The Founders’ Finance, and Ours

My recent blogging hiatus was caused by a splendid family vacation in Key West, rendered yet more enjoyable by a chance encounter with our dear friends, Nick and Mary Eberstadt. Our temporary abodes were separated by a single block of Duval Street, occupied by a liquor store, a wonderful French bakery, and a raucous transvestite bar. (Mrs. Eberstadt professed to “resent these people. Their nail polish is so much better than mine.”) A good time was had by all.

In an approximation of work, I zipped through Thomas K. McCraw’s The Founders and Finance, a magnificent, just-published book on “How Hamilton, Gallatin, and Other Immigrants Forged a New Economy.” Familiar ground to be sure, but McCraw—arguably the country’s finest business historian—covers it elegantly, judiciously, and with a keen eye for the telling detail. His big detail is the amazing extent to which the nation’s young economy and institutions were shaped by immigrants—Hamilton and Gallatin, but also many others (Robert Morris). The recent arrivals lacked a connection to any particular state; thus, they were predisposed to think on a national, continental scale. And they lacked any deep connection to land and the peculiar institution that in many states went along with it; thus, they were anti-slavery, and they understood the ism in capitalism and its lifeblood, credit. As McCraw acknowledges, you can find non-immigrant Founders with those sensibilities (Gouverneur Morris is a fine example). But the basic point stands, and it’s worth pondering.

McCraw’s Hamilton comes across as the genius that he was. His Jefferson, by contrast, looks like the Joe Biden of his day: a blowhard and false friend of the people who managed to get it wrong on every single question of moment. (McCraw tries to soften the blow: finance, he says, was Hamilton’s strongest suit and Jefferson’s weakest. Well, yes. But then, Jefferson the statesman  fought the Barbary pirates with Hamilton’s Navy, and he bought Louisiana on Hamilton’s constitutional theory and on the credit Hamilton had established.) Beyond that, McCraw’s masterful account reminds one of a few points of current salience:

  • To build a financial system meant building institutions (foremost, the Bank), and that in turn meant constitutional construction. Everyone on all sides eagerly mobilized the “original public meaning” of the Constitution, only to discover that it would carry only so far. Those arguments, moreover, were part of a vituperative, sharply polarized and, over long stretches, closely divided debate. (McCraw records the often razor-thin margins on votes on the Bank, the debt, and internal improvements.) The stuff that we now take for granted and cite, reverently and/or precedentially, as constitutional wisdom easily could have come out the other way. In our current confused debate, it’s good to hold on to all of that at the same time: the Constitution as a lode star; the limits of mere interpretation and the impossibility of a Constitution beyond all politics; and the recognition that the Constitution can survive and, in a real sense, rests on political strife.
  • Hamilton’s Bank of the United States was in a sense the forerunner of the Federal Reserve, but McCraw’s account illustrates how far we’ve come, or rather fallen. For starters, the Bank was mostly a private institution. While it operated under a federal charter, Congress supplied a mere twenty percent of its initial capital. Better yet, Hamilton’s initial plan provided that the Bank could lend no more than $50,000 to the federal government. That did not quite hold: in an ingenious swap, the Bank eventually started with $2 million of the bonds with which Hamilton restructured the desolate debt markets. Still, the basic impulse is unmistakable: the Founders wanted the Bank (and by extension the economy) to be run by creditors—including, remarkably, foreign creditors who for long stretches sat on the Bank’s Board. Put differently, they wanted the Bank to perform its useful functions—allow money transfers across the continent, supply liquidity, check state banks through what we now call open market transactions—without having it doing what politically controlled institutions will do: wreck the currency, and finance Congress’s profligate consumption with cheap money. All things considered, that sounds like a good plan.
  • McCraw supplies much-needed context and notes several little-known features of Hamilton’s famous—and famously successful—plan to assume the states’ debts on top of the feds’ and to restructure both. First, Hamilton did an inventory of all the outstanding state and federal debts—no small undertaking, since no one had any idea what junk had been floated here, there, and yonder in the course of the war. (Hamilton came up with about $29 million in debt and $11.4 million in unpaid interest for the feds, and something like $79 for all state and federal debts at par. The actual number may have been closer to $74 million, against less than $2 million in federal revenue at the time.) Hamilton then segregated the foreign debt (about $12 million) and managed to restructure it promptly. And over time, his scheme allowed the country not only to service the debt but to reduce its burden on the economy and the budget. In 1790, Hamilton was staring at a debt-to-revenue ratio of 46:1. By 1794, he had cut it to 15:1; by 1800, the end of the Federalist era, it was something like 8.6. How come? Enhanced federal tax capacity (revenues more than tripled from 1790 to 1794); monstrous chunks of the federal budget (over 80 percent) devoted to debt payments; and above all stupendous economic growth, unleashed by a set of institutions that allowed the country to get to work. Hamilton bet on that, as did the foreign investors. Their huge gamble proved right.

