Making Money and Losing It

Ever wonder why you just can’t “get ahead”? Well, it’s all part of the larger scheme of things. Oh, I know, some folks do get ahead in one way or another and to one extent or another. But only the very few – the less than one percent – really make money and keep it or even accumulate enough wealth to leave a sizable inheritance to their children. The number of Americans literally living from hand to mouth has grown astoundingly high, especially since the ascendancy of the new financial elites with the deregulation of financial markets. To understand it all we have to step outside of our ordinary ways of thinking about money, value, and our lives.

In a moral economy, things would be different. But that’s not where we live. Our economic system has devolved from open competition of individual entrepreneurs in wide open environments, to a closed system of centralized economic growth in denial of limits. The perpetual-growth economy is controlled by giant investment banks and hedge funds and runs on debt-based money. That means money is created by debt itself.

On first thought that doesn’t make much sense; money is supposed to represent value, not debt. But that is not how it has been set up ever since the private central banks were given control, indeed ownership, of the creation of money. Instead, money is a product of the strange relationship between the nation and its private bankers. The Federal Reserve System was established as the “lender of last resort.” in 1913. This was meant in part to respond to fiscal crises such as the financial panic of 1907. The other part was a quiet takeover of the money system by the big private investment banks.

Making Money by Indebting a Nation
Some argue that the creation of the Fed as an independent agency was in fact a takeover of the function of a national central bank by the private bankers of the time. That view has significant historical validity. Though chartered by the U.S. Congress, the Federal Reserve System consists of twelve tax-exempt regional Federal Reserve Banks organized and operated as private corporations. Most importantly, the Fed was given control over the creation and lending of money.

Absurd as it sounds – and ever so costly –the national currency is not created by the Treasury. The Treasury only acts as a printing shop for the Fed. In effect, the Fed is a private banking cartel that lends to the government and to member banks the money it creates by generating public debt. So, to conduct its operations, the government has to “borrow” money from the Fed, which sells Federal Notes and Bonds to represent that debt. The U.S. Treasury can only offset that debt by collection of income taxes and other revenue. A lot of technicalities in this process obscure the basic fact that the right of the nation to produce its own money was high jacked by the biggest banks – “members” of the Fed – back in 1913. That has cost us all dearly ever since.

The Federal Reserve issues Federal Reserve Notes and Bonds. These draw interest for the buyer and charge the government, in whose name the Fed issues these debt instruments. So, the money the government ‘spends’ is owed to those institutions which ‘buy’ from the Fed the bonds and notes that signify the debt. One might say that the Fed is a “free rider” middleman. This process indebts the government – that is, the people – for all the currency, whether paper or electronic, that the Fed issues as part of its monetary policy.

Perpetuating Public and Personal Debt for Fun and Profit
The government becomes indebted in its turn to the ‘creditor’ institution or nation that bought the bond, for its face value plus any interest that accrues over time. The Fed is owned by its member private Big Banks, which have a sweet deal we’d all love to get a piece of but never will. The Fed issues credit to the Big Banks, say a billion dollars, and the Big Banks in turn loan out many multiples of the billions it ‘borrows’ from the Fed. Since the crash of 2008, the deal has been especially sweet, since the Fed charges a near zero interest rate. The Big Banks get to charge market rates for multiples of the funds borrowed for next to nothing. Huge profits beget huge bonuses for bank executives, not to reward some kind of executive performance, but for their just ‘being there.’

We should all be so lucky. But we are not. The average person, small business, or even not-so-well connected corporation has to borrow from the institutions run by the financial elite – the Big Banks – in order to initiate a major project of whatever kind. That borrowing had to be paid back with interest, so that whatever is done with the money has to “earn” more money than was borrowed in order to pay back the loan. That is often not easy. Just paying a mortgage seems to take forever. Even at a “reasonable” interest rate for a thirty year mortgage, most folks “pay back” more than double what we originally borrowed.

But in any case, what most people don’t understand is that the result of all this is that more money is always owed than is “out there.” If every loan requires repayment plus interest, where does the interest come from? Well, from “profit” or from wages, if the borrower is lucky. But that profit or wage comes from money already in circulation; that money in circulation was also created as debt. So, the only way for all money owed to be paid back is for more debt to be created, releasing more dollars into the money supply, paying off prior debt.

Reaching the End Game
Sound like a Ponzy scheme? If it does, that means you are paying attention. It is essentially no different than a Ponzy scheme. The whole house of cards stands on a perpetual expansion of debt that enables previous debt to be paid and the system to continue. That is only one of the reasons why the debt based economics of endless growth cannot ultimately be sustained. Debt cannot be expanded indefinitely.

