Paul Volcker, Fed Chairman Who Tamed Double-Digit Inflation, Dies at 92

December 9, 2019, 5:37 PM UTC

Paul Volcker, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board who tamed double-digit inflation in the 1980s, died yesterday at the age of 92.

As a cub reporter, I was assigned to follow Chairman Volcker when he appeared in public, and try, with little success, to get him to say something newsworthy.

Once, when the dollar was soaring in the mid-1980s and rumors were rampant that the Fed had intervened in foreign exchange markets, I joined a scrum of reporters that chased him through the halls of Congress to his waiting limousine, shouting: “Did the Fed intervene?”

The towering man ignored us until he got to his car, then turned and said: “We did what we did, we didn’t do what we didn’t do, and the result was what happened.”

Transparency was not one of his values.

Much later, after the recession in 2009, I invited Volcker to speak at a Future of Finance conference held by the Wall Street Journal just south of London. Most of the financiers there were expressing fears that a wave of regulation in the wake of the recession would dampen financial innovation. By the end of the day, Volcker had had his fill.  

“Wake up gentleman, your response is inadequate!” Volcker told the bankers, adding “I can’t think of any socially valuable financial innovation since the ATM machine!”

But in this age of populism, Volcker’s critical legacy is a reminder that popular democracy has its limits, and that leaders are expected to lead, not just blindly follow public opinion.

Volcker led the fight against inflation in the face of immense popular protest, from both the left and the right. Interest rates soared because of his policies. But he held firm. And the folks in the White House—across two different administrations, one Democratic and one Republican—let him do his business.

In later years, Volcker became a powerful symbol of the fight against global corruption. And to the end, he worked to bring more qualified people into public service. He wanted his legacy to be raising the quality of those entering government. In today’s parlance, he believed passionately in the importance of the “deep state.”

Great men are always easier to identify in retrospect than in real time. But Volcker’s greatness always was unmistakable. He saved the global economy, in the face of immeasurable opposition. And for that, he deserves our deepest gratitude.

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