Category Archives: public banks

Desperate Central Bankers Grab for More Power

Conceding that their grip on the economy is slipping, central bankers are proposing a radical economic reset that would shift yet more power from government to themselves.

Central bankers are acknowledging that they are out of ammunition. Mark Carney, the soon-to-be-retiring head of the Bank of England, said in a speech at the annual meeting of central bankers in August in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, “In the longer-term, we need to change the game.” The same point was made by Philipp Hildebrand, former head of the Swiss National Bank, in an August 2019 interview with Bloomberg. “Really there is little if any ammunition left,” he said. “More of the same in terms of monetary policy is unlikely to be an appropriate response if we get into a recession or sharp downturn.”

“More of the same” meant further lowering interest rates, the central bankers’ stock tool for maintaining their targeted inflation rate in a downturn. Bargain-basement interest rates are supposed to stimulate the economy by encouraging borrowers to borrow (since rates are so low) and savers to spend (since they aren’t making any interest on their deposits and may have to pay to store them). But over $15 trillion in bonds are now trading globally at negative interest rates, yet this radical maneuver has not been shown to measurably improve economic performance. In fact  new research shows that negative interest rates from central banks, rather than increasing spending, stopping deflation, and stimulating the economy as they were expected to do, may be having the opposite effects. They are being blamed for squeezing banks, punishing savers, keeping dying companies on life support, and fueling a potentially unsustainable surge in asset prices.

So what is a central banker to do? Hildebrand’s proposed solution was presented in a paper he wrote with three of his colleagues at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, where he is now vice chairman. Released in August to coincide with the annual Jackson Hole meeting of central bankers, the paper was co-authored by Stanley Fischer, former governor of the Bank of Israel and former vice chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve; Jean Boivin, former deputy governor of the Bank of Canada; and BlackRock economist Elga Bartsch. Their proposal calls for “more explicit coordination between central banks and governments when economies are in a recession so that monetary and fiscal policy can better work in synergy.” The goal, according to Hildebrand, is to go “direct with money to consumers and companies in order to enliven consumption,” putting spending money directly into consumers’ pockets.

It sounds a lot like “helicopter money,” but he was not actually talking about raining money down on the people. The central bank would maintain a “Standing Emergency Fiscal Facility” that would be activated when interest rate manipulation was no longer working and deflation had set in. The central bank would determine the size of the Facility based on its estimates of what was needed to get the price level back on target. It sounds good until you get to who would disburse the funds: “Independent experts would decide how best to deploy the funds to both maximize impact and meet strategic investment objectives set by the government.”

“Independent experts” is another term for “technocrats” – bureaucrats chosen for their technical skill rather than by popular vote. They might be using sophisticated data, algorithms and economic formulae to determine “how best to deploy the funds,” but the question is, “best for whom?” It was central bank technocrats who plunged the economies of Greece and Italy into austerity after 2011, and unelected technocrats who put Detroit into bankruptcy in 2013.

In short, Hildebrand and co-authors are not talking about central banks giving up their ivory tower independence to work with legislators in coordinating fiscal and monetary policy. Rather, central bankers would be acquiring even more power, by giving themselves a new pot of free money that they could deploy as they saw fit in the service of “government objectives.”

Carney’s New Game

The tendency to overreach was also evident in the Jackson Hole speech of BOE head Mark Carney, in which he said “we need to change the game.” The game changer he proposed was to break the power of the US dollar as global reserve currency. This would be done through the issuance of an international digital currency backed by multiple national currencies, on the model of Facebook’s “Libra.”

Multiple reserve currencies are not a bad idea, but if we’re following the Libra model, we’re talking about a new, single reserve currency that is merely “backed” by a basket of other currencies. The question then is who would issue this global currency, and who would set the rules for obtaining the reserves.

Carney suggested that the new currency might be “best provided by the public sector, perhaps through a network of central bank digital currencies.” This raises further questions. Are central banks really “public”? And who would be the issuer – the banker-controlled Bank for International Settlements, the bank of central banks in Switzerland? Or perhaps the International Monetary Fund, which Carney is in line to head?

The IMF already issues Special Drawing Rights to supplement global currency reserves, but they are merely “units of account” which must be exchanged for national currencies. Allowing the IMF to issue the global reserve currency outright would give unelected technocrats unprecedented power over nations and their money. The effect would be similar to the surrender by EU governments of control over their own currencies, making their central banks dependent on the European Central Bank for liquidity, with its disastrous consequences.

Time to End the “Independent” Fed?

A media event that provoked even more outrage against central bankers last month, however, was an August 27th op-ed in Bloomberg by William Dudley, former president of the New York Fed and a former partner at Goldman Sachs. Titled “The Fed Shouldn’t Enable Donald Trump,” it concluded:

There’s even an argument that the [presidential] election itself falls within the Fed’s purview. After all, Trump’s reelection arguably presents a threat to the U.S. and global economy, to the Fed’s independence and its ability to achieve its employment and inflation objectives. If the goal of monetary policy is to achieve the best long-term economic outcome, then Fed officials should consider how their decisions will affect the political outcome in 2020.

The Fed is so independent that, according to former Fed chair Alan Greenspan, it is answerable to no one. A chief argument for retaining the Fed’s independence is that it needs to remain a neutral arbiter, beyond politics and political influence; and Dudley’s op-ed clearly breached that rule. Critics called it an attempt to overthrow a sitting president, a treasonous would-be coup that justified ending the Fed altogether.

Perhaps, but central banks actually serve some useful functions. Better would be to nationalize the Fed, turning it into a true public utility, mandated to serve the interests of the economy and the voting public. Having the central bank and the federal government work together to coordinate fiscal and monetary policy is actually a good idea, so long as the process is transparent and public representatives have control over where the money is deployed. It’s our money, and we should be able to decide where it goes.

This article was first posted on Truthdig.org.

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. By turning the $400 million IBank currently has for loans into bank capital, it could lend $4 billion, backed by demand deposits from the local governments that are its clients. The IBank has a 15-year record of success; experienced staff and detailed procedures already in place; low-risk customers, consisting solely of government entities; and low-interest loans for infrastructure and development that are in such high demand that requests are 30 times current capacity.

The time is also right for bringing the bill, as a growing public banking movement is picking up momentum across the U.S. Over 25 public bank bills are currently active, and dozens of groups are promoting the idea. Advocates include a highly motivated generation of young millennials, who are only too aware that the old system is not working for them and a new direction is needed.

Banks now create most of our money supply and need to be made public utilities, following the stellar precedent of the Bank of North Dakota, which makes below-market loans for local communities and businesses while turning a profit for the state. The Bank of North Dakota was founded in 1919 in response to a farmers’ revolt against out-of-state banks that were foreclosing unfairly on their farms. Since then it has evolved into a $7.4 billion bank that is reported to be even more profitable than JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, although its mandate is not actually to make a profit but simply to serve the interests of local North Dakota communities. Along with hundreds of public banks worldwide, it has demonstrated what can be done by cutting out private shareholders and middlemen and mobilizing public revenues to serve the public interest.

The time is right politically to adopt that model. The newly elected California governor, Gavin Newsom, has expressed strong interest both in a state-owned bank and in the IBank approach. In Los Angeles, the City Council brought a measure for a city-owned bank that won 44% of the vote in November, and City Council President Herb Wesson has stated that the measure will be brought again. Where there is the political will, policymakers generally find a way.

Advocates in eight Golden State cities have formed the California Public Banking Alliance, which co-sponsored another public banking bill filed just last month. Introduced by Assembly Members David Chiu and Miguel Santiago, Assembly Bill 857 would enable the chartering of public banks by local California governments. The bill, which has broad grassroots support, would “authorize the lending of public credit to public banks and authorize public ownership of stock in public banks for the purpose of achieving cost savings, strengthening local economies, supporting community economic development, and addressing infrastructure and housing needs for localities.”

The first hearing on Hueso’s Senate Bill 528 was held in Sacramento last week before the Senate Committee on Governance and Finance, where it passed. The bill goes next to the Senate Banking Committee. With momentum growing, California could be the first state in the 21st century to form its own bank; but it is getting heavy competition in that race from Washington State.

Washington’s Public Bank Movement: The Virtues of Persistence

Like Sen. Hueso, Washington State Sen. Bob Hasegawa filed his first bill for a state-owned bank nearly a decade ago. The measure is now in its fifth iteration. Along the way, his Senate State Banking Caucus has acquired 23 members, just three votes short of a senate majority.

As Sen. Patty Kuderer explained at an informational forum held by the Caucus in October, their bills kept getting stalled with the same questions and concerns, and they saw that a different approach was needed; so in 2017, they advised the state to hire professional banking consultants to address the concerns and to draft a business plan that would “move the concept forward from the theoretical to the concrete, so that legislators would have a solid idea of what they would eventually be voting on.” They could bypass the studies and go straight to a business plan that laid out the nuts and bolts.

The maneuver worked. Senate Bill 6375 was the first public banking bill to be advanced out of the Policy Committee with bipartisan support. It got stalled in the Ways and Means Committee, but another bill, SB 5959, was filed this year. In yet another bill, SB 6032-Supplemental Budget, the fiscal Ways and Means committee committed $480,000 to assessing risk and developing a business plan for the effort.

The form of the proposed bank was also modified: a bank that simply would have received the state’s tax funds as deposits evolved into a “co-op” that would be open to membership not just by the state but by all “political subdivisions that have a tax base.” Opening the co-op bank’s membership would allow it to generate substantially more credit than could be made from the state’s revenues alone, since it would have the ability to hold as deposits the combined revenues of cities, counties, ports and utility districts, as well as of the state itself. Those entities would also be able to borrow at below-market rates from the co-op bank and to leverage the tax dollars they collected. The concept was similar to that being advanced in California’s SB 528, which would allow the IBank to expand its lending capacity to local governments by taking the demand deposits of those same governments and affiliated public entities.

The Washington State business plan is due no later than June 30, 2019, and legislators expect to vote on the bill no later than 2020.

Whenever it happens, says Sen. Hasegawa, “I see a public bank as almost inevitable because of the current financial structures we’re required to live under.” State infrastructure needs are huge, and the existing funding options—raising taxes, cutting services and increasing debt levels—have been exhausted. Newly-created credit directed into local communities by publicly-owned banks can provide the additional funding that local governments critically need.

Whichever state wins the race for the next state bank, the implications are huge. A century after the very successful Bank of North Dakota proved the model, the time has finally come to apply it across the country.

