Many people – including former analyst for the U.S. Treasury Richard Cook – argue that credit is too important a function to be left to the private banks.
Indeed, even after taxpayers have given trillions in bailouts, backstops, guarantees, and other gifts, the giant banks are still not lending out much credit to individuals or small businesses.
The talking heads say that real reform of this nature is not “politically feasible”. But not politically feasible doesn’t actually mean anything except that the powers-that-be don’t want it.
We have been throwing ourselves against a brick wall trying to force the giant banks into doing the right thing, but as Buckminster Fuller said:
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
A Better Model
So what is a better model?
Gold advocates argue for a return to a gold-backed standard. This would, in fact, be a vast improvement over the fiat currency system we have now, as it would help to stabilize the currency, add discipline and consistency, and reign in the funding of unnecessary wars and other imperial mischief which are funded by the unlimited printing of new fiat dollars.
But Ellen Brown argues that a gold standard restricts credit for the little guy, not just Uncle Sam. If Brown is right – and given that the too big to fails are refusing to lend to most little guys – public banking might be the only way to restore a healthy economy and ease the pain for the average American. (Brown also argues that it was actually the bankers – and not the populists – who forced the adoption of a gold standard in the 1890s, and that the true meaning of the “Cross of Gold” speech has been forgotten).
But as discussed below, it may not be necessary to choose between a gold standard and other options.
National Public Bank
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told Congress last week:
If the Federal Reserve were made a fully public body, it would be an acceptable alternative.
The American Monetary Institute proposes the following alternative:
Incorporate the Federal Reserve System into the U.S. Treasury where all new money would be created by government as money, not interest-bearing debt; and be spent into circulation to promote the general welfare. The monetary system would be monitored to be neither inflationary nor deflationary.
Second, halt the bank’s privilege to create money by ending the fractional reserve system in a gentle and elegant way.
All the past monetized private credit would be converted into U.S. government money. Banks would then act as intermediaries accepting savings deposits and loaning them out to borrowers. They would do what people think they do now. This Act nationalizes the money system, not the banking system.
Bloomberg News columnist Matthew Lynn writes:
The U.K. government needs to start thinking about what it will do with all the banks it now owns. The answer is simple: Hand them to the people…
Instead of selling the stakes it acquired in the financial system to other banks, or listing the shares on the stock market, it could create mutually owned societies. Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc could be a people’s bank, owned by everyone.That would ensure more diversity, competition and stability, all goals just as worthy as getting back the money Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government spent on bank rescues…
Sovereign nations such as the U.S. and England have the power to create credit and money (and see this, this and this). Taking the credit-creation power away from the banks and giving it back to the nation would ensure that credit is freed up for people’s use, and the stranglehold over the economy is taken away from the too big to fails.
State Public Banks
Many people argue that – given its actions – people don’t trust the federal government to create money.
Fair enough. Why not let the states do it?
Michael Moore recommends that the American people demand:
Each of the 50 states must create a state-owned public bank like they have in North Dakota. Then congress MUST reinstate all the strict pre-Reagan regulations on all commercial banks, investment firms, insurance companies — and all the other industries that have been savaged by deregulation: Airlines, the food industry, pharmaceutical companies — you name it. If a company’s primary motive to exist is to make a profit, then it needs a set of stringent rules to live by — and the first rule is “Do no harm.” The second rule: The question must always be asked — “Is this for the common good?” (Click here for some info about the state-owned Bank of North Dakota.)
As Moore notes, the state of North Dakota already has such a bank, and – because of that – North Dakota is just about the only state which is not running a huge deficit.
PhD economist and candidate for Florida governor Farid Khavari wants to create a Bank of the State of Florida, to create credit without burdening the state and its citizens with high interest charges by private banks.
See this for details.
Local Public Banks
An alternative to federal or state public banking is local public banks, as proposed by Edward Kellogg and others.
As summarized by Adrian Kuzminski:
During this time of financial and economic crisis, it is worth recalling that credible alternatives to our current financial system exist, if largely unrecognized, and deserve serious consideration…
The now-neglected 19th-century American proto-populist, Edward Kellogg … was a kind of godfather to the later populist movement on monetary issues. Perhaps the most profound of American writers on monetary issues, Kellogg advocated a decentralized but nationally regulated monetary system based on non-usurious, low-interest public loans to individuals. His vision inspired 19th-century century mutualists, greenbackers, populists, and others who sought to restructure the monetary system to redistribute wealth.
