The war of words unleashed on Wall Street and in Washington by Wednesday’s announcement of an unexpectedly high rate of consumer price inflation is escalating by the day.
Legendary hedge fund manager Stanley Druckenmiller had warned on Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal that the Fed was enabling fiscal and market excesses by not standing up to the political whims of Congress; he stated on CNBC that the Fed’s overly accommodative monetary policies posed a risk to the status of the United States dollar as a global reserve currency.
Refuting such concerns, Paul Krugman asks in his column for the New York Times whether President Biden should scrap his entire economic agenda merely because the spike in consumer prices as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics was bigger than expected. “OK, I’m being a bit snarky here, but only a bit,” Mr. Krugman concedes.
Snarky is hardly the word for the crass deprecations he offers in his concurrent newsletter, wherein he notes “a lot of buzz around how the Fed’s wanton abuse of its power to create money will soon lead to runaway inflation.” The Nobel laureate dismisses fears of monetary debasement as being anchored in neither fact nor logic but rather attributable to an “infestation of monetary cockroaches.”
What seems to be missing in the debate over whether the inflation number itself is alarming as a bellwether - some were disconcerted when the Fed’s vice chairman, Richard Clarida, admitted that it “surprised” him — is the larger question of government competence in steering the economy.
Does it make sense, for a nation founded on the notion of individual liberty, equality under the law, and personal property rights, to allow a government agency to manipulate the value of the currency used by its citizens? Would it be better to have a stable monetary foundation to facilitate free-market outcomes, rather than empower the Federal Reserve to distort interest rates and dilute dollars in the service of government policy?
It’s not as if we haven’t been here before. The question of whether rules-based monetary stability historically delivers better economic results in terms of increasing middle-class incomes than relying on the discretionary judgment of central bankers has been wholly analyzed and resolved.
In the 2015 Economic Report of the President issued under the Obama administration, a special section describes the period from 1948 to 1973 as the “Age of Shared Growth” — characterized by accelerating labor productivity, falling income inequality, and increased workforce participation.
The report makes little mention of the fact that this period of remarkable growth, which increased living standards across all income levels, coincided with the existence of the Bretton Woods international monetary system under which the U.S. dollar was convertible into gold at a fixed price.
The report does posit that if post-1973 productivity growth had continued at its pace from those previous 25 years, “incomes would have been 58% higher in 2013” and “the median household would have had an additional $30,000 in income.”
All of which should give pause to those who belittle the uneasiness felt by conservatives who fear that compromising monetary integrity not only violates founding principles but also economic rationality. And it’s not just conservatives per se, but rather an increasingly larger segment of the population expressing concerns about the wisdom of government officials and the correctness of government policies.
The momentum behind the rise of cryptocurrencies is being fueled by populist aspirations to decentralize finance in the name of democracy — in radical defiance of central bank polices that are perceived as favoring big investors, big business, and big government.
Even as the Fed appears to be signaling its willingness to comply with a progressive agenda that would enlist our nation’s central bank in efforts to focus on climate change or systematic racism, there is growing skepticism that the solution to such problems is to be found in Fed purchases of Treasury debt and government-backed mortgage securities.
In short, while economists and policy makers bicker about the implications of an inflation number that raised eyebrows for some, bile for others, and now has become a marker for questioning the infallibility of government management of the economy, most Americans are left wondering what it means for their own financial well-being and prospects.
Some may even start questioning whether Fed officials’ insistence that being “patient” about tolerating higher inflation “for some time” until there is “substantial progress toward our goals” provides meaningful forward guidance.