washingtonpost.com / By George F. Will / February 28, 2013
A display case in the lobby of the Federal Reserve Bank here might express humility. The case holds a 99.9 percent pure gold bar weighing 401.75 troy ounces. Minted in 1952, when the price of gold was $35 an ounce, the bar was worth about $14,000. In 1978, when this bank acquired the bar, the average price of gold was $193.40 an ounce and the bar was worth about $78,000. Today, with gold selling for around $1,600 an ounce, it is worth about $642,800. If the Federal Reserve’s primary mission is to preserve the currency as a store of value, displaying the gold bar is an almost droll declaration: “Mission unaccomplished.”
Today the Fed’s second mission is to maximize employment, and Chairman Ben Bernanke construes the dual mandate as a single, capacious assignment — “promoting a healthy economy.” But the Fed’s hubris ignores the fact that it anticipated neither the Great Depression that began in 1929 nor the Great Recession that began five years ago. The Fed failed to cure the former, and today’s unprecedentedly anemic recovery — approximately 3 million fewer people are working than were five years ago — has failed to cure the latter: If the workforce participation rate were as high as it was when Barack Obama was first inaugurated, the unemployment rate would be 10.8 percent.
Jeffrey M. Lacker has become the Fed’s resident dissenter. As a voting member of the Federal Open Market Committee, Lacker, president of the regional bank here, has cast one-third of the dissents recorded during Bernanke’s seven years as chairman. Lacker, who has dissented at more than half the policy meetings where he has been a voting member, has done so in the name of institutional humility.
When he told the New York Times, “We’re at the limits of our understanding of how monetary policy affects the economy,” he was too polite. We are increasingly understanding the deleterious effects — political as well as economic — of very low interest rates for a very long time.