Money as a Constitutional Project with Christine Desan

The Money on the Left Editorial Collective presents a classic episode from our archives along with a previously unavailable transcript & graphic art. In this episode, we are joined by Christine Desan, Leo Goettlieb professor of law at Harvard Law School to discuss her excellent book, Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism. Desan argues that money is a constitutional project, countering the dubious “commodity” theory common to contemporary economic and legal orthodoxies. Desan develops her constitutional theory of money through rigorous historical examinations of money’s evolution, from medieval Anglo-Saxon communities to early-modern England to the American Revolution and beyond.

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Transcript

Scott Ferguson: Christine Desan, welcome to Money on the Left.

Christine Desan: Thank you.

Scott Ferguson: It’s great to have you here. Can you tell us about your scholarly training and intellectual influences? Do you situate your work within a particular school or tradition within legal studies?

Christine Desan: I think I do situate my work within a particular school. I’m probably most closely affiliated with critical legal studies (CLS). For me, that affiliation began when I was in law school. I took a course called “Death of the Law,” which was taught by Owen Fiss and Tony Kronman at Yale Law School. It explored the difference between liberal approaches to law and the critiques of liberalism that were developing in the late 1980s. The seminar was formative for me because, on the one hand, Fiss and Kronman were deeply invested in the liberal project that was a rights based defense of progressive social change–and I was sympathetic to that project. At the same time, the critiques that they wanted to understand were more persuasive to me. Those critiques were mainly based in critical legal studies, and to a lesser extent, in some allied approaches, such as the normative work of Robert Cover.

The CLS critiques really evoked for me an older influence, which was social theory and cultural anthropology. I had studied that work as an undergraduate when I majored in religion and sociology of religion. I would say, going way back to that moment when everyone was taking the cultural turn in the earlier 1980s, I was thinking through that work, which was itself critical. This is work that taught us the complexity of reason and knowledge–the kind of layered nature of those conclusions and practices, or the way they depend on different strata of learning, contexts, assumptions, and experiences. Later in law school, when I stumbled into this course, it seemed to me that critical legal approaches were in some ways developing those earlier insights and applying them in the legal field. So that set of approaches was very influential for me.

Later, I started doing historical work. When I did historical work, I found the early institutional historians of the 20th century really fascinating. I thought their work was very important. This was a set of historians whose work in many ways had been set aside in the late 20th century as people were more interested in, and following themselves, the cultural turn–they we’re doing cultural and social history. I was finding that with earlier progressives, people like Beard and later people like Jackson Turner Main and Jack Green, who were fascinated by the importance of institutions and the way practices within institutions changed, their work illuminated power structures in a way that I wanted to understand. The institutional histories of the 20th century became a place for me to learn and explore power structures. People in the 80s and 90s were also doing a lot of interesting work about ideological history. And so, for me, the practice of authority within governance structures became a focal point. I wanted to be able to use both institutional and ideological histories to understand this practice of authority.

William Saas: Thank you. I wanted to ask, given the narrative of your intellectual history and the fact that you sort of arrive at an interest in authority structures and the role of institutions, it’s not so surprising that you end up at money. But it probably is a little bit surprising, I’m guessing. Was it a straight line from that interest in institutions to money, or what brought you to the question of money?

Christine Desan: It was not at all a straight line. I think I spent a lot of my life avoiding money. That is to say, I spent a lot of my life–and I think I’m not alone in this, I’m in very good company–avoiding the economy. I was someone who really thought that the economy and commercial matters were not as important as other human drivers of experience and existence. I was more interested in other aspects and was kind of emphatically avoiding economic and monetary matters. In some ways, I think, this is a disciplinary instinct. Many of us went to law school or went to history graduate school in order to avoid going into economics, or going into some other field that was focused on commerce, trade, or finance. In the early work that I did, I remember skipping the references to money. I was doing historical work on early colonial legislatures. There, I kept tripping over these references to money. And like many historians and legal scholars, I kept skipping them because it seemed like a technical detour, and one that I didn’t really understand. I also didn’t completely appreciate that they were spending so much time arguing over this technical detour, so I kept skipping it.

Belatedly, I came to the recognition that legislators, commentators, and lay people who are arguing over power and authority and making claims–all of the things I talked about when we try to understand how law works–they were always talking about money. Money was all over the records that I was looking at. I realized I had to confront and face it and that, in fact, it would be the way into the market for me. When I spoke about property and how critical scholars want to understand property not as a kind of one off concept that you either have control of or you don’t, but as some kind of complicated, negotiated phenomenon, I wanted to do the same thing with the market as a whole. Instead of assuming that it was just a natural entity or something that was somehow clear, universal, and rational, I wanted to understand it. After having avoided money for several years, I realized that money was actually the way into the market. If I could understand the way money worked, then I would basically be understanding the medium for the market. It seemed to me that maybe money was the institution that would allow me to understand the market as a legal project and to take a critical approach to the market itself.

