Automating Eden (Essay)

by Geoff Coventry

[Note for readers: This article contains spoilers]

Shawn Levy’s Free Guy is the latest cinematic attempt to manage social problems through self-conscious artificial intelligence (AI). In doing so, it tumbles right back into fanciful utopian imagery while wishing away the complexities of human care. As this virtual redemption story reaches its climax, the AI-created world resembles a moneyless and bodiless bliss where only the nice get to stay, and no one needs to be responsible for social provisioning. In the parallel reality of planet earth, humanity cheers the downfall of a greedy capitalist while simultaneously looking to a new generation of Silicon Valley heroes and the market-economy to produce a better future within the exact same institutional structures that gave rise to the story’s existential crisis. Rather than imagining the boundless ways AI could support human and planetary care while challenging the zero-sum economics that fuel greed and violence, Free Guy tries to charm its way to hope within the logics and institutions of zero-sum austerity.

Free Guy casts the endearing Ryan Reynolds as a non-player character (NPC) in a video game whose two genius creators (Jodie Comer as Millie and Joe Keery as Keys) originally set out to design a virtual world called Life Itself, where characters would “naturally evolve” in a “real life” environment. The title Life Itself grants an immanence to the game platform that obscures the wider mediation of the virtual world by a whole team of employed staff within a corporation, positing their creation of virtual “life” as a self-standing, self-contained environment, where good things can blossom if only left to itself.

Tragically for the duo, their core artificial intelligence source code was stolen by Antwan (New Zealand actor Taika Waititi), the CEO of game developer Soonami, who uses it to power a violent massively multiplayer online game in the genre of Grand Theft Auto. Soonami portends an unstoppable wave of capitalistic destruction. In doing so, the filmmakers ignore the legal and public mediation that created and continues to support the system being critiqued, refusing any alternative that could restructure markets and the public sphere into a mutually regenerating force. Although deterministically coded as a zero-sum game, the “platform itself” is actually subject to powerful non zero-sum influences, both positive and negative: Millie entering the game to find the lost code and helping Guy “come alive”; Keys coding game enhancements; Antwan rebooting the game and destroying its servers. In reality, both the virtual and non-virtual worlds are locked in a co-dependency and co-determination that is never fully acknowledged, let alone explored for its possibilities. 

As the young AI creators battle to prove the theft of their source code, NPC Guy begins to “come alive,” gaining self-awareness and deviating from his routine as the friendliest bank teller you’ll never meet. Initially programmed to be the handsome nice guy in town who can’t find true love, Guy begins to look for more meaning in life and to participate in the game as the good hero who stops violent criminals and saves his NPC friends. Discovering that their code may have just created the world’s first real artificial intelligence, Millie and Keys must now save Guy and the other NPCs from destruction at the hands of a ruthless capitalist who would rather see everything destroyed than face financial loss and diminution of his ego. Hollywood remains entrenched in the formula of larger-than-life heroic individuals responding to, but never truly reforming, societal and existential threats, providing the conditions for rinse-and-repeat series. This may make entertaining and profitable cinema, but when seeking to take flight as an aspirational future for human potential, it can’t break free from the gravitational pull of its predetermined economic and relational limits.

As the movie reaches its climax, Guy, with the help of Millie and Keys, reaches the original Edenic island world of Life Itself, a garden-city paradise explicitly defined by the absence of banks, jobs and guns, where he is eventually reunited with all his friends. In this new world, and now evolved from their programmed roleplay of menial work and innocent victims of violence, the NPCs are free to “do whatever they want”. No “bad” characters enter this world from outside. Only the nice remain; however, neither do they need to do any work of caring for the world they inhabit or the people they share it with. Life Itself closely resembles a common Christian conception of “heaven” more than anything that might shed light on the real world inhabited by humans: its selectively-limited inhabitants magically “perfected” while the masses of less-than-perfect humanity are kept away. This perfected AI platform codes its idealized life  much like racialized urban planners coded white suburbs: by defining-away most of humanity and ignoring environmental interdependencies.

And herein lies the problem. The hope for a better world as modeled by an innocent artificial intelligence leading us back to Eden fails before it starts. Such a binary worldview filled with coded outcomes has no bearing on reality and ergo provides no guidance for humanity’s struggles and no inspiration for its potential.

Similar to how nostalgia is a killer of truth, niceness is a killer of care. Niceness is an individualistic construct that renders unnecessary the challenging choices needed to reorganize society in ways that provide mutual care. Niceness inverts care’s others-focused accounting structure into transactions of feel-good self interest; each smile, wave or act of kindness recorded to the social credit of the “good” person. Nowhere is this more encapsulated than during a Christmas holiday, where, for a few days, those with means placate the subconscious trauma of participation in a zero-sum game by mutual gift giving and token charity, only to return Monday morning to the brutalization demanded by winning the game. Care in the real world rejects scarcity and exclusion, wrapping all into interdependent, unending, difficult, and imperfect relationships of service. The logic of care is universally inclusive since all are simultaneously providers and recipients. No one is altogether nice or irredeemably bad. Relational, not transactional, care’s accounting seeks to explore the unknown and unmet needs within and beyond every community. The society-wide capacity to care remains unbounded by exclusionary categorizations of people (or other life forms), refusing to accept arbitrary limits of affordability and existing resource availability. When seen in this light, Hollywood’s Guy is the dreamy nice dude who saves the day only because this AI Guy is really not at all like a human nor lives in a human-like world.

Free Guy wants us to believe the world can be changed by nice artificial intelligence produced by nice human intelligence, even as it wishes away the need for any deliberate collective work to bring about structural changes to social, political and economic systems. Niceness is self-centered, privileged, and ultimately protected by violence in order to pretend the “nice” can avoid problematic intrusions into their perception of bliss. Violence in the service of niceness is still violence against other people. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. 

In contrast, care is a conscious social engagement that seeks out and serves the needs and wants of all within an inclusive community, while recognizing and rewarding the provisioning of care in dignifying ways. Care doesn’t preclude unpleasantries, injustices, and human vices, but dives into the complex and unending work of listening, problem-wrestling, healing and building. Such an inclusive logic of care sees the 22 year old gamer Keith, still living with his mother and venting his anger over frustrated desires, societal rejection, and economic exclusion, as a person deserving of meaningful social and economic participation in the community. The exclusionary logic of Hollywood can only mock the gamer, defining him as a villain to be vanquished from the promised land along with all the other “bad guys”, and relegating him to perpetual torment at home. 

Free Guy seeks to contrast greed and care, yet retains a field of limited agency within a dualistic and simplistic vision of humanity and socio-economic possibilities. The fallen-world dystopia of greedy capitalism foments wanton violence on the city streets where innocent victims are killed and workers are trapped in soul-destroying jobs. Redemption of the virgin innocence of this lost paradise comes when the nice people resist their oppressors. This comes in the form of an organized and unanimous strike from their jobs that lasts just long enough to buy time for the caring geniuses, Millie and Keys, to heroically expose the capitalist greed, remove their control, and finally prevent any more “bad guys” from entering paradise. The NPCs’ only agency is to stick it to the boss and walk off the job, and the only qualification to participate in this society is to be one of the “nice people”. The co-dependence of these interconnected worlds is largely ignored, along with the real work being performed by an army of hidden figures who literally build their houses and streets and keep their lights on.

What is so obviously missing from the bliss-filled ending is that the world Guy and his NPCs inhabit was entirely constructed by the code of the earnest protagonists, whose new creation for innocent NPCs remains dependent upon real people who need to work, eat, live, earn wages, and own companies. In Guy’s new Eden, there is no concept of the need to develop and share their world’s resources in ways that will create a cohesive social order to care for the city and land they inhabit. Nor is there any recognition of their existential predicament: how to maintain the energy, money and labor needed to keep their world online. Their entire existence relies on the continued aspiration and organizational skills of its young “gods” from another dimension and remains as precarious as a power outage or corporate bankruptcy, and yet we are expected to view this heavenly virtual locale and the lack of banks and jobs as a picture of human freedom.

Fast forwarding to the future, we see that Millie and Keys have stepped right back into the same Silicon Valley startup world they were just fighting, running a company, relying on banks, investors, and keeping a hopeful watchful eye on their customer and revenue growth in order to keep the dream alive. The NPC Eden now exists, not as an independent and self-sufficient alien planet, but as a Twitch channel dependent upon entertaining its viewers. The only apparent change from the old regime is in the values of the company leadership. Along with the heavenly bliss of nice AI, Silicon Valley wants to sell us on an evangelical worldview for humankind’s master coders. Government regulators and legislators should leave the smart techies alone to invent the future in their image, just so long as they try to have nice people in charge. Of course, Google’s “Don’t be evil” code of conduct falls far short of preventing ongoing systemic concerns. It is telling that the film has no vision for changes to the status quo. There is no hint of public funds being available to help protect and fund this new AI “life form,” no changes to corporate ownership structure or employment relations, and no public engagement in how best to care for either newborn AI or real world human life to ensure extinction is no longer an imminent risk. 

The neoliberal blockbuster has yet to imagine its way out of the corner of zero sum economics and the resulting combination of violent and exclusionary solutions to the imagined inevitability of greed and exploitation. Dualistic metaphysics still dominate: good and evil; Eden and Dystopia; heaven and hell; Life Itself and Soonami.

Major Hollywood studios and Silicon Valley often struggle in portraying human-like artificial intelligence in part because of their flat and cartoonish portrayals of humankind, societal structures, and economic possibilities. Heroic battles and utopian endings do nothing to suggest a path forward for a sustainable world and care-filled creative societal order. In a real way we humans are the AI we wish to create. If we still haven’t found the imagination to care for humankind (all humankind) and the complex life systems we exist within, we should be skeptical of those claiming to have imagined human-like AI and a path to a heavenly future. Until we develop the right framework for human flourishing, our dreams of an Edenic AI future will only serve to immerse our imaginations in an entertainment-induced trance that prevents us from fully seeing and caring for all.

Chaplin’s Modern Times: Pretty Pro-Communist (Essay)

How awful the thought of oneness… One merging into all and all merging into one. Just think of merging into Herbert Hoover.

-Charlie Chaplin

In 1952, facing harassment from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, Charlie Chaplin left the United States and moved to Switzerland. Chaplin shared personal tragedy with thousands of suspected communists across American society, swept up in the blacklists and persecutions of the McCarthy era. Perhaps more so than many of the “subversives” whose nonidentity with white middle class culture earned them the communist label, Chaplin’s social criticism really did take on the monopoly capitalism of his day. It’s not difficult to read Marxist themes into Chaplin’s slapstick depictions of Taylorism and “scientific management” in Modern Times (1936). But to honor the creativity of Chaplin, it is important not to conflate his respectful willingness to think alongside Marxist problems with a dogmatic commitment to thinking exclusively within them. 

Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is an ambiguous meditation on the political economy of his day. Though Modern Times speaks most recognizably through a Marxist lens, it gestures beyond Marx in its ambivalent depictions of the social roles played simultaneously by various institutions. While Chaplin’s “Tramp” is dehumanized by the factory’s reduction of his individuality to an appendage of private profit, his work advances the narrative in ways that outstrip profit.

At points, Modern Times does feel like a dramatization of Marx’s descriptions of capitalist industry in the Communist Manifesto. In the first part of the Manifesto, Marx writes that the modern factory worker “becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.” Marx describes this enslavement of men to machines as “alienation,” in the sense that their labor becomes directed towards alien ends rather than their own. Chaplin portrays this zero-sum formulation to comic effect in the opening factory sequences, in which The Tramp disastrously switches his attention back and forth between the assembly line and his coworkers, losing track of both.

However, this Marxist formulation is complicated and undermined at the level of narrative. Even as this opening scene manifestly depicts a contradiction between The Tramp’s labor and attention serving his own ends and those of capital, both cohere narratively in maintenance of the society more broadly. Events outside of the factory—on the street, at home, and in prison—work in tandem with those inside the factory to produce a narrative that contains each of these settings. While prison seems to serve the capitalist class structurally as an institution to discipline troublemakers before they are sent back to the factory, The Tramp also finds that within prison he is self-directed. This is played for laughs, but the irony of prison being a place for self-directed behavior belies a paradox of Marx’s critique of alienation: that self-directed collectives require institutional mediation beyond their immanent boundaries.

Of course, Marx would be the first to admit that factories rely on other parts of society for maintenance and reinforcement. “No sooner is the exploitation of the laborer by the manufacturer, so far, at an end, that he received his wages in cash,” Marx writes, “than he is set upon by other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc.” While Marx here is allowing for events beyond the factory to be socially meaningful, the social whole in which they cohere is conflated with the social goals of the bourgeoisie. And to be sure, Modern Times does clearly critique the prison and the factory for working in tandem. But contra Marx, it does not necessarily follow from the film’s critique of wage labor that every institution under capitalism serves capital as its ultimate end.

We see a similar polyvalence in the café that The Tramp and his love interest (“the Gamin”) work at, where management’s discipline of the employees does not fully define the terms by which the café can be engaged. The Tramp’s job in the café is waiting tables, and at first this seems to resemble his stints at the factory, in which he is unable to conform his body to the rhythm and pace of work. This seems to culminate in a diner’s roast duck being thrown across the room, but at the moment that this happens, it is caught by a group of athletes and the scene breaks into a performance of a rugby chase that destabilizes the clear division between diners and servers. The diners are folded into a theatrical production, not as a negation of their respective class positions, but as a social valence that was always there to be read.

Later, when The Tramp loses the lyrics to the song he is supposed to perform, he makes up his own song that wins over the audience. Unlike in the factory, The Tramp’s creativity and deviations here are rewarded. The café offers many analogs of social mediation at once, insofar as its social valuation is figured as multidirectional and polyvalent. Whether The Tramp’s mimetic creativity is allowed is a social decision that implicates more than just management. The diners, wait staff, and management are responsible in different ways for the social meaning of The Tramp’s performance. 

Leftists today who are anxious to unify around a single mass organization or “theory of change” would do well to study Chaplin’s non-identical engagements with the problems and themes of Marxism. At a 1942 dinner held in Chaplin’s honor, Chaplin frustrated an FBI informant in the audience with this exact maneuver. “I am not a Communist,” Chaplin declared, “but I am proud to say that I feel pretty pro-Communist.”

Modern Monetary Theory and The Trans Agenda (Essay)

By Nia Cola

To be trans today is to be treated as a political agent at all times, but afforded no  substantive political agency. Everything you do is scrutinized, as your right to exist remains under constant review. In response, trans liberation means actualizing authentic ways of being, without waiting for the sovereign judgment of cis society. The question of how to achieve this will always be open-ended and multi-faceted. Whatever our focus, however, trans liberation requires a gender framework that expands the present bounds of possibility, in excess of the limited forms of life that have been previously afforded space. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) gives us just that framework. 

MMT allows space for limitless social rearticulation through public spending and employment. In positing money as an infinite public resource, MMT provides a viable counter-narrative to dominant theories of “commodity money,” which account for human differences as economic costs and potential liabilities when it comes to building a mass political base. And while the prevailing economics casts money as an unproductive and symbolic veil over finite resources, MMT’s insistence on money’s active role in directing production allows us to see the affordance of difference as a policy variable. MMT also serves as a powerful analogue for the trans struggle against what could be called “sound gender” ideology—the assertion of a strictly material gender reality that the introduction of new pronouns can only debase. 

Grounded in such materialist reductionism, the stigmatization of trans people is implicit in the hegemonic gender binary system, which is part and parcel of colonial systems of knowledge and control. The patriarchal family, as an “independent” driver of social reproduction, stands in for the Western nation-state’s self image as necessarily profit-seeking and extractive. And Western anxieties about queer and trans forms of life allegedly “replacing” traditional lifestyles are in some ways a projection of the West’s own justification for settler-colonialism, whereby the existence of colonizers required the genocidal “replacement” of indigenous populations.

The sweeping social identities that Western thought derives from the ideology of biological dimorphism, however, are by no means universal. Despite sexual dimorphism, not all cultures have held to a strictly binary view of gender. There are, in fact, many ways for sexual reproduction to be folded into social reproduction, and so the supposedly “practical” and “material” bases of gender identity are in fact socially constructed and essentially contestable. What is more, because the archetypal reproductive household is socially constructed, the very fact of trans existence holds open space for rearticulation and reconfiguration. Trans existence, in other words, belies the falseness of cis society’s claims about itself. If trans existence is so destabilizing, what we’re dealing with are the symptoms of repressed truths about gender—namely, that there are no fixed truths. 

A rigid gender binary restricts individuals from acting outside of a narrow scope of social norms and becomes the basis for social and economic exclusions predicated on one’s performance of gender. While there is nothing evil about trying on binary gender roles, the politics of performance must be self-consciously nested in a contingent and playful non-binary spectrum. This essential space to play and experiment with gender cannot be conceived merely as escaping coercion. It demands ongoing cultivation and maintenance by way of an MMT-based political economic “agenda” that aims to secure trans agency in myriad urgent ways.

The Trans Agenda

As a function of a repressive cis gender binary regime, trans people must daily confront tremendous hardships and challenges. They face extraordinarily high rates of unemployment, for example, often recorded at around three to four times the rate for cis people. Trans persons also suffer from meager wages, lower levels of college attainment on average, and extremely high rates of poverty. Due to social and institutional discrimination, a large proportion of trans people are involved in the Sex Work (SW) industry. The criminalization and stigmatization of this precarious line of work exposes trans people to high degrees of financial and bodily risk, contributing greatly to the high rates of violence perpetrated against the trans community. 

For this reason, decriminalizing SW is an essential part of any trans liberation agenda. It is undeniable, however, that a significant portion of trans participation in SW is tied to discrimination elsewhere, and so justice for trans sex workers cannot be taken in isolation. If trans people are going to achieve liberation, it will mean provisioning lives we want to lead—including those of us who happily participate in SW. 

The issue of discrimination at the point of access to social goods can be viewed as a matter of equal protection under the law, and for this the solution is simple: pass statutes that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity. While this is of course a long Civil Rights fight, a good start would be passing the Equality Act, which would immediately alleviate explicit discrimination as a concern by making it illegal at the federal level. The Equality Act was passed by the House for the second time on February 25, 2021 and is awaiting a vote in the Senate. 

Still, the trans agenda must go further. A comprehensive policy platform could fill a tome, of course, and it would be good to develop such an agenda in the future. Here, however, I would like to focus on two key policies–a Federal Job Guarantee (FJG) and, below, Medicare for All–which are only realizable if we embrace the radical implications of MMT. 

The MMT lens implores us to look at the world in an expansive and generative way, rejecting binary and zero-sum thinking at the level of fiscal provisioning. The fundamental insight of MMT is that money is not a private commodity that must be taken from the market via taxation in order to fund the public sector. To the contrary, governments create money to finance their operations, and taxation is simply one tool among many to manage the shape and distribution of monetary demand (as well as ensure a common denomination. Money’s role in mediating access to and participation in social provisioning is a limitless public resource, which can be used however we want and across any time horizon. 

For this reason, the monetary agency of the Federal government to name and finance public priorities can be mobilized at any time to create a public option for employment. If designed and fought for as a fully inclusive and trans affirming program, a FJG would not only establish a wage-and-benefits floor for the entire economy and begin to challenge and change the social meaning of work. It would also create an inalienable foundation to both support and further facilitate trans liberation, while buttressing trans resilience against hostile employment authorities. 

Building a trans positive FJG, meanwhile, would build union power by diversifying and expanding the traditional white cis culture of union membership. As a unionized public works system, the FJG will no doubt irreversibly alter the balance of power between unions and employers throughout the economy. Yet while unions have in the past proven to be crucial countervailing forces against employers, traditional unions are far from perfect and insufficient on their own. Indeed, even in their heyday, large unions predominantly shaped and supported a repressive and exclusionary mid-center social order. 

A diversified FJG union, by contrast, will not merely boster trans life. It would also strengthen the bargaining power of public and private unions alike by preventing them from holding minority groups hostage to exclusionary majorities, or even corrupt alliances with management. A FJG union, moreover, would allow workers to refuse to work in striking sectors, providing an expansive foundation for industrial solidarity that transcends the false opposition between living for one’s self and living for one’s class. 

Too Many Pronouns Chasing Too Few Genders?

As with any expansion of government spending, the standard objection leveled against the FJG is that it will cause runaway inflation. Behind this explicit argument looms an implicit and quite violent social implication: If paying everyone to work increases the rate of inflation, as might be alleged by mainstream economists, the implication is that some of those people are being paid above what they’re worth. Or to paraphrase the economists, it is too many dollars chasing too few socially legitimate goods. Setting aside other critiques of mainstream economics, this is a startling statement about the value of the work of women, queer people, and people of color. It’s a declaration that we are not capable of producing work valuable enough to justify a living wage.

If one outright rejects the possibility that marginalized people can make social contributions that justify a living wage, then it follows that they either should live off the goodwill of “the productive” through redistributive policies, or that they don’t deserve to live at all. While few people will state the latter openly, the former view is highly patronizing and built to fail under pressure. Buttressed by such toxic logics, the work of marginalized communities has therefore long been under-valued, and the expectation that their employment will result in inflation reflects this legacy. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the inflation bogeyman is also wielded against trans people through opposition to trans healthcare. Medical interventions allow trans people to assimilate into cis society to the extent that they desire, or equally to challenge the gendered expectations that are hurting them in the first place. We can hear echoes of the inflation panic about illegitimate jobs in objections to trans inclusion in universal healthcare policies such as Medicare for All. According to this reactionary logic, gender affirming care is superfluous and cosmetic rather than “material” in some fundamental sense. The suggestion that there is a tradeoff between trans and universal healthcare implies that provisioning healthcare services for trans people is beyond the capacity of our economy to manage. But this is a demonstrably false statement. The expansion of trans healthcare would likely be a one-off event in terms of increased capacity needs. 

