How to Pay for It All: An Option the Candidates Missed

The Democratic Party has clearly swung to the progressive left, with candidates in the first round of presidential debates coming up with one program after another to help the poor, the disadvantaged and the struggling middle class. Proposals ranged from a Universal Basic Income to Medicare for All to a Green New Deal to student debt forgiveness and free college tuition. The problem, as Stuart Varney observed on FOX Business, was that no one had a viable way to pay for it all without raising taxes or taking from other programs, a hard sell to voters. If robbing Peter to pay Paul is the only alternative, the proposals will go the way of Trump’s trillion dollar infrastructure bill for lack of funding.

Fortunately there is another alternative, one that no one seems to be talking about – at least no one on the presidential candidates’ stage. In Japan, it is a hot topic; and in China, it is evidently taken for granted: the government can generate the money it needs simply by creating it on the books of its own banks. Leaders in China and Japan recognize that stimulating the economy is not a zero-sum game in which funds are just shuffled from one pot to another. To grow the economy and increase GDP, demand (money) must go up along with supply. New money needs to be added to the system; and that is what China and Japan have been doing, very successfully. Continue reading

Libra: Facebook’s Audacious Bid for Global Monetary Control

Payments can happen cheaply and easily without banks or credit card companies. This has now been demonstrated – not in the United States but in China. Unlike in the US, where numerous firms feast on fees from handling and processing payments, in China most money flows through mobile phones nearly for free. In 2018 these cashless payments totaled a whopping $41.5 trillion; and 90% were through Alipay and WeChat Pay, a pair of digital ecosystems that blend social media, commerce and banking. According to a May 2018 article in Bloomberg titled “Why China’s Payment Apps Give U.S. Bankers Nightmares”:

The nightmare for the U.S. financial industry is that a technology company—whether from China or a homegrown juggernaut such as Amazon.com Inc. or Facebook Inc.—replicates the success of Alipay and WeChat in America. The stakes are enormous, potentially carving away billions of dollars in annual revenue from major banks and other firms.

That threat may now be materializing. On June 18, Facebook unveiled a white paper outlining ambitious plans to create a new global cryptocurrency called Libra, to be launched in 2020. The New York Times says Facebook has high hopes that Libra will become the foundation for a new financial system free of control by Wall Street power brokers and central banks. Continue reading

The American Dream Is Alive and Well—in China

Home ownership has been called “the quintessential American dream.” Yet today less than 65% of American homes are owner occupied, and more than 50% of the equity in those homes is owned by the banks. Compare China, where, despite facing one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, a whopping 90% of families can afford to own their homes.

Over the last decade, American wages have stagnated and U.S. productivity has consistently been outpaced by China’s. The U.S. government has responded by engaging in a trade war and imposing stiff tariffs in order to penalize China for what the White House deems unfair trade practices. China’s industries are said to be propped up by the state and to have significantly lower labor costs, allowing them to dump cheap products on the U.S. market, causing prices to fall and forcing U.S. companies out of business. The message to middle America is that Chinese labor costs are low because their workers are being exploited in slave-like conditions at poverty-level wages.

But if that’s true, how is it that the great majority of Chinese families own homes? According to a March 2016 article in Forbes:

… 90% of families in the country own their home, giving China one of the highest home ownership rates in the world. What’s more is that 80% of these homes are owned outright, without mortgages or any other liens. On top of this, north of 20% of urban households own more than one home.

Continue reading

The Bankers’ “Power Revolution”: How the Government Got Shackled by Debt

This article is excerpted from my new book Banking on the People: Democratizing Money in the Digital Age, available in paperback June 1.

The U.S. federal debt has more than doubled since the 2008 financial crisis, shooting up from $9.4 trillion in mid-2008 to over $22 trillion in April 2019. The debt is never paid off. The government just keeps paying the interest on it, and interest rates are rising.

In 2018, the Fed announced plans to raise rates by 2020 to “normal” levels — a fed funds target of 3.375 percent — and to sell about $1.5 trillion in federal securities at the rate of $50 billion monthly, further growing the mountain of federal debt on the market. When the Fed holds government securities, it returns the interest to the government after deducting its costs; but the private buyers of these securities will be pocketing the interest, adding to the taxpayers’ bill.