William Saas: Was there one moment, text, or set of ideas you encountered that really made it most clear to you, or was it more of a gradual realization?

Christine Desan: Yeah, there was an arresting moment. I did all this work about early America while avoiding money but immersing myself in the discourse and the way people were speaking about governance. Then, about a year later, I started looking at the famous late 18th century debates between Hamilton and Madison. Here, I realized that the whole discourse of governance had changed, or was changing, and was dramatically different from the way that people had been talking 100 years later. The grounds of their debate and the change was monetary. The way that people were talking about the market was dramatically different. That was the moment where it struck me that I had to understand what money was as an institution. I really desperately wanted to understand what had changed and why the debate was so different between the early and late 18th century. And just to get to the punch line, it turned out that they were basically debating, in my view, the transition to capitalism. Hamilton and Madison were right on the cusp of a new approach to money and the monetary as a mode of governing. By contrast, their peers in the early part of the century had been talking about money in a completely different way. They’d been working towards a different form of governance around money–that is, money as this medium was creating for them a different kind of governance experience than it would be for Madison and Hamilton. So it was very arresting seeing the difference in the character of their discussions about money.

William Saas: While it was arresting, how did it feel, given the common experience of a lot of people having studiously avoided money for so long, coming to the realization that, “Oh, no, this might be the key to what I want to do?” How did that feel and what was the next step that got you doing what you wanted to be doing?

Christine Desan: It’s such a great question. It felt like falling into a black hole. It felt really scary. It was frightening because I really did not understand their debate. And I understood that I didn’t understand their debate. It has been a series of black holes ever since. I spent probably four or five years trying to understand the early American transformation. After that time, I thought, I really can’t understand what money is. And so, it was another cliff that I fell off and I went even further back to try to understand what money was in the English experience. I really felt like I couldn’t understand what the colonists were actually doing. I wanted to understand where they got their ideas from. I had figured out some things about money and had more reference points. I had a compass by then, which was a little bit of a comfort, but the compass was taking me further back. So yeah, there were a series of cliffs that I fell off. But, on the other hand, I was so fascinated and became more and more convinced that these were extremely important debates and that people like me had been ignoring them for years. At the same time, other people who I wanted to understand, like Madison, Hamilton, and their predecessors, had not been avoiding them. They’d actually been focusing on monetary matters.

Just to leap forward, I think that’s also part of a historical transition. I think we’ve learned to ignore money and that that’s an important part of our current modernity. We’ve learned to ignore how it actually operates. We worry about it, we obsess over it as a thing, but we don’t try to get inside of it and understand it. Whereas, in earlier generations, people did actually try to manage, understand, recreate, and reimagine money more than we do. So all those people who had been immersing themselves in money and money creation, they were kind of an invitation to me. In trying to understand money, they were at least an inspiration that I should try to retrace their steps and figure out what they were arguing about.

Maximilian Seijo: So let’s dig into it. In your book, Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism, you do just that. You argue that the 17th century sees a revolution in money’s design that obscures its underlying social structures, or institutional and constitutional power. I am wondering if you could sketch that history for our listeners and explain why it’s so important to discern?

Christine Desan: Yeah, so the book really does try to tell the story of this great transformation. It argues, basically, that money can be designed in different ways, that communities have designed it in different ways, and that politics and social life change with those changes in design. In a nutshell, at the end of the 17th century, and in the 18th century, the British improvised a series of changes in the way their money worked that put private investors in charge of money design and that change had huge ramifications. On the one hand, it broke through old constraints on the amount of money in circulation. At the same time, it elevated the rights of creditors in new ways. And that really restructured governance and the economy.

Just to dive in and clarify why we could understand this as lawyers and historians, money, it turns out, really is a contract. It’s a kind of credit contract. And contracts for credit, for things owed, can be made in different ways. The reason money can be designed in different ways is that you can make an agreement to pay in different ways and with different conditions and characteristics. And changing that kind of monetary contract is what communities do when they’re redesigning money. To get really specific, what the book does is take a trip back in time to understand early kinds of money as a contract and then compare them to the new modern design. The early design, the design that’s kind of iconic and that we all think we understand, is commodity money, or the silver penny. I thought I really needed to understand what the silver penny is because, according to economists, it’s just a thing. It’s a slug of metal that has value because it’s silver. Intuitively, that seems so appealing, but we’ve not asked whether that’s really what a coin is. In fact, when I dove into it, it turns out that is not the way coin works. The fact that it contains silver was only one of its characteristics and not the one that made it operate particularly as money. Maybe I should just tell a story about how silver pennies got going. This story, I hope, will make it clear about how money operates, and then we can play with the story and make it modern.

