Tackling The Infrastructure And Unemployment Crises: The “American System” Solution

The American president dealing with an economic situation most closely resembling that today, however, was Franklin D. Roosevelt. America’s 32nd president resolved massive unemployment and infrastructure problems by greatly expanding the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) set up by his predecessor Herbert Hoover. The RFC was a remarkable publicly-owned credit machine that allowed the government to finance the New Deal and World War II without turning to Congress or the taxpayers for appropriations. The RFC was not called an infrastructure bank and was not even a bank, but it served the same basic functions. It was continually enlarged and modified by Pres. Roosevelt to meet the crisis of the times until it became America’s largest corporation and the world’s largest financial organization. Its semi-independent status let it work quickly, allowing New Deal agencies to be financed as the need arose. According to Encyclopedia.com:

[T]he RFC—by far the most influential of New Deal agencies—was an institution designed to save capitalism from the ravages of the Great Depression. Through the RFC, Roosevelt and the New Deal handed over $10 billion to tens of thousands of private businesses, keeping them afloat when they would otherwise have gone under …. 

A similar arrangement could save local economies from the ravages of the global shutdowns today.

The Banking Acts of 1932 provided the RFC with capital stock of $500 million and the authority to extend credit up to $1.5 billion (subsequently increased several times). The initial capital came from a stock sale to the U.S. Treasury. With those modest resources, from 1932 to 1957 the RFC loaned or invested more than $40 billion. A small part of this came from its initial capitalization. The rest was financed with bonds sold to the Treasury, some of which were then sold to the public. The RFC ended up borrowing a total of $51.3 billion from the Treasury and $3.1 billion from the public.

Thus the Treasury was the lender, not the borrower, in this arrangement. As the self-funding loans were repaid, so were the bonds that were sold to the Treasury, leaving the RFC with a net profit. The RFC was the lender for thousands of infrastructure and small business projects that revitalized the economy, and these loans produced a total net income of over $690 million on the RFC’s “normal” lending functions (omitting such things as extraordinary grants for wartime). The RFC financed roads, bridges, dams, post offices, universities, electrical power, mortgages, farms, and much more–all while generating income for the government.

HR 6422 proposes to mimic this feat. The National Infrastructure Bank of 2020 can rebuild crumbling infrastructure across America, pushing up long-term growth, not only without driving up taxes or the federal debt, but without hyperinflating the money supply or generating financial asset bubbles. The NIB has growing support across the country from labor leaders, elected officials, and grassroots organizations. It can generate real wealth in the form of upgraded infrastructure and increased employment as well as federal and local taxes and GDP, paying for itself several times over without additional outlays from the federal government. With official unemployment at nearly double what it was a year ago and an economic crisis unlike the U.S. has seen in nearly a century, the NIB can trigger the sort of “economic miracle” the country desperately needs.  

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