In fact it is the interest, not the debt itself, that is the problem with a burgeoning federal debt. The principal just gets rolled over from year to year. But the interest must be paid to private bondholders annually by the taxpayers and constitutes one of the biggest items in the federal budget. Currently the Fed’s plans for “quantitative tightening” are on hold; but assuming it follows through with them, projections are that by 2027 U.S. taxpayers will owe $1 trillion annually just in interest on the federal debt. That is enough to fund President Donald Trump’s trillion-dollar infrastructure plan every year, and it is a direct transfer of wealth from the middle class to the wealthy investors holding most of the bonds.

Where will this money come from? Crippling taxes, wholesale privatization of public assets, and elimination of social services will not be sufficient to cover the bill. Continue reading

NEW BOOK! “Banking on the People: Democratizing Money in the Digital Age”

My new book, nearly 3 years in the making, is finally in print. It’s called “Banking on the People: Democratizing Money in the Digital Age” and is published by the Democracy Collaborative. As our democracy hangs in the balance, I hope this book allows many more people to understand why having control over the money supply is central to the idea of democracy, and what we can do to wrest that control from big private banks and put it squarely in the hands of the people.

From the back cover:

Today most of our money is created, not by governments, but by banks when they make loans. This book takes the reader step by step through the sausage factory of modern money creation, explores improvements made possible by advances in digital technology, and proposes upgrades that could transform our outmoded nineteenth century system into one that is democratic, sustainable, and serves the needs of the twenty-first century.

***

Banking on the People is a compelling and fast-moving primer on the new monetary revolution by the godmother of the public banking movement now emerging throughout the country. Brown shows how our new understanding of money and its creation, long concealed by bankers and others capturing the benefits for their own purposes, can be turned to support the public in powerful new ways.

—  Gar Alperovitz, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, Co-Founder of The Democracy Collaborative and author of America Beyond Capitalism and other books

More lucidly that any other expert I know, Ellen Brown shows in Banking on the People how we can break the grip of predatory financialization now extracting value from real peoples’ productive activities all over the world. This book is a must read for those who see the promising future as we seek to widen democracies and transform to a cleaner, greener, shared prosperity.

—  Hazel Henderson, CEO of Ethical Markets Media and author of Mapping the Global Transition to the Solar Age and other books

Ellen Brown shows that there is a much better alternative to Citibank, Wells Fargo and Bank of America. Public banks can safeguard public funds while avoiding the payday loans, redlining, predatory junk-mortgage loans and add-on small-print extras for which the large commercial banks are becoming notorious.

—  Michael Hudson, Research Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and author of Killing the Host and other books

Banking on the People offers a tour de force for those activists, NGOs, and academics wanting to understand the forces at play when we talk about the democratization of finance. A must read!

— Thomas Marois, Senior Lecturer, SOAS University of London, author of States, Banks and Crisis and other publications

The Public Banking Revolution Is Upon Us

As public banking gains momentum across the country, policymakers in California and Washington state are vying to form the nation’s second state-owned bank, following in the footsteps of the highly successful Bank of North Dakota, founded in 1919. The race is close, with state bank bills now passing their first round of hearings in both states’ senates.

In California, the story begins in 2011, when then-Assemblyman Ben Hueso filed his first bill to explore the creation of a state bank. The bill, which was for a blue-ribbon committee to do a feasibility study, sailed through both legislative houses and seemed to be a go. That is, until Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, not on grounds that he disapproved of the concept, but because he said we did not need another blue-ribbon committee. The state had a banking committee that could review the matter in-house. Needless to say, nothing was heard of the proposal after that.

So when now-Sen. Hueso filed SB 528 earlier this year, he went straight for setting up a state bank. The details could be worked out during the two to three years it would take to get a master account from the Federal Reserve, by a commission drawn from in-house staff that had access to the data and understood the issues.

Sen. Hueso also went for the low hanging fruit—a proposal to turn an existing state institution, the California Infrastructure and Development Bank (or “IBank”), into a depository bank that could leverage its capital into multiple loans. Continue reading

Why Is the Fed Paying So Much Interest to Banks?

“If you invest your tuppence wisely in the bank, safe and sound,
Soon that tuppence safely invested in the bank will compound,

“And you’ll achieve that sense of conquest as your affluence expands
In the hands of the directors who invest as propriety demands.”

Mary Poppins, 1964

When Mary Poppins was made into a movie in 1964, Mr. Banks’ advice to his son was sound. Banks were then paying more than 5% interest on deposits, enough to double young Michael’s investment every 14 years.

Now, however, the average savings account pays only 0.10% annually – that’s 1/10th of 1% – and many of the country’s biggest banks pay less than that. If you were to put $5,000 in a regular Bank of America savings account (paying 0.01%) today, in a year you would have collected only 50 cents in interest.

