A few years ago, shortly after the 2008 subprime lending disaster, the Fed sent a public relations team around the country to conduct supposedly “educational sessions” about how the Fed works and the wonderful things it does. The public was invited, and there was a question and answer session at the end of the presentation. One such session was held in Des Moines, Iowa. At the time I was teaching a course in Austrian economics at the University of Iowa, so I lusted at the prospect of hearing complete nonsense and having a shot at asking a question. I was not disappointed.
The educational part of the session lasted about an hour, and it became clear to me that the panel of four knew almost nothing about monetary theory. They may even have been hired especially for this grand tour, because all were relatively young, well scrubbed, and very personable–let’s face it, not your typical Fed monetary policy wonks or bank examiners! The panelists discussed only one of the Fed’s two remits–its remit to promote the economic advancement of the nation. Its other remit is to safeguard the monetary system. However, the panelists did touched upon the Fed’s control of interest rates and ensuring that money continued to flow to housing and other high profile areas of the economy.
Finally, at the end of the presentation, those with questions were asked to form a queue and advance one at a time to a microphone. I was last in a line of about a dozen. Here’s my recollection of what followed:
Me: You say that you (the Fed) have the power to increase the money supply. Is that right?
Me: And you have indeed increased the money supply. Is that right?
Me: And the money that you create was generated out of thin air. It wasn’t there before, but it’s there now. Is that right?
Fed (Getting nervous): Yes.
Me: And you say that creating this money out of thin air is beneficial to the economy. Is that right?
Fed (Now nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof): Yes.
Me: Then why do you prosecute counterfeiters?
(The audience, after a few seconds’ delay,: Yeah, why DO you prosecute counterfeiters?)
Fed: This meeting is closed.
My point is that there is no difference in the economic consequences to society between the Fed creating money out of thin air and a counterfeiter doing the same thing. The difference is solely legal and one of scale. Private counterfeiters are punished, and rightly so, whereas the Fed is lauded for its actions.
Counterfeiters are punished because printing money is the same thing as stealing. A counterfeiter does not print money only to stuff it under his mattress in order to feel wealthy. He knows that he needs to pass his fake money on to someone else in exchange for some valuable good or service. In this recent Mises Wire article,Frank Shostak refers to such action as getting something for nothing. Richard Cantillon observed that the first receivers of the new money benefit at the expense of all subsequent receivers — the Cantillon Effect. In arecent Mises Wire article Carmen Elena Dorobat explained that the Cantillon Effect can extend internationally. Therefore, nations accepting dollars for payment in the later stages of fiat money expansion suffer a transfer of wealth to the early receivers of the new dollars, mostly the banks and their customers in the US.
Some may respond that, “Yes, it is true that the government abrogates to itself and itself alone the power to print money out of thin air, but it abrogates many powers to itself and itself alone. The power to print money out of thin air is just one of them.” Let’s take two examples — the power to wage war and the power to force some to fund welfare for the benefit of others . The difference is one of ethics vs. consequences.
No civilized government allows its citizens on their own volition to kill foreigners. Yet in times of war government will order its citizens to kill foreigners and actually reward them — usually with honors rather than money — for doing so. Likewise no civilized government allows its citizens to decide for themselves that the wealthier members of society must pay the less fortunate. In other words you or I cannot approach a wealthy person and force him, at the point of a gun, to hand money over to some who are less wealthy. Society would collapse into a Hobbesian anarchy of a war of all against all.
Ethics vs. Consequences
Yet most of us accept, even if reluctantly, that government can force us to go to war and force us to pay taxes to fund welfare programs. The key is that government does not claim that the consequences are different; i.e., if Americans kill foreigners, the consequences are the same whether as a private citizens or as a soldier — foreigners die. Likewise, if as a private citizen I play Robin Hood and take from the rich and give to the poor, the consequences are the same if the government does it via taxes. But in the case of money printing out of thin air, the government claims that only good results accrue from its actions yet bad results accrue from private actions. Have you ever heard a government official claim that, yes, money printing does indeed cause misallocation of resources and, yes, it does indeed cause a net loss to society, but its actions are necessary in order to benefit…fill-in-the-blank? Of course not. One only hears how wonderful the Fed is that it has created money out of thin air in order to prime the economic pump, so to speak, or some such nonsense. The private counterfeiter steals from others for his own or his cohorts’ benefit, but the Fed claims that it’s absolutely similar actions have only good results for everyone in society.
Hiding the Truth with Statistics
The Fed tries to mask the wealth destructive effects of its money printing by focusing on the benefits accrued to some targeted economic sectors, such as housing. Statistics will show that the targeted beneficiary did in fact gain from monetary expansion. But the Fed ignores the cost to the rest of the economy, which is widespread and nearly impossible to measure. This is commonly referred to as concentration of benefit and dispersion of cost. One can quantify the former but not the latter. In reality no net wealth was created. In fact wealth was destroyed. Money printing disrupts the structure of production and causes malinvestment that must eventually be liquidated and never recovered. In other words, the losers on aggregate lose more than the winners gain.
The Cantillon Effect and resultant temporary boom are apparent when the counterfeiter acts locally. He buys big, flashy cars and lives large until merchants realize that they have accepted phony money. They are the losers. Even if the counterfeiter’s money is not detected but continues to pass from hand to hand the same as other legal tender, the structure of production will be permanently disrupted and capital will be consumed. Just remember Professor Shotak’s lesson that, since counterfeiters get something for nothing, wealth will be consumed.
The pernicious effect of the local counterfeiter pales in comparison with the Fed. A local counterfeiter may be able to pass several thousand dollars or even a million dollars of phony money, but in the nineteen years from January 2000 to January 2019 the Fed has increased the monetary base — bank reserves plus cash in circulation, over which the Fed has absolute control — from $0.591 trillion to $3.323 trillion. That’s an increase of almost three trillion dollars! Yet the Fed tours the country touting its wonders to mostly fawning audiences…except perhaps in Des Moines, Iowa.