AN ECONOMY OF OUR OWN:
AVOIDING ANOTHER JACK-ASS
By Rickey Gard Diamond
The great feminist Andrea Dworkin put it this way in 1981. “Money speaks,” she said, “but it speaks in a male voice.” We know this better than ever since 2008. As the financial fog begins to lift on the fraud and gobbledygook of economic Wall Street and Washington, it feels a little like walking in uninvited on a jack-ass frat party. Eeee-ooooh. You actually do that?! How can anyone be so stupid??!!
Feminists aren’t the only ones to notice how male-dominated this crisis has been. Ken Hirschhorn, a trader at Long-Term Capital Management, a prominent hedge fund whose collapse in 2000 foreshadowed 2008’s melt-down, told Sheelah Kolhatkar of New York Magazine, “I don’t think greed is gender specific. But if you ask me whether Long-Term Capital Management would have blown up if there were more women involved in the decision-making process? A woman might have said, ‘Let’s not assume we’ll never be wrong.’ ”
Kolhatkar also talked to Joe Herbert, a neuroscientist who studies finance at Cambridge University. He said, “The banking crisis was caused by doing what no society ever allows, permitting young males to behave in an unregulated way. Anyone who studied neurobiology would have predicted disaster.”
The question is what to do about the reeking mess left behind. How do we prevent another monetary jack-ass crisis? Growing numbers of critics agree we cannot continue to do more of the same. But how can women make a difference?
NO GIRLS ALLOWED!
Financial headlines in September sounded an alarm about the small ranks of women in high places shrinking even further. When Sallie Krawcheck, CFO at Bank of America, left without explanation, Nathaniel Hopper at The Los Angeles Times, wrote: “Krawcheck joins a string of other top female bankers to leave the upper echelons of financial companies in recent years. Other notable exits include Heidi Miller, who in June stepped down as one of two women serving on JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s operating committee…Citigroup Inc.'s Terri Dial last year stepped down as head of the company's consumer banking operations; former Morgan Stanley co-President Zoe Cruz resigned from the investment bank in 2007; and Lehman Brothers Chief Financial Officer Erin Callan was pushed out just before the firm collapsed.” In another corporate story in September, New Yahoo CEO, the respected and outspoken Carol Bartz, got an unprecedented surprise, fired by her board on the phone. Bartz responded to reporters with rare candor: “These people f***ed me over,” she said.
Nor do Washington women fare better. In a late-September interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, author of Confidence Men, Ron Suskind of The Washington Post, reported a “hostile environment for women” in Obama’s White House and “not just on economic matters.” Christina Romer, who stepped down as chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors in August of 2010, told Suskind there were alternative views (like hers), not listened to. Elizabeth Warren, head of FDIC who expected to be placed at the head of the new consumer protection agency she designed, instead got run out of town. She’s now running for the Senate from Massachusetts.
Overly influenced by a testosterone-ruled Wall Street, Washington appears too polarized to work and too moneyed to represent most women. Last year’s Supreme Court “United Citizens” ruling monetized speech in our political process; that’s as good an explanation as any for Occupy Wall Street’s move to give the 99 percent a voice. It is hard to discover how many women number among the protestors, but clearly many are reaching for change.
TWO WOMEN ADDRESS MONEY CREATION
While protests happen, real economic solutions for preventing another crisis are being offered by two unlikely women, neither of them economists: lawyer Ellen Brown of California and city planner Gwen Hallsmith of Montpelier, Vermont. Both women propose creative and local solutions, which are exactly the kind of economics that women can most easily access. Their ideas promise a common meeting place closer to home, and big economic changes that could provide greater security and a role for revitalizing state democracies.
