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‘Inflation Dynamics’ With the Fed as Ringmaster

Step right up, folks. A threering circus on monetary policy is getting under way on Thursday at Jackson Hole, Wyo. Three conferences will be convening at the same time in the resort town, through Saturday, as the world waits for signs of whether the Federal Reserve will finally hike interest rates.

In the center ring, Federal Reserve brass will be gathering for the closed-door conference that is hosted annually by the Kansas City Fed. Janet Yellen is skipping the event, as chairs of the board of governors occasionally do. The town, though, will be full of her critics.

On the right, the American Principles Project will host a separate parley on the need to reform the monetary system by restoring the gold standard as the best route to full employment.

In the left ring, a third group, called Fed Up, will argue for placing a priority on job creation. The Washington Post reports that the organization’s “teach in” will cover “income inequality, efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and whether the Fed should invest in municipal bonds.”

The Fed and its critics will be gathering as a bill to establish a Centennial Monetary Commission goes to the floor of the House. The bill would establish a commission to examine the Fed as it begins its second century.

At the Fed’s conference—the theme is “Inflation Dynamics”— one speaker will be the Fed’s vice chairman, Stanley Fischer. Earlier this month, in an interview with Bloomberg News, he seemed to suggest that the dollar wasn’t losing value fast enough for the Fed’s taste.

MarketWatch headlined the interview as suggesting that a rate hike in September is “not a done deal.” The collapse of stock markets around the world in recent days, says USA Today, gives the Fed a “new excuse” not to raise interest rates.

No doubt Fed Up, part of the Center for Popular Democracy, will make the most of it. In addition to pressing for keeping interest rates near zero, the group is lobbying for more labor and consumer advocates on boards of regional Federal Reserve banks. Fed Up also wants easy money. “Fed policy has been too tight for the past 40 years,” Fed Up Director Ady Barkan emails me. “The commitment to keeping inflation low at all costs is what has led to the elevated levels of unemployment.”

The focus of the American Principles Project—with its gathering of economists, political leaders, bloggers and activists— will be less on what the Fed should do and more on whether central banks are the problem and how Congress should use its powers for reform.

I wonder whether there might be surprising convergence between the left and right camps. American Principles is also focusing on employment but sees as critical to job creation the return to a dollar that is an honest unit of account defined in law and backed by gold.

One of the group’s presenters, Marc Miles, is likely to report on a new study showing that higher interest rates correlate to job creation. Has the Fed pursued the wrong policies as it has used its mandate, legislated in 1978 with the passage of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, to boost employment?

When the law created the Fed’s so-called dual mandate by obliging the central bank to aim for full employment in addition to maintaining price stability, even the New York Times called the measure a “cruel hoax.” Considering whether to end the dual mandate is one of the questions that would be taken up by the Centennial Monetary Commission on which the House is preparing to vote.

So would the question of whether a rules-based system, such as that proposed by economics professor John Taylor, could solve the problem of fiat money that is not defined in law. Congress has already started looking at these matters.

Fed Chair Yellen has bridled at such ideas. Earlier this year she suggested that she would oppose any rule of monetary policy making. At Jackson Hole three years ago, then-Chairman Ben Bernanke warned Congress to, as the Drudge Report headlined it, “butt out” of interest-rate policy discussions.

The fear at the Fed is that Congress will politicize the formation of monetary policy. That strikes me as a weak line. The Constitution, which all Fed chairmen swear to support, grants monetary powers to Congress, precisely to the most political branch of the government.

We are approaching the end of a presidency that has been hobbled by an underperforming economy. No wonder the Fed’s most celebrated annual gathering is now bracketed by competing conferences that seek political reform of monetary policy. The big question is whether Congress and the presidential candidates are listening.

Source: Wall Street Journal Asia