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The recent exchange on the nature of banking among Paul Krugman, Scott Fullwiler, Steve Keen and others has been feisty and instructive. But some readers might be left wondering whether the whole exercise is too wonky by half. The anatomical details of banking systems might be juicy and interesting for the academics who like to dissect those systems and dig deep into their entrails. But how significant are the details for practical questions of public policy? They are in fact very significant.
The functional details of institutions matter, and without understanding how the banking system actually works it is impossible to distinguish causes from effects in our attempts to guide that system toward the service of the public good. Conventional textbook models of banking and monetary systems are responsible for widespread commitment to the money multiplier and loanable funds models of the relationship between central bank reserves and the volume of bank lending. Relying on these models, some prominent economists and pundits have been telling us throughout our recent economic crisis that we can address the problems of a stagnating economy and persistently high unemployment with the reserve management tools of monetary policy alone.
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