Elective Affinities in Institutional Design, 1951

[Note: this is a piece by Michalis Trepas, who you might recognize from the now-defunct NOL experiment “Be Our Guest.” Michalis is a newly-minted Notewriter, and this is the first of many more such pieces to come. -BC]

The Treasury and the Federal Reserve System have reached full accord with respect to debt-management and monetary policies to be pursued in furthering their common purpose to assure the successful financing of the Government’s requirements and, at the same time, to minimize monetization of the public debt.

– Joint announcement by the Secretary of the Treasury and the Chairman of the Board of Governors, and of the Federal Open Market Committee, of the Federal Reserve System, issued for release on Mar. 4, 1951

The Allied High Commission appreciates that these responsibilities [for the central bank] could not, without serious inconvenience, be given up so long as no legislation has been enacted establishing a competent Federal authority to assume them.

– Letter from the Allied High Commission to Chancellor Adenauer, Dated Mar. 6, 1951

A Financial Fable by Carl Barks, a short story starring Donald Duck and his duck-relatives, was published in Mar. 1951. It featured concepts like supply/ demand, money shocks, inflation and the ethics of productive labor, from a rather neoclassical perspective. Read today, it seems out of synch with the postwar paradigm of a subordinated monetary policy to the activist state and, more generally, with what came to be known as the Golden Age. As you have already probably noticed, this March also marks the 70th anniversary of two more instances against the currents of the time. It was back then that two main traditions of central bank independence – based on political consensus and judicial (“Chevron”) deference in the case of US, based on written law and judicial review in the case of Eurozone (read: Germany) – were (re)rooted. In the following lines, I offer an outline focused on institutional interplay, instead of then usual dramatis personae

The first instance is the well-known Treasury – FED Accord. Its importance warrants a mention in nearly every institutional discussion of modern central bank independence. The FED implemented an interest rates peg – kind of capping the yield curve – in 1942, to accommodate public debt management during World War II. The details were complicated, but we can still think of it as a convenient arrangement for the Executive. The policy continued into the early 50s, with the inflationary backdrop of the Korean War leading to tensions between a demanding Executive and an increasingly resistant central bank. Shortly after the dispute became more pronounced, reaching the media, the two institutions achieved a compromise. The austere paragraph cited above ended the interest rates peg and prompted a shift of thinking within – and without – the central bank, on monetary policy and its independence of fiscal needs.

The second one is definitely more obscure, and as such deserves a little more detail. The Bank deutscher Länder (BdL) was established in 1948, in the Allied territory of occupied Germany. It integrated central banking institutions, old and new, in a decentralized fashion á la US FED. Its creation underpinned the – generally successful – double reform of that year (a currency conversion with a simultaneous abolition of price controls), which reignited free market forces (and also initiated the de facto separation of the country). The Allied Banking Commission (ABC) supervised the BdL and retained the sole right to issue direct instructions, a choice more practical than doctrinal or ideological. As the ABC gradually allowed a greater leeway to the central bank, while fending off even indirect German political interventions, the resulting institutional setting provided for a relatively independent BdL. 

In late 1950, the Occupational Authority wanted out and an orderly transfer of powers required legislation from the Federal Government. Things deadlocked around the draft of the central bank law, the degrees of centralization and independence being the thorniest issues. The letter cited above, arriving after a few months of inertia, was the catalyst for action. The renewed negotiations concluded with the “Interim Law” of 10 Aug. 1951. The reformed BdL was made independent of instructions from the Federal Government, while at the same time assuming an obligation to support government’s general economic policy – without prejudice to its monetary duties. 

This institutional arrangement was akin to what the BdL itself had pushed for, a de jure formalization of its already de facto status. Keep in mind that the central bank enjoyed a head start in terms of reputation and experience versus the Federal Government, after all. But it can also be traced to the position articulated by the free market-oriented majority in the German quasi-governmental bodies back in 1948, a unique blend of explicit independence from/ cooperation with the government. The 1951 law effectively set the blueprint for the final central bank law, the Bundesbank Act of 1957. The underlying liberal creed echoed in the written report of the Chairman of the Committee for Money and Credit of the parliament:

The security of the currency… is the highest precondition for the retention of a market economy, and hence in the final analysis that of a free constitution for society and the state… [T]he note-issuing bank must be independent of these [political bodies] and subject only to the law.

