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Making Unique Observations in a Very Cluttered World

Sunday, September 6, 2009

What Would the United States Look Like Without the Federal Reserve?

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Since H.R. 1207 was introduced by Dr. Ron Paul in Congress this February, there has been a growing movement questions whether the Fed should continue to operate without more oversight and some question whether or not the Federal Reserve should continue to operate at all.

Currenty, Paul’s “Audit the Fed” legislation has 282 co-sponsors and there are two similar pieces of legislation in the senate. If the legislation is passed, it will allow the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review the Federal Reserve’s balance sheets and their policy deliberations and monetary transactions. Currently Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, opposes the plan, saying it would undermine the Fed’s independence.

The “Audit the Fed” act has a real chance in passing, but some supporters of the legislation, including Ron Paul, want to take it further than that by ending the Federal Reserve all together. Paul introduced a piece of follow-up legislation, entitled H.R. 833: The Federal Reserve Board Abolition Act which would wind down and eliminate the Federal Reserve over the course of the year. Currently, the act has no co-sponsors, but is gaining a lot of grass-roots support. Paul hopes that members of Congress will join his movement to end the Federal Reserve after they see the results of a full audit of the Federal Reserve. Paul also authored a book about his proposal to end the Federal Reserve, entitled “End the Fed.”

Although the movement is in its infancy and still gaining momentum, it’s not too crazy to think that the United States wouldn’t be better off without the Federal Reserve. Since the Federal Reserve System was brought into force into 1914, the United States economy has grown at a slower pace than it did before 1914, despite significantly improved productivity. The rate of inflation has been substantially worse since the introduction of the Federal Reserve, despite the fact that the Federal Reserve was around during the greatest period of deflation in US History—the Great Depression.

Apologists for the Fed would certainly have a different take. They would note that the United States was in recession half of the time between the Civil War and 1914 and only 21% of the time since the Fed came into force. However, the frequent down-turns before 1914 weren’t the result of a lack of a central bank, but more-so because of poorly thought government regulations, such as bans on branch banking making it so that banks could not survive localized economic trouble. The Federal Government also forced banks to trade notes at a discount whenever the bank offering the note was from another area.

Throughout the Civil War, state bank notes were taxed into oblivion to make the way for nationalized banks. Since national banks were forced to accept each other’s notes at their face value, the currency was uniformed, but those national bank notes had to be backed by Federal bonds. That requirement proved disastrous after the Civil War because of a shortage of bonds, which resulted in 4 currency panics between 1873 and 1907, which prompted the establishment of the Federal Reserve.

Until 1907, many reformers simply hoped to abolish the restrictions placed on banks during the Civil War, and allowing them to issue notes and allowing banks to branch nationwide to standardize currency instead of the requirement to have the backing of government bonds. Reformers looked to Canada where a similar system had been functioning successfully for several decades.

Although Congress did consider several pieces of legislation similar to what Canada had, none of those made it out of Congress because local bankers were determined to block any proposal for branch banking that would threaten their local monopolies.

After the adoption of a system similar to Canada’s failed, only then did reformers consider the establishment of a central reserve bank. As a result, the Federal Reserve Act allowed for the creation of 12 new banks to do what other banks were prevented from doing themselves, establishing branch networks and issuing currency backed by commercial assets.

The Federal Reserve was a poor substitute for deregulation. Since the Fed had monopoly privileges in issuing currency, it allowed them to cause unchecked inflation. By 1919, the US Inflation rate jumped to nearly 20%. Since the Federal Reserve had a monopoly on currency, it also had to make sure that there was enough currency in the market to avert a crisis. Soon after, two of the worst monetary contractions in history, the first in 1921, and the second between 1929 and 1933 took place.

Would a Canadian-style asset-based currency have survived the Great Depression any better? It turns out that Canada’s did. Between 1929 and 1933, 1/3rd of the United States’ money stock was wiped out and Canada’s monetary supply only dropped by 13%. In Canada, there were no bank failures, where as there were over 6,000 in the United States! Although Canada fared better during the great depression, it moved to Central Banking in 1935 because of a movement to get more easy money.

If it were 1934, a call to end the Federal Reserve would not have been considered anywhere close to crazy. 75 years and several crisis’s later, we’ve all but forgotten what the world would look like without the Federal Reserve system, but that doesn’t mean the idea is any less valid than it was during the Great Depression.

Be sure to read our follow up article, “What Would the United States Look Like Without the FDIC?

How Washington is Screwing Up Health Care Reform – and Why It May Take a Revolt to Fix It

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Let's start with the obvious: America has not only the worst but the dumbest health care system in the developed world. It's become a black leprosy eating away at the American experiment - a bureaucracy so insipid and mean and illogical that even our darkest criminal minds wouldn't be equal to dreaming it up on purpose.