There is another reason the debt-based growth economy cannot continue indefinitely. As with any exponential scheme of expansion, the limits of its environment eventually constrain it from continuing. That is where we are today with reference to “capitalism as we know it” and the material limits of the planet earth.

If you know anything about population growth, you recognize that a seemingly small percentage rate of growth after a few generations results in a very large number of people. From our current world population of around seven billion, growing at a moderate rate, we will soon have a population that by anyone’s measure cannot be sustained on one planet. One additional fact is important. A relatively small proportion of world population participates in the industrial growth economy but everyone else – of course – wants to. That is why more and more people everywhere find it increasingly difficult to “get ahead.” The game is almost over; it has reached its limits. Current world financial instabilities are symptoms. Economies with social purpose must replace mindless growth for the purpose of concentrating wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

Another way is possible and necessary. Money is inherently a public good. It is an inherent right of the nation itself to maintain sovereignty over its monetary system. The central banking system should be nationalized and subjected to public policy rather than be driven by private profit for financial elites in opposition to the public interest. Then, money could be based on credit, properly invested in the public interest, and thereby eliminate most of the false public debt it has caused by having been privatized.

Global Capital, Illusions of Wealth, and the Walking Dead

Any genuine scientific analysis of the trajectory of global capital is hard to find. Economic history is rife with ideological stories of “wealth creation,” “capital formation,” and the mythical “invisible hand.” What is capital? What is wealth? What is money? Well, they are all pretty much taken for granted in most economic thinking – conveniently so for the financial elite. On top of that, economics itself has been dominated by the ideology of the power elites that dominate society. Little room is left for science. International finance and the ‘wealth of nations’ are managed in very strange ways – I describe them below in a highly condensed sketch.

Global Capital and Central Banks
Put as succinctly as I can, during the industrial age finance (the management of capital) has gradually become globalized. But it was not international trade that spurred the emergence of a global financial network of banks. It was more a matter of the most powerful banks forging a network of control over the monetary systems of nations. In fact, industrial development and the human misery that has accompanied unprecedented wealth have always involved a struggle between public and private control of money and banking.

Each historical example of public banking and sovereign control of national currencies has been accompanies by prosperity and stable prices, then followed by an assault on public authority by private banking. Usually, this has led to the “privatization” of what is in its essence a public utility: money and banking. Benjamin Franklin explained to the British parliament how the Pennsylvania and other colonies were funding their economies by issuing credit in the form of paper script not “backed” by gold or silver to stimulate commerce, leading to unexpected colonial prosperity. Soon King George banned colonial script, and Parliament passed a Currency Act, requiring all taxes to be paid in gold or silver, forcing them to borrow from the Bank of England at usurious rates. That put an end to colonial prosperity based on public credit and gave a strong impetus to revolution.

Numerous other examples, from Canada to New Zealand, Lincoln’s “Greenbacks,” etc., eventually let to a cartel composed of the central banks of each nation, each privately owned and coordinated by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in Geneva, itself owned by the central banks. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) impose financial requirements and lend to ‘developing countries’ in support of the interests of global capital in dominating national economies.

So, the currencies and banking requirements of nations are controlled by the private international banking cartel. The control of national economies in the interests of central banks, causes booms and busts in their pursuit of bank profits and control of national economies. Today, each central bank is largely controlled by its relationships to the cartel. Governments take a back seat to the whole of global finance, and their economic and monitary policies are subordinate to the global capital markets controlled by the BIS, the IMF, and the WB, all operated in the interests of the banks, not nations.

Illusions of Wealth
Most of the ‘highest values’ of modern economic ideology are buzzwords for the mechanisms by which the Big Banks control national economies and extract vast amounts of “wealth” from them.

“Free Trade,” for example, is actually the freedom of giant corporations and the giant banks that finance them to exploit labor internationally and avoid any responsibility for environmental damage they do in the nations in which they operate. “Financial innovation” is actually the various schemes of the Big Banks to extract phantom wealth out of the banking system by ‘packaging’ debt into complex derivative instruments from which additional fees and profits are squeezed, and risk externalized.

It is all built on a system of debt-based money, that is, money created out of debt through double-entry electronic bookkeeping when a bank makes a loan. Banks are allowed to lend much more money than they have ‘on reserve.’ The money they lend is thereby created “out of thin air.” They can borrow even more from the central bank – the Federal Reserve in the U.S. – at very low rates and lend it to their customers at much higher rates. Remember, the Fed is owned by its member banks.

