The coronavirus pandemic of 2020, by forcing a shutdown of most of the global economy, has precipitated a sharp economic collapse around the world. Millions of jobs have suddenly disappeared in the United States. Government bailouts look to be too little too late. Without a vaccine, the virus will resume ravaging the population as soon as social distancing and self-isolation rules are relaxed, making any quick return to ‘normal’ economic activity problematic. In the meantime, mass unemployment and business closures and bankruptcies will likely continue.
The viral pandemic is rapidly becoming a financial pandemic. An already shaky economy dependent on consumer spending has been reduced to essential services. The Federal Reserve and the United States Treasury have pledged in response trillions of dollars in relief, mostly for large corporations, at the price of driving up an already bloated, perhaps unsustainable national debt.
In the meantime, the largely consumer economy sputtering under conditions of social distancing and individual self-isolation is unlikely to return to a level of economic productivity adequate to manage the much enlarged debt burden. The spector not only of business but government insolvency threatens the stability of the financial system. A monetary system which has been in command for over a century is suddenly on the brink of collapse.
To understand the failure of our current monetary system, and the prospects for a viable alternative, we need first to understand how it originated and how it works. Beginning in Holland and Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, bankers and governments devised an ingenious method of indirect money creation through a new kind of public lending based on government debt. The idea was to create a central bank which purchased government bonds representing the national debt backed by the tax revenues of the state.
The government, by borrowing from a central bank, gained the advantage of obtaining deficit financing more easily. The central bank in turn was able to issue its own banknotes as loans to its borrowers, using government bonds as collateral. That allowed the government to monetize its debts, turning them into assets instead of liabilities. The banknotes issued on the basis of government bonds circulated as new paper money, lubricating the economy.
The result was to put far more money into circulation than previously possible. In antiquity and the middle ages, the common monies in circulation were limited to the various minted coins of different sovereign states, usually gold or silver, which traditionally were stamped with the head of the ruler. The limited supplies of precious metals meant that money (coin) remained scarce.
Sovereigns issued coins to pay their armies and meet other expenses, but it was the bankers of the day who were able to concentrate wealth by receiving and safely holding deposits of coins from their clients. Such stocks of money made it possible for them to make loans with interest. Private bankers (the Bardi, the Medici, the Fuggers, and others) lent out on the basis of their accumulated coinage, or hard currency. Although they were the largest lenders of their day, reserves were limited and risks were many, thus keeping interest rates high. Banks with inadequate reserves were subject to bank runs and insolvency. It was a tough and volatile business.
Out of their need to resolve transactions in different coinages, and to avoid the physical transport of precious metals, bankers developed bills of exchange. These were signed promissory notes, usually sold for hard currency by banks in one location, to be redeemed in hard currency by banks in other locations.
The volume of transactions was nonetheless limited by the relative scarcity of the precious metals which gave promissory notes their value. The monetary monopoly accorded precious metals–mostly sustained by royal decrees–made it difficult to borrow given their scarcity. Since there wasn’t enough gold and silver around, governments, like individuals, had no way to run significant deficits as needed.
This problem was somewhat eased by the invention of fractional reserve banking by Dutch bankers and English goldsmiths in the seventeenth century. They realized that they could lend out several times more in promissory banknotes than they had gold or silver on hand from their depositors. These banknotes, unlike earlier bills of exchange, were impersonal. Payment in specie was simply due to the bearer of the bill upon demand, though it was clear that all demands to redeem bills could not be satisfied at once.
Nonetheless, banknotes, no longer tied to a particular individual, were free to circulate among the public. Their convenience of use made them into the first major example of modern paper money. They remained tied to precious metals, however, and vulnerable to a sudden collapse in value (a panic) if too many depositors tried to redeem their notes. Bankers lacked a clear gauge of just how much they could lend out safely against their deposits, leaving them and their depositors vulnerable to wide swings of greed and fear as manifest in bull and bear markets.
