There are a number of loosely-related economic ideas which offer alternatives to capitalism as it’s currently practiced. (That’s not the only way to run an economy, or even a market economy.) These are also alternatives to socialism, which so far has been the chief competitor of capitalism, and not a very successful one. These Third Position ideas are in their origins vaguely Fascist and even more vaguely Catholic, but this isn’t inherently so and can be implemented by other societies.
I’ve mentioned Distributism before. Another one is social credit. Greg Johnson featured this, and some related concepts, in the article Money for Nothing. It’s quite interesting, worth a read in its entirety, but I’ll hit a few highlights. The evocative opening goes like this:
Everybody knows you need to work for your money. And if somebody just gives you money, that can only be by the expropriation of somebody else’s labor. Money just doesn’t grow on trees, after all.
But is this really true? Just because you work for your money, did the guy who paid you also work for it? What about the guy who paid him? If you follow the money trail long enough, you are going to find someone who did not work for his money. He simply got it for nothing. He did not even have to go to the trouble of picking it off trees. He just created it out of thin air by bookkeeping. We call this man a banker.
It’s a point of Fascist economics that wealth is created when someone does or produces something of value. (Remember this one; it’s important.) By contrast, Johnson illustrates that the modern world economy is run on fairy dust. This probably isn’t much of a surprise to many people, no matter what their political views are.
Fractional reserve banking
Johnson’s essay doesn’t explain the fractional reserve system, but I’ll fill in this detail. Here’s how it works. First, depositors put their money into banks. One reason why is because it’s safer than stuffing cash into a mattress. (Well, that depends.) Also, the banks pay interest on deposits, at least for savings accounts. When I was a kid, it was 5.25%; these days, 1% is a pretty decent rate. It’s better than nothing, but doesn’t even get you ahead of the inflation rate.
Banks are required to keep a certain percent of deposits on reserve. However, the rest they can use to make loans. Naturally, it’s at a higher interest rate. The vigorish differential is how the banks make their own profits.
It’s rather hard to get around this. Few people have enough cash on the barrelhead (or even liquid assets) that they can spare to buy a new car, much less a house. In fact, there are laws against accumulating large amounts of cash. This was meant as a measure against the drug trade, not that it’s been terribly effective. Now it’s technically illegal to stuff your mattress with thousands of bucks.
Fractional reserve banking does have a couple of hazards. The first is if lots of people welch on their loans at once. The second is if depositors all line up and ask for their money back at once. These things can happen when the economy is very shaky. Naturally, a widespread banking crisis makes things worse. All that is the short version, but I’ll resist temptation to monologue about it.
Some other problems
So the takeaway here with the fractional reserve system is that the banks are using money that doesn’t actually belong to them and making a profit from it. The loans they make do have to get paid back, of course, with interest. If this doesn’t happen, they repossess and sell the collateral. As for business loans, it’s not a profit-sharing method like a corporation that issues stocks. Instead, the loan has to be paid back whether or not the business does well. Essentially, when a bank makes a loan, it’s selling time at a markup.
Most of their customers do have productive jobs – building cars, driving fork lifts, unclogging sinks, whatever. However, the banksters themselves aren’t producing anything. Instead, they’re continually skimming off a percent of the wealth generated by their customers. One problem is that this racket eventually causes a relatively small number of individuals and their financial institutions to become insanely wealthy. The top banksters are a few people engaged in a profitable but non-productive activity, living off of the productive masses. Might there be a better way?
Also, they’re recirculating back into the economy lots of money that’s technically on deposit. Easy credit is an inflationary pressure. It’s just like if the government printed up a bunch of money and dropped it into the economy. Both activities essentially involve creating money out of thin air. Much of Johnson’s article is about whether the government could do just that and cut the banksters out of the gravy train.
The Federal Reserve
Anyone who looks closely at a dollar bill and sees the words “Federal Reserve Note” on it might think that this is already happening; business as usual. Actually, the Federal Reserve is a private banking consortium. Whenever the US government needs to spend more money than it already has, it turns to those guys. Note well, this has been every year since day one, except for a brief period beginning with the late 1990s tech boom and ending with the 21st century’s spit-in-your-eye wars. Congress just doesn’t have a good track record of balancing the budget. Many of those guys can’t even balance their own checkbooks.
