Krugman Reminds Us That Protectionism For Bankers Is A Very Powerful Political Force – OpEd


That was really a sidebar in his piece ridiculing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s attack on “woke” money, but it is worth taking a second to appreciate how protecting the rich is so completely the accepted norm in American politics. The piece is directed against DeSantis’s bizarre attack on the idea of a digital currency issued by the Federal Reserve Board.

It’s not clear whether DeSantis has any real concern or is just trying to convince the MAGA crowd that he can be every bit as crazy as their hero Trump, in spite of his Harvard Law degree. However, insofar as there is some discernible issue that is bothering DeSantis, it seems to be that a Fed digital currency may make it more difficult to evade taxes and commit other crimes. So much for “LAW AND ORDER!”

But the part of Krugman’s piece that really needs more attention is his comment in passing on how banks would respond to the prospect of a digital currency from the Fed. The basic story of a digital currency is a simple one. We could all be given transaction accounts at the Fed, from which we could conduct our ordinary business, like paying bills and getting our paychecks, at near zero cost.

This would mean tens of billions in savings annually on bank fees and penalties. It would be an especially big deal for lower income households, who disproportionately pay these fees and often don’t have bank accounts at all.

Krugman comments:

“What it [the Federal Reserve Act] doesn’t say is that any attempt to create such accounts would provoke a firestorm of opposition from the banking industry, which doesn’t want to have to compete for customers with a basically infallible government bank. So if a digital currency were to be created, it would be run through private-sector intermediaries.”

Krugman is just describing the political reality as it is, but this comment really requires a bit of reflection. We have the means to eliminate tens of billions of dollars of waste from the economic system. My guess is that we are talking in the range of 0.2-0.3 percent of GDP, an amount that is around half the size of the annual Food Stamp budget and more than twice the cost of President Biden’s student debt forgiveness program.

But it ain’t going to happen, because it would provoke “a firestorm of opposition from the banking industry.”

Well, many measures for increasing efficiency provoke opposition. Many unions opposed the terms under which China was admitted to the WTO because it would cost hundreds of thousands (actually, millions) of relatively high-paying manufacturing jobs and put downward pressure on the wages of the jobs that remains.

That didn’t matter because the forces that wanted access to cheap labor were far more powerful. Also, the cheap labor lobby had a powerful ally among the intellectual class, nearly all of whom denounced opponents of the WTO as knuckle-scraping Neanderthal protectionists in media outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, National Public Radio, The Atlantic, etc.

However, the “neoliberal” types who were appalled at the idea that we would allow protectionist barriers to block more open trade with China are just fine with saluting the banking lobby and its efforts to block the Fed from offering digital accounts. There are no editorials denouncing the knuckle-scraping Neanderthal bankers on Wall Street who want us to throw tens of billions annually into the garbage so that they can keep getting paychecks in the millions and tens of millions of dollars. (The CEO of Silicon Valley Bank got $9.9 million for his work in 2021.)

Anyhow, this is just another example how the claim that anyone is a market fundamentalist is a complete lie. It is understandable why the proponents of protectionism for the rich would like to claim their good fortune is just due to the natural workings of the free market; but it is a serious mystery why progressives seem to think it is smart to go along with this obvious nonsense.  

This first appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog 

Dean Baker

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy.

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