My education about money began with my high school trip to Washington, D.C., where I learned that the U.S. Mint stamps our coins and the Bureau of Engraving prints big sheets of our government’s money. But who places the order for printing those dollars? Who tells them how many to print?

If you look more closely at George Washington in your own wallet, you’ll find the explanation. You’ll also learn why there’s never enough. Your dollar bill is labeled a Federal Reserve Note. Who, or what, is the Federal Reserve?

The Fed is the U.S. central bank in charge of our monetary policy. Created by the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, the Fed is actually our third central bank; our currency was the subject of much debate until the 20th century. The Federal Reserve System now works hand in glove with the U.S. Treasury. Think of the Federal Reserve as our nation’s banker. It’s where we, the people, represented by our Treasury, deposit our tax payments to the government, and where the Treasury writes out checks to pay for government business. Simple enough.


SIDEBAR: What does the U.S. Treasury do?

The Department of the Treasury manages federal finances, currency and coins; collects monies due to the U.S. and pays all its bills; manages Government accounts and the public debt; supervises national banks and thrift institutions; advises on domestic and international trade and tax, financial, monetary and economic policy; enforces Federal finance and tax laws; investigates  and prosecutes tax evaders, counterfeiters and forgers.

Our Treasury hasn’t always worked in tandem with a central bank. Presidents Jefferson and Jackson believed a private central bank was dangerous and worked to end them. Abraham Lincoln wanted a central bank, but issued Greenbacks directly from the Treasury to win the Civil war. Greenbackers lost later elections to supporters of the Federal Reserve Act. John F. Kennedy was the last President to issue a currency directly from the Treasury – in the form of silver certificates.

The Board of the Federal Reserve, five Governors in all, is appointed by the President for terms of 14 years. Its current chairman is Ben Bernanke. But the Federal Reserve is far more than one bank, or one board. It is a system of 12 regional banks, all privately owned, overseeing other private banks. This system serves as your bank’s banker, too.

The most powerful regional bank is the New York Federal Reserve. When the 2008 bailout was proposed late in George W. Bush’s term of office, Tim Geithner at the New York Fed sat next to then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson when those deals were cut to save Wall Street banks. Now Geithner has moved over one seat and taken Paulson’s place, while the man at his side, William Dudley, took Geithner’s place. All three men worked first with Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street investment bank often nicknamed “Government Sachs.” They call this “continuity.”

(Editor’s note: In 2008, Stephen Friedman, former chairman of Goldman Sachs, was given a waiver to chair the board of the New York Fed without giving up his job at another investment company. He was forced to resign when he made $3 million on his Goldman shares with a single insider phone call.)

The Federal Reserve describes itself as “an independent entity within the government, having both public purposes and private aspects.” It is supposed to keep bank meltdowns from happening, setting the interest rate for all the nation’s banks. It also makes money available to banks at a discount when needed. Despite its official-sounding name, the Fed’s purpose is to create a profit for its banks’ shareholders. They are in business, not government, interested in profit, not public service.

In 1997, the largest shareholders of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York were Chase Manhattan Bank, Citibank and Morgan Guaranty Trust Company. Citibank belongs to the Rockefellers, and the Morgan fortune has run Wall Street since the turn of the 20th century. J.P. Morgan is the gentleman caricatured in your Monopoly game with a mustache and monocle. Monopoly gaming continues on Wall Street. In 2000 Morgan and Chase merged into mega-big Morgan Chase. In 2008, Citibank was bought by Bank of America, growing even larger, and in 2009, another Morgan arm, Morgan Stanley, bought up Smith Barney. These are all global investment brokerage banks.

That word global matters. The New York Fed’s board works to deliver profits – most often in developing countries, not here. Yet the New York Fed enjoys a particularly close relationship with the U.S. Treasury. By contrast, the government is not a shareholder in the Federal Reserve System. The system’s complexities mask an insider setup for enhancing private fortunes. At the end of 2010, the Fed’s 12 reserve banks held $2.4 trillion in government debt, mortgage-backed securities and other investments, according to a combined financial statement it published in March 2011.



The Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury print money only after the Fed first conducts “open market operations.” This means it auctions government “securities,” a broad name for Treasury bills, notes and bonds. These are all names for “loans” of varying lengths of time, but unlike loans, bonds can be traded worldwide, a global commodity.

