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Return to old-fashioned entrepreneurship

Armstrong Williams | 6/7/2012, 2:40 p.m.
At Thanksgiving, embracing the winds of change and increasing our faith

Have you ever stopped to think about how the breakup of AT&T revolutionized the information and communications technology (ICT) market? Most people probably haven't, but in 1984, the end of the regulated monopoly ushered in an era of unprecedented competition and innovation.

For those who are not familiar, AT&T broke up in 1984 after it decided to end a long, drawn-out lawsuit brought on by the U.S. Department of Justice because AT&T was too much of a monopoly. AT&T had to either spin off its 22 local operating companies into seven Bell holding companies while keeping control of their equipment manufacturing and research and development operations or relinquish control of equipment manufacturing and research and development while retaining control of their local operations. They chose the former, but they never seemed to shake off their reputation as a monopoly, even though the government made the company split off their assets.

Still think "revolutionized" is too strong a characterization? Google the AT&T breakup on your iPad or use your mobile phone to ask a friend. In the process, you will utilize three products whose existence is in large part a direct result of the divestiture.

While the ICT market flourishes, the same cannot be said for today's financial services system. In the aftermath of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it is credit delivery products and innovation that will stimulate economic growth. However, marketplace advances aren't keeping pace with innovation. This isn't about products like subprime mortgages--those will forever be a cautionary tale about greed. In fairness, the overwhelming majority of Americans had nothing to do with that fiasco, but nonetheless continue to pay an enormous price.

In a recent speech to address the nation's slow recovery, John Williams, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, cited tight credit as a byproduct of the housing bust and emphasized what we all know--that for many, credit is more difficult to find. Moreover, according to Williams, "Tight credit is among the factors that work to reduced desired spending by households, businesses and government below the level consistent with full employment."

To better understand this stagnation, consider how banks were the foundation of the financial regulatory system dating back to the National Bank Act of 1864. In 1861, when a national banking system was in the works, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase recommended the banking system be chartered by the federal government. The National Bank of 1864 took Chase's model and established a federal-state "dual banking system" that outlasted the Civil War and still survives today.

The language of this act created a federal office in the Treasury Department called the comptroller of the currency. The comptroller required each newly chartered national bank to give government bonds to the Treasury "in an amount equal to $30,000 or one-third of its capital, whichever was greater." However, after this requirement was revoked in 1913, the role of federally chartered national banks administered by the office of the comptroller has continued to be significant in the national economy. The act spurred the creation of powerful nationwide banks such as Citibank, Bank of America and thousands of local banks.