Judy Shelton’s long and bumpy Federal Reserve nomination cleared an important hurdle last week when the Senate Banking Committee voted on party lines to send her for final consideration before the full Senate. Right away, Shelton’s nomination received pushback from the resistance wing of the Republican Party, with Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski going on the record as opposing her nomination. With unanimous Democratic objection to Shelton, it would take just two more Republican dissenters to eliminate the most interesting Federal Reserve nominee in recent history.
While it’s easy to simplify the political intrigue as just yet another inner-DC Trump proxy war, the battle over Judy Shelton’s nomination - particularly in the context of the Fed’s actions over the last few months - is very useful as an illustration of our wise senators’ remarkably shallow grasp of monetary policy. It is true that there are reasonable criticisms of some of Shelton’s past work, including her more recent pivot toward a more Trump-friendly championing of an interest rate cut last summer. However, these criticisms seem trite in a world where the Fed is engaging in unprecedented actions, such as buying up corporate junk bonds and utilizing BlackRock to effectively nationalize large parts of America’s financial market.
It is noteworthy that many of Shelton’s loudest critics have been completely silent on this matter.
One of the most common critiques waged against Dr. Shelton is that she would be a political loyalist and has questioned the value of Fed political independence. Ignoring the fact that documented American history has shown the notion of “Fed independence” to be a noble myth, I am curious to know what a politicized Fed would look like in practice. After all, the Fed has long tossed aside its traditional policy tools in no small part so that it can accommodate the political decisions made by the legislative and executive branches.
The proudly independent Jerome Powell had already bent the knee to the White House’s wishes when he failed to follow through with a gradual reduction of the Fed’s balance sheet as stock market turbulence created political headaches. Naturally, there were no cries then from the faux populist Sherrod Brown, who has long been in lockstep with fellow progressives in opposing any sort of monetary tightening. It is unclear whether these alleged working-class champions are intentionally advocating for policy that enriches the billionaire dollar class by boosting financial asset prices, or whether they simply don’t understand the real-world consequences of what they parrot in public hearings.
Among Dr. Shelton’s Republican critics has been Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, who made the snide comment that “Nobody wants anybody on the Federal Reserve that has a fatal attraction to nutty ideas” following her testimony in February. Unfortunately, that seems to be precisely what we have, with a Federal Reserve engaging in levels of economic intervention beyond anything America has seen. Rather than rail against Jerome Powell’s apparent dedication to turning America into Japan, during the last Senate oversight hearing he asked a few courteous questions of our wise Fed chair and signed off early.
In Senator Kennedy’s defense, it’s easy to take silly potshots at a public figure who has become something of a pinata to a certain class of Serious People in American financial punditry. It’s much harder to be a critic of America’s central banker at a time of crisis when elected officials are struggling to keep up with daily news. But it is precisely the fact that legislators are utterly ill-equipped to provide serious checks on Federal Reserve “expertise” that someone like Dr. Shelton would be the rare plus to the Fed’s board.
While it is unlikely that if confirmed Dr. Shelton would masterfully reveal that she is actually the gold bug the media has depicted her as, what is clear is that she would give the Federal Reserve something it desperately needs—ideological diversity. This is also why Very Serious People hate her. Shelton’s willingness to challenge the deified “PhD” standard of modern fiat money and question such sacred cows as Fed independence makes her a potentially dangerous threat to the groupthink that has become far too pervasive in central banks. Dr. Shelton understands the dangers of central banks becoming de facto central planners in modern economies, and she understands the valuable role that gold played in past monetary systems. She reads and respects the ideas of serious heterodox monetary scholars whose perspectives have long been completely ignored within Fed deliberations. She even received her education in places like Portland and Utah, quite a different resume from most of her Ivy League–trained colleagues.
If confirmed, will Judy Shelton be a revolutionary force within America’s central bank? Almost certainly not. Just as no election will truly drain the swamp in Washington, no Fed nominee is going to restore humility to the Eccles Building.
Instead, Shelton’s nomination is best seen as a litmus test for Republican senators. Are you interested in actually promoting ideological diversity within American institutions, or are you simply willing to stand with the academic gatekeepers that have given us the Federal Leviathan that we have today?
We know where Mitt Romney and Susan Collins stand. We shall soon see where the rest of their colleagues fall.