The Stealth Candidate
On the morning after, people awoke to the drear prospect of "gush and bore" for the next six months, and excitement flew out the window. No reason to despair--we can refocus mental energies on another, more significant campaign running in the shadows of the presidential colors. The shadow candidate in Election 2000 is Alan Greenspan, and his single-issue purpose is to subdue the country's booming prosperity, just when people of modest means are getting a taste. He intends to put the super bull market to sleep, to increase unemployment and force default upon many humble debtors, maybe some big ones too. All this for our own good, we will be assured. Greenspan is promising to raise interest rates, again and again if necessary, to brake economic growth until it slows substantially, perhaps by half or more. His public rationale is a pre-emptory strike against inflation (although prices remain remarkably stable despite the boom). His true worry is the wildly inflated bubble in the stock market, which he presumes will subside gently as he slows the economy and corporate profits decline. But this campaign puts all of us at risk: If Greenspan has it wrong, Wall Street could crash or the country might tip into a nasty election-year recession. Can he do that? Yes, because the chairman of the Federal Reserve is not elected and does not consult the citizenry or even honestly inform them about his objectives. Americans who pay attention during the next few months are going to get a brusque civics lesson. They will glimpse the shallowness of our electoral democracy, the impotence of presidential candidates compared with this mysterious, unaccountable institution that governs the nation on behalf of money.
Imagine, now that the primaries have lost their suspense, if the media decided to turn the glaring coverage on Greenspan's campaign. TV crews could follow him around, shouting rude questions: How do you feel about all those people losing their jobs? When are you going to stop this bloody war against nonexistent inflation? Chatter shows on cable TV could recruit nightly panels of provocative voices--labor union economists, car dealers, failed stockbrokers--to provide hot commentary. Political reporters, who, as usual, would be bored by "the issues," might discover there's a gossipy horse-race drama. Is Alan Greenspan trying to make amends to the Bush family? Back in 1992, the chairman's tightfisted management produced the stagnation that helped defeat Bush Sr. (the one-term President went home to Texas convinced he would have beaten Bill Clinton if not for Greenspan). This year, the Fed Chairman has a good shot at electing the son.
Democrats will be howling soon, as they grasp the implications for Al Gore, but accusations of partisan bias at the Fed are unfair and mostly wrong. The central bank is so aloof from democracy that its power has crumpled presidential candidates from both parties over the years (Richard Nixon in 1960, Jimmy Carter in 1980). The major exception is 1972, when Chairman Arthur Burns pumped up the economy vigorously to boost his old friend Nixon's re-election. This year, Greenspan intends, at a minimum, to take the glow off Gore's best feel-good issue--the economy, the stock market. If the Fed overshoots and induces an abrupt recession, Gore's candidacy could encounter the tart flavor of poetic justice. From the beginning, Clinton/Gore have silently, slavishly deferred to Greenspan's conservative wisdom. Now he is rewarding their obedience.
The press, of course, is utterly deferential to the Federal Reserve and much too timid to provide the kind of robust coverage a real democracy would expect. But so are most politicians. Both groups understand, viscerally if not intellectually, that monetary policy is the taboo subject of US politics, protected by mystification but also by its awesome power and political relationships. The Fed obfuscates and intimidates behind a mask of disinterested technocratic expertise, while powerful constituencies (banking and finance, the wealth-holders) police the boundaries of respectable thought. This is a very masculine institution (no bleeding hearts allowed), and the Chairman plays the role of wise, stern father who must occasionally punish the children for misbehavior. This odd governing arrangement, quite literally, infantilizes citizens and repudiates the ethos of self-government.
The economic spectacle we are about to witness is what Thorstein Veblen called "the slaughter of the innocents." The tides of capitalism, he observed, require periodically a ritual of purposeful destruction, clearing away debris and excess from the system. This process is inescapably barbaric, Veblen explained, since it always imposes the loss and suffering first and most severely on the least among us. If Greenspan succeeds in achieving a "soft landing," most of us will not feel much pain, except maybe a deflated sense of personal wealth, but many others will be sacrificially unemployed or worse. If Greenspan inadvertently triggers a larger wave of climactic destruction, then many more of us will experience the harsh therapy by which capitalism cleanses itself.
Shouldn't Americans be talking about this? At the next candidates' forum, why not ask Gore or Bush to explain his own powerlessness?