The old story goes something like this: there are communities in which everyone’s contributing. That’s how they survive as communities. We have labor that everyone contributes to the center and, let’s say, everyone gives a day of labor every month. At a certain point, the community faces some kind of emergency where they can’t just rely on the routine contributions of the ten or so people who happen to be on call that day. Instead, they have to enlist more people to work that day to repair a dam that breaks or repel enemy invaders. And so, they enlist all those people. When the enemy’s repulsed or the emergency is over, the stakeholders for the community give those people who worked early before their time of contribution, who contributed their labor before it was actually due, a token or an IOU. This token or IOU says that we recognize the next time we come around asking for your contribution, you’ve actually contributed early and you can just give back this token. It will represent your contribution and we will accept it as such. That kind of IOU is now a unit that holds value that everyone recognizes, which is the value of the tax contribution given early. One more twist makes it money, which is if the stakeholder will accept that token back from anyone, then the people who contributed their labor early can use it and trade with each other. It represents a certain amount of value, which is the tax contribution. Everyone is willing to take it because they can use it themselves to pay off their taxes.

This story, which I’ve told before, and for people who’ve read the book, they’ll recognize it as the stakeholder story, explains money as an IOU given from the center to people who have contributed their own labor early. And they’ll also see that, if you have these kinds of tokens and you allow them to travel between individuals, then people can use the token as a medium of exchange. In the medieval world, pennies functioned in that way. The question then becomes, why would you make this token or IOU out of silver? It turns out there were many reasons. In a primitive and sort of rough world where there’s not a lot of administrative capacity, to make money out of silver was durable. You don’t have to worry about it falling apart while people are holding it, which is something that would make the people who had contributed early very unhappy if you gave them a token that then fell apart, such as one made out of wood. It was also hard to counterfeit. For people who had the silver, it wasn’t easy to refine or to mint, and only the authorities at the center who could control the mints might have that capacity in order to control the number of tokens out there. And finally, you actually had created a token that contained collateral. People had something with value that they could trust more than they might if you just gave them a written promise.

When we actually think about how money came about, or the incentives for a public to make money and for people to hold and pass around money, we sort of flip the story of the penny. Instead of the penny existing because it is silver, we have silver acting as collateral for a money that actually comes about first for a kind of credit agreement with people. If you think about that kind of money design, it makes sense of many things, like the control of medieval sovereigns of the mint and their claim over money. It also makes sense of conditions of the market. The market was a difficult and not very liquid place in which money was hard to come by because silver was hard to come by. We can also understand other things. For example, and this book tells this story at more length, the mints had this very interesting capacity in which they’d actually charge people for money. The king of the sovereigns could set up a system in which they are actually taking silver for people and creating coin for them. You could, in other words, buy money at the mint for all the kinds of exchange you wanted. You could buy coin for private purposes as well as buy the kind of coin you needed to pay your tax obligation, because increasingly kings were going to tax in coin and not in kind or in labor.

We could talk more if you’re interested about this old world kind of money, but the point is that it was a very carefully structured system of political obligation in which sovereigns had converted in kind political obligation into tokens that were made in a material that was durable and hard to counterfeit and provided people with collateral, and even allowed them to buy more money at the mint for their own private use. It was a very interesting, sophisticated system. I’ll add one other thing: sovereigns also supported this system by enforcing deals made in money insofar as they agreed with those deals. Common law, or the law of contract, property, and torts, were forms of public enforcement made in money. The early English common law only enforced contracts that were monetary. The early Roman law enforced contracts that were monetary. So you could pay off a debt only in coin–not in silver. An interesting part of this is that sovereigns are actually writing their own systems for law and order into their agreement to enforce obligations for people. I could go on about that, but it’s worth noting that the law we think of as kind of existing on its own terms is actually written in the enforcement of money. So as money penetrates society, that is the channel that sovereigns are using to determine which things they’re going to enforce and therefore write their own system of order into the social world.

Maxximilian Seijo: This is such an interesting story because in your book, you then tell the story of how the public institutional construction of money gets reinvented in a way that eschews its public origins towards private commerce origins. I am wondering if you could talk about the specific moment in which that reinvention happens and how it skews production in favor of the profit motive as opposed to broader public social processes?

