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Why You Should Care About the Federal Reserve’s Secrecy and Elitism

Getty Images/Alex Wong

Last weekend, Cee Cee Butler, a 34-year-old McDonald’s worker from Washington D.C., became sick with the flu, or at least something that resembled the flu. Her phone had been cut off and she missed work Friday, Saturday and Sunday. “I did a ‘no-call, no-show’ for three days and I’ve never done that in over the year and a half I’ve been working here at McDonald's,” she said. “They terminated me Tuesday morning. So I lost my job, my rent is going up in December, I have two kids—19 and 5, a girl and boy—and I can’t afford to take care of them.”

On Friday, Butler gathered outside the Federal Reserve building with around two dozen activists from labor unions and progressive groups before an afternoon meeting with Fed Chair Janet Yellen. The groups are part of a new campaign called “Fed Up” that is pressuring Yellen and her colleagues to keep interest rates at zero until the recovery strengthens and wages rise. “The economy is not working for the vast majority of people,” said Ady Barkan, a lawyer from The Center for Popular Democracy, which is the lead organizer of the campaign. Fed Up wants to rectify that problem by putting direct pressure on the Federal Reserve itself—a quest that may not captivate the public’s attention but could have a very real effect on the lives of working Americans.

In August, for instance, members of Fed Up staged protests outside of the Federal Reserve’s annual monetary policy conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Many reporters there said it was the first time they could remember protestors at the conference—but their tactics must have worked, because Yellen agreed to meet with the protesters Friday afternoon in the boardroom where the Federal Open Markets Committee (FOMC) meets eight times a year to set monetary policy. Three other Federal Reserve governors—Vice Chair Stanley Fischer, Jerome Powell and Lael Brainard—joined the meeting and the activists said that Yellen was engaged throughout and was moved by the stories she heard. They hope that this meeting was just the first of many in the future.

The message the Fed Up campaign delivered is the same one voters sent loud and clear last week: The recovery is not being felt by millions of Americans. Exit polls indicated that 45 percent of voters considered the economy the most important issue of the midterms. Wage growth for low-income workers, like janitors and fast food workers, are barely keeping up with inflation. “That’s not an economic recovery,” said Jean Andre, who does location support for film production and is a member of New York Communities for Change. “That’s not the way thing should be.”

But the slow recovery isn’t always noticeable in leading economic indicators. The unemployment rate, for instance, has fallen 2.1 percentage points since the start of 2013 and is now at 5.8 percent, its lowest point in more than six years. As a result, some economists inside and outside the Fed, including inflation hawk Charles Plosser, have called for a hike in interest rates in the near future. “Beginning to raise rates sooner rather than later reduces the chance that inflation will accelerate and, in so doing, require policy to become fairly aggressive with perhaps unsettling consequences,” Plosser, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, said Wednesday.

Plosser’s worry about rising inflation, even though it is nowhere to be found, could prove dangerous. If the FOMC listens to the hawks, it will prematurely raise rates and choke off the recovery before workers see wage growth. So far, Yellen has done a good job ignoring Plosser and Co. And, luckily, Plosser and Richard Fisher, the president of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank and another hawk at the FOMC, announced that they would retire in the spring of 2015, opening up two positions that have a significant impact on monetary policy. Fed Up sees their retirements as a boon—and is keen to have a say in the selection process.

Under the current rules, Plosser and Fisher’s replacements will be chosen by the board of the Philadelphia and Dallas reserve banks, respectively. Each board has nine members, three from banks and six from nonbanks—companies and organizations that are not financial institutions. Because of Dodd-Frank restrictions, only the six non-bank members are involved in selecting the replacements. But of those six members, three are chosen by banks and three are chosen by the Fed board in Washington. Workers and consumers are supposed to be represented on the board, but of the 108 members, 91 are from financial institutions and corporations. Just two are leaders of labor groups and another 15 represent non-profit organizations.

Fed Up has a list of demands to make the replacement process more transparent and to ensure the public has adequate representation within the central bank. They want a public schedule of the process, a list of criteria for how the replacements will be chosen, a chance for members to question the candidates, and public forums where citizens can discuss monetary policy with candidates and the search committee. These reforms, they hope, will keep presidents like Plosser and Fisher—who activists say are disconnected from the daily struggles of their constituents—out of office. “We need a president in Philadelphia who will listen to working people,” said Kati Slipp, the director of Pennsylvania Working Families. “Charles Plosser hasn’t been or he would not believe that our economy has really recovered.” In fact, Fed Up is already getting results. On Friday morning, the Philadelphia Fed announced that it was setting up an email to receive inquiries about the search process. “That would never have happened if this campaign hadn’t happened,” Slipp said. The campaign said it expected the same things from the Dallas Fed.

After Republicans destroyed Democrats in the midterms, many liberal commentators argued that a fresh agenda for raising wages could help the Democratic Party win back voters, particularly those in the white working class. But the problem isn’t that Democrats’ ideas—raising the minimum wage, investing in infrastructure and strengthening the safety net—won’t help middle- and lower-class Americans. It’s that the weak recovery has destroyed those ideas’ political salience. It’s a political problem much more than a policy one.

Such arguments almost always ignore monetary policy. After all, no one but Ron Paul fanatics care about the Federal Reserve. And the Fed is independent from the federal government. If a Democratic candidate’s economic message was to fill the FOMC with economists committed to keeping interest rates low or even adopting a different monetary policy regime altogether, voters would likely roll their eyes. It would be a political disaster. But given congressional gridlock, it might also be far more effective at boosting the recovery.

The Fed Up campaign isn’t going to change that. Millions of Americans will not suddenly realize that the most important economic actor in the United States is not the president or Congress but the Federal Reserve. They will not understand that some inflation is needed, especially right now, to convince businesses to invest and consumers to spend money to get the economy back going again. But the campaign may convince some Americans of the Fed’s importance. That’s why Cee Cee Butler, the former McDonald's worker who was fired Tuesday, and Jean Andre, the man who scouts out locations for films, spent a cold Friday morning outside the Fed.

“I just got out of the shelter two years ago and here I am about to be back in one. I’m not trying to go back there,” Butler said. “My daughter will never walk in my shoes. She doesn’t need to. That’s why my voice needs to be heard.”