By William Hogeland, the author of the narrative histories Declaration and The Whiskey Rebellion and a collection of essays, Inventing American History who blogs at http://www.williamhogeland.com. Cross posted from New Deal 2.0.
Ordinary 18th-century Americans fought for fair access to small-scale credit and usable currencies. Big finance fought back.
Calling modern banking “a widespread fraud,” Rob Burns wants to push the finance industry out of everyday lending. A candidate for Congress in the fourth district of Illinois, Burns proposes using federally insured savings as a public fund for mortgages, student loans, consumer credit, business bridge loans — the kind of borrowing engaged in by ordinary Americans, not entrepreneurs. On a different finance reform front, the technology pioneer and culture critic Douglas Rushkoff has been exploring complementary currencies. Rushkoff envisions new monetary units, exchanged via handheld devices, helping to break what he calls “the money monopoly.”
Far-reaching ideas for getting money, currency, and credit to flow more democratically through the American economy would probably draw all-purpose condemnations like “socialism!” from the rightists led by Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. Liberal high finance experts too might find such proposals dangerously chaotic. But regardless of practicalities and politics, it’s useful to recognize that ideas like Burns’ and Rushkoff’s have deep roots in the American founding period. The Tea Party has done such a successful job of associating anti-government, free-market politics with essential American values — and historians have been so eager to ignore the economic activism of ordinary, founding-era Americans in favor of assessing and re-assessing the elite founders’ republican philosophies — that it can be startling to confront the democratic theories about popular finance that prevailed in 18th-century America.
And “theories” is the right word. People of the founding period put forth their economic ideas in resolutions, petitions, and actions. In an earlier post in this series, I discussed traditional rioting in the context of struggles between American debtors and creditors. Long before the Stamp Act riots of Revolutionary fame, crowd action — rowdy, creepy, theatrical, sometimes violent — played an important role in American social life. Crowds dismissed by the upscale as “the mob” called their movements “regulations.” From the North Carolina Regulation of the 1760’s to Shays’ Rebellion of the 1780’s and beyond, American debtors, barred from fair representation in politics, engaged in obstruction, boycott, court closing, jury nullification, building teardown, and physical intimidation. They wanted their legislatures to restrain the power of wealth.
Just like Rushkoff and Burns today, 18th-century popular regulators focused on small-scale credit and readily negotiable currencies. Scarcities of cash gave merchants a monopoly on gold and silver coin, enabling them to dominate small farmers, artisans, and laborers through loan shark-style lending terms: debtors, in constant danger of foreclosure, could effectively become merchants’ laborers. Hoping to elude the money monopoly’s clutches, people looked to their colonial governments to create “land banks,” where small operators could take small loans on reasonable terms. Spent by holders on purchases, land bank notes found their way into circulation, becoming a kind of currency that at times came even into the hands of the landless.
Another thing governments could do: issue paper currency. Government notes represented amounts in metal; their value depended on people’s belief that they’d be worth roughly what was printed on them. A commonplace of American history has it that early paper currencies depreciated disastrously, but the reality is far more varied. New England had difficulty making paper finance work, but Pennsylvania successfully alleviated economic crunches using both land banks and its own paper. The trick to encouraging confidence and controlling depreciation was to issue limited amounts of the paper and then to retire it through scheduled taxes, payable in the notes themselves. Depreciation did occur, as it does today. But popular finance activists saw mild depreciation as a natural and democratic effect, benefiting debtors.
Improvised popular currencies existed, too, complementary in Rushkoff’s sense. A craft commodity like whiskey — not a mere instrument of barter but always exchangeable for gold somewhere down the line — held value well.
Merchant lenders, however, wanted to be paid in coin. They wanted the gold that, they believed, held perfect value in imperial trade and which ordinary people could rarely come up with. The people countered by pressuring governments to make paper currencies legal tender, forcing merchants to accept paper at face value for payments and principal — a kind of government program to prevent foreclosure and debt peonage. Lenders forced to take payments worth less, against gold, than when loans were made disdained paper currencies as confiscatory, rotten, mobbish, and vile, “the curse of pulp.”
