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Whose Bank? Public Investment, Not Private Debt

The public bank concept is gaining ground on the state level, attracting proponents across the political spectrum.

Monopoly, photo by David Muir

Photo by David Muir

While bank bailouts fatten Wall Street, states continue to battle the credit crisis. In the search for innovative solutions, some political candidates are proposing that states generate their own credit by setting up their own banks.

State budgets for 2010 face the largest shortfalls on record, totaling $194 billion or 28 percent of state budgets; and 2011 is expected to be worse. Unemployment has already officially hit 10 percent, and many economists expect it to rise higher. Continued high unemployment will keep state income tax receipts at low levels and increase demand for Medicaid and other essential services states provide. The existing alternatives are spending cuts or tax increases, but both will just serve to make the downturn deeper. When states cut spending, they lay off employees, cancel contracts with vendors, eliminate or lower payments to businesses and nonprofit organizations that provide direct services, and cut benefit payments to individuals. The result is a reduction in overall demand. Tax increases also remove demand, by reducing the amount of money people have to spend. 

Amanda Paulson, writing in The Christian Science Monitor, quotes Arturo Pérez, fiscal analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, which released its survey of state budget situations in December: "Unless you’re North Dakota, you’re probably a state that has had some degree of difficulty or crisis involving finances. It’s the worst situation states have faced in decades, perhaps going as far back as the Great Depression in some states."

So what is so special about North Dakota? It doesn’t have to rely on a recalcitrant Wall Street for credit. It makes its own.

“Unless you’re North Dakota,” that is—a state with a sizeable budget surplus, and the only state that is adding jobs when other states are losing them. A February 13 poll ranked that weather-challenged state first in the country for citizen satisfaction with their standard of living. North Dakota’s affluence has been attributed to oil, but other states with oil are in deep financial trouble. The big drop in oil and natural gas prices propelled Oklahoma into a budget gap that is 18.5 percent of its general-fund budget. California is also resource-rich, with a $2 trillion economy; yet it has a worse credit rating than Greece. So what is so special about North Dakota? The answer seems to be that it is the only state in the union that owns its own bank. It doesn’t have to rely on a recalcitrant Wall Street for credit. It makes its own. 

Candidates Across the Political Spectrum Pick Up on the Public Bank Model

In the quest to find ways to divorce the well-being of their states from the financial sector, a growing number of candidates are picking up on the public bank alternative. Florida, Illinois, Oregon, Massachusetts, Idaho and California all have candidates whose platforms contain this proposed solution to the credit crisis. 

A publicly-owned bank has also been proposed on the federal level. In 2008, presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat, and Cynthia McKinney, the Green Party candidate, advocated nationalizing the Federal Reserve (which is not actually federal but is owned by a consortium of private banks). In 2009, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz said the government would have been better off funding a federally-owned bank than doling out trillions of dollars to private investment banks and CEOs who speculated their way into bankruptcy. Speaking at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on March 6, 2009, he said:

If we had used the $700 billion to create a new financial institution, allowed it to lever 10 to 1, which is very modest compared to the 30 to 1 that we were doing, 10 to 1 would have generated $7 trillion of new lending capacity, far in excess of what our country needs. So the issue here is not about lending. It’s really about saving the bankers. And what we confused was saving the banks versus saving the bankers and their shareholders.

Though the proposals to nationalize the Federal Reserve face powerful opponents in Congress, the public bank concept is gaining ground on the state level, attracting proponents across the political spectrum, including Democrats, Republicans and Greens. The issue transcends party lines. In North Dakota, a Republican state, the state-owned bank was inaugurated by a political party appropriately called the “Non-Partisan League.” 

dollar billMoney from Nothing
Supplying money should be a public service, not a cash cow for banks.

 Oregon: The Bankers’ Bank Model

In Oregon, Bill Bradbury has included a state bank platform in his bid for governor. Bradbury, a Democrat, was formerly secretary of state and has been endorsed by former Vice President Al Gore. His website declares: "It is time to put Oregonians back to work. It is also time to declare economic sovereignty from the multi-national banks that in large part are responsible for much of our current economic crisis. We can achieve these two goals by creating our own bank."

The Oregonian, Oregon’s largest newspaper, reported that Bradbury plans to deposit tax revenues in the public-interest bank, keeping Oregon’s money in Oregon. The bank would then lend the money to get the economy going again, targeting small and medium-sized businesses. Interest would be poured back into the state through more loans to start-up businesses, agriculture, and other key sectors. Currently, Oregon deposits hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues into large out-of-state banks, siphoning the money off from productive in-state uses. Many of these banks are the very banks that needed federal bailouts to keep from failing in 2008, after years of handing out risky mortgage loans. These banks have now grown tight-fisted with Main Street borrowers, making Bradbury’s plan to get money flowing again especially appealing to Oregonian voters.

Bradbury uses the Bank of North Dakota (BND) as his model. Like the BND, the Bank of Oregon would return a dividend to the state based on its earnings, while creating jobs and stimulating the economy through lending. The state bank would not replace private banking institutions but would partner with them, particularly with community banks, providing them with new customers and helping them provide new services. To assure the state bank’s independence from existing financial powers, Bradbury proposes that a board of directors appointed by Oregon’s Senate should govern the bank, while taking advice from an advisory committee of experts.

Idaho: Keeping State Assets in the State

In Idaho, James Stivers, a Republican candidate for the State Senate, has also proposed a state bank to fill state coffers and protect the local economy. In the first indication of a political shift among grassroots Republicans, Stivers swept a closed-ballot preference poll at the GOP District 2 Central Committee meeting in Coeur d’Alene on February 13, winning the non-binding poll 10 to zero. Stivers declares:

An important part of sovereignty is the monetary authority. Currently, banks are allowed to multiply many times over the tax receipts deposited in their institutions. This special privilege is partly responsible for the ‘sucking sound’ in our local economies, as regional banks send their assets to central banks that are playing the derivatives markets of the world.

A state bank would restore this privilege to the people in a public trust and would give us the opportunity to back our deposits with the wealth from our public lands.

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