THE LOWER MANHATTAN SKYLINE AS UNITED STATES IMPERIALISM

By Alex McCauley

The largest known stockpile of gold currently lies in a vault resting on the bedrock of lower Manhattan.[1] Above this vault stands an office building housing a privately-owned business that collects modest fees for handling the billions of dollars’ worth of gold, but itself holds trillions of dollars of assets on its balance sheet.[2]

Two blocks away stands the tallest building in the western hemisphere, One World Trade Center.[3] Everything about the global financial center in lower Manhattan is grand, even incomprehensibly so, because it represents primacy over the wealth of an entire globe that is now wealthier than it ever has been. To understand that primacy, we must understand the modern financial system, which allows the United States to dominate the world by forcing the world to accept its government debt as currency. That monetization of government debt occurs physically in lower Manhattan, and the shape of its 20th-century skyline reflects that reality: the buildings closer to the New York Federal Reserve are taller, so that the skyline appears to have been affected by the gravity of that powerful institution. To be more poetic, we could say that the skyline of lower Manhattan is shaped by the gravity of money, and the U.S. currency system which holds much of the world in its orbit also exerts a visible pull on the physical space of lower Manhattan.

"If you owe the bank a hundred thousand dollars, the bank owns you. If you owe the bank a hundred million dollars, you own the bank."

            —American Proverb[4]

There are two basic components to this ability of the United States to dominate the rest of the world: monetary policy and the military. The agents of monetary policy, primarily the Federal Reserve and secondarily the banks, are centered in lower Manhattan. The building which houses the stockpile of gold is the New York branch of the Federal Reserve, whose job it is to control the money supply as instructed by the Federal Open Market Committee in Washington, D.C. Due to the Fed’s crucial role in the financial system, it partly defines the center of the financial district – indeed, the skyline of lower Manhattan is tallest near the Federal Reserve because for much of the twentieth century, financial firms required proximity to the Fed in order to operate (as well as proximity to the New York Stock Exchange and the Clearing House, both within two blocks of the Fed).[5] In this way, even though we cannot see the Federal Reserve in the skyline directly, we can see it indirectly, as it explains the massing of tall buildings in Figure 2, from 1945: the shape of the lower Manhattan skyline is defined by this extreme height near the Federal Reserve, and declining height as office space further from the Fed is less prized.

The effect of the Fed on the shape of the skyline is most visible before the Information Technology Revolution began, probably because secure and instantaneous long-distance communication largely eliminated the need for proximity to institutions like the Federal Reserve. We can see this un-massing effect in Figure 3. Notice that the skyline looks significantly less centralized circa 2010.

The gold housed in the Federal Reserve vault does not belong to the U.S. government or to the Federal Reserve System (because the Fed does not own a stockpile of gold and the U.S. government stores its own stockpile at Fort Knox and West Point), but to foreign governments and international entities. The Fed is merely the custodian of the largest concentration of gold on the planet.[6] Consequently, although the U.S. possession of much of the world’s supply of gold does not actually represent a position of legal superiority over those countries and international entities whose gold it stores, it evokes a powerful symbol of empire: the U.S., as the predominant military and economic power in the world, is the custodian of the gold belonging to the protectorate states in its empire. To properly interpret the lower Manhattan skyline as a symbol, we must remember that it is literally constructed on top of and around the gold reserves of the protectorate nations of the U.S. Recognizing that the skyline is built on this collected wealth from its empire, we cannot escape the conclusion that the physically imposing skyline is a symbol of the imperial status of the United States. Reinterpreting other literature on the subject of the skyline [Note: I will add links to my peers’ essays here] in light of this imperialist symbolism, can greatly inform our understanding of the nature and personality of the U.S. as an imperial power.


Not everyone is happy with the Federal Reserve’s function as custodian of the gold reserves of so many sovereign nations, probably because those dissatisfied refuse to see themselves as military protectorates of the U.S. For example, there is a movement in Switzerland to force the Swiss National Bank to repatriate its gold reserves which are currently stored by the Fed, complete with a referendum scheduled for November 30, 2014.[7] Listening to the arguments posed in the Nationalrat (Swiss parliament) by the MP Lukas Reimann, the movement seeks to return the gold physically to Switzerland because it seeks to remove the Franc’s reliance on the stability of any non-Swiss institution, including the U.S. with its superpower status.[8] That resistance to the Fed’s custodial capacity over gold by a fiercely independent-minded nation like Switzerland underscores the symbolic importance of the Fed being entrusted with the physical gold of so much of the world; symbols are important because they can shape how nations relate to one another, and to some members of the Nationalrat, this symbolic reliance on the U.S. through the Federal Reserve is simply unacceptable for the national interests (and implicitly, the national pride) of Switzerland. The fact that much of the rest of the world (including the rest of Switzerland) accepts this arrangement speaks to the world’s acceptance of the United States as preeminent, and the function of the New York Fed as the world’s gold depository makes it a symbolically important, although economically trivial, agent of this preeminence.

Whereas gold storage is merely symbolic, U.S. monetary policy and the financial system are practically important in asserting U.S. dominance over its empire. The primary tool of monetary policy is open market operations: the New York Fed buys or sells securities on the open market, which is to say from or to the private-sector financial intermediaries located in the buildings that are built up around it on lower Manhattan.[9] Spatially, these transactions start at the core of the skyline, in the Federal Reserve Building, and involve the financial intermediaries which reside in the visible skyline. Those transactions have economic effects which ultimately radiate out to everywhere U.S. dollars play a key role in exchange, which is effectively nearly all of the globe.