Lenders may actually have contributed to financial crises by recoiling so violently from any hint of depreciation. Yet their philosophy had a certain consistency. American merchants were already calling the English government tyrannical for violating ancient rights to security in property. Now merchants feared that American governments, vulnerable to what they saw as another kind of tyranny, that of the mob, would take property in another way, through legal tender legislation and state enforced devaluation. The debtor class, for its part, had little interest in what merchants defined as the big picture.
So even as the country moved toward climactic conflict with England, a great social battle raged between American merchants and American working people over credit and currency. We’ve been distracted from that battle’s significance by historians’ relentless focus on merchants’ frustration over Parliament’s trade acts. Those acts included currency laws, which restricted paper emissions in the colonies: sometimes American merchants too had advocated issuing paper. But merchants came to hate paper’s democratizing, socially equalizing tendencies in American society. By the time American elites began relying on ordinary people for help in opposing England — especially on the people’s facility with organized protest! — working Americans’ desire for economic, social, and political equality was driving the merchants’ anxiety to a nearly hysterical pitch.
Our current financial crisis reflects those deep-seated American economic disagreements, wired into events and philosophies that gave birth to our country, were never resolved during that period, and glossed over in certified stories of our origins for more than two centuries. Many people today, of various political persuasions, will want to dismiss thinking like Rushkoff’s and Burns’, which goes far beyond finance reform and asks fundamental questions about how, and for whose benefit, we want credit and money to work in American society. To our little known 18th-century ancestors, the founding activists for democratic finance, those questions would be among the most important we could be asking.
It’s always good to remind ourselves of the true basis of the American Revolution. All the worst features of the reaction of 1787-88 involved entrenching the power of the merchant elite against the real spirit of America and its revolution.
Today when we talk about things like direct money issuance and especially the decentralization of money, we’re only talking about restoring the aims of those who actually fought for Independence (as opposed to the many treacherous hypocrites among the leadership).
Does independence mean dependency upon a bank tyranny, or a corporate tyranny? It obviously does not. The hard, pressing work of the American Revolution has been neglected long enough.
(The only thing wrong with this post is its lying partisanship. These ideas are no less odious to Obama, Reid, and Pelosi than they are to Boener, McConnell, Gingrich, and Romney. And I can’t imagine why, other than pro-Democrat misdirection, fringe figures like Palin and Bachmann warrant a mention at all.)
The magic of the two party branding system. The power of false narratives.
Liberals crack me up. Even the ones who know the role Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, and Gene Sperling played during the Clinton administration, in financial “deregulation”, cannot connect the dots and draw the proper conclusions from, e.g., the fact that Barack Obama’s pick for his chief economic advisor was Larry f%&*ing Summers.
Of course, Republicans are just as stupid and crazy. But at least they don’t preen around going “We’re the smart people’s party!”
The only way the monetary paradigm will change is when the public learns more about how money really works. How it is created? And even more important how it is destroyed?
And how does it relate to inflation and the goods and services production process.
Yes Mansoor. Money, the biggest of all mysteries/taboos.
Mentioned only indirectly in educational curricula, and then hanled more discretly than sex.
Money, you either have it or you don’t, end of discussion!
attempter and khan,
I agree wholeheartedly with both of your sentiments. One topic that sows confusion and incoherence and that causes people to tune out is around the terms “inflation” and “deflation”: different types of inflation — price, currency, asset are often confused; ditto deflation. Price and asset inflation are the flip-side of dollar devaluation but those who are affected by price and asset inflation are vastly different. And price inflation of course can be broken down into separate commodities/service sectors/industrial goods and those affected by these different price inflations are vastly different as well. And dollar devaluation is a cry that echoes long before price inflation ever appears (at least price inflation that is the result of fiscal stimulus); see the teabaggers and their illiterate screeds.
It all quickly gets very confusing for the average person. Is there a book that breaks these and the other main monetary issues down in clear ways that I can recommend to others?
As to Hogeland’s querry about the “fundamental questions about how, and for whose benefit, we want credit and money to work in American society” I have found two great resources:
1) The Populist Moment by Lawrence Goodwyn, and
2) A documentary available on the internet, “The Secret of Oz,” that can be found here.
Also of great interest in this regard is the first chapter of Kevin Phillips’ book Wealth and Democracy where he recounts the history of the Jeffersonians and the Federalists and their diametrically opposed positions on “how, and for whose benefit, we want credit and money to work in American society.”
