For a sense of how much more useful monetary policy could be, one can look to the Great Depression.
By 1933, short-term interest rates were near zero — just as they are today. As I described in a 1992 academic article, Franklin D. Roosevelt took the United States off the gold standard in April 1933, and rapid devaluation led to huge gold inflows and a large increase in the money supply. Roosevelt also made it clear that the monetary expansion would not be reversed. Expectations of deflation, which had been enormous, abated quickly. As a result, with nominal rates at zero, real interest rates (the nominal rate less expected inflation) plummeted.
The first types of demand to recover were ones that were sensitive to interest rates. Automobile production, for example, jumped 42 percent from March to April in 1933. Inflation did pick up somewhat in the mid-1930s, in part because of other New Deal measures like the National Industrial Recovery Act. But the inflation was modest, and after the crushing deflation of the early 1930s, widely celebrated.
THE triumph of hawkish views on inflation means that there is no appetite today for a Roosevelt-style, inflationary monetary policy. But that doesn’t mean the Fed couldn’t be more aggressive if the empiricists were willing to risk a split with the theorists.
In a strongly worded article and speech several years ago, before he was Fed chairman, Ben S. Bernanke provided a user’s manual for responsible but unconventional monetary policy. Mr. Bernanke focused on Japan in the 1990s, but his recommendations could apply just as well to the United States today.
The Fed could engage in much more aggressive quantitative easing, both in size and in scope, to further lower long-term interest rates and value of the dollar. It could more effectively convey to markets its intentions for the funds rate, which would also lower long-term rates. And it could set a price-level target, which, unlike an inflation target, calls for Fed policy to take past years’ price changes into account. That would lead the Fed to counteract some of the extremely low inflation during the recession with a more expansionary policy and lower real rates for a while.
All of these alternatives would be helpful and would retain the Fed’s credibility as a defender of price stability. And any would be better than doing too little just because some Fed policy makers believe in an unproven, theoretical view of how inflation works.