• This article was first published on Truthdig.com

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. These deposits, called “excess reserves,” include the reserves the banks got from our deposits, on which they are paying almost nothing; and unlike with our deposits, there is no $250,000 cap on the sums banks can stash at the Fed amassing interest. A whopping $1.5 trillion in reserves are now sitting in Fed reserve accounts. The Fed rebates its profits to the government after deducting its costs, and interest paid to banks is one of those costs. That means we the taxpayers are paying $36 billion annually to private banks for the privilege of parking their excess reserves at one of the most secure banks in the world – parking their reserves rather than lending them out.

The banks are getting these outsized returns while taking absolutely no risk, since the Fed as “lender of last resort” cannot go bankrupt. This is not true for other depositors, including large institutions such as the pension funds that hold our retirement money. As Matt Levine notes in a March 8 article on Bloomberg:

[I]f you are a large institutional cash investor—a money-market fund, a foreign central bank, things like that—then in some sense you have no way to keep your money perfectly safe…. The closest that big non-banks normally get is “overnight general collateral repo”: You give your money to a bank, and the bank gives you back a Treasury security as collateral, and you can get your money back the next day.

This arrangement is reasonably safe for the institutional investor, which can withdraw its money on a day’s notice; and it gets interest that is close to 2.4%. But the bank is using the investor’s money to run its business, and the bank is leveraged. The money it gets from repoing Treasuries is used to buy other things and to trade in stocks, bonds, derivatives and the like. This makes the repo business highly risky for the market as a whole, as was seen when a run on the repo market triggered the credit crisis of 2008-09. As Jennifer Taub explained the problem in a 2014 article in the New York Times titled “Time to Reduce Repo Run Risk”:

An overnight repo would be like you having a car loan that is due in full every morning and if the lender does not renew your loan that day, you need to find a new one, each and every day or they take your car away.

When trust is strong and cash plentiful, repos are rolled over. When trust reasonably erodes, or there is a panic, cash is demanded from the repo borrowers who might have to sell the collateral or relinquish it…. Indeed, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has repeatedly warned of the repo “fire sale” risk.

Taub cited FDIC officials Thomas Hoenig and Sheila Bair, who warned that the banks remain dangerously interconnected and vulnerable to sudden runs due to their dependence on short-term, often overnight borrowing through the multitrillion-dollar repo market.

For large institutional investors, one proposed alternative is something called “The Narrow Bank” (TNB). TNB would take large-depositor money and park it at the Fed, and that’s all the bank would do. The Fed would pay 2.4%, TNB would take a small cut, and the rest would be passed to the depositors. But the Fed has refused to open this sort of pass-through account, and in a recent notice of proposed rulemaking it explained why. As Matt Levine summarized its concerns:

[T]he Fed worries that having too safe a bank would be bad for financial stability: In times of stress, everyone will flee from the regular banks to the super-safe narrow banks, which will have the effect of bringing down the regular banks.

Besides impairing its ability to target interest rates, the Fed is worried that narrow banks will take funding away from regular banks, making it harder for those banks to trade stocks and bonds (a business largely funded by repo) as well as jeopardizing their lending business. All of which shows, says Levine, that the Fed is not a neutral arbiter. It is working for the banks:

The Fed just gets to decide who gets to compete in the banking business, and how that competition will work, and what their business models can be, by virtue of its control of access to reserve accounts…. There is no modern banking that is independent of the sovereign’s power to control money, and the question is just who the sovereign shares that power with.

The European Approach: Negative Interest Rates

While US banks are being paid an unprecedented 2.4% for leaving their reserves at the Fed, the European Central Bank is taking the opposite tack: it is charging banks a negative interest rate of 0.4% for holding their reserves. The goal is to get banks to move the reserves off their books by making new loans. If they lend money on to the real economy, and particularly to companies, this interest payment may be rebated to the banks under a facility called “targeted longer-term refinancing operations” or TLTROs. In 2016 and 2017, the ECB returned a total of 739 billion euros to banks through TLTROs, and it is expected to renew that program, in an effort to avoid an even greater economic downturn than Europe is suffering now.

Negative interest rates were supposed to be a temporary emergency measure, but in comments on March 27, ECB President Mario Draghi hinted that they could be around for a long time if not permanently. The “new normal” is evidently a chronically abnormal state of emergency in which central banks can experiment with the formerly unthinkable and get away with it.

A Public Option for the Rest of Us

Even if large depositors were allowed to participate in the perks of Fed accounts through TNB, small depositors and small businesses would still be left with a meager 1/10th of 1% annually on their deposits. But some interesting proposals are on the table for opening the Fed’s deposit window to everyone, allowing us all to collect 2.4% on our deposits.

One such plan was presented in a June 2018 policy paper titled “Central Banking for All: A Public Option for Bank Accounts” by a trio of law professors and former Treasury advisors headed by Morgan Ricks. They suggested that for the physical infrastructure to handle so many accounts, the Fed could use the post offices peppered across the country. Postal banking has been popular for two centuries in Europe and was offered in US post offices from 1911 to 1967. Postal banks were in their heyday in the 1930s, when private banks were going bankrupt and were vulnerable to crushing bank runs. The postal banks were government-backed, paid 2% interest on deposits, and were very safe. Congress could have expanded that system into a national public utility that safely and efficiently served the banking needs of local communities. But instead it chose to back the private banking system with federal deposit insurance, guaranteeing private bank deposits with taxpayer funds – again showing how the winners and losers are picked by government officials, depending on whose lobbyists have the most clout.

To prevent public banks from competing with private banks, Congress capped the amount of interest postal banks could pay and strictly limited their lending. As a result, in 1967 the postal banking system was shut down as being no longer competitive or necessary. But efforts are now underway to revive it. In April 2018, US Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced legislation that would require every US post office to provide basic banking services.

A movement is also afoot to establish state- and city-owned banks that would have the ability to lend for infrastructure and other local needs. Local governments cannot get a risk-free 2.4% from the Fed for their demand deposits, but city- or state-owned banks could. Combining postal banks with a network of local public banks having affordable access to the Fed’s deep pocket could provide a safe and efficient public banking option for individuals, businesses and local governments.

This article was first published on Truthdig.com.

Europe on the Brink of Collapse?

The Empire’s European castle of vassals is crumbling. Right in front of our eyes. But Nobody seems to see it. The European Union (EU), the conglomerate of vassals. Trump calls them irrelevant, and he doesn’t care what they think about him, they deserve to be collapsing. They, the ‘vassalic’ EU, a group of 28 countries, some 500 million people, with a combined economy of a projected 19 trillion US-dollar equivalent, about the same as the US, have submitted themselves to the dictate of Washington in just about every important aspect of life.

The EU has accepted on orders by Washington to sanction Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and a myriad of countries that have never done any harm to any of the 28 EU member states. The EU has accepted the humiliation of military impositions by NATO – threatening Russia and China with ever more and ever more advancing military basis towards Moscow and Beijing, to the point that Brussels’ foreign policy is basically led by NATO.

It was clear from the very get-go that the US sanctions regime imposed on Russia and all the countries refusing to submit to the whims and rules of Washington, directly and via the EU, was hurting the EU economically far more than Russia. This is specifically true for some of the southern European countries, whose economy depended more on trading with Russia and Eurasia than it did for other EU countries.

The ‘sanctions’ disaster really hit the fan, when Trump unilaterally decided to abrogate the “Nuclear Deal” with Iran and reimpose heavy sanctions on Iran and on “everybody who would do business with Iran”. European hydrocarbon giants started losing business. That’s when Brussels, led by Germany, started mumbling that they would not follow the US and – even – that they would back European corporations, mainly hydrocarbon giants, sticking to their contractual arrangements they had with Iran.

Too late. European business had lost all confidence in Brussels EU Administration’s feeble and generally untrustworthy words. Many breached their longstanding and, after the Nuclear Deal, renewed contracts with Iran, out of fear of punishment by Washington and lack of trust in Brussel’s protection. Case in point is the French-British petrol giant, Total, which shifted its supply source from Iran to Russia – no, not to the US, as was, of course, Washington’s intent. The damage is done. The vassals are committing slow suicide.

The people have had it. More than half of the European population wants to get out of the fangs from Brussels. But nobody asks them, nor listens to them, and that in the so-called heartland of ‘democracy’ (sic). That’s why people are now up in arms and protesting everywhere – in one way or another in Germany, France, the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Hungary, Poland – the list is almost endless. And it can be called generically the ‘Yellow Vests”, after the new French revolution.

The latest in a series of the US attacking Germany and German business – and German integrity, for that matter – are the US Ambassador’s, Richard Grenell, recent threats to German corporations with sanctions if they work on Nord Stream 2, the 1,200 km pipeline bringing Russian gas to Europe, to be completed by the end of 2019. It will virtually double the capacity of Russian gas supply to Europe. Instead, Washington wants Europe to buy US shale gas and oil, and especially keeping Europe economically and financially in the US orbit, avoiding in any way a detachment from Washington and preventing the obvious and logical – an alliance with Russia. This attempt will fail bitterly, as various German Ministers, including Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, have loudly and with determination protested against such US hegemonic advances. Well, friends, you have bent over backwards to please your Washington Masters for too long. It’s high time to step out of this lock-step of obedience.

In France, this past weekend of 12 / 13 January, the Yellow Vests went into round 9 of protests against dictator Macron, his austerity program and not least his abject arrogance vis-à- vis the working class. A recent public statement of Macron’s is testimony of this below-the-belt arrogance: Trop de francals n’ont pas le sens de l’effort, ce qui explique en partie les ‘troubles’ que connalt le pays”. Translated: “Too many French don’t know the meaning of ‘effort’ which explains at least partially the trouble this country is in.”

The Yellow Vests and a majority of the French population want nothing less than Macron’s resignation. Protesters are consistently and largely under-reported by Christophe Castaner, the French Interior Minister. This past weekend the official figure was 50,000 demonstrators, countrywide, when in reality the figure was at least three times higher. The official French version would like the public at large, inside and outside of France, to believe that the Yellow Vest’s movement is diminishing. It is not. To the contrary, they are demonstrating all over France, and that despite the Macron regime’s increasing violent repression.

RT reports on Macron’s orders the police are becoming more violent, using military suppression to control protesting French civilians. Thousands have been arrested, and hundreds injured by police brutality. Nevertheless, the movement is gaining massive public support and the ‘Yellow Vests” idea is spreading throughout Europe. This spread is, of course, hardly reported by the mainstream media.

In fact, 80% of the French back the Yellow Vests and their idea of a Citizen Initiated Referendum (RIC for “Référendum d’initiative citoyenne”), under which citizens could propose their own laws that would then be voted on by the general public. The RIC could effectively bypass the French Parliament, and would be enshrined in the French Constitution. A similar law exists since 1848 in Switzerland and is regularly applied by Swiss citizens. It is a way of Direct Democracy that any country calling itself a “democracy” should incorporate in its Constitution.