It’s a great big illusion. Why? Because the creation of money is not related to actual economic activity in the real world. Of course, lending does occur for actual production of goods and services for the economy, but the money and banking system I am describing here operates independently and in addition to the real world of investment in the economy itself. In the past couple of decades the phantom-wealth ‘economy’ has expanded to the point where it accounts for a much larger share of the GDP than before. Yet, it contributes nothing to the real economy. Despite massive “quantitative easing,” little of the vast funds released to the Big Banks have reached down into the real economy. Contrary to the dominant ideology, you could do away with these “too big to fail” banks and nothing much in the real world would be missed.

The Walking Dead
The unbridled global capitalist system has no natural constraints, except the finite supply of energy and other resources. It is in the early but rapidly accelerating stage of near-death. Unless it is radically transformed, quickly, the extinction of the human species from which it emanates, will be its final constraint. That will depends upon whether or not the illusions of global finance capital continue beyond the tipping point of ecological and societal collapse. In either case, it is already the walking dead.

Making Money: The Ultimate Illusion of a Debt-Driven Economy

How is money made? Well, in conventional terms we work for it. But where does it come from? We know that the economy needs a sufficient “money supply” so we can exchange “goods and services” every day. Of course, it’s not that simple. After the “Great Recession” of 2008, the Federal Reserve injected hundreds of billions of dollars into the Big Banks. The purpose was to keep them from going under as a result of their gambling with depositors’ money. So, where is all that money now?

The conventional wisdom is that the “the government prints our money.” Technically but only partially true, this image of overworked treasury printing presses is increasingly irrelevant. Most money today is created electronically when banks lend up to some multiple of the money held in their accounts. A bank’s solvency depends on the money it holds “in reserve” – does not lend – in accordance with banking rules. If the ratio of loans to reserves is too high, the bank risks not being able to cover losses if loans go bad.

Reserve requirements were reduced significantly in the years before the 2008 crash. But the “too big to fail” banks took it a step further. They packaged many risky mortgages into highly leveraged “derivatives,” re-sold them to investment clients and each other, and took exorbitant “fees” at each step. It all blew up when mortgages failed and the Big Banks couldn’t cover their losses. So, the Fed stepped in and kept them solvent by “lending” them billions upon billions of dollars.

With the lowering of reserve requirements and the elimination of the firewall between commercial and speculative investment banking, all hell broke loose. Lending practices and the bundling of debt took on the logic of gambling in a casino, but with more hubris. Reliance on complex mathematical models of “risk management” to justify reckless behavior became the biggest illusion of all.

Most critics of the federal “fractional reserve” banking system worry that our “paper money” or “fiat currency” is not “backed” by gold. They consider gold to be “real money,” not arbitrarily “created” money. Gold is an effective standard of value because it is scarce, not reproducible or easily faked, and is universally valued by humans. That’s great, as long as everyone believes in gold’s value.  After all, value is what we make it.  But any economy needs its money to circulate. If paper money had to be backed by gold, there would not be enough to circulate and the economy would stagnate. Yet, if too much paper (or electronic) money is put into circulation, borrowed and invested, then inflation can get out of hand.

There is some validity to the concern of producing an oversupply of money leading to inflation, as has happened in several historical cases. But the biggest problem of money creation lies in our debt-based banking system, created under the influence of the big bankers in 1913. That was when the Big Banks convinced the government to create the Federal Reserve banking system. The Fed is essentially a private banking cartel that “lends” money to the federal government – the nation. Where does the Fed get the money it lends to the government? It simply creates it out of nothing – other than the government’s authorization for it to do so! That sounds crazy because it is, unless you own the Big Banks. But if national banks were owned by the nation, then money creation would not produce national debt.

So, you can see that fundamentally the “national debt” is an illusion created when the government gave up its sovereignty over our currency. Without the privatization of currency creation, indebting the government, there would be little need for an income tax.

A debt-based monetary system is inherently unstable and succeeds only as long as economic growth continues. But as long as conservative reserve requirements held sway and investment banking was separated from commercial banking after the Great Depression, another crash was averted. The Glass–Steagall Banking Act of 1933 kept commercial banking separate from investment (speculative) banking after the Great Depression. And relatively strict reserve requirements limited the Big Banks tendency to engage in excessive speculation – until deregulation beginning in 1999 unleashed the Hounds of Wall Street.

