(Week 2 - Monday Aug. 4)
I am writing this column little more than a mile away from where the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed on August 1 of last year. This tragedy that took the lives of 13 people was marked over the weekend in somber memorial events. These were accompanied by lamentations throughout the media that the nation has taken few steps since this "wake-up call" to rejuvenate its crumbling infrastructure. The determination on the part of the body public to rectify this deplorable situation is, it seems, still there, but where is the money? I would assert that it is readily available. We just aren't seeing it.
The I35W bridge is part of what might be termed the "commons"; i.e. the property that is held in common by all the people for the benefit of the common good. The "commons," of course, includes almost all bridges, roads, schools, emergency services, parks, provisions for the common defense, and other public assets that are indispensable to the full pursuit of life, liberty and happiness in a healthy society. There is, however, one element of the commons that is perhaps the most essential, and yet I have never specifically heard it recognized as such. It is our "money." It is the one element of the public domain that we all hold most in common.
Think about it. Anyone in the nation was free (while it was standing) to pass over the I35W bridge in Minneapolis, but in reality only a very small portion of the population of the nation ever would. What is more, after the bridge went down, ways of circumventing it locally were quickly identified, and the life of the city went on essentially normally. The bridge served the nation, but only a small portion directly.
Now think about a dollar in your pocket. It looks exactly like the dollar in anyone else's pocket. Do you not let it rest there complacent in the assurance that it can be brought out when needed to pay for anything a dollar will buy? This could be for a cup of coffee (assuming one can find one that cheaply these days) in New York, California, Florida, Alaska or Minnesota. Is this not an assurance that we all hold blithely from corner to corner of the nation, even to the point of hardly actually thinking about it? Is not our money in fact the most commonly held and used element of the public domain?
The founders of our country knew how essential public ownership of public money was. That is why, for example, the Colonies before the Revolution insisted on the right to issue their own currency ("bills of credit"), instead of having to borrow their money supply from a private bank (Bank of England) at "interest." It is why they financed the establishment of the nation with the publicly issued "Continental Currency." It is also why, when the nation was again locked in a struggle for its very existence, Abraham Lincoln issued $450 million dollars worth of publicly issued bills, popularly known as the "Greenbacks" (after, of course, coming under intense pressure to borrow the money from banks).
This first anniversary of the Minneapolis bridge collapse is a reminder that the nation is again under threat, in part from the crumbling of its very physical base, and as before, money borrowed at "interest" from banks is not going to save it. In fact, I would argue, the reliance on debt-based private money is how we got into this predicament. It has for some generations been the norm that when any community, be it local or the nation as a whole, saw the need to make investments in the common infrastructure, it was faced with the (assumed) necessity of paying for the project two or three times over due to the compounding "interest" charge attached to money needed to implement the project. This means that over the years a vast amount if infrastructure construction and revitalization did not get funded. Part of the cost of that backlog manifested in Minneapolis, and it proved to be high. In New Orleans it was incalculable. What will be the physical and human costs in the future?
We as a nation have forgotten that money too (perhaps money above all) is a fundamental element of the commons. Why, then, cannot public money be issued out of the Constitutional authority of the Congress "To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof . . ." to provide for the common good (a critical bridge or levee when needed)? The answer, I believe, is that it can be done, and is indeed the economic, legal and moral way to finance essential public works.