It’s a different world now, in many ways. Still, just as a thought experiment, do the Hamiltonian thing. First, add up all the public debts—not just the “headline” debt of $16.4 trillion but also intergovernmental debts, agency debts (like Fannie and Freddie), unfunded obligations (which we can always renege on but then, no one forced the great Hamilton to redeem the bad debts at par), and state debts of various kinds: you end up north of $90 trillion, as against less than $3 trillion in federal revenues. (The exact numbers don’t matter; the order of magnitude does.) Not quite Hamilton land yet, but we’re getting there.

Federal receipts are now a much bigger piece of the economy than they were back when, and enhanced federal tax capacity—beyond nickeling and diming “billionaires”—isn’t on the agenda. Little of the cash is available for servicing the debt (forget reducing it): some 40 million Americans insist on their inalienable right to play bingo and visit doctors on someone else’s nickel from age 65 to eternity, and keeping them in shoes consumes more than 40 percent of the budget. That leaves growth as the only means of debt management. Where, pray tell, is it going to come from? And who is going to bet on it?

Maybe we should hand the country over to immigrants, or the IMF.

Michael S. Greve

Michael S. Greve is a professor at George Mason University School of Law. From 2000 to August, 2012, Professor Greve was the John G. Searle Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he remains a visiting scholar. His most recent book isy The Upside-Down Constitution (Harvard University Press, 2012).

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Comments

  1. z9z99 says

    One concept that runs throughout Mr. Greve’s post is that of predictability. Predictability is the reason why we have written laws, constitutions, contracts, stare decisis, etc. etc. Predictability is essential to the rational expectation that the future can be made better than the present. This same idea forms the basis of credit, and ultimately, of capitalism. It is much easier to have faith in the future if we have some reason, beyond hope, to expect that it will contain something worth striving for.

    Predictability is also central to an unalterable truth. The economy is healthy so long as enough people expect the future to be better than the present. It is an uncomfortable fact, to the point that it can scarcely be spoken, that the value of something is only an opinion. Tulip bulbs, and Facebook stock are ultimately only worth what people think they are worth, and this is largely dependent on what people think they will be worth in the future. Debt is the same way. We can go on borrowing forever if someone will lend us money forever. However, the price of tulips, and corporate stock, and debt and equity markets collapse upon a fairly uniform occurrence. It is not necessarily when debt-to-revenue ratios reach a certain level, or when short term bond yields bear some relation to those of long term instruments. Bubbles burst, systems collapse and economies tank when enough people realize that they are going to get screwed. The predictability that makes economic growth possible is that which makes risk of being screwed something measurable and manageable. Right now our political class is destroying predictability with abandon.

    We are all going to get screwed.

  2. libertarian jerry says

    The American people get the government they vote for. If a voting majority of Americans believe,either rightly or wrongly,that the proper role and function of government is to solve social/economic problems then that voting majority will vote for politicians that bring them the Welfare State. The problem is that morals and outlooks have changed over the last 50 years or so. This change is caused by the onset of Cultural Marxism and Cultural Marxist methods that have been implemented by Academia,Public Education,the Main Stream Media,Hollywood and TV. That method is changing the culture to accept a collectivist system. What it boils down to is that the days of small decentralized government,individual responsibility,self reliance,the nuclear family, private charity and volunteerism is,in most cases,a thing of the past. That when a voting majority believe when they are forced to pay directly or indirectly large sums of their earnings to the government that they then expect something in return. This is why in large geographical areas where large segments of the population are either poor,lower middle class,the political middle class or people who in general are dependent on the state for their livelihood will then send to Washington or to their state capitols politicians who are going to, as they say, ” bring home the bacon.” In order to transfer wealth from the productive Economic Class to the unproductive Political Class certain economic events had to take place. These economic events that had to be implemented were the creation of the Federal Reserve Central Bank,the legal tender laws,fiat currency,a graduated progressive income tax,almost unlimited debt ceilings plus the political setup that we call the New Deal and the Great Society. The way I see it is America is bankrupt,both morally and economically. That it will be very difficult politically to raise taxes,except on the so called minority “rich.” That the National Debt is unsustainable. That the only thing left is money printing,which will cause massive inflation.In the end,the future of America is the morphing into an economic fascist police state. Sorry to say,that that scenario is occurring as we speak.

  3. says

    Hamilton is my guy. Orphaned at 11 or 13, running an import-export business on St. Croix in his teens, sent to college in NY by the local worthies, organized a company of artillery, chief of staff to Washington in his twenties. It goes on and on.

    I like to call Hamiltonian finance “Dutch finance” since the Dutch invented the funded national debt in their fight for independence against the Spanish.

    “French finance” is finance run by the debtors: John Law, assignats, Ben Bernanke, QE.

  4. Tom Perkins says

    to z9z99

    “Predictability is essential to the rational expectation that the future can be made better than the present.”

    And an aspect of that is that when an obviously improper decision has been made by the courts, that we are better off and the more likely so sooner, when that mistake is abandoned. Justice Clarence Thomas’s view of stare decisis is the proper one.

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