In our own day, when usurious credit in the form of private finance capital remains the dominant force in economic life, and is largely taken for granted even by educated people, the alternative Kellogg offers is more important than ever. Indeed, I suggest that Kellogg’s theory of money is the best monetary alternative we have to the baleful system under which we suffer…
Edward Kellogg (1790-1858) was a New York City businessman whose losses in the crash of 1837 led him to examine the business cycle, monetary policy, and debt. In a series of writings, Kellogg developed the idea of … having the government provide very-low-interest loans to the general public. These loans would have a uniform, fixed interest rate, established by law. They would be issued locally through a system of public credit banks he called the Safety Fund. Once issued, these low-interest loan notes would circulate as currency, replacing the privately issued banking notes of his day (which today take the form of Federal Reserve Notes)…
In his day Kellogg seems to have influenced even Abraham Lincoln who, according to historian Mark A. Lause, ” . . . had his own copy of Kellogg’s book, Labor and Capital [sic] advocating the government issuance of paper currency as a just means of redistributing wealth, and he corresponded with the author’s son-in-law.” Kellogg’s public currency was intended to end the monopoly over the discretionary issuance of money at interest, which was held then (and now) by the private banking and investment system…
Kellogg proposed to establish local public credit banks, and we might imagine one in each community. These local public credit banks would be part of the Safety Fund. Instead of money being issued (as it is now) through a privatized and centralized money-management system on a top-down basis, primarily as loans at increasing rates of interest from a central bank to major commercial banks, and then to regional and local banks, and then to the public, money in his system would be issued by local federal banks as loans directly to citizens at nominal interest on the basis of their economic prospects. Once lent out, Kellogg’s public credit notes would flow into circulation, providing the basis for a new currency backed by the assets of individual borrowers…
A centralized national currency would be replaced, in Kellogg’s system, by a locally issued currency. But that currency would everywhere be subject to common national standards, ensuring that each local public credit bank reliably issued equivalent units of currency. A dollar issued by one local public credit bank of the Safety Fund, Kellogg intended, would be worth the same as, and be freely interchangeable with, one issued by any other. The independence of local branches would be guaranteed by the discretionary power reserved to them as a local monopoly actually to loan money; the compatibility of their monies would be ensured under federal law by fixing the value of the dollar by law at 1.1 percent/year – that is, by lending money everywhere to citizens at that rate…
The goal is to establish and preserve economic decentralization. Amounts of money lent in Kellogg’s system would vary considerably from place to place, with some areas needing and creating more currency than others. The solvency of local federal public credit banks would be guaranteed by collateral put up by borrowers, and the money supply would be stabilized by repayment of loans as they came due. The interchangeability of public credit bank notes would ensure a wide circulation for the new money…
To achieve a stable currency, Kellogg insisted that this rate be fixed by law; perhaps today it would take a constitutional amendment.
What’s the Best Option?
People of good faith debate whether the gold standard, or national, state or local public banking is the best solution.
But they agree that the current fiat currency system where the creation of credit is controlled by the private banks has pushed us into an economic crisis and a credit crunch, with little hope of stability for the future.
Changing to a public banking system and/or reimplementing the gold standard would clearly be a large change. But remember – as Buckminster Fuller pointed out – building a new model is often easier than fighting the existing one.
The time is right for a new model.
Afterword: Is a Gold Standard Incompatible with Public Banking?
Many people assume that a gold standard is incompatible with public banking. But that might not necessarily be true.
An analysis of ways in which a gold standard might possibly complement public banking is beyond the scope of this essay, and I have not yet even thought it through myself. But before ruling out the possibility, I invite financial experts to brainstorm on this issue to see if we can have the best of both worlds.
After all, when currency speculation is removed from the equation, money simply acts as a yardstick to measure the exchange of goods and services so that barter is not necessary. People may be able to create a money system which has the stability and discipline created by a gold backed system. with the credit availability of a public banking system.
Admittedly, the gold standard may at first blush be seen as more conservative than public banking, as the former limits money expansion while the latter encourages it. But as with all liberal-conservative dichotomies, it is important to get beyond labels and to determine what is actually best. Indeed, public banking – especially if it is on the state or local level – would not create easy credit for the government to launch new imperial adventures.