“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."
Imagine that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was a corporation, with its shares owned by the nation's major pharmaceutical companies. How would you feel about the regulation of medications? Whose interests would this corporation be serving? Or suppose that major oil companies appointed a small committee to periodically announce the price of a barrel of crude in the United States. How would that impact you at the gasoline pump?
Such hypotheticals would strike the majority of Americans as completely absurd, but it's exactly how our banking system operates.
The Federal Reserve is literally owned by the nation's commercial banks, with a rotation of the regional Reserve Bank presidents constituting 5 of the 12 voting members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), the body that sets targets for certain interest rates. The other 7 members of the FOMC are the D.C.-based Board of Governors—which includes the Fed chairperson, currently Janet Yellen—and are nominated by the President. The Fed serves its owners and patrons—the big banks and the federal government, while the rest of Americans get left behind.
The Federal Reserve has the ability to create legal tender through mere bookkeeping operations. By the simple act of buying, for example, $10 million worth of bonds, the Federal Reserve literally creates $10 million worth of money and adds it into the system. The seller's account goes up by $10 million once the Fed's monies are received. Nobody's account gets debited for $10 million. This is a tremendous amount of power for an institution to possess, and yet the Fed shrouds itself in secrecy and is accountable to no one.
In December 2008, Congress summoned then-Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to provide information concerning the enormous "emergency liquidity" programs that had begun during the financial crisis earlier that fall—all the new acronyms Wall Street analysts would come to know, such as TAF (Term Auction Facility), PDCF (Primary Dealer Credit Facility), and TSLF (Term Securities Lending Facility). Bernanke did not need Congress' permission to conduct those programs, but even worse, he refused to disclose the recipients of the $1.2 trillion in short-term loans that we now know were being administered behind closed doors. This staggering secret loan payouts doesn't even include hundreds of billions in "swaps" to foreign central banks. Bernanke's rationale was that if the Fed announced the names of the big banks being rescued, then depositors and investors would flee, thus defeating the whole purpose of the rescue operations.
Americans then and now were lectured that the trillions in loans and asset purchases were all for their own good and eventual benefit, to resuscitate the credit markets and bolster home values. Yet the truth remains—it is Wall Street that benefits from the Fed at the expense of Main Street. To make things worse, in October 2008—one month after Lehman Brothers collapsed and precipitated the worst of the financial crisis—the Fed began exercising a new policy of paying interest on reserves. The Fed began to subsidize and directly pay the nation's bankers not to make loans to their customers and keep their reserves parked on deposit with the Fed.
Today, Fed officials can give all sorts of technical explanations for that policy—a move that remains in effect today. Yet your average depositor received no such direct subsidy and likely still receives almost no interest on short term deposits.
It's unfortunately in keeping with Fed policies that disproportionately favor wealth—like low interest rates, a policy benefiting those that have the most assets and first access to borrowing, not for people who have little or no capital.
No matter how much the Fed protests to the contrary, it shows little regard for the average Joe or Jane. Consider the types of assets it bought as the Fed's balance sheet exploded from $905 billion in the beginning of September 2008 to $2.2 trillion by the end of the year. (The Fed currently holds some $4.5 trillion in total assets, after the various rounds of "quantitative easing.")
Rather than bailing out struggling homeowners who were underwater, with higher mortgage debt than their homes were worth, the Fed instead loaded up on U.S. Treasuries (its own IOUs) and mortgage-backed securities—the very same "toxic assets" that reflected the horrible judgment of many investment bankers and the ratings agencies that signed off on the shenanigans. It is no coincidence that the federal government was able to run trillion-dollar-plus deficits for four consecutive years with no concern from the financial markets; everyone knows the Fed stands in the wings, willing to "print" new legal tender and sop up Uncle Sam's IOUs (which eventually come due, as we are now seeing in Greece).
When it comes to money, politicians are often seen as the least trustworthy. But in the debate over income and wealth inequality, few people point the finger at the biggest benefactor of the wheeler dealer crony capitalists: the Federal Reserve. The nation's central bank, which regulates all other banks and has the power to create money simply by buying assets, should be under the utmost scrutiny. Yet, perversely, members of Congress have to fight an uphill battle just to audit the Fed. We do not want to politicize monetary policy (as our detractors allege), but rather simply shine a very bright light on this unaccountable and unchecked (and thus entirely un-American) power. By doing this, we may finally be able to rein it in.