The UK is in shambles. Thousands are taking to the streets of London, organized by the People’s Assembly Against Austerity”, calling for general elections to replace the failing Tory Government. They are joined by the French Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests), out of solidarity. Many of the UK protesters are also wearing high-visibility yellow vests.

This is in direct correlation with the ever-growing louder debacle over BREXIT – yes, or no and how. At this point nobody knows what Britain’s future is going to be. Propaganda and counter-propaganda is destined to further confuse the people and confused people usually want to stick to the ‘status quo’. There is even a movement of pro “remain” propaganda, organized by some members of the European Parliament. Imagine! Talking about sovereignty, if Brussels cannot even leave the Brits alone to decide whether they want to continue under their dictate or not.

Hélas, the Brits are largely divided, but also past the stage of being swayed by foreign propaganda, especially in this delicate question of leaving the EU – which a majority of Brits clearly decided in June 2016. Prime Minister, Theresa May, has screwed-up the BREXIT process royally, to the point where many Brits feel that what she negotiated is worse than “no deal”. This has likely happened in close connivance with the unelected EU ‘leadership’ which does not want the UK to leave and under strict orders from Washington which needs the UK in its crucial role as a US mole in the European Union.

On 15 January 2019, the UK Parliament voted on whether they accept the negotiated BREXIT conditions, or whether they prefer a ‘no deal’ BREXIT, or will request an extension for further negotiations under Article 50 of the “Treaty of Lisbon” (which was imposed by the heads of state of the 28 members, without any public vote, and is a false stand-in for a EU Constitution). Ms. May’s proposal was largely rejected by the British Parliament, but her Government survived a subsequent vote of “No Confidence”.

Now, the situation for the a divided British population is chaos. So far nobody knows, probably not even Ms. May, what will follow next. There are various options, including ‘snap’ elections, and let the new PM decide, a new “remain or exit” referendum that would not go down well with probably the majority of the population – or simply a vote to in Parliament for a “no deal Brexit”, or to stay in the EU after all.

For weeks, the Yellow Vest movement has spread to Belgium and The Netherlands. For similar reasons – public discontent over austerity, EU dictatorship over Belgian and Dutch sovereignty. Last Friday, one of the Belgian Yellow Vests was overrun by a truck and killed. Authorities reported it as an accident.

Greece — The MS-media report all is ‘donkey-dory’, Greece is recovering, has for the first time in many years a positive growth rate and is able to refinance herself on the open capital market. Greece is no longer dependent on the irate and infamous troika (European Central Bank – ECB, European Commission and IMF). Reality is completely different, as about two thirds of the Greek population are still hovering around or below the survival level – no access to public health care, affordable medication, public schools – umpteen times reduced pensions, most public assets and services privatized for a pittance. Nothing has fundamentally changed in the last years, at least not for the better and for the majority of the people. The troika has allowed the Greek to go to the private capital markets – to boost falsely their, the Greek’s, image among the international public at large, basically telling the brainwashed populace, “It worked, we, the troika, did a good job”.

Nothing worked. People are unhappy; more than unhappy, they are indignant. They demonstrated against Angela Merkel’s recent visit to Athens, and their protests were violently oppressed by police forces. What do you expect? This is what has become of Europe, a highly repressive state of spineless vassals.

On Wednesday, 16 January, the Greek Parliament may hold a Vote of Confidence against or for Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. The official and make-believe reason is supposedly the controversy over the name of Macedonia, which, in fact, has long been settled. The real reason is the public’s discontent about the continuous and increasing blood-letting by never-ending austerity, sucking the last pennies from the poor. According to Lancet, the renowned British health journal, the Greek suicide rate is soaring. Nobody talks about it. Will Tsipras survive a possible Vote of Confidence? If not, early elections? Who will follow Tsipras? Don’t be fooled by the term ‘democracy’.  The elite from within and without Greece will not allow any policy changes. That’s when people à la Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) may come in. Civil unrest. Enough is enough.

In Italy the coalition of the 5-Star Movement and the small right-wing brother, Lega Norte, is pulled to the far right by Lega’s Matteo Salvini, Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister. Mr. Salvini is clearly calling the shots, and his alliance is firing strongly against Brussels and with good reason, as Brussels is attempting to impose rules on Italy’s budget, while the same rules do not apply equally to all EU member states. For example, Macron, France’s Rothschild implant, has special privileges, as far as budget overrun margins are concerned. Mr. Salvini’s anti-Brussels, anti-EU stance is no secret, and he has a lot of Italians behind him. An Italian Yellow Vest movement cannot be excluded.

The empire’s vassal castle is crumbling and not even silently.

Then there are the former Soviet satellites, Hungary and Poland, turned right wing – don’t appreciate Brussels meddling with Hungary’s anti-immigration policy and in Poland over a controversial overhaul of the Judiciary system. Never mind whether you agree or not with individual country actions. Both cases are clear interferences in these nations’ sovereignty. Though upon the European Court of Justice’s strong warning, Poland indeed blinked and reinstated the judges fired in the judiciary reform process. Poland’s love for NATO, and Brussels use of the NATO leverage, may have played a role in Poland’s reversal of decision. Nevertheless, discontent in Poland as in Hungary among the public at large remains strong. Migration and the Judiciary are just the visible pretexts. The legendary tip of the iceberg. Reality is on a deeper level, much deeper. These countries are both reminded of what they considered the Soviet Union’s handcuffs. “Freedom” is not being dictated by Brussels.

The triad of systematic and willful destabilization and destruction of what we know as the Greater Middle East and western world is what we have to be aware of. The east, mostly Russia and China, is a challenge being tackled simultaneously, impressively for the brainwashed westerner, but rather meekly for those who are informed about Russia’s and China’s military might and intelligence capacity.

This drive of destabilization cum destruction comes in three phases. It started with the Middle East which for the most part has become a hopeless hell-hole, a source of indiscriminate killing by the western allies, say, the emperor’s puppets and mercenaries, resulting in millions killed and in an endless flood of refugees destabilizing Europe – which is the second phase of the triad. It’s in full swing. It happens right in front of our eyes, but we don’t see it.

It’s the Yellow Vests, austerity, increasing inequality, unemployment, social sector’s being milked to zilch by the financial system, popular uprisings’ oppression by police and military forces; it’s reflected by the dismal powerlessness of the people that leads to “enough is enough” in the streets. That’s the way it’s all wanted. The more chaos the better. People in chaos are easily controlled.

Now comes phase three of the triad – Latin America. It has already started three or four years back. Countries that have struggled for decades to eventually break loose with some form of ‘democracy’ from the fangs of empire, are gradually being subdued with fake elections and ‘internal’ parliamentary coups, back into the emperor’s backyard. The Southern Cone – Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay – is ‘gone’, except for Bolivia. Peru, Colombia, Ecuador all the way to Guyana are governed by neoliberal, even neo-nazi-shaded Lords of Washington. But there is still Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and now also Mexico that have not caved in and will not cave in.

In an extraordinary analysis, Thierry Meyssan describes in “The Terrible Forthcoming Destruction of the Caribbean Basin” –  how the Pentagon is still pursuing the implementation of the Rumsfeld-Cebrowski plan, this time aiming at the destruction of the “Caribbean Basin” States. There is no consideration for friends or political enemies, Thierry Meyssan observes. He goes on predicting that after the period of economic destabilization and that of military preparation, the actual operation should begin in the years to come by an attack on Venezuela by Brazil (supported by Israel), Colombia (an ally of the United States) and Guyana (in other words, the United Kingdom). It will be followed by others, beginning with Cuba and Nicaragua, the ‘troika of tyranny’, as per John Bolton.

Only the future will say to what extent this plan will be implemented. At the outset, its ambitions exceed the crumbling empire’s actual capacity.

When it comes all down to one single denominator, it’s the current western financial system that must go. It is private banking gone berserk. We are living in a financial system that has gone wild and running havoc, uncontrolled – a train of endless greed that is loosely speeding ahead and doesn’t know when it will hit an unyielding steel-enforced brick wall – but hit it will. It is a mere question of time. People are sick and tired of being milked no end by a fraudulent pyramid system constructed by the US and her dollar hegemony and maintained by globalized private banking.

We are living in a private banking system that has nothing to do with economic development, but everything with a greed-driven domination of us, consumers, sold on debt and on money that we don’t control, despite the fact that we earned it with our hard labor; despite the fact that it is our added value to what we call the economy. No!  This system is totally disrespectful of the individual.  It is even ready to steal our money, if it needs to survive – our banking system. It takes the liberty of “administering” it and basically appropriating it. Once our money is in a private bank, we have lost control over it. And mind you and get it into your brains, private banks do not work for you and me, but for their shareholders. But through hundreds of years of indoctrination, we have become so used to it, that being charged interest for borrowing our own money, through an intermediary who does nothing, absolutely nothing but wait for profit to fall into its lap, has become the ‘normality’.

It isn’t. This system has to be abolished, the faster the better. Private banking needs to be eradicated and replaced by local public banking that works with local currencies, based on local economic output, way removed from globalized concepts that help steal resources, empty local social safety nets – all under the guise of austerity for progress. We should know better by now. There is no austerity for progress, has never been. This fraudulent IMF-World Bank concept has never worked, anywhere.

We have to de-dollarize our money, de-digitize our money and pool it through a public banking system for the purpose of people’s growth, hence a society’s or nation’s growth. There is currently one good example, the Bank of North Dakota. The BND has helped the US State of North Dakota through the 2008 and following years crisis, with economic growth instead of economic decline, with almost full employment, versus skyrocketing unemployment in the rest of the US and the western world. We need to build our common wealth with sovereign money, backed by our sovereign economies.

As the empire and its vassals are crumbling badly, they are shaking in their foundations, it is time to rethink what we have been taking for granted and for ‘normal’ – a fraudulent and deceptive monetary system, backed by nothing, no economy, not even gold – we are living on sheer fiat money, made by private banking by a mouse-click – and by letting us be enslaved by debt.

Enough is enough. The Yellow Vests have understood. They want to get rid of their “Macron” who keeps propagating the fraud. It is time to rethink and restart, as the crumbling is getting louder and louder. Empire’s European vassal state is falling apart and will pull Washington and its hegemonic war and money machine along into the abyss.

• First published by the New Eastern Outlook – NEO

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.

