Fed Ties Its Own Hands

It’s been obvious for quite some time now that with a Republican-controlled House making fiscal measures to boost the economy impossible, monetary policy is the only instrument left to provide any short-term boost. And the Fed continues to watch the stagnant economy complacently.

The standard explanation is that Ben Bernanke is simply following his prime mission of worrying about possible inflation. But as economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers explain in a Bloomberg column, the Fed is actually ignoring its own “dual-mandate” policies in an apparent effort to keep inflation well below its supposed target:

The point is that the Fed’s usual excuse — that it’s hard to nail two goals with just one instrument — doesn’t apply. In normal times, the debate over monetary policy is between “hawks” who want the Fed to emphasize its inflation target, and “doves” who want it to focus on lowering unemployment. But there’s no debate here — more accommodative monetary policy would help achieve the goals for both inflation and unemployment.

The major thing to understand is that “inflation” is not one of the seven deadly sins; it’s simply a number. Zero inflation–or actual deflation–is not some sort of virtue (though it might seem that way to creditors); it’s a vice. So as Stevenson and Wolfers say, the Fed, by tying its own hands, is failing to implement both of its policy mandates. And they sure picked the worst possible time to do so.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.