For a hundred years, the government has become increasingly indebted to the Federal Reserve and buyers of treasury notes and bonds.  These instruments are the means by which  the Fed sells our government’s debt worldwide. Despite the increasing debt and interest payments, the economy could be managed as long as it kept growing – adding new money from new debt to pay old debt and interest. The Federal Reserve – the private central bank owned by its member big private banks – partially controlled inflation by controlling interest rates, some of the time.

But the illusion of endless growth and the phantom money it creates are rapidly coming to an end on our finite planet. The debt-based monetary system will be unsustainable in a steady-state economy aligned with real-world limitations – it must be replaced. We must move to a stable ecologically grounded economy.  We can no longer support an ever-growing debt-based money system. In an ecological economy, money will simply circulate as the means for exchanging real value – that is, actual goods and services.

Money: Banking on the Economy of the Absurd

Money and banking seem far too mysterious to far too many people.  Read all about it and you may feel that much of your time was wasted, simply because at root it seems not all that complicated.  Oh, the world of money and banking has been made quite complicated, but that’s because of who is running things and why they make decisions over all of our financial lives the way that they do.  With the endless elaboration of the complex institutions from which emanate the decisions that matter for the rest of us, the so-called “financial industry” has emerged as a much larger share of the economy than ever before.  But what does that mean?  Are we all wealthier?  Hardly.  As the “main street” economy has faltered while big corporations and banks grow ever larger profits, why has the financial industry—which claims to be so vital  to the nation’s economy—grown so large?

Along with the ideologically excused deregulation of banking and finance—driven, actually, by the growing influence of the big banks and their corporate companions over the laws that govern economic activity—have come a steady onslaught of banking practices that have made a very few people and corporations very, very rich and resulted in the rest of us falling further and further behind.  By expanding their control over the creation and lending of money, these institutions have expanded far beyond their usefulness to the nation. To big to fail?  Yes, if propped up by government bailouts.  But more important, too big to tolerate!

Have you ever wondered why over many generations people pay mortgages on their homes, yet very few of the succeeding generations ever live in a home without it being mortgaged?  Where is the accumulation of wealth?  Well, while complex interactions of a number of factors are at play, and individual cases vary, the “bottom line” is that we live in a debt-based economy, and it is debt based on purpose.  No, it wasn’t your idea and it wasn’t my idea.  It was the idea of the private bankers who took over the public function of banking way back when.  In a debt based economy, new money has to be created to pay the interest on old debt.  That requires endless economic expansion financed by new debt.  It is a never-ending cycle until one of two things happens:  1) a crash brought on by the excessive speculation in new debt—gambling—by the Banksters; or 2) the whole system expands beyond the carrying capacity of the ecological system on which we all depend.  The Great Depression of the 1930s has been matched by the real unemployment of the “Great Recession” of 2008-present as the absurd economy roars past sustainability.

Banking is an inherently public function.  In fact, money is a public institution.  Whether private banks control it has varied in time and place.  When you are playing Monopoly (the board game) the players are equivalent to the public but each acts as an individual, not as a member of that very small public—which helps to instill in the players an individualistic sense of what money is.  But the “play money” used in the game is “real money” for the purposes of that game.  One player is designated the banker, but only manages the allocation of money during play.  The players agree as to the initial distribution of money (usually equal) and to the rules of the game.

Eventually, through luck and skill, one of the players gathers so much money and property that the game is over—s/he won!  Oh, but then there’s no game anymore, unless the players want to start another game, in which case they have to redistribute the money so each player will have money with which to play.  In fact, once the game is over, there is no money, only amusing little pieces of colored paper in a box with the board and various symbols of property, etc.  But why does someone always win Monopoly?  The widely ignored fact of economic reality also ends every game of Monopoly.  Once a player has accumulated significant economic power, that player’s ability to gain economic power increases.  So it is in the real economy, with the added bonus of increased political power, which means that to keep the game going, something’s got to give.  The result has to be either collapse or some form of redistribution, that’s what history demonstrates.

So, you can see the difference between a game and social reality, or, technically, economic reality.  In the real world, the game can never be over, even when one element—the Banksters in our case—accumulates enough wealth to render the other players powerless to make a successful move.  In the real world, this holds right up to the point where some starve to death for lack of resources.  In the game, with all the money accumulated by a small number of lucky and/or skilled players, everyone else is out of the game.  In real life that is deadly and is bound to result in some kind of chaos, collapse, or major restructuring of the economy.  Look around, both in the world today and in history.  Money hasn’t been in play all that long.  It emerged slowly and in various odd forms when and where some surplus of valued goods was accumulated.  When, at various times when wealth became so concentrated in the hands of the elite, a monarch or emperor recognized that wealth had to be radically redistributed in order to keep the economy going.