Christine Desan: This is the critical moment, in fact, and now that we have an example of the way money works as a contract, we can see that it could be made of anything. We’ve talked about why societies in early worlds might make it out of silver, but really there’s no reason that money would have to be made out of silver. Many different communities have made money out of many different materials, as you know, such as with shells, paper, wooden sticks, and all sorts of things. What the English do, as one of these series of experiments, is decide to make money out of the promises of investors. The catalyst for this new monetary adventure is war. In the 1690s, the British were fighting against the French, as they often were in those days, and the government was very short on funds. The silver currency was going through one of its usual periods of disarray. Often, silver coin, which seems so stable to us, is actually a really hard medium to keep in circulation because it wears down and people begin to hoard or export it. And so, the British were experiencing all these problems in their silver money supply at the end of the 17th century for various reasons.

Then, the British government decides to experiment. It agrees with a set of wealthy investors to take their promises. It invites them to lend to the government 1.5 million pounds and it will pay it back over a long period of time. The kicker or innovation is that the government agrees to take the 1.5 million pounds from the investors in written promises to pay–in banknotes. And those banknotes promised the bearer silver. So instead of the government needing to have silver, the wealthy investors would have the silver. They make the contract, the bankers hand over the 1.5 million pounds, mostly in banknotes, the government spends the banknotes, and then at some point in the next years, it starts taking back the banknotes in taxes. If you think about it, the government really has to take back the banknotes because it spent them. It has to stand behind them and recognize them as valuable just as it paid people. It will accept the written promises of the bank back in taxes, but once the government does that, it has set up the same kind of credit issue and credit redemption that it set up with the very first tokens, and in turn, with coin. It has set up a loop of credit in which it’s issuing a unit de facto and taking back a unit. In other words, it’s created money without using silver or gold.

The striking thing here is it’s not clear the British understood exactly what they were doing. People had theorized different bits and pieces of it. But what’s not clear is if they realized that if they set up such a system, then nobody really needed to cash the banknotes, because the banknotes held as much value as the government would give for them as long as the government was taxing, was a serious, viable government, and people had to pay their taxes in something. They might as well pay it in paper as in silver. There was no need to go to the bank to cash the money. So this is an amazing moment where we see this innovation, which is de facto the government creating credit money out of paper through the intermediary of a group of investors in a way that will liberate the government to spend much more paper into circulation than the amount of silver coin that is in existence. The other thing that’s striking about this moment is that there’s no reason you actually need the investors in the middle of the relationship between the government, its taxpayers, and its citizens. In fact, at the same time that the government is borrowing from the Bank of England, it’s also experimenting with just direct issue bills, where it spends English money into circulation and taxes it back. With both of these things, whether you spend the government’s promises into circulation and tax them back, or you spend the bank’s promises into circulation and tax them back, the government’s basically supporting and creating money that depends on its own credit loop.

Yet, the system that takes off, for many different reasons, is the bank structured system, perhaps in part because the government finds it useful to assimilate and channel the legitimacy of the investors who nevertheless are holding a silver reserve, and perhaps also because the investors are a politically powerful group who find this to be a really lucrative profit making opportunity. And so, over the 18th century, the English basically started developing this relationship with this group of investors who are the Bank of England. The Bank of England is the first really robust national bank that issues what becomes the everyday currency, although it takes a long time. At first, there are only large denomination bills, but over time, the Bank of England will be issuing the money that becomes the English paper sterling. And there are many governance changes we could talk about that are wrapped up in this innovation. For example, the government is for the first time delegating its public power, or its sovereign monopoly over money creation, to investors who will make decisions about when to issue money. Those investors will also have the incentive to police taxation, so they’ll be pressing the government to tax in a disciplined way in order to get repaid. It’s the bank investors who will now profit from this funding technique that allows them to issue many paper promises on a much smaller silver reserve. Anyway, what we’ve done is see that the government, working with wealthy investors, have created an intermediary, a set of creditors, who will now intermediate the relationship between the government and taxpayers.

Scott Ferguson: In your book, you triangulate this revolution in money’s design, this story of political economy, between, on the one hand, an emerging liberal philosophy by the likes of John Locke, probably Newton, and others, and on the other hand, with a specifically legal story centered around this case of mixed money. I am wondering if you could talk about those two poles of this story?

Christine Desan: John Locke’s intervention into this moment of experimentation exposes in a really valuable way the changing philosophical bases of money, the market, and the economy. That is to say, he shows us how the old way of making money and the new way of making money are based on and perpetuate very different ways of thinking about the market and the economy. To leap to John Locke in particular, what he articulates and captures about the new method is that it’s based on the notion that individuals determining their own profit will be, in his view, the best agents for the economy and are the way to understand the economy. That is, we should understand the economy as an aggregation of individuals acting for their own profit. The reason that he comes to encapsulate this view is that he understands money–when you go back and look at his work–as something that people all converge upon for their own interests. Let me just connect that to the new monetary form and then we could talk more about Locke and the specifics about the way he tells the story.