The Financial Fable was the only story featuring Disney’s characters that made it to an important history of comics book, published in 1971. Around that time, the postwar consensus on macroeconomic stabilization policy was reaching its peak. A rethinking was already underway on the tools and goals of monetary policy, taking it away from the still garbled understanding of the period. It took another decade or so for both sides of the Atlantic to recalibrate their respective monetary policies. The accompanying modern central bank independence, with its foundations set in 1951, became a more salient – and popular – aspect a bit later.


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Dear Greeks:

I hear you can’t pay your debts again. I am a little sorry but you brought it on yourselves. A few reminders.

Your country is a democracy. The way you got into this pickle is through the stupid, self-indulgent policies of those you elected. You did it again in your last election by bringing to power a bragging leftist party in the old Stalinist mold. What did you think they would do: Frighten the European Union, The International Monetary Fund (Number one stockholder the US), Germany, the world, into submission, into erasing your debt? Think!

The reason Germany is your principal creditor is that one of your previous governments begged Germany for help and it agreed to help. The Germans did not cram loan after loan down your throat; you asked. The big sillies thought you would be honorable and pay up as agreed. Do you care about your future reputation, your honor, your children’s future ability to walk in the world with their heads up? Here is a basic rule of politeness which is also a moral rule: When somebody gives you a hand, you don’t bite it viciously.

There are several reasons your government can’t pay its debts. One reason is that your political class is corrupt trough and through. Another is that you are reluctant to pay taxes the way normal people do in the European Union. Too many Greeks want to work and pretend-work for the government instead of doing real work. And your government still owns stuff no government anywhere should ever own because governments always make a mess of running them, resorts, among others.

Another reason why your government can’t pay its bills is that your country is genuinely poor for a European country. There too, you have a lot of explaining to do. For one thing, you have been living above your means for a long time, pretending you were more or less like Danes, or Germans. Well, the truth is that you are not, not even close; Danes and Germans are very productive; you are not. So, you should not have ever expected to work short weeks and to take long summer vacations, like Danes and Germans. Such privileges do not come automatically with membership in the Union, you know. You should look over the border on the despised neighbors, the Turks, instead. They don’t pretend to themselves that they are already rich; they go to work early and they close their shops late. Many of them work six days a weeks. Over the past ten years, the growth rates of their economy has left yours in the dust. Coincidence?

And you only make yourself even more scorned with your treatment of others. The real horrors that Nazi Germany inflicted on Greece more than 70 years ago are not much of an excuse anymore. A previous government of yours, an elected government, accepted reparations a long time ago. And, by the way, in 1945, Germany was much more devastated than Greece, and still in 1948. See where the Germans are now, and where you are? Any comment?

And do you ever wonder why the Estonians, in the stultifying Soviet prison for fitly years, never ask for new loans to pay back older loans? And how long anyway did you expect German workers to work until age 69 so your public servants could continue to retire at 63? Are you out of your minds?

One last thing: You are not exactly Classical Greece. Stop wrapping yourselves in Aristotle’s toga. Really study Socrates. He chose to die than cheat even a little. Neither he nor Aristotle was a whiner. That’s why they are still remembered and honored.

In the end, I wish you well. Everyone can unlearn bad habits and learn basic rationality, even late in life. I hope you soon leave that club where you don’t belong. I hope further that you can make your way back. Begin by getting up at 6 every morning. Also, learn the obvious: socialism does not work well for rich countries; it’s miserable for poor countries.

National Economic Systems: An Introduction for Intelligent Beginners – 2

Part Two: Taxing the Rich.

I argue in Part One of this essay that the stimulus package could not possibly stimulate the economy the way a stimulus package is supposed to do. That is, the present stimulus package cannot shorten or lessen the current recession by stemming the growth of unemployment and by jump-starting the national economy, the way Keynesian economics has it. I suggested there had to be another agenda for this massive spending of public money.

Recessions – two consecutive quarters when the national economy contracts instead of expanding – are common under capitalism, in market economies. They wane, whether or not anyone does anything about them. This fact makes if difficult to assign credit to government measures designed to lessen or shorten recessions when economic indicators do look good. Economic indicators don’t look good right now, although some of the press is announcing the beginning of the beginning of the end of the recession.

At any rate, the recession will end eventually. That is, economic growth will resume. I would bet on it but I don’t know when. When growth resumes, we will be left with the second economic crisis facing us. That second crisis is less routine, more extraordinary, and more worrisome than the first crisis, the recession itself. It’s massive public indebtedness. I have to go into the reasons why the Federal Government is even able to incur massive debt. Continue reading