This is a small contribution to answering Paul Krugman’s question about why the wealthy want to raise interest rates, even when the economy remains depressed. (See also Steve Randy Waldman, Peter Dorman and Brad DeLong.) The preliminary point to make is that this is not just a US phenomenon. In the UK the right wing Institute for Economic Affairs set up what they call the ‘shadow MPC’, and they were voting for higher interest rates before the recovery began! The highly influential FT journalist Chris Giles, who has become a bellwether for right wing interests, has been championing the cause of an early rise in rates for many months.
I want to start with inequality, and the rising share of the 1% in the US and UK. This began in the 1980s, and is associated with deregulation of the financial sector and large cuts in top tax rates. The dominance of a neoliberal ideology, associated with Reagan and Thatcher, occurred at the same time, and there is no doubt that those who started becoming much wealthier at that time understand the connection.
Both politicians began their administrations during periods of high unemployment - higher than anything seen since the war. Both were the result of tight money: in Thatcher’s case this was a clear political choice, whereas in the US it was the result of the Volcker Fed. Whether intentional or not, this high level of unemployment greatly helped both administrations achieve their neoliberal goals, in part because it fatally weakened the power of organised labour. The period also helped the neoliberal cause because it appeared to discredit the idea that governments could intervene in the economy to achieve full employment.
Is it any wonder, therefore, that the ‘1%’ who started to become much richer in the 1980s should see tight money as an essential condition of their new found wealth? But what about the ‘interests of capital’: surely the owners of business should see that firms will be less prosperous if demand is kept too low through tight money? Here I can only quote Michal Kalecki:
“But 'discipline in the factories' and 'political stability' are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the 'normal' capitalist system.”
This was written in 1943, and the post war consensus appeared to suggest Kalecki was being too pessimistic. But that was before neoliberalism and the rise of the 1%.
Nowadays we see achieving the ‘natural unemployment rate’ as predominantly the task of monetary policy. Most economists see independent central banks as a better means of achieving this than direct political control for familiar reasons. However if you think that lasting full employment can be unsound for your class interests, then giving monetary control to conservative central bankers would also seem like a good idea.
This sets up two areas of political tension between the interests of the wealthy and, of all people, academic macroeconomists. First academic macroeconomists, and their occasional number who become central bank governors, see monetary policy as a means of achieving the natural unemployment rate and steady inflation. The wealthy see monetary policy as a means of maintaining a degree of unemployment that reduces the political threat to their wealth. Second, when monetary policy stops working in a liquidity trap, most academic macroeconomists want to use fiscal policy to take its place. To the wealthy this not only seems unnecessary, but it also calls into question their ideology about the failure of pre-neoliberal times.
As macroeconomists we know (or think we know) that it is impossible to keep unemployment above the natural rate forever, because inflation will continue to decrease, although there is now a lot of evidence which suggests it may not decrease by much. So if you wanted to critique my (and Kalecki’s) characterisation of the views of the wealthy, you might say that keeping unemployment above its natural rate is not a sustainable strategy (and therefore not rational). To which I would respond maybe, but there could be a reason why now, like the 1980s, is a particularly important time to keep unemployment high for a while.
The reason for this is that the aftermath of financial crisis is extremely threatening to the neoliberal political consensus and the position of the 1%. I remember saying shortly after the crisis that the neoliberal position that government regulation was always bad and unregulated markets always good had been blown out of the water by the crisis. This was politically naive, in part because a crisis caused by unregulated markets was morphed by the right into a crisis caused by too much government debt, or too many immigrants. But that fiction will not be sustainable once a strong recovery has reduced both government debt and unemployment. For the 1%, these are very dangerous times, and they want to be on favourable territory for the battles ahead.