The Lost Science of Money (Zarlenga). Not a small book, but quite readable, helps one ask the right questions.
When I took my first economics’ classes expecting to learn the basics of something I was actually using in my work; if they had taught something closer to the truth, that the FED is a private banking organization that, when it prints $10, lends out $9 and keeps $1 into infinity with the ability to change the rules regarding how much printing and at what interest rates and leverage as they go along; that would have made more sense than any of the other half truths used to explain, and indeed, cover up the parasitic relationship of banking interests vs the public interest.
Throwing out that explanation to students who would be invited to ask questions would have given us a different more responsible system a long time ago. So, the propaganda machine has been the strongest element controlling societies all over the globe for some time. And the university system its best organized perpetrator.
Like religion, the core principles are a ‘mystery.’ We don’t get to hear what the Bishops really talk about among themselves. And they never defect. Come to think of it, that’s what makes preaching so obnoxious to some of us. On a visceral level, its patronizing; the God professionals talking down to anyone within earshot; literally. You only have to hear someone shouting at the top of his voice (its always a guy) on the street, in the subway to get it.
Instead, propaganda is the rule, branch and root of the economics departments of the university system. Surely some professor or other could have explained the truth simply. Actually, the truth can be explained and understood by grammar school children.
But, no, this stuff is taught as SCIENCE, scripture; new languages to keep the scam going against the people, creating a kind of mental illness that explains the balminess of economics professionals and people like Greenspan rising to the top and BTW, its deviation and opposite in the form of Niall Ferguson.
The proper teaching of economics is the history of economics that teaches its causes and effects on a humanistic level.
It was probably inevitable that, given the fraudulent system was bound to implode upon itself, it would produce its own destruction. Internet communication is the most profound manifestation for that destruction.
We better be fighting the good fight for the free and open Internet. And I don’t see a lot to be encouraged about along those lines.
Don’t sweat it too much LeeAnne. Inspite of efforts to the contrary, the net is holding it’s own. There are lots of good people on the job.
What is more necessary is your physical participation. “Boots on the ground” in Wisconsin (and other places), a few hard earned dollars given in the right places, your love and support for those who are under the gun from bankers and law makers.
and don’t you worry your sweet little head about such matters either.
Although I do not have a horse in the “finance theory of money” race, I urge many of the contributors to increase the scale of their analysis when it comes to arguing about money. We need to all agree on what money is, we need a simple description, empirically based, not just a well articulated premises to begin a line of argument. While I would not trivialize the intelligence of any of the writer here, there does seem to been a diminutive focus on the internal, logical consistency of one theoretical construct or another. This is not good for having a common intellectual enterprise.
Without recapitulating the past ideas and theories set out in NK, I would like everyone from the Wall St Ivy Leaguers to the plebeian, negative net worth due to debt and underpaid status citizens, you English and PolySci majors that have not yet succumbed to law school, to consider new, statutory legal tender. What is money today, in America, is as revolutionary an advance, as printed paper currency was on the Silk Road during the rule of Ghengis Khan.
As a result of 9/11, when all air traffic was grounded, banking in America stopped due to the inability of chartered jets to haul the nation’s paper checks back and forth across the country for ACH clearing at the various, local Federal Reserve banks. As a nation, we were choking on the physical artifact of paper checks. These items carried the largest financial transactions of the citizenry, including payments for payroll with holding tax payments, mortgage payments, rents, car payments, other installment loans, credit cards, student loans, you get the idea. When the jets were grounded, so was this form of banking. Check 21 changed all of that. It is a fact, not a theory, that has altered what money is, in form and function. It has consequences that have not been fully realized, and are only beginning to be exploited by what I would term, the PAYPAL economy.
