by Lindy Davies
There has been a persistent chorus in Georgist circles about the vital importance of money in political economy and social reform. This concern isn’t new, of course — many traditions condemn usury and seek to reign in financial excess in various forms. Lately, also, it makes sense that these issues would be on our minds: we’ve just had a global economic crisis, during which a number of “too big to fail” banks had to be bailed out in order to avoid another great depression! That gambit seemed to work, sort of: the economy has rebounded, more or less. Working people have held onto meager jobs, while the 1% has raked in bigger and bigger shares of the wealth. We’re told that the banks’ control over money — the indispensable economic lubricant, the thing we get in our pay envelopes — is every bit as important as the land monopoly, and that our movement risks irrelevance if it fails to address “the money question.”
The reasons why this is dangerously untrue are complex — but worth unpacking.
Most of us were introduced to political economy by learning the definitions of the three mutually-exclusive factors of production: land, labor and capital. The logic of these definitions leads us to identify land as the limiting factor. It is needed for all production, and not produced by human labor — and therefore the control of wealth distribution in society rests with, and depends upon, the control of land. The ramifications of this are endlessly complex — but the basic analysis really is that simple. The fundamental principles of Georgist analysis are as true now as they ever were, and the thing that makes them more relevant today is the extreme degree of mystification and obfuscation that surrounds economic discussions. But you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.*
It’s one thing to say that there are problems with the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) sector of the economy, and that banks have much to answer for, particularly in the wake of the Great Crash of 2008. Banks consolidate; they hedge against risk in ever-more lucrative ways until they wield all-but irresistible political pressure. Banks enjoy subsidized risk, from which they derive unearned profits. They utilize derivatives to wring profits out of transactions that yield little or no benefit to the real economy — so, yes, it’s one thing to say that banking reforms are needed. But it’s quite another thing to say that “the money question” is just as fundamental as the land question. If the banking system were cleansed of all subsidies and rent-taking, if banking unfailingly maintained prudent and fair practices, would the problem of poverty be solved? Or, would our economy, as it benefited from an efficient financial system, simply proceed to generate higher rents?
Specious Claims about Money
It is vehemently proclaimed that we are compelled, in the current corrupt system, to rent our money from the banks. The assertion is that since the vast majority of money is created by being loaned into circulation at interest, any new money which would be used to pay the interest would have to, itself, be loaned into existence at interest. This seems to create two very bad results: 1) that the debt can never be fully paid, and 2) that because it places us ever more deeply in debt, our monetary system addicts us to reckless and unsustainable growth.
If this were true, it would be very bad. But, it is not true. It is a fallacy based on a misunderstanding of how money works.
It is true that most money is loaned into existence by banks. The amount of currency that is printed or minted by the government is a very small percentage of the actual supply of money.* However, it is important to realize that we do not owe interest on money we receive in exchange. We only owe interest on money we borrow. We do not “rent from banks” the money we receive in wages; we receive that money in exchange for labor performed.
Money is borrowed because people are willing to pay to have money now, rather than later. Loans may be short- or long-term, but in every case, some significant interval of time passes between the loan and the repayment. If it didn’t, there would be no point in borrowing money. This means that when money is loaned, the money supply includes that amount of money, plus all of the money that was already in circulation. When a loan is repaid, the money supply includes all the money currently in circulation, minus that amount of that repayment. Money is created when it is loaned and destroyed when loans are repaid.
Because money circulates before it has to be repaid, we can say with certainty that, at any given point in time, there is enough money to pay the principal and interest of all the loans that are due at that time. Some borrowers do default, of course, but most don’t, and lenders carefully evaluate the creditworthiness of borrowers. (Higher-risk lenders, such as credit card companies, payday loan firms or loan sharks, charge higher rates of interest.) Therefore, we know that our monetary system per se doesn’t addict us to crazy growth. What addicts society to crazy growth, actually, is poverty. If we can keep making the pie bigger at all costs, then the rich can keep what they have, while the middle class slowly grows, and the truly discontented remain powerless.
