Progressive Groups Go On The Offensive Against A Fed Interest Rate Hike

Fed Chair Janet Yellen looks on at a Fed Up activist drawing attention to workers at the Kansas City Fed’s 2014 symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. | Courtesy of the Fed Up campaign

Progressive groups are launching a national campaign this week to pressure the Federal Reserve not to raise interest rates until wages begin growing more significantly. And they are getting some help from popular liberal economist Robert Reich.

The groups, led by the Center for Popular Democracy’s Fed Up campaign — a foundation-funded nonprofit committed to a more “pro-worker” Federal Reserve — inaugurated the effort in earnest over the weekend with mass email blasts and solicitation on other digital platforms of a petition, “Tell the Fed: Don’t Raise Interest Rates!” 

Participating organizations, which include online progressive heavyweights CREDO Action, Daily Kos and the Working Families Party, will send the petition to an increasing number of activists over the course of the week. The groups, a complete list of which you can find in the petition, have a combined email list and website visitor reach in the millions.

Activists will deliver the petition signatures they amass in the coming weeks to Fed officials at the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank’s annual symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on Aug. 27-29. Fed Up is sending a delegation of low-income workers and representatives from communities of color to the symposium with the goal of raising awareness of working families’ concerns about Fed monetary policy. The Fed Up campaign formally began with a similar visit to Jackson Hole last year.

Some of the emails to activists will include a video from Robert Reich, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley and former secretary of labor, that is likely to give the effort a high-profile boost. Reich posted the video, along with a link to the petition, on his Facebook page on Friday. As of Monday afternoon it already had been viewed over 142,000 times — and shared by more than 3,600 people. Reich relies on a production team to make his videos, but does the illustrations featured in them himself.

The new online campaign aims to influence the Fed at a pivotal moment: The central bank is indicating that it will raise interest rates as soon as September. Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart, who sits on the FOMC, confirmed on Monday that the Fed would soon raise rates, saying the “the point of ‘liftoff’ is close.” Lockhart’s remarks come after July jobs numbers Friday showed relatively steady job gains.

Robert Reich’s Federal Reserve 101

The progressive groups pushing back against a rate hike are betting that if the public knew how much they stood to lose if rates go up, they would be willing to speak out against a hike. They could then generate pressure to change the Fed’s calculus.

For that to happen, though, people need to understand what the Federal Reserve is — which activists acknowledge is rare. 

So Reich’s five-minute video starts at square one, explaining how the Federal Reserve works and why it affects Americans’ lives — before articulating the case against a rate hike. The Fed cuts interest rates, or keeps them low, he explains, in order to stimulate the economy. “The lower the [Fed’s] rates, the easier it is to borrow,” Reich says in the video. “The easier it is to borrow, the more active the economy becomes.”

Reich then elaborates on the virtuous cycle that takes hold when low rates leave people with more disposable income, as graphics illustrating his points whiz by onscreen. Consumers spend more, Reich explains, growing businesses and increasing demand for labor. And if there is enough demand for workers, he continues, employers raise wages to compete for those workers.

Mark Wilson via Getty Images

Why Do Progressives Think A September Rate Hike Is Premature? 

Reich, like the campaign he is backing, makes the case that the Fed should wait until demand for workers is high enough to increase wages substantially before raising interest rates. Although the official unemployment rate of 5.3 percent is low by historical standards, it has yet to translate into substantial wage growth. Average wages have risen 2.1 percent in the past 12 months — not much higher than the rate of price inflation, which, as of June, was 1.8 percent (not including energy and food).

Economists like Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argue that wage growth has yet to take off because there are still too many job seekers for the number of jobs available. The official unemployment rate does not account for the 6.3 million underemployed workers, who have part-time work but want to work full time, or the 668,000 jobless workers, who have given up seeking work altogether.

Although the progressive groups’ petition does not explicitly demand that the Fed wait for a specific wage growth figure before raising interest rates, the Fed Up campaign and its partners have largely coalesced around a wage growth target of 3.5 to 4 percent. The liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute, which is participating in the new petition campaign, estimates that with that type of wage growth, price inflation will not “significantly exceed” the Fed’s 2 percent inflation target.

