Mitchell’s Musings 7-24-2017: Rand Paul Saves the Fed (from Himself)

20 Jul 2017 10:41 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 7-24-2017: Rand Paul Saves the Fed (from Himself)


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


In a musing a month ago, I noted that Democratic hopes may be unrealistic if the expectation is that voters will be so offended by Donald Trump – or so annoyed with his actions on health care or other issues – that they will defeat him if he runs again in 2020 (or, somewhat more likely, even give them control of one house of Congress in 2018). The argument I made was that unless the economy turns down, the urge to vote out an incumbent president may not be sufficiently strong.[1] Nothing is impossible, of course, but the issue is what is probable.


The economy is currently running at something close to full employment, inflation is low, etc. And there is nothing visible on the horizon that says the economy is on the verge of tanking. Meanwhile, the mail continues to be delivered, Social Security payments go out, and other federal services continue. If you are not a close follower of foreign affairs and/or domestic political news, everything seems normal. Election Day in November 2018 is not all that far away, so the clock is ticking on the prospect for some economic crisis to arise. And although the recovery from the Great Recession will be in old age in historical terms by 2018 or 2020, there is no theory that says that recoveries die of old age alone. There has to be a tangible cause.


Of course, apart from the economy, there is the Russia-thing, I argued in the earlier musing, and who knows what revelations are yet to come out? Maybe the discoveries will be so overwhelming that even normally uninterested swing voters will be forced to pay attention. Possibly, there could be enough shockers revealed to force an early exit of the president or some kind of 2018 or 2020 election upset. So it’s not wrong as a strategy for Democrats to concentrate on the Russia scandal; absent an economic downturn, it may be the best hope they’ve got at the moment.


But if you wanted to compose a scenario in which something could go wrong in the economy, you might look to the Federal Reserve and its monetary policy. The Fed could undertake actions that would trigger some kind of economic faltering. Fed monetary policy is the one active element in macroeconomic policy; fiscal policy in the hands of Congress seems to be on gridlocked autopilot. And, as it happens, current Fed chair Janet Yellen’s term (as chair) expires in early 2018.[2]


Because the Fed has the power to create money, there is a long history of suspicion of it in American politics. Money is supposed to be “real” somehow. People compete, toil, struggle, rob and steal for it. So how can it just be created out of nothing by some government entity? For years, former Congressman Ron Paul was the champion of such thinking. In the early 1980s, the incoming Reagan administration, as a sop to the wing of the Republican Party that goes in for anti-Fedism, even created a Gold Commission – with Ron Paul on it – ostensibly to consider going back on the gold standard.[3]


Father Ron Paul is largely off the political scene now, but son Rand Paul is in the US Senate and has inherited the anti-Fed mantle from Dad. The mantle shows up in his periodic calls to “audit” the Fed. Exactly what auditing the Fed means is not clear. I’m sure it would be found that the debits equal the credits in any audit. And the seeming mystery of how an entity has the God-like power to create something out of nothing would remain in place.


Shortly before Trump took office, Senator Paul seemed to think that the new president would be receptive to Fed auditing.[4] And, indeed, Paul had a Trump tweet from the campaign that suggested just such support:

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So one could imagine a scenario in which a Rand Paul-endorsed person, a monetary crank, was nominated by the president to replace Yellen. It is true that Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury likely wouldn’t be keen on any such appointment.[5] But Trump doesn’t always pay close attention to what his cabinet members think. And weird Fed policy instigated by a Paul-endorsed nominee could upset the markets, and even the economy, although maybe not in time for the election of November 2018.


But now the repeal-and-replace Obamacare effort in the Senate seems to have failed. And Rand Paul is a key villain in that failure. Republicans could lose no more than two yes votes for their health bill out of their 52 members in the Senate. Paul was one of the original two saying absolutely no. And while the president didn’t seem to be wedded to any particular version of health care “reform,” he did want to sign something that could be said to be repeal-and-replace, or even just repeal (with replacement put off beyond 2018).


The president doesn’t think highly of folks who thwart him. So the chances now for a Rand Paul acolyte as Fed chair, or even just a member, seem remote. And thus the prospects for a strange character at the Fed threatening to mess up the economy also seem remote. Critics may note that despite the recovery, the economy isn’t creating enough “good” jobs and rising pay. But it is creating jobs and maybe folks have gotten used to things “as is.” A recession would end that job creation and reverse it, with political consequences to follow. But from where would that recession come? Absent a deviant Fed, what would be the cause?


Footnotes

[1] http://employmentpolicy.org/page-1775968/4911683#sthash.8DZHhQcb.dpbs

[2] She could stay on as just one member of the Board of Governors, although Fed watchers consider that outcome unlikely.

[3] The Commission was essentially neutered and ended up writing a lengthy report. For a history, see http://www.anderson.ucla.edu/documents/areas/fac/hrob/mitchell_gold.pdf.  

[4] http://thehill.com/policy/finance/312662-audit-the-fed-bill-gets-new-push

[5] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-01-24/mnuchin-backs-fed-independence-and-signals-reform-isn-t-priority.  

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