Ron Paul’s ideas no longer fringe

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For three decades, Texas congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul’s extreme brand of libertarian economics consigned him to the far fringes even among conservatives. Not a few times, his views put him on the losing end of 434-1 votes on Capitol Hill.

No longer. With the economy still struggling and political divisions deepening, Paul’s ideas not only are gaining a wider audience but also are helping to shape a potentially historic battle over economic policy -- a struggle that will affect everything including jobs, growth and the nation’s place in the global economy.

Already, Paul’s long-derided proposal to give Congress supervisory power over the traditionally independent Federal Reserve appears to be on its way to becoming law.

His warnings on deficits and inflation are now Republican mantras.

And with this year’s congressional election campaign looming, the Texas congressman’s deep-seated distrust of activist government has helped fuel protests such as the tea-party movement, harden partisan divisions in Washington and stoke public fears about federal spending and the deficit.

“People are wondering what went wrong. And they’re not happy with what the government is offering up,” said James Grant, editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, offering an explanation for why seemingly wonkish arguments over interest rate policy and the money supply are spilling over onto ordinary Americans.

Some of Paul’s most extreme views are still beyond the pale for most economists. Despite the eroding value of the dollar, no one expects the U.S. to return to the gold standard, as Paul advocates; most economists think that could wreck the economy.

In their less drastic forms, however, Paul’s ideas are being welcomed by conservatives and viewed with foreboding by liberals. For conservatives, runaway inflation constitutes the biggest potential threat to the nation’s future. Liberals worry that cutting back stimulus efforts too soon could slow or even halt the current recovery.

The debate over that question -- what the basic thrust of U.S. economic policy should be -- is likely to dominate the coming elections and Washington policymaking.

And so far, Paul and his fellow conservatives are on the offensive. President Obama and congressional Democrats are repeatedly pledging not to increase the deficit and to begin cutting back soon.

“I think we’re going to be in for more revival of fiscal responsibility,” said William Niskanen of the Cato Institute, who headed the Council of Economic Advisors under President Reagan.

Niskanen sees the Texas Republican’s increasing influence as stemming from the continued economic weakness. “To this extent, Ron Paul gains voice,” he said.

Paul would go a lot further in cutting back the government’s role than even free-marketers like Niskanen support. If Paul had it his way, for instance, he would do away with the Fed entirely. In his bestselling book “End the Fed,” he lambasted the central bank as an “immoral, unconstitutional . . . tool of tyrannical government.”

Such rhetoric might once have been dismissed as extremism. But Paul’s anti-Fed message has drawn broad support because of the central bank’s failure to restrain the flood of cheap money and excessive risk-taking in the years leading up to the financial crisis.

It has stirred rallies on college campuses and supportive commentaries from Wall Street pundits. More than 300 representatives in Congress have embraced Paul’s ideas for reining in the Fed.

The response “is even more than I ever dreamed,” Paul said in an interview, reminiscing about one evening during his 2008 White House run when University of Michigan students chanted “End the Fed” and burned dollar bills.

Paul, a skinny 74-year-old with a hangdog expression, understands that historical circumstances have thrust his ideas to the fore. “An intellectual fight is going on,” he said.

Paul traces his economic views to his frugal upbringing in Pittsburgh at the tail end of the Depression. He saved pennies from delivering newspapers and helping out his father’s small dairy business.

And his first economics class at Gettysburg College was an eye-opener, Paul said. When a professor explained how banks keep only a tiny part of their deposits on hand and earn money by lending out the rest, Paul discovered one of the “tricks” of the financial system.

Beyond that, Paul’s ideas are grounded in the work of economic thinkers from an earlier era who focused on problems similar to those besetting the U.S. today.

In particular, Paul is a disciple of Ludwig von Mises, an Austrian theorist born at the end of the 19th century who contended that government intervention in an economy would fail because free markets were better at allocating resources and fueling growth.

Having lived through Germany’s devastating hyperinflation in the early 1920s, which helped pave the way for Hitler, Mises wrote long before the Great Depression that over-generous credit policies would encourage excessive borrowing, creating a boom and then a bust.

Mises’ ideas became central to what is known as the Austrian School of economics, which emphasized tight controls on credit and money supply, a strategy that discouraged financial ups and downs but tended to slow growth.

By 1940, when Mises arrived in America, most Western economists had embraced the competing theories of Britain’s John Maynard Keynes, who called for government to stimulate the economy by spending on infrastructure and cutting interest rates.

Obama has largely followed the Keynesian script, as President George W. Bush did when the economic crisis broke.

Paul’s once-lonely espousal of the Austrian School’s ideas has gotten new impetus from conservative economists and Republican political strategists.

“A lot of good ideas were shoved aside because of the Depression and the rise of the Keynesian view of the world,” said George Selgin, an economics professor at the University of Georgia.

Paul contends that Austrian economics explains the most recent financial meltdown: “It says if you inflate too much, if you have no restraint on monetary authorities, you’re going to bring on a crisis.” Now, Paul says, administration policies are leading the country toward disaster.

Selgin and many mainstream economists agree that pumping too much money into the economy can lead to trouble, but they say Paul goes too far.

In the 1930s, say Selgin and many other economists, including Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, the U.S. economy began pulling out of the Depression thanks to federal easing of monetary policy.

The economy tipped back into depression after the reins were tightened too soon.

“In this aspect of the monetary system, he’s just blown it,” Selgin said of Paul.

However, like Mises, whose portrait hangs on his Washington office wall, Paul is intransigent, and that has earned him an ardent following.

“His views are strong and hardheaded, but you’ve got to stand firm or you’ll get blown over in this world,” said Mark Skousen, editor of the newsletter Forecasts & Strategies and a former economics professor at Columbia University.