I’ve been recommending to friends the bestselling book by former Reagan Budget Director, David Stockman: The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America—a telling account of the twentieth-century’s monetary and political breakdown, and how mistakes begun in the Reagan era and perpetuated by the GOP helped bring about the global financial meltdown.
In this interview with the Mises Institute, Stockman discusses his book, the gold standard, bailouts, and the problems the American economy faces today.
David Stockman: Bernanke has cultivated this idea that he is a brilliant scholar of The Great Depression, but that’s not true at all. What Bernanke did was basically copy Milton Friedman’s misguided and very damaging theory that the Federal Reserve didn’t expand its balance sheet fast enough by massive open market purchases of government debt during the Great Depression. Bernanke therefore claimed that monetary stringency deepened and lengthened the depression, but in fact interest rates plummeted during the crucial 1930-1933 period: credit contracted due to genuine and widespread insolvencies in the agricultural districts and industrial boom towns, causing bank deposits to shrink as a passive consequence. So Bernanke had cause and effect upside down — a historical error that he replicated with reckless abandon in response to the bursting of the housing and credit bubble in 2008.
Friedman’s error about the great depression led him, albeit inadvertently, into the deep waters of statism. He claimed to be the tribune of free markets, but in urging Nixon to scrap the Bretton Woods gold standard he inaugurated the present era of fiat central banking. He held that the central banking branch of the state could improve upon the performance of the free market by targeting the correct level of M1 (money supply) and thereby ensure optimum performance of aggregate demand, real GDP, and inflation. That’s Keynesianism through the monetary control dials, and has led to outright monetary central planning under Greenspan, Bernanke, and most of the other central banks of the world today.
MI: You blame many of our current woes on the movement away from monetary and fiscal discipline started decades ago. Yet, why did it take so long for the U.S. economy to get into the deep trouble we’re in today? Have things gotten worse in recent years?
DS: Although central banking does cause moral hazards and lends itself to abuses, there have been periods in which monetary and fiscal discipline have been employed. Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin, for example, really did take the punch bowl away when the party got started because he took monetary discipline seriously. Fiscal discipline under Eisenhower and the gold standard behind Bretton Woods helped put off the day of reckoning for quite a long time. But fiscal discipline went out the window with Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and the elimination of the weak gold standard behind Bretton Woods certainly didn’t help. The deficit spending of the Reagan years made things even worse.
The Greenspan and Bernanke years then opened the door the massive abuse of the system we see today. Greenspan took the Federal Reserve, which for years had been run by far more cautious and conservative men, and turned it into a machine for fine-tuning every aspect of the economy. Bernanke has continued this, and taken it even further.
MI: Among many conservatives and Republicans, it is often claimed that the Reagan years were a victory for free markets and that the 1990s vindicated this strategy. Is this the case?
DS: In the early days of the Reagan years I thought, with many others, that the Reagan Revolution would in fact lead to smaller government. I turned out to be wrong, and politics overwhelmed any commitment Reagan had to making government smaller. The reality was huge growth in the deficit, more government spending, and the laying of the groundwork for the huge debt-based problems we have today.
During the Reagan years and since, the GOP has made peace with tinkering with the economy through the central bank, and joined the Democrats in wanting to gin up so-called aggregate demand and stimulate growth. Dick Cheney declared that deficits don’t matter, and the Republicans abandoned any serious commitment to taking a true hands-off approach to the economy.
In spite of this, the perception remains that the Reagan years were a period of laissez-faire, and this in turn has led to the myth that the fiscal indiscipline of the 1980s led to the boom of the nineties. In reality, the 1990s were a period of monetary profligacy, with a big expansion in the money supply under Greenspan, and a real acceleration in the Fed’s drive to manipulate economic growth and employment from the Fed. This in turn led to the dot-com bubble which burst in 2000-2001.
MI: We’ve been told that deregulation of the financial sector caused the 2008 crisis, and that a lack of regulation allows the “One Percent” to prosper while the “99 Percent” suffers.
DS: Fundamentally, the financial crisis was a product of the Fed’s repeated blowing up of bubbles, and not of deregulation. Moreover, any suffering inflicted on the 99 Percent by our system doesn’t come from the free market, it comes from the crony capitalism that is now our economic system. The Blackberry Panic of September 2008, in which Washington policy makers led by former Goldman Sachs CEO Hank Paulson, panicked as they saw Wall Street stock prices plummet on their mobile devices, had very little to do with the Main Street economy in the United States. The panic and bailouts that followed were really about protecting the bonuses and incomes of very wealthy and politically well-connected managers at banks and other heavily leveraged businesses that were eventually deemed too big to fail. What followed was a massive transfer of wealth from the taxpayers and middle-class savers, in the form of bailouts and zero interest rates on bank deposits imposed by the Fed, to the so-called One Percent.
As I show in my book, none of this was necessary to save the larger economy, since the losses that would have taken place as a result of the collapse would have been largely limited to Wall Street. What the bailouts did was preserve the wealth of wealthy and powerful Wall Street players. Meanwhile, we’ve seen no real economic recovery in the rest of the economy.
This transfer of wealth continues, by the way, in the form of relentlessly low interest rates, and an ongoing war by the Fed on safe and stable investment tools such as savings accounts and low-risk bonds. Indeed, this is a deliberate policy to get people away from these safer investments, and to get them investing in more volatile and higher yield investments. The idea is that the Fed can somehow force bigger returns on these riskier investments, and this will lead to a wealth effect. People will then think they’re richer, and we can then spend ourselves into a recovery. This is a terrible doctrine, but that’s what rules Washington right now. It actively works against middle-class people who want to work and save and invest their money responsibly and conservatively.
MI: It seems that the Fed today tries to manage everything from growth to employment to the mortgage rate. Has this always been the case?
DS: The Greenspan-Bernanke Fed has become a tool for central planning and manipulation of the economy, but it hasn’t always been that way. One way to reverse this dangerous and unstable deformation of policy would be to return to the vision of Carter Glass, and employ the Fed as a “banker’s bank.” In such a situation, the Fed takes its cues from the market. The market sets prices (i.e., interest rates on money and debt), and the Fed only provides additional liquidity, in exchange for sound collateral, at a penalty rate, when the banks needed liquidity.
The system we have now is one in which the Fed decides, through a Politburo of planners sitting in Washington, how much liquidity is necessary, what the interest rate should be, what the unemployment rate should be, and what economic growth should be.
There is no honest pricing left at all anywhere in the world because central banks everywhere manipulate and rig the price of all financial assets. We can’t even analyse the economy in the traditional sense anymore because so much of it depends not on market forces, but on the whims of people at the Fed.
DS: You’re not going to have legislation to change the mandate of the Fed, and I don’t see how you’ll get new people on the Fed who think differently from the current group. Even if you get rid of Bernanke, then you just get Janet Yellen. I just don’t see the political will right now to make any great reforms or cut spending significantly.
I think the political realities of the situation make the most likely scenario one in which there will be some kind of real financial collapse and disorder that will require a total reconstruction of the system. It’s impossible to say how that will be done, and this may be the chance to go back to a gold standard or to a very sharply circumscribed remit for central banks.
David Stockman was director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan, serving from 1981 until August 1985. He was the youngest cabinet member in the 20th century.
This post first appeared at Mises Daily.