What’s Wrong with Our Monetary System and How to Fix It

Something’s profoundly wrong with our global financial system. Pope Francis is only the latest to raise the alarm: “Human beings and nature must not be at the service of money. Let us say no to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules, rather than service. That economy kills. That economy excludes. That economy destroys Mother Earth.”

What the Pope calls “an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules” is widely evident. What is not so clear is how we got into this situation, and what to do about it.

Most people take our monetary system for granted, and are shocked to learn that the government doesn’t issue our money. Almost all of it is created by loans made “out of thin air” as bookkeeping entries by private banks. For this sleight-of-hand, they charge interest, making a tidy profit for doing essentially nothing. The currency printed by the government – coins and bills – is a negligible amount by comparison.

The idea of giving private banks a monopoly over money creation goes back to seventeenth century England. The British government, in a Faustian bargain, agreed to allow a group of private bankers to assume the national debt as collateral for the issuance of loans, confident that the state would be able to service the debt on the backs of taxpayers.

And so it has been ever since. Alexander Hamilton much admired this scheme, which he called “the English system,” and he and his successors were finally able to establish it in the United States, and subsequently most of the world.

But money is too important to be left to the bankers. There is no good reason to give any private group a lucrative monopoly over the creation of money; money creation should be the public service most people mistakenly believe it to be. Further, privatized money creation allows a few large banks and financial institutions not only to profit by simply making bookkeeping entries, but to direct overall investment in the economy to their corporate cronies, not the public at large.

Ordinary people can get the financing they need only on burdensome if not ruinous terms, leaving them as debt peons weighed down by mortgages, student loans, auto loans, credit card balances, etc. The interest payments extracted from these loans feed the private investment machine of Wall Street finance, represented by the ultimate creditor class: the notorious “one percenters.”

There are two main critics of our privatized financial system: goldbugs and public banking advocates. The goldbugs would return us to a gold standard, making gold our currency. The problem is that it would become almost impossible to borrow money since the amount of gold which could be put into circulation is relatively miniscule and inelastic. They is no way easily to expand the supply of gold in the world

Credit—the ability to borrow money—is vital to any economy. If we cannot borrow against the future for capital investment—roads and infrastructure, housing, businesses, hospitals, education, etc.—then we cannot fund essential services. To that end, we need an elastic money supply.

Public banking advocates—like Stephen Zarlenga and Ellen Brown–appreciate the need for credit. Their aim is to transfer the monopoly on the creation of credit from private to public hands. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that this form of “progressive” state finance would be any better than private finance.

If we had a truly democratic government actually accountable to the public, such a system might work. But in fact governments in the United States and most developed countries are oligarchies controlled by special interests. A centralized public bank—without a political revolution–would likely favor government contractors and continue to squeeze borrowers for interest payments, now supposedly directed to “the public good.”

This is curiously reminiscent of the system in the old Soviet Union and today’s China, where a political nomenklatura ends up calling the shots and enriching itself. Our current system of centralized private finance, as well as the “progressive” proposal of centralized public finance, are no more than twin versions of top-down financial control by an elite.

Fortunately, there is another model available. There is a long tradition in America, beginning with colonial resistance to “the English system,” and continuing with anti-federalists, Jeffersonians, Jacksonians, and post-Civil war populists. This tradition opposed any kind of centralized banking in favor of some kind of decentralized issuance of money.

The idea they developed is to prohibit any kind of central bank—public or private—and instead have money issued exclusively locally on the basis of good collateral to individuals and businesses. It’s a grassroots, ground-up approach. Priority is given to local citizens and businesses, who can get interest-free loans from local public credit banks to finance what they need to do.

Such a system would have to be publicly regulated to ensure fair and uniform standards of lending at the local level. It would, in that sense, be a public banking system. The absence of a centralized issuing authority, however, would prevent any concentration of financial power, public or private.

Any top-down system of financial control—private or public—presupposes some kind of control by elites, that is, some kind of central planning, whether in corporate board rooms or in the offices of government agencies, or some combination of both. The historical record suggests that such top-down decision-making is inevitably self-serving, distorted, and socially counter-productive.

Indeed, whether public or private, it is the love of money empowered by centralized finance which creates the “economy of exclusion and inequality” which Pope Francis decries.

The decentralized system of populist finance would operate with no central planning. Instead, countless local decisions about lending and credit-worthiness would function as a genuine “hidden hand” of finance, one which would be self-regulating. Here the love of money would find no way to leverage its power. Instead it would be dispersed among the general population, as it should be, without burdensome interest charges, to the benefit of all.

