By John Carney
July 17 (CNBC) — The Senate Banking Committee’s grilling of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke just got weird.
Senator Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat, proposed a novel theory of political management of the economy shortly before 11 am Tuesday morning.
The gist of the theory: If the elected branches of government cannot agree to act, the responsibility for the economy falls to the Fed.
Schumer’s argument amounted to the idea that that because disagreements between Republican and Democrats (and, of course, the political ambitions of members of both parties in a presidential election year) are blocking any agreement to provide fiscal relief to the economy, the Fed should “get to work.”
It’s tempting to say that this is the drunk’s theory of the bar tab.
The drunk has been drinking so much he can’t work—and therefore can’t afford to pay his tab. So it’s up to the bartender to pour another cocktail and extend the tab a bit longer.
But this would be insulting to drunks everywhere. The drunk actually understands the economics of the bar better than Schumer understands the difference between monetary and fiscal policy.
The economy right now suffers because the private sector is attempting to save more than it spends, mostly by paying down its enormous debt burden. Because everyone’s income comes from someone else’s spending, reduced overall spending results in income reduction. In our economy, that means higher unemployment.
If the economy is going to grow while households and businesses pay down their debts instead of spending, someone else must take the opposite side of the trade by growing spending more than its income.
With the rest of the world heading toward recession, the only plausible source of this added income is the government. In other words, the government must cut taxes relative to spending (or grow spending relative to taxes) to replace the lost income in the private sector.
What the economy certainly isn’t suffering from right now is a shortage of liquidity or a meager money supply. Which is to say, we’ve reached the limits of what the Fed can do to spur growth. (Although perhaps not the limits of what the Fed can do to fend off a sharp turn downward in the economy.)
To hear a member of the shirker branch of our government blame the Fed for not doing enough would be laughable if we weren’t living with the consequences of the shirking.
Sen. Schumer—and his fellow lawmakers—are the ones who should “get to work.”