THE BUZZ 4: Federal Face Time

By on August 31, 2016

What happened during a historic meeting last week when the 99 percent met with the Fed.

The Fed’s biggest critics, Fed Up, had the chance to sit down with America’s economic bigwigs last week at Jackson Lake Lodge.

The Fed’s biggest critics, Fed Up, had the chance to sit down with America’s economic bigwigs last week at Jackson Lake Lodge.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Last Thursday was the first time the most powerful financial players in the U.S. formally met with the people their policies affect. During the Federal Reserve Economic Policy Symposium at Jackson Lake Lodge, a meeting between the Fed and Fed Up sparked impassioned speeches that burned through barriers of language, culture, race, and socio-economic status. But the fervency expressed by Fed Up members seemingly had little influence on the Fed’s impending decision to raise interest rates, something Federal Reserve board chair Janet Yellen announced in her annual address the following day.

Still, members of Fed Up—a syndicate of the Center for Popular Democracy built around the ideology that the Fed’s policies affect people of every skin color and income bracket—were encouraged by the meeting.

Shawn Sebastian is the field director of the Fed Up campaign. “I think the meeting with the Fed was historic and unprecedented,” he said. “There are never that many Fed officials in the same room at the same time talking about monetary policy, and they’re certainly not doing that with low income people of color.”

Federal Reserve board leaders like Neel Kashkari, Lael Brainard, Esther George and board vice president Stanley Fischer all participated in the Fed Up roundtable.

The landmark meeting was the result of Jackson Lake Lodge overselling hotel rooms that Fed Up members had reserved. After the group filed several federal complaints, the Fed agreed to the sit down.

‘Don’t slow down the economy’

Echoes of agreement among Fed Up’s constituency rippled through the crowded room at Jackson Lake Lodge Thursday as the roundtable began. Members of Fed Up elucidated ideas of stagnant wages, unemployment, and underemployment that disproportionately plague people of color in the United States. Fed Up members explained how the Federal Reserve’s pending decision to slow down the economy by raising interest rates could damage already neglected communities. Nearly every speaker from Fed Up concluded with one central idea: Don’t slow down the economy. Not yet. Don’t hike interest rates. Not yet. Our communities are still underserved. Our people are still underpaid. Our unemployment rates are still nearly double the national average.

Esther George, chair of the KC Federal Reserve, responded to protestors with deference to Congress. “Our objective is to follow mandates of what Congress has made out,” she told the crowd. “The objective is not to slow down the economy; that would be irresponsible.” George continued by explaining that the objective of the Fed was to walk the balance beam between the ideal of full employment and the consequence of potential inflation due to an oversaturation in the job market.

Fed Up’s expert on economic forces, Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute, said the Fed’s concerns about inflation should be adjusted in light of the impacts of the Great Recession. Bivens claimed a period of “overshooting” employment targets are necessary to heal the effects of that economic disaster, and that this period of overshooting is especially important to people of color, because it takes longer for their unemployment rates to catch up to national averages.

“[If] The Federal Reserve starts slowing the economy, it starts halting progress in reducing unemployment before the benefits of that reach the last people to be hired,” Bivens said.

Promising diversity

Fed Up seemed to impact members of the Federal Reserve Board on a few fronts. Several ambitious promises were made by members of the Fed, catalyzed by discussions held during the roundtable. Sebastian believes the most concrete impacts Fed Up had on the Federal Reserve were when Lael Brainard of the Federal Reserve’s board of governors committed to seriously considering a slate of candidates for board positions that more closely reflect America’s diversity. The board’s lack of diversity is a source of contention among Fed Up members, as the board is comprised of 16 white, predominantly male members. The only exception is Neel Kashkari of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, who is of Indian descent. Fed Up members are not the first to point this out, however. This summer a formal letter of complaint, signed by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and some 127 other lawmakers, demanded the Federal Reserve open up to more diversity.

Another victory for the Fed Up campaign happened when Kashkari recommitted to an impressive research project studying racial disparities. Minnesota and Wisconsin, both states within Kashkari’s district, are rated the worst states in the country for black people to live based on a report by 24/7 Wall Street. Kashkari’s goal is to find the source of the disparities that propagate those statistics.

Blacks in Wisconsin face an unemployment rate of 21 percent which is more than quadruple the national average. Their incarceration rate is the third highest in the country, and their rate of home ownership is the tenth lowest. At a meeting earlier this month in Minneapolis, Kashkari sat down with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change to discuss the problem.

“Some of the racial disparities are a crisis, and we need to treat them like a crisis,” Kashkari said. “There’s something structural in the U.S. economy, in good times and bad, that black unemployment is almost always twice as high as white unemployment.”

However, in spite of all protestor efforts, in what is considered to be one of Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen’s most important speeches of the year, she explicitly stated that interest rate hikes were on the horizon. Yellen told the audience at Jackson Lake Lodge, “Indeed, in light of the continued solid performance of the labor market and our outlook for economic activity and inflation, I believe the case for an increase in the federal funds rate has strengthened in recent months.” PJH

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