I would like to suggest, not argue, because I would like to open speculative discussion, that this federal statute be used by the US Postal Service to enter the 21st century, and be the basis of a US Federal Government payment system, that would be freely shared with the states, municipalities, counties, etc. As the postal service loses business to bank bill payment services, I do not think it will be very long before we see a percentage being extorted out of every payment, not just from the merchant side, but from the consumer side as well. Consider the US Postal Service asking you to declare every piece of mail as a financial transaction or not. Then consider them segregating what you send in the mail as having cash value to be surcharged by 1.47% The mail as it is constituted, lets you put whatever you want in an envelope weighing an ounce or less, whether it a photo, a love letter or a check, for the same price. Not e mail. Electronic banking is set up as a toll enterprise. Transaction fees, percentages, monthly statement fees, etc. are all piled on this service. Imagine if the US Postal Service, using the instrumentation and authority of Check 21, offered bill payment services, for a flat rate of a 1st Class stamp, no matter how much the amount. The US Mail, has always been in the financial services industry, but has been disguised as a pillar of banking, without which, banking could not have developed. The rise of electronic banking, paypal, Google CheckOut, all reveal just how vital the Mailman has been to American commerce. From the Sears Catalog to Amazon, the point has never been lost on retailers. I believe that this could be linked with the non profit mutual banking system that is growing more than ever, the Consumer Credit Unions. Notice the descriptive name, it contains Union, which I believe the founding fathers said they wanted to create in a more perfect way.
Paul this is fascinating and I will look into it. Post office as bank is a common concept in Asia– in Japan especially.
Yves, but wait, there’s more! as charming Billy used to say. Kinda miss that guy. Was Lenin right? Have we finally been given enough rope? Looks that way. And our double standard has been exposed because we are treating the big banks with every consideration. We are showing them how to sneak away from the mess they made. Naughty, naughty – big steaming mess. But what was a poor bank to do when they got dumped sooo unceremoniously by the US Treasury? China was no slouch when it came to cutting a good trade deal. Free trade after all, no? The Chinese gave us a very good deal on our treasuries. And left the big investment banks without a product to arbitrage. So the banks turned to home mortgages. Funny. The banks got outsourced.
The solution is actually pretty dang simple in principle, liberty.
The bankers have achieved a de facto money monopoly via legal tender laws for private debts, the IRS, capital gains tax on potential money alternatives, government deposit insurance and a lender of last resort. That monopoly should be abolished so that genuine private money alternatives are possible.
Beware of a government PM (precious metal) standard. Rather than true liberty, some confused “libertarians” think PMs as money is the solution.
Here is a battle over money.
Pwogs sounding more and more like Ron Paul these days. I’d say that’s progress.
My concern about Ron Paul is that his idea of alternative currencies all involve precious metals!
Bu that’s just dumb. A commodity money if used as money is useless as a commodity and vice versa. Furthermore, being non-performing assets, PMs require usury to generate a return.
Common stock is the ideal private money form. It requires no borrowing or lending much less fractional reserves or usury. Furthermore it requires no PMs either though it could easily accommodate them as well as (saner) performing assets.
No need to worry on that front. His ideas have zero chance of being implemented. The whole system, Wall Street and Government, is completely corrupt and fraudulent. People (The American Elites) aren’t so much trying to implement what they think are the best ideas, as they are trying to rip off the rest of society as much as they can.
So his ideas on currencies might not be perfect. Fine, it’s quite possible we’re trying to deal with a problem that doesn’t have a “perfect” solution. The more important thing to note is that our current system has big, big problems and the guy is at least trying to wrap his head around those problems and trying to think about possible solutions. Whereas the rest of the political system, and the idiot left-commentariat were completely out to lunch on this.
So I’m glad that people (on the left) are finally noticing that there really is a problem here.
And to further prod you people into thinking about this: In our current system, who gets to collect the seigniorage?
But currency reform probably is a hopelessly inadequate measure by itself at this point. Personally I think trying to drum up support for auditing the Fed might be a more promising effort.
Cranky: you should know that the audits of the Fed and other institutions can only occur as a post mortem. Allowing audits would be suicidal for the Elite. There would be no more threatening (impending doom) hammer of Debt for them to hold over our heads.
Of course. That’s exactly why I think people should back it. It’s not partisan issue – both Left-populists and Right-populists can back it. If it succeeds in forcing the elites to audit, it would reveal the kleptocratic and fraudulent nature of our system. If it fails, it might still succeed in delegitimizing our system, if large enough majorities of both the left and the right support the effort.
People Power, my friend..:)
You should drop the “troll” part of your handle. You are one of us.
We only need enough government to prevent some other “omnipotent force” from seizing control.
I’m sure most people on this well-informed forum realize “audits” were illegalized by Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm snuck into end of Clinton administration legislation..
