Pity the Poor Fed

Economics, and politics. Pity the poor Federal Reserve.

Taxation, and spending. Taxation removes money from the system. Government spending replaces it in the economy. Done right, taxation can slow uncontrolled growth and spending can stimulate a sluggish economy. In so doing, taxation and spending can damp the boom-bust cycles that plagued the economies of nations a century ago. Cycles are still there, just not so damaging as the Great Depression turned out to be. Upturns and downturns we have; but we can generally prevent people from dying due to famine.

But taxation and spending are driven by politics.

Political interest is in turn driven by self interest; how to acquire money, and what is the money you’ve acquired worth? Inflation (adding money to the supply) decreases the value of the money already out there. Inflated money is easier to acquire but invariably buys less. That’s why inflation tends to hit people on fixed incomes, that is incomes that can’t adjust via such things as pay raises, hardest. It also means that people who have acquired money and squirreled it away really hate inflation; that money slowly loses value. Interest paid on saved money helps, but currently interest is actually less than the rate of inflation, so savings in the US lose value instead of gaining.

So politics ties up government as one group urges us to spend more and thereby stimulate the economy. Another group urges that we spend less and not borrow or tax to raise money that’s being spent. These two groups are usually driven by self interest at some level instead of the needs of a rationally managed economy.

And then there’s the Fed. Their purpose is to manage the economy. They attempt to do this by increasing or decreasing the money supply, and have been using something called Quantitative Easing to increase the money supply and thereby stimulate the economy. And even as they do this, politics is working to counter their activities by REDUCING the amount spent by government. Cutting spending is the mantra of the TeaPublicans in Congress, and even the Democrats are buying into this idea. According to Robert Kuttner, the Obama administration is committed to reducing government expenditures by $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years.

Note the problem here, which is the problem of government in general: no flexibility. The reduction is to take place regardless of what the economy is doing. The Fed at least meets quarterly and attempts to make adjustments based on what the economy is doing at the time; but political rhetoric is not so agile. Having convinced your supporters that taxation is the problem or that government spending is out of control, you’re not going to be able to change their minds.

Even if the politicians who use this to get themselves elected really do understand economics. And most of them are about as ignorant as the people who vote for them.

So it’s not so much that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing in our government; it’s that the right hand is actively countering what the left hand is up to.

Pity the poor Fed.

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