If you thought Ryan's fiscal policy was bad, wait til you see his monetary policy

"Sound money", raising interest rates and Ayn Rand: he's got it all.

Now that Paul Ryan is coming under the sort of scrutiny which a member of the House of Representatives never gets – even a rising star saying all the right things – his reputation as a serious man with serious thoughts is falling apart.

Take the re-examination of his proposal, in 2008, to redefine the mandate of the Federal Reserve. Not problematic in itself; lots of people want to redefine the mandates of central banks. The most popular demand is insisting they switch from targeting low inflation to targeting nominal growth.

But Ryan wanted to change the Fed's mandate from its current dual requirement, to aim for low inflation and full employment, to one which only requires low inflation. He already clearly disapproves of fiscal stimulus, but it appears that he disapproves of monetary stimulus as well.

And in 2010, his explanation to Ezra Klein of how he would use monetary policy to help the economy was bizarre and plain wrong:

There’s a lot of capital parked out there, and we need to coax it out into the markets. I think literally that if we raised the federal funds rate by a point, it would help push money into the economy, as right now, the safest play is to stay with the federal money and federal paper.

As Mark Thoma puts it:

Basically, they are telling us that if a recession hits and they have their way, nothing will be done. Not a thing. No fiscal policy response (except perhaps austerity to make it worse), and no monetary response (except, if Ryan has his way, interest rate increases based upon a misunderstanding of how the economy works that would also make things worse).

Brad Plumer explains how the real heart of Ryan's monetary policy "isn’t quite a return to the long-abandoned gold standard, but it’s a roughly similar concept": anchoring the value of the dollar to a basket of commodities.

This is wingnut thinking, which Plumer argues can all be traced back to Ryan's love of Ayn Rand's terrible novel Atlas Shrugged:

In the passages that Ryan has highlighted, Rand’s characters lament that statists have destroyed all “objective standards” for currency by abandoning the gold standard and boosting the supply of paper money in order to assist the “looters and moochers.”

None of this is new; the writing was on the wall four years ago. But whereas proposing complicated-sounding economic measures is enough to get you a reputation of sorts in the House of Representative, it oughtn't be enough to maintain that reputation once you hit the big leagues. But Paul Krugman argues that the real reason for the Ryan pick is his uncanny ability to do just that:

Whence comes the Ryan reputation? As I said in my last post, it’s because many commentators want to tell a story about US politics that makes them feel and look good — a story in which both parties are equally at fault in our national stalemate, and in which said commentators stand above the fray. This story requires that there be good, honest, technically savvy conservative politicians, so that you can point to these politicians and say how much you admire them, even if you disagree with some of their ideas; after all, unless you lavish praise on some conservatives, you don’t come across as nobly even-handed.

And yet, implausibly, the Romney/Ryan ticket could, in the very short-term, be the best economic choice America has. Joe Weisenthal makes the case:

The biggest threat to the U.S. economy is the fiscal cliff. As Morgan Stanley's Adam Parker explained in a note today, there's a very plausible scenario where 5 percent of GDP is lopped off, and corporate profits get absolutely shredded. And this assumes that the debt ceiling is passed without creating a gigantic shock to the economy.

The best scenario for avoiding a fiscal cliff mess is to see Mitt Romney elected. As we argued back in early April, the surest way to get Republicans on board with ongoing deficits is for them to be the party in power again.

History seems to be pretty clear on one issue: Parties out of power favor austerity. Parties in power favor stimulus.

Weisenthal goes on to quote Josh Barro trying to guess Ryan's role in Romney's economic plan:

Conservatives are never fully going to trust Romney. If he comes to them with, say, economist Glenn Hubbard’s proposal to throw about a hundred billion taxpayer dollars at restructuring underwater home mortgages, they’re likely to resist.

But what if Vice President Paul Ryan makes the pitch? Won’t House Republicans be much more likely to conclude that mortgage bailouts actually are conservative?

I’m not suggesting that Ryan is going to throw conservatism entirely under the bus. Romney surely wants to do some things that Republicans in Congress will love and others they will be resistant to—only part of his economic plan is secret. So both sides of Ryan’s skill set will come into play.

In the end, even when a scenario is presented in which Ryan is actually good for the economy, it all comes back to his surface appeal. The man looks competent; he looks like a conservative, like someone who can be trusted, who has thought through his opinions, and hasn't based economic policy on a 55-year-old sci-fi novel.

He isn't, of course. But when's that ever stopped anyone?

Paul Ryan meets a baby. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit