If you’re seeking major insights into America’s recent economic and financial history, a barber’s obituary probably wouldn’t be the place you’d start looking. But if you checked out the notice placed in the Washington Post yesterday for Leonard Vincent Gilleo, you might rethink your assumptions. Because Mr. Gilleo plied his trade at the Federal Reserve. For decades. And although the bio written (presumably by his family) might have gotten a little tongue-in-cheek, it’s arguable enough that the Fed has helped make such a hash of the nation’s economy, especially for the last two decades, that a tantalizing claim in the obit deserves to be taken seriously.
According to the notice, Gilleo’s “clients included former Fed Chairmen Arthur Burns, Paul Volker [sic], Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, as well as US Ambassadors, Secret Service brass, White House Press Secretaries, and hundreds of PhD economists and State Department personnel.”
And his customers, we’re told, didn’t let him just stick to his scissors: “Standing behind his barber’s chair, Lenny served as the common man sounding board to many economic policy decisions made by the Fed.”
Now comes the kicker: “In fact, had his layman’s advice been taken seriously, Black Monday, the bursting of the dot-com bubble, and the financial crisis of 2008 could have all been avoided.”
At first, this might look nonsensical – or the kind of good-natured fun that’s common when we want to remember the deceased fondly. But think of the economic news since Black Monday – the stock market crash of October 19, 1987. The nation experienced a short and relatively shallow recession around the turn of the decade; a strong but initially jobless recovery that turned into a record expansion fueled largely by a technology-driven stock market bubble; another short, shallow recession; a recovery that turned out to be another, much bigger bubble inflated by record levels of easy money supplied by (Alan Greenspan’s) Fed; a terrifying global financial crisis resulting from that bubble’s inevitable bursting; and the recovery from the ensuing Great Recession that began in mid-2009 – the weakest on record.
It’s true that Fed Chair Ben Bernanke in particular is credited by many with preventing the most recent financial crisis from becoming a catastrophic global depression – and rejecting the advice of politicians and economists who argued that the central bank was preventing a restoration of genuine economic health by providing crutches that were too strong for too long.
But it’s also clear that Bernanke, his successor Janet Yellen, and her successor Jerome Powell have chosen the easy way to end the crisis – simply flooding the economy with as much cheap credit as necessary to keep it afloat – and that they have no viable exit plan. It’s clear as well that Bernanke and his mid-2000s colleagues missed the glaring warning signs that the growth of the 2000s was dangerously unhealthy growth.
Less clear, but most important, the Fed’s response to the last financial crisis continued a practice of fostering acceptable levels of growth and employment by showering the economy with levels of stimulus that have been so excessive as to be unsustainable, and bound to risk damaging collapses.
Economist Lawrence Summers was the first to identify this pattern, which he calls secular stagnation.
I’m not saying that I believe Gilleo had better answers. I am saying that it’s not completely crazy to recognize how dreadfully these most credentialed of our economic experts have performed, and to suspect that less technical, academicky mastery and more real-world experience and common sense (plus some backbone) would have left the economy considerably better off than at present. And P.S.: I can think of worse uses of my time than contacting Gilleo’s family to see if they were serious, and if so, what his advice actually was.