To introduce Brown and Hallsmith’s ideas, it’s important to understand that both women critique our current method of creating money. You may not have realized it, but none of the world’s governments now directly issues its own currency—including our U.S. dollars. Instead, a global system of central banks (like our privately owned Federal Reserve) trade in government bonds with global investment banks. (For more on this, see the September/October issue of Vermont Woman for “Dollars on the Make,” or www.gaiaeros.com/2011/10/17/the-federal-reserve-and-dollars-on-the-make/)
Government bonds create loans to our nation’s Treasury. The Treasury then authorizes the issue of Federal Reserve notes, essentially IOUs, or the dollars in your wallet. Banks also create dollars when they loan to businesses, mortgagees, states or municipalities. Dollars are created by banks and backed by the Fed – but only through debt.
The Fed would argue this is a good thing. They call it “the multiplier effect.” A bank need only hold cash (or Federal Reserve deposits) equal to about 10 percent of its total customer deposits; the rest can be loaned. Thus, each dollar soon becomes $9. However, as Charles Eisenstein recently wrote in Reality Sandwich, “[I]n the last decade various kinds of non-bank lending have skirted the margin reserve requirement through the alphabet soup of financial instruments you've been hearing about in the news. The result is that each dollar of original equity has been leveraged not to nine times its original value, as in traditional banking, but to 70 times or even more.”
Both Brown and Hallsmith argue this financial gaming has little to do with the real economy where you and I live. Money based on leveraged air creates a currency and financial debt-products, essentially a pile of IOUs. Everyone must pay the principal and somehow find added interest. This demands the economy constantly grow until it collapses. Periodic crashes are inevitable with this kind of scheme. Numbers grow exponentially without limit, yet the planet and human beings cannot. As Hallsmith said to me recently, “The trouble with this system is that it requires some people to lose.”
BROWN’S PUBLIC PARTNERSHIP BANKING
Ellen Brown had written a number of books about health before she wrote about our money system. Confronting a corporate healthcare industry seeking profits introduced her to economic realities here in the U.S. “There can’t be anything more inefficient,” she said in a recent interview. “You’re going to private hospitals, private doctors, using profit-seeking drug corporations, and they all have a vested interest in sickness.”
Brown’s most recent book, Web of Debt: The Shocking Truth about our Money System and How We Can Break Free,makes money an understandable subject. Her protagonist is a young girl we all know, Dorothy from Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz. Brown’s illustrations from Oz help to make monetary history and theory both readable and inspiring.
While Brown knows the history of the Federal Reserve System’s behind-closed-doors secrecy, and while she outlines long-term reforms, she is after efficiency. She envisions a more immediate way to circumvent debt. In 2011, she founded the Public Banking Institute. Its goal is to persuade states to better utilize the existing banking system for the public good.
During her research, Brown had discovered a surprising exception to the rule of Wall Street. The nation has only one state-owned bank, the Bank of North Dakota (BND), founded in 1919, about the time when the Wizard of Oz and monetary issues were both popular. BND’s existence has made all the difference to North Dakotans.
What difference exactly? The only state in the union to maintain a continuous budget surplus since the 2008 Wall Street crisis is North Dakota. While other states like Minnesota and California suffer near-bankrupt crises, and 48 states, including Vermont, suffer shortfalls, profits from BND have contributed more than $300 million to North Dakota’s state coffers during the past ten years. That’s a sizeable amount for a state with only 25,000 more people than Vermont.
Brown reported recently in The Huffington Post, “[North Dakota’s] balance sheet is so strong that it recently reduced individual income taxes and property taxes by a combined $400 million and is debating further cuts. It also has the lowest unemployment rate, lowest foreclosure rate and lowest credit card default rate in the country, and it hasn’t had a bank failure in at least the last decade.” North Dakota does produce oil, but she says a study done by the Center for State Innovation, from 2007 to 2009, revealed the BND added nearly as much money to the state’s general fund as oil and gas tax revenues did.
Brown says, “North Dakota is a conservative red state, not the sort you would expect to be engaging in government enterprise. But the conservative justification for a state-owned bank is that it preserves state sovereignty, allowing the state to be independent of Wall Street and the Feds. The BND is not a business competitor of the local banks but partners with them, helping with capital and liquidity requirements. It participates in loans, provides guarantees, and acts as a sort of mini-Fed for the state.”
