The Federal Reserve System, Its History and Function, Part 1

This is a special post in two parts on the U.S. Federal Reserve System. It is in response to the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Part 2 will be published on November 6, and the next regularly scheduled reply on the crisis of the dollar system will be published on November 20.

The last weeks in the United States have seen a sudden surge of anti-Wall Street demonstrations that have targeted the policy of the U.S. government of “bailing out banks and not people.” The occupation movement has since spread first across the United States and now the world.

The followers of Ron Paul, a right-wing Republican congressman and presidential primary candidate from Texas, have appeared at some of the occupations and raised the slogan “End the Fed.” Paul believes that not only “the Fed” but democracy in any form should be abolished. Paul’s followers blame the Federal Reserve System for virtually all the problems faced by the lower 99 percent—high unemployment, the high cost of living, mass indebtedness, “underwater” homes, and foreclosures.

But what actually is the Fed, or to use its formal name, the Federal Reserve System? Is it some kind of privately owned bank, or is it a government agency? What is the difference between the Federal Reserve Board and a Federal Reserve bank? Is the Fed really to blame for the problems of the lower 99 percent of the population? And if the answer is yes, why would such an evil institution have been established in the first place?

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The Bloody Rise of the Dollar System

The current dollar-centered international monetary system is the result of a century of competition among the capitalist nations, especially the imperialist countries. The competition that led to the current dollar system was not only economic but also political and not least military. The military competition took the form of not one but two of the bloodiest wars in world history.

Relationship between economic, political and military competition

Although there is not a one-to-one relationship between political-military and economic competition among capitalist countries, political-military competition is ultimately rooted in economic competition. So in examining competition among capitalist countries, we first have to look at economic competition. What are the economic laws that govern competition and trade among different capitalist countries?

First, let’s review the laws that do not govern international trade under the capitalist system. Using the quantity theory of money and, at least implicitly, Say’s Law, the (bourgeois) economists picture competition among capitalist nations as a friendly game in which everybody emerges the winner. Within each country, according to the economists, “full employment” reigns.

According to the modern marginalist economists, under perfect competition each “factor of production”—land represented by landowners, capital represented by capitalists, and labor represented by workers—gets back in rent on land, interest on capital, and the wages of labor precisely the value each creates. Our economists claim that as long as “perfect competition” exists, no “factor of production” can exploit another factor of production.

Similarly in world trade, every country benefits by “free trade.” According to the theory of comparative advantage, each country concentrates its production on what it is comparatively best at, not necessarily absolutely best at. According to this theory, even if a given country has a below-average level of labor productivity in every branch of production, there will always be some branch where it will enjoy a comparative advantage enabling it to prevail in international competition.

Therefore, if we are to believe the economists, countries that are deficient in modern productive forces benefit from international trade just as much as the countries that monopolize the world’s most advanced productive forces. The result, the economists claim, is the most efficient system of global production that the prevailing technical and natural conditions of production allow.

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