These progressives warn that a Fed interest rate hike that occurs before significant wage growth takes hold would disproportionately hurt people of color and women. Both groups face routine discrimination in the job market that they are more likely to overcome in a high-demand economy buttressed by low rates. And people of color are much more likely to be workers on the lower side of the earnings spectrum, who have the least leverage vis-à-vis employers. That means they are often the last people to get hired or get a raise when the job market heats up, and the first to lose their jobs when it cools down. For evidence of this, they say, look no further than the shockingly high African-American unemployment rate of 9.1 percent.

What About Inflation?

The Fed balances its mandate to maximize employment with an obligation to prevent excessive inflation. That is why it raises interest rates when it believes prices are at or near its target inflation rate of 2 percent. Some economists also believe that even when consumer prices are below the target rate, the Fed should raise rates if housing and stock prices are getting unreasonably high.

Reich — and the many economists and activists with whom he finds common cause — appreciate the Fed’s obligation to prevent runaway inflation. But they note that inflation has remained consistently below the Fed’s target rate of 2 percent. And they believe that for the sake of job creation and wage growth, the economy can tolerate slightly higher inflation than the current Fed target.

“More jobs and better wages are more important than theoretical worries about accelerating inflation,” Reich concludes.

Reich and allies point to the late 1990s as a model for Fed monetary policy. They credit then-Fed Chair Alan Greenspan for refusing to raise interest rates even as the official unemployment rate dipped, against the wishes of other Fed officials concerned about inflation. As a result, wage growth was widespread enough to produce significant gains for workers at the bottom of the earnings spectrum.

A New Progressive Priority?

The petition campaign against a Fed rate hike is something of a coup for advocates who, as HuffPost reported at length in June, have long argued that Fed monetary policy should be a higher priority for the political left. Although the foundation-funded Fed Up campaign has been agitating for a more “pro-worker” Fed for nearly a year now, this is the first time it is collaborating with major progressive players like CREDO Action, Daily Kos and the Working Families Party. The Economic Policy Institute, which is a member of the Fed Up campaign’s founding coalition, is also activating its email list for a Fed Up petition effort for the first time.

A broad array of liberal-leaning organizations joined forces in the summer and fall of 2013 to torpedo President Barack Obama’s nomination of Lawrence Summers as chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Summers united economic progressives concerned about his Wall Street ties and women’s advocates angered by his remarks about women. Their efforts succeeded in winning the appointment of Janet Yellen as chair instead of Summers.

Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors from 1987 to 2006, has elicited praise from progressives for choosing not to raise interest rates at various points in the late 1990s. | Bloomberg via Getty Images

But since that time, the Fed has largely faded from the progressive foreground. Higher-profile fights like the movements for the $15 minimum wage and against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal have taken up the lion’s share of progressive energy and attention, dwarfing more esoteric causes. To the extent progressives have publicly pressured the Fed, it has been to police Wall Street more carefully, not maintain a dovish monetary policy.

“In general it’s clear that the Federal Reserve gets far less attention from progressives than it should in light of the tremendous influence it has over the economy and Americans’ quality of life,” said Josh Nelson, communications director for CREDO Action.

This relative inattention is evident in how little Federal Reserve monetary policy has come up in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. The topic has not been discussed widely on the campaign trail. Of the major Democratic presidential candidates, only former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley responded to a request for comment last week on a possible Fed rate hike. O’Malley agreed with progressive activists that the Fed should wait for more robust wage growth before raising rates. 

By contrast, the right wing has relentlessly trained its fire on the Fed for “debasing” the dollar with its quantitative easing program — its now-defunct multitrillion-dollar asset purchasing program — and low interest rates. Republican members of Congress regularly grill Yellen for printing too much money.

To the extent that Republican presidential candidates have broached the subject, they have weighed in in support of raising rates. Donald Trump, a real estate mogul and ersatz Republican presidential candidate, warned last week that the Fed’s low interest rates are causing an asset bubble. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has also slammed the Fed’s “easy money” policies for endangering the economy.

But the petition effort raises advocates’ hopes that a  progressive movement with the power to match the right’s Fed lobby is finally taking shape.

Haedtler said that CREDO Action, Daily Kos and the Working Families Party were eager to get involved.