It is reasonable to expect the amount of trans people who would need to be served would increase as stigma falls, more people decide to transition, and healthcare provisions become more available; however, there is scarce evidence that provisioning such a future is somehow beyond our economy’s ability to adapt to these increased needs. It can be hard to shake the feeling that many of these detractors are opposed to trans healthcare not because they genuinely believe in a resource constraint, but simply because they do not wish to see trans people exist in public life. 

Queering Money

To guarantee adequate jobs and healthcare to trans people—and build coalitions around such struggles—we need a fundamental shift in thinking when it comes to government budgeting. When money is imagined as fundamentally scarce, social change is routed through the problematic language of redistribution and replacement rather than creation. This in turn creates an “any port in the storm” mentality when it comes to building coalitions, as the variegated experiences of trans people are reduced to a representative “average” trans person who can be more simplistically advocated for. And as we see, the impulse to reduce and assimilate what is particular into what is imagined as universal for the sake of “widening the coalition” is observable in class reductionist calls to not discuss trans healthcare at all, in favor of supposedly “universal” healthcare services.

MMT, by contrast, provides a different foundation that allows us to articulate a comprehensive trans agenda on generative rather than zero sum terms. In the MMT story, when public money is motivated toward some end, fiscal authorities create it. Because money is created rather than found, spending precedes rather than follows taxation. Creation does not need to be “paid for” by destruction, and the trans agenda does not need to be routed through such zero sum logics. Money creation authorizes public job creation at the same time that it authorizes private purchasing power.

In the dominant economic view, money creation is inflationary because it is imagined as abstract bids on fundamentally scarce goods. In contradistinction to this view, MMT sees public spending, not as subtracting from a fixed pool of public resources, but instead directing its expansion. This is because, as any heterodox economist will tell you, resources are as socially constructed as gender. The flow of inputs at every point of production is linked to the flow of outputs at another. Capacity is therefore created rather than given, and when the government invests properly it can create new capacity over time.

The policies discussed above are possible only with an MMT framework that speaks in the register of rights and guarantees, rather than goals and aspirations. A FJG will require large variations in spending, and any method of ‘paying for’ the program would have to be just as flexible. And while Medicare for All would likely entail more stable spending patterns, it’s too great a budget item to tie to taxation, dollar for dollar. The last thing we need is policy that analogizes gender affirming healthcare services to zero sum redistribution. A proper budget in an MMT framework would deliberately target resource bottlenecks and invest in expanding production where necessary. 

If properly wielded and understood, public money harbors radical potential to reshape society for the better. These two policies would vastly improve life for trans people, but there is no final word in what makes the trans agenda, any more than there is a final word in what makes a trans person. It is imperative, however, to go big. Putting a Federal Job Guarantee and Medicare for All into action for this trans agenda would be a great start.

* “Money” by free pictures of money is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.

The Mark of Fascism: Lebensraum for the Left (Essay)

By Maxximilian Seijo & Scott Ferguson

A thought that stands outside subjectivity, setting its limits as though from without, articulating its end, making its dispersion shine forth, taking in only its invincible absence; and that, at the same time, stands at the threshold of all positivity, not in order to grasp its foundation or justification but in order to regain the space of its unfolding, the void serving as its site, the distance in which it is constituted and into which its immediate certainties slip the moment they are glimpsed—a thought that, in relation to the interiority of our philosophical reflection and the positivity of our knowledge, constitutes what in a phrase we might call “the thought of the outside.”

Michel Foucault, Maurice Blanchot: The Thought from Outside

Anti-fascism has always been central to critical theory. Yet in resisting fascism, critical theorists have too readily taken fascist projects at their word. When fascism asserts itself within a polity, for instance, or imposes order on another community, it posits territorial rule over and against what is tacitly framed as an external and pre-political commons. Crucially, such a commons is imagined to exist beyond any particular territory, somehow belonging to no one and everyone at once. From this initial commons, fascism decides who is permitted to exist inside the ethno-nationalist state and who must be pushed out. The very act of exclusion, then, strategically defines the ethno-nationalist state at the same time as it shores up its legitimacy.

One finds critiques of this formulation in numerous works, including those by the likes of Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Gilles Deleuze, and Giorgio Agamben, and others. All of these authors opt variously to counter fascist territorialization with a version of what Deleuze and Félix Guattari call a logic of “deterritorialization.” Deterritorialization seeks to undo fascism’s expulsive territoriality so as to carve out extra-territorial room for life. Such seemingly critical gestures are right to contest territorialization. We will argue, however, that they err by problematically repeating, even romanticizing, the appeal to a pre-political commons that drives fascist logics in the first instance. In this brief essay, we wish to not only challenge metaphysical appeals to a pre-political commons, but also set forth a far more capacious and anthropologically-grounded critique of fascist territoriality.

It is instructive to return to one of the relatively unknown architects of fascist theory, the Nazi linguist Jost Trier. An important influence on both Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, Trier argued that the origin of politics must be postulated through the question of terrain and the central problem of what he terms the “fence.” As he intones, “The fence marks the beginning. Deep and thoroughly defining, the fence, the border, nurtures [Hegung] the world formed by humans.” For Trier, the fence does more than establish a territory. It demarcates the political as such. And the political, on Trier’s reasoning, is nothing other than the function of an inherently exclusionary care.

Construed as a line of division inscribed on a blank slate, such logics borrow from Rene Descartes’ planar geometry, Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature, and John Locke’s extension of such logics to theorize the origins of the human psyche as a tabula rasa. Reducing the political to a foundational enclosure, Trier relies upon and gives voice to the metaphysical bedrock of modern Liberalism and its justifications for the private seizure of common forests, fields and waters in early modern England. Yet he also radicalizes Liberal metaphysics, carrying their suppositions to their implied logical and political ends. As a result, he reads the relationship between inside and outside through a univocal prism of absolute opposition.

In order to undo this violence, the critics we mention above respond to Liberalism and fascism alike by attempting to reclaim an original, external commons, which supposedly precedes and exceeds enclosure. Critics affirm “lines of flight,” to again borrow from Deleuze and Guattari, which would seem to defy and escape any sovereign interior. Against the univocal violence of enclosure, then, they picture a pre-political commonality or commons, where humanity and nature exist together in open and unbounded relations teeming with repressed social and ecological potential. In place of enclosure, modern critics construct a politics of exteriority and difference, which frequently appears to mirror, or simply invert, the absolutism of their fascist interlocutors. In the face of fascist efforts to secure a passive environment for a chosen people, these critics call upon a pre- and, in certain iterations, post-political commons to accomplish something disturbingly similar. As a consequence, such critics often naturalize the ontological core of fascistic violence and let Liberalism’s comparatively mild operations too easily off the hook. 

We in the Money on the Left Editorial Collective begin from wholly different premises. Rejecting the ontological exclusion of the fence, we regard the political and, with it, money as an originary multi-scale interdependence. In this way, we turn the entire edifice of Western political philosophy outside-in. Proceeding from heterogeneous institutions and forms of decision making that know no absolute exteriority, we refuse the figure of the fence as politically constitutive, as well as the illusory commons upon which it is based. Demarcations of course differentiate social and material relations in meaningful ways. But any demarcation, we contend, remains forever nested within and relative to broader domains of social and ecological mediation. Put another way, demarcation can never be said to intervene in an untrammeled or pre-political field free from integrated social coordinations and meanings. Eschewing an absolute commons or state of nature, we maintain that there is no legible or legitimate outside to the problem of mediating social and ecological dependence, no matter which side of demarcation one considers.

Crucially, such inclusivity is decidedly not spatialized, or at least not in any Cartesian sense that would imply linear partitions over an infinitely extended plane. Inclusion is instead a qualitative relation interior to infinitude, which relies on overlapping and vastly different proximities to particular centers of mediation and indicates no unaffected outside. Particulars necessarily participate in this ubiquitous inside which, despite their irregular differentiations, nevertheless manages to reach all. As such, the “externalities” and “marginalities” that so flummox neoclassical economists and delight continental philosophers endure always-already inside a broader human and ecological condition, even and especially when it comes to apparatuses of expulsion.

For this reason, Liberalism and ultimately, fascism fail in positing as origin the opposition between fence and commons. In contradistinction to Siegfried Kracauer’s self-conception as “extraterritorial,” what we have elsewhere called the inextricable “intraterritoriality” of existence undermines the modern metaphysics of expulsion. The failure of fascist demarcation to fully externalize those who it identifies as enemies does not, to be sure, make such regimes any less brutal. On our reading, it doubles their brutality, secreting away a clandestine ontological violence under cover of the manifest horrors of genocide. Fascism’s overt violence of course owes to its destructive practices, which perpetuate psychic and social terror in the name of an impossible, pure interiority. Yet what has hitherto been overlooked by fascism’s most trenchant critics is Western modernity’s violent externalization of naming, which surreptitiously legitimizes fascism’s spectacular failures. This violence does not derive, as critical theorists regularly argue, from the supposed imposition of nominalization on reality. It arises, instead, from the metaphysical delusion that nominalization penetrates Being from the outside.

Repudiating an absolute inside and outside, our claim is that designation and, specifically, designation through money always involves contestable analogies. Analogies are nothing but patterns of dynamic relation, entailing diverse spheres of obligation and need. On this view, analogies may partake of homology or likeness, but cannot be reduced to isomorphic sameness. Presuming a shared interiority, analogies forge difference within sameness, with sameness in this case understood as the heterogenous background of Being as such. Analogies at once disclose and shape not only power and its ongoing problematics, but also interdependence and the ongoing difficulties of care. They do so, not from some Archimedean point of mastery, but rather through partial and participatory articulations of nested relationality.

We draw regularly on chartalism and related traditions to show that the analogical conditions of moneyness represent a relative constant throughout much of human history, despite great variations in social and material life that comprise said moneyness. Diverse, multiple, and ubiquitously visible, such histories demonstrate that the conditions of moneyness are as generalizable as they are particular. They also harbor endless lessons for anti-fascist politics.

Take historian Robert Gates indispensable insights into Weimar-era struggle over the nature of money and its political capacities. While Germany’s Free Trade Unions supported a program of massive public works funded by direct public money creation, the Marxist leaders of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) such as Rudolf Hilferding rejected the program as unrealistic and “un-Marxist.” Preparing for a nationalization program projected into some indefinite future, SPD Marxists actively worsened the catastrophe by calling on the party to permit the ensuing economic crisis and joblessness to run its allegedly natural course. Although certainly not solely responsible for the subsequent nightmare, they nevertheless unwittingly assisted in hastening fascist scapegoating of Jews and other minorities along with the meteoric rise to power of a once-beleaguered Nazi party.