The pros and cons of a UBI are hotly debated and have been discussed elsewhere. The point here is to show that it could actually be funded year after year without driving up taxes or prices. New money is continually being added to the money supply, but it is added as debt created privately by banks. (How banks rather than the government create most of the money supply today is explained on the Bank of England website here.) A UBI would replace money-created-as-debt with debt-free money – a “debt jubilee” for consumers – while leaving the money supply for the most part unchanged; and to the extent that new money was added, it could help create the demand needed to fill the gap between actual and potential productivity.

The Debt Overhang Crippling Economies

The “bank money” composing most of the money in circulation is created only when someone borrows, and today businesses and consumers are burdened with debts that are higher than ever before. In 2018, credit card debt alone exceeded $1 trillion, student debt exceeded $1.5 trillion, auto loan debt exceeded $1.1 trillion, and non-financial corporate debt hit $5.7 trillion. When businesses and individuals pay down old loans rather than taking out new loans, the money supply shrinks, causing a “balance sheet recession.” In that situation, the central bank, rather than removing money from the economy (as the Fed is doing now), needs to add money to fill the gap between debt and the spendable income available to repay it.

Debt always grows faster than the money available to repay it. One problem is the interest, which is not created along with the principal, so more money is always owed back than was created in the original loan. Beyond that, some of the money created as debt is held off the consumer market by “savers” and investors who place it elsewhere, making it unavailable to companies selling their wares and the wage-earners they employ. The result is a debt bubble that continues to grow until it is not sustainable and the system collapses, in the familiar death spiral euphemistically called the “business cycle.” As economist Michael Hudson shows in his 2018 book And Forgive Them Their Debts, this inevitable debt overhang was corrected historically with periodic “debt jubilees” – debt forgiveness – something he argues we need to do again today.

For governments, a debt jubilee could be effected by allowing the central bank to buy government securities and hold them on its books. For individuals, one way to do it fairly across the board would be with a UBI.

Why a UBI Need Not Be Inflationary

In a 2018 book called The Road to Debt Bondage: How Banks Create Unpayable Debt, political economist Derryl Hermanutz proposes a central-bank-issued UBI of one thousand dollars per month, credited directly to people’s bank accounts. Assuming this payment went to all US residents over 18, or about 241 million people, the outlay would be close to $3 trillion annually. For people with overdue debt, Hermanutz proposes that it automatically go to pay down those debts. Since money is created as loans and extinguished when they are repaid, that portion of a UBI disbursement would be extinguished along with the debt.

People who were current on their debts could choose whether or not to pay them down, but many would also no doubt go for that option. Hermanutz estimates that roughly half of a UBI payout could be extinguished in this way through mandatory and voluntary loan repayments. That money would not increase the money supply or demand. It would just allow debtors to spend on necessities with debt-free money rather than hocking their futures with unrepayable debt.

He estimates that another third of a UBI disbursement would go to “savers” who did not need the money for expenditures. This money, too, would not be likely to drive up consumer prices, since it would go into investment and savings vehicles rather than circulating in the consumer economy. That leaves only about one-sixth of payouts, or $500 billion, that would actually be competing for goods and services; and that sum could easily be absorbed by the “output gap” between actual and forecasted productivity.

According to a July 2017 paper from the Roosevelt Institute called “What Recovery? The Case for Continued Expansionary Policy at the Fed”:

GDP remains well below both the long-run trend and the level predicted by forecasters a decade ago. In 2016, real per capita GDP was 10% below the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) 2006 forecast, and shows no signs of returning to the predicted level.

The report showed that the most likely explanation for this lackluster growth was inadequate demand. Wages have remained stagnant; and before producers will produce, they need customers knocking on their doors.

In 2017, the US Gross Domestic Product was $19.4 trillion. If the economy is running at 10% below full capacity, $2 trillion could be injected into the economy every year without creating price inflation. It would just generate the demand needed to stimulate an additional $2 trillion in GDP. In fact, a UBI might pay for itself, just as the G.I. Bill produced a sevenfold return from increased productivity after World War II.

The Evidence of China

That new money can be injected year after year without triggering price inflation is evident from a look at China. In the last 20 years, its M2 money supply has grown from just over 10 trillion yuan to 80 trillion yuan ($11.6T), a nearly 800% increase. Yet the inflation rate of its Consumer Price Index (CPI) remains a modest 2.2%.

Why has all that excess money not driven prices up? The answer is that China’s Gross Domestic Product has grown at the same fast clip as its money supply. When supply (GDP) and demand (money) increase together, prices remain stable.

Whether or not the Chinese government would approve of a UBI, it does recognize that to stimulate productivity, the money must get out there first; and since the government owns 80% of China’s banks, it is in a position to borrow money into existence as needed. For “self-funding” loans – those that generate income (fees for rail travel and electricity, rents for real estate) – repayment extinguishes the debt along with the money it created, leaving the net money supply unchanged. When loans are not repaid, the money they created is not extinguished; but if it goes to consumers and businesses that then buy goods and services with it, demand will still stimulate the production of supply, so that supply and demand rise together and prices remain stable.

Without demand, producers will not produce and workers will not get hired, leaving them without the funds to generate supply, in a vicious cycle that leads to recession and depression. And that cycle is what our own central bank is triggering now.

The Fed Tightens the Screws

Rather than stimulating the economy with new demand, the Fed has been engaging in “quantitative tightening.” On December 19, 2018, it raised the fed funds rate for the ninth time in 3 years, despite a “brutal” stock market in which the Dow Jones Industrial Average had already lost 3,000 points in 2-½ months. The Fed is still struggling to reach even its modest 2% inflation target, and GDP growth is trending down, with estimates at only 2-2.7% for 2019. So why did it again raise rates, over the protests of commentators including the president himself?

For its barometer, the Fed looks at whether the economy has hit “full employment,” which it considers to be 4.7% unemployment, taking into account the “natural rate of unemployment” of people between jobs or voluntarily out of work. At full employment, workers are expected to demand more wages, causing prices to rise. But unemployment is now officially at 3.7% – beyond technical full employment – and neither wages nor consumer prices have shot up. There is obviously something wrong with the theory, as is evident from a look at Japan, where prices have long refused to rise despite a serious lack of workers.

The official unemployment figures are actually misleading. Including short-term discouraged workers, the rate of US unemployed or underemployed workers as of May 2018 was 7.6%, double the widely reported rate. When long-term discouraged workers are included, the real unemployment figure was 21.5%. Beyond that large untapped pool of workers, there is the seemingly endless supply of cheap labor from abroad and the expanding labor potential of robots, computers and machines. In fact, the economy’s ability to generate supply in response to demand is far from reaching full capacity today.

Our central bank is driving us into another recession based on bad economic theory. Adding money to the economy for productive, non-speculative purposes will not drive up prices so long as materials and workers (human or mechanical) are available to create the supply necessary to meet demand; and they are available now. There will always be price increases in particular markets when there are shortages, bottlenecks, monopolies or patents limiting competition, but these increases are not due to an economy awash with money. Housing, healthcare, education and gas have all gone up, but it is not because people have too much money to spend. In fact, it is those necessary expenses that are driving people into unrepayable debt, and it is this massive debt overhang that is preventing economic growth.

Without some form of debt jubilee, the debt bubble will continue to grow until it can again no longer be sustained. A UBI can help correct that problem without fear of “overheating” the economy, so long as the new money is limited to filling the gap between real and potential productivity and goes into generating jobs, building infrastructure and providing for the needs of the people, rather than being diverted into the speculative, parasitic economy that feeds off them.

This article was first published on Truthdig.com

The Banality of Evil Creeps into those Who Believe They Are Good

I was at a city hall meeting in Beaverton, Oregon, the other day when a few questions I had for the presenters dropped jaws. We’ll get to that later, the jaw-dropping effect I and those of my ilk have when we end up in the controlled boardrooms and chambers of the controllers – bureaucrats, public-private clubs like Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, and both political operatives and those who liken themselves as the great planners of the world moving communities and housing and public commons around a giant chessboard to make things better for and more efficient in spite of us.

Look, I am now a social worker who once was a print journalist who once was a part-time college instructor (freeway flyer adjunct teaching double the load of a tenured faculty) facilitating literature, writing, rhetoric classes, and others. The power of those “planners” and “institutional leadership wonks” and those Deanlets and Admin Class and HR pros and VPs and Provosts to swat down a radical but effective teacher/faculty/instructor/lecturer isn’t (or wasn’t then) so surprising. I was one of hundreds of thousands of faculty, adjunct,  hit with 11th Hour appointments, Just-in-Time gigs and called one-week-into-the-semester with offers to teach temporarily. Then, the next logical step of precarity was when a dean or department head or someone higher got wind of a disgruntled student, or helicopter (now drone) parent who didn’t like me teaching Sapphire or Chalmers Johnson or Earth Liberation Front or Ward Churchill in critical thinking classes, it was common to get only one or many times no classes the following semester. De facto fired. They fought and fought against unemployment benefits.

Here’s one paragraph that got me sanctioned while teaching in Spokane, at both Gonzaga and the community college:

As for those in the World Trade Center… Well, really, let’s get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire—the “mighty engine of profit” to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved—and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to “ignorance”—a derivative, after all, of the word “ignore”—counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in—and in many cases excelling at—it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it.

We are talking 17 years ago, Ward Churchill. The Little Eichmann reference goes back to the 1960s, and the root of it goes to Hannah Ardent looking at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, more or a less a middle man who helped get Jews into trains and eventually onto concentration camps and then marched into gas chambers. The banality of evil was her term from a 1963 book. So this Eichmann relied on propaganda against Jews and radicals and other undesirables rather than thinking for himself. Careerism at its ugliest, doing the bureaucratic work to advance a career and then at the Trial, displayed this “Common” personality that did not belie a psychopathic tendency. Of course, Ardent got raked over the coals for this observation and for her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem.

When I use the term, Little Eichmann, I broadly hinge it to the persons that live that more or less sacred American Mad Men lifestyle, with 401k’s, trips to Hawaii, cabins at the lake, who sometimes are the poverty pimps in the social services, but who indeed make daily decisions that negatively and drastically affect the lives of millions of people. In the case of tanned Vail skiers who work for Raytheon developing guidance systems and sophisticated satellite tethers and surveillance systems, who vote democrat and do triathlons, that Little Eichmann archetype also comes to mind. Evil, well, that is a tougher analysis  – mal, well, that succinctly means bad. I see evil or bad or maladaptive and malicious on a spectrum, like autism spectrum disorders.