That’s true for most of us, but banks themselves are earning 2.4% on their deposits at the Federal Reserve. Continue reading

QE Forever: The Fed’s Dramatic About-face

“Quantitative easing” was supposed to be an emergency measure. The Federal Reserve “eased” shrinkage in the money supply due to the 2008-09 credit crisis by pumping out trillions of dollars in new bank reserves. After the crisis, the presumption was that the Fed would “normalize” conditions by sopping up the excess reserves through “quantitative tightening” (QT) – raising interest rates and selling the securities it had bought with new reserves back into the market.

The Fed relentlessly pushed on with quantitative tightening through 2018, despite a severe market correction in the fall. In December, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said that QT would be on “autopilot,” meaning the Fed would continue to raise interest rates and to sell $50 billion monthly in securities until it hit its target. But the market protested loudly to this move, with the Nasdaq Composite Index dropping 22% from its late-summer high.

Worse, defaults on consumer loans were rising. December 2018 was the first time in two years that all loan types and all major metropolitan statistical areas showed a higher default rate month-over-month. Consumer debt – including auto, student and credit card debt – is typically bundled and sold as asset-backed securities similar to the risky mortgage-backed securities that brought down the market in 2008 after the Fed had progressively raised interest rates.

Chairman Powell evidently got the memo. Continue reading

The Venezuela Myth Keeping Us From Transforming Our Economy

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is getting significant media attention these days, after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview that it should “be a larger part of our conversation” when it comes to funding the Green New Deal. According to MMT, the government can spend what it needs without worrying about deficits. MMT expert and Bernie Sanders advisor Prof. Stephanie Kelton says the government actually creates money when it spends. The real limit on spending is not an artificially imposed debt ceiling but a lack of labor and materials to do the work, leading to generalized price inflation. Only when that real ceiling is hit does the money need to be taxed back, and then not to fund government spending but to shrink the money supply in an economy that has run out of resources to put the extra money to work.

Predictably, critics have been quick to rebut, calling the trend to endorse MMT “disturbing” and “a joke that’s not funny.” In a February 1st post on The Daily Reckoning, Brian Maher darkly envisioned Bernie Sanders getting elected in 2020 and implementing “Quantitative Easing for the People” based on MMT theories. Continue reading

Lee Camp interviews Ellen Brown on Redacted Tonight

Why Germany Leads in Renewables: It Has Its Own Green Bank

The Green New Deal endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and more than 40 other US Representatives has been criticized as imposing a too-heavy burden on the rich and upper-middle-class taxpayers who will have to pay for it, but taxing the rich is not what the Green New Deal resolution proposes. It says funding will come primarily from certain public agencies, including the Federal Reserve and “a new public bank or system of regional and specialized public banks.”

Funding through the Federal Reserve may be controversial, but establishing a national public infrastructure and development bank should be a no-brainer. The real question is why we don’t already have one, like China, Germany, and other countries that are running circles around us in infrastructure development. Many European, Asian and Latin American countries have their own national development banks, as well as belonging to bilateral or multinational development institutions that are jointly owned by multiple governments. Unlike the US Federal Reserve, which considers itself “independent” of government, national development banks are wholly owned by their governments and carry out public development policies. Continue reading

Universal Basic Income Is Easier Than It Looks

Calls for a Universal Basic Income have been increasing, most recently as part of the Green New Deal introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and supported in the last month by at least 40 members of Congress. A Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a monthly payment to all adults with no strings attached, similar to Social Security. Critics say the Green New Deal asks too much of the rich and upper-middle-class taxpayers who will have to pay for it, but taxing the rich is not what the resolution proposes. It says funding would primarily come from the federal government, “using a combination of the Federal Reserve, a new public bank or system of regional and specialized public banks,” and other vehicles.

The Federal Reserve alone could do the job. It could buy “Green” federal bonds with money created on its balance sheet, just as the Fed funded the purchase of $3.7 trillion in bonds in its “quantitative easing” program to save the banks. The Treasury could also do it. The Treasury has the constitutional power to issue coins in any denomination, even trillion dollar coins. What prevents legislators from pursuing those options is the fear of hyperinflation from excess “demand” (spendable income) driving prices up. But in fact the consumer economy is chronically short of spendable income, due to the way money enters the consumer economy. We actually need regular injections of money to avoid a “balance sheet recession” and allow for growth, and a UBI is one way to do it. Continue reading

This Radical Plan to Fund the ‘Green New Deal’ Just Might Work

With what Naomi Klein calls “galloping momentum,” the “Green New Deal” promoted by newly-elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) appears to be forging a political pathway for solving all of the ills of society and the planet in one fell swoop. It would give a House Select Committee “a mandate that connects the dots between energy, transportation, housing, as well as healthcare, living wages, a jobs guarantee” and more. But to critics even on the left it is just political theater, since “everyone knows” a program of that scope cannot be funded without a massive redistribution of wealth and slashing of other programs (notably the military), which is not politically feasible.

