By Dan Kervick
Mark Thoma, writing in the Fiscal Times, has called for the Federal Reserve to take “bold, creative moves” to alleviate unemployment. Thoma’s suggestions contain nothing novel, and I suspect Thoma is fully aware that what our economy really needs is a fiscal expansion from the federal government. But perhaps these tired calls for additional central bank string-pushing deserve some sympathy. Many have concluded that the attempt to get Congress and the White House to act to increase government spending are futile, since the elected branches of our government seem unwilling to do what needs to be done out of some combination of incompetence, iniquity, ignorance, ideology and insanity.
But Thoma’s argument contains a few puzzling passages that repeat and reinforce some common misconceptions about the relationships among spending, bank lending and bank reserves; and it is worth spending a few words to challenge these misconceptions once again, because to the extent that they still have wide currency they stand in the way of a clear grasp of the nature and limits of monetary policy options. Thoma first makes the following claims about bank reserves: