NEW YORK (AP) — He's an inflation "hawk" who isn't worried about inflation, a former political candidate appalled by politics, a dissident who views himself as part of the team.
An idiosyncratic figure, Richard Fisher has drawn attention lately as one of three members of the Federal Reserve's policymaking committee who have lined up against Chairman Ben Bernanke's steps to try to stimulate the economy.
The three are a minority — Bernanke's side has prevailed with seven votes — but they represent the highest level of dissent at the Fed in nearly two decades.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, Fisher said his objections aren't with Bernanke, whom he describes as "an unbelievably decent human being."
Rather, he argues that further efforts to lower interest rates won't do any good, will hurt people who need interest income and could threaten pension funds. And he says the Fed's actions give Congress an excuse to delay politically painful agreements on taxes and spending.
"The more we offer accommodative monetary policy," said Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, "the less incentive they have to pull their socks up and do what's right for the American people."
The Fed has already cut short-term interest rates to zero and bought $2.3 trillion in Treasury and mortgage securities to try to force down long-term rates to invigorate growth.
Businesses and consumers are paralyzed by uncertainty, Fisher says, because Republicans and Democrats can't agree on taxes, spending or regulations.
Fisher shrugs off recent political attacks on the Fed's policy decisions. On the eve of its policy meeting last month, Republican leaders urged the Fed against acting further to try to stimulate the economy.
"None of us paid attention to it," Fisher says.
Fisher, 62, has been president of the Dallas Fed since April 2005. Previously, he worked on Wall Street and at Henry Kissinger's consulting firm, ran a wealth-management company and served at the Treasury and as a deputy to the U.S. Trade Representative.
In 1994, he ran as a Democrat for a U.S. Senate seat from Texas. He was trounced.
"I was terrible at it," he says. "I'm the only (Fed committee) member that was stupid enough to run for office."
At the committee's August meeting, Fisher was among three members who opposed a plan to keep short-term rates near zero until mid-2013 unless the economy improves. Last month, the same three voted against a plan to shuffle the Fed's investment portfolio to try to lower long-term rates.
Fisher says he sometimes worries about how history — and his children — will judge how policymakers handled the gravest economic and financial problems since the 1930s.
Here are excerpts of his interview with the AP, edited for length and clarity.
— The economy:
"It's weak enough where something could trip you into negative territory. We're almost on a knife's edge. Too many people are out of work for too long. When you go through a financial crisis, you get knocked down. This will take time, and it'll be slow and it'll be painful. The objective is to keep it moving in a positive direction."
"I'm a 'hawk,' (but) I'm not worried about (the current level of) inflation. (The Dallas Fed's calculation of inflation) has been running about 2 percent. That at least is close to my comfort level. I'd like to see it a bit lower, but I don't want to see deflation. What I am uncomfortable about is the fact that we aren't creating enough jobs."
—Why he opposed Bernanke's last two moves to stimulate the economy:
"If it has no effect, why do it? If we're pushing on a string, then we can accommodate all we want. It won't do any good. And it may well end up undermining confidence. (The public may) think, 'My God, the Fed's going to set the conditions for a resurgence of (inflation) long term.' You are running the risk of doing more harm than good, in part because you're giving (politicians) an exit, a way out from making those very tough decisions."
—What Congress should be doing:
"Provide us with clarity. Right now, nobody knows what the tax regime is going to be. Nobody knows what the spending patterns are going to be. No one knows how much regulatory change is going to take place. The greater the clarity, the more you remove a factor of uncertainty. Even if (businesses) don't like it, they'll figure out a way to navigate their way through it. Right now, there are no decisions being made. And it undermines confidence."
—Dissent at the Fed:
"It's not a revolt, and it's not seditious. All of us have the highest regard for Ben. He's an unbelievably decent human being. Everybody gets listened to very carefully. We don't argue at the table, just so you know. And it really sort of bothers me when they make it sound like the 'dissenting three.' We're all part of the same fraternity and sorority. And we have a discussion. And then we speak to the truth. And we will have differences of opinion. There's a group decision, and you respect the majority."
—Reasons for hope:
"American businesses have driven productivity to the max and cost to the bone. I see enormous potential for job creation. No one can out-compete our guys. And if they get the right signals from the fiscal authorities and they see some encouragement about long-term demand, then we could easily pick ourselves off the mat very quickly. They've driven cost reduction to the max. And the biggest cost factor's labor. So a lot of them are going to be unable to expand when final sales finally start to pick up without hiring people. And I think that ramp-up could occur rather rapidly."
"You do worry about your legacy... The transcript (of Fed meetings) is there. I know my children will probably read it. And I worry whether they'll be proud of their father or not. So forget about scholars. It's, you know, are you doing your job properly? Are your children going to be proud of you, or your grandchildren?"