Gramm’s wife got board position on Enron following this and other deregulatory legislation..
Competition, why can’t the government compete?
Imagine the revenue the government could generate if it provided financial services. No frills basic banking, savings, & loans. Me, I would rather pay a lower interest for no frills then pay the banksters big bucks for loans, credit & card fees and maintenance fees. The government could charge far less since they would be listed on the stock exchange and would not pay fat salaries and bonuses.
It is a simple idea. North Dakota already does it with their own state bank.
??Doh! Then who would pay for political campaigns, fundraising dinners, and untracable Caman Islands accounts??
should read “would not be listed”
Well, the way I see it, going back to gold and silver backed money is out because the USG would have to buy a whole lot of gold and silver, and frankly, they don’t have the money.
I think the same problem exists with any metal to a lesser degree, so I think other materials deserve some attention.
The really cool thing about fiat currency is that it has no intrinsic value, especially if you can’t earn interest holding it, and I think the allure of this concept is hard to pass up.
So waste products are are a natural candidate for fiat currency. Take plastic for example. Make plastic coins! Think what it would do for our economy if you could pay for oil with one of it’s byproducts? The only downside here is that oil imports could possibly limit production of plastic money and that could limit our money supply.
A way around this problem is to go with Ag waste. Corn husk money, wheat chaff money…see? No more foreign dependence on the size of our money supply. The problem here is we (someone) still has to work making the primary product, and this imposes another theoretical cap on the size of our money supply.
So…what better solution than human waste money? Technology has existed for centuries to process urine into smelling salts. Coinage is just a small step from there. And one can easily imagine dessicated crap coins for the larger denominations.
I have some reservations the concept may not score well in focus group on the first try, but with some marketing of the concept, Washington could prevail. I fully expect some initial comments like “This is piss poor money!” or “Your money is crap!” but most will become weary of complaining as usual. The government could even seek appeasement with the populace and rank presidents on their crappiness and mint the higher denomination coins with the crappiest presidents, descending to the low denomination least crappy presidents.
Then of course if we can pay our taxes in crap, the stuff is ultimately worth something.
There’s a little mystery which would be solved by those “audits” we aren’t going to get Ced. I think this whole scenario is a fraud. When the US dollar gets low enough and gold and silver get high enough, the government may have plenty of gold and silver. I know I don’t have any?? They don’t care that ordinary people around the world starve and die. This is all about control. So if we allow them to continue on this path and to eventually reimpose a gold standard??
If everything in your life including life is taxed, and your government currency is gold based, then the value of said life is exactly how much gold equivalent you can deliver to the government. A nice tight ‘closed loop’.
Btw, you probably will not be allowed to own those Krugger Rands.
When I refer to “Government”, that may not be exactly the entity we think we have ellected.
I read recently the value of gold in Ft. Knox is about $300B at today’s gold price. When QE2 ends the Fed balance sheet will be close to $3 trillion, so that is roughly the amount of “money” out there.
So the USG is a bit short on gold.
Closing the gap would either be hyperdeflationary or hyperinflationary, so that option is out. At least on purpose.
But in case they do anyway, after having a team of economists recommend it, you may not be allowed to own physical gold. But after wiping out your old money, the government will allow you to work for the new gold backed money. This will likely be in a factory making toys for chinese kids.
The other key question is what happens to the something like $30 trillion in USG and private sector debt that was denominated in the old money. Careful what you wish for, if you are over 25 years old chances are some it was yours as a creditor or future beneficiary of some silly government social program.
Ahhh.. most probably China has it’s own reduction program running. The market for ‘kid’s toys in China will possibly be limited to ‘Hand made first editions’. No matter who is in power Ced, I doubt that there is a human standing with the integrity to decide the fate of everyone else.
We’ve been here before, of course. Here’s my blog post on starting up a Govt. bank (from Feb. ’09):
And here’s Paul Romer along pretty similar lines (also from Feb. ’09)
Back around the end of ’08 and the beginning of ’09 there were lots of suggestions about how to nationalise and then denationalise banks which were to all intents and purposes bankrupt. The whole debate seems to be forgotten now.
Gordon; I don’t question your intelligence or intent. However, you are overlooking two big factors.