Although impersonal banknotes expanded the money supply, as long as this money continued to be defined by precious metals it would remain scarce, loans would be limited, and the economy, after it absorbed a one-time boost from the new money created by fractional reserve banking, would continue to grow very slowly if at all.
What was needed was still more money in circulation. A form of money was needed which was not tied to an inflexible store of value such as precious metals. After the 1672 panic in London, which wiped out many of the goldsmiths, bankers began to think that money might better be correlated with something more expansive than gold and silver, and also steadier and more reliable than the boom-and-bust pattern of unregulated over-lending of notes, followed by a crash.
The idea they came up with–summarized above–was to create a national debt and put it into circulation through a central bank as a new source of money. This national debt would no longer be the personal debt of the monarch, as in the past, but rather the institutional debt of the government, now understood as a perpetual institution with a unique ability to extract taxes by force. These special powers of government made its debts safer than those of commercial enterprises, or anyone else’s; they were less profitable, perhaps, but also had less risk of default.
For a system like this to have worked an ensemble of factors was necessary: A national debt, a central bank with exclusive rights to purchase and control that debt, and a banking system and credit markets which accepted notes from the central bank based on government bonds in payment of debts, which then circulated freely as money.
The Dutch pioneered many of these mechanisms in the seventeenth century, especially central banking and reliable credit markets. But they failed to integrate government borrowing into the money system. Dutch finance, like that of the goldsmiths, remained anchored by precious metals. It was the British who finally connected government borrowing with the money system. They created modern finance by backing their central bank–the bank of England, founded in 1694–with government bonds, not merely precious metals. This was the missing link in the Dutch system, and when established in Britain it allowed for a massive increase in credit and the money supply, forming the basis for subsequent British prosperity and power.
Bonds, along with the British pound, continued to be denominated in sterling, but this formal connection with a precious metal obscured the fact that commodities like gold and silver were no longer the driving force of monetary value, but little more than its outward, conventional sign. That the British pound continued to be denominated in values of sterling silver became far less relevant to its soundness than the amount of government debt it represented. Whereas the notes of goldsmiths and other early banks were closely anchored by precious metals, and couldn’t circulate very far from that base, the notes of government debt had a far longer and much more tenuous and flexible tether linking them to precious metals, allowing them to circulate far more widely.
The entire economy of Britain was captured by the monetization of the national debt insofar as that debt reflected in the assets of taxpayers who supported it, which provided the first accurate measure of the national economy. This allowed for the creation of money much more adequate to the demands of the broader society. Coins and other hard currencies–though they remain with us to this day–were gradually marginalized as money in favor of bank note money ultimately backed by government bonds, which is today mainly expressed in electronic notation.
The final monetary triumph of debt over hard cash came with the acceptance of the perpetuity of the national debt. Once it was realized that government loans could be rolled over endlessly in the new financial markets at home or abroad, bank notes, like those issued by the Bank of England, thoroughly monetized government debt, and made possible deficit financing as needed. The classic benchmark debt-instrument of the era was the British consol, a perpetual bond (no maturity date) first issued in 1752 at 3.5 percent interest, and still available today.
No longer was there a chronic shortage of money to invest. Anticipation of future growth replaced the hard limit on lending that had been imposed by gold and silver. The new banking system of debt-money was able to extend far more credit to the government and the public than had hitherto been possible. This allowed for an expansion of the economy which made it possible for debtors to repay their loans with interest, pay their taxes, and still make a profit from their investments.
In contrast to the Dutch, whose central bank was public, but whose public debt was distributed privately among individual holders of government securities, the English system of finance featured a private central bank, the Bank of England, whose charter gave it a monopoly over the monetization of public debt for its own profit. This pattern of private control over the issuance of debt backed by public obligations was subsequently carried over to the United States and many other countries.
