"The best way to destroy the capitalist system is to debauch the currency," said Lord Keynes.
Ben Bernanke disagrees. A student of the Depression, the Fed chair appears far more fearful of deflation -- a vicious cycle of falling prices, debt defaults, home foreclosures and rising unemployment.
Deflation is what America underwent in the 1930s. A Fed-created bubble burst, causing margin calls to go out to stockholders, who ran to their banks that, besieged, collapsed, wiping out a third of our money. As Milton Friedman, who won a Nobel for his thesis that the Federal Reserve caused the Great Depression, told PBS in 2000:
"For every $100 in paper money, in deposits, in cash, in currency, in existence in 1929, by the time you got to 1933 there was only about $65, $66 left. And that extraordinary collapse in the banking system, with about a third of the banks failing ... with millions of people having their savings essentially washed out, that decline was utterly unnecessary.
"(T)he Federal Reserve had the power and the knowledge to have stopped that. And there were people at the time who were ... urging them to do that. So it was ... clearly a mistake of policy that led to the Great Depression."
Is Bernanke fighting the war of 1929 in 2009? Surely, today, with the explosion in M1, the basic money supply, there is no shortage of dollars out there, even if they are not circulating fast enough.
To end our recession, Bernanke may be running an even greater risk: hyper-inflation. This has destroyed more nations than deflation or even depression.
Recall: It was French military intervention in the Ruhr in 1923, to force payment of war reparations, and Weimar's decision to let the currency fall and pay the French in cheap marks that led to the wipeout of the German middle class, the discrediting of that democratic republic and the Munich beer-hall putsch of Adolf Hitler.
"The first panacea for a mismanaged nation," said Ernest Hemingway, "is inflation of the currency; the second is war. Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin. But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists."
Which brings us to last week's shocker.
The Fed will buy up $300 billion in long-term Treasury bonds and spend $750 billion more buying sub-prime mortgages to remove them from the balance sheets of ailing big banks, to get the banks lending again.
Bernanke is printing money to buy U.S. bonds.