The Fed’s own website acknowledges the New York Fed plays “a unique role.” All the “open market operations” – the buying and selling of U.S. government securities to influence money and credit conditions in the global economy – are carried out by the New York Fed. When the U.S. Treasury decides to “intervene in the foreign exchange market, it is the New York Fed that carries out the intervention.” (Foreign exchange markets and the dollar’s devaluation was the subject of the previous article in this Vermont Woman series.)

The New York Fed conducts daily conference calls with “primary dealers” (think Goldman Sachs), after which they call in the Treasury in Washington. Then, depending on who wins the daily 10-minute auction, the Fed credits the accounts of its commercial member banks, and our Treasury agrees to pay them interest on the bonds, or money they have lent us.

Your dollar bills are literally “bills,” created as “credit.” The back side of credit is debt. Our dollars come into circulation through a global credit card minus the plastic.

“Purchasing bonds” is a fancy way of saying those “primary dealers” just arranged to broker our debt, sold to the highest bidder; in the old days, Goldman Sachs might have received a certificate of the “bond,” or an agreement that “binds” the debtor. (The word “bondage,” a form of indentured slavery, grows from the same root.) So our Treasury is held by its bonds, purchased by the highest bidder and then traded around the world. Only then can dollars be printed as “notes.” A note is another word for debt.

Am I sure about this? When I first learned about this currency sleight of hand, I didn’t believe it could be true. I would fact-check and discover in what way it was wrong. But all the economists I read, and the Federal Reserve itself, confirmed that we live with this indebted system of money creation. Money created out of debt can only be paid by expanding the economy in future, further exploiting Mother Nature on a global scale, and laboring ever more to pay back the principal, plus interest added on.

No wonder there is never “enough.”


My initial disbelief found credibility in a similar reaction from a Texas Representative elected in 1929, the year of the Great Crash. For 40 years, Wright Patman chaired the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Banking and Currency, and for 20 of those years, he sought to repeal the Federal Reserve System. The Congressional Record of the House of Representatives (pages 7582-7583) records his September 29, 1941 speech. Compare his plain-spoken words to the mysterious mumblings of Allan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke at the Fed.

When our Federal Government, that has the exclusive power to create money, creates that money and then goes into the open market and borrows it and pays interest for the use of its own money, it occurs to me that that is going too far. I have never yet had anyone who could, through the use of logic and reason, justify the Federal Government borrowing the use of its own money… I am saying to you in all sincerity, and with all the earnestness that I possess, it is absolutely wrong for the Government to issue interest-bearing obligations. It is not only wrong: it is extravagant. It is not only extravagant, it is wasteful. It is absolutely unnecessary… I believe the time will come when people will demand that this be changed. I believe the time will come in this country when they will actually blame you and me and everyone else connected with this Congress for sitting idly by and permitting such an idiotic system to continue. I make that statement after years of study.

All of this feels shocking, but here’s something even more amazing. The money, which our banks loan out, doesn’t actually exist in a vault somewhere, as you might have assumed from the name Federal Reserve. Instead it is created on the accounting books, as a “fiat” currency. Fiat means something like Captain Picard’s command on Star Trek: “Make it so” – although banks possess no holodeck, only the power Congress has given them.

A booklet published by the Chicago Federal Reserve in the1960s, “Modern Money Mechanics,” puts it simply: “The actual process of money creation takes place primarily in banks… Banks do not really pay out loans from the money they receive as deposits. If they did this, no additional money would be created.”

Ellen Brown explains, in her wonderfully readable book Web of Debt, that contrary to popular belief, loans become deposits, rather than the reverse. You might feel like Alice in Wonderland reading this, going through the looking glass where everything is backwards. But the Fed’s own booklet says it too: “Banks can build up deposits by increasing loans… so long as they keep enough currency on hand to redeem whatever amounts the holders of deposits want to convert into currency. This unique attribute of the banking business was discovered many centuries ago. It started with goldsmiths…”

Europeans traded in gold and silver coins, Brown reveals. These were hard to transport and could be stolen unless locked up. So goldsmiths offered safes and provided paper receipts for the stored gold. These eventually came to be traded, easier to handle than cartloads of bullion. Over time, goldsmiths noticed only a few people at any one time came back to get their gold. So they began loaning it out many times over, though it wasn’t theirs, by keeping only a fraction on reserve for those who might come for it. Naturally, they got rich pretty quickly. They also got used to loaning out what wasn’t really there.

Wealthy goldsmiths soon gained legal sanction for their “fractional reserves,” becoming bankers. Bankers gained not only the right to charge interest for their issues of paper receipts for more gold than they had, but eventually a monopoly on issuing national currencies, as first happened in England in 1694.