The new debt money system for private profit based on national debt had a built-in feature not present in earlier precious metal systems. Since the new debt money came with an interest charge, the borrower had to repay that as well as the balance. This meant that, as borrowed money came to play an ever more important role in the economy, investors not only hoped for a profit, as always, but were in fact obligated to make one to avoid default. (As outlined in my work, The Ecology of Money: Debt, Growth, and Sustainability, this obligation was arguably the driving force creating the need for economic growth which distinguished the economy of the industrial revolution from earlier, traditional economies, and propelled it forward.)
The results were phenomenal. The new credit-based money system, which moderated but still oscillated between the fear of failure and the allure of profit, was used to unlock new technologies and new sources of materials and labor that would otherwise have been developed far more slowly, if at all. The new money powered colonialism, the slave trade, land speculation, fossil fuel energy, industrial innovation, the factory system, mass wage-labor employment, technology, corporate power, and middle class consumerism. It created the modern world.
Debt-based capitalism worked effectively, with ups and downs, until the 1970s, when the benefits of continued investment in technology, combined with the outsourcing of jobs to low-wage countries, began to slow the demand for domestic wage-labor. In the United States in particular, fewer and fewer workers were needed to help produce what, until the pandemic crash of 2020, continued to be an expanding array of the goods and services generated by the economy.
In recent decades investment continued to pour into the economy, but little of it found its way into the pockets of workers. A lot of that money–especially since the 2008 crash–went to stock buy-backs, inflated executive salaries, bonuses, lobbying, speculative hedge funds, bailouts, and real estate investments.
Interest rates for ordinary people (on mortgages, credit cards, student loans, etc.) stayed stubbornly high. Wall Street may have been drowning in money, but Main Street suffered a drought. No ordinary person could hope to start a business, or buy a house, or send their kids to college, without incurring a serious and often onerous debt burden.
The old credit-and-interest system had a long run, but it was breaking down well before the pandemic. As long as a large labor force was needed to run the economy, most people, even ordinary workers, could benefit, even prosper, from the debt-money of the banks. On their salaries, they could buy a home, a car, vacations, education for their kids, and good health care. In the early postwar years–the fifties, sixties, and seventies–there were plenty of well-paying jobs to go around, which made possible the suburban American dream.
When Henry Ford decided to pay his workers a living wage over a century ago, he wanted to make sure they were able to buy the automobiles they made. He understood that a consumer economy relies on purchasing power distributed across the population, and not concentrated in a small minority of luxury spenders. He understood that money spent on consumption fueled the economy in proportion to its needs, and was in itself neither inflationary or deflationary.
The American dream he helped spawn proved temporary. The vast inequality of wealth–divided between creditors and debtors–became evident as a political issue well before the coronavirus pandemic. Now it can no longer be avoided. The shutdown of the economy has suspended the incomes of a third or more of the population. This crisis raises the prospect of vitally needed structural reform, especially a guaranteed annual income.
It was no accident that Andrew Yang rose to fame in the Democratic presidential primaries in early 2020 by calling for a guaranteed income of $1000/month. Now politicians, including Democrats and Republicans, in response to the virus crisis, are supporting not only traditional corporate bailouts, but a direct payment to individuals of $1200. Yang’s proposal, however, was for a permanent income payment, not a one time gesture made in hopes of appeasing a desperate public.
Yang’s point is that automation, robotics, and other efficiencies will continue to erode the value of labor. Technology, he argues, has succeeded so well that there will not be enough productive work to provide jobs to support the human population at large. More and more of us, like it or not, are increasingly economically redundant. This is not because the corporate economy has failed to produce, but because it has produced too well; it has dramatically provided more and more goods and services with less and less labor.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated this economic disparity. The need to put money directly into the hands of people is no longer a matter of reducing inequality, but of economic survival and social stability. A living wage–adequate enough to cover basic food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and health care–would boost needed demand for goods and services. A fund of direct grants to small businesses is equally necessary for community economic survival. These steps would revive and sustain the economy like nothing else that could be done. Unlike the inflationary speculative money of Wall Street, the direct cash money for Main Street would be well spent on sound basic productive activity benefiting the public at large.
