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Nationalize Money, Not Banks

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Reprinted from www.paulcraigroberts.org

We Don't Have To Be In Financial Crisis

In the article below, Herman Daly, a University of Maryland and former World Bank economist, makes the case for 100% reserves. This reform, once a principle goal of important economists, would terminate the ability of the banking system to create credit to finance its own speculations and return the power over money to the government from private banks.

Herman Daly is one of the few economists who are capable of thinking outside the box and who can devise reforms that benefit the people rather than the vested interests.
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Nationalize Money, Not Banks
Herman Daly
Emeritus Professor University of Maryland School of Public Policy

If our present banking system, in addition to fraudulent and corrupt, also seems "screwy" to you, it should. Why should money, a public utility (serving the public as medium of exchange, store of value, and unit of account), be largely the by-product of private lending and borrowing? Is that really an improvement over being a by-product of private gold mining, as it was under the gold standard? The best way to sabotage a system is hobble it by tying together two of its separate parts, creating an unnecessary and obstructive connection. Why should the public pay interest to the private banking sector to provide a medium of exchange that the government can provide at little or no cost? Why should seigniorage (profit to the issuer of fiat money) go largely to the private sector rather than entirely to the government (the commonwealth)?

Is there not a better away? Yes, there is. We need not go back to the gold standard. Keep fiat money, but move from fractional reserve banking to a system of 100% reserve requirements. The change need not be abrupt--we could gradually raise the reserve requirement to 100%. Already the Fed has the authority to change reserve requirements but seldom uses it. This would put control of the money supply and seigniorage entirely with the government rather than largely with private banks. Banks would no longer be able to live the alchemist's dream by creating money out of nothing and lending it at interest. All quasi-bank financial institutions should be brought under this rule, regulated as commercial banks subject to 100% reserve requirements.

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Banks cannot create money under 100% reserves (the reserve deposit multiplier would be unity), and banks would earn their profit by financial intermediation only, lending savers' money for them (charging a loan rate higher than the rate paid to savings or "time-account" depositors) and charging for checking, safekeeping, and other services. With 100% reserves every dollar loaned to a borrower would be a dollar previously saved by a depositor (and not available to the depositor during the period of the loan), thereby re-establishing the classical balance between abstinence and investment. With credit limited by saving (abstinence from consumption) there will be less lending and borrowing and it will be done more carefully--no more easy credit to finance the leveraged purchase of "assets" that are nothing but bets on dodgy debts.

To make up for the decline and eventual elimination of bank- created, interest-bearing money, the government can pay some of its expenses by issuing more non interest-bearing fiat money. However, it can only do this up to a strict limit imposed by inflation. If the government issues more money than the public voluntarily wants to hold, the public will trade it for goods, driving the price level up. As soon as the price index begins to rise the government must print less. Thus a policy of maintaining a constant price index would govern the internal value of the dollar. The external value of the dollar could be left to freely fluctuating exchange rates.

Alternatively, if we instituted John M. Keynes' international clearing union, the external value of the dollar, along with that of all other currencies, could be set relative to the "bancor," a common denominator accounting unit used by the payments union. The bancor would serve as an international reserve currency for settling trade imbalances--a kind of "gold substitute".

The United States opposed Keynes' plan at Bretton Woods precisely because under it the dollar would not function as the world's reserve currency, and the US would lose the enormous international subsidy that results from all countries having to hold large transaction balances in dollars.

The payments union would settle trade balances multilaterally. Each country would have a net trade balance with the rest of the world (with the payments union) in bancor units. Any country running a persistent deficit would be charged a penalty, and if continued would have its currency devalued relative to the bancor. But persistent surplus countries would also be charged a penalty, and if the surplus persisted their currency would suffer an appreciation relative to the bancor.

Keynes' goal was balanced trade, and both surplus and deficit nations would be expected to take measures to bring their trade into balance. With trade in near balance there would be little need for a world reserve currency, and what need there was could be met by the bancor. Freely fluctuating exchange rates would also in theory keep trade balanced and reduce or eliminate the need for a world reserve currency. Which system would be better is a complicated issue not pursued here. In either case the IMF could be abolished since there would be little need for financing trade imbalances (the IMF's main purpose) in a regime whose goal is to eliminate trade imbalances.

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Returning to domestic institutions, the Treasury would replace the Fed (which is owned by and operated in the interests of the commercial banks). The interest rate would no longer be a target policy variable, but rather left to market forces. The target variables of the Treasury would be the money supply and the price index. The treasury would print and spend into circulation for public purposes as much money as the public voluntarily wants to hold. When the price index begins to rise it must cease printing money and finance any additional public expenditures by taxing or borrowing from the public (not from itself). The policy of maintaining a constant price index effectively gives the fiat currency the "backing" of the basket of commodities in the price index.

In the 1920s the leading academic economists, Frank Knight of Chicago and Irving Fisher of Yale, along with others including underground economist and Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Frederick Soddy, strongly advocated a policy of 100% reserves for commercial banks. Why did this suggestion for financial reform disappear from discussion? The best answer I have received is that the great depression and subsequent Keynesian emphasis on growth swept it aside because limiting bank lending to actual savings was too restrictive on growth, which became the big panacea. Also there is the obvious vested interest of commercial banks in retaining the privilege of creating money and lending it at interest.

Now suppose for a moment that aggregate growth has begun to increase environmental and social costs faster than production benefits, thus becoming uneconomic growth. There is much evidence that this is the case. Then a financial constraint on growth (balancing investment with abstinence) would be much needed, and 100% reserves would be a good way to accomplish it. If, however, growth remains the summum bonum of the economy, then we will inevitably borrow against our hoped for larger future income to finance the investments needed to produce it.

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Dr. Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the US Treasury for Economic Policy in the Reagan Administration. He was associate editor and columnist with the Wall Street Journal, columnist for Business Week and the Scripps Howard News Service. He is a contributing editor to Gerald Celente's Trends Journal. He has had numerous university appointments. His books, The Failure of Laissez Faire Capitalism and Economic Dissolution of the West is available (more...)
 

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