Unexplored by Gates, SPD’s disastrous incapacity to approach monetary mediation otherwise relies upon a tacit externalization of inscription. According to the SPD’s logic, the capitalist mode of production and its countless contradictions appeared to operate as a univocal imposition of private property onto unbounded nature. In the face of private property’s total imposition, the SPD could only concoct an antithetical, yet equally univocal project of nationalization that would socialize private industry as part of an eventual dialectical movement toward what the young Marx once referred to as “lower-stage communism.” Far from effectively combating fascism, however, the SPD reified the metaphysical exteriority upon which fascism thrives. The result not only deepened a political and economic calamity the Nazis could exploit, but also paved the way for fascism to wield state money as a weapon of exclusionary uplift and mass extermination. 

Hardly isomorphic to present conditions in and beyond The United States, the work of revealing such historical possibilities and blind spots nonetheless offer haunting analogies for the fallout of persistent neoliberal austerity and the resurgent ferocity of ethno-nationalist violence. And yet, there is still so much more work to be done.

We need historians across disciplines and fields to assist us in tracing the possibilities and limits of the many analogous human attempts to thematize our inalienable dependence on monetary mediation in myriad and unpredictable forms. Through this expressly analogical practice, historians can enable us to envision money’s previously untapped potentials, as well as expose reactionary logics and practices we wish to avoid and struggle against. In doing so, the critical historian must prioritize the vast and heterogenous interiority of monetary inscription, while jettisoning the fascist mirage of exteriority that the Nazis notoriously hailed as “living room,” or Lebensraum.

Long held at arms-length by leftists as a noxious fiction belonging to the far right, the lure of Lebensraum in actuality looms as a powerful temptation for critical theorists as well. Echoing Michel Foucault’s meditation on Maurice Blanchot’s “thought from outside” quoted above, contemporary art critic and media theorist Boris Groys, for example, recently published an avowedly leftist ode to Western philosophy’s dream of immanent exteriority in the journal e-flux. Groys aches for the philosopher’s historic “meta-position” in a non-locatable elsewhere, criticizing the “politics of inclusion” as a form of univocal domination that miserably abets “a comfortable life of consumption.”

“[A] politics of inclusion,” Groys explains, “which presupposes the improvement of the living conditions of the excluded, is precisely directed towards the elimination of the meta-position that is occupied by the excluded. The politics of total inclusion aims to get rid of the space outside of society, to eliminate any external, potentially critical position towards society as a whole. This politics calls for everybody to play by the same rules, to obey the same laws, to pursue the same goals, to be seen and treated like everybody else and to see and treat everybody else in the same way.” Later, he surmises, “The truth is always on the side of the excluded. To recognize the excluded means not to include the excluded, but precisely to recognize this truth—to accept the dignity of the slave by rejecting all property and working hard (Christianity), or to accept the dictatorship of the proletariat (communism). It would not make sense to give a saint or a revolutionary a regular income and a comfortable life of consumption.”

Although he would surely bridle at the accusation, Groys in this piece seems to pine for a kind of living space, or Lebensraum, for the left. Such a realm, to Groys’s mind, would align free-thinking philosophers with the dejected. It would also furnish philosophy with a critical vantage point from which to evaluate society in its existing totality.

As enticing and, perhaps, well-intended as these twisted judgements may be, in truth Groys’s conclusions only further entrench the mark of fascism in the guise of its apparent opposite. Equating inclusion with punishing sameness and transformation with capitalist expansion, such reasoning explicitly flattens the path to justice to an impoverished common denominator born of subjugation. Dignifying the externality of slavery, propertylessness, and a dictatorial party, Groys’s left utopia looks just as univocal as his characterization of capitalist dystopia. Implicitly, moreover, Groys belittles, if not outright forecloses, profound political movements that confront money and mediation head on. Abolitionism or the Black Freedom Struggle for full employment, from this contorted purview, are predestined to conformist complicity.

The allure of what we are calling a left Lebensraum is a fascist trap that critical praxis must abjure. There is no place external to interdependence. Politics are never univocal. And neither care nor critique are micro-level affairs. Only by circumventing the false appeals of “thought from outside” can we begin to radically reconstruct the world we actually inhabit.

The Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art


Money on the Left
 is joined in conversation with curator Emily Ebba Reynolds & artist Nando Alvarez-Perez, co-founders of the Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art, or BICA, in Buffalo, New York.

BICA is a new and distinctly heterodox arts organization, offering physical space for artist shows and educational seminars, as well as fiscal space for provisioning micro-grants to local artists. In 2018 Emily & Nando founded BICA, in their words, in order to “reframe contemporary art around issues of regional community, create a plurality of art worlds, and reconceive art as a practical tool which can be used to reshape the world around it.” Along this journey of re-conception, reframing, and reshaping, they’ve confronted and engaged creatively with the “money” question in its numerous and challenging forms. We talk about these as well as get Nando’s and Emily’s take on why a “jobs guarantee” is something artists should fight for.

Learn more about BICA (and discover ways to support the project) at THEBICA.org. 

Special Thanks to Nando for lending his artwork titled, Primary Document 08262022a, for our monthly episode art. Scroll below the transcript for a full view of Nando’s piece. See if you can spot the reference to the Money on the Left crew! 

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com

Transcript

The following was transcribed by Jakob Feinig and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson: Emily Ebba Reynolds and Nando Alvarez-Perez, welcome to Money on the Left.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Thanks, really excited to be here! 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Thank you.

Scott Ferguson: Thanks for joining us. We’ve invited you on the show today to speak with us about the Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art, which is known by the acronym BICA. It’s an experimental arts organization you two have co-founded in Buffalo, New York. It’s dedicated to communal practices, pedagogies, and publishing.

We’d like to highlight BICA’s accomplishments and aspirations to think together with you about how Modern Monetary Theory might help us reimagine relations between political economy on the one hand, and aesthetic practice on the other. But to start us off, maybe you can tell our listeners something about your personal and professional backgrounds to lay the land for this discussion. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Let’s go way back, I grew up on a farm in Colorado. Then I went on to study art history in undergrad, and then exhibition and museum studies in grad school at the San Francisco Art Institute. After school, I started working at museums, I worked in marketing primarily at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), a multidisciplinary Art Center that, especially at the time, was more interested in shifting culture than traditional exhibitions and the more typical institutional art exhibition projects.

At the same time, I was also starting my own projects: I ran a gallery with three friends, a communally owned and run gallery. We did all kinds of exhibitions, and I also did a parking lot art fair where people could just pull up their car and show work out of them, guerrilla parking lot style. A few years ago, Nando and I moved to Buffalo, where I’ve also been working in museums and marketing, and then we also started BICA. Currently, I’m part-time at the University of Buffalo art galleries. I still got my toes in a more institutional setting, but I’m running BICA.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: My name is Nando Alvarez-Perez, and, bear with me, I stutter. I was born in Buffalo and did an undergraduate degree in Film Studies at Hunter College because I thought I wanted to work in the movie industry, and then wound up at SFAI to do my MFA in photography, which is where Emily and I met. At the time, right after grad school, I was exhibiting my work in the Bay Area, adjuncting, working in tech, wearing all the hats that artists need to wear. I am currently a visiting faculty at Alfred University.

William Saas: How did you get together and first conceive of BICA? What kinds of problems were you responding to at that point with respect to the art world and art education?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: I think we can specifically point to late summer 2017. I was doing a fellowship at YBCA, where Emily worked with the artist Tania Bruguera who was teaching an eight-week workshop about her Arte Útil program which is all about reframing arts away from traditional visual aesthetic values and norms and more about how we can re-value aesthetics through the lens of usability and practicality. And obviously, a very vague word in art, but to us, it means meeting people’s needs as they actually exist in the world. 

This was the first year of Trump being in office. I think we were both really burnt out on the hustle culture of the Bay Area, of the art world there. And it felt like art promises so much for institutional and community change, that was just not feeling lived up to there. I remember I had a great run of exhibitions, and I had done work I was really proud of, but by that summer, I was feeling like this whole art game is just an exercise in narcissism. We want to think through ways that we can make it valuable to people. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: You nailed that, nothing to add!

Scott Ferguson: I used to live in the Bay Area, but you were there more recently than that I’ve lived there. And clearly, Silicon Valley Tech has increasingly overtaken San Francisco, Oakland, and the surrounding areas and made rents go through the roof. The culture is changing. What was it like to be artists, curators, students as those changes were happening?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Everybody moves there thinking that every artist who lives there, and every gallerist that goes in there has this moment where they’re say: “Oh, obviously, we just have to figure out how to take advantage of all of this tech money.” Like there’s just some magic code that we can crack that will suddenly convince tech people to buy physical art! That was the thing. I feel like when we first started grad school, that’s what we were like, “oh, this is somebody’s just gonna do this. It’s easy.” 

And then as we moved on, we realized that, no, it’s really hard to crack that nut. We would laugh at the next group of people who said, “oh, we’re just gonna sell art to the tech people.” But, they really–as a large generalization–were more interested in things like real estate and cars and watches and these sorts of more stereotypical, more material, wealthy things, instead of something that supports artists. And even when the big-time galleries moved into San Francisco, the Gagosian Gallery moved in and tried to have an outpost there, it’s closing now, they didn’t ever figure out that special way to get the tech people to pay attention. Of course, now we have NFT’s, which are questionable… well, that’s another conversation we don’t have to go into. Nando, do you want to add anything else?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: I felt we caught what felt like the last gasp of an art world there. Since we left in early 2018, a lot of curators have left, private spaces have closed down, galleries have closed down. I am laughing because our school closed as well. It first closed in March 2020 and then reopened. We were involved in rethinking what this program could look like in the future. And they were like: “no, thank you,” and went back to normal, and then they shut down. It’s one of the things that comes up in Buffalo: A lot that the Bay did have something Buffalo does not: that when you’re an artist there, you can find work in tech and actually get part-time creative work that will help you pay for artwork. In smaller places like Buffalo, there’s not as many opportunities for those intersections.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: The job quality is a little lower. I also do want to push back a little, Nando. I was just reading an article on ArtNet about this narrative that the Bay Area art scene is dead, but it’s coming back, it’s just not not mirroring the traditional art market. I think that’s something to investigate further there. But it’s certainly not easy. It’s not as easy to see what the art world is looking like in San Francisco, and it doesn’t look as traditionally successful as it has.

William Saas: When you said the “physical art” bit, I knew we were going to touch on NFT’s. Was that something that was live when you were still there? Or is that something that happened after you had skipped town?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Definitely after.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Nando, I remember you reading an article about a photographer who maybe did a picture of a sunflower you saw.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Even that was around 2018. I definitely had a lot of friends who were investing in various crypto things back then–some have done very well, some have forgotten the passwords to their bitcoin wallet, ups and downs!