Back to Beaverton City Hall: As I said, last week I was at this meeting about a “safe parking” policy, a pilot program for this city hooked to the Portland Metro area, where Intel is sited, and in one of the fastest growing counties in Oregon. Safe parking is all a jumbo in its implications: but for the city of Beaverton the program’s intent is to get three spaces, parking slots from each entity participating, for homeless people to set up their vehicles from which to live and dine and recreate. Old Taurus sedans, beat-up Dodge vans, maybe a 20-foot 1985 RV covered in black mold or Pacific Northwest moss. The City will put in $30,000 for a non-profit to manage these 15 or 20 spaces, and the city will put in a porta-potty and a small storage pod (in the fourth space) for belongings on each property.

This is how Portland’s tri-city locale plans to “solve” the homeless problem: live in your vehicles, with all manner of physical ailments (number one for Americans, bad backs) and all manner of mental health issues and all manner of work schedules. Cars, the new normal for housing in the world’s number one super power.

This is the band-aid on the sucking chest wound. This is a bizarre thing in a state with Nike as its brand, that Phil Knight throwing millions into a Republican gubernatorial candidate for governor’s coffers. Of course, the necessity of getting churches and large non-profits with a few empty parking spaces for houseless persons is based on more of the Little Eichmann syndrome – the city fathers and mothers, the business community, the cops, and all those elites and NIMBYs (not in my backyard) voted to make it illegal to sleep in your vehicle along the public right away, or, along streets and alleys. That’s the rub, the law was passed, and now it’s $300 fine, more upon second offense, and then, 30 days in jail for repeat offense: for sleeping off a 12-hour shift at Amazon warehouse or 14-hour shift as forklift operator for Safeway distribution center.

So these overpaid uniformed bureaucrats with SWAT armament and armored vehicles and $50 an hour overtime gigs and retirement accounts will be knocking on the fogged-over windows of our sisters/ brothers, aunties/uncles, cousins, moms/dads, grandparents, daughters/sons living the Life of Riley in their two-door Honda Accords.

Hmm, more than 12 million empty homes in the richest country in the world. Millions of other buildings empty. Plots of land by the gazillion. And, we have several million homeless, and tens of millions one layoff, one heart-attack, one arrest away from homelessness.

The first question was why we aren’t working on shutting down the illegal and inhumane law that even allows the police to harass people living in their cars? The next question was why parking spaces for cars? Certainly, all that overstock inventory in all those Pacific Northwest travel trailer and camper lots would be a source of a better living space moved to those vaunted few (20) parking spaces: or what about all those used trailers up for sale on Craig’s List? You think Nike Boy could help get his brethren to pony up a few million for trailers? What worse way to treat diabetic houseless people with cramped quarters? What fine way to treat a PTSD survivor with six windows in a Chevy with eight by four living space for two humans, a dog, and all their belongings and food.

The people at this meeting, well, I know most are empathetic, but even those have minds colonized by the cotton-ball-on-the-head wound solution thinking. All this energy, all the Power Points, all the meeting after meeting, all the solicitation and begging for 20 parking spaces and they hope for a shower source, too, as well as an internet link (for job hunting, etc.)  and maybe a place to cook a meal.

While housing vacancy has long been a problem in America, especially in economically distressed places, vacancies surged in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008. The number of unoccupied homes jumped by 26 percent—from 9.5 to 12 million between 2005 and 2010. Many people (and many urbanists) see vacancy and abandoned housing as problems of distressed cities, but small towns and rural communities have vacancy rates that are roughly double that of metropolitan areas, according to the study.

This is the insanity of these Little Eichmanns: The number of cities that have made homelessness a crime! Then, getting a few churches to open up parking slots for a few people to “try and get resources and wrap around services to end their homelessness.” Here are the facts — the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty states there are over 200 cities that have created these Little Eichmann (my terminology) municipal bans on camping or sleeping outside, increasing by more than 50 percent since 2011. Theses bans include various human survival and daily activities of living processes, from camping and sitting in particular outdoor places, to loitering and begging in public to sleeping in vehicles.

I am living hand to mouth, so to speak. I make $17 an hour with two master’s degrees and a shit load of experience and depth of both character and solutions-driven energy. This is the way of the world, brother, age 61, and living the dream in Hops-Blazers-Nike City, in the state of no return Nike/Oregon Ducks. Man oh man, those gridlock days commuting to and from work. Man, all those people outside my apartment building living in their vehicles (I live in Vancouver) and all those people who have to rotate where they live, while calling Ford minivan home, moving their stuff every week, so the Clark County Sheriff Department doesn’t ticket, bust and worse, impound.

I have gotten a few teeth – dentures — for some of these people. Finding funding to have a pretty rancid and nasty old guy in Portland measure, model and mold for a fitting. That’s, of course, if the people have their teeth already pulled out.

Abscesses and limps and back braces and walkers and nephritic livers and dying flesh and scabies and, hell, just plain old BO. Yet, these folk are working the FedEx conveyor belts, packaging those Harry and David apples, folding and stacking all those Black Friday flyers.

Living the high life. And, yet, these Little Eichmanns would attempt to say, or ask, “Why do they all have smart phones . . . they smoke and vape and some of them drink? Wasteful, no wonder they are homeless.”

So that line of thinking comes and goes, from the deplorables of the Trump species to the so-self vaunted elite. They drink after a hard day’s work, these houseless people. Yet, all those put-together Portlanders with two-income heads of household, double Prius driveways, all that REI gear ready for ski season, well, I bicycle those ‘hoods and see the recycle bins on trash day, filled to the brim with IPA bottles, affordable local wine bottles, and bottles from those enticing brews in the spirit world.

So self-medicating with $250K dual incomes, fancy home, hipster lifestyles, but they’d begrudge houseless amputees who have to work the cash register at a Plaid Pantry on 12 hour shifts?

I have been recriminated for not having tenure, for not being an editor, for not retired with a pension, for not having that Oprah Pick in bookstores, for not having a steady career, for working long-ass hours as a social worker. The recrimination is magnificent and goes around all corners of this flagging empire. Pre-Trump, Pre-Obama, Pre-Clinton, Pre-Bush. Oh, man, that Ray-gun:

He had a villain, who was not a real welfare cheat or emblamtic of people needing welfare assistance to live back then in a troubling world of Gilded Age haves and haves not. That was January 1976, when Reagan announced that this Welfare Queen was using ”80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans benefits for four nonexistent, deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”

Four decades later, we have the same dude in office, the aberration of neoliberalism and collective amnesia and incessant ignorance in what I deem now as Homo Consumopithecus and Homo Retailapithecus. Reagan had that crowd eating out of his hands as he used his B-Grade Thespian licks to stress the numbers – “one hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”

Poverty rose to the top of the public agenda in the 1960s, in part spurred by the publication of Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States. Harrington’s 1962 book made a claim that shocked the nation at a time when it was experiencing a period of unprecedented affluence: based on the best available evidence, between 40 million and 50 million Americans—20 to 25 percent of the nation’s population—still lived in poverty, suffering from “inadequate housing, medicine, food, and opportunity.”

Shedding light on the lives of the poor from New York to Appalachia to the Deep South, Harrington’s book asked how it was possible that so much poverty existed in a land of such prosperity. It challenged the country to ask what it was prepared to do about it.

So, somehow, all those people reminding me that my job history has been all based on my passions, my avocations, my dreams, that I should be proud being able to work at poverty level incomes as a small town newspaper reporter, or that I was able to teach so many people in gang reduction programs, at universities and colleges, in alternative schools, in prisons and elsewhere, at poverty wages; or that I was able to get poems published here and stories published there and that I have a short story collection coming out in 2019 at zero profit, or that I am doing God’s work as a homeless veterans counselor, again, at those Trump-loving, Bezos-embracing poverty wages.

Oh, man, oh man, all those countries I visited and worked in, all those people whose lives I changed, and here I am, one motorcycle accident away from the poor house, except there is no poor house.

Daily, I see the results of military sexual trauma, of incessant physical abuse as active duty military, infinite anxiety and cognitive disorders, a truck load of amputated feet and legs, and unending COPD, congestive heart failure, and overall bodies of a 70-year-old hampering 30-year-old men and women veterans.

They get this old radical environmentalist, vegan, in-your-face teacher, and a huge case of heart and passion, and I challenge them to think hard about how they have been duped, but for the most part, none of the ex-soldiers have even heard of the (two-star) Major General who wrote the small tome, War is a Racket:

WAR is a racket. It always has been.

It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small “inside” group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

In the World War I a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows.

How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy?

How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?

Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious.

They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few — the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill.

And what is this bill?

This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.

For a great many years, as a soldier, I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not until I retired to civil life did I fully realize it. Now that I see the international war clouds gathering, as they are today, I must face it and speak out.

More fitting now than ever, General Butler’s words. Structural violence is also the war of the billionaires and millionaires against the rest of us, marks and suckers born every nanosecond in their eyes. Disaster Capitalism is violence. Parasitic investing is war. Hostile takeovers are was. Hedge funds poisoning retirement funds and billions wasted/stolen to manage (sic) this dirty money are war. Forced arbitration is war. PayDay loans are war. Wells Fargo stealing homes is war. Lead in New Jersey cities’ pipes is war. Hog  excrement/toxins/blood/aborted fetuses pound scum sprayed onto land near poor communities is war. Fence lining polluting industries against poor and minority populations is war.

So is making it illegal to sit on a curb, hold a sign asking for a handout;  so is the fact there are millions of empty buildings collecting black mold and tax deferments. War is offshore accounts, and war is a society plugged into forced, perceived and planned obsolescence.

Some of us are battle weary, and others trudge on, soldiers against the machine, against the fascism of the market place, the fascism of the tools of the propagandists.

Some of us ask the tricky questions at meetings and conferences and confabs: When are you big wigs, honchos, going to give up a few hours a week pay for others to get in on the pay? When are you going to open up that old truck depot for homeless to build tiny homes?

When are you going to have the balls to get the heads of Boeing, Nike, Adidas, Intel, the lot of them, to come to our fogged-up station wagon windows in your safe parking zones to show them how some of their mainline workers and tangential workers who support their billions in profits really live?

How many millionaires are chain migrating from California or Texas, coming into the Portland arena who might have the heart to help fund 15 or 30 acres out there in Beavercreek (Clackamas, Oregon) to set up intentional communities for both veterans and non veterans, inter-generational population, with permaculture, therapy dog training, you name it, around a prayer circle, a sweat lodge, and community garden and commercial kitchen to sell those herbs and veggies to those two-income wonders who scoff at my bottle of cheap Vodka while they fly around and bike around on their wine tours and whiskey bar rounds? Micro homes and tiny homes.

