by Matt Stannard
Q: Phil Murphy campaigned for New Jersey Governor –and won– on a public banking platform. What’s a public bank?
A public bank is a state- or city- (or other government entity) owned bank. The bank typically takes as its deposits the revenue or holdings of that government entity (such as taxes). The bank then lends to various entities and can do so at low- or no-interest, in order to finance public goods.
The only significant public bank in the U.S. now is the Bank of North Dakota. BND is one of the most powerful and solvent banks in the country, and it makes low-interest loans to the state for infrastructure; to municipalities to build schools and repair things; to farmers; to students (it supports student loans and offers good refinancing options); and to small businesses. BND supports community banks in North Dakota, and because of it, the state enjoys the healthiest small banking sector in the country.
There are public banks, or strong public banking sectors overall, in other countries like Germany and Costa Rica. Germany’s public bank has helped finance that country’s cutting-edge post-carbon energy transition.
A public bank has been a central piece of Murphy’s economic agenda, rather than just some idea he’s casually mentioned. He’s a believer, which puts him in a small list of good company that includes Bernie Sanders.
Q: Why do public banks have such potential?
Banks, whether private or public, have the power to create value through fractional reserve lending. Although it’s somewhat misleading to straight up say banks “create money out of nothing,” they sort of do that: If I borrow $10,000 from my local bank, it’s not like they go downstairs to their vault and bring out $10K in cash to give me. They essentially create $10K in credit. I pay them back with interest. That’s how they make money.
The theory behind public banking is: “Banks have a lot of power to generate public value. That power should be treated as a public utility, not just a private business.” Private banks have to make profits to satisfy their shareholders. Public banks make a (small) profit too, but that surplus can be paid back into the state or city coffers, essentially creating dividends for residents, all the while lending in the public interest.
Public banks keep communities financially healthy in hard times because their economic benefits run “countercyclical,” lending at low interest when private banks won’t lend even at high interest.
Public banks also help break state and local governments’ dependence on risky Wall Street finance. Had a public bank been in place in New Jersey starting around twenty five years ago, it could have helped the state save over a billion dollars on pension fund fees alone.
Q: But I thought Murphy had been a Goldman Sachs executive. Wouldn’t Goldman Sachs hate public banks?
I wrote about this question a year ago when Murphy announced his candidacy, in an article entitled “In Praise of Class Traitors.” I interviewed my former colleague at the Public Banking Institute, Ellen Brown, who speculated that a person from the financial sector might be exactly the kind of politician with the credibility to push a public bank. “Our biggest hurdle has always been that legislators don’t understand how banking works,” she told me. I also interviewed socialist economist Rick Wolff, who said Murphy probably “knows what shenanigans go on in big banks and investment houses like Goldman,” but that “as a Democrat, he cannot attack pensioners the way other, especially Republican governors have,” and that a public bank would, among other things, be “less politically costly” than letting pension plans burn.
Q: Why should we trust Murphy? Once a thief, always a thief, right?
I’ve already seen many of my friends on the left express skepticism about Murphy based on his banking pedigree. I get it. That skepticism is healthy. But Murphy is Governor of New Jersey now whether we think he should be or not, so let’s see what happens. He wouldn’t be the first person of privilege to facilitate egalitarian economic ideas. He wouldn’t even be the thousandth.
Q: How hard will it be for Murphy to actually establish a public bank in New Jersey?
There will certainly be a lot of hurdles to overcome. The legal hurdles will likely revolve around New Jersey’s constitutional prescription against the state “lending of credit.” But overcoming that hurdle will be relatively easy, Such provisions didn’t prevent North Dakota from running its own banks, and several other states (and Puerto Rico) have quasi-public infrastructure banks that offer loans and credit assistance to public and private sponsors of construction projects. After all, in the status quo, Governments deposit their revenues and invest their capital in private banks. Those banks, in turn, lend money–but they aren’t “lending the state’s credit.” The banks lend their own credit, which is distinct from the “credit of the state.” This distinction may seem complicated, but it’s good enough for the courts. Throughout the 19th century and in reference to the Bank of North Dakota in the 20th century, courts have agreed with states’ efforts to have public banks lend money instead of private banks.
The larger hurdle will be political–and this is where the public banking movement often flounders. Opposition from the private banking sector will be fierce. Wall Street will lie, steal, and cheat to discourage public officials from opening public banks.
What will be needed is a mass movement of people in New Jersey willing to write letters, make phone calls, and physically show up to demonstrations in favor of Murphy’s efforts (assuming Murphy goes forward with a public bank). It’s not like there will be many counter-demonstrators. But public officials are risk-averse, and there will be rich people in suits telling them not to do it.
In other words: Public banking is a good idea, but being a good idea is not enough. It’s not even enough, in an age of Wall Street hegemony, to be the Governor of New Jersey and push for a public bank. You need lots and lots of ordinary citizens willing to keep issuing the demand loudly and clearly.
Q: Where else are people pushing for public banks?
All over the place! City governments, spurred on by local economic justice coalitions, are exploring public banking all across California. Santa Fe, New Mexico is in its third stage of policy study on implementing a public bank. There are vocal movements and sympathetic public officials in Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine, and at least a dozen other states. Whether they succeed or not will depend on whether they have behind them large coalitions of people willing to push past the resistance they’ll encounter from big banking interests.
Q: Will a public bank usher in an era of egalitarian, socially responsible, progressive economic policies?
This is a good question–and the answer is another reason why public banking requires a mass movement in order to work effectively. Public banks in and of themselves are not a guarantee of good economic policy, and are especially not a guarantee of economic justice. For all the positive aspects of the Bank of North Dakota (disaster relief, support for farming, building schools and community centers on the cheap, supporting local business development), that conservative state has used its socialist bank to do things like finance fracking and a toxic oil economy. The BND even financed police repression at Standing Rock last year through its emergency financing program–probably the most depressing and hurtful use of public financing we’ve seen in a long, long time.
The lesson here is that public banks are tools, and whether a tool is used to build good or evil things depends on who wields it. But in the hands of a democratic government committed to transparency, ecological sustainability, and socioeconomic justice, a public bank can do incredible good.
Matt Stannard is a legal and policy advocate for sustainable farming and cooperative economics. He previously served on the board of directors of the Public Banking Institute and was policy director for Commonomics USA.