We’ve got to break out of the old ways of thinking about the economy.
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January 15, 2013 |
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Most activists tend to approach progressive change from one of two perspectives: First, there’s the “reform” tradition that assumes corporate control is a constant and that “politics” acts to modify practices within that constraint. Liberalism in the United States is representative of this tradition. Then there’s the “revolutionary” tradition, which assumes change can come about only if the major institutions are largely eliminated or transcended, often by violence.
But what if neither revolution nor reform is viable?
Paradoxically, we believe the current stalemating of progressive reform may open up some unique strategic possibilities to transform institutions of the political economy over time. We call this third option evolutionary reconstruction. Like reform, evolutionary reconstruction involves step-by-step nonviolent change. But like revolution, evolutionary reconstruction changes the basic institutions of ownership of the economy, so that the broad public, rather than a narrow band of individuals (i.e., the “one percent”) owns more and more of the nation’s productive assets.
1. A People’s Bank
One area where this logic can be seen at work is in the financial industry. At the height of the financial crisis in early 2009, some kind of nationalization of the banks seemed possible. It was a moment, President Obama told banking CEOs, when his administration was “the only thing between you and the pitchforks.” The president opted for a soft bailout, but that was not the only possible decision.
When the next financial crisis occurs — and many experts think it will –a different resolution may well be possible. One option has already been put on the table. In 2010, 33 senators voted to break up large Wall Street investment banks that were “too big to fail.” Such a policy would not only reduce financial vulnerability, it would alter the structure of institutional power .
Nor is an effort to break up banks, even if successful, likely to be the end of the process. The modern history of anti-trust and finance suggests that the big banks, even if broken up, will ultimately regroup. So what can be done when breaking them up fails?
Traditional reforms have aimed at improved regulation, higher reserve requirements and the channeling of credit to key sectors. But future crises may bring into play a spectrum of sophisticated proposals for more radical change. For instance, a “Limited Purpose Banking” strategy put forward by conservative economist Laurence Kolticoff would impose a 100% reserve requirement on banks. Since banks typically provide loans in amounts many times their reserves, this would transform them into modest institutions with little or no capacity to finance speculation. It would also nationalize the creation of all new money as federal authorities, rather than bankers, directly control system-wide financial flows.
More striking is the argument of Willem Buiter, the chief economist of Citigroup, that if the public underwrites the costs of bailouts, “banks should be in public ownership.” In fact, had the taxpayer funds used to bail out major financial institutions in 2007-2010 been provided on condition that voting stock be issued in return for the investment, one or more major banks would have become essentially public banks.
Nor is this far from current political tradition. Unknown to most, there have been a large number of small and medium-sized public banking institutions for some time now. In fact, the federal government already operates 140 banks and quasi-banks that provide loans and loan guarantees for an extraordinary range of domestic and international economic activities.
The economic crisis has also produced widespread interest in the Bank of North Dakota, a highly successful state-owned bank founded in 1919. Between 1996 and 2008, the bank returned $340 million in profits to the state. The bank enjoys broad support in the business community, as well as among progressive activists. Legislative proposals to establish banks patterned in whole or in part on the North Dakota model have been put forward by activists and legislators in more than a dozen states .