My old man was in the Air Force for 12 years, which got the family to the Azores, Albuquerque, Maryland, and then he got an officer commission in the Army, for 20 years, which got the family to Germany, UK, Paris, Spain and other locales, and I know hands down he’d be spinning and turning in his grave if he was alive and here to witness not only the mistreatment of schmucks out of the military with horrendous ailments, but also the mistreatment of college students with $80K loans to be nurses or social workers. He’d be his own energy source spinning in his grave at Fort Huachuca if he was around, after being shot in Korea and twice in Vietnam, to witness social security on the chopping block, real wages at 1970 levels, old people begging on the streets, library hours waning, public education being privatized and dumb downed, and millions of acres of public sold to the “I don’t need no stinkin’ badge” big energy thugs.

I might be embarrassed if he was around, me at age 61, wasted three college degrees, living the dream of apartment life, no 401k or state retirement balloon payment on the horizon, no real estate or stocks and bonds stashed away, nothing, after all of this toil to actually have given to society, in all my communist, atheistic glory.

But there is no shame in that, in my bones, working my ass off until the last breath, and on my t-shirt, I’d have a stick figure, with a stack of free bus tickets, journalism awards, and housing vouchers all piled around me with the (thanks National Rifle Association) meme stenciled on my back:

You can have my social worker and teaching credentials and press passes when you pry them from my cold dead hands!

How America can Free Itself from Wall Street

Wall Street owns the country.  That was the opening line of a fiery speech that populist leader Mary Ellen Lease delivered around 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 U.S. alone. Yet the banks were bailed out without penalty, while defrauded home buyers 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.

In Los Angeles, the City Council was forced to reduce the city’s budget by 19 percent following the banking crisis, slashing essential services, while Wall Street has not budged on the $4.9 million it claims annually from the city on its swaps. Wall Street banks are now collecting more from Los Angeles just in fees than it has available to fix its ailing roads.

Local governments have been in bondage to Wall Street ever since the 19th century despite multiple efforts to rein them in. Regulation has not worked. To break free, we need to divest our public funds from these banks and move them into our own publicly owned banks.

L.A. Takes It to the Voters

Some cities and states have already moved forward with feasibility studies and business plans for forming their own banks. But the city of Los Angeles faces a barrier to entry that other cities don’t have. In 1913, the same year the Federal Reserve was formed to backstop the private banking industry, the city amended its charter to state that it had all the powers of a municipal corporation, “with the provision added that the city shall not engage in any purely commercial or industrial enterprise not now engaged in, except on the approval of the majority of electors voting thereon at an election.”

Under this provision, voter approval would apparently not be necessary for a city-owned bank that limited itself to taking the city’s deposits and refinancing municipal bonds as they came due, since that sort of bank would not be a “purely commercial or industrial enterprise” but would simply be a public utility that made more efficient use of public funds. But voter approval would evidently be required to allow the city to explore how public banks can benefit local economic development, rather than just finance public projects.

The L.A. City Council could have relied on this 1913 charter amendment to say no to the dynamic local movement led by millennial activists to divest from Wall Street and create a city-owned bank. But the City Council chose instead to jump that hurdle by putting the matter to the voters. In July 2018, it added Charter Amendment B to the November ballot. A “yes” vote will allow the creation of a city-owned bank that can partner with local banks to provide low-cost credit for the community, following the stellar precedent of the century-old Bank of North Dakota, currently the nation’s only state-owned bank. By cutting out Wall Street middlemen, the Bank of North Dakota has been able to make below-market credit available to local businesses, farmers and students while still being more profitable than some of Wall Street’s largest banks. Following that model would have a substantial upside for both the small business and the local banking communities in Los Angeles.

Rebutting the Opposition

On September 20, the Los Angeles Times editorial board threw cold water on this effort, calling the amendment “half-baked” and “ill-conceived,” and recommending a “no” vote.

Yet not only was the measure well-conceived, but L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson has shown visionary leadership in recognizing its revolutionary potential. He sees the need to declare our independence from Wall Street. He has said that the country looks to California to lead, and that Los Angeles needs to lead California. The people deserve it, and the millennials whose future is in the balance have demanded it.

The City Council recognizes that it’s going to be an uphill battle. Charter Amendment B just asks voters, “Do you want us to proceed?” It is merely an invitation to begin a dialogue on creating a new kind of bank—one geared to serving the people rather than Wall Street.

Amendment B does not give the City Council a blank check to create whatever bank it likes. It just jumps the first of many legal hurdles to obtaining a bank charter. The California Department of Business Oversight (DBO) will have the last word, and it grants bank charters only to applicants that are properly capitalized, collateralized and protected against risk. Public banking experts have talked to the DBO at length and understand these requirements, and a detailed summary of a model business plan has been prepared, to be posted shortly.

The L.A. Times editorial board erroneously compares the new effort with the failed Los Angeles Community Development Bank, which was founded in 1992 and was insolvent a decade later. That institution was not a true bank and did not have to meet the DBO’s stringent requirements for a bank charter. It was an unregulated, non-depository, nonprofit loan and equity fund, capitalized with funds that were basically a handout from the federal government to pacify the restless inner city after riots broke out in 1992—and its creation was actually supported by the L.A. Times.

The Times also erroneously cites a 2011 report by the Boston Federal Reserve contending that a Massachusetts state-owned bank would require $3.6 billion in capitalization. That prohibitive sum is regularly cited by critics bent on shutting down the debate without looking at the very questionable way in which it was derived. The Boston authors began with the $2 million used in 1919 to capitalize the Bank of North Dakota, multiplied that number up for inflation, multiplied it up again for the increase in GDP over a century and multiplied it up again for the larger population of Massachusetts. This dubious triple-counting is cited as serious research, although economic growth and population size have nothing to do with how capital requirements are determined.

Bank capital is simply the money that is invested in a bank to leverage loans. The capital needed is based on the size of the loan portfolio. At a 10 percent capital requirement, $100 million is sufficient to capitalize $1 billion in loans, which would be plenty for a startup bank designed to prove the model. That sum is already more than three times the loan portfolio of the California Infrastructure and Development Bank, which makes below-market loans on behalf of the state. As profits increase the bank’s capital, more loans can be added. Bank capitalization is not an expenditure but an investment, which can come from existing pools of unused funds or from a bond issue to be repaid from the bank’s own profits.

Deposits will be needed to balance a $1 billion loan portfolio, but Los Angeles easily has them—they are now sitting in Wall Street banks having no fiduciary obligation to reinvest them in Los Angeles. The city’s latest Comprehensive Annual Financial Report shows a government net position of over $8 billion in cash and investments (liquid assets), plus proprietary, fiduciary and other liquid funds. According to a 2014 study published by the Fix LA Coalition:

Together, the City of Los Angeles, its airport, seaport, utilities and pension funds control $106 billion that flows through financial institutions in the form of assets, payments and debt issuance. Wall Street profits from each of these flows of money not only through the multiple fees it charges, but also by lending or leveraging the city’s deposited funds and by structuring deals in unnecessarily complex ways that generate significant commissions.

Despite having slashed spending in the wake of revenue losses from the Wall Street-engineered financial crisis, Los Angeles is still being  crushed by Wall Street financial fees, to the tune of nearly $300 million—just in 2014. The savings in fees alone from cutting out Wall Street middlemen could thus be considerable, and substantially more could be saved in interest payments. These savings could then be applied to other city needs, including for affordable housing, transportation, schools and other infrastructure.

In 2017, Los Angeles paid $1.1 billion in interest to bondholders, constituting the wealthiest 5 percent of the population. Refinancing that debt at just 1 percent below its current rate could save up to 25 percent on the cost of infrastructure, half the cost of which is typically financing. Consider, for example, Proposition 68, a water bond passed by California voters last summer. Although it was billed as a $4 billion bond, the total outlay over 40 years at 4 percent will actually be $8 billion. Refinancing the bond at 3 percent (the below-market rate charged by the California Infrastructure and Development Bank) would save taxpayers nearly $2 billion on the overall cost of the bond.

Finding the Political Will 

The numbers are there to support the case for a city-owned bank, but a critical ingredient in effecting revolutionary change is finding the political will. Being first in any innovation is always the hardest. Reasons can easily be found for saying no. What is visionary and revolutionary is to say, “Yes, we can do this.”

As California goes, so goes the nation, and legislators around the country are watching to see how it goes in Los Angeles. Rather than criticism, council President Wesson deserves high praise for stepping forth in the face of predictable pushback and daunting legal hurdles to lead the country in breaking free from our centuries-old subjugation to Wall Street exploitation.

• First published in Truthdig

A Public Bank for Los Angeles? City Council Puts It to the Voters

California legislators exploring the public bank option may be breaking not just from Wall Street but from the Federal Reserve.

Voters in Los Angeles will be the first in the country to weigh in on a public banking mandate, after the City Council agreed on June 29th to put a measure on the November ballot that would allow the city to form its own bank. The charter for the nation’s second-largest city currently prohibits the creation of industrial or commercial enterprises by the city without voter approval. The measure, introduced by City Council President Herb Wesson, would allow the city to create a public bank, although state and federal law hurdles would still need to be cleared.

The bank is expected to save the city millions, if not billions, of dollars in Wall Street fees and interest paid to bondholders, while injecting new money into the local economy, generating jobs and expanding the tax base. It could respond to the needs of its residents by reinvesting in low-income housing, critical infrastructure projects, and clean energy, as well as serving as a depository for the cannabis industry.

The push for a publicly-owned bank comes amid ongoing concerns involving the massive amounts of cash generated by the cannabis business, which was legalized by Proposition 64 in 2016. Wesson has said that cannabis has “kind of percolated to the top” of the public bank push, “but it’s not what’s driving” it, citing affordable housing and other key issues; and that a public bank should be pursued even if it cannot be used by the cannabis industry. However, the prospect of millions of dollars in tax revenue is an obvious draw. Los Angeles is the largest cannabis market in the state, with Mayor Eric Garcetti estimating that it would bring in $30 million in taxes for the city.

Bypassing the Fed

State Board of Equalization Member Fiona Ma, who is running for state treasurer, says California’s homegrown $8-20 billion cannabis industry is still operating mostly in cash almost 2 years after state legalization, with the majority of businesses operating in the black market without paying taxes. This is in large part because federal law denies them access to the banking system, forcing them to deal only in cash and causing logistical nightmares when paying taxes and transferring money.

Cannabis is still a forbidden Schedule 1 drug under federal law, and the Federal Reserve has refused to give a master account to banks taking cannabis cash. Without a master account, they cannot access Fedwire transfer services, essentially shutting them out of the banking business.