Emily Ebba Reynolds: That wasn’t really the art scene that we were plugged into.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Even that thing wasn’t getting check money at the time.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Like I said, the Gosian Gallery opened there in 2016 and then closed in 2014 and 15. They did the–I’m stuttering a lot you guys, bear with me. They did two trial runs of the Silicon Valley Art Fair, they were trying to attract artists that would make objects that tech people would like. And it was all either derived from emojis or very shiny, mirror-based things you could do a lot of looking into. They were a complete bust. I remember walking in there and on the front, they had a paintball gun attached to a drone that was making an abstract painting. That was that desperation of time.

Scott Ferguson: Wow. So where is the high-stakes art flipping market in all this? That’s in New York, that’s elsewhere? 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: There are certainly people who buy new art, this happens in Buffalo too. The really rich people who buy art don’t buy art in the city they live in, it’s part of a bigger experience of going to another place, feeling like the red carpet is rolled out to you in a big fancy gallery or at an art fair. It’s not unheard of, it happens that people buy art in the city that they live in, but a lot of collecting really, especially people who have been used to living in a secondary or tertiary city, they’re used to going to a place and they like doing it that way. I think that’s a big part of it. Nando, anything else?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Even though local people who are well-endowed and love being in Buffalo and love the Buffalo cultural scene tend to still be drawn to LA and New York. Even in the Bay Area, it was just not a big part of the culture and a lot of galleries had a hard time making it work.

Scott Ferguson: Nando, you’re obviously from Buffalo. Our next question, I think, has a partial baked-in answer, but we’d like to hear you talk about what drew you back to Buffalo. Why did you want to establish BICA in Buffalo? Maybe you can tell us a little bit about the history of Buffalo. What’s the region been like? What are the major industries? How have things changed? What’s it like now? And maybe reflect a little bit about how place shapes your thinking about arts and arts provisioning.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I’m gonna butt in because I’m the one who convinced Nando that we should move back to Buffalo. He was resistant to it at first. When we were in the Bay Area, we were thinking about all of these problems that we’ve already covered. But another thing that we didn’t talk about is we also felt really stifled by conversations about gentrification–arts and gentrification get put together a lot, there’s definitely some chicken and egg stuff happening there. And we were concerned about anywhere we went to try to start something, if we didn’t have some kind of roots or stakes there, it being or looking like some kind of colonial enterprise. 

We started to think about how either Buffalo or Colorado (where I’m from) might be the right places to have at least a historic position in the community. And Colorado has all kinds of other growth issues and we said “maybe not the place we want to dive into right now.” And when we came to Buffalo, often, it was so clear that people were actually needed here in Buffalo, we needed more people of every kind to come here. 

Buffalo is a huge resettlement city for refugees and immigrants because we just literally need the population more. The other thing that really struck me in our previous trips to Buffalo was that people here seem to really care about the arts, maybe I was just recovering from the Bay Area syndrome of being like: “why doesn’t anyone care about this?” But we’d go to Nando’s friends’ parents’ houses, and they’d have original artworks they had paid for on their walls. And I said, “this is amazing, we should just, we should just be here, it seems like people care about that.” That felt like a good base to have. 

Historically, obviously, Buffalo is a Rust Belt city, and it has a lot of the characteristics of most Rust Belt cities. The population has been declining, from the 60s to the last census, our current population in the city is 277,000 or so. It’s not a big city, and it does have a bigger metro area. That 277,000 also puts us as the second-biggest city in New York, which is wild, because obviously there’s a huge disparity between New York City and Buffalo. 

Because of that, we’re also in this interesting position where as far as state funds are concerned, Buffalo tends to get a little more support per capita because it’s important for lawmakers to look like they’re spreading money around the state. And as the second-biggest city, you tend to have more attention than is warranted for a city of the size. The other thing that really drew us here, and that anybody who comes into Buffalo, I think, will be able to relate to, is this idea in the public imagination here that Buffalo is constantly on the edge of a resurgence. We’re just about to have our big Renaissance, party is about to start here!

William Saas: The Bills will be good this year.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: The Bills are a big part of it, and have always been, I think, but in the city that has been dealing with economic depression and struggles you could really see mental depression and emotional depression being a reality for a lot of people. There’s this strange, unending sense of, no, it’s going to get better, things are going to turn around. Which feels like a really fertile place to try something new. Nando you want to add anything? 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Not a whole lot to add there. We were thinking about where a project like this could work. Emily’s from outside Boulder and Denver where they weren’t going to solve the quality-of-life stuff and the cost-of-living issues. In Buffalo, it feels like there’s a lot of opportunities to make things happen because there’s a lot of unfulfilled and unaddressed needs. We could have gone anywhere, but we really wanted to be someplace where we felt we had real stakes and a personal connection.

William Saas: When you get back to Buffalo, you have the idea for BICA. We’d like to hear more about what y’all do. But, to set the stage: What’s the first step? We want to start an Institute for Contemporary Art in Buffalo for all these great reasons. What’s the next step? I imagine it involves money.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: The first step was that we had an idea for what we thought we wanted to do, what we thought would be a good fit. And Rock Model was a residency program that would invite artists to Buffalo. They would have an exhibition first, and then they would teach their non-art skills to non-artists. Graphic design, accounting, transcription, all of these things, but it felt with all of these new demographics moving to Buffalo, it felt like there was a need for this intersection of art and vocational work. 

Then we got back there, and we spent the first year talking to people, trying to find out where we could actually be helpful. In a place that small, the vocational art stuff was fairly well covered. But we found that the regular art scene had been diminishing a bit because it had aged so much, and there were no easy on-ramps for younger audiences. Just going to a lot of exhibitions and openings and talking to younger artists there, it was clear that there were no role models, mentors, or spaces that they felt like were theirs.

That turned into the first thing we felt we could tackle. We did a pop-up in fall 2018, just to get the name out there and give people a sense for the vibe of what a BICA exhibition and opening is like. That was as part of an event called Playground, which we’re actually partnered on now, but that first edition of it was: Artists were invited to do installations in this old school, one artist per classroom.

For our pop-up, I did an artists design classroom where I made these reading books with books, beanbags and readings for all ages. Then I invited a local drag queen, Fidelia May, to do a performance about art, culture and blow jobs. I also invited my high school history teacher, who’s a local actor, to do a lecture on whatever he wanted to (this was around the time of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings). He did this this great talk about [Anne] Hutchinson, an early Jamestown proto-feminist figure who had been expelled from the community. I wrapped that up with readings for audience members. 

Once we had this pop-up done, it was time to find a space. I had worked as an intern in arts organizations while I was in college here, and so I knew people who were on boards. I don’t want to go too much into the specifics of this, but there was a lot of drama with some local art organizations that people were eager to direct resources into something else. Our first base was an old mechanic’s shop on Elmwood Avenue, which is a main thoroughfare in Buffalo. It is a very tiny space and rent was quite affordable and it left room to be nimble, with what we wanted to do.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I also want to point out that the first thing we did was start looking into how to become a 501(c)(3), and if that was the right path for us. We did try to explore non-501(c)(3) paths, which I think is important for anyone who thinks that they have to be a 501(c)(3). But in the end, for us to take the donations that we wanted to take, it made the most sense to go that direction.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: And to get the grants. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: And for grants. 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Which we knew we would need to do.

Scott Ferguson: Can you talk a little bit more about the money side of setting up this experimental community arts institution?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Like Nando said, we had a couple of people who we had been talking to for a while and had also known Nando for most of his life at the very beginning. We were able to sell them on the idea of helping us at the start, and explained how with some upfront money, we would be able to start getting grants and doing more fundraising and keeping it sustainable on a broader level where we didn’t need just their support for as long. Obviously, we hope that everyone who has ever supported BICA will continue to, but we did get a couple of people to take a big leap with us at the beginning.

Scott Ferguson: What were the upsides and downsides of the 501(c)(3) path?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: One of the things that we’ve been actually exploring as of late –there’s ideas you can’t do, things like having a co-op that’s a 501(c)(3) but that’s actually untrue, you can. There’s something about the structure of having the board that traditionally has been a board of wealthy people who guide the decision-making of the nonprofit but often are not well versed in the work the nonprofit does, but have the ability to make huge financial and governance decisions about the organization. There’s all kinds of problems with that model, for sure. It’s based on an idea of philanthropy that comes from wealthy people who continue to have all the power and direct their funds into communities in the way that they want them to be directed. 

That was, I think, our biggest concern going into it. But as we’ve done more research, and seeing that there are people really pushing on what the structure of a 501(c)(3) has to look like. Actually, none of our major donors are on our board. Our board is mostly artists and friends. It’s all people who are close to our age. It’s not the traditional–a bunch of old white men sitting in a room that you serve coffee to while they make crazy assumptions about what you’re doing.

Scott Ferguson: Stroke their beards and deciding your fates. What you’re saying is that there’s a set of normative rules and prescriptions and procedures that attend this legal category of the 501(c)3 which, for ideological reasons, have been cemented together, but are not actually part of the legal definition of the form in the first place.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Exactly.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: It’s a pretty essential designation when it comes to donations and asking corporate sponsors for money.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: And federal and government sponsors.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Over the last few years, we’ve also been able to act as a pass-through for other projects. I was talking about Playground, which we’re involved with now. The funding and grants we get to do that–they would not appeal to these givers if it was not tax deductible. They really want to give for the perks.

William Saas: This is something that’s front of mind for us, and probably a lot of people who are interested in starting something like BICA. I’d be interested in your experience with the first confrontation you had with the wall of bureaucracy and paperwork, and the option of a lawyer.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: There’s this guy in Buffalo, he’s a friend who is an artist and a lawyer and does this. He helps people form their 501(c)3s. It’s all he does. And so I want to say it was like, we just paid him $500. Is that right Nando?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: It was a bit more, like $750. Happy to direct all listeners to him because it was very easy. As an artist, one of the things that I’ve learned is–as an artist who also has to work and teach, I’ve learned that you just don’t always have the time to do the things you want to do. And if you have the resources to make your life a little easier on most fronts, it made things so much more smooth.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I want to say, we opened the forms two times, and both times we’re fighting and at each other’s throats about not understanding what anything meant. And we said, let’s call that guy.

William Saas: Remarkably similar to buying drugs. You either know a guy or you’re waiting for the system to change to where it’s like… Glad you knew a guy.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Outsourcing work, too. We do all of our own bookkeeping. But when it comes to tax time, it’s not the most affordable way to have an accountant do all that work. It’s just something I have been hesitant to tackle because there are so many ins and outs and details. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: It’s just a poor use of our time. It’s something that we’re not interested in and don’t want to do.

William Saas: You start to feel like you’re one of those conservative lawmakers, “there’s too much paperwork at the IRS”!

Nando Alvarez-Perez: I will say, the IRS these days, post-COVID, is impossible to get in touch with. It does seem like everything is delayed. If you have a problem, it’s scary because there’s no one there listening.

William Saas: This might seem like a left turn or a divergence from the conversation. But this is exactly where we want to go. The path of the IRS to the question of public funding and public provisioning and money as such. One of the things we’re interested in talking to you about and what we’re up to in every episode of Money on the Left is rethinking money and its relationship to art, aesthetics, and also social provisioning, media making. 