Not only does the BND return its profits to the state’s general fund, it helps to build the state’s tax base by funding local businesses and the infrastructure that attracts and supports them. Brown explains. “Among other resources, it has a loan program called Flex PACE that allows a local community to provide assistance to borrowers in areas of jobs retention, technology creation, retail, small business, and essential community services. The BND also furnishes a credit line to the state itself, one that is effectively interest-free, since the state owns the bank.”
Typically, credit lines get extended in times of emergency or whenever state department budgets or municipalities face unforeseen circumstances. Vermont’s recent budget deficit and the flooding due to Hurricane Irene would be good examples. Having a credit line to the state's own bank allows state and local governments to avoid exorbitant rates on Wall Street and answers pressures to privatize or reduce services in order to avoid downgrades from rating agencies.
STRENGTH IN LOCAL DIVERSITY
Brown’s vision is to help establish a network of state and local publicly owned banks, which can create affordable credit and provide a sustainable alternative to the current high-risk centralized private banking system on Wall Street. Such a network, she says, would act in the public interest to stabilize credit crises like our current one. It would also resist asset devaluations, build infrastructure, and fund expansion of critical industrial-productivity capacity – most importantly, education and local jobs, which could be adopted as bank mandates.
Her most recent research examines a network of state and municipal public banks in Germany. These were created in the shadow of post-World War II economic devastation and are credited with helping Germany make its remarkable recovery. In 2010, while the rest of Europe staggered, Germany reported a 3.6 percent increase in its economic growth. Its exports led the world until 2009, when China (population 1.3 billion) narrowly overtook Germany (population 82 million.) How was Germany able to do this?
Brown writes, “One overlooked key to the country's economic dynamism is its strong public banking system, which focuses on serving the public interest rather than on maximizing private profits. After the Second World War, it was the publicly owned Landesbanks that helped family-run provincial companies get a foothold in world markets.” Municipal banks administered by state banks are all part of this system.
Thanks to growing interest in public banking, Brown’s own state of California just passed a bill to study the feasibility of a state-owned bank like North Dakota’s. California’s economy is the largest in the nation and surpasses all but eight countries. A California State Bank in the public interest would have huge influence nationally. Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, preferring to use the existing legislative committees on banking, rather than establish another “blue ribbon” commission. About this Brown says, “I think it’s a good thing. Commissions are where ideas go to die. We don’t need a study, we need a public bank.”
Fourteen other states have submitted bills to create banks similar to North Dakota’s, and Brown monitors them all. You can learn more about public banking and legislative developments, and imagine its potential for the people of Vermont, at www.publicbankinginstitute.org/.
HALLSMITH’S NEW CURRENCIES AND LOCAL MUTUAL CREDIT
Gwen Hallsmith of Montpelier has worked on environmental and sustainability issues for more than 20 years. Working with citizen-action groups and Greenpeace, she began to realize protesting wasn’t enough. “We had to have a concrete, alternative way to do things,” she said to me recently. Her books, The Key to Sustainable Cities: Meeting Human Needs, Transforming Community Systems and the workbook Taking Action for Sustainability, draw on substantial local and international work experience. At their core is the idea that systems can either integrate or disintegrate communities unaware of their power.
Hallsmith had long struggled to understand economics in her sustainability work. She came to see it as a global system only recently, while living and working overseas. “I actually lived through the currency crash in Kazakhstan,” she says. “I was still getting paid in U.S. dollars, so it didn’t have the same effect on me as it had on my neighbors. We were working closely in neighborhoods and the woman next door saw her pension – which had been enough to cover her rent and her heat and her food – become enough for a loaf of bread. It was devastating.”