The system doesn't work for anyone. It cheats patients and leaves them to die, denies insurance to 47 million Americans, forces hospitals to spend billions haggling over claims, and systematically bleeds and harasses doctors with the specter of catastrophic litigation. Even as a mechanism for delivering bonuses to insurance-company fat cats, it's a miserable failure: Greedy insurance bosses who spent a generation denying preventive care to patients now see their profits sapped by millions of customers who enter the system only when they're sick with incurably expensive illnesses.

The cost of all of this to society, in illness and death and lost productivity and a soaring federal deficit and plain old anxiety and anger, is incalculable - and that's the good news. The bad news is our failed health care system won't get fixed, because it exists entirely within the confines of yet another failed system: the political entity known as the United States of America.

Just as we have a medical system that is not really designed to care for the sick, we have a government that is not equipped to fix actual crises. What our government is good at is something else entirely: effecting the appearance of action, while leaving the actual reform behind in a diabolical labyrinth of ingenious legislative maneuvers.

Over the course of this summer, those two failed systems have collided in a spectacular crossroads moment in American history. We have an urgent national emergency on the one hand, and on the other, a comfortable majority of ostensibly simpatico Democrats who were elected by an angry population, in large part, specifically to reform health care. When they all sat down in Washington to tackle the problem, it amounted to a referendum on whether or not we actually have a functioning government.

It's a situation that one would have thought would be sobering enough to snap Congress into real action for once. Instead, they did the exact opposite, doubling down on the same-old, same-old and laboring day and night in the halls of the Capitol to deliver us a tour de force of old thinking and legislative trickery, as if that's what we really wanted. Almost every single one of the main players - from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Blue Dog turncoat Max Baucus - found some unforeseeable, unique-to-them way to fuck this thing up. Even Ted Kennedy, for whom successful health care reform was to be the great vindicating achievement of his career, and Barack Obama, whose entire presidency will likely be judged by this bill, managed to come up small when the lights came on.

We might look back on this summer someday and think of it as the moment when our government lost us for good. It was that bad.

Here's where we are right now: Before Congress recessed in August, four of the five committees working to reform health care had produced draft bills. On the House side, bills were developed by the commerce, ways and means, and labor committees. On the Senate side, a bill was completed by the HELP committee (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, chaired by Ted Kennedy). The only committee that didn't finish a bill is the one that's likely to matter most: the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by the infamous obfuscating dick Max Baucus, a right-leaning Democrat from Montana who has received $2,880,631 in campaign contributions from the health care industry.

The game in health care reform has mostly come down to whether or not the final bill that is hammered out from the work of these five committees will contain a public option - i.e., an option for citizens to buy in to a government-run health care plan. Because the plan wouldn't have any profit motive - and wouldn't have to waste money on executive bonuses and corporate marketing - it would automatically cost less than private insurance. Once such a public plan is on the market, it would also drive down prices offered by for-profit insurers - a move essential to offset the added cost of covering millions of uninsured Americans. Without a public option, any effort at health care reform will be as meaningful as a manicure for a gunshot victim. "The public option is the main thing on the table," says Michael Behan, an aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. "It's really coming down to that."

The House versions all contain a public option, as does the HELP committee's version in the Senate. So whether or not there will be a public option in the end will likely come down to Baucus, one of the biggest whores for insurance-company money in the history of the United States. The early indications are that there is no public option in the Baucus version; the chairman hinted he favors the creation of nonprofit insurance cooperatives, a lame-ass alternative that even a total hack like Sen. Chuck Schumer has called a "fig leaf."

Even worse, Baucus has set things up so that the final Senate bill will be drawn up by six senators from his committee: a gang of three Republicans (Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Mike Enzi of Wyoming) and three Democrats (Baucus, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico) known by the weirdly Maoist sobriquet "Group of Six." The setup senselessly submarines the committee's Democratic majority, effectively preventing members who advocate a public option, like Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, from seriously influencing the bill. Getting movement on a public option - or any other meaningful reform - will now require the support of one of the three Republicans in the group: Grassley (who has received $2,034,000 from the health sector), Snowe ($756,000) or Enzi ($627,000).

This is what the prospects for real health care reform come down to - whether one of three Republicans from tiny states with no major urban populations decides, out of the goodness of his or her cash-fattened heart, to forsake forever any contributions from the health-insurance industry (and, probably, aid for their re-election efforts from the Republican National Committee).

This, of course, is the hugest of long shots. But just to hedge its bets even further and ensure that no real reforms pass, Congress has made sure to cover itself, sabotaging the bill long before it even got to Baucus' committee. To do this, they used a five-step system of subtle feints and legislative tricks to gut the measure until there was nothing left.

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