We know that MMT wasn’t front of mind when you set up stakes in Buffalo with BICA, but it’s our understanding that you’ve encountered it and spent some time with it since. How would you say–as curators, artists, and community members invested in Buffalo and the art scene there–how has MMT aligned with and maybe informed or shaped your thoughts and decisions? Short version: What does money mean to BICA?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: MMT was not on our mind or even on our radar when we started BICA. But I do want to shout out that thinking about finance differently, or thinking about money differently, was part of our early conceptions. At the same time, as I left San Francisco, I had been working at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and as I was leaving, I convinced them to keep me on as a project manager on a project they were working on called Culture Bank, an idea that was germinating between the director at the time, Deborah Cullinan, and this woman, Penelope Douglas, who was a pioneer in the social finance world. 

I was working with them on writing case studies about artists who were contributing in non-financial ways to their communities, but in thinking about artists and community assets in a really different way than it had been traditionally thought of. That was ingrained in a lot of the language we were using, especially at the beginning of when we were talking about BICA. And when we were selling the initial donors on the project, we were already taking a financial [view] … framing things in a way that made more sense to them because they were people who thought more about money than about art.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: The default brain mode for all artists and arts organizations is scarcity, being afraid that there’s never enough. In the Bay Area, our school closed down, and obviously, somebody there had the resources to make that not happen. It sucks that that’s how it went. We came into Buffalo just preaching that more is more and more is better. And there is enough. There’s enough money, attention, and resources to be equitably shared with everybody.

Of course, once you are paying a lawyer to do your 501(c)(3) paperwork, and you’re working on a budget, and you say, “I’m going to invite these artists here for a period of X amount of time.” We install all of the work hours. So there’s still a production budget, a shipping budget, and an artist fee. We always want our artists to be paid for their work. When you’re doing bookkeeping, money becomes a very grubby material thing: in and out, in and out, in and out. 

It becomes really hard to stay in that mind that there’s enough out there. We are always trying to think about ways to make the very limited financial resources that we have, make an impact beyond just an exhibition or just an artist talk. The ways that we’ve done that have been buried. You wake up one day, and it’s just like, “we can make this work,” which is amazing. And then you don’t get a grant and it’s like, “okay, well, now we need to be very practical and scrappy about how we pull this out.”

Scott Ferguson: I want to get into some of the specific projects and programs. You’ve teased us with a bunch of the different things you do. I want to get into it. But before we do, I want to ask you about the pandemic. I’ll just say in learning about BICA, and about you two and what you’ve been up to, and what you’ve been building, I came across a podcast that was recorded, I think, in 2019. It was a Bay Area arts podcast. I was listening to it from the vantage of 2022, knowing that a pandemic is coming, and you two are talking about your plans and what you’re up to, and it was all very exciting. And I just kept thinking to myself, “oh my god, the pandemic is coming. And they have no idea that they’re gonna have to try to do all this in this global emergency.” So I wanted to ask you, how did that go? How did you build all this out in the midst of a pandemic?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I think it’s so funny that you were listening to a podcast from before, I was just listening to a podcast with my fitness guru. It’s before the pandemic and I thought, “oh, God, she doesn’t know what’s gonna hit her.” Anyways, go ahead Nando.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: That is a good way to get into the work that we do, too, because I feel like the pandemic–obviously, I don’t want to be dismissive of anyone else’s experience. But it was not a not positive thing for us. By the time BICA closed in March 2020, we had done four exhibitions in our space there, and every year of programming was designed around tackling or addressing some specific issue. 

That first year of curating was about reimagining how arts institutions can be more engaged with the world around them and actually serve a purpose to their users. Each exhibition, like the first one, was when we wanted to address this issue about the younger audiences. We reached out to our friends, Bonanza, a queer, collaborative group in the Bay Area that does work that’s very campy, kitschy, fun. They’ve gotten known for their fashion shows where they make clothes out of all kinds of different things, often just garbage. We knew that these fashion shows would be a great way to draw in this new audience. They did an all-ages, all-body-types, all-experience-levels fashion show that went great. 

The following exhibition was the work of Lindsay Preston Zappas, who runs an art review in Los Angeles called Carla, Contemporary Art Review LA. We asked her to come and do a show and then do an arts writing workshop. And that led to [the magazine] Cornelia, as we realized that we could produce this print publication, selling ads to local arts organizations who had nowhere else to advertise. Each exhibition came with this social-practice, community-engagement thing and they were, honestly, really hard to pull off. Each one, we felt, was tapping into a new audience and we weren’t gaining long-term traction with those people. 

In early 2020, we exhibited Puerto Rican artists. We were talking about creating a float for the Puerto Rican Day Parade in August 2020. Thank God, that didn’t happen. It felt like we were just speeding up and speeding up and speeding up, and we didn’t know to what end or outcome. When the lockdowns hit, it was like, “okay, this is a good time to take stock, breathe.” 

We got the magazine online, which we at first insisted would only be in print, but then it seemed like a good time to go online. And all of those social practicey engagements, we were able to re-evaluate and rethink how we want those to work at max. That’s where the impetus for the BICA School Program started, because it was a way to start building an audience for these artists, engagement and projects. Do you want to add?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Through another organization’s misfortune–an organization that didn’t weather the pandemic as well, although I think their finances were questionable beforehand, and then the pandemic laid everything there. They moved out of this space we have moved into. Which, for us, was huge. It’s a much bigger space. We spent the first three months of 2021 building out this space to meet our needs instead of this previous organization’s needs. We’re now part of this historic art center, we get to build on this cool legacy. So we got really lucky in that moment, as well. 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: The rent went down too. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: And our rent decreased, which I think we’re not the only business that figured out that the real estate market was crazy in the middle of COVID. Since we don’t depend on income from ticket sales or anything like that–it’s free to visit BICA, it’s free to pick up our magazine–we weren’t losing money. And then suddenly, there were all these new grants to help support arts organizations and increase their visibility during these times when everybody was stuck inside. Artists can often think of crazy ideas to entertain people, we were able to take advantage of some of those. Which was just lucky in positioning. Now as we emerge from a pandemic, we keep trying to remember that the feeling of speeding up and speeding up and speeding up is not sustainable. And so we have to keep remembering to not let ourselves get back there if we can.

Scott Ferguson: Tell us about the BICA School, which is different from traditional art schools you attended.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: BICA School is the most recent project we have launched at BICA. As Nando mentioned, our school started closing in March 2020 and then continued to zombify, and really closed last June, I think. As they were trying to figure out if there was a way to stay open, Nando and I served on the Committee to Reimagine SFAI where we met a lot with people who were interested in trying to keep the school open for various reasons. As we had all these meetings, I started to instill in both of our minds that the things that were most important about our education were the people we met there and the community we formed while we were in this intensive two-year program.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: To expand on that a bit, I think at BICA, a great many of the exhibitions we’ve done have been through SFAI role models, connections, and friends. Besides just being the community that was formed, it’s also the professional milieu we were able to build.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: There’s this importance of this network. The other thing that we really felt or especially that I really felt that we got out of SFAI–which was a small and scrappy school when we were there–was something about learning to do things ourselves, because the institution was not going to provide us the resources and things we needed. We needed to learn how to build the thing ourselves: If we wanted to stage an exhibition, we needed to figure out how to do that on our own because the administration was not prepared to help us with that. Thinking of those is the most important things that we got out of school. Obviously, the readings and writing papers was helpful, but I don’t go back and read my thesis very often. So I said, “oh, well, those things should be free, right? Those things are not very expensive to put together!” Yet, somehow, I graduated from art school with over $50,000 worth of debt, we don’t need to go to exact numbers. 

Obviously, it doesn’t make sense, especially in a field where you know people are not going to make a lot of money. The person who goes into the art fields and makes a lot of money is a very rare breed. It doesn’t make sense for professionalized art school to cost that much. And maybe it doesn’t make sense for it to cost anything at all. With those kinds of ideas we said, “well, we should try to start this school.” And then we fought ourselves for like a year thinking, “oh, we need to set up all these structures for it.” And then, finally, we realized we are getting to that point where we’ve been talking about this to all of our friends and families for too long, and we needed to just actually do something about it. 

We pulled the trigger last June and had an info session where we invited anybody who was interested in the BICA school to come and learn more about what we were thinking. We sent it to all of our audiences, but we also tried to send it especially to the universities who could make sure that people who had recently graduated from BFA programs or art programs would get it, trying to focus on Gen Z, the millennial generation. And also, obviously, there have been a bunch of people we’ve met through the years that we had been envisioning when we thought of the program. We invited all these people to come, we thought that maybe we’d get 15 people at this info session. Then we talked about it for an hour. At the end of it, we presented people with a piece of paper that asked them to commit to this journey with us for the next year.

We thought that maybe eight people might sign on to a year-long thing no one really knows what it is yet–seems risky. We thought maybe people wouldn’t want to do that. But all 30 of the people who were there signed the piece of paper. In July, we started having biweekly reading groups and critiques. At the beginning, they were mostly led by Nando and me but the group has started leading them themselves. They’re very insistent on not having a hierarchy which is great with us because the idea isn’t that we do way more work to make this happen. We provide the space and a basic framework.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: For the Money on the Left audience, maybe it’d be helpful to expand on what the traditional model of an art career is supposed to look like, which is that you are essentially regarded as untouchable if you don’t have an MFA. First you have to pay a school to get this degree that qualifies you to look good to potential buyers and galleries and also, of course, to teach. And when you exhibit your work, you’re doing it all on […], the gallery doesn’t pay you up front, you’re only paid in sales. So you go further into debt to make each exhibition happen. And teaching jobs, as you guys know well, are few and far between. We’re all in this debt scheme together.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Especially as arts programs are cut (I’m not saying that I think that everybody should get this professional degree) but if you’re also cutting all the jobs they can go into, it’s especially confusing.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: You realize that what you get out of school is a community of like-minded peers and colleagues who will help you build a thing, and a way of being an artist in the world. You shouldn’t have to pay for that. The BICA school model is nothing new–there’s lots of examples of self-organizing alternatives to MFAs, some that have gone on longer than others. We figured we could take this core idea that what you get out of school is a community of peers and start with these basics of readings and critiques and let the users of the school develop it.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Fear is pretty important. It’s pretty important to have fear. 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Fear helps.

Scott Ferguson: And do the participants work across media?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Yes, we’ve got some poets who are trying to see if this is helpful for them, too. The group is all over the place, but in a way that’s fun to experiment with right now and see how it goes for everyone.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Poets, musicians, painters, 3D printer people …

Emily Ebba Reynolds: A sex education specialist. She’s a fun one.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: It really runs the gamut. Some people are there more for critiques, some are there more for reading groups, some are there just for the energy and being involved in this thing. The last thing I’ll add is that, within about two months, it started to become clear that the participants were eager for a space of their own. We helped them lease space, it’s also in the BICA Complex, a shared workspace, exhibition space, and event venue.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: They’re running that fully collectively. They each pay in for rent as they can each month, and then are fundraising to cover the rest of their rent for the year. Again, we’ll see how it goes. But so far, they’re not very far behind, which is good.