To make up for the shortfall, the Federal Reserve then sells what are basically long-term bonds. The buyers then get a modest interest rate from them. Eventually the government pays back the holders of the treasury bills. However, with the budget perpetually out of balance, it’s a matter of kicking the can down the road. Anyway, don’t try this at home, kids; counterfeiting is illegal.
Again, interest goes to the holders of the treasury bills. I’m not sure what the Federal Reserve’s own piece of the action is, but presumably these guys haven’t been doing this since the 1930s for charity. Note well, I don’t regard them as quite the source of evil that some people do; there are far worse New World Order institutions out there. Still, these guys are overhead on the US economy as well as unelected officials with a lot of power.
Deficit spending is rather like someone who relies on credit cards for shortfalls in the household budget and keeps sinking deeper. This doesn’t make sense. That’s a good way to lose thousands of dollars annually on interest. Eventually the party is over when the plastic is maxed out. It’s a little different in Washington, though. Congress just votes to raise the debt ceiling whenever they hit the limit.
Another hazard is the influence of financiers on government through campaign contributions, which is basically legalized bribery. Your neighborhood credit union isn’t the problem, but the richer-than-God banksters certainly are. Since budget deficits are their bread and butter, they love big government and they love expensive wars. This type of profiteering actually goes pretty far back in history.
Money is fairy dust
As Johnson notes, money is an agreed-upon medium of exchange. It doesn’t have to be worth anything in itself. The gold bugs might take us to task for that, of course. I’ll add that the reason why the gold standard worked was because of the scarcity principle – there’s a limited amount of it. During the Great Depression, switching to paper money was an expedient means of getting around that problem and borrowing against future prosperity. Theoretically, dollars were still backed by gold, but the public couldn’t get any.
In 1976, the dollar was decoupled from the price of gold, which probably contributed to the double-digit inflation soon to follow. During the 1980s, cranking interest rates up fixed that problem, though it created some other turbulence. So the horse has left the gate long ago. Going back to the gold standard doesn’t much seem to be in the cards. Bitcoins are the high-tech equivalent to that. However, its wild fluctuation in value isn’t particularly encouraging.
One of the proposals is to put an expiration date on money. This is rather similar to what inflation already does – dollars stuffed into a mattress will lose purchasing power over the years as prices keep rising. If money clearly expired, it would be an economic stimulus as people would want to spend what they have fairly quickly. Still, this proposal in particular still seems a little much. No shopkeeper would want a bill that’s soon to be worthless. It needs some finesse to make it work right, and I’ll touch on what could be done later.
Hoarding by billionaires can be a problem. This is especially so if they’ve cashed out of the stock market at the top when they get advance notice of trouble ahead, then wait until they can buy at the bottom a year or two later. However, savings by private individuals isn’t the problem. Actually, having a reserve of emergency cash is a pretty good idea. It’s even better yet to have a few months of “fuck you money” since most people only have their job as a single income stream.
Crashing the economy
Johnson points out the following:
Ideally money should be a self-effacing servant of the real economy, which produces actual goods and services. But money has grown into a jealous tyrant that interferes with the real economy. The simplest example is your average economic crisis. In an economic depression, the land does not suddenly go sterile. The udders of cows do not go dry. Men do not suddenly become stupid and lazy. The sun keeps shining; the crops keep growing; the chickens keep laying; people keep working. Goods pile up in warehouses and stores. And on the demand side, people still need to eat. But silos are bursting and people are starving because, for some mysterious reason, there is suddenly “not enough money.”
That’s rather reminiscent of the quaint Biblical expression, “The money failed”. Crashing the economy is older than dirt.
People have no money to spend, or they are afraid to part with the money they do have, because of a climate of uncertainty. After all, half way around the world, a massive swindle has been discovered; a bank has collapsed; a speculative bubble has burst. So, naturally, back in Hooterville, stores are filled with sour milk and rotting vegetables and children are going to bed hungry.
Indeed, it gets fairly absurd. He discusses the last big one and how the government responded. At the end of his term, Bush the Younger had stimulus checks mailed out to the public. (Probably most people used them to pay off some pressing bills, easing the desperation for that month.) It was hoped this would generate new consumer demand and shake some rust out of the economy. However, it didn’t work any better than when Bush the Elder tried the same thing back on his watch.
Other than that were the bankster bailouts that came later. Some of the “too big to fail” recipients used all the taxpayer money to buy into the stock market at the lowest point. Since they did that, did they really need all those billions to keep from going insolvent like they said? This didn’t really benefit the public. This massive bailout went to the financiers who had just crashed the economy, helping them turn a very tidy profit after the stock market started going back up. Sweet!
