Banks Bankrupt Democracy

The billions upon billions of dollars thrown at banks and insurance companies over the last few months has been beyond comprehension. Has there ever been a time when government has been so lavishly generous to assist, if not bailout, the most economically and politically powerful sector of business corporations?

Under the guise of “too big to fail,” our tax dollars have gone to bailout “Wall Street” with few conditions. Meanwhile, our “main streets,” ”side streets,” and “backstreets” suffer and crumble from neglect.

Those who came before us who struggled for political and economic freedom would be ashamed of our lack of outrage, not to mention resistance.

Public fear and anger toward commercial banks have been a historic reality — for good reason. Those who control money control credit. Those who control the money supply shape governments and non-financial corporations.

Denial of loans by banks to finance wars brought Kings to their knees. Supplying money to industrial corporations enabled mass production and massive profits

The early founders of Ohio and this nation understood the inherent power of financial interests. Thomas Jefferson said, “We must crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

In an 1802 letter to his Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, Jefferson also reflected:

I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [the banks] will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered. The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs.

Early Ohio governance was based on similar fears. The Ohio Legislature awarded charters, granting the privilege for corporations to exist and operate in the state, to corporations one at a time. The terms were

rigid, especially for banking corporations. In the 1808 law to incorporate the Bank of Marietta, the Ohio General Assembly established stringent defining rules, including:

– The charter was granted for only 10 years
– The maximum interest on loans was set at 6%
– All directors had to reside in the same country as
the bank
– Bank debts could not exceed 3 times the sum
value of capital stock
– Bank directors were personally liable for excessive
debt

The public through the state legislature possessed and used their authority repeatedly to establish defining rules under which banks had to operate.

Business corporations violating the terms of their charters were severely punished by having their charters repealed, effectively dissolving their enterprises with assets distributed to the community and/or among those directly harmed. Banks were frequent violators and targets.

In an act to repeal the charter of the German Bank of Wooster in Wayne County and close its doors, the Ohio legislature stated:

It shall be the duty of the court of common pleas… or any judge of the supreme court…to restrain said bank, its officers, agents and servants or assignees, from exercising any corporate rights, privileges, and franchises whatever, or from paying out, selling, transferring, or in any way disposing of, the lands, tenements, goods, chattels, rights, credits, moneys, or effects whatsoever, of said bank… and force the bank commissioners to close the bank and deliver full possession of the banking house, keys, books, papers, lands, tenements, goods, chattels, moneys, property and effects of said bank, of every kind and description whatever…

The legislature authorized that the bank commissioners,

…shall possess the powers common to sheriffs… and may break open any house, or other building, in which any property, money, books, papers, or effects of said bank may be, having first made demand of entrance into such building; and if the said bank has made any assignment or transfer of its effects, books, property, papers, etc. for the settlement or with a view to its insolence, or for the purpose of avoiding the operations of this law, the same shall be deemed and treated as absolutely void.

Violators of the terms shall be deemed guilty of a crime, and, upon conviction, thereof, shall be imprisoned in the penitentiary and kept at hard labor, not less than one, nor more than 10 years.

Ohioans through their elected state legislature took this controlling bank business seriously. The state legislature in 1816 passed the “bonus law” which extended the charters of existing banks and tax exemption in exchange for a percentage of direct public ownership.

When the federally-chartered Second National Bank called in their debts as a result of the 1819 US economic collapse, Ohio banks were unable to come up with enough gold or silver to meet their $100,000 obligation. Ohioans would suffer as most could not pay off loans at that time. In response, the state legislature passed the “crowbar law” which taxed both state branches of Second National $50,000 each and authorized the state auditor to collect. Ohio auditor, Ralph Osborn, responded by entering one of the branches, showed officials a warrant he had signed, entered the vault, scooped up notes and currency estimated at $100,000 and left.

It was not only the state legislature but the state courts who felt compelled to ensure that citizen sovereignty was protected from rising banking power. The Ohio Supreme Court concluded in four rulings in 1853, all concerning commercial banks, that a corporate charter was not a contract – a direct challenge to an 1819 US Supreme Court decision Dartmouth v Woodward. The Ohio court ruled that bank charters were at root not about individual property rights but public self-governing rights and could be fundamentally controlled.

One of the four cases was Knoup v the Piqua Bank. In its ruling, the Ohio Supreme Court stated:

…[A] banking institution is a public institution, appointed for public purposes – never legitimately created for private purposes… its operations are subject to the control of that public, who may, from time to time, as the public good may require, enlarge, restrain, limit, modify its powers and duties, and, at pleasure, dispense with its benefits.