William Saas: Much talk about finance and art in those contexts?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: We’ve talked a lot about the problems with the art market. One of the things we’d like to do as we go forward is focus on areas for multiple weeks. As we’ve gone so far, it’s been like, “oh, one person wants to read this, or another person wants to read this or last night, they wanted to listen to a Frank Ocean album,” and that went okay. I think more directed reading is probably the right thing. I think that some MMT stuff might be helpful and some thinking about how it can materialize and how artists could illustrate it might be a fun exercise to bring in.

William Saas: Maybe we can just sketch that out–what would that look like? Coming from you and your background? How would the MMT approach fit in the ad hoc curriculum?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, because I’ve been very into reading about … But it’s been a tough conceptual sell.

Scott Ferguson: To you or to others?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: To others. I think people hear about the Federal Reserve and most artists’ brains just go off. It has come up a bunch of [times] Taxes are not for what you think they are. We’re working on a grant, I’ll just be very honest about this. And we’ll see how much is […] people don’t listen. We and the BICA Schoolers said, “we need to pay rent.” This grant cannot be used to pay rent. So we need to create roles for each person to pay because they really just want to pay as many artists as they can. A lot of the pandemic responses have been a spray-and-pray approach to just blasting out as much money in small chunks to as many artists as possible. I feel like the effects have not been too different than the $1,200 that we got from Trump. It just all goes into rents and stuff. But the specifics of each grant rarely allow you to put the money where you want to. For us, it’s usually overhead stuff. We are still not paid for our work at BICA. That is one thing that makes it all go round, I think. And as we’re talking about how to write this grant, we need to create facilitator roles for the artists that will then get paid. I was not there last night, but it sounds like they had a conversation clarifying that it’s okay, that they will get paid, and this pay goes back into rent. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I said, “we can’t use this to pay for rent, but we could use this to pay each of you as facilitators.” Before I even finished the sentence, one of them said, “yeah, and we’ll pay it back in rent.” And I said, “if that’s what you want to do, that sounds good.”. I’m not gonna tell you that you can’t do it that way. 

Scott Ferguson: What is that stipulation designed to do? 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: All of these things are put in place because at some point, there was a problem. The past problem is that nonprofits have paid outrageous salaries to their employees, have had insane overhead costs for rent and other things, and justify why the state doesn’t want to spend money on things that are not being used appropriately.

But then, of course, it’s the thing of bad faith versus good faith. No one feels like they can trust anyone to do the right thing with the money and they’re not willing to take that leap to assume that anybody would not misuse their funds. In history, it’s not always proven that people do use their funds properly. 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: We’re in the space that we are because of a mis-used grant. It definitely surprised us. We’ve had such an exciting year with the grants that we’ve gotten. And we thought that would start solving all of our problems. But the step from getting those grants to consistent staffing funding is a big relief.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: It’s really weird because it essentially asks for organizations to use private money to pay for all those things–whatever you can get from private donors. When I worked at YBCA, our biggest fundraiser each year was a dream house raffle, which is essentially gambling, right? People who never came to the organization paid money to buy tickets to possibly win a home that they would immediately have to sell because the taxes would be so high. That was the only way that the organization could make enough fundraising money that they could pay their overhead, their basic overhead of staffing, which is such a backwards way to think of it. 

Instead, perhaps, we should take care of the people who are working every day and not make those positions dependent on that private money. Because then we start to run into the same thing where boards say, “oh, well, I’d like my son to do this job.” Or, “let’s make sure another white man gets to this position” and continues to sustain all the same problems.

Scott Ferguson: If we were to imagine a world of arts and arts provisioning that wasn’t austere and that was publicly supported and funded in robust ways, and included a federal Job Guarantee, which in our previous conversations you have suggested you support. What is your position in the world, your experience as artists and curators? What can you teach us folks who are really interested in fighting for a federal Job Guarantee? What should we be thinking about? What should we be arguing for from the arts world perspective?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: A couple of things. First, thinking about how many of the are-related pandemic responses to COVID have been to take usually federal money distributed to a lot of artists in fairly small amounts to do aesthetic embellishments to pre-existing programs and projects. That can be fine, it can absolutely be very helpful to put a nice artists-made veneer on top of community development program, but when I’m thinking about what a Job Guarantee could mean in the arts, I would hope that local organizations on the ground would have a way to direct the financial resources to where they see a need. 

I think on the one hand, arts organizations that are always dealing with issues of staffing would all of a sudden have access to people who could handle marketing, social media and all of these things, they can really help the organization bring in more people. And then on the artist’s side, the crazy optimist in me says, “I would hope it would mean that the art world would actually decenter.” We talk so much in the arts about “art worlds” and not an “art world.” But when we talk about the Art World–big A, big W, most people have an idea of what that means. It’s the art fairs. It’s the major museums in New York and LA and Berlin. I think that if artists didn’t feel like the only way to sustain a life was to move to New York or LA, we would see artists staying where they are or going to places where they felt a real connection. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Somewhere they just wanted to be. 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: If you spend any time talking to artists from New York City… some will love it, but most are just white-knuckling it for years and then decades, hoping that things will work out. And it’s true, that is the one place where you can make a career in the arts because people actually window shop for art there. It just doesn’t happen in Buffalo. I could see artists’ evaluations of where a life could be made completely reshaped.

Most artists don’t get into the arts because they want to be a famous artist, they do it because it’s a way of using their brains that suits them, because we’ve all been sold on this idea that art is good, culture is good, the aesthetic realm can offer all these new ways to see the world. I think artists are often simply not making the work they want to make because they have to direct it towards a certain market. And I could see that the JG starts to dissolve that.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I also think it would take some of the risk out of being an artist, when you have a sense that there’s something to fall back on. I think a lot of people are artists because they feel they always even want to be, often it’s one of those things… “oh, this is the only thing I can do.”

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Just to go back to the Bay Area, on the one hand, it’s great to have all of these jobs available to artists. On the other hand, most artists leave the arts because they say, “I can get a job at Apple? What am I doing?” There’s this constant brain drain out of the arts to other sectors. It would be so interesting to see that being reversed.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Healthcare and having the support to not feel like you’re making a stupid decision that’s just too risky to make any sense.

William Saas: I’m thinking of David Graeber, his advocacy for something like Universal Basic Income, specifically for artists. As artists, maybe you could help us consider, as we start to wrap up, why the Job Guarantee makes sense over other possible avenues?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: I don’t want to toot our own horn, but we spend a lot of time talking to artists and organizers and community members where they are and we can get an actual sense for what their needs and resources are. Reading more about the Job Guarantee helps me reframe UBI as this libertarian dreamscape of “it would be nice to have more cash in our pockets, but what are we going to spend it on and why?” I think having those voices on the ground that can direct the work where it’s needed would make the money useful and not just inflationary.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I want to throw out a maybe more holistic and less financial [perspective]. There are a lot of UBI programs being tested on artists right now. It’s a really common thing.

William Saas: You say tested on artists that sounds like…

Scott Ferguson: Art rats.

William Saas: Yes, art rats.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I think they probably mostly like it. But I also think that it continues to propagate this idea of the lone artists working alone in their studio, having not a great sense of their world or their community, which I think is a really “over” idea of what art is … It’s a very capitalistic idea, a very patriarchal idea of how art works. 

Funding it in a way essentially continues to be in the form of: “We’ll just pay you your salary to do whatever you want” doesn’t help the rest of the world see the value. This doesn’t really help. It’s meant for a very specific kind of artist. I think a lot of artists are perfectly happy to work in a job that helps them have a better sense of their community. They bring a lot to jobs that they work in. Obviously, I don’t want artists to have to do backbreaking labor for 40 hours a week, but I think most artists are pretty happy to see people and solve problems with them.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: I will add that this came up in a BICA School conversation a couple of weeks ago, it was at the extreme ends of a Job Guarantee, at least as we have seen it in America, is artists no longer wanting to paint WPA murals really badly. And so we get, in large part, abstract expressionism coming out of a rejection of this. You do still need to leave space, artists are going to do what artists are going to do. But I do think that they are, generally, by their nature, more other-directed than a lot of other kinds of laborers. You would still need to find some fine line there. It sounds really cheesy. I said this when we had the first info session for BICA School: “I know that when you get artists in a room, awesome things happen, and they’re capable of making things happen out of almost nothing.” Providing more opportunities and more intersections for artists to work in the real world would be awesome.

Scott Ferguson: We’ve spent a long time criticizing capitalist atomized society and artmaking. But, still, individuals do exist and Nando, you’re an artist, and you make a lot of really provocative and interesting work. Could we ask you to talk about your own work and what are your practices? What materials do you work with? What are you up to? What have you been exploring?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Feel free to cut me short on this. Obviously working with tiny […] has made me think about BICA and Cornelia and all this stuff as an artwork of its own. Emily and I always have conversations about: “Are you an artist, Emily?” And it’s just like… who cares. Good work is being done. My own work hasn’t moved into social practice, but thinking about BICA and working through BICA has helped me reframe my own work around audience and context. 

For years, I’ve been working with photography as a kernel of everything else, the work might come out in installations. I do larger installations that use extruded aluminum, there are a lot of conceptual underpinnings in the material. It’s a material you see used for trade show booths, and they’ll use it a lot in sci-fi movies and TV as a material that looks really futuristic. I think it already looks dated. It’s also often used to make things like 3D printers and cotton carve machines. Most recently, it’s been used as COVID barriers. I keep thinking I’m moving away from this one material, but it just keeps waking up. The installations use a lot of photographs I make in my studio that collapse historical movements into one flat scene. Lots of blending of both avant-garde and kitsch stuff. And then there’ll be books and beanbags and things to get people to engage with the intellectual backdrop to the work. 

Two exhibitions I’ve been pretty proud of recently: I showed some work in a middle school here, where my usual work just felt overbearing and condescending to a bunch of eighth graders. I was trying to think, “what were the things that I was aesthetically into then?” It was jean patches, chain wallets,boondoggle and Tamagotchis. I was doing, you can’t see me, in quotes, “research” on YouTube and discovered the world of a VSCO girl, who’s an ecologically minded, middle schooler/high schooler who really loves to wear crocs, drinks only out of metal straws, and is really into save the whales.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: The turtles I thought.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: And there’s this whole culture of Tamagotchis. And then I got into the e-boy and e-girl scene, this post-goth internet persona. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: These things are probably so dated, I feel like they didn’t survive the pandemic.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: It was weird for me to discover that kids these days have a lot of nostalgia for the same objects that I have nostalgia for at that age. And so that show was called Eternal Flame. The Eternal Flame is a local geological feature here, open natural gas events behind the waterfall that as a kid growing up here you go to a lot. That name just seemed to work, it is calling upon the weird eternal recurrence of these consumer trends.