Now, if you think about the new institutions, the device that is supposed to run, this new money making machine, is based on an individual incentive to profit. In particular, the investors have the incentive to lend to the government for their own profit. By calculating the amount that they’ll benefit, they’ll determine how much to lend to the government. So instead of thinking about money as something that is a public medium which the sovereign is controlling, we’re now thinking about money as a medium in which the device that’s calibrating the supply will be the incentive of investors to create money when it’s beneficial to them. This is a very unusual way of thinking about money, or thinking about individual profit, because, as you know, in the medieval world, usury, or making money for profit and making profit on money, was considered a vice and a sin. Greed was a sin. It was the office of the church that tried to suppress human motivation for greed and self serving profit. 

By contrast, and what seems to me so important in terms of understanding the governance aspects of this, what the British are doing is they’re institutionalizing the motive for profit and individual self interest at the heart of a public project, which is money making, and they’re understanding that incentive as therefore beneficent. Instead of identifying self interest and the drive to self interest as a sin or as a problem, they’re identifying it as a benefit. You can also see this in the era more generally. Another kind of monetary move that they make that’s very closely related to this is they’re creating circulating public debt. They’re convincing people to lend to the government for their own profit. And so, they begin to issue public bonds. And the way public bonds work is that anyone who lends to the government will be creating a public good, because they’re lending to the government, but they’ll also be doing that for their own profit, because they’ll get interest on the public bond. Now, that’s before sovereigns had borrowed from big financiers, but they hadn’t tried to popularize the incentive to act for your own interest. And they hadn’t identified that as something that would actually be beneficial to the public. So they’re kind of identifying public good and self interest.

This is all to get back to Locke, which is to say, he understands self interest and the drive to individual profit as something that can be beneficent and can act as a driver in the aggregate of good things. That’s how he understands money in the economy. It’s a way of thinking about the market as private decision making that, when practiced collectively, will lead to good outcomes. And part of what’s fascinating to me is that this new theory about the way the market works really emanates from these institutional experiments as well as other influences that allowed us to get to the institutional experiments in the first place. But the institutions, if you see what I’m saying, are actually creating practices that invite theories that really change the way we think about profit or change the way that early modern thinkers considered profit and greed. It rehabilitates them, if you will, or habilitates them for the first time. By contrast, in the earlier world where we had commodity money circulating, there’s no group of private individuals who have a controlling interest and whose interests are themselves driving the system. Instead, we have the sovereign and public officials tasked with making determinations that are for the good of the whole.

I don’t want to idealize or romanticize the medieval world. It is not a democratic, populist order by any means. But the way people are understanding the sovereign’s role is that the sovereign should act, maybe for religious reasons in terms of divine right, for the good of his realm and the people in it. That produces a different way of thinking about money and the market. You asked about the case of mixed money, that’s a case in which the decision makers in the court faced and articulated this different kind of theory. In particular, what happens in worlds with coin is that sometimes you have to expand the money supply either because money has worn out and it needs to be re-minted or because there’s some kind of, in this case, military demand and sovereign’s want to greatly expand the money supply. My point is that the way you recalibrated a money supply that was metal was by changing the amount of metal in the coin. Usually, that meant debasing it, or diminishing the amount of silver in the coin, either to get all coins to be backed with a certain amount of silver in them, or because you wanted to create more coin to pay for military expenses. And while we might not think military expenses are in the public interest, and certainly many of them aren’t, in the medieval world, the question that often arose was: could a sovereign expand the money supply or change the amount of money and coin for what they consider the public good, such as the defense of the kingdom?

Well, Queen Elizabeth had done that. She debased the money supply to put down a rebellion in Ireland. This is part of the oppression of the Irish by the English. And so, the question that came up to the British court was: was that exercise by the sovereign, that refiguring of the money supply, something within the power of the sovereign? Despite the harmful ends of military action, the court confronts the issue of public power over the money supply and confirms it by emphasizing the need for the sovereign to protect the realm, to protect the money supply, and to be able to manage the money supply and create additional money when it was necessary to defend the people. What the court does in the case of mixed money is elaborate a theory of money that understands money as a contract between the people and sovereign for the public good that has to be managed in the public’s interest. And you might disagree with the ends here of the use of money, but there’s nothing in the decision about individual profit and that understands the market as an aggregate of people acting in their own self interest. Instead, it’s a decision that understands the market, the economy, and the use of money as completely for public ends and within the control of the public–in this case, the sovereign–not in the control of private individuals or creditors. So the contrast between that way of thinking about money and 100 years later, or Locke’s way of thinking about money, is really dramatic.

