight of the crises, international trade was having a hard time getting letters of credit. If that had shut down, we could have had a melt down that would have made the great depression look like a walk in the park.

    1. V is just an imaginary variable to balance the equation…
      MV = PT

      you can actually try to measure empirically M, P and T. V? They just make it up. It’s 100% theory.

  11. “I think the main concern is that if they picked all at once, it would have gotten out of control. ”

    Kroneborge, I think it is more complicated than that. The “spread it out” option entails increasing interventionism…increasing power of a centralised power over the individual. This always leads to a crappier situation in the long run. Yes Keynes and Greenspan may be dead in the long run, but we are gonna have to live with it. I’m just trying to be on the right side of the Fed’s whipsaw attacks when they next decide to jerk us around.

  12. If they leave rates at zero for a long time as they are promising then inflation will pick up. Your predictions on money velocity are worthless in the face of extended expansionary monetary policies. Smart people(cnetral banks, GS traders, hedge funds etc) will be getting their hands on the cheap money and betting on commodities regardless of how quickly joe-sixpack spends his paycheck each week.

    1. If you read anything of Bernanke’s papers on credit view models, one would argue that the stated goal is, at least in the short term, to have higher-than-normal inflation, ultimately resulting in low (if not negative) real interest rates for lending and using that amount of new loan capital to resuscitate the goods market with minimal long-term harm.

      That being said, I’d break with Bernanke’s model in so much as that, while the financial panic ultimately resulted in a supply shock to credit markets, the inevitable government regulation over banks that will follow in its wake is likely to cause much of that shock to become permanent, establishing a new lower equilibrium in economic output. If that is the case, the policy goal may be to keep inflation in check so as to not depress the labor market as well…

  13. In his book “Inflation Targeting”, Bernanke says that a targeted inflation of 5% or 7% may be ok!! He doesn’t want to “pass judgment” on this until more econometric studies have been done.

  14. here about all the 400 oz gold bars that are filled with Tungsten?

    http://beforeitsnews.com/story/0000000000000499

    I’d donate to $50 to Reason if they do a interview with this Ron Kirby guy on the fake gold bars he is claiming are sitting in a lot of ETFs. You don’t even have to make it a friendly interview, just investigate it.

  15. My own views on economics are a somewhat odd mix of monetarism and Austrian theory. The Austrians are correct, namely, about the effects of artificially expanding credit (through fractional reserve banking and expanding the money base) in sewing the seeds of the business cycle. However, Friedman was correct that a slow, consistent expansion of the money supply is necessary to avoid constraining economic growth (as excessive deflation tends to disincentivize investment). I think his ideas have failed in practice because he more or less ignored the Austrians’ insights on the effects of credit expansion by the central bank (although it should be noted that Friedman saw central bank policy as a “second-best” solution for expanding the money supply.

  16. economist,
    Your views are well thought out, but I think there is one presumption you make that is very important.

    “as excessive deflation tends to disincentivize investment”

    When you say this you are making the presumption that “more investment” is always the “right” thing. I find this odd. While it is true that you need investment in order to have productivity gains later on, you must accept the idea that not all “investments” are equal right?
    (investments in “security” say ammunition and gasoline for tanks to invade desert countries) != (new advanced bread factories)

    Just as a thought experiment, lets assume there is a world where a sceret cabal of satanist worshipping death cultist have gained control of all the central banks, many leading media outlets and many infleuntial policy think tanks(just a thought experiment) they intend to slowly trick the masses into accepting a central governing power with greater authority so that they can basically create a prison planet where most of the population are brave new world type servants. They plan to get to this new world by making fabian socialist promises(free health care, free education k-college, gauranteed retirement plans for all, right to housing, right to food etc.) However as each new power over the individual is given to the govenment the economy gets weaker and weaker…smart capitalist who understand what created their past prosperity decide it is best not to invest in things the governrment can confiscate, but instead hoard durable assets and hide their wealth or buy political infleunce to protect their small domains…economist see the data flows, investment in real productive assets is falling! the decline in prosperity “must be due to less investment!”, they claim. “the free-market has failed”, they think “we need to incentivize greater investment”…all the mainstream economist agree and so new programs are created…

    Do you think that narrowly focusing on increasing investment will fix things in this scenario?

  17. No one except for the last statement talk about the real problem with all of this. Government largess is the main problem. I believe that we could debate either Friedman or the Austrian school if the govs around the world were not sending the markets the wrong signals. We need to control government first to see which theory will create the most growth. Till then it is going to be a rough road. Gabe is exactly right and all of the minds here should spend their time figuring out how to stop the madness.

  18. as excessive deflation tends to disincentivize investment

    You have it backward. Investment will be optimized if the interest rates reflect the true cost of risk/capital. Fiat currency is not needed for this process. Price deflation and inflation can occur naturally but they aren’t in themselves bad things and they are self correcting. The evils of deflation are largely mythical.. or rather deflation is indeed evil to people who earn their wealth via first use of currency.

    The industrial revolution happened during a period (and was arguably causal to) a period of prolonged mild deflation. Goods prices however dropped faster than wages.. so it was not a bad time at all for labor.

    As efficiency goes up more is produced with the same raw material and labor.

    This isn’t a bad thing and need not be compensated for with more currency.

  19. I love all you guys attacking Bernanke and monetary expansion.

    I have one question. During the Great Depression the central bank allowed currency to deflate and, though they eventually cut interest rates, periodically raised interest rates in order to stem the flight of gold from the country. Hmmm, allow deflation and try ad make money more sound by holding onto gold reserves.

    Which view of monetary policy does this sound like? Not the monetarist view obviously.

    How did that all work out?

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  21. 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.

  22. 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.

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  50. Infaltion isn’t much of a concern as long as the velocity of money is still decreasing. Moreover, the velocity probably won’t return to what it did for quite a while due to less financial innovation etc.

    As far as the crises goes, there is still a lot of pain to go through, the question is whether it’s better all at once, or spread out a bit.
    I think the main concern is that if they picked all at once, it would have gotten out of control.
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  53. Infaltion isn’t much of a concern as long as the velocity of money is still decreasing. Moreover, the velocity probably won’t return to what it did for quite a while due to less financial innovation etc.

    As far as the crises goes, there is still a lot of pain to go through, the question is whether it’s better all at once, or spread out a bit.
    ???? ????? ???????
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    As far as the crises goes, there is still a lot of pain to go through, the question is whether it’s better all at once, or spread out a bit.
    I think the main concern is that if they picked all at once, it would have gotten out of control.

  54. I think the main concern is that if they picked all at once, it would have gotten out of control.

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  56. I think the main concern is that if they picked all at once, it would have gotten out of control.
    ???? ????? ?????? ???????? ???????
    For example, at the hight of the crises, international trade was having a hard time getting letters of credit. If that had shut down, we could have had a melt down that would have made the great depression look like a walk in the park.

  57. I think the main concern is that if they picked all at once, it would have gotten out of control.
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    For example, at the hight of the crises, international trade was having a hard time getting letters of credit. If that had shut down, we could have had a melt down that would have made the great depression look like a walk in the park.

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