Our government if founded upon that sublime truth, acknowledged in both our present and old constitutions, as well as in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created free and equal, and that every exemption, immunity or privilege, is an invasion of the primordial estate, and natural rights of other citizens. Whenever, therefore, a franchise is conferred, upon a corporation, or an individual, nothing but the public good is to be considered: the private advantage which may result to the corporation or individual, is but incidental to the chief object and cannot ripen into a right of property.

…[W]hen the legislature authorizes… a bank to make currency, it grants what belongs to the public. The resumption of which privilege by the public affects no property, impairs no contract, infringes no right, but merely restores to its proper place, so much of popular sovereignty as was claimed by a grant of questionable authority, in clear derogation of common right.

Fears and anger toward economic and political power of banks were not just felt by Ohioans, but by citizens across the land. The Populist movement from the 1870’s to 1890’s focused their educational and organizational resistance to railroads and banks – believing that these corporations were impoverishing farmers and workers and destroying democracy. Their political party treatise, the Omaha Platform, stated:

We demand a national currency, safe, sound, and flexible, issued by the general government only, a full legal tender for all debts, public and private, and that without the use of banking corporations, a just, equitable, and efficient means of distribution direct to the people…

The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 only fueled the fear and anger toward banks and banking power in the minds of millions of citizens. The creation of the private grossly misnamed Federal Reserve Bank centralized currency creation and money supply in the hands of private bankers largely beyond the reach of the public. The Act established basic financial rules defined largely by the largest US banks. It created a financial cartel with all the concentration of economic wealth and political power that goes with it. Money could be created literally out of thin air on bank ledgers as loans issued to individuals, businesses, even governments.

Money is no longer backed by gold, silver or anything of real, intrinsic value or worth. In an economic crisis, whether recession or depression, more money is just added to the economy. This is inflationary.

Over the last several decades, financial institutions have rushed to the government to be bailed out. Risky investments in the 1980’s resulted in the collapse of hundreds of Savings and Loans and cost taxpayers $150 billion (some say twice this amount).

The current financial bailout of $700 billion to rescue the largest US banks in simply the latest installment of the privatizing profits and socializing losses scheme. This doesn’t include the $144 billion to bailout insurance giant AIG.

The financial sector has invested in politicians for years to ensure favorable treatment in the event of conditions like this. The financial sector was the single largest investor to George Bush’s 2004 campaign ($33.8 million) according to Open Secrets. The financial sector in 2008 was the second largest sector investor to Barack Obama’s campaign ($33.1 million) and the largest sector investor to John McCain’s campaign ($26.2 million) just to make sure all their political bases were covered.

This is probably enough to make sure no bank or financial corporation CEO is “imprisoned in the penitentiary and kept at hard labor, not less than one, nor more than 10 years” as was the case in the past to bank officials in Ohio. A little hard labor in a penitentiary, however, certainly seems more appropriate for some of these CEOs than a golden parachute.

When the government bailed out Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the two critically wounded government-sponsored mortgage behemoths, to the amount of $200 billion; the Treasury Department effectively took them over….again. Originally these financial entities were public.

That may be the direction to take now – not simply public investment but public control. If banks want public dollars, the public should use their financial leverage to gain public control.

A second option is creating rules that reduce bank size. If banks are too big to fail (and have too much political influence), then they’re too big to exist. Break them up. Instead, recent federal rules coupled with funds from the $700 bailout package have resulted in further bank consolidation, including the acquisition of Cleveland-based National City bank by PNC bank of Pittsburgh.

Third, consideration should be given to revoking the charter of banks that have acted recklessly through risky investments, in particular those of buying and repackaging high risk mortgages for resale as quickly as possible. A charter revocation does not automatically mean a corporation has to be abolished and jobs lost – just remade under different terms. This could include holding managers and directors personally liable for reckless actions.

A fourth option is employee control. The top-down, private corporation is not the only business model known to the human species. If we feel greater democracy is required in our political spheres, what’s wrong with it in our economic spheres?

Economic Cooperatives are enterprises where workers and/or users are also owners. Decisions are democratically made by members (defined in different ways depending on the firm). There are still managers but they are beholden not to stockholders (who have power based on a “one dollar or share, one vote” system) but to members (based on a one person, one vote system). It’s an economic system mirroring our political system.

Banking corporations that may for good reason deserve to have their charters revoked would be prime candidates to have new terms defined encouraging a cooperative business model. If you think such a notion is complete pie-in-the-sky, just consider credit unions – financial institutions that are member owned and directed.

Finally, somewhere along the way the so-called and misnamed Federal Reserve Bank must be either significantly changed or abolished. Private banking corporations should not have the power to issue national currency.

Greater public awareness, action and resistance leading to greater sovereignty of our personal and national finances and financial institutions in not only sound economics but also essential to prevent the further bankruptcy of whatever amount of democracy we have left.

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