Wall Street owns the country. That was the opening line of a fiery speech by populist leader Mary Ellen Lease in 1890. Franklin Roosevelt said it again in a letter to Colonel House in 1933, and Sen. Dick Durbin was still saying it in 2009. “The banks – hard to believe in a time when we’re facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created – are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill,” Durbin said in an interview. “And they frankly own the place.”
Wall Street banks triggered a credit crisis in 2008-09 that wiped out over $19 trillion in household wealth, turned some 10 million families out of their homes, and cost almost 9 million jobs in the US alone; yet the banks were bailed out without penalty, while defrauded homebuyers were left without recourse or compensation. The banks made a killing on interest rate swaps with cities and states across the country, after a compliant and accommodating Federal Reserve dropped interest rates nearly to zero. Attempts to renegotiate these deals have failed.
In Los Angeles, the City Council was forced to reduce the city’s budget by 19 percent following the banking crisis, slashing essential services, while Wall Street has not budged on the $4.9 million it claims annually from the city on its swaps. Wall Street banks are now collecting more from Los Angeles just in fees than it has available to fix its ailing roads.
Local governments have been in bondage to Wall Street ever since the 19th century, despite multiple efforts to rein them in. Regulation has not worked. To break free, we need to divest our public funds from these banks and move them into our own publicly-owned banks.
L.A. Asks the Voters
Some cities and states have already moved forward with feasibility studies and business plans for forming their own banks. But the city of Los Angeles faces a barrier to entry that other cities don’t have. In 1913, the same year the Federal Reserve was formed to backstop the private banking industry, the city amended its charter to state that it had all the powers of a municipal corporation, “with the provision added that the city shall not engage in any purely commercial or industrial enterprise not now engaged in, except on the approval of the majority of electors voting thereon at an election.”
Under this provision, voter approval would apparently not be necessary for a city-owned bank that limited itself to taking the city’s deposits and refinancing municipal bonds as they came due, since that sort of bank would not be a “purely commercial or industrial enterprise” but would simply be a public utility that made more efficient use of public funds. But voter approval would evidently be required to allow the city to explore how public banks can benefit local economic development, rather than just finance public projects.