How gibsmedats could be handed
Johnson proposes just sending citizens a monthly stipend, printed up without banksters in the picture. It would be a substitute for Social Security and other benefits payments. Those who want better than subsistence incomes can get a job as usual, of course. It’s about like the reverse income tax idea which has been floated but turned out to be too liberal even for Congress when the Democrats were the majority. On the plus side, a single payment (rather than several programs) with no means testing would cut down on the bureaucracy.
To this discussion, I’ll add that if it’s done, the gibsmedats could be issued as a complementary currency that does decline in value slowly. It’s a compromise from the “money with an expiration date” concept. That sounds a little odd, but actually has worked. Still, keeping the money velocity high isn’t much of a concern; people with EBT cards generally spend what they have pretty quickly as it is.
A potential weakness in the argument is that the gibsmedats would still be more costly than what the banksters are skimming off of the economy. About a third of the US budget goes into social services as it is. The expense would approximately double if people who work for a living are eligible for monthly payments too. So the government would have to tax them more, about like crazy European rates, then give some of it back to them every month. That much seems unnecessary.
Ultimately, it seems that we couldn’t get around taxation to supply the gibsmedats, no matter what the scope would be. Perhaps I’m not understanding the theoretical model correctly, but if so, I’d like to see it work on a small scale first before rolling it out to a major country. A large welfare state might well encourage mass laziness, though Johnson does address that.
Sure, some people might choose to spend their time smoking dope and strumming guitars. But one of them might be the next Goethe or Wagner. And surely we would be better off extending the adolescences of a million bohemians than supporting a thousand scheming Wolfowitzes, Madoffs, and Shylocks along with all their warmonger and pornmonger cousins.
That’s a little blunt, but he does have a point. Anyway, if the choice is whether to benefit slackers or banksters, I’d choose neither. However, it doesn’t seem to be an essential feature to the overall proposal.
Socializing the production of fairy dust
Rather than banks making loans, the government could be doing that. This primary element of social credit has been done before, and it worked. If I recall correctly, it was a brief experiment in Britain. However, these days we’d have to get better politicians. Their meddling – forcing banks to write mortgages for subprime borrowers who had no chance of paying them back – contributed to the last economic crisis. We wouldn’t want to let those guys screw the pooch again. Before we can get social credit, we need regime change first.
Why should the government allow banks to create money and then loan it, at interest, to the government, when the government can create money itself? The very existence of public debt goes back to the time when money was something of intrinsic value (like gold) that banks might possess and that the government could not just make up.
Bingo! This is one of the best points. The government certainly could sell treasury bills itself,whenever they have to borrow money (which is pretty much always) rather than having the banksters do that and get their piece of the action. The Constitution states clearly that Congress has the authority to coin money, but long ago, FDR farmed that out to the Federal Reserve. It’s time to retake control.
The peace dividend
I’ll add some other observations. Cutting the banksters out of the money creation process also would remove some of the behind-the-scenes pressure to get involved in costly spit-in-your-eye wars. Spreading democracy one bomb at a time hasn’t been as productive as expected.
Another source of pressure comes from the military-industrial complex. That could be fixed by socializing the arms industry. It’s been done before. Even though the Soviet Union had a notoriously lousy economy, they still made pretty decent military hardware. The Russkies probably weren’t making $800 hammers, either.
The last element of pressure is from foreign lobbies, such as AIPAC, for example. That won’t get fixed until politicians grow a pair and tell them to go fight their own wars instead of using us as unpaid mercenaries. American soldiers getting shot up on the other side of the world gets old after a while. Ezra Pound, who was a pioneer of the social credit idea, wouldn’t have been surprised too much by this, but all that’s another story.
The long-term picture
Later Johnson discusses prospects for the future. Technology eventually could allow us to reduce working hours, and maybe one day robots will do all the work. The plutocrats are already salivating about this. One of their fans gloated that in the future, anyone who doesn’t have a $200,000 salary will be unemployed. So after over 90% of the country has been put out of work, the billionaires will live like gods on the earth, and most of the public dies of starvation. I’m sure it’ll be a lot of fun until the public goes French Revolution on them.
If instead we can get the plutocrats off of the gravy train, then all the public benefits from technological advances. Johnson’s perspective on how the future might work is pretty interesting; again, it’s worth a reading in its entirety.