Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country

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9780671675561: Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country

William Greider’s groundbreaking bestseller reveals how the mighty and mysterious Federal Reserve operates—and manipulates and the world’s economy.

This ground-breaking best-seller reveals for the first time how the mighty and mysterious Federal Reserve operates—and how it manipulated and transformed both the American economy and the world's during the last eight crucial years. Based on extensive interviews with all the major players, Secrets of the Temple takes us inside the government institution that is in some ways more secretive than the CIA and more powerful than the President or Congress.

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About the Author:

William Greider is the bestselling author of five previous books, including One World, Ready or Not (on the global economy), Who Will Tell the People (on American politics), and Secrets of the Temple (on the Federal Reserve). A reporter for forty years, he has written for The Washington Post and Rolling Stone and has been an on-air correspondent for six Frontline documentaries on PBS. Currently the national affairs correspondent for The Nation, he lives in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

THE CHOICE OF WALL STREET

In the American system, citizens were taught that the transfer of political power accompanied elections, formal events when citizens made orderly choices about who shall govern. Very few Americans, therefore, understood that the transfer of power might also occur, more subtly, without elections. Even the President did not seem to grasp this possibility, until too late. He would remain in office, surrounded still by the aura of presidential authority, but he was no longer fully in control of his government.

The American system depended upon deeper transactions than elections. It provided another mechanism of government, beyond the reach of the popular vote, one that managed the continuing conflicts of democratic capitalism, the natural tension between those two words, "democracy" and "capitalism." It was part of the national government, yet deliberately set outside the electoral process, insulated from the control of mere politicians. Indeed, it had the power to resist the random passions of popular will and even to discipline the society at large. This other structure of American governance coexisted with the elected one, shared power with Congress and the President, and collaborated with them. In some circumstances, it opposed them and thwarted them.

Citizens were taught that its activities were mechanical and nonpolitical, unaffected by the self-interested pressures of competing economic groups, and its pervasive influence over American life was largely ignored by the continuing political debate. Its decisions and internal disputes and the large consequences that flowed from them remained remote and indistinct, submerged beneath the visible politics of the nation. The details of its actions were presumed to be too esoteric for ordinary citizens to understand.

The Federal Reserve System was the crucial anomaly at the very core of representative democracy, an uncomfortable contradiction with the civic mythology of self-government. Yet the American system accepted the inconsistency. The community of elected politicians acquiesced to its power. The private economy responded to its direction. Private capital depended on it for protection. The governors of the Federal Reserve decided the largest questions of the political economy, including who shall prosper and who shall fail, yet their role remained opaque and mysterious. The Federal Reserve was shielded from scrutiny partly by its own official secrecy, but also by the curious ignorance of the American public.

It was in midsummer of 1979 when this competing reality of the American system confronted the President of the United States and discreetly compelled him to yield. Jimmy Carter, in the third year of his Presidency, was engulfed by popular discontent and declining authority. The public that first embraced the simple virtues Carter expressed in his gentle Georgia accent -- earnest striving and honest, open government -- was by then overwhelmingly disenchanted with his management. Despite its accomplishments, the Carter Presidency had come to stand for confusion and inconsistency. His stature was diminished by a series of ill events, from failed legislation to revolution in Iran. A Gallup poll asked Democrats whom they would prefer as their party's nominee in 1980 and they chose Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts over the incumbent President, 66 to 30 percent.

In early July, Jimmy Carter set out to restore his popular support. The political crisis had been developing for many months but was now dramatized by the President's own behavior. He scheduled an address to the nation on energy problems, then abruptly canceled it and, somewhat mysteriously, withdrew from the daily business of the White House. He and his closest advisers gathered in private at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains. For ten days, the President remained there in isolation, conducting earnest seminars on what had gone wrong with the Carter Presidency and, indeed, what had gone wrong with America itself.

A stream of influential visitors was summoned to the President's lodge to offer advice. They were diverse opinion leaders from politics, education, religion and other realms, and their talk skipped across the landscape of American life. In his methodical manner, Carter filled a notebook with their comments. Each day, the press speculated extravagantly on what the President intended to do.