The earliest examples of money and debt were in societies where sedentary agricultural practices replaced nomadic hunting and gathering.  Much of this is chronicled in David Graeber’s fascinating book, Debt: the First 5,000 Years.  Graebner is an anthropologist whose analysis of money and debt as cultural phenomena clearly breaks out of the illusions about money and debt upon which our deeply absurd, and equally unjust, economy is based.

Unless we face some very fundamental and widespread social illusions, we will be unable to grasp how debt drives our absurd economy and how deeply destabilized the system has become.  Sometimes these illusions have two sides, neither of which reflects economic or cultural reality.  For example, we have the “gold bugs” and the advocates of “fiat money.”  Gold bugs confuse symbols with reality and fiat money fanciers confuse wealth with abstractions of value.  Both obsess over the form of money, failing to see that the very essence of its existence is consensual rather than essential.

There is nothing in the essence of gold that makes it money and there is nothing in the essence of paper that prevents it from being money.  All manner of items at one time/place or another have been money because the conditions allowed and the people agreed to define them as money, from sticks to shells to stamped pieces of copper or other metal to beads to paper.  In no case did just any stick, shell or piece of paper do.  It had to have certain qualities or it couldn’t become money.

In one fascinating example, a stick with certain inscriptions would be split in two and the creditor and debtor each took a piece.  No other stick could represent that relationship of value-exchange because no two sticks will split in exactly the same way.  That made the stick parts a unique symbol of the value exchanged.  With gold, the size, ie., weight, of a nugget or shaped coin stands for its exchange value.  In every case of an object that becomes money, its value is designated in such a way that it cannot be altered.  So it is with paper.  With paper money, methods are devised to make it nearly impossible to duplicate without detection, but of course some counterfeiters have been very skillful, which results in a technology race between the legitimate and illegitimate printers of money.

Today, of course, most money takes the form of an electronic entry in computerized accounting systems controlled by banks and other financial institutions.  And that brings on an entirely new level of complexity and exploitability of what at base was a very simple relationship. But, as always, who controls the creation of money is still at the root of the way the money system works.

Because the nation so stupidly gave away the rights to control a fundamental public utility—money—to a cartel of private banks, the Federal Reserve, the creation of money (except for coins, which, trivially, are minted by the U.S. Treasury) is controlled not by public policy but by private banking interests.  “The Fed” is owned by its member big-private-banks yet is politically defined as a quasi-public institution even though it is entirely controlled by the cartel of private banks, except to the extent that the political system can influence its actions, which is almost nil.  Power flows from the banks to the government, not the other way around.

Well, you saw how well that worked out when the federal government essentially gave away the commonwealth by “covering” the bad bets of the world’s biggest gamblers—the Banksters, as I prefer to call them—because their agents, from Treasury Secretaries “Hank” Paulson and Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers, and the rest of the Wall Street gang were very much in control of the political response to the crisis.  These same Banksters had helped steer the congress to do away with the protections against gambling with depositors’ money that resulted from the Great Depression of the ‘30s.  The recent ‘Great Recession’ was the result of the same kinds of financial manipulations as precipitated the great crash, but now with lightning speed of computerized trading and lax limits on holding reserve capital to cover losses, as well as a whole new breed of “financial instruments” which are “derivatives” of complex combinations of debt.  The whole Dodd-Frank “reforms” were a smokescreen to cover continued abuse by the financial elite.

The whole system is, as they say, rigged.  And because it is entirely dependent on generating more debt in order to sustain profit, ultimately all that debt cannot be paid, since it is really a pyramid scheme basing illusory wealth on ever-expanding debt that cannot be sustained.  No, it is not about “the national debt” and “deficit spending” by the federal government, though they are part of the system.  And the “debt ceiling” is pure political theater.  It is about the centralized private control of the public means by which money is allocated to the actual people who participate in the economy as a way of sustaining their lives—through debt—with that private control being exercised in the sole interests of the so-called “masters of the universe,” the Wall Street Banksters and financial deal makers who have no idea what a real economy looks like.  It’s all about the art of the deal which generates paper profit [or, I should say, electronic profit] out of money generated with no other purpose, but which bounds the people to a system of debt over which they have no participation except as victims.

Therein lies the absurdity of the economy for you and me.  Money, the function of which had been to provide a medium for and a repository of actual exchange value—that is, the exchange of real objects and services of value to people in a real economy—has been perverted into a devise for generating false wealth—paper or electronic profit—which is treated as real wealth by the Banksters who control the Economy of the Absurd.