Hallsmith’s most recent book, Creating Wealth: Growing Local Economies with Local Currencies, tackles economics more directly. She met her co-author for this work, the Belgian economist who helped create the Euro, Bernard Lietaer, when organizing a national sustainability conference. Lietaer objected to an imposition of a 20-minute time-limit on his talk; it would take him much longer to explain why our monetary system cannot help but undermine sustainability. Gwen later asked if he would explain it to her. “He paused, and I could hear him sigh,” she recalls with a laugh. Then he proposed she commit to monthly hour-long phone conversations for at least six months. She agreed.
Lietaer recently told me he believes women will be key actors in redesigning a more livable economy. “Right now the economic structure is hypermasculine,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it has to remain that way. Women can change it.”
It was during those mentoring sessions with Lietaer that Gwen learned about money creation. “Debt-money” is their name for the dollars we take for granted as national currency. In their book, Hallsmith and Lietaer propose several currencies that could work in partnership with dollars, depending on a community’s needs. Wealth, they explain, can be created locally by developing and supporting real resources, such as small business systems, energy systems and food systems in communities, by setting up asset exchanges, electronically tracked.
One currency they discussed at a recent presentation at Montpelier’s City Hall is called a Commercial Credit Circuit, or “C3.” It confronts small business owners’ most pressing problem, cash flow. Small businesses invest in products or services, yet when a sale occurs, payment from a vendor may not come for 90 days. C3s utilize invoices, insured and tracked by a bank, as cash. The invoices can be converted to dollars whenever needed, but a supply chain paid by this currency need not wait for payment. This creates money without debt, rewarding small business initiatives. Uruguay and Brazil are already successfully using C3s; recently Uruguay even moved to accept C3s as payment of taxes.
Another business currency they discuss is the 75-year-old Swiss WIR, which means “we” in German. The WIR enables businesses to freely exchange goods and services, helping each other to thrive, instead of only competing. In 2008, the value of WIR trades among its 65,000 members amounted to $1.58 billion.
Creating Wealth is not an easy read from cover to cover, but its ideas can be sampled depending on your interests. Each area seems well supported by real community endeavors put into practice by Hallsmith and others. This isn’t so much economic theory as application in action. The authors discuss food currencies to support local food production and farmers, an arts currency to underwrite creative endeavors and even an educational exchange that enables young students to gain money for college tuition through tutoring younger students.
Hallsmith’s work in Montpelier has already helped to create two time banks—dollar-free exchange systems in which services are measured according to the time they take to render. The Onion River Exchange in Washington County (www.orexchange.org/) has more than 400 participants who have traded 6,000 hours of service in 75 different categories. Coordinator Allison Underhill said she couldn’t easily translate those hours into dollar amounts because the services range so widely, from legal advice to sewing, from house-painting to childcare.
The other time bank is more specific: the REACH Care Bank (www.reachvt.org/contact-us/), administered by the Coalition of Vermont Elders (COVE), allows for the exchange of eldercare services. Hallsmith, whose father is an enthusiastic new member, points out that time currencies supply difficult-to-value human connections that people need to be healthy and happy. One member’s testimonial reads, “I gained not just the hours I banked, but I also met two wonderful people.”
The underlying philosophy here counts people as assets and assumes everyone has something to offer. It redefines caring work as beyond price and still values reciprocity. Hallsmith has succeeded by valuing networks and helping others to understand systems.
Most recently she has put together a monetary policy group for Vermont intended to develop concrete recommendations for Governor Shumlin and the legislature. The committee, which includes a legislator and well-known business leaders, will explore state banking in the public interest; complementary currencies that Vermont communities might be wise to develop; the possibility of moving deposits to local Vermont banks; and financial innovations successfully used in other strapped states. Monetary reform of the Federal Reserve is another of the committee’s concerns.
Hallsmith takes the crisis in our monetary system seriously. While she values a diversity of approaches, she also works with a sharp sense of humor: “I’ve got a set of metaphors that describes different monetary strategies: Moving your money from Wall Street to a local credit union is a little like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titantic. Public banking is a way of cashing in on a portion of the Titantic’s ticket-sales, but creating local Vermont currencies? That’s like making ourselves life-rafts.”
Rickey Gard Diamond is editor of Vermont Woman.