On Saturday, July 14, the isolation ended and Jimmy Carter returned to the White House. The next evening, more than two-thirds of the national audience gathered before their television sets to hear his report. After two and a half years, Carter's unusual mannerisms were familiar to the public, the rising and falling cadences that sounded like a Protestant preacher, the cheerful smile that sometimes oddly punctuated stern passages. This speech was different, more somber in tone, more desperate in content.

The President began with a startling ritual of confession -- revealing excerpts of the private criticism he had collected at the Camp David meetings. "Mr. President," a southern governor had told him, "you are not leading this nation -- you are just managing the government." Others' comments were equally critical. "You don't see the people enough anymore." "Don't talk to us about politics or the mechanics of government, but about an understanding of our common good." "Some of your Cabinet members don't seem loyal. There is not enough discipline among your disciples." "Mr. President, we are in trouble. Talk to us about blood and sweat and tears."

A religious leader had told him: "No material shortage can touch the important things like God's love for us or our love for one another." Carter said he especially liked the comment from a black woman who was mayor of a small town in Mississippi: "The big shots are not the only ones who are important. Remember, you can't sell anything on Wall Street unless someone digs it up somewhere else first." The President was candid about his own shortcomings as a political leader: "I have worked hard to put my campaign promises into law -- and I have to admit, with just mixed success."

The present crisis, however, was not really a matter of legislation, Carter declared. America faced a crisis of the soul, a testing of its moral and spiritual values. "The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways," the President warned. "It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation."

Spiritual distress was an abstraction, but the source of America's political discontent was actually quite tangible. It was the lines at gas stations that made people angry and gasoline at $1.25 a gallon. It was the constantly rising prices on supermarket shelves, prices that seemed to change every week and always higher. In the spring of 1979, after the revolutionary upheaval in Iran had interrupted its oil production, the cartel of oil-producing nations, OPEC, had seized the opportunity of temporary shortages to raise world petroleum prices again. OPEC, which had roughly quadrupled oil prices during its embargo of 1973-1974, more than redoubled them through 1978 and 1979. This second "oil shock," as economists called it, automatically fed price increases into nearly every product, every marketplace where Americans bought and sold.

The latest oil-price shock, moreover, occurred at an especially bad time, when the inflation rate in the United States was already abnormally high. In the first three months of 1979, the government's index of consumer prices, covering everything from food to housing, had risen at an annual rate of nearly 11 percent. In a year's time, a dollar would buy only 89 cents' worth of goods. A $6,000 car would soon cost $660 more. And every wage earner would need a pay raise of more than 10 percent simply to stay even with prices. Through the second quarter of 1979, April to June, as the OPEC price increases took hold, the inflation rate had worsened, reaching 14 percent. By early summer, motorists in some regions were once again waiting in line at gas stations and Jimmy Carter's political popularity had reached a dangerously low point. In July, according to public-opinion polls, barely a fourth of the voters approved of his performance as President.

Carter and his advisers hoped that the dramatic speech, followed by swift and decisive actions, would turn things around. His message was daring. In similar circumstances, a different political leader might have blamed the economic distress on others -- on an easily recognized villain like the Arab nations of OPEC or the multinational oil companies -- and deflected Americans' resentment toward them. But polarizing politics, the technique of "us against them," was not Carter's style. Instead, he asked the people to blame themselves, just as he had done. The speech did outline an ambitious six-part energy program, designed to overcome the nation's dependency on imported oil. But the central message, the one most citizens would remember, was a critique of their own materialism:

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we have discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We have learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

The President called the country to sacrifice and spiritual renewal. He asked his audience for cooperative self-denial, to forgo the excesses of material pleasures in the national interest. Carter's speech did not even mention the Federal Reserve and its management of money, the government's handle on interest rates and credit expansion by which Washington ultimately influenced both prices and the pace of private economic activity. His stern message sounded especially strange coming from a Democratic President, leading the political party whose majority position was founded on the promise of prosperity for all. The news media quickly labeled it derisively the "malaise speech," a term that Caner himself never used.