The point of these monetary operations is to increase or decrease the supply of U.S. currency in circulation, which the Federal Reserve System can do at will. The power to control the money supply stems from the nature of U.S. currency: it is essentially U.S. government debt which the Federal Reserve has the authority to monetize. David Graeber explains this mechanism as well as I have ever seen it explained: the Federal Reserve lends money to the U.S. government, and is granted legal monopoly power over the printing of money. The money it prints is a liability on the Fed’s balance sheet (essentially a debt owed by the Fed), which means it is backed only by the assets of the Fed itself, which consist primarily of trillions of dollars of U.S. Treasury debt.[10] Thus, U.S. currency is an asset which is at its core actually U.S. Treasury debt, which is significant because U.S. currency is the arguably the most universal medium of exchange in the world. As of November 12, 2014, the much-lower yield of the German Bund versus the U.S. Treasury Bond (this price discrepancy has existed for a while) indicates that investors have more faith in Germany’s ability to service its debts than the U.S.’ ability to do the same.[11] Yet U.S. debt remains a bedrock of the global economy in a way that German debt simply is not: even though Germany is considered more likely pay its debts, U.S. debt, through the proxy of U.S. dollars, is considered so fundamental that it is the only acceptable medium of exchange for crude oil. This convention makes the acquisition of U.S. dollars the only way to acquire the asset which literally fuels the world.[12] Accepting a proxy for U.S. government debt as the medium of exchange for economic necessities such as oil means agreeing that a promise from the U.S. government is as valuable as crude oil. To accept that promise is to accept the primacy of the U.S. government.


Because monetary policy physically takes place in the lower Manhattan skyline itself and in the Federal Reserve at its core, the skyline is not only a symbol of U.S. imperial status; it houses agents for enforcing that status and exacting national income from it. In a single institution, the U.S. both gathers the gold reserves of its protectorate states and monetizes the debt that its imperial status forces the rest of the world to accept as the universal medium of exchange. Selling that debt to the rest of the world acts as a sort of seigniorage: the U.S. government can partly fund its activities by printing money (by borrowing money, because its debt is money), and the rest of the world will accept that money, charging very low interest rates. This interpretation of debt as seigniorage made possible by imperial power is validated by the evidence that the most generous purchasers of U.S. government debt are essentially military protectorates, with the exception of China.[13]

In describing the United States’ financial primacy, we must not forget the man behind the curtain – or in this case, the man behind the gun, the largest and most powerful military in the world. Here I defer completely to David Graeber to support this portion of my argument, because I cannot possibly argue in this short essay format the thesis that he spends four hundred pages of text (plus a hundred pages of notes and bibliography) explaining.[14] His argument goes something like this: government debt is, and largely always has been, military debt. Federal debt finances military dominion; money is really federal debt; therefore, by endorsing U.S. money we are endorsing the reliability of the U.S. military. A military which does not control anything is not creditworthy; paying for a military that does not buy one control is a waste of money, so one should not lend money to the owner of that military. It is no surprise, in this interpretation, that we gladly accept U.S. dollars as a primary medium of exchange. The U.S. military does, in fact, control the world, largely through its ability to strike with deadly force literally anywhere on the planet at a few hours’ notice, with aerial bombardment.[15] Never before has a military had that power, and it is likely that the power of aerial bombardment is what has allowed the U.S. to form and maintain an empire that is truly global in scale.


In this military-debt interpretation of the U.S. monetary system (which I find compelling) we find that the skyline of lower Manhattan owes its very existence to U.S. military supremacy. It is only U.S. military supremacy that has allowed the Fed to serve as the custodian of the gold reserves of so many sovereign nations. It is only U.S. military supremacy that has allowed the Fed to monetize U.S. government debt, knowing that the resulting money will be accepted as the world’s universal medium of exchange. It is only U.S. military supremacy that has granted financial dominion over much of the globe to the companies occupying the office buildings that were constructed for their proximity to the Federal Reserve and other institutions.

The skyline is shaped and massed as it is because it was built up around the New York Federal Reserve, so even though we cannot see the Federal Reserve building itself from Brooklyn Heights, we can see how its gravity shaped the entire lower Manhattan skyline. The gold in the vault on the bedrock, the office building above it that controls the money supply, and the entire financial center that surrounds it, including the tallest building in the United States, erected as a symbol of national defiance of our military enemies[16] – these together form a breathtaking vista, best viewed from the serene Promenade in the residential Brooklyn Heights, that represents the center of our empire.

[1] http://www.newyorkfed.org/aboutthefed/goldvault.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/13/nyregion/one-world-trade-center-is-ruled-tallest-building-in-us.html

[4] I stole this inscription from the first chapter of David Graeber’s Debt: the First 5,000 Years. It did an excellent job of introducing his key ideas about how the U.S. uses debt imperialistically, and I think it also does an excellent job of introducing my discussion of the same.

[5] Armstrong and Hoyt, Decentralization in New York City, 125.

[6] http://www.newyorkfed.org/aboutthefed/goldvault.html

[7] Information from the political initiative’s own website, http://gold-initiative.ch/

[8] Ibid.

[9] www.newyorkfed.org, op. cit.

[10] David Graeber: Debt: the First 5,00 Years.

[11] Yield quotes retrieved from and available at www.bloomberg.com

[12] David Graeber, op. cit.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/13/nyregion/one-world-trade-center-is-ruled-tallest-building-in-us.html