One could slash private debt by 100pc of GDP, boost growth, stabilize prices, and dethrone bankers all at the same time. It could be done cleanly and painlessly, by legislative command, far more quickly than anybody imagined.
The conjuring trick is to replace our system of private bank-created money — roughly 97pc of the money supply — with state-created money. We return to the historical norm, before Charles II placed control of the money supply in private hands with the English Free Coinage Act of 1666.
Specifically, it means an assault on “fractional reserve banking”. If lenders are forced to put up 100pc reserve backing for deposits, they lose the exorbitant privilege of creating money out of thin air.
The nation regains sovereign control over the money supply. There are no more banks runs, and fewer boom-bust credit cycles. Accounting legerdemain will do the rest. That at least is the argument.
Some readers may already have seen the IMF study, by Jaromir Benes and Michael Kumhof, which came out in August and has begun to acquire a cult following around the world.
Entitled “The Chicago Plan Revisited”, it revives the scheme first put forward by professors Henry Simons and Irving Fisher in 1936 during the ferment of creative thinking in the late Depression.
Irving Fisher thought credit cycles led to an unhealthy concentration of wealth. He saw it with his own eyes in the early 1930s as creditors foreclosed on destitute farmers, seizing their land or buying it for a pittance at the bottom of the cycle.
The farmers found a way of defending themselves in the end. They muscled together at “one dollar auctions”, buying each other’s property back for almost nothing. Any carpet-bagger who tried to bid higher was beaten to a pulp.
Benes and Kumhof argue that credit-cycle trauma – caused by private money creation – dates deep into history and lies at the root of debt jubilees in the ancient religions of Mesopotian and the Middle East.
Harvest cycles led to systemic defaults thousands of years ago, with forfeiture of collateral, and concentration of wealth in the hands of lenders. These episodes were not just caused by weather, as long thought. They were amplified by the effects of credit.
The Athenian leader Solon implemented the first known Chicago Plan/New Deal in 599 BC to relieve farmers in hock to oligarchs enjoying private coinage. He cancelled debts, restituted lands seized by creditors, set floor-prices for commodities (much like Franklin Roosevelt), and consciously flooded the money supply with state-issued “debt-free” coinage.
The Romans sent a delegation to study Solon’s reforms 150 years later and copied the ideas, setting up their own fiat money system under Lex Aternia in 454 BC.
It is a myth – innocently propagated by the great Adam Smith – that money developed as a commodity-based or gold-linked means of exchange. Gold was always highly valued, but that is another story. Metal-lovers often conflate the two issues.
Anthropological studies show that social fiat currencies began with the dawn of time. The Spartans banned gold coins, replacing them with iron disks of little intrinsic value. The early Romans used bronze tablets. Their worth was entirely determined by law – a doctrine made explicit by Aristotle in his Ethics – like the dollar, the euro, or sterling today.