The Greenback Position
The original Greenbacks were the United States Notes that were issued as legal tender by the Lincoln administration during the Civil War. The idea that the government should simply spend money into existence when it was needed — rather than coining it out of precious metals or borrowing it at interest — became a popular one. It grew into a political party which, under various names, was active in the United States during the 1870s and 1880s. Henry George was familiar with the Greenback Party, and he supported it in the debate against the silver interests, for whom the right to coin silver into legal tender was a tremendous state-given windfall. Nevertheless, “I am a Greenbacker,” George wrote, “but not a fool.” George never believed that monetary reform was the key to solving basic economic problems.*
Today’s “sovereign money” advocates, such as Stephen Zarlenga’s American Monetary Institute, or the Positive Money group in Great Britain, believe that all money should be spent into existence by the government; that banks should never be able to lend more money than they have on deposit. Zarlenga believes that the federal monetary authority should have direct control over the money supply and that banks should only handle money that already exists. Under this plan, new money would be spent into existence by the federal government, to buy needed infrastructure and pay for public services.
It doesn’t take great sophistication to see the flaws in this plan. As things are currently done, the money supply is determined by the millions of individual transactions that make up the “invisible hand” of the market. “Sovereign money” advocates think that the central government can somehow amass and sensibly analyze — in real time — all the information needed to decide how much money should circulate. But it simply cannot. Henry George recognized this, writing that to run a planned economy would be like trying to give one’s digestive tract step-by-step instructions on how to process food. Stephen Zarlenga dismisses people who raise this objection as simply joining an unthinking “drumbeat against government.” Nevertheless, it’s hard to envision this system working efficiently in practice. If there weren’t a real need for market-based dynamism in the supply of money, then we could simply apply a gold standard (or a brick, or a market-basket standard, whatever) and be done with it. All in all, when you consider the immense complexity of its influences, you have to admit that our current monetary system works pretty well.
Except When It Doesn’t
As we all know, economic downturns periodically happen, and when they do, money suddenly becomes scarce. Sometimes, a recession can be triggered as a response to uncomfortably high inflation — as with the
“Reagan recession” of the early 1980s, when interest rates were steeply hiked to thwart a worrisome, double-digit inflation rate.* Inflation is, essentially, a glut of money: as the supply of money increases relative to the supply of goods, its value falls.
We should realize that inflation is not a matter of the government simply printing too much money. If it were, inflation could easily be stopped before it got out of hand. What happens in practice is this: when more money is loaned out during a given period than is repaid, there is inflation. When more borrowed money is repaid (or defaulted) during a given period than is loaned out, there is deflation. (The velocity of money is also part of the picture; faster turnover effectively means more money at any given moment, but the velocity of money tends to move in the same direction as inflation or deflation.) A small amount of inflation is generally thought to be a good thing, because it encourages people to spend money, thus increasing demand for goods and services and helping the economy to grow. If there is deflation, money is increasing in value, which creates an incentive for people to hold money rather than spend it. Problems only come when inflation gets higher than the happy 2-3% rate at which the Fed likes to keep it.
Textbook discussions tend to say that excessive inflation occurs when the supply of money is increased, usually due to a government policy, without any corresponding increase in economic output. This can create a vicious cycle in which people want to spend money ever-more quickly, and thus sellers raise prices ever-higher. Traditional examples of hyperinflation, such as in Weimar Germany, Post-Soviet Russia and modern Zimbabwe, have stemmed from breakdowns of effective governance.
If, however, we recognize the root cause of excessive inflation in the tendency to create more money which is then not spent on goods and services, then we have to recognize that this trend is built into the very structure of our economy. Money that is paid for land is not paid for goods and services; land is not a product of labor. As a greater portion of the aggregate supply of money goes toward land (which it always does in a growing economy), less is available for the purchase of goods and services. Then, only one of two things can happen: either demand for goods and services must fall, or the supply of money must increase.
