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If you want democracy back, break up the big banks

Simon Johnson:

Competition between banks is good – on this ["immaculate regulation" advocate Charles] Calomiris and I agree. We differ with regard to whether allowing large quasi-monopoly banks to dominate the landscape (e.g., Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase today) is helpful to competition in any sense.

We should also throw into the mix three additional considerations.

First, the expected costs of allowing “too big to fail” banks to continue to operate are huge. The Calomiris benefits might be positive, you need to weigh these against what we have just seen: a huge recession (and the risk of worse), a big increase in government debt (perhaps 40% of GDP, when all is said and done), and almost 6 million jobs lost. ...

Second, the big banks definitely create some private benefits – mostly for the insiders, in the form of upside (e.g., bonuses) when times are good. The costs are born by society and not just by people who lose their homes – it’s businesses all across America that have lost income, fired people, and are now struggling to stay afloat. This is not only unfair, it is inefficient. Excessive risk taking by big banks generates massive negative externalities. You can either price this appropriately (and good luck with imposing that tax) or break up the banks – down to a size where we know the FDIC can handle bank failures (see the latest failed bank list).

Third, our big banks have demonstrated an unmatched ability to take over regulators and to convince politicians that a dangerous financial structure is good for America. These same people will almost certainly render ineffective whatever new regulations you put in place. More broadly, how can you run a well-functioning political system when a few large banks are so powerful?

The key insight at the heart of breaking up Standard Oil in 1911 was that it was too big to regulate. That breakup may have been good for competition; it was certainly good for democracy.

Why don't we turn the banks into regulated public utilities?

As Nicolas Trist – secretary to President Andrew Jackson – said about the incredibly powerful privately owned Second Bank of the United States, “Independently of its misdeeds, the mere power, — the bare existence of such a power, — is a thing irreconcilable with the nature and spirit of our institutions.” (Schlesinger, The Age of Jackson, p.102)

Yes, maybe we ought to be looking back past FDR, back past Lincoln, and all the way to Jackson. He trashed the place -- and it wasn't his place.

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jumpjet's picture
Submitted by jumpjet on

That is something we should never again tolerate. The next time we establish a Bank of the United States- which I'd like to see us do- its entire senior leadership must be answerable to Congress and confirmed by a vote... you know what, how about a vote in the House of Representatives? The Senate is too gentrified and easily corrupted. Let the national bank's bankers be answerable to the common man's House of Congress.