William Saas: Now, a critical listener might hear this story about money’s revolution in terms of these experiments, this improvisation, and then Locke’s intervention, and hear the words profit and self interest and sort of come to understand them as baked into the cake of the modern money form. And then, they may conclude that, yes, modern money is critical to capitalism, it’s somehow not redeemable, and we can’t go back to that moment where it’s serving the public. To what extent do you think that self interest remains sort of at the center of the story? And do you think that there are other encouraging ways to think about what modern money is and how it works, not just based on self interest?

Christine Desan: I think that self interest remains baked into the cake in important ways and that is not the same thing as saying we need to leave the cake that way, to play with that metaphor. Let me give one example of the way it’s baked into the cake and then maybe we’ll figure out if we would want to redo or rethink the recipe. One thing we haven’t talked about that seems important to add here is that every community I’ve looked at that makes money, they’re all different. Each time that I see money, what I see are communities creating different ways to issue credit and take it back in–sometimes through these investors and sometimes in other ways. In each case the community does that, the people who are engaging in everyday exchange want more money than the government makes for its own purposes. One thing to take away from understanding the stakeholder story is that the public is doing this for its own reasons, such as to mobilize an army in the case of Elizabeth, to build a road in a more beneficent world, or to create a welfare system in another world. The government’s working to create a medium for reasons that are publically oriented. In each of these worlds, people want to exchange with each other, but there’s not always a correlation between the amount of money that should be in circulation from the government and the amount that people want for their own uses. And so, in each of these communities, people are looking for and are working with public authorities to amplify the money supply.

In the old world, we already talked about the way they amplified the money supply, which is the mint would sell people more coin than was needed to pay your taxes, would sell people coin for silver, and people would go buy it at the mint in order to be able to make exchanges with pennies. The reason I mention this is to get to the baked into the cake point. In the new world, and that is to say once we had the Bank of England creating a money supply at the center for the government, there were a whole set of other modern banks. There were banks in the medieval world that were run by and in response to merchants that facilitated merchant trade and cleared accounts between merchants. Modern banks, however, don’t act that way. Modern banks came along sometime after the Bank of England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Joint stock banks and country banks set up shop using a model that was very much like the Bank of England’s model. In some ways, they’re echoing the logic of the Bank of England. And they would, and still do today, just as the Bank of England took promises from the government and issued promises, take long term promises from individuals and then issue notes against them, atomizing the agreement by individuals to pay back eventually. If that is a long term promise by a person, then these commercial banks would issue little notes to the people who were borrowers allowing them to use those banknotes to go off, do their projects, and pay back the bank eventually.

What I’m saying is that these commercial banks are amplifying the high powered money of the Bank of England. And the Bank of England began to support these little banks in various ways by helping them clear their accounts against each other. We won’t go into the technicalities. The point is that this kind of supplemental money that goes into circulation has become enormously important today. Probably 90% of the everyday money supply is money issued by commercial banks now in the form of deposits, not in the form of banknotes, but deposits and banknotes are the same thing. And if we think about that form of money, then it’s also built on the self interest of commercial bankers. We’ve institutionalized self interest into the retail money supply in a way that penetrates everyday life. And governments, both the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve, support that structure. We could think of the banks as delegates. Some scholars call the commercial banks franchisees of the government because they’re basically producing private money authorized by the government. They represent the dollar. This is all to say your question really goes to the core of a capitalist world in which the money supply is made through both central banks and then through a network of commercial banks supported by the central bank. 

Now, having said all that, are we stuck with this recipe? I don’t see any reason that we’re stuck with this recipe. There are advantages to the recipe. Again, I don’t want to romanticize the medieval world. But let me just point out that, what central banks and commercial banks do, is make liquidity available. They make the ability to exchange with one another through money available in new ways that have facilitated all sorts of productive enterprises. In the medieval world, you had to have silver before you could get money. In other words, you had to have capital before you could go out and do a project. In the new world, you come with a promise that you’re going to be productive and you get banknotes or you get bank deposits. And so, this new monetary system facilitates exchange and projects that are supposed to be productive in ways that have broken through old strictures and ceilings on production. I think we need to recognize and respect that and understand that there are great advantages that come with understanding that money is credit, and move beyond a world in which it was restricted by some arbitrary ceiling, like the amount of silver that people had.

Even as I try to abstract the logic, thinking about this credit money that is independent of the requirement of silver collateral attached in the old world, we can see that it doesn’t need to be attached to commercial bank calculations of profit. There are many ways to create credit and to circulate promises. We don’t need to have a world in which the only recipe for money production are the lending decisions of commercial banks. Right now, the only way that we engage money creation in the modern world is through commercial bank lending to individuals. That’s the engine of money production in the modern world. And that engine is attached to commercial bank calculations of profitability. In fact, we know that many projects that will not be profitable to a commercial bank lender would be profitable for us as a society. So I think what we need to do is think about how we want to innovate and improvise new modes of creating credit and extending credit to people outside of the strictures of commercial bank lending.