If you’re wondering why a nation needs to “borrow” its currency, why it can’t just issue the money it needs, you’re not the first. You have, in fact, hit on a long-standing historical argument in the U.S., beginning with the Revolution, Shay’s Rebellion and the abolishment of two central banks. In the shadow of the Great Depression, just 16 years after the Federal Reserve System was installed to prevent banking crashes—unsuccessfully—Wright Patman called out a Governor of the Federal Reserve Board, Marinner Eccles. He asked him to explain how the Federal Reserve got its money.

“We created it,” Eccles answered.

“Out of what?”

“Out of the right to issue credit money…That is what our money system is. If there were no debts in our money system, there wouldn’t be any money.”

This helps throw light on that debt ceiling argument in Congress. Private fortunes and other central banks lend us “their” money and charge us interest for using our own dollars. Web of Debt author Brownexplains that the federal debt hasn’t been paid off since the presidency of Andrew Jackson nearly two centuries ago. Since the Treasury no longer issues certificates backed by silver or gold or even interest-free greenbacks, our debt is really just another name for our country’s money supply. I hate saying it, but Dick Cheney may have been right when he said the federal debt doesn’t really matter – though surely it matters what we choose to go into hock for, and to whom we are bonded and owe added interest.

SIDEBAR: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has been at the forefront of demanding more accountability from the Federal Reserve. He helped win the recent move to audit the Fed, and thanks to an amendment he added to the recent Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Protection Act, the Fed is now required to be less secretive in its “interventions,” which are handled exclusively by the New York Fed. In April, under the new rule, Sanders discovered they had bailed out the Bank of Libya: a troubling revelation in the face of our military conflict there. He said, “It is incomprehensible to me that while creditworthy small businesses in Vermont and throughout the country could not receive affordable loans, the Federal Reserve was providing tens of billions of dollars in credit to a bank that is substantially owned by the Central Bank of Libya.”


Despite what my high school visit to Washington taught me, most of our currency is never printed; it’s electronically entered in banks’ accounting books. Even post-2008, few Americans understand that the Federal Reserve System is only backed by private accounting numbers and our indebtedness. Vermont’s Senator, Bernie Sanders, has begun to unveil the secrecy of this system, by demanding an audit by the Government Accountability Office; in late July, the GAO found not only the $700 billion bailout we heard about on the news, but behind the scenes what Sanders called “a jaw-breaking $16 trillion in financial assistance to some of the biggest financial institutions and corporations in the world.”

A growing number of reformists on the left and the right hold this present monetary system at least partly responsible for the upward sweep of money to a very privileged clique at the top of that economic pyramid on your dollar bill. With a currency created out of debt to the richest global fortunes, consider that eyeball looking at you as “truth in lending.” Only a pyramid scheme could create a national currency out of everlasting debt and a misnamed façade to give the public false impressions. It’s still hard to believe, I know, so go ahead and do your own fact-checking.

We’ll never know what would have happened if Wall Street had been left to fend for itself in 2008. In history, the wealthiest banks and its patrons have generally been protected by nations. A fascinating recent book, The Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed, brings to life those global central bankers behind events we generally think of as political. It shows how the Great Depression grew out of World War I reparations, negotiated by financial elites in Britain, France, Germany and the U.S. These men knew each other well and often worked together, though more often they each sought to come out as the nation on top.

This biographical account of macroeconomics shows a privileged and exclusive male world where private fortunes finance nations, and where “meltdowns” and failures can bring nations to their knees with resulting violence. Its history is littered with frauds, scandals, and suicides over fortunes lost, and it becomes clear Hitler’s rhetoric could only enter the mainstream of Germany when its middle class had been decimated by punishing payments of debts too high to pay. The cost of the urge to come out “on top” did not accrue to nations’ central bankers, but to their nations’ people, who suffered hardships and the viciousness of hatred and war.

Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke’s tight relationship with Wall Street must help in those daily market operations with “primary dealers,” now grown bigger than ever with taxpayer help. We can’t know, of course, because minutes of meetings at the Fed are still not public. Until recently, Americans paid little attention, put to sleep by the mumbling drone of the Fed’s evasions. There are signs of more Americans waking up – including women with new dollar dreams to tell us about.


For further reading on:

Sanders and the Fed

The Fed’s Profits

The New York Federal Reserve Bank and Open Market Operations

Ellen Brown’s Web of Debt

Wright Patman

Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance

Photos of the Fed