Perhaps, but Ocasio-Cortez and the 22 representatives joining her in calling for a Select Committee are also proposing a novel way to fund the program, one which could actually work. The resolution says funding will primarily come from the federal government, “using a combination of the Federal Reserve, a new public bank or system of regional and specialized public banks, public venture funds and such other vehicles or structures that the select committee deems appropriate, in order to ensure that interest and other investment returns generated from public investments made in connection with the Plan will be returned to the treasury, reduce taxpayer burden and allow for more investment.”   Continue reading

“Taking Back our Power with Public Banks,” California Vision 2020 Conference 22-minute video, Sacramento 9-20-18

Update on the L.A. Measure for a City-owned Bank — A Valiant Effort!

The Los Angeles charter amendment to approve a city-owned bank did not pass, but it did get 42 percent of the vote, a remarkable feat considering that the dynamic young Public Bank LA advocacy group effectively only had a month to educate 4 million voters on what a public bank is and why passing the measure was a good idea. If they had had another month, the bill could well have passed. Continue reading

Trump’s War on the Fed

President Trump has stepped up his criticism of the Federal Reserve, saying of its aggressive interest rate hikes that it has “gone crazy.” The same charge has been leveled against Trump, but there may be a method to his madness . . . .  

October was a brutal month for the stock market. After the Fed’s eighth interest rate hike on September 26th, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 2,000 points and the NASDAQ had its worst month in nearly 10 years. After the Dow lost more than 800 points on October 10th and the S&P 500 suffered its first weeklong losing streak since Trump’s election, the president said, “I think the Fed is making a mistake. They are so tight. I think the Fed has gone crazy.” In a later interview on Fox News, he called the Fed’s rate hikes “loco.” And in a Wall Street Journal interview published on October 24th, Trump said he thought the biggest risk to the economy was the Federal Reserve, because “interest rates are being raised too quickly.” He also criticized the Fed and its chairman in July and August.   Continue reading

Two Real News Network Interviews I Did Recently

Note to Angelenos: Vote Yes on Charter Amendment B for an L.A. city-owned bank!

Breaking with Wall Street: L.A. Puts It to the Voters

Wall Street owns the country. That was the opening line of a fiery speech by populist leader Mary Ellen Lease in 1890. Franklin Roosevelt said it again in a letter to Colonel House in 1933, and Sen. Dick Durbin was still saying it in 2009. “The banks – hard to believe in a time when we’re facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created – are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill,” Durbin said in an interview. “And they frankly own the place.”

Wall Street banks triggered a credit crisis in 2008-09 that wiped out over $19 trillion in household wealth, turned some 10 million families out of their homes, and cost almost 9 million jobs in the US alone; yet the banks were bailed out without penalty, while defrauded homebuyers were left without recourse or compensation. The banks made a killing on interest rate swaps with cities and states across the country, after a compliant and accommodating Federal Reserve dropped interest rates nearly to zero. Attempts to renegotiate these deals have failed. Continue reading

How China’s Mobile Ecosystems Are Making Banks Obsolete

Giant Chinese tech companies have bypassed credit cards and banks to create their own low-cost digital payment systems.

The US credit card system siphons off excessive amounts of money from merchants, who must raise their prices to cover this charge. In a typical $100 credit card purchase, only $97.25 goes to the seller. The rest goes to banks and processors. But who can compete with Visa and MasterCard?

It seems China’s new mobile payment ecosystems can. According to a May 2018 article in Bloomberg titled “Why China’s Payment Apps Give U.S. Bankers Nightmares”:

The future of consumer payments may not be designed in New York or London but in China. There, money flows mainly through a pair of digital ecosystems that blend social media, commerce and banking—all run by two of the world’s most valuable companies. That contrasts with the U.S., where numerous firms feast on fees from handling and processing payments. Western bankers and credit-card executives who travel to China keep returning with the same anxiety: Payments can happen cheaply and easily without them.

Continue reading

Interview with Sarah Westall