Maxximilian Seijo: Before we get to the end of this podcast, I actually wanted to touch on something that seems to be a bit of a recurring theme on this show, which is the relationship between war and money. I was particularly taken while rereading the introduction to your book last night of this quote where you have a 12th century account from Exchequer. You quote this account by writing, “Money is necessary, not only in time of war, but also in the time of peace. For in the former case, revenue is expanded on the fortification of towns, the payment of wages to soldiers, and in many other ways. And when the end of the hostilities arrived, “weapons of war are laid aside, churches are built by devout princes, Christ is fed and clothed in the persons of the poor, and the Mammon of this world is distributed in other acts of charity.” And so, what I think you’ve been alluding to, especially with the question of the cake, is that the way money is structured is both different now than it was back in the 12th century, where it was used not just for war, but for the public good in many ways–housing, feeding, infrastructure, employing, etc. But now, those aspects of money remain, the potential is there, and it remains for the cake to do those things again. This is not much of a question, I guess. I just wanted to make clear that I think what you’re saying about the cake now is so vitally important to the question of modern public governance, and your book does a really good job of teasing out the origins of those stakes. 

Christine Desan: Thank you for the question. I want to just talk about early America for a moment in response to it, because it seems to me we are still early America in many ways. When I first got sucked into studying money, when I fell into the black hole, it was in a world in which people had no money because the coin they had kept going back to England. The things they bought from England cost more than the things they sold to England, so they never had money stay on the shores of America. And so, they invented these forms of money that were not commercial banks, where they basically just created IOUs, first to pay soldiers. War is often the existential moment. If you can’t defend yourself, then you need money for that, because you won’t be around to then philosophize about other uses of money. But once they realized that they could pay the soldiers with IOUs and tax them back, which is how it started–they paid the soldiers with it, taxed it back, and therefore made a local currency–they realized they could make local currencies for their own economic development. They could really push out the boundaries of what was possible by inviting farmers to borrow from the legislature to mortgage their land and pay them back. They created these little pockets in which they’re circulating credit. 

Then, farmers could borrow in order to improve their land, make more exchange with each other, and start their own manufacturers and industry for that matter. They started understanding that, as communities, they could plot their economic development. Even in things like how much they lent to each person, they were making distributive decisions. They put a ceiling in each province on the amount they would lend to each farmer, which was 200 pounds. They thought to spread this money widely and understood that they were making distributive decisions when they taxed. They understood that they were basically engineering the way they wanted their local political economy to function and look, and that they were really building a world as they did so. And we know the end of the story. In many ways, that experience led them to understand their provinces, and eventually their entire coast, as a different world from the British world.

So in many ways, this experience of creating local money, and then trying to chart their own courses and create communities of political economic development, split them from the British Empire. It convinced them that they were a different world and different communities. And it just strikes me that it goes to the point you were making about both war and peace, because they actually innovated and stumbled into these monetary experiments because of war. But they understood quickly that they could and should use them in times of peace. Peace, economic development, and political development, were their own kind of exigency and public need. Peacetime was the period in which they could flourish and concentrate on human development. And so, it’s really an inspiring story of the possibility of creating communal flourishing, strength, growth, and productivity, and thinking outside the box, but monetarily.

This was a monetary adventure, but it was one in which people were acting in concert and collective ways with each other to try to build, for the first time, a prosperous world. They made a lot of mistakes. We know about their flaws, but we also could learn from the way they were trying to engineer their own development, and to do so in ways that went beyond the kind of commercial calculation that we have today. We have actually used money in many productive ways to build a state that is stronger, that actually understands how we need to prioritize education, infrastructure, and healthcare needs, and that there’s no reason why we can’t create money towards those ends. Understanding monetary theory and the way money works helps us enormously. Once we understand that money is basically this kind of credit loop and a public medium, and that is fraught with all kinds of distributive decisions, we can use it towards all those ends and be creative about the devices. There’s no reason that we should be stuck with one channel or one device for money delivery once we understand the way money works.

William Saas: So your constitutional approach to money, looking at it as a governance project, shares some key assumptions with a chartalist approach that’s been developed by Modern Monetary Theory, which is a theory and movement that a lot of our listeners will be familiar with. How would you say your work converges with and diverges from MMT?