A guaranteed income for all pegged to a basket of basic needs would not only stabilize the currency and the economy, it would automatically redistribute wealth without depressing opportunity and incentive. No interest loans would allow anyone who wished the opportunity to freely pursue capitalistic, for-profit enterprise. Some, by their own entrepreneurial skills, would end up richer than others, but no one would have to be poor.
Is giving away money a heretical idea? It has certainly been considered so historically. Keep in mind, however, that the old financial system did exactly the same thing–give away money–though it was mostly hidden behind the mysteries of money creation through lending very few understood. The minting of precious metals was easy to understand, whereas the creation of bank money through loans turned out to be more subtle. Access to money in the form of credit has gone almost exclusively to people already rich in assets and resources. The rich got richer, and everyone else ended up working for them–which was okay as long as the rich created jobs.
Consider how money is made. It is a social not a natural construct. By convention or decree, a community or society designates as its money a convenient vehicle of exchange–gold coins or banknotes or whatever–to be accepted in return for goods and services, and also to serve as a store of value. Whether by informal inherited custom or official act of state, this designation can be understood as a performative act, a definition of social behavior binding in that community.
The twentieth century British philosopher, J. L. Austin, noted the importance of performative acts in social affairs. His famous example of a performative act is the statement by the presiding official which normally concludes and seals a wedding ceremony, most commonly something like: “I pronounce you man and wife.” This is no idle comment, or observation, or opinion, but a verbal expression which is essential to legitimize and complete the wedding ceremony. It is a social fact. The marriage would not be valid (socially recognized) without it.
Performative acts are intentional ritualistic pronouncements of this sort, widely recognized as defining and regulating social behavior. Two people, once married, have different moral and legal obligations than they did before the ceremony. The wedding changes their future behavior and responsibilities to one another and to society. Other performative acts range from signing a contract, to taking an oath in court (or as a public official), to pledging one’s belief in a religion (such as openly reciting the Nicene creed), or a country (the American Pledge of Allegiance), or a secular ideology or party (such as registering to vote as a Democrat or Republican), and so on. Thus one becomes a husband, or wife, or witness, or public servant, or Christian, or Democrat, or Republican.
Money is similarly created through a performative act. It is a well-worn cliche that money is created ‘out of thin air,’ but what is so created is not an independently existing object that wasn’t there before but an agreement or consensus on how to treat certain actions and materials in a certain way in order to use them as money. Whether it be the remote social decisions which designated various materials (jewels, seashells, grains, cattle, precious metals) to emerge as mediums of exchange in earlier times, or the intentional decisions of governments (princes or parliaments) to designate minted gold or silver coins, or paper banknotes, as media of exchange of more recent times, all these were the results of performative acts. Once designated performatively as a medium of exchange, as money, the material in question (a jewel, a coin, a piece of paper, an electronic entry in a computer) is given a special status and value, with special rules of use and responsibility.
The debt-money of the bankers, created by a performative act as outlined above–the legal merger of private banking with public debt through decrees, legislation, charters, etc.–is hardly sacrosanct. It can be replaced with a different kind of money by another set of performative acts. A guaranteed annual income, as has been proposed, is a very different kind of money from what we have seen to date. It is not the debt-money of the bankers, nor is it the earlier commodity money of precious metals; it is simply a command or fiat currency given directly to people given by their government. From the point of its recipients we can call it credit currency or credit money since the bearer or owner of such money has a credit up to the amount presented against the goods and services available on the market in the economy.
