Progressive counter-pressure for the Fed?

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests have been spreading. In Chicago, protestors have gathered around the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank. Again, the protestors seem to have chosen an awfully good symbolic venue – over the past two years, the Fed has been under ferocious political attack from conservative politicians who want them to stop trying to reduce unemployment with monetary policy. If the Occupy Chicago protests provide counter-pressure from more progressive perspectives, this would be a great thing.*

We’ve already noted the letter from four GOP leaders to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke last month demanding that he declare surrender in trying to help the faltering economy. This is just the latest in what has been a pretty remarkable effort by conservative politicians to stop the Fed from trying to boost the economy and to convince it to fret about the phantom danger of inflation.

It’s pretty telling that the best that prominent Democratic politicians have managed in response is some hand-wringing that such criticisms threaten the sanctity of central bank independence – essentially demanding that the GOP “leave Ben Bernanke alooooone!”

However, as Mike Konczal notes, even in the best of times, central bank independence as practiced by the Fed should hardly be a prime progressive demand. The Fed’s Open Market Committee – the body that sets the monetary policy direction of the economy – contains 12 slots. Seven of them are for Fed Governors (there are currently 2 vacancies on the Board of Governors), who are generally either economists or policymakers with some expertise in issues the Fed confronts. But five are set aside for presidents of the Fed’s regional reserve banks. These presidents are picked by the board of directors for each regional bank – and these boards are comprised of financial-sector (commercial bank) executives. Essentially, the finance sector gets to pick 5 of the 12 voting members of the FOMC. If one thinks that the interests of the financial sector are not necessarily the same as those of, say, unemployed workers (and I think they’re not) – perhaps the financial sector is more scared of inflation and less scared of unemployment – then central bank “independence” should probably be treated as less sacrosanct than it currently is in D.C.

Imagine, for example, that somebody demanded that the AFL-CIO get 5 voting slots on the FOMC. That would, of course, be considered absolutely crazy by those determined to preserve central bank independence as a principle (i.e., the vast majority of professional policymakers and analysts inside the Beltway). Of course, in practice, this would mean an FOMC that tried much, much harder to fight unemployment than the one we currently have, so crazy sounds pretty good to me.

Worse, this ingrained deflationary bias of the Fed is being reinforced in the current crisis by conservatives who want to abandon all the policy measures (fiscal, monetary and exchange-rate) that could actually help reduce joblessness. Some lonely (and admirable) voices calling on the Fed to do more are out there, but they’re few and far between (and sometimes working for the Bank of England, instead of the Fed).

Finally, however, there seems to be a little pushback. Besides Occupy Chicago, Massachusetss Representative Barney Frank wants to take away the voting power of the five rotating regional banks and replace them with political appointees that must be approved by the Senate. Given that the political appointees of the current Fed have consistently shown more concern over unemployment than their regional bank colleagues, this would be a good (if small) first step to privileging democracy over Fed “independence.”

*It’s true that the president of the Chicago Fed has been admirably aggressive in calling for more Fed action to reduce unemployment, especially relative to his other regional bank presidents. So, maybe protests can follow in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia?