We need serious public policy, not more printed money – the US economy is in tatters

<span>Photograph: Chris Wattie/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Chris Wattie/Reuters

With the Federal Reserve leading the world’s central banks in a tightening cycle of interest rate rises, the likes of which we haven’t seen since 2006, commentators across the political spectrum are noting the fondness of the Fed chair, Jerome “Jay” Powell, for his legendary predecessor, Paul Volcker. On the left, the comparison is fearful; on the center and on the right, it’s one of admiration. But circumstances don’t really support the comparison.

Related: Fed announces sixth consecutive hike in US interest rates to fight inflation

On taking office in October 1979, Volcker declared “the standard of living of the average American has to decline” as a consequence of the war against the chronic inflation of the 1970s. He quickly set to work making that happen by driving interest rates up towards 20% and creating the deepest US recession since the 1930s.

That squeeze did put an end to high inflation but at a tremendous social cost. Six million people lost their jobs over the next three years, taking the unemployment rate from 6% to almost 11% in late 1982. The cost wasn’t merely short-term. About half of those job losses were categorized as permanent, as opposed to being temporary layoffs, many of them in the manufacturing heartland. The term “rust belt” entered common usage.

Volcker was appointed by Jimmy Carter, who seemed to have no idea of what he was getting himself into. His friend and adviser, the Georgia banker Bert Lance, prophetically warned him that he was dooming his prospects in the 1980s election. But Carter listened to the consensus of Wall Street and the political class – Volcker was the man to tame inflation, which was running around 13% at the end of 1979. The US had seen inflation rates that high before, but never outside of major wars or their immediate aftermath. Inflation, which was under 2% in 1965, had been rising relentlessly for 15 years, barely pausing even in the nasty recession of the mid-1970s. Contrary to a belief popular on the left, that inflation was not kind to workers. Wages badly lagged prices, and real average hourly earnings fell 14% between 1973 and 1980.

A decade of cheap money papered over a lot of fundamental problems with the US economy

There are some similarities between the present and 40 years ago. Then, as now, food and energy prices were important factors in sparking inflation, but in both cases, even if you strip out those two volatile components, a severe inflation remains. And in both cases, polls have shown inflation to be deeply unpopular.

But there are also major differences, notably in the strength of labor. At the end of the 1970s, almost a quarter of all workers were unionized; now only about a tenth are. Then, an average of 22,000 workdays were lost to strikes every year; last year it was just 1,500 – a decline of 93%. The early 1980s recession hammered the bargaining power of the working class. Unions were busted, and we went from a time when Take This Job and Shove It could be a hit song (as it was in 1977) to one where workers were grateful to have any job at all, no matter how tenuous and low-paying. As the recession ended in late 1982, the stock market took off and the employer class began a 40-year celebration of its triumph.

That’s not the world Powell finds himself in. Inflation has been a problem for close to 15 months rather than 15 years, and although there are some tentative signs of life in the labor movement – notably at one Amazon site and a few hundred Starbucks outlets (out of 9,000) – the share of the labor force represented by unions fell last year, and strike activity so far in 2022 is about a third lower than in 2021. Unlike the inflation of the 1970s, this is not the wage-push kind (to use the jargon). It’s been driven first by supply chain blockages, thanks to Covid, and extended by embargoes against Russian energy exports, and most workers are just looking on helplessly as their paychecks fail to keep up with price increases.

Most workers are just looking by helplessly as their paychecks fail to keep up with price increases

There’s another difference as well: we’re coming off a decade of extremely indulgent monetary policy. Coming out of the Great Recession, the Fed kept short-term interest rates near zero between 2011 and 2021, with the brief exception when they pushed them up to just over 2% in 2017 and 2018 (still quite low by historical standards). On top of that, the central bank pumped over $3tn (£2.7tn) into the financial markets between 2008 and 2015, and almost $5tn between early 2020 and early 2022. The earlier pumping was meant to prevent a financial implosion after the sub-prime crisis, and the latter to counter the threats of the early pandemic months. But the result of both has been to stimulate crazy inflation in asset prices – stocks, crypto, unicorns, housing – a remarkable waste of capital and one that can be very risky to deflate. Decades of bailouts have convinced financial market players that the Fed will always come in to rescue them and reversing that mentality could require a Volckerish austerity for Wall Street – one that’s politically hard to imagine.

Related: The Fed’s interest rate hikes are going to hit the most vulnerable | Dean Baker

What Powell is up to now bears almost no resemblance to Volcker’s clampdown. The federal funds rate, the interest rate at which banks lend each other money overnight – that is the Fed’s most direct policy target – changed from just above 0% to just under 4% after raising the target rate another 0.75 points this week. That’s almost 15 points below the Volcker peak. In real terms – deducting the rate of inflation – Volcker’s peak was almost 10%, a lot higher. Right now, the real fed funds rate is around -4% (yes, that’s a negative sign). Powell may admire Volcker, but next to him, he’s a piker.

The debate over monetary policy overlooks a more important issue. That decade of cheap money papered over a lot of fundamental problems with the US economy: low levels of public and private investment, massive polarization between rich and poor and unstable employment for much of the labor force. These should be addressed with serious public policy, not by printing money. It would be nice if we talked about that, but given the degraded state of American political discourse, I’m not hopeful.

  • Doug Henwood is an economic journalist based in Brooklyn. His radio show, Behind the News, airs on KPFA radio in Berkeley, and is available on all the standard podcast outlets