In a surprise move in early June, President Donald Trump announced that he “probably will end up supporting” legislation to let states set their own cannabis policy. But Ma says that while that is good news, California cannot wait on the federal government. She and State Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Los Angeles) have brought Senate Bill 930, which would allow state-chartered banks and financial institutions to apply for a special cannabis banking license to accept clients, after a rigorous process that follows regulations from the US Treasury Department. The bill cleared a major legislative hurdle on May 30th when it passed on the Senate Floor.

SB 930 focuses on California state-chartered banks, which unlike federally-chartered banks can operate under a closed loop system with private deposit insurance. As Ma explained in a May 17 article in The Sacramento Bee:

There are two types of banks – those with federal charters, and banks with California charters. Because cannabis is still considered a Schedule 1 narcotic, we cannot touch federal banking wires. We want state-chartered banks that are protected, regulated and certified under California law, and not required to be under the FDIC.

State income taxes, sales taxes, unemployment, workers’ compensation and property taxes could all be paid through a closed-loop system that takes in revenue from the cannabis industry, but is apart from the federal banking system. . . . Cannabis businesses could be part of a cashless system similar to Apple Pay, and their money would be insured by a state-licensed institution.

That is a pretty revolutionary idea – a closed-loop California banking system that is independent of the Federal Reserve and the federal system. SB 930 would bypass the Feds only for cannabis cash, and the bill strictly limits what the checks issued by these “pot banks” can be used for. But the prospects it opens up are interesting. California is now the fifth largest economy in the world, with 39 million people. It has the resources for its own cashless “CalPay” or CalCoin” system that could bypass the federal system altogether.

The Bank of North Dakota, currently the nation’s only state-owned depository bank, has been called a “mini-Fed” for that state. The Bank of North Dakota partners with local banks to make below-market loans for community purposes, including 2 percent loans for local infrastructure, while at the same time turning a tidy profit for the state. In 2017, it recorded its 14th consecutive year of record profits, with $145.3 million in net earnings and a return on the state’s investment of 17 percent. California, with more than 50 times North Dakota’s population, could use its own mini-Fed as well.

Growing Support for Public Banks

It is significant that the proposal for a closed-loop California system is not coming from academics without political clout. Fiona Ma is slated to become state treasurer, having won the primary election in June by a landslide; and the current state treasurer John Chiang has been exploring the possibility of a public bank that could take cannabis cash for over a year. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the front runner for governor, has also called for the creation of a public bank. These are not armchair theoreticians but the people who make political decisions for the state, and they have substantial popular support.

Public bank advocacy groups from cities across California have joined to form the California Public Banking Alliance, a coalition to advance legislation that would facilitate the formation of municipal banks statewide under a special state charter. A press release by Public Bank Los Angeles, one of its founding advocacy groups, notes that 15 pieces of legislation for public banks are being explored across the nation through municipal committees and state legislators, with over three dozen public banking movements building in cities and states across the country. San Francisco has created a 16-person Municipal Bank Feasibility Task Force; Seattle and Washington DC have separately earmarked $100,000 for public banking feasibility studies; and Washington State legislators have added nearly a half million dollars to their budget to produce a business plan for a public depository bank. New Jersey state legislators, with the backing of Governor Phil Murphy, have introduced a bill to form a state-owned bank; and GOP and Democratic lawmakers in Michigan have filed a bipartisan bill to create one in that state.

Cities and states are seeking ways to better leverage taxpayer dollars and reinvest them in the needs of local communities. Public banking serves that purpose, providing local determination and the opportunity for socially and environmentally responsible lending and investments. The City Council of Los Angeles is now taking it to the voters; and where California goes, the nation may well follow.

• A version of this article first appeared in Truthdig.

Blackstone, BlackRock or a Public Bank? Putting California’s Funds to Work

California has over $700 billion parked in private banks earning minimal interest, private equity funds that contributed to the affordable housing crisis, or shadow banks of the sort that caused the banking collapse of 2008. These funds, or some of them, could be transferred to an infrastructure bank that generated credit for the state – while the funds remained safely on deposit in the bank.

California needs over $700 billion in infrastructure during the next decade. Where will this money come from? The $1.5 trillion infrastructure initiative unveiled by President Trump in February 2018 includes only $200 billion in federal funding, and less than that after factoring in the billions in tax cuts in infrastructure-related projects. The rest is to come from cities, states, private investors and public-private partnerships (PPPs) one. And since city and state coffers are depleted, that chiefly means private investors and PPPs, which have a shady history at best.

A 2011 report by the Brookings Institution found that “in practice [PPPs] have been dogged by contract design problems, waste, and unrealistic expectations.” In their 2015 report “Why Public-Private Partnerships Don’t Work,” Public Services International stated that “experience over the last 15 years shows that PPPs are an expensive and inefficient way of financing infrastructure and divert government spending away from other public services. They conceal public borrowing, while providing long-term state guarantees for profits to private companies.” They also divert public money away from the neediest infrastructure projects, which may not deliver sizable returns, in favor of those big-ticket items that will deliver hefty profits to investors. A March 2017 report by the Economic Policy Institute titled “No Free Bridge” also highlighted the substantial costs and risks involved in public-private partnerships and other “innovative” financing of infrastructure.

Meanwhile, California is far from broke. It has over well over $700 billion in funds of various sorts tucked around the state, including $500 billion in CalPERS and CalSTRS, the state’s massive public pension funds. These pools of money are restricted in how they can be spent and are either sitting in banks drawing a modest interest or invested with Wall Street asset managers and private equity funds that are not obligated to invest the money in California and are not safe. For fiscal year 2009, CalPERS and CalSTRS reported almost $100 billion in losses from investments gone awry.

In 2017, CalSTRS allocated $6.1 billion to private equity funds, real estate managers, and co-investments, including $400 million to a real estate fund managed by Blackstone Group, the world’s largest private equity firm, and $200 million to BlackRock, the world’s largest “shadow bank.” CalPERS is now in talks with BlackRock over management of its $26 billion private equity fund, with discretion to invest that money as it sees fit.

“Private equity” is a rebranding of the term “leveraged buyout,” the purchase of companies with loans which then must be paid back by the company, typically at the expense of jobs and pensions. Private equity investments may include real estate, energy, and investment in public infrastructure projects as part of a privatization initiative. Blackstone is notorious for buying up distressed properties after the housing market collapsed. It is now the largest owner of single-family rental homes in the US. Its rental practices have drawn fire from tenant advocates in San Francisco and elsewhere, who have called it a Wall Street absentee slumlord that charges excessive rents, contributing to the affordable housing crisis; and pension funds largely contributed the money for Blackstone’s purchases.

BlackRock, an offshoot of Blackstone, now has $6 trillion in assets under management, making it larger than the world’s largest bank (which is in China). Die Zeit journalist Heike Buchter, who has written a book in German on it, calls BlackRock the “most powerful institution in the financial system” and “the most powerful company in the world” – the “secret power.” Yet despite its size and global power, BlackRock, along with Blackstone and other shadow banking institutions, managed to escape regulation under the Dodd-Frank Act. Blackstone CEO Larry Fink, who has cozy relationships with government officials according to journalist David Dayen, pushed hard to successfully resist the designation of asset managers as systemically important financial institutions, which would have subjected them to additional regulation such as larger capital requirements.

The proposed move to hand CalPERS’ private equity fund to BlackRock is highly controversial, since it would cost the state substantial sums in fees (management fees took 14% of private equity profits in 2016), and BlackRock gives no guarantees. In 2009, it defaulted on a New York real estate project that left CalPERS $500 million in the hole. There are also potential conflicts of interest, since BlackRock or its managers have controlling interests in companies that could be steered into deals with the state. In 2015, the company was fined $12 million by the SEC for that sort of conflict; and in 2015, it was fined $3.5 million for providing flawed data to German regulators. BlackRock also puts clients’ money into equities, investing it in companies like oil company Exxon and food and beverage company Nestle, companies which have been criticized for not serving California’s interests and exploiting state resources.

California public entities also have $2.8 billion in CalTRUST, a fund managed by BlackRock. The CalTRUST government fund is a money market fund, of the sort that triggered the 2008 market collapse when the Reserve Primary Fund “broke the buck” on September 15, 2008. The CalTRUST website states:

You could lose money by investing in the Fund. Although the Fund seeks to preserve the value of your investment at $1.00 per share, it cannot guarantee it will do so. An investment in the Fund is not insured or guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or any other government agency. The Fund’s sponsor has no legal obligation to provide financial support to the Fund, and you should not expect that the sponsor will provide financial support to the Fund at any time.

CalTRUST is billed as providing local agencies with “a safe, convenient means of maintaining liquidity,” but billionaire investor Carl Icahn says this liquidity is a myth. In a July 2015 debate with Larry Fink on FOX Business Network, Icahn called BlackRock “an extremely dangerous company” because of the prevalence of its exchange-traded fund (ETF) products, which Icahn deemed illiquid. “They sell liquidity,” he said. “There is no liquidity. . . . And that’s what’s going to blow this up.” His concern was the amount of money BlackRock had invested in high-yield ETFs, which he called overpriced. When the Federal Reserve hikes interest rates, investors are likely to rush to sell these ETFs; but there will be no market for them, he said. The result could be a run like that triggering the 2008 market collapse.

The Infrastructure Bank Option

There is another alternative. California’s pools of idle funds cannot be spent on infrastructure, but they could be deposited or invested in a publicly-owned bank, where they could form the deposit base for infrastructure loans. California is now the fifth largest economy in the world, trailing only Germany, Japan, China and the United States. Germany, China and other Asian countries are addressing their infrastructure challenges through public infrastructure banks that leverage pools of funds into loans for needed construction.

Besides the China Infrastructure Bank, China has established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), whose members include many Asian and Middle Eastern countries, including Australia, New Zealand, and Saudi Arabia. Both banks are helping to fund China’s trillion dollar “One Belt One Road” infrastructure initiative.

Germany has an infrastructure bank called KfW which is larger than the World Bank, with assets of $600 billion in 2016. Along with the public Sparkassen banks, KfW has funded Germany’s green energy revolution. Renewables generated 41% of the country’s electricity in 2017, up from 6% in 2000, earning the country the title “the world’s first major green energy economy.” Public banks provided over 72% of the financing for this transition.