The Financialization of Land Rent
One reason why this issue gets so confusing — becomes such a looking-glass for Georgists to fall through — is that land and money are intimately entwined. Most land is purchased with borrowed money, and the land being purchased is the collateral for those loans. Add to this the inescapable fact that land tends to increase in value whenever times are good (and over the long term in any case). Thus we have an ever-growing portion of new loans going to purchase a non-productive asset, whose speculative price serves as the collateral for those loans! Under such conditions, the banking system is inherently unstable: inflationary until the bottom falls out. It also means that the main reason for this systemic problem is not the creation of money by private banks; it is the private ownership of land.
Mason Gaffney, among others, extols the “English banking school position,” a.k.a. the “Real Bills Doctrine” of banking. Their thinking is that land should never be used as collateral; instead, loans should be backed by self-liquidating assets such as inventory or accounts receivable. This policy facilitates the kind of economy-feeding credit that everyone worries will dry up in a recession. As more money gets sucked into the vortex of speculative real estate loans, less is available for these everyday loans that keep businesses running smoothly. Of course, there would be no better way to remove land value as an unhealthy collateral base than to keep it out of private hands in the first place, by collecting it for public revenue.
What About Public Banking?
Another prominent group of monetary reformers allow that, while perhaps the creation of money via a multiplicity of market transactions is a worthwhile process that confers benefits, these benefits should accrue to the community, rather than to private companies. They reason that since banks create money out of thin air, the interest they charge for access to this money is unearned, a form of monopoly income.*
This position sounds like something Henry George would approve of, for he held that natural monopolies — enterprises that in their nature do not permit competition — should be run by the community. Roads are generally recognized as natural monopolies, as are various utilities such as the electric power grid. Land ownership is a monopoly, because each site is unique, and the rights that attach to it are codified in law and secured by the state.
Is money creation a monopoly? If we think clearly about the basic nature of money and banking, I think we must admit that it is not. Banks provide liquidity — access to money when most desired — and they compete to do it. If banks collude to thwart competition, by cartelization, or securing subsidized risk, they gain monopoly rents from those practices. But such things are not in the basic nature of banking. In fact, it can be argued that such privileges amount to interventions in the free market that tend to make banking less efficient and serve consumers less well. If that is the case, then banking is a competitive business — which should be left to the free market.
The most basic form of subsidy for banks is federal deposit insurance — which was put into place after the Great Depression, when financial volatility wiped out the saving of millions of people. But, as we have seen, the underlying cause of that volatility is not the nature of banking, but the fact that the financial system was allowed, even encouraged, to collateralize things that never should have been private property in the first place.*
A Theory on Why this Debate Persists
It could be that this issue is less theoretical (something that seeks to describe reality, and is disprovable) than it is ideological (something that expresses a political agenda and seeks to move society in a particular direction). Karl Marx referred to the Single Tax as “capitalism’s last gasp.” If it is truly possible to address the problem of poverty by means of a public revenue policy, then it is actually possible for a market economy to be sustainable. This simply does not square with Marxist thinking, in which the capitalist economy must only be a rung on the dialectical ladder. Dr. Michael Hudson has been telling us for years that in a modern economy, “rent is for paying interest” — in other words, that over time, the banking sector seizes control of the economy and the land issue declines in importance. (This doesn’t completely jibe with the fact that Hudson continues to advocate the public collection of land rents — but then again, Marx and Engels did that, too, in the Communist Manifesto.) If the basic problem includes not just the institution of private property in land, but also the entire banking and credit system, then we aren’t left with much of a basis for a market economy. Zarlenga and the Positive Money folks do, after all, advocate a planned economy in terms of the money supply.
The “orthodox” Georgist position, on the other hand, maintains that the private collection of land rent is “the robber that takes all that is left,” and that solving the land problem, via the Georgist remedy, would facilitate other needed reforms — the financial, environmental and political measures needed to make a democratic, market economy work.