Christine Desan: Yeah, I’m happy to talk about that. I think, in many ways, we’re fellow travelers. For centuries, some groups of people have understood money as an issue of credit. In that sense, for centuries, there have been what you called chartalists. Both my work and MMT are within that tradition. To me, it’s the most persuasive way of understanding money and it makes a break with the orthodoxy. Both my work and MMT approaches make a break with the orthodoxy in recognizing the critical role of the public, recognizing money as debt, and recognizing money as a public medium, ideally used for public welfare. Some areas of divergence, I think, are areas of emphasis. I am really interested in how money has been redesigned. It’s been redesigned, it’s been improvised, and it’s been engineered in many different ways in many different communities. I’m fascinated by the diversity in design. I think that monetary design profoundly affects both governance and knowledge in society. That is, it affects both the way we structure and allocate power and the way we think about what the market is. For me, there is a pre-capitalism, whether we’re talking about medieval coin or we’re talking about early American paper money. Also for me, there are many different kinds of capitalism. There are changing assumptions about human nature and about governance that seem to be intimately connected with the kinds of monetary structure and governance that’s going on. I think that is less of a focus for MMT scholars.

To give a very concrete example, there’s a lot of great MMT scholarship about the role of public debt in absorbing or expanding the money supply. That is to say, the management of public debt and open market operations are an important lever of policy in the modern world. For me, the advent of circulating public debt is a critical moment in which we change the governance structure of a community and begin to prioritize creditors, use investors as an intermediary, and basically delegate great political power to that group. Along the way, the innovation of public debt underscores and reinforces different ways of thinking about individual self interest and the way the individual connects with the government. Just as an example, I’m interested in things that are more about the kinds of governance decisions that are wrapped up in monetary design. I would say, at a technical level, MMT scholars have unparalleled expertise in current institutions of modern money. They are focusing on the prescriptive use of monetary theory. Also at a technical level, my own expertise has been trying to understand this historical change that has led us to a certain repertoire of money design. I also focus more on the legal attributes of money and why they matter. The character of money as a kind of political obligation, the aspects of monetary value that are embedded in the details of what we enforce, are what I call the cash premium. And so, I’m focusing, in some ways, on the elements of the repertoire. I think MMT scholarship is, in some ways, focusing on how to use the repertoire that currently exists and prevails.

William Saas: That makes sense.

Christine Desan: Yeah, I think it’s been a really productive dialogue, actually, between the constitutional approach to money and MMT. The last thing I’d emphasize is that these approaches to money as a kind of credit that’s circulating are ancient as well as modern. There have always been these approaches to money. People have been theorizing money for centuries. And so, we’re not the only two kids on the block. There’s a lot of really interesting work out there from ancient, medieval, and early modern thinkers who also saw money as a public medium and understood its potential. So this is, I guess, an invitation to people to think broadly along whatever lines that makes sense to them to try to understand and grapple with this public medium, because it is so incredibly important. It’s something that penetrates our daily life and basically creates material governance in our world.

Scott Ferguson: Well, this has been hugely illuminating. Can we close by asking you to talk about what research projects you’re working on at the moment?

Christine Desan: Yeah, so I have three that I’ll mention. One is an attempt really to take apart and to understand the change that occurs in a society when it goes to money. That is, it considers that first transformative moment, the moment from going to political contribution that’s made in kind to a world in which a community decides that they’re going to convert the in kind contribution into tokens and then use those tokens as a medium–going from an income world to a market based world. I’m working on one essay that really tries to understand how it changes political capacity and personal orientation to move from an income world in which everyone’s contributing equally to a world in which there’s actually money circulating, and to consider what the advantages and disadvantages are of that moment. That essay also thinks about how the law works here, how the government is actually projecting its power when it’s enforcing monetary decisions, and how it’s curating the market when it’s deciding which property, contract, tort, and damages to recognize monetarily–how it’s actually building the market. So that’s one project. 

The second project I’m thinking through is an essay that looks at the stubbornness of our myths about money being private. One thing we haven’t talked about is that we have strong intuitions that money is private. People will often mention that money comes from barter and that private exchange produces money, or they’ll mention old stories about POW’s using cigarettes as money. A recent occurrence of this kind of idea that money could be private is Bitcoin, or that maybe money can exist outside the government. I’m interested in trying to understand why we intuit money as private. I think this is because of our experience with private institutions, such as commercial banks, and the dominance they have in our society. But I’m interested in trying to interrogate that and understand what the form of our intuition is, and why we keep thinking of money as private and therefore the market as private.

In the last thing that I’m working on, I’d really like to resurrect this old work about early America. I started this whole project about early America. I mentioned that I kept falling over cliffs and ended up doing the book about the medieval and early British world. But I’d really like to go back to that early American world and finish it. There are great stories about the adventures the settlers were having in the way they tried to work out money–the conflicts they had among themselves, the things they did right, the things they did wrong, the Revolution, the Constitution, and the dramatic kinds of debates that Americans had over what money was and how they should make it. That’ll be my next project.

Scott Ferguson: Christine Desan, thank you so much for joining us. This has been incredible.

Christine Desan: Great, thank you so much for having me.

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