As for California, it already has an infrastructure bank – the California Infrastructure and Development Bank (IBank), established in 1994. But the IBank is a “bank” in name only. It cannot take deposits or leverage capital into loans. It is also seriously underfunded, since the California Department of Finance returned over half of its allotted funds to the General Fund to repair the state’s budget after the dot.com market collapse. However, the IBank has 20 years’ experience in making prudent infrastructure loans at below municipal bond rates, and its clients are limited to municipal governments and other public entities, making them safe bets underwritten by their local tax bases. The IBank could be expanded to address California’s infrastructure needs, drawing deposits and capital from its many pools of idle funds across the state.

A Better Use for Pension Money

In an illuminating 2017 paper for UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute titled “Funding Public Pensions,” policy consultant Tom Sgouros showed that the push to put pension fund money into risky high-yield investments comes from a misguided application of the accounting rules. The error results from treating governments like private companies that can be liquidated out of existence. He argues that public pension funds can be safely operated on a pay-as-you-go basis, just as they were for 50 years before the 1980s. That accounting change would take the pressure off the pension boards and free up hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer funds. Some portion of that money could then be deposited in publicly-owned banks, which in turn could generate the low-cost credit needed to fund the infrastructure and services that taxpayers expect from their governments.

Note that these deposits would not be spent. Pension funds, rainy day funds and other pools of government money can provide the liquidity for loans while remaining on deposit in the bank, available for withdrawal on demand by the government depositor. Even mainstream economists now acknowledge that banks do not lend their deposits but actually create deposits when they make loans. The bank borrows as needed to cover withdrawals, but not all funds are withdrawn at once; and a government bank can borrow its own deposits much more cheaply than local governments can borrow on the bond market. Through their own public banks, government entities can thus effectively borrow at bankers’ rates plus operating costs, cutting out middlemen. And unlike borrowing through bonds, which merely recirculate existing funds, borrowing from banks creates new money, which will stimulate economic growth and come back to the state in the form of new taxes and pension premiums. A working paper published by the San Francisco Federal Reserve in 2012 found that one dollar invested in infrastructure generates at least two dollars in GSP (state GDP), and roughly four times more than average during economic downturns.

This article was originally published on Truthdig.com.

Regulation Is Killing Community Banks: Public Banks Can Revive Them

Crushing regulations are driving small banks to sell out to the megabanks, a consolidation process that appears to be intentional. Publicly-owned banks can help avoid that trend and keep credit flowing in local economies.

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At his confirmation hearing in January 2017, Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin said: “regulation is killing community banks.” If the process is not reversed, he warned, we could “end up in a world where we have four big banks in this country.” That would be bad for both jobs and the economy. “I think that we all appreciate the engine of growth is with small and medium-sized businesses,” said Mnuchin. “We’re losing the ability for small and medium-sized banks to make good loans to small and medium-sized businesses in the community, where they understand those credit risks better than anybody else.”

The number of US banks with assets under $100 million dropped from 13,000 in 1995 to under 1,900 in 2014. The regulatory burden imposed by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act exacerbated this trend, with community banks losing market share at double the rate during the four years after 2010 as in the four years before. But the number had already dropped to only 2,625 in 2010.  What happened between 1995 and 2010?

Six weeks after September 11, 2001, the 1,100 page Patriot Act was dropped on congressional legislators, who were required to vote on it the next day. The Patriot Act added provisions to the 1970 Bank Secrecy Act that not only expanded the federal government’s wiretapping and surveillance powers but outlawed the funding of terrorism, imposing greater scrutiny on banks and stiff criminal penalties for non-compliance. Banks must now collect and verify customer-provided information, check names of customers against lists of known or suspected terrorists, determine risk levels posed by customers, and report suspicious persons, organizations and transactions. One small banker complained that banks have been turned into spies secretly reporting to the federal government. If they fail to comply, they can face stiff enforcement actions, whether or not actual money-laundering crimes are alleged.

In 2010, one small New Jersey bank pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Bank Secrecy Act and was fined $5 million for failure to file suspicious-activity and cash-transaction reports. The bank was acquired a few months later by another bank. Another small New Jersey bank was ordered to shut down a large international wire transfer business because of deficiencies in monitoring for suspicious transactions. It closed its doors after it was hit with $8 million in fines over its inadequate monitoring policies.

Complying with the new rules demands a level of technical expertise not available to ordinary mortals, requiring the hiring of yet more specialized staff and buying more anti-laundering software. Small banks cannot afford the risk of massive fines or the added staff needed to avoid them, and that burden is getting worse. In February 2017, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network proposed a new rule that would add a new category requiring the flagging of suspicious “cyberevents.” According to an April 2017 article in American Banker:

[T]he “cyberevent” category requires institutions to detect and report all varieties of digital mischief, whether directed at a customer’s account or at the bank itself. . . .

Under a worst-case scenario, a bank’s failure to detect a suspicious [email] attachment or a phishing attack could theoretically result in criminal prosecution, massive fines and additional oversight.

One large bank estimated that the proposed change with the new cyberevent reporting requirement would cost it an additional $9.6 million every year.

Besides the cost of hiring an army of compliance officers to deal with a thousand pages of regulations, banks have been hit with increased capital requirements imposed by the Financial Stability Board under Basel III, eliminating the smaller banks’ profit margins. They have little recourse but to sell to the larger banks, which have large compliance departments and can skirt the capital requirements by parking assets in off-balance-sheet vehicles.

In a September 2014 article titled “The FDIC’s New Capital Rules and Their Expected Impact on Community Banks,” Richard Morris and Monica Reyes Grajales noted that “a full discussion of the rules would resemble an advanced course in calculus,” and that the regulators have ignored protests that the rules would have a devastating impact on community banks. Why? The authors suggested that the rules reflect “the new vision of bank regulation – that there should be bigger and fewer banks in the industry.” That means bank consolidation is an intended result of the punishing rules.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, sponsor of the Financial CHOICE Act downsizing Dodd-Frank, concurs. In a speech in July 2015, he said:

Since the passage of Dodd-Frank, the big banks are bigger and the small banks are fewer. But because Washington can control a handful of big established firms much easier than many small and zealous competitors, this is likely an intended consequence of the Act. Dodd-Frank concentrates greater assets in fewer institutions. It codifies into law ‘Too Big to Fail’ . . . . [Emphasis added.]

Dodd-Frank institutionalizes “too big to fail” by authorizing the biggest banks to “bail in” or confiscate their creditors’ money in the event of insolvency. The legislation ostensibly reining in the too-big-to-fail banks has just made them bigger. Wall Street lobbyists were well known to have their fingerprints all over Dodd-Frank.

Restoring Community Banking: The Model of North Dakota  

Killing off the community banks with regulation means killing off the small and medium-size businesses that rely on them for funding, along with the local economies that rely on those businesses. Community banks service local markets in a way that the megabanks with their standardized lending models are not interested in or capable of.

How can the community banks be preserved and nurtured? For some ideas, we can look to a state where they are still thriving – North Dakota. In an article titled “How One State Escaped Wall Street’s Rule and Created a Banking System That’s 83% Locally Owned,” Stacy Mitchell writes that North Dakota’s banking sector bears little resemblance to that of the rest of the country:

With 89 small and mid-sized community banks and 38 credit unions, North Dakota has six times as many locally owned financial institutions per person as the rest of the nation. And these local banks and credit unions control a resounding 83 percent of deposits in the state — more than twice the 30 percent market share that small and mid-sized financial institutions have nationally.

Their secret is the century-old Bank of North Dakota (BND), the nation’s only state-owned depository bank, which partners with and supports the state’s local banks. In an April 2015 article titled “Is Dodd-Frank Killing Community Banks? The More Important Question is How to Save Them”, Matt Stannard writes:

Public banks offer unique benefits to community banks, including collateralization of deposits, protection from poaching of customers by big banks, the creation of more successful deals, and . . . regulatory compliance. The Bank of North Dakota, the nation’s only public bank, directly supports community banks and enables them to meet regulatory requirements such as asset to loan ratios and deposit to loan ratios. . . . [I]t keeps community banks solvent in other ways, lessening the impact of regulatory compliance on banks’ bottom lines.

We know from FDIC data in 2009 that North Dakota had almost 16 banks per 100,000 people, the most in the country. A more important figure, however, is community banks’ loan averages per capita, which was $12,000 in North Dakota, compared to only $3,000 nationally. . . . During the last decade, banks in North Dakota with less than $1 billion in assets have averaged a stunning 434 percent more small business lending than the national average.

The BND has been very profitable for the state and its citizens – more profitable, according to the Wall Street Journal, than JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs. The BND does not compete with local banks but partners with them, helping with capitalization and liquidity and allowing them to take on larger loans that would otherwise go to larger out-of-state banks.

In order to help rural lenders with regulatory compliance, in 2011 the BND was directed by the state legislature to get into the rural home mortgage origination business. Rural banks that saw only three to five mortgages a year could not shoulder the regulatory burden, leading to business lost to out-of-state banks. After a successful pilot program, SB 2064, establishing the Mortgage Origination Program, was signed by North Dakota’s governor on April 3, 2013. It states that the BND may establish a residential mortgage loan program under which the Bank may originate residential mortgages if private sector mortgage loan services are not reasonably available. Under this program a local financial institution or credit union may assist the Bank in taking a loan application, gathering required documents, ordering required legal documents, and maintaining contact with the borrower. At a hearing on the bill, Rick Clayburgh, President of the North Dakota Bankers Association, testified in its support:

Over the past years because of the regulatory burdens our banks face by the passage of Dodd Frank, and now the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, it has become very prohibitive for a number of our banks to provide residential mortgage services anymore. We two years ago worked both with the Independent Community Bankers Association, and our Association and the Bank of North Dakota to come up with the idea in this program to help the bank provide services into the parts of the state that really residential mortgaging has seized up. We have a number of our banks that have terminated doing mortgage loans in their communities. They have stopped the process because they cannot afford to be written up by their regulator.

Under the Mortgage Origination Program, local banks get paid what is essentially a finder’s fee for sending rural mortgage loans to the BND. If the BND touches the money first, the onus is on it to deal with the regulators, something it can afford to do by capitalizing on economies of scale. The local bank thus avoids having to deal with regulatory compliance while keeping its customer.

The BND is the only model of a publicly-owned depository bank in the US; but in Germany, the publicly-owned Sparkassen banks operate a network of over 15,600 branches and are the financial backbone supporting Germany’s strong local business sector. In the matter of regulatory compliance, they too capitalize on economies of scale, by providing a compliance department that pools resources to deal with the onerous regulations imposed on banks by the EU.

The BND and the Sparkassen are proven models for maintaining the viability of local credit and banking services. It is time other states followed North Dakota’s lead, not only to protect their local communities and local banks, but to bolster their revenues, escape the noose of Washington and Wall Street, and provide a bail-in-proof depository for their public funds.