(Week 21 - Monday, Dec. 29)
It is timely and apropos in this landmark 100th column that the basis for understanding be taken to a bit higher level. To accomplish that, two concepts new to this discussion need to be introduced. These are already commonly referred to in the realm of economic theory, but not observed in a consistent way in the world of finance and banking.
As a beginning student aspiring to enter the realm of economics one is required almost invariably to take a course titled "Economics 101." From there the coursework divides into two streams, those being "micro-economics" and "macro-economics" (Econ. 102 & 103). Almost anyone who has found his life's work in dealing with money in a central way, whether as economists, fund managers, stock brokers, bankers or whoever, was introduced into the theoretical world of economics through this regimen of courses.
I took the Econ-101 course when I was 48 years old with the attitude of seeking answers to the dilemmas about money I had already encountered in my life. My life experience provided a basis for questioning, and not simply accepting, the premises of the course (an advantaged position few students experience). In the text out of which I was taught ("Economics", Case & Fair, 1989 ed.) the two streams of the economic discipline were defined as follows:
"Microeconomics – The branch of economics that examines the functioning of individual industries and the behavior of individual decision-making units, that is, business firms and households."
"Macroeconomics – The branch of economics that examines the economic behavior of aggregates – income, employment, output, and so on – on a national scale."
I would offer my own definition of these respective terms as follows:
Micro-economics is the science of how people provide for each other's needs in the context of the various influences they are subject to from without, and impulses that arise from within. Ideally such activity is an expression of cultural, spiritual and entrepreneurial freedom. Participants include individuals, businesses, corporations and governmental bodies, except for the Federal government.
Macro-economics is the science of how a society organizes itself to create an equitable context in which its citizens can conduct their micro-economic affairs. Resolving issues of societal equity are a natural function of the political realm, and for the way our society is constituted at present (around the nation-state), this means that the central arena of macro-economic life is the national government.
To lend a picture to these somewhat dry definitions, a micro-economy (the object of which micro-economics is the study) is related to the macro-economy in much the same way that the trees are related to the forest.
To offer a sports analogy, a micro-economy is related to the macro-economy in much the same way that the sports teams are related to the league they play in. Ideally, the league does not make any of the plays, accrue any of the points, or take a partisan position with respect to any team. Its function, rather, is to set up a matrix of rules, resources and arbitration whereby the teams can strive to make plays, earn points and be confident that it will be done on a "level playing field." It is alike in the interests of all teams that the league perform this service in a consistent manner, as it will provide a setting for the optimum expression of the talents of the players, and the maximum enjoyment of the games spectators.
If the distinction between the micro and macro aspects of the game were lost sight of, and one of the league's teams assumed the functions of the league itself, then trust in the integrity of the game would be lost. Indeed the business of the league would tend to be conducted in such a way that it was favorable to whatever team was given control.
The root problem with our economy is that the distinction between its micro and macro dimensions has been lost, and one of the teams (the banking industry) has been put in control. Consequently, the rules by which points in the economic game are allotted (via money) have become skewed in favor of the team in control (the private banking system). Now the micro-players in the economy (individuals, businesses and governmental bodies other than Federal) labor not only to work out the allotment of financial credits vis-à-vis each other, but also pay tribute to the league for the very playing of the game. It is as if there were a third posting on the scoreboard where for every "touchdown" scored by one of the teams, one of its points had to be donated to the league. In any individual contest the points tallied to the league would be less than the total points earned by the teams, but the league would accept its tribute on every scoreboard, and so come out with the dominant total with respect to everyone else.
This is a pretty silly situation, of course, and it is hard to imagine any sporting league that could live with such a nonsensical arrangement, but the question has to be asked, "Why do we arrange our monetary affairs in such a manner?" There is one team, the banking team, that has been given control of the game. The argument has been made that this is the way to keep politics out of money. It might also be suggested that this is the way to ensconce the fox in the henhouse.
I would add that what I am saying here is not an indictment of banking per se. After all, bankers have been put in the impossible position of having to serve two masters to even do their job; i.e. both the commonweal, and the private interests that would profit at the expense of the nation as a whole. This is a wholly inappropriate mixing of the private (micro) and public (macro) spheres.
The creation and issuance of money is a macro-economic function, and should be returned to the national government. Mixing money issuance and private enterprise in the way currently configured is in itself a corruption, and the system survives at all simply because the people involved in it (including bankers) have not allowed themselves to be wholly given over to corrupt influences on a personal level. That said, it is unrealistic to expect them to overcome the inherent inconsistencies involved in discharging their fiduciary responsibilities in ways that are in keeping with both their private for-profit, as well as public for-the-common-good missions. Can we expect, then, that these micro-economic players (bankers), who have been placed and continue to be maintained in this untenable position, to provide the macro-economic leadership that will lead this nation, and the world, out of the "debt"-crisis wilderness? Some may indeed emerge, but they will need help.
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The complete set of columns from this series is posted at the following websites.