The Change We Need I: A Bank for America

04/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nationalize the banks!

No, this is not the rallying cry of a new populist or socialist movement in the U.S. It is now the slogan of some Nobel prize-winning economists and respectable financiers. Even Alan Greenspan, anointed the "high priest of laissez-faire capitalism" by the Financial Times, has conceded the need for temporary government ownership of the nation's largest banks.

How far and fast we've traveled. Until just a few months ago, the belief that the government should not own any significant portion of the financial system was akin to a religious conviction in the U.S., even among liberals. There was only one god, the Market, and an entire priesthood, including members of some of our most important institutions -- the media, the universities, and our government itself -- preached its virtues and commanded us to obey.

This hitherto unassailable doctrine has suddenly become vulnerable as the Market turns against us with the kind of fury normally reserved for vengeful deities and forces of nature. Proposing nationalization, heresy earlier, is now commonplace. (1) Indeed the government has already been acquiring substantial equity in some of the nation's largest financial institutions, though it refuses to ask for real power over them in return. (2)

My aim here is not to address the details of the nationalization debate. Rather, I want to use the crisis in our financial system to pose a fundamental question about our political system.

Consider: What is democracy?

We normally think of democracy in terms of some essential, precious rights not available in any other political system, not the least of which are the right to vote that made Obama President, and the right to express ourselves freely on websites like this one.

But now we're compelled to ask: What does democracy mean when our lives can be so drastically affected by the Market, in which the most powerful players are people we haven't elected, and institutions in which most of us have little say?

When the Market, an entirely human creation, can ruin us as effectively as a hurricane, sweeping hundreds of thousands of us from our homes, destroying the livelihoods of millions more, and washing away the retirement security of an entire generation?

When the actions of organizations wholly unaccountable to us can imperil our public libraries, parks, fire departments, and schools? When many of our elected representatives have facilitated these actions instead of protecting our interests?

If there is a positive side to the financial crisis, it is this: We can no longer avoid confronting the limits of our democracy when our lives and communities are thrown into such violent disarray by individuals and organizations so completely outside our reckoning. (3)

It is this same crisis, moreover, that points the way toward a more complete democracy, one in which we will have greater control over the financial system. That is because the core of any government strategy to rescue this system will be -- and already has been -- a massive injection of our money into it.

If we're going to pay to save the financial system, we have the right to shape its future.

Banking and credit are the economy's air and water. They're too important to be left entirely to private operators whose only concern is maximizing short term profits. Yet even the most ardent mainstream proponents of nationalization assume that once this crisis passes, the government should, and will, re-privatize any financial institutions it takes over.

What then? What is to prevent these organizations from continuing to invent ever more destructive "financial weapons of mass destruction?" (4) Will they be any more accountable to us after the next cycle of boom, bubble and bust?

It is time we considered the possibility of permanent public ownership and control of a large part of the nation's system of savings and lending.

How might this work? One way is the creation of a national public bank along the lines of a credit union. Credit unions are owned not by shareholders but by their depositors, or members. We would own a national credit union in which all of us could be members.

A national credit union would combine our deposits into a huge pool of capital to lend, invest, and do all the other things banks do. Crucially, we would exercise far greater control over such a bank than we ever could over institutions like Bank of America. Credit union members vote for their board of directors. Unlike private banks, in which the greatest influence is exercised by those with the largest number of shares, every member enjoys the same voice in a credit union -- one depositor, one vote.

Would a national credit union be competitive with large private banks? Like existing credit unions, it would return profits directly to us in the form of favorable interest rates for loans and deposits. For example the typical yield on certificates of deposit at the largest credit union in my area is about one percent higher than Bank of America's, and the yield on its best checking account is over 4%, compared to less than 1% for BoA. (5)

A national bank structured along these lines may also be safer than large private banks. Credit union managers are salaried employees who earn wage increases rather than exorbitant bonuses for good performance, which reduces their incentive to take wild risks with members' money. This would not by itself guarantee the stability of a national credit union, but its managers and directors would at least be accountable to us if things went wrong.

This is just one way the government could use our money to create a national public bank; there are other possibilities. (6) Whatever its specific form, a permanent national bank could compete with private banks and demonstrate the benefits of a financial institution owned by, and accountable to, the people.

At stake here is not solely or even most importantly the stability of our banks; rather, it is the very character of our democracy. A large, public financial sector could be a critical piece of a new democracy in which we cannot be held hostage by organizations over which we have no control. In this new democracy, the heresy would be not the notion of public ownership of financial institutions, but rather the idea that these institutions should exert so much power over our lives without being accountable to us.

Let us use this crisis to move ourselves in the direction of such a democracy. Let us demand that the government use our money not merely to bail out Bank of America but to create a new Bank for America.


1. The indispensable Baseline Scenario sums it up thus: "financial elite solidarity has broken..."nationalization" is no longer taboo. The consensus is dead." Here's a list of luminaries on both sides of the nationalization question. Alan Greenspan announced his temporary conversion in an interview with the Financial Times. The president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Thomas Hoenig, is apparently in favor of temporary nationalization. James Kwak at Baseline has an excellent summary of the different definitions of nationalization.

2. Follow the money at ProPublica. Baseline criticizes the timidity of the bailout to date , and Paul Krugman protests its deference to banking insiders.

3. Simon Johnson, ex-chief economist at the IMF and currently at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has been one of the few mainstream commentators to correctly identify the financial meltdown as not just an economic crisis but a deeply political one. "This is, after all, a critical fight to save American democracy, and it's good to know what we are up against."

4. This is the now famous formulation of Warren Buffett in his 2002 letter to investors in his mutual fund (p. 15).

5. One reason this credit union may be able to offer better rates is that membership in it is open only to employees of the local educational institutions. This may be a more stable base of depositors than most private banks like BoA, and translate into better rates. This could be a problem for a large national bank open to all.

6. Gerald Epstein, an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, advocates a reversal of the proposal that the government should detoxify bank balance sheets by buying their bad assets. "A much better approach is to turn the formula on its head. Let the taxpayers keep the good banks and leave the bad ones for the bankers...And the bankers will have to deal with their own mess, rather than foisting it off on the rest of us." With the new good banks, the government could create "a completely different banking environment, one with a completely different mandate and incentives" and considerably greater public accountability.