The Usury Conjecture on the centralized, interest-based, debt-money system

The Usury Conjecture on the centralized, interest-based, debt-money system
Revised June 2, 2022
Thomas H. Greco, Jr.

The Usury Conjecture in a nutshell
The central banking, interest-based, debt money system that is dominant around the world today is neither stable, nor sustainable, nor fair. The creation of money based on bank lending with interest creates an imperative for debt to grow exponentially with the passage of time. That debt-growth imperative drives artificial economic growth as borrowers compete with one another to acquire enough money from the always insufficient pool of money to service their “loans.”

When I first began my intensive inquiry into money, banking, and finance more than 40 years ago, it did not take long for me to discover the essential nature of money, where it comes from and how it is created, allocated, circulated, mismanaged and abused. I was astonished that this system has been allowed to become such a dominant force in the world, that it has wreaked such enormous devastation upon the world, and that it has been allowed to go on for such a long period of time. What has led me to those conclusions has been thoroughly documented in my many books, articles, and web posts.

I have long wondered why there seem to have been no serious attempts to model the monetary system that predominates today throughout the world. Then, in November 2011, I again met up with a well known economist at a conference in Michigan where we were both presenters. In his presentation he reported having conducted such a simulation in which the results showed an equilibrium state being reached. I was dubious about his conclusions but in the context of the conference there was not sufficient opportunity to raise pertinent questions or to discuss them in any depth. I later wrote to him with my questions and asked him to respond to my assertion that some of his underlying assumptions about the system that he used in his simulation might not have been realistic. That was the beginning of my attempts to more fully articulate my “usury conjecture” which over the subsequent years has gone through several revisions. I think my arguments are sufficiently well developed at this point to be useful to others in understanding the system and in designing realistic simulations and mathematical models that are able to reveal its inherent flaws. 

In my critique, I did not say that his model was “wrong,” only that some of the underlying assumptions were unrealistic and his model too limited to adequately describe the system as it presently exists. Here are the points that need to be considered:

Free banking. He stated at the beginning of his presentation that his model was a simulation of the monetary system as it existed during the “free banking” era in the United States around the mid-eighteen hundreds. But we no longer live in that world, money and banking have undergone a great many changes since that time and the free banking model does not describe today’s reality. Among the very significant changes have been:

  1. The centralization of credit allocation power in the hands of a few huge banking companies. During the free banking era, that power was greatly decentralized, there was much more competition among banks and their asset portfolios consisted mainly of loans to businesses in the bank’s own geographic region, and much less in US government bonds or loans to massive diversified corporations which did not exist at that time.
  2. The imposition of forced circulation (by means of legal tender laws) of a unitary national currency under the Federal Reserve System that ultimately decoupled the currency from any objective measure of value (like a fixed weight of gold or silver). During the “free banking” era, each bank issued its own “brand” of bank note denominated in dollars.
  3. The gradual elimination of the redeemability of currency for specie (gold or silver) obliterated the objective measure of value, disconnected the money economy from the real economy, and opened the door for extreme monopolization of credit and the abusive inflation of the currency.

What happens to a bank’s interest income? As I understood his presentation, he made the assumption that the banks spend all of their interest income back into the economy, but that is clearly not the case. While a portion of a bank’s revenues are used to pay employees, and cover other expenses like equipment and facilities, it seems that most of the bank’s interest income is added to capital or re-enters the economy, not as consumption spending but in the form of additional loans or as reserves deposited with the central bank that enable further loans to be made, or as payouts to bank owners who, rather than spending it on consumption, use it themselves to lend it out, adding a secondary layer of debt and interest to the economy which creates a further shortage of money available for debt repayment. All of that requires a further expansion of lending (debt) by the banks to keep the money supply expanding enough to prevent too many defaults and subsequent bankruptcies, unemployment and economic depression.

Savings and investment. What does the bank do with peoples’ savings? In his reported simulation he did not describe the accounting entries that accompany the deposit of peoples’ savings, but savings and investment are two sides of the same coin. A bank, in its role as depository (as opposed to its primary role as “bank of issue”), reallocates surplus money (savings) from those who wish to save to those who need to use it now for capital formation (expansion of production capacity), or to spend on consumer goods when there are lulls in their income streams (consumer finance). The interest banks charge on these loans far exceeds the cost of providing the service and the interest they pay to savers, which creates further imbalances in income and wealth distributions.

Debt repayment. Repayment of principal on loans naturally results in the extinction of that amount of money. As old loans are repaid, new loans must be made to keep the money supply from shrinking which would cause additional defaults and economic stagnation or depression. New loans may or may not be sufficient to compensate and maintain the money supply. There must be both banks that are willing to lend and companies and people that are willing and able to borrower, but when the private sector had taken on as much debt as it can bear, government becomes the “borrower of last resort” in order to maintain or increase the money supply.

The role of a central bank. The central banks in countries around the world may or may not be a nominal part of the government. In the US, the Federal Reserve is an independent entity owned by banking corporations that pursue their own interests. There developed long ago, with the founding of the Bank of England, a collusive arrangement between banking and government. On the government side, the agreement enables perpetual deficit spending; on the banking side, the agreement enables the emergence of a banking cartel that enjoys the privilege of lending the peoples’ own credit back to them and charging interest for it. The advertised role of a central bank is to limit inflation and promote full employment. In actuality, the role of a central bank is to enable inflation sufficient to support government budget deficits while protecting and preserving the bankers’ privilege to milk the productive economy and enlarge their own wealth and political power.

