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5. The Trade Cycle and Credit Expansion: The Economic Consequences of Cheap Money (1946)

I. The Unpopularity of Interest

One of the characteristic features of this age of wars and destruction is the general attack launched by all governments and pressure groups against the rights of creditors. The first act of the Bolshevik Government was to abolish loans and payment of interest altogether. The most popular of the slogans that swept the Nazis into power was Brechung der Zinsknechtschaft, abolition of interest-slavery. The debtor countries are intent upon expropriating the claims of foreign creditors by various devices, the most efficient of which is foreign exchange control. Their economic nationalism aims at brushing away an alleged return to colonialism. They pretend to wage a new war of independence against the foreign exploiters as they venture to call those who provided them with the capital required for the improvement of their economic conditions. As the foremost creditor nation today is the United States, this struggle is virtually directed against the American people. Only the old usages of diplomatic reticence make it advisable for the economic nationalists to name the devil they are fighting not the Yankees, but “Wall Street.”

“Wall Street” is no less the target at which the monetary authorities of this country are directing their blows when embarking upon an “easy money” policy. It is generally assumed that measures designed to lower the rate of interest, below the height at which the unhampered market would fix it, are extremely beneficial to the immense majority at the expense of a small minority of capitalists and hardboiled moneylenders. It is tacitly implied that the creditors are the idle rich while the debtors are the industrious poor, However, this belief is atavistic and utterly misjudges contemporary conditions.

In the days of Solon, Athens's wise legislator, in the time of ancient Rome's agrarian laws, in the Middle Ages and even for some centuries later, one was by and large right in identifying the creditors with the rich and the debtors with the poor. It is quite different in our age of bonds and debentures, of savings banks, of life insurance and social security. The proprietary classes are the owners of big plants and farms, of common stock, of urban real estate and, as such, they are very often debtors. The people of more modest income are bondholders, owners of saving deposits and insurance policies and beneficiaries of social security. As such, they are creditors. Their interests are impaired by endeavors to lower the rate of interest and the national currency's purchasing power.

It is true that the masses do not think of themselves as creditors and thus sympathize with the noncreditor policies. However, this ignorance does not alter the fact that the immense majority of the nation are to be classified as creditors and that these people, in approving of an “easy money” policy, unwittingly hurt their own material interests. It merely explodes the Marxian fable that a social class never errs in recognizing its particular class interests and always acts in accordance with these interests.

The modern champions of the “easy money” policy take pride in calling themselves unorthodox and slander their adversaries as orthodox, old-fashioned and reactionary. One of the most eloquent spokesmen of what is called functional finance, Professor Abba Lerner, pretends that in judging fiscal measures he and his friends resort to what “is known as the method of science as opposed to scholasticism.” The truth is that Lord Keynes, Professor Alvin H. Hansen and Professor Lerner, in their passionate denunciation of interest, are guided by the essence of Medieval Scholasticism's economic doctrine, the disapprobation of interest. While emphatically asserting that a return to the nineteenth century's economic policies is out of the question, they are zealously advocating a revival of the methods of the Dark Ages and of the orthodoxy of old canons.