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Gerald Epstein

In the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2008, the United States and Europe are stuck in a state of political paralysis that is leading to a new norm of fiscal austerity, high unemployment, and, in the case of Europe, economic stagnation. With fiscal policy orientated around austerity it is the central banks – the Federal Reserve (the Fed) , the Bank of England (BOE) and the European Central Bank (ECB) – that remain the only macroeconomic authorities with the authority and political power to try to revive these struggling economies.

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Gerald Epstein

In the last two decades, there has been a global sea change in the theory and practice of central banking. The 'best practice' commonly prescribed by the international financial institutions and by many prominent economists, is the 'neo-liberal' approach to central banking (Epstein 2003). Its main components are: (1) central bank independence (2) a focus on inflation fighting (including adopting formal 'inflation targeting') and (3) the use of indirect methods of monetary policy (i.e., short-term interest rates as opposed to direct methods such as credit ceilings) (Bernanke et al. 1999).

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Gerald Epstein

The question “Why do central banks do what they do?” seems like an obviously important question, especially considering that political straitjackets limit countercyclical fiscal policy, leaving central banks as the dominant macroeconomic policy- making institution in most countries. Yet, mainstream macroeconomics has given very little thought to analyzing the economic and political sources of central bank goals and conduct. Rather, the implicit assumption of most mainstream analysis is that central banks try to make policy in the general interests of society as a whole. From this perspective, “poor” monetary policy stems from failures of theory, judgment or forecasting rather than from a lack of concern for the public interest.

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Gerald Epstein and Juliet B. Schor

Current debates over international coordination of macroeconomic policy pose interesting conundrums for our understanding of domestic monetary policy. For a number of years the United States has been exerting pressure on Japan and West Germany to pursue an easier monetary policy, and particularly in the case of the West Germans the United States has been unsuccessful. German officials cite fear of inflation as their rationale for a restrictive policy. Yet, last year, consumer prices fell in West Germany, casting suspicion on either the sincerity or wisdom of the German government's stance.

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Gerald Epstein

As Jerry Ford left the White House he handed Jimmy Carter three envelopes, instructing him to open them one at a time as problems became overwhelming. After a year, Carter opened the first envelope. It said, "attack Jerry Ford." He did. A year later, Carter opened the second envelope. It said, "attack the Federal Reserve." He did. Three years into his term, and even more overwhelmed by the economy, Iran, Afghanistan and so forth, Carter opened the third envelope. It said: "prepare three envelopes." Paul Volcker, January 1981

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Gerald Epstein

In August 1979, virtually everyone with wealth and in the know were trying to get out of dollars. They were buying gold. They were buying anything "real" they could get their hands on. The dollar was in a free fall. And after presiding over three years of rapid, but inflationary economic growth, so was Jimmy Carter.

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Gerald Epstein

The crucial significance of the Federal Reserve System in the making of U.S. macroeconomic policy has once again been made painfully apparent. The stagnation experienced by the U.S. economy since 1979 has, as its proximate cause, the restrictive monetary policies implemented by the U.S. central bank.

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Gerald Epstein and Juliet B. Schor

In 1913, The Federal Reserve Act established the Federal Reserve System as an independent central bank. The Federal Reserve's autonomy was overridden during the Second World War when the Federal Reserve agreed to maintain fixed interest rates on long-term government bonds and limit fluctuations in short-term interest rates. This agreement effectively meant that the Federal Reserve came to be dominated by the Treasury Department and, as a result, fiscal policy dominated monetary policy. More important, the World War II agreement meant that elected government officials, rather than the unelected members of the Federal Reserve System, controlled monetary policy for the first time in the history of the Federal Reserve. An unprecedented experiment in democratic, rather than banker, control of monetary policy was about to begin.

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Gerald Epstein

“Financialization” refers to the increasing importance of financial markets, financial motives, financial institutions, and financial elites in the operations of the economy and its governing institutions, both at the national and international levels. Many questions arise when considering the increased role of finance in the world economy. What are its dimensions? What is causing it? What impact is it having on income distribution within and between countries? What is its impact on economic growth? What impact is financialization having on the nature and distribution of political power within and between countries? What policies can be implemented to reduce the negative effects of financialization while preserving its positive effects, if there are any?

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Gerald Epstein

A controversy over the distributional impact of Federal Reserve monetary policy has erupted. Some politicians, pundits and even former central bankers have argued that, since the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) struck in 2008, the Federal Reserve’s near-zero interest rate policy and rounds of “unconventional” monetary policy have contributed to an increase in income and wealth inequality in the United States by promoting large increases in asset prices, and driving down returns to middle class savers with “money in the bank” (Brookings Institution, 2015). On the other side, former Federal Reserve Chairs Ben Bernanke, Janet Yellen, and others have argued that Fed policy has been broadly supportive of those at the bottom and in the middle of the income distribution, largely because policy placed a floor under the economic collapse, and, since then, has promoted economic recovery, employment creation, and economic growth (Appelbaum, 2015; Bernanke, 2015). This discussion is not just of historical interest: it interjects considerations of inequality into the very lively debate over whether the Federal Reserve should raise interest rates, and if so, by how much.