The Fed’s Main Job Is Jobs, And A Coalition Plans To Keep It On Task

Isaiah J. Poole

A lot of eyes will be on the Federal Reserve Friday when the Labor Department releases its August unemployment statistics. But where will the Fed’s eyes be focused? A group of activists are planning the next steps of their effort to keep the Fed focused on the continuing unemployment crisis, and keep the Fed from taking actions that will make things worse for millions still seeking work.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” said Shawn Sebastian of the Center for Popular Democracy, who was part of a group of activists and unemployed people who confronted members of the Fed at last month’s economic summit in Jackson Hole, Wyo. That includes following up on a promise by Fed chair Janet Yellen to meet with the group in Washington and pressing a more detailed plan for how the Fed should proceed to help the Main Street economy grow.

“We are going to be looking at the full range of policy options,” Sebastian said.

The “inflation hawks” were poised to seize the narrative when the members of the Fed attended the Jackson Hole summit. These Fed members, egged on by conservative academics and policymakers, want the Fed to put the brakes on economic growth and turn its attention to fighting inflation, even though there are no signs that inflation is an imminent threat. On the contrary, wages as a percentage of economic output are at their lowest level since the late 1940s (while corporate profits as a share of the economy are at record highs), one sign that there are far more people looking for work than there are jobs for them.

What the hawks did not count on was the Center for Popular Democracy’s ragtag group of 10 unemployed people and activist supporters. They trekked to Jackson Hole to confront Fed members with their stories of struggling to find decent jobs, along with a demand that the Fed not abandon its unfinished role in rebuilding the middle-class economy, in the form of a letter endorsed by more than 70 organizations. Their biggest success, Sebastian said, was a two-hour meeting with Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank President Esther George, who just before Jackson Hole said in an interview with CNBC that it was time for the Fed to begin thinking about raising interest rates “when you see the economy getting as close as we are to full employment.”

But Sebastian and his group told George that the economy was nowhere near full employment and that the analysis of the inflation hawks was “lacking in relevance, substance and rigor.” One member of the group told of how she went from being an MBA who had risen to a management job over 15 years to being laid off and unable to find work for months, finally settling for a job that paid half as much as the job she lost.

It’s not clear what substantive effect hearing these stories had on George and other inflation hawks on the Fed, Sebastian said. “But I do hope we contributed to her thinking and we also started an engagement” with the Fed, he said. Fed members now know that when they discuss economic policy, “you can’t make decisions without public scrutiny anymore, because we’re paying attention now.”

One of the ideas that the group will refine and attempt to build consensus around would have the Fed invest directly in infrastructure bonds and similar government instruments, in much the same way that it purchased billions in bonds to prop up the financial sector in the years following the 2008 financial crash. The bond-purchasing program, known as quantitative easing, helped boost Wall Street share prices, according to most experts, but had no direct effect on job-creation or on bringing the economic recovery to communities around the country hardest hit by the crash – as the nation has now vividly seen in Ferguson, Mo.

Having the Fed directly buy bonds that would enable federal, state or local governments to fund transportation projects, school construction or other public facilities would put the Fed’s power to work in ways that directly creates jobs in the short run and assets that enhance the nation’s competitiveness and well-being in the long run.

The Fed could also better use its regulatory authority to prod the banks to pour into the economy the close to $2 trillion that is now sitting in its vaults. That hoarded cash could be put to work creating jobs and lifting the wages of working-class people.

Whatever policies take shape during the next phase of the Center for Popular Democracy’s campaign to keep the Fed focused on full employment, Sebastian says that the opening round has been a success in sending the message that “we’re not in an inflation crisis … we are in an unemployment crisis. You can’t ignore an ongoing crisis for the sake of a ghost of inflation that may or may not appear.”

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