Although it is widely assumed that governments are the source of all new money – through “printing it” – the so-called private sector is the source of most new money put into circulation. In one of the most successful enclosures of the commons in our time, commercial finance institutions have captured the power to create most new money through their discretionary lending. This power has become so normalized and pervasive that hardly anyone acknowledges the startling fact that commercial lending accounts for more than 95% of “new money” created. Government has in effect surrendered its enormous power to use its money-creating authority for the public good.
Perhaps the leading champion for reforming the current money system is Mary Mellor, emeritus professor at Northumbria University in the UK and author of the recently published, eye-opening book Debt or Democracy: Public Money for Sustainability and Social Justice (Pluto Press, 2015, distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press Books).
Mellor recently published an oped piece in The Independent, the British newspaper, that summarizes some of the key themes in her book. Her essay focuses on the “myth of handbag economics” – the idea that government budgets are comparable to household budgets. This distorts our understanding of how the money supply works, says Mellor, and inexorably leads governments to adopt fiscal austerity policies.
The critical political question that is rarely asked, said Mellor at a policy workshop last September, is: Who controls the creation and circulation of money?
She notes that the government, as the sovereign, has the authority to issue new money – an ancient authority known as seignorage. But in practice, governments have surrendered this authority to the commercial banking sector, whose lending creates nearly all of the money in circulation as debt.
Banks create money out of thin air by issuing new loans. They need not have those specific sums of money on hand, in a vault. They need have only a small fraction of reserves of the total sum lent, as required by “reserve banking” standards. In this way, bank lending quite literally introduces new supplies of money into the economy based on strictly private, commercial standards – i.e., banks' assessments of borrowers’ ability to repay the debt with interest.
Mellor believes that we need to recover the power of public currency to meet public needs. By “public currency,” she means “the generally recognized and authorized public currency created through a public money circuit that originates in central banks and government spending.” Privately created currency is money designated as public currency that is issued through the banking sector as loans. It is the fact that bankers are creating the public currency when they make loans that makes the state liable to honor that money when banks go into crisis.