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Funding Public Health Care with a Publicly Owned Bank: How Canada Did It

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The Massachusetts gubernatorial upset means the President may have to start over with his health care bill. The good news is that there's still a chance for the public option the voters thought they would be getting. How to fund it? The way Canada did -- with credit issued by the government's own central bank.

The story goes that Churchill offered a woman 5 million pounds to sleep with him. She hedged and said they would have to discuss terms.Then he offered her 5 pounds."Sir!" she said. "What sort of woman do you think I am?""Madam," he replied, "We've already established that. Now we're just haggling over the price."

The same might be said of President Obama's health care bill, which was sold out to corporate interests early on. The insurance lobby had its way with the bill; after that they were just haggling over the price. The "public option" was so watered down in congressional deal-making that it finally disappeared altogether.

However, the bill passed both Houses by razor-thin margins, and the stunning loss on January 19 of the late Ted Kennedy's Democratic seat to a Republican may force Obama to start over with his agenda. The good news is that this means there is still a chance of getting legislation that includes what Obama's supporters thought they were getting when they elected him a universal health care plan on the model of Medicare.

That still leaves the question of price, but all industrialized countries except the United States have managed to foot the bill for universal health care. How is it that they can afford it when we can't? Do they have some secret funding source that we don't have?

In the case of our nearest neighbor Canada, the answer is actually that they do. At least, they did for the first two decades of their national health service -- long enough to get it up and running. Now the Canadian government, too, is struggling with a mounting debt to private banks at compound interest; and its national health service is suffering along with other public programs. But when Canada first launched its national health service, the funding came from money created by its own central bank.Canada's innovative funding model is one that could still be followed by a President committed to deliver on his promises.

The Canadian National Health Service Today

Despite what you may have read in the corporate-controlled press, studies show that Canadians are generally happy with the care they receive; and they live an average of 2.5 years longer than Americans. They receive free health service for all diagnostic procedures, hospital and home care deemed medically necessary. People can choose the general practitioners they want; there are no deductibles on basic care; and co-pays are low or zero. Care continues despite changing jobs, and no one is excluded for having a pre-existing condition. Drug prices are negotiated by the government and are paid with public money for the elderly and homeless. For the rest of the population, cost-sharing schemes are arranged between private insurers and provincial governments, with most provinces requiring families to pay small monthly premiums (generally around $100 for a family of four).

According to a 2007 study, the government pays for more than two-thirds of all Canadian health care costs. The US government, by contrast, pays for less than half of these costs. In 2007, the US spent a staggering 16% of GDP on health care compared to 10% in Canada. Health costs paid for out-of-pocket by Canadians amount to less than $300 per capita annually.

But while that arrangement may look good to people in the U.S., it is only a shadow of Canada's former system. The federal government's contributions have decreased significantly, making up only slightly more than 20% of provincial medical care costs in 2002; and this money is largely borrowed by the Canadian government at interest. The portion not paid by the federal government must be borne by provincial governments through taxes. In its early years, however, Canada's public health system was funded under a provision of the Bank of Canada Act allowing the Bank to create the money to finance federal, provincial, and municipal projects on a nearly interest-free basis.

Money Created the Old-fashioned Way by the Government Rather than the Banks

What was extraordinary about the Bank of Canada was not so much that it created money on its books as that it managed to wrest that power away from the private banking monopoly. All banks actually create the money they lend simply with accounting entries on their books. This was confirmed by Graham Towers, the first governor of the Bank of Canada, in hearings in 1935. Asked whether banks create "the medium of exchange," he replied:

"That is right. That is what they are there for. . . . That is the banking business, just in the way that a steel plant makes steel. The manufacturing process consists of making a pen-and-ink or typewriter entry on a card in a book. That is all."

The decision to fund government programs through a publicly-owned central bank was driven by a crisis much like that in the U.S. today. The country was in the throes of the Great Depression, and the money supply had radically contracted, causing businesses to close and unemployment to soar. Many Canadians blamed the private banks for making conditions worse by failing to extend loans.

Prior to the 1935 Bank of Canada Act, private banks in Canada issued their own banknotes, which were regulated less by the government than by the Canadian Banker's Association. The country's largest private bank, the Bank of Montreal, served as the government's de facto banker. By the eve of the Great Depression, interest on Canada's public debt had reached one-third of government expenditures, and many officials believed that the government needed a central bank to come up with the money to pay its foreign debts. A Royal Commission was put together in 1933 which supported creating a Bank. A major debate then ensued over whether the central bank should be public or private.

Much of the credit for the Canadian public banking model goes to a Canadian mayor named Gerald Gratton McGeer. He has been largely lost to history, and his book The Conquest of Poverty has been long out of print; but according to local historian Will Abrams, it was McGeer's lengthy presentations to the Ottawa Common Banking Committee that clarified for bankers, economists and legislators how well a publicly-owned bank could work. McGeer's model was based on the public banking system of Guernsey, an island state between Britain and France. The Guernsey government began issuing currency to pay for public works as far back as 1816. To this day, its system of publicly-issued money has allowed its inhabitants to maintain full employment and enjoy quality infrastructure, while paying modest taxes and without suffering from price inflation.

The Bank of Canada became publicly-owned in 1938 under Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, a staunch supporter of McGeer's vision for a public central bank. King maintained:

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Ellen Brown is an attorney, president of the Public Banking Institute, author of 12 books including WEB OF DEBT and THE PUBLIC BANK SOLUTION, and a candidate for California treasurer running on a state bank platform. See (more...)
 
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Well researched and substantially correct. Good jo... by TomK on Wednesday, Jan 27, 2010 at 12:30:51 AM