“They were very enthusiastic about targeting a new institution that was not accustomed to outside pressure by working families,” Haedtler said, adding that he thought soliciting these groups’ involvement “would be more challenging than it was.”

Chris Bowers, Daily Kos

They were receptive to the argument, Haedtler said, that the Federal Reserve can “wipe out a lot of progress” on more visible issues like the minimum wage, if the Fed “does not recognize that the economic recovery has not benefitted everybody.”

CREDO Action did not specify how many activists it would target, but said that the petition would reach “many of the economic justice activists” on the group’s 3.8 million-person email list.

“The traditional obscurity [of the Fed] is why we must organize around it,” CREDO Action’s Nelson said. “People assume they can’t influence the Fed. But that’s wrong. These are people and they are open to both pressure and input. Pointing out that many communities still suffer is an essential role for advocates.” Nelson added that progressive input is a “necessary counterweight” to Wall Street influence on the central bank.

Chris Bowers, the Daily Kos’ executive campaign director, is confident that the Fed rate hike is not too esoteric for Daily Kos members. “One thing we’ve learned over the years is that Daily Kos readers tend to be very sophisticated, highly engaged activists who know a great deal about all manner of political issues,” Bowers said in an email. “In fact, some of our best-performing campaigns have focused on topics that might seem surprisingly obscure, such as net neutrality and filibuster reform. So we expect that our readers will readily grasp what’s at stake here.”

Fed Up activists meeting with Kansas City Fed President Esther George at the Kansas City Fed’s 2014 symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. | Credit: Fed Up campaign

 Daily Kos is soliciting signatures for the petition through a splash screen some people see when they visit the site. Bowers estimates that 20,000 people a day will see the splash over the course of a campaign that will last at least two weeks. He said Daily Kos is gauging the “intensity” of their members’ interest in the Fed based on their engagement with the petition. If enthusiasm is high, it will send the petition to its much larger email activism list.

Beyond Stopping A Rate Hike

Ultimately, the Fed Up campaign and its allies are on a larger mission to make the Federal Reserve more accountable to working people. That means not only preventing an interest rate hike before greater wage growth takes hold, but also pushing the Fed to rebalance its dual mandate toward genuine full employment and higher wages, and away from what they believe is excessive concern about inflation. The theme of this year’s Jackson Hole symposium is “Inflation Dynamics and Monetary Policy,” which Fed Up points to as a typical sign of the Fed’s inflation bias.

“We want to reframe the narrative” at the symposium, Haedtler said. Inflation, he explains, “is not what is on the minds of low-wage workers who have been suffering through a very slow economic recovery.”

Fed Up activists outside of the Federal Reserve building in Washington on Nov. 14, 2014.  | Fed Up campaign

“We think of our campaign less as a left/right divide, and more as an effort to bring the voices of working families to the Federal Reserve for the first time,” Haedtler noted. “Ultimately our members are fighting for a broader recovery, better wages and better working conditions.”

Fed Up can point to concrete progress toward this goal since its inaugural action at the Jackson Hole symposium last August. Their protests there led to a meeting between Fed Up activists and Kansas City Fed President Esther George. That in turn opened the door to meetings with four other regional Federal Reserve bank presidents. Fed Up has also met with Yellen and several members of the Fed Board of Governors in their Washington offices.

The meetings have enabled working people organized by Fed Up to share their economic experiences with Fed officials, who make decisions that will affect these people’s lives. 

Haedtler believes these meetings are already bearing fruit. The Fed created a Community Advisory Council in January to solicit more diverse views on the state of the economy.

“Even very hawkish regional presidents — like James Bullard, the St. Louis Fed president — really seem to take to heart some of the stories we convey to them,” he said.

The Fed Up campaign also wants to reform the selection process for regional Federal Reserve bank presidents, which it says reflects the narrow interests of the bankers that dominate their boards of directors. They are asking regional Fed presidents that they meet with for a timeline of their selection process and a list of candidates being considered. 

Fed Up claims credit for the Minneapolis regional Federal Reserve Bank’s decision to disclose the process through which it would select its next president.

“We know something about congressionally confirmed Fed board governors, but very little about regional fed presidents, other than that they are overwhelmingly white, male and have close ties to the financial sector,” Haedtler said.


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