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Meet the activists who want to make the Fed listen to workers for a change

Kansas Fed chief Esther George (center) meeting with activists pushing the Fed to not tighten.
Kansas Fed chief Esther George (center) meeting with activists pushing the Fed to not tighten.
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

The Jackson Hole conference, an annual retreat in Wyoming organized by the Kansas City Fed, is usually frequented by central bankers, private sector economists, and academics. It's not usually frequented by everyday workers.

This year was differrent. A group of community activists traveled to the conference to urge policymakers to not do what an increasing number of voices in the Fed system and in the financial sector have been urging them to do: raise interest rates.

"They need to stimulate the economy," says Kendra Brooks, a former bank manager from Philadelphia who's been unemployed for about a year. "Increasing the interest rate here isn't going to help the people without jobs. It's going to put us further into debt."

"I want to at least get our voices heard before they make their decisions,"Tyrone Raino, who recently took a job requiring a 40 mile commute from his home in Minneapolis, says.

Brooks and Raino are both members of local community organizing groups — Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and Action United in Philadelphia, respectively — which have, with the Center for Popular Democracy, come together to try to do something that hasn't really been done before: grassroots lobbying of the Fed. And they're being heard.

According to the Center's senior attorney, Ady Barkan, the group met with Kansas Fed chief Esther George for two hours, and spoke to Fed chair Janet Yellen, Chicago Fed chief Charles Evans, and Minneapolis Fed chief Narayana Kocherlakota. The last three are sympathetic to Brooks and Raino's perspective — Raino called Kocherlakota "one of the voices in the Federal Reserve system who understands the economy is far from recovery for most of us" in an article for MinnPost — George has expressed support for raising interest rates. For people trying to lobby a generally unlobbied institution, that's an impressive start.

To some extent, the Fed is designed to be impervious to outside pressure like this. Many economists believe that central bank independence — that is, having a central bank that is not directly controlled by legislatures or other democratically elected officials — is crucial to effective monetary policy. In 1993, future Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and his Harvard colleague Alberto Alesina authored a hugely influential paper arguing that countries with more independent banks have less variable prices and lower inflation overall. While that finding was controversial, the view that month-to-month policy decisions by the Fed should not be influenced by politicians — what Fed vice chair Stanley Fischer has called "instrument independence" — is widely accepted.

But Barkan argues that the independence the Fed currently enjoys is one-sided. "There are 108 board members across the 12 regional banks," he notes. "Under the law, 72 of them are supposed to represent the public interest and 36 are supposed to represent banking and financial interests. But of the 108, 97 are from financial institutions or corporations. Only 9 are from nonprofits, and even those are from major, wealthy nonprofits. Only 2 of the 108 board members represent labor organizations and workers."

"This desire for Fed independence really only goes in one direction," he concludes. "It's a desire for insulation from the needs of regular people."

Barkan, Brooks, and Raino avoid endorsing specific proposals for the Fed to get tougher on unemployment, like setting a nominal GDP target or abolishing paper money or allowing "helicopter drops." The emphasis is more on convincing the Fed that there is still a problem — that the labor market still has slack.

While some in the Fed worry that people are getting too many raises, Barkan argues that wage growth is still too slow — and that the labor market won't be healthy until it's significantly higher. "Real rising wages will represent tightening of the labor markets, and that's what you want to pull the long-term unemployed back into the market, and vulnerable workers back into the market," he says. "It's only once the labor market tightens that you can help vulnerable communities get out of this long recession."

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