Dismantling the Temple
Many in Congress will be afraid to take on the temple and reluctant to violate the taboo surrounding the Fed. It will probably require popular rebellion to make this happen, and that requires citizens who see through the temple's secrets. But the present crisis has not only exposed the Fed's worst failures and structural flaws; it has also introduced citizens to the vast potential of monetary policy to serve the common good. If Ben Bernanke can create trillions of dollars at will and spread them around the financial system, could government do the same thing to finance important public projects the people want and need? Daring as it sounds, the answer is, Yes, we can.
The central bank's most mysterious power--to create money with a few computer keystrokes--is dauntingly complicated, and the mechanics are not widely understood. But the essential thing to understand is that this power relies on democratic consent--the people's trust, their willingness to accept the currency and use it in exchange. This is not entirely voluntary, since the government also requires people to pay their taxes in dollars, not euros or yen. But citizens conferred the power on government through their elected representatives. Newly created money is often called the "pure credit" of the nation. In principle, it exists for the benefit of all.
In this emergency, Bernanke essentially used the Fed's money-creation power in a way that resembles the "greenbacks" Abraham Lincoln printed to fight the Civil War. Lincoln was faced with rising costs and shrinking revenues (because the Confederate states had left the Union). The president authorized issuance of a novel national currency--the "greenback"--that had no backing in gold reserves and therefore outraged orthodox thinking. But the greenbacks worked. The expanded money supply helped pay for war mobilization and kept the economy booming. In a sense, Lincoln won the war by relying on the "full faith and credit" of the people, much as Bernanke is printing money freely to fight off financial collapse and deflation.
If Congress chooses to take charge of its constitutional duty, it could similarly use greenback currency created by the Federal Reserve as a legitimate channel for financing important public projects--like sorely needed improvements to the nation's infrastructure. Obviously, this has to be done carefully and responsibly, limited to normal expansion of the money supply and used only for projects that truly benefit the entire nation (lest it lead to inflation). But here is an example of how it would work.
President Obama has announced the goal of building a high-speed rail system. Ours is the only advanced industrial society that doesn't have one (ride the modern trains in France or Japan to see what our society is missing). Trouble is, Obama has only budgeted a pittance ($8 billion) for this project. Spain, by comparison, has committed more than $100 billion to its fifteen-year railroad-building project. Given the vast shortcomings in US infrastructure, the country will never catch up with the backlog through the regular financing of taxing and borrowing.
Instead, Congress should create a stand-alone development fund for long-term capital investment projects (this would require the long-sought reform of the federal budget, which makes no distinction between current operating spending and long-term investment). The Fed would continue to create money only as needed by the economy; but instead of injecting this money into the banking system, a portion of it would go directly to the capital investment fund, earmarked by Congress for specific projects of great urgency. The idea of direct financing for infrastructure has been proposed periodically for many years by groups from right and left. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood co-sponsored legislation along these lines a decade ago when he was a Republican Congressman from Illinois.
This approach speaks to the contradiction House Speaker Pelosi pointed out when she asked why the Fed has limitless money to spend however it sees fit. Instead of borrowing the money to pay for the new rail system, the government financing would draw on the public's money-creation process--just as Lincoln did and Bernanke is now doing.
The bankers would howl, for good reason. They profit enormously from the present system and share in the money-creation process. When the Fed injects more reserves into the banking system, it automatically multiplies the banks' capacity to create money by increasing their lending (and banks, in turn, collect interest on their new loans). The direct-financing approach would not halt the banking industry's role in allocating new credit, since the newly created money would still wind up in the banks as deposits. But the government would now decide how to allocate new credit to preferred public projects rather than let private banks make all the decisions for us.
The reform of monetary policy, in other words, has promising possibilities for revitalizing democracy. Congress is a human institution and therefore fallible. Mistakes will be made, for sure. But we might ask ourselves, If Congress were empowered to manage monetary policy, could it do any worse than those experts who brought us to ruin?