The roots of credit money lie in the colonial paper currencies of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and in the ideas of nineteenth century American populists like the Farmers Alliance, the Greenbackers, and monetary theorists like Edward Kellogg and Charles Macune. During the Civil War the United States government issued paper currency–so-called Greenbacks–to fund the war effort. They were supported solely by the ‘faith and credit’ of the United States government. They were not distributed to the general population, however, but used by the government to pay soldiers, buy equipement, and meet other war expenses. The federal government, it is worth noting, managed to correlate the issuance of Greenbacks with the economy well enough to keep their value reasonably stable. The fluctuations of the Greenback–unlike those of some earlier direct currencies, such as the Continentals issued during the Revolutionary war–were significant but not ruinously disruptive. By 1878, after the bankers had pressured the government to stop further issuance, they stood at par with the value of gold.
In recent decades the idea of credit-money has been revived under the label of modern monetary theory (MMT), first developed by Warren Mosler in the 1970s, just at the time when the chronic burdens of debt-money were becoming evident. Mosler and other MMT advocates have attracted increasing interest, particularly since the 2008 crash, especially among those advocating a minimum guaranteed basic income.
Some questions are: Is simply giving away money feasible? What exactly does it mean? And who will get the money, and how much of it? Under the current debt money system, the bankers enjoy a virtual monopoly over money creation and distribution. As long as there are reasonably secure borrowers, with decent collateral and economic opportunity, the bankers at their discretion are able to create money for them (and a profit for themselves) by way of interest-bearing loans. Under a credit-money system, whether Greenbacks or the so-called ‘helicopter money’ of the MMT, the government enjoys a virtual monopoly over money creation. Unless otherwise constrained, it can give money as it chooses to government contractors and various constituents; it can bailout corporations, buy securities, make loans, fund a guaranteed minimum basic income, or spend it any other way it sees fit.
The temptation for advocates of a credit-money system, like MMT, is to insert themselves between the money issued and the public, and attempt to direct it one way or another, let’s say with the best of intentions for the public good. The downside of this concentration of financial power is the ability to abuse it. In a political system already deeply corrupted by lobbyists, a revolving door between politicians and corporations, and money in politics, it is simply not credible that the current system could be relied upon to distribute money equitably. Only a democratically accountable government, which we don’t have, could hope to do that. One way to avoid the corruption of credit money would be to prohibit special government disbursements altogether, reserving all distributions to be shared equally as a minimum guaranteed basic income to citizens only.
A minimum guaranteed basic income would not be a loan to be repaid. It would be a credit currency–simple money to be spent (or saved), with no conditions or obligations attached. It would be money given equally to all citizens by direct deposit, just like Social Security checks. Each citizens’ share of what is in effect a national dividend would belong to that person alone. This government guaranteed income could be calculated in current federal reserve dollars to determine the amount size of the dividend. Like Greenbacks, they would be Treasury notes issued by the government, not by the banks. These direct deposits would be independent of Federal Reserve Notes, the debt money with which we are most familiar. They would not be a debt to be repaid, even in theory, but actual money, a direct claim by the bearer on the resources, products, and services available on the market for purchase through cash transactions.
If money of any sort is continuously put into circulation without being withdrawn or extinguished, it will inflate, or lose value. This was far less a problem for precious metal currencies, where supplies remained relatively steady and limited. The value of gold did inflate with the influx of huge reserves from America to Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it stabilized once global output came to be measured and absorbed. Commodity monies tended to be deflationary, as they generally underperformed the economy of the day.
The value of debt-money has been far more variable than commodity money, reflecting the boom and bust cycle of overlending followed by panics and crashes. But over the course of the industrial revolution and the growth of modern mass society, the booms have outpaced the crashes. The trendline had been up, until the redundancy of labor became apparent. The tendency to overlend, to speculate, often puts more money into the system than it can absorb, without a corresponding increase in actual goods and services. Debt monies tend to be inflationary, as they generally overperform the economy of the day.