When people talk about the gold standard they usually mean defining money in terms of some fixed quantity of the stuff. At one time, for instance, the US government guaranteed that $35 would buy you a troy ounce of gold.

That’s not a pure gold standard, but one in which gold is mixed up with paper money, that is, bills, certificates, or other so-called token guarantees whose ratio to gold is supposed to be fixed, but which historically has in fact fluctuated wildly.

A pure gold standard would be one in which only gold coins circulated as currency, with no piggy-backing paper money or other so-called token guarantees redeemable in gold available.

Until the invention of credit on a large scale in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that was basically the case. Most Western economies at that time relied on gold and/or other precious metal coins, and little else, for their currency. If there was ever a pure gold standard, that was it.

Gold coins were the basic medium of exchange. Silver and other portable valuables were also used, but let’s stick to gold for the sake of simplicity. The key point is that all such items all had an intrinsic value; we can call them commodity monies.

Most exchanges were therefore reciprocal, that is, equal value for equal value. Since gold has an intrinsic value, its exchange for a product or service fully satisfied any transaction. This is in contrast to an exchange based on debt, or a promise to pay, which is not immediately satisfied, but deferred.

Such credit as was available locally for most people back then was relatively short term or seasonal, say in advance of the next harvest. Such promises were often recorded, but did not circulate as a medium among third parties, that is, they were not yet money.

More extended forms of credit certainly existed—most notably the bills of exchange of merchants—and they were important, particularly in long-distance trade for luxuries and some basic commodities (grain, salt, etc.). But they were specialized and limited in scope. Usury was widely condemned, making lending even less attractive to anyone with money. Savers tended to be hoarders.

It is difficult to create credit with a commodity currency like this because money has to be lent out almost entirely from existing savings. The money supply, as a result, was highly inelastic; it could expand only in the event of significant new discoveries of precious metal reserves.

Indeed, it was only the discovery of vast gold reserves in the New World which allowed the gold-based money supply to expand. This permitted new investment in commerce, and helped fuel the expansion of trade and manufacturing we associate with the rise of early Modern Europe.

But credit, still tied to gold, remained hard to get, and the bulk of early modern economies remained on a largely local and subsistence level. It was the goldsmiths of seventeenth century England who were among the first to figure out how to get around the inelasticity of gold and commodity monies.

They discovered that only a relatively few depositors would claim their gold at any one time; as a result they found they could lend out far more to borrowers—in the form of certificates redeemable in gold–than the amount of deposits they actually had on hand, and that they could get away with it (most of the time).

This multiplication of credit through what we now call fractional reserve banking, along with other credit innovations in what some call the financial revolution of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, made it possible to fund economic growth far beyond what a pure gold standard would allow.

The key thing was the substitution of various tokens purportedly redeemable in gold for gold itself. At that point gold became identified with and highly leveraged by these various new financial tokens, which were ever less tethered to their gold base.

The so-called classical era of the gold standard—even at its height between 1870 and 1914—was not a pure gold standard at all, but one enormously amplified by credit instruments pyramided on top of gold reserves.

When we talk about the gold standard in modern times, we are really talking about a series of financial instruments—fractional reserve banking, a national debt, central banks, securities markets, usurious interest, etc.—which created a ballooning pyramid of tokens merely representing gold.

The final, long-delayed collapse of the largely symbolic modern gold standard during the Depression, confirmed by Nixon’s removal of the United States from any last link to gold in 1971, made official what was already plain: that most money had in fact long been issued as debt, with less and less significant backing by any precious metals.

In this light, it isn’t hard to see what the call for a return to any sort of gold standard really means. In its pure form, it means the return to a highly inelastic money supply, last seen in the Middle Ages. I don’t think that’s what goldbugs have in mind, though it might be where we end up in a severe post-collapse scenario.

Otherwise, it means a mostly symbolic link to a precious metal, no doubt psychologically satisfying to some, but unfortunately little more than a convenient obfuscation to the powers that be for how the monetary system, which is killing us, really works. I don’t think that’s what the goldbugs want either.

• This article was first published at Cluborlov

Adrian Kuzminski is the author of The Ecology of Money: Debt, Growth, and Sustainability (2013) and Fixing the System: A History of Populism, Ancient and Modern (2008). He is also a Moderator of Sustainable Otsego, an environmental social network in the Cooperstown, NY, area. Read other articles by Adrian.