Bernanke critics are on the attack (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
What is the most likely cause of civil unrest today? Immigration. Gay marriage. Abortion. The results of Election Day. The mosque at Ground Zero. Nope.
Try the Federal Reserve. Nov. 3 is when the Federal Reserve’s next policy committee meeting ends, and if you thought this was just another boring money meeting you would be wrong. It could be the most important meeting in the Fed’s history, maybe. The U.S. central bank is expected to announce its next move to boost the faltering economic recovery. To say there has been considerable debate and anxiety among Fed watchers about what the central bank should do would be an understatement. Chairman Ben Bernanke has indicated in recent speeches that the central bank plans to try to drive down already low interest rates by buying up long-term bonds. A number of people both inside the Fed and out believe this is the wrong move. But one website seems to indicate that Ben’s plan might actually lead to armed conflict. Last week, a post on the blog Zero Hedge said, paraphrasing top economic forecaster David Rosenberg, that the Fed’s plan is not only moronic, but “positions US society one step closer to civil war if not worse.” (See photos inside the world of Ben Bernanke)
I’m not sure what “if not worse,” is supposed to mean. But with the Tea Party gaining followers, the idea of civil war over economic issues doesn’t seem that far-fetched these days. And Ron Paul definitely thinks the Fed should be ended. In TIME’s recent cover story on the militia movement, many said these groups are powder kegs looking for a catalyst. So why not a Fed policy committee meeting? Still, I’m not convinced we are headed for Fedamageddon. That being said, the Fed’s early November meeting is an important one. Here’s why:
Usually, there is generally a consensus about what the Federal Reserve should do. When the economy is weak, the Fed cuts short-term interest rates to spur borrowing and economic activity. When the economy is strong and inflation is rising, it does the opposite. But nearly two years after the Fed cut short-term interest rates to basically zero, more and more economists are questioning whether the U.S. central bank is making the right moves. The economy is still very weak, and unemployment seems stubbornly stuck near 10%.
The problem is that the Fed directly sets only short-term interest rates. And they are already about as close to zero as you can go. That’s why Bernanke has been talking about something called “quantitative easing.” That’s when the Fed basically creates money to buy the long-term bonds that it doesn’t directly control and drives down those interest rates as well. That should further reduce the cost of borrowing for large companies and homeowners. Some people are calling this “QE2” because the Fed made a similar move during the height of the financial crisis when it bought mortgage bonds. (See photos of the Tea Party movement)
Not everyone agrees this is a good move. In fact, a number of presidents of regional Fed banks, not all of which get to vote at Fed policy meetings, have recently come out against Bernanke’s plan. Some say it sets bad policy. Others think it will stoke inflation, which might be the point. Few, though, have warned of armed conflict. Here’s how Zero Hedge justifies its prediction of why the Fed’s Nov. 3 meeting will lead to violence:
In a very real sense, Bernanke is throwing Granny and Grandpa down the stairs – on purpose. He is literally threatening those at the lower end of the economic strata, along with all who are retired, with starvation and death, and in a just nation where the rule of law controlled instead of being abused by the kleptocrats he would be facing charges of Seditious Conspiracy, as his policies will inevitably lead to the destruction of our republic.
O.K. The idea that Bernanke might kill large swaths of low-income neighborhoods or Florida by his plan to further lower interest rates is a little ridiculous. But there is a point in Zero Hedge’s crazy. Lower rates do tend to favor borrowers over savers. And the largest borrowers in the country are banks, speculators and large corporations. The largest spenders in the U.S., though, tend to be individuals. Consumer spending makes up 70% of the economy. And the vast majority of consumers are on the low end of the income scale. So I think it is a valid question to ask whether the Fed’s desire to drive down interest rates at all costs is working. Companies are already borrowing at low rates. They are just not spending. (Read a special report on the financial crisis blame game)
That being said, civil war, probably not. “It is a gross exaggeration,” says Allan Meltzer, who is a top Fed historian at Carnegie Mellon. “I cannot recall ever learning about riots or civil war even when the Fed made other mistakes.” When I called, David Rosenberg was traveling and couldn’t talk, but he did send me a quick e-mail to stress that he has never, ever suggested that any moves the Fed makes will lead to a militia uprising.
Some smart people, though, including Meltzer, it appears, and Rosenberg do think the path of quantitative easing that the Fed looks likely to embark on is the wrong move. John Taylor, a top Fed scholar at Stanford, says eventually, you will have to pull the support out, and when you do a year from now when the economy is recovering he thinks it could be quite disruptive. So even if you don’t double-dip now, you might double-dip then. And even if you don’t, it would make for a slow recovery. Others, like Raghuram Rajan, who became famous for warning about the possibility of a financial crisis back in 2005, believe low interest rates could be creating new bubbles in, say, gold or commodities.
So it seems clear what the Fed is likely to do. How the economy, the militias and the rest of us react is up in the air. The countdown is on. T-minus 15 days to Fedamageddon. See you then, hopefully.
More on Time.com:
Photos: A Brief History of the Federal Reserve Bank
TIME’s Person of the Year 2009: Ben Bernanke
The Winners and Losers of the Wall Street Mess