Why central banks will just keep getting weaker

Mario I. Blejer, former governor of the Central Bank of Argentina, on independence.

The global financial crisis has raised fundamental questions regarding central banks’ mandates. Over the past few decades, most central banks have focused on price stability as their single and overriding objective. This focus supported the ascendancy of “inflation-targeting” as the favoured monetary policy framework and, in turn, led to operational independence for central banks. The policy was a success: the discipline imposed by strict and rigorous concentration on a sole objective enabled policymakers to control – and then conquer – inflation.

But, as a consequence of this narrow approach, policymakers disregarded the formation of asset- and commodity-price bubbles, and overlooked the resulting banking-sector instability. This, by itself, calls for a review of the overall efficacy of inflation-targeting. Moreover, after the financial crisis erupted, central banks were increasingly compelled to depart from inflation targeting, and to implement myriad unconventional monetary policies in order to ameliorate the consequences of the crash and facilitate economic recovery.

With advanced economies struggling to avoid financial collapse, escape recession, reduce unemployment, and restore growth, central banks are being called upon to address, sometimes simultaneously, growing imbalances. This has triggered a search for a radical redefinition of central banks’ objectives – and has cast doubt on the appropriateness of maintaining their independence.

In particular, central banks’ behavior during the crisis has called into question whether inflation-targeting is an effective framework in the presence of systemic shocks, and, more broadly, whether it can be sustained throughout economic cycles. After all, a policy regime that sets aside its only goal during a crisis seems to lack the ability to cope with unexpected challenges. Critics identify this “crisis straitjacket syndrome” as the main problem with single-minded inflation targeting.

While theoretical arguments can be made to justify recent departures from policy, the reality is that in the post-crisis world, advanced-country central banks’ goals are no longer limited to price stability. In the United States, the Federal Reserve has essentially adopted a quantitative employment target, with nominal GDP targets and other variations under discussion in other countries. And financial stability is again a central-bank responsibility, including for the more conservative European Central Bank.

This shift toward multiple policy objectives inevitably reduces central-bank independence. Some analysts have recently claimed that this is because the pursuit of GDP growth, job creation, and financial stability, as well as the establishment of priorities when there are tradeoffs, clearly requires political decisions, which should not be made by unelected officials alone. Moreover, by pushing interest rates toward zero, the current policy of quantitative easing (increasing money supply by buying government securities) has strong, often regressive, income effects. Opponents of central-bank independence contend that, given the allocational and distributional consequences of current monetary-policy interventions, central banks’ decision-making should be subject to political control.

But this argument neglects an important point. While it is true that multiple policy targets tend to increase the political sensitivity of central banks’ decisions, concentrating only on price stability also has important distributional consequences and political implications. In fact, politicisation is a matter of scale, not a substantive transformation of monetary policymaking.

The real reason why central-bank independence tends to create a democratic deficit under a multi-target monetary-policy regime, and why it has become increasingly vulnerable, is that the two main arguments in favor of it no longer apply.

The first argument in favor of central-bank independence is that, without it, politicians can exploit expansionary monetary policy’s positive short-run effects at election time, without regard for its long-run inflationary consequences. (By contrast, fiscal and exchange-rate policies rarely imply comparable temporal trade-offs, and thus are difficult to exploit for political gain.) But this argument becomes irrelevant when ensuring price stability is no longer monetary policymakers’ sole task.

The second argument for institutional independence is that central banks have a clear comparative advantage in dealing with monetary issues, and can therefore be trusted to pursue their targets independently. But this advantage does not extend to other policy areas.

Given that central banks are likely to continue to pursue multiple objectives for a long time, their independence will continue to erode. As long as governments do not encroach excessively on central-bank decision-making, this development will restore balance in policymaking and support policy coordination, particularly in times of stress.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage