Today’s post is an excerpt from a speech by Richard W. Fisher, President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas since April 4, 2005. It needs no commentary. (link to entire speech)
Storms on the Horizon
No combination of tax hikes and spending cuts, though, will change the total burden borne by current and future generations. For the existing unfunded liabilities to be covered in the end, someone must pay $99.2 trillion more or receive $99.2 trillion less than they have been currently promised. This is a cold, hard fact. The decision we must make is whether to shoulder a substantial portion of that burden today or compel future generations to bear its full weight.
Now that you are all thoroughly depressed, let me come back to monetary policy and the Fed.
It is only natural to cast about for a solution—any solution—to avoid the fiscal pain we know is necessary because we succumbed to complacency and put off dealing with this looming fiscal disaster. Throughout history, many nations, when confronted by sizable debts they were unable or unwilling to repay, have seized upon an apparently painless solution to this dilemma: monetization. Just have the monetary authority run cash off the printing presses until the debt is repaid, the story goes, then promise to be responsible from that point on and hope your sins will be forgiven by God and Milton Friedman and everyone else.
We know from centuries of evidence in countless economies, from ancient Rome to today’s Zimbabwe, that running the printing press to pay off today’s bills leads to much worse problems later on. The inflation that results from the flood of money into the economy turns out to be far worse than the fiscal pain those countries hoped to avoid.
Earlier I mentioned the Fed’s dual mandate to manage growth and inflation. In the long run, growth cannot be sustained if markets are undermined by inflation. Stable prices go hand in hand with achieving sustainable economic growth. I have said many, many times that inflation is a sinister beast that, if uncaged, devours savings, erodes consumers’ purchasing power, decimates returns on capital, undermines the reliability of financial accounting, distracts the attention of corporate management, undercuts employment growth and real wages, and debases the currency.
Purging rampant inflation and a debased currency requires administering a harsh medicine. We have been there, and we know the cure that was wrought by the FOMC under Paul Volcker. Even the perception that the Fed is pursuing a cheap-money strategy to accommodate fiscal burdens, should it take root, is a paramount risk to the long-term welfare of the U.S. economy. The Federal Reserve will never let this happen. It is not an option. Ever. Period.
The way we resolve these liabilities—and resolve them we must—will affect our own well-being as well as the prospects of future generations and the global economy. Failing to face up to our responsibility will produce the mother of all financial storms. The warning signals have been flashing for years, but we find it easier to ignore them than to take action. Will we take the painful fiscal steps necessary to prevent the storm by reducing and eventually eliminating our fiscal imbalances? That depends on you.
I mean “you” literally. This situation is of your own creation. When you berate your representatives or senators or presidents for the mess we are in, you are really berating yourself. You elect them. You are the ones who let them get away with burdening your children and grandchildren rather than yourselves with the bill for your entitlement programs.
This issue transcends political affiliation. When George Shultz, one of San Francisco’s greatest Republican public servants, was director of President Nixon’s Office of Management and Budget, he became worried about the amount of money Congress was proposing to spend. After some nights of tossing and turning, he called legendary staffer Sam Cohen into his office. Cohen had a long memory of budget matters and knew every zig and zag of budget history. “Sam,” Shultz asked, “tell me something just between you and me. Is there any difference between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to spending money?” Cohen looked at him, furrowed his brow and, after thinking about it, replied, “Mr. Shultz, there is only one difference: Democrats enjoy it more.”
Yet no one, Democrat or Republican, enjoys placing our children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren in harm’s way. No one wants to see the frightful storm of unfunded long-term liabilities destroy our economy or threaten the independence and authority of our central bank or tear our currency asunder.
Of late, we have heard many complaints about the weakness of the dollar against the euro and other currencies. It was recently argued in the op-ed pages of the Financial Times  that one reason for the demise of the British pound was the need to liquidate England’s international reserves to pay off the costs of the Great Wars. In the end, the pound, it was essentially argued, was sunk by the kaiser’s army and Hitler’s bombs. Right now, we—you and I—are launching fiscal bombs against ourselves. You have it in your power as the electors of our fiscal authorities to prevent this destruction. Please do so.