First, the Nationalization thingy has been dropped because people now realize the magnitude of the insolvency. The nationalization of the four TBTF’S might cost the nation in excess of $6 trillion.
Second, when you talk about a national bank, do you think that either Americans or foreigners would have any trust in a bank managed by the same people who set the guidlines for the last rip off?
Unless you are trading around the actual PM, even a precious metals backed currency is a form of contract. What we need to wrap our minds around is that money is not a store of wealth. It is a contract. When we treat it as a commodity, there is the inclination for everyone to collect as much as possible, so ever more has to be issued and there ends up being far more money than real value to trade for it. Money is not a bunch of notes with discrete value. It is a publicly supported medium of exchange. Money is public property. Not to go all socialistic here, but roads are a public system of physical circulation and no one cries socialism over that.
By the Fed’s own logic of selling debt to reduce the money supply, surplus money is in the hands of those with a surplus of wealth. If we treat the money itself as a form of public commons and not just the banking system, it would be far easier to regulate a stable value. It would not be socialism, as that entailed public ownership of real assets. This would just be an admission of the real nature of a monetary system. As it is, those controlling this medium always try to use that control to leverage all value of all assets into their pockets and that is feudalism.
The solution was hinted at 2000 years ago, in Matthew 22:16-22, separate government and private money supplies. Government is force and the private sector is voluntary cooperation. Government money should only be legal tender for government debts (taxes and fees) and private monies should only be acceptable for private debts. Otherwise we allow either government counterfeiting of private money or private counterfeiting of government money.
You’re right that it’s never wise to leave politicians in charge of the money supply, but the fact remains that whoever controls the currency, controls the market for which it is the medium. I think a useful analogy to consider is that the state functions as the central nervous system of a society, while finance is its circulatory system, so might there be a way to have fairly separate public systems for both?
To carry the biological analogy a little further, what we have now is clogged arteries of economic bottlenecks reducing flow to necessary parts of the economy, in order to feed the surplus of excess fat cells. High blood pressure of quantitive easing, to try to get blood flowing back through the clogged arteries. A weak heart of a Federal Reserve that has used up most of its capacity to further pump money through the system, without bursting a major artery. As well as the rapidly metastasizing cancer of a banking system which has totally lost sight of its supposed function of efficiently transferring wealth within the larger economy and is only obsessed with garnering as much as possible for itself.
When the parasite kills the host, it dies as well. So the real question is how to start over again. That is usually bottom up, as local communities turn inward and start producing their own value and tradable goods. At this stage, it should be educated into people than when they start a local bank, it should be a community bank and not simply a private business.
Remember that politics started as private enterprise. What we would call warlords today, then gentrified into monarchies. I doubt many of those local communities would go back to trusting one individual or group with political authority as personal property, so why trust one party with ownership of the monetary system?
A fair analogy John. I think it is time for an aneurysm, the government has it’s head in a bad place anyway..:(
A contract CAN be a store of wealth as well. But I agree with you money is basically a relationship with other members of society who have agreed to / or are forced to use the same monetary unit.
You may view some similar discussions on the similar subjects at http://www.project-syndicate.org
Here is an interesting one:
I could not dispute that, “Our current financial crisis reflects those deep-seated American economic disagreements, wired into events and philosophies that gave birth to our country,” yet that these “were never resolved during that period” simply is a reflection of how history is not a timeline of the past, but rather part of a living dynamic determining the lattice on which future history will operate. Thus does our current financial crisis stand as a moment at which the American System of Political Economy might at last prevail upon a globe existing far below its ultimate potential under the presently dominating neo-liberal, imperialist, monetarist architecture whose underpinnings relegate it, in fact, hopelessly insolvent.
“Thus does our current financial crisis stand as a moment at which the American System of Political Economy might at last prevail upon a globe existing far below its ultimate potential under the presently dominating neo-liberal, imperialist, monetarist architecture whose underpinnings relegate it, in fact, hopelessly insolvent.”
I could not agree more!
But as I said in an earlier comment on this post this will only occur when the public “grows up” about how money really works. True freedom comes from understanding the truth and accepting it and comes no other way. Everyday, I pray and hope that America (again) becomes beacon knowledge, truth, justice and balance. God Willing it will happen in my lifetime.