What about credit money? The idea of a guaranteed annual income, issued as credit money by the United States Treasury, could be calculated in terms of the price in current federal reserve dollars of essential goods and services–food, clothing, shelter, education, and health care. How would that price be determined? Whatever the exact formula, it would have to be simple and balanced to be compelling. One possible formula that meets that requirement is to calculate essential goods and services by the median (not average) price paid for them over time (say a year). One might take, for example, gross yearly revenue in the United States in clothing sales, as per government statistics, and find the median point of sales aggregated for all items–the price point where the number of sales with a higher price is equal to the number of those with a lower price. That price would be calculated into the guaranteed minimum income, along with others similarly derived.
Wouldn’t that still be inflationary? How would credit money be extinguished? Dollars put into the economy every month by recipients of a guaranteed income would continue to circulate in an indefinite series of exchanges: from A to B to C to D etc., with the velocity of circulation depending on economic activity. One way to extinguish credit money in circulation is to impose a federal tax to gradually reabsorb and cancel out the money spent, as MMT theorists recommend. Such a tax would have to strike a balance between providing real spending power while keeping the credit money in circulation stable in relation to the economy. A 5% transfer tax on each exchange, for example, would extinguish a credit dollar after twenty transactions. A continued tax on further transactions would compensate for the continued circulation of the original credit dollar, extinguishing it again after twenty more transactions, and so on.
Another way to put credit dollars into circulation, and also to extinguish them, would be for the Treasury to issue non-interest loans of credit dollars on good collateral, a central demand of nineteenth century American populists Such loans, which would also be extinguished through a transfer tax, and as repaid to the government, would provide a much needed opportunity for economic investment beyond the basic guaranteed income. While the guaranteed income would provide for basic economic security for the public and a viable demand for goods and services, non-interest loans would provide that same public with the opportunity for investment and economic development.
While many MMT advocates follow a progressive political line in hopes of managing the economy by directing the distribution of credit-money to selected groups and sectors, a more populist version of MMT would resist any such government management of the distribution of money. It would reserve all distribution to individual private citizens. It would leave it to them to spend or save their guaranteed income as they saw fit, and to utilize what non-interest loans they could obtain to develop private economic opportunity. Populists were not socialists, but strong advocates of private property and investment. They (farmers, artisans, traders, fabricators) were the quintessential small capitalists. The general distribution of credit money and non-interest debt in today’s world would result in millions of independent investment decisions, not a centralized direction of resources in pursuit of some perceived aspect of social engineering.
Just as the debt money of the bankers superseded the precious metal money of traditional monarchs, so some form of credit money, such as a minimum guaranteed income combined with available no-interest loans, could well supersede debt money. Credit money, in its populist form, would establish a measure of economic security hitherto unobtainable. It would provide a floor of income for basic needs which would maintain a viable level of economic activity. At the same time, it would preserve the opportunities of free enterprise via non-interest loans as incentives for ingenious entrepreneurs.
Credit money need not be a form of socialism, which is the public ownership of the means of production managed by state bureaucrats. No need it be a form of progressivism, with its attempt to use centralized government to impose one or another version of social justice. Quite the opposite. A guaranteed minimum income requires little or no bureaucracy, and no public ownership of anything. It is no more than a simple electronic issuance of funds to each individual’s personal bank account, to save or spend as they wish, no more complicated than Social Security disbursements. No-interest loans of credit money would require a vetting of applicants, as do current for-interest loans, which private or public banks could administer. But here too the money, once approved, would be the borrower’s to spend.
By providing economic security and opportunity on an individual basis equally to all, populist credit money and non-interest loans would do far more to address issues of social justice than heavy-handed programs run by a centralized and thereby inevitably authoritarian government run by self-righteous elites managing a variety of sudden underclasses. Populist credit money is by contrast inherently democractic in providing for the relative economic independence of individuals and households. It would allow people to take their destiny into their own hands by giving them the resources they need to better their lives. The justice of a material distribution of claims to resources–credit money–would set the standard for all other forms of justice.