John Steele Gordon: Why our system is prone to panics





[Mr. Gordon is the author of "An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power" (HarperCollins, 2004).]

We are now in the midst of a major financial panic. This is not a unique occurrence in American history. Indeed, we've had one roughly every 20 years: in 1819, 1836, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907, 1929, 1987 and now 2008. Many of these marked the beginning of an extended period of economic depression.

How could the richest and most productive economy the world has ever known have a financial system so prone to periodic and catastrophic break down? One answer is the baleful influence of Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson, to be sure, was a genius and fully deserves his place on Mt. Rushmore. But he was also a quintessential intellectual who was often insulated from the real world. He hated commerce, he hated speculators, he hated the grubby business of getting and spending (except his own spending, of course, which eventually bankrupted him). Most of all, he hated banks, the symbol for him of concentrated economic power. Because he was the founder of an enduring political movement, his influence has been strongly felt to the present day.

Consider central banking. A central bank's most important jobs are to guard the money supply -- regulating the economy thereby -- and to act as a lender of last resort to regular banks in times of financial distress. Central banks are, by their nature, very large and powerful institutions. They need to be to be effective.

Jefferson's chief political rival, Alexander Hamilton, had grown up almost literally in a counting house, in the West Indian island of St. Croix, managing the place by the time he was in his middle teens. He had a profound and practical understanding of markets and how they work, an understanding that Jefferson, born a landed aristocrat who lived off the labor of slaves, utterly lacked.

Hamilton wanted to establish a central bank modeled on the Bank of England. The government would own 20% of the stock, have two seats on the board, and the right to inspect the books at any time. But, like the Bank of England then, it would otherwise be owned by its stockholders.

To Jefferson, who may not have understood the concept of central banking, Hamilton's idea was what today might be called "a giveaway to the rich." He fought it tooth and nail, but Hamilton won the battle and the Bank of the United States was established in 1792. It was a big success and its stockholders did very well. It also provided the country with a regular money supply with its own banknotes, and a coherent, disciplined banking system.

But as the Federalists lost power and the Jeffersonians became the dominant party, the bank's charter was not renewed in 1811. The near-disaster of the War of 1812 caused President James Madison to realize the virtues of a central bank and a second bank was established in 1816. But President Andrew Jackson, a Jeffersonian to his core, killed it and the country had no central bank for the next 73 years.

We paid a heavy price for the Jeffersonian aversion to central banking. Without a central bank there was no way to inject liquidity into the banking system to stem a panic. As a result, the panics of the 19th century were far worse here than in Europe and precipitated longer and deeper depressions. In 1907, J.P. Morgan, probably the most powerful private banker who ever lived, acted as the central bank to end the panic that year....

[HNN Editor: Gordon goes on to say that Jeffersoni9an aversion to banks led to their being regulated by the states. He ends by hoping that this latest emergency will result "finally, a unified banking system of large, diversified, well-capitalized banking institutions that are under the control of a unified and coherent regulatory system free of undue political influence."]

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