Basis of issue. Besides the need to be free of interest, money needs to be issued on a proper value basis. There have been volumes written about this point, but sound principles of commercial banking have been discarded over the years because the perpetuation of the flawed system requires it, and because those who control the machinery of money use their power to promote their own narrow interests of wealth and power. Thus, some loans that banks make are legitimate while most are not. Banks should create new money to enable the production and sale of goods that are in the market or soon to arrive there. They should not make loans for speculative purposes or to monetize government debts as they commonly do today.[i] Thus, we have a stream of legalized counterfeit that dilutes the purchasing power of all the legitimate money in circulation. This currency inflation leads to price inflation, which amounts to a “hidden tax” that disproportionately harms the middle class who have substantial amounts of savings invested either directly or in pension funds which they do not control, and this “tax” hurts low income people who need to spend the bulk of their income just to survive.  

The economy. Economists and politicians speak about THE economy as if it was a unitary whole, but there are actually many economies depending on geography, social and economic class, and there are the public sector and the private sector. There may be prosperity in some sectors, while others experience recession. Distinction is commonly made between the private and the public sectors, but it is essential to also distinguish between the small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and entrepreneurs on one hand, and the large corporate megaliths on the other. In recent decades, banks have gotten ever larger and their lending has been directed mainly toward central governments and large corporations, while at the same time the productive small and medium sized enterprises that are the backbone of every local economy have been starved of the credit they need to finance their operations. By acting in this way, banks limit or eliminate the risks they take. In the case of lending to central government (by buying its bonds and notes), banks enjoy a guaranteed return with no risk at all. During the pandemic years the bulk of the government stimulus money went to large corporations while many small independent local enterprises were forced to close and were never able to reopen.  

“Cash” held by the banks. It is misleading to say that banks are sitting on a lot of cash instead of lending it out. In fact that “cash” has been lent out to the public sector (government) in the form of treasury bills, notes, and bonds, or to the central bank which holds it as “reserves” and on which the banks receive interest.

It seems obvious that the present global money system contains inherent in it a debt-growth imperative because of the interest burden that is attached to the bank loans that form the basis for money creation. I believe that any model that purports to simulate the actual present system of money and banking must account for most of the banks’ interest income as capital which is then loaned into circulation rather than spent, and if that were the case it would show that there can be no steady state but an endless growth in debt which leads to a general growth imperative and destruction of the Earth’s ecosystem as the real economy tries to expand in step with the overall debt.

That is in fact what the empirical data suggests. Any theory in opposition to the usury conjecture must provide an alternative explanation of why the total debt in the world continues to grow exponentially at a much faster rate than population or any measure of growth in the real economy as is show in the following charts.

Figure 1 the Institute of International Finance

Finally, the inherent inequity of this money system is obvious and is becoming ever more extreme year by year. The increasing inequalities in income and wealth are not natural phenomena; they are artifacts of the system architecture and management. Mere policy tweaks cannot correct that. The creation of money as interest-bearing debt by a banking cartel pumps virtually all of the benefits of productivity increases into the hands of the top level bankers and their minions whom we naively trust to operate the system in the interests of the common good.

History is replete with stories of collapse of societies resulting from exponential growth of debts and extreme inequalities among the various classes of the population. I have long argued that since money throughout the world today is based on “loans” made by banks at interest, the exponential growth of debt is required to keep the system going. That is clearly evident in the empirical evidence of debt growth over the past 100 years and especially since 1971 when the last link of money to anything real was severed by President Nixon’s announcement that US dollars would no longer be redeemable for gold.

The global economy is a complex adaptive system, but collapse happens when a system fails to adapt in an effective way. Jubilee or periodic resets have been common throughout history going back before Biblical times. Economist Michael Hudson has had much to say about that in his various writings especially in his latest book, …and forgive them their debts. I have been arguing for “debt triage” and a long term shift of finance away from interest-bearing debt financing and toward shared equity financing but because of the concentration of political power in the hands of the vested interests, and the general lack of understanding and concern about the flaws inherent in the present systems, I see little likelihood that these measures will be implemented soon enough to avoid major economic disruptions and social and political turmoil. That leaves innovative private and community initiatives as the most promising approach to avoiding disaster.

I have taken a functional approach to solving the problems that are inherent in the present global system of money, banking and finance and argued that the supposed functions of money–means of exchange, savings medium, and measure of value, are in fact distinct from one another and must be handled separately. The exchange function which is the essential function of money should be mediated by the use of interest-free short-term credit allocated to producers in proportion to the value of goods and services they are ready, willing and able to sell within the next few months. The savings function and the investment function on the other hand are two sides of the same coin and should be provided for by the temporary assignment of savers’ funds to enterprises that will use them to expand production capacity or develop new capacity. The measure of value function needs to be provided by defining a standard of value and unit of account in terms of some selected commodity or group of commodities.

I have described numerous alternative structures and systems to serve the exchange function, including private, local, and community currencies, and decentralized credit clearing networks of buyers and sellers and have cited numerous historical and current examples. I’ve also described financing arrangements that shift the capital formation function from interest-based debt financing to shared-equity financing that shares both the rewards and the risks of business investment. These are the actions that I am confident have the ability to prevent the disastrous collapse of civilization while enabling the necessary transformation to a peaceful, healthy and regenerative society. All of this has been thoroughly articulated in my books, The End of Money and the Future of Civilization, Money: Understanding and Creating Alternatives to Legal Tender (excerpted here), and in my various articles, presentations, and interviews which can be accessed at https://beyondmoney.net/.

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