But Carter's somber sermon was at first warmly received by the public and, in terms of popular reaction, was one of the most successful speeches of his Presidency. Contemporary Americans were devoted to the pursuit of their own affluence, but they still hearkened to spiritual themes. From the earliest days of the Republic, Americans had always been stirred by the jeremiads of puritan preachers warning of moral decay and calling them back to the old values. In this instance, the public quickly endorsed Jimmy Carter's diagnosis.

New public-opinion polls, taken right after his speech, reported that more than three-fourths of the voters agreed with the President's warnings of spiritual crisis. Carter's own popularity improved dramatically. One survey found that public approval for his Presidency increased overnight by 10 percent, an astonishing shift considering that it was generated by a single speech. At least 40 percent of the vast television audience said that Carter's address gave them greater confidence in his leadership.

This was a promising start, though White House advisers understood that more needed to be done. A Democratic political consultant in Washington remarked optimistically that the President's dramatic appeal to conscience "takes him from three touchdowns behind to one touchdown behind."

A jewelry manufacturer in Cedarhurst, New York, understood something about the American public that did not fit the President's message. Eugene Sussman had observed a new pattern of behavior among consumers which made it most unlikely that ordinary citizens however much they agreed with the President's sentiments would actually act upon them. Sussman kept raising the prices on his luxury jewelry to keep up with the rising costs of gold and diamonds as well as wages. Each time he raised prices, he worried that he would kill his sales. Each time, his sales increased. The higher he set prices on the pins and rings and brooches, the more people bought.

I'm talking about average working girls [Sussman said with wonder]. I see them on the street, wearing my jewelry. They're making $250 or $300 a week and they're spending it on jewelry. They have to have it. It's like food.

I'm paying 120 percent more for my diamonds than I did last year, my labor is up 35 to 40 percent. My product gets marked up again and again. Rings that sold for $170 four years ago are $350, maybe $400. I can sell all I can make.

The "working girls" who bought Sussman's fancy jewelry were on to something new in American life, the awareness that in this era of constant inflation it made sense to buy now and pay later -- to buy before prices went up again, even to borrow now and repay the debts in depreciated dollars. Most Americans could not pause for long to contemplate the President's warning about the emptiness of materialism. They were too busy buying things, buying them sooner rather than later.

In the Los Angeles suburb of Sun Valley, a union machinist named Roland Murphy and his wife borrowed $10,000 to redo their kitchen. They were still paying for the Dodge Aspen they bought the year before. When the price of hay got too high, the Murphys sold their horse. In Chicago, an English teacher named Derotha Rogers and her husband, Bev, a pipe fitter, bought a $19,000 Cadillac even though he was temporarily out of a job. Across town, Stephen C. Mitchell, an engineering executive, and his wife postponed remodeling their town house because of inflation, but they bought a $2,000 oil painting and were paying the gallery in installments. In Houston, a young computer analyst named Jack West and his wife, Roseann, used credit cards to take their daughter on a $1,500 vacation at Disneyland.

Mrs. West explained: "For our parents, everything went to the kids and nothing for themselves. But I think those of us who have grown up since World War II just don't want to live like that. We want to enjoy some of it too." Roland Murphy explained how easy it was for him to buy things on his $25,000-a-year income: "I have more credit than money. I could buy far more things than I could ever pay for. When I think about what Sears says I could buy on credit, it's frightening. We could cart away $7,000 of their stuff."

American consumers, having lived with constant inflation for more than a decade, had absorbed a new common wisdom, now shared by the rich and poor and middle class alike. Steadily rising prices were considered a permanent fixture of American life, a factor to be calculated in every transaction. For years, a succession of political leaders in Washington had promised to do something about inflation, and the public became quite cynical about those promises. Each government campaign against inflation had eventually failed and, each time, prices had resumed their steady escalation. Each time, the inflation rate ultimately reached an even higher peak.

By the late 1970s, most citizens had drawn their own practical lessons from the experience. It not only made sense to buy now rather than later; it also made sense to borrow money in order to buy things now. Even with higher interest rates, a loan made today to purchase an automobile or a television set or a house would be paid back tomorrow in inflated dollars that were worth less So long as wages continued to ...

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