Last fall, I did an exhibition in a confession booth in an old girls’ middle school. That was a really fun opportunity to address conversations around disinformation versus conspiracy theories, using the confessional as a way to explore trauma, especially national traumas that are under-researched. I’m just reading about Jeffrey Epstein, weird connections to intelligent figures was really the start of that work. And I thought it would be a much longer project but then had this opportunity, this very, very, very tiny space to bring it all together. That was a lot of fun. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: It came with an essay, which I feel like was written as part of the show. The essay is part of the exhibition.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: And the text existed as a standalone piece that was about the backdrop of the work and didn’t exactly directly address it and that work was a lot of fun. Using Polaroids to take pictures out of old newspapers and off my screen and using the Polaroid, which is regarded as a very truthy medium, to start to tell these lies and shake your certainty about how an image got made and where I was in its making.

Scott Ferguson: I’m looking at this show, it’s so striking. There’s an image of JFK, a cut-out collage image where JFK’s face is like wood. And then I also see this really dark picture that looks like a clay Mickey Mouse. What are the implications or suggestions? What are the relations here?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: JFK with his head removed is an image familiar to a lot of Americans. He’s photographed with this wood veneer as the background and the wood veneer start to work their way into the work as a way to frame these works. It was just a perfect match for the confession booth architecture itself. 

Veneer art has become this really interesting thing to me, because it’s a very overt lie. It’s lying to you on its surface. But you’re still supposed to act as though it’s just wood. And then the Mickey Mouse piece, I was thinking about the stories and myths that constitute our political imagination, and how over-simplified and reduced a lot of the–no offense to my fellow Americans–Americans seem to have a pretty narrow scope of how we come to believe the things that we do, and how those things relate to broader historical narratives.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I was going to say I think there’s something–going back to that idea of what, how does this come in art? I feel like that’s something Nando might be working towards. But something about that art has often–art in the broad sense to television, and movies, and all kinds of music–have helped people sometimes see those moments when a deeply held truth is not true. And something like the way that money works, or that they’ve been told budgets work on the federal scale–these are the kind of things that maybe someday artists can help make a little space for people to think more imaginatively about.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: That was a great way to tie it all. 

William Saas: Excellent.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I’ve written some essays in my day.

Scott Ferguson: Maybe you do go back to your thesis.

William Saas: Are you working as a curator again, as we close out? Is there anything that you’re working on you’d like to talk about?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: It’s funny because now Nando and I almost always curate together, which I actually really appreciate. I have always been more of a person who likes to work on a team than alone. We’re in the middle of a series of exhibitions at BICA right now under this umbrella of recovering futures, but we’re really thinking about recovering from the pandemic in a more holistic way. That sounds really cheesy, but the artists we’re working with are in the witchy vein of recovery or…

Scott Ferguson: That doesn’t sound cheesy. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: No, it’s not cheesy. That’s the thing, we wrote a lot of grants to make it sound very cheesy because the grantors love a cheesy thing. But in reality, it’s about community healing and long-standing practices of healing that people have done together instead of medicines. Next year, we’re working on a certain entity… want to talk about the Maps to the Territory series?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Sure. For Fall ’23 through Summer ’24, we’ve got this rough idea of looking at artists who are–now I’m thinking too hard about what we wrote in this NDA Grant–who are reframing traditionally known narratives, and well-mapped territories, through new indices. We’re showing the work of Lee Hunter, who has been working on this world-building project. They’re working in stone photography, video work, to create this future landscape and artifacts that come out of this imagined archive of a post-human future. And we’re showing the work of Maximilian Goldfarb–I would have a hard time describing exactly what he does, but he’ll take a found image of some unusual industrial objects. One thing he did was an Indian Maoist group was making IEDs, and he made a fake IED.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: He takes a picture. And then he writes an odd audio or an Alt Text description of the image. He’s working on over 1000 of them.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Weirdly, the IED he made was used as a news photo about this actually existing Maoist group in India, which is just wild. And then finally, we’ll be selling the work of Joy Reid Minaya, a Dominican-born artist who’s been in New York for years. She tackles postcolonial narratives about the Caribbean, usually through the lens of tourism, and how tourists view the Caribbean world now.

Scott Ferguson: Thanks so much for coming on the show. Before we go, you can tell our audience how to find you online?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: We’re not Twitter people because artists tend not to live in the twittersphere. But you can find BICA @BICA.Buffalo on Instagram or at TheBICA.org. If you want to find me on Instagram, I’m @EmilyEbbaReynolds. And Nando is @NandoDotEternity but “dot” is spelled out. And Nando’s website is NandoAlvarezParez.com.

Scott Ferguson: Great, thanks so much for coming! I hope we can continue this conversation in the future. Thanks.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Thank you guys. Yes, please.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: It’s been fun.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Jakob Feinig (transcription), & Meghan Saas (graphic art)

Primary Document 08262022a by Nando Alvarez-Perez

MEDIUM: FEMME – 8 – ABORTION (PART 2)

Charlotte and Naty continue their discussion of abortion and reproductive justice internationally in the wake of the repeal of Roe v Wade in this much delayed second segment of three.

Topics include : vegetables souls, the AMA, the progressive era, 70s Australia, the Bruenigs, dirtbag left media, Joe Biden, the democrats, Dorothy Roberts, New Zealand, disobedience, community and care, doulas, travel, Judge Dredd, decriminilization, insect graveyards, eugenics, American exceptionalism, Japan, Margaret Sanger, data surveillance, Guttmacher union, Catholicism, the green tide in Latin America, doctors, Roe v wade, state laws, Margaret Sanger, Clarence Thomas, the supreme court, as well as orgs to donate to.

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music: “Yum” from “This Would Be Funny If It Were Happening To Anyone But Me” EP by flirting.
http://flirtingfullstop.bandcamp.com
Twitter: @actualflirting

Political Economy of ‘The Rehearsal’

Cohosts Charlotte Tavan (@moltopopulare) and Will Beaman (@agoingaccount) discuss the reflexive and imaginative political economy of Nathan Fielder’s HBO series, The Rehearsal. The show points towards an apophatic ethics of social provisioning, presenting an ambiguous portrait of care, production, and human agency. This portrait remains irreducibly and collective, in excess of the powers and intentions that constitute social belonging.

Internet for the People with Ben Tarnoff

Money on the Left is joined by Ben Tarnoff—tech worker, writer, and cofounder of Logic Magazine—about his book Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future (Verso Books, 2022). In his book, Tarnoff provides a comprehensive history and a critical topology of this thing we have come to know, love, hate, swear off, get on, and grow bored of: the Internet. Throughout our conversation, Tarnoff displaces the haphazard history of the Internet that circulates often-unquestioned in our foggy collective memories, helping us to see more clearly how the Internet came to be “so broken.” Tarnoff refuses to accept privatization or the profit motive as given or inevitable. Instead, he evaluates the history of privatization and profiteering from the perspective of public provisioning. He does so, moreover, in order to advocate for heterogeneous public alternatives and cooperative futures. Ultimately, Tarnoff fashions a vision for the future of the Internet as a de-privatized, public space for collective flourishing, which is to say, an “Internet for the People.”

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com

Transcript

The following was transcribed by Mercedes Ohlen and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson: Ben Tarnoff, welcome to Money on the Left.

Ben Tarnoff: Scott, thanks so much for having me.

Scott Ferguson: We’ve asked you to join us today to discuss your recently published book, Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future (Verso, 2022). The bulk of the book tells a synoptic, critical history of the internet: How it came to be, and how it came to be–as you note–so broken. 

You tell this story in an unexpected way. You not only eschew the fallen redemption narratives of Web3 and blockchain libertarianism, you also proceed with a set of assumptions and values that very much complement the approach to public money politics at Money on the Left. Specifically, your project refuses to accept privatization or the profit motive as given or inevitable. Instead, you evaluate the history of privatization and profiteering from the perspective of public provisioning while advocating for heterogeneous public alternatives and cooperative futures. To start us off, how would you characterize most hegemonic histories of the internet today? What do they tend to overlook or get wrong? How does your approach substantially differ? And why does this matter for building what you call an internet for the people?

Ben Tarnoff: It’s an interesting question, Scott, because I’m not sure there is a hegemonic story about where the internet comes from, if I had to think about it. I think there are pieces of the story that the person on the street would know. I think folks are vaguely familiar with the idea that the internet came out of US military research. I think the more recent history of the internet, the rise of Google, Facebook, Uber and so on, may be familiar to them depending on how old they are. 

But I’m not sure there is a hegemonic story about how all those things fit together, that there is a continuous single narrative of the internet’s creation, its development, its commercialization. There is some good scholarly work on these subjects, which I draw on in the book. But I really have thought of my intervention as not so much telling people what they get wrong about the story of the internet but giving them that story for the first time (in many cases) or at least the story as a single story, knitting together some of the bits and pieces they may have floating around, half-remembered in their head, trying to bring it all together into a story with a beginning, middle and end.

Scott Ferguson: Perhaps to clarify what I was up to with that initial question: I think that floating, underarticulated narrative or bits of narrative that are around I tend to associate with some sense that the government and the military were involved at the beginning, but then this almost tabula rasa, where the web became a libertine, freely associating, extra-legal, extra-political utopia. And then Web 2.0 comes along, and these major corporations take over and ruin that utopia. And then that licenses a certain hegemonic project today, which is trying to imagine a Web3 that is returning to that wild west utopia, but now with private property laws and more order. That’s what I had in mind, which maybe isn’t the totally hegemonic, or the full story, or not everybody believes that. But I guess that’s what I was gesturing towards.

Ben Tarnoff: I think there’s a generational aspect here: Folks who remember the web of the 1990s in some form are likely to hold the types of views that you describe, Scott. I would characterize it as a form of internet nostalgia. I talk a bit about internet nostalgia in the book, and I think it’s important to note that nostalgia has been a component of how people have experienced the internet from the very beginning. People have felt nostalgic for the internet of the mid-1980s, the early 1990s. All of us feel nostalgic for some era of the internet and I happen to be of the age where I do feel nostalgic for the so-called “Open Web” of the 1990s, the world of GeoCities and so on.

In the book, I try to treat nostalgia fairly because there is something real there. There is an accurate perception of the fact that the internet has changed quite dramatically. And I think we could say, in some ways for the worse. But it also can give us a somewhat distorted view of how the different periods of the internet fit together. For instance, to take the era of the so-called “open web”: we still have the open web. In fact, the openness of the web is what has facilitated the rise of the so-called platforms. Google, to take an example, is able to sprinkle its advertising software throughout the web precisely because the web is open. So, the open parts of the open web are what make the closed parts closed, if that makes sense. The open and the closed exist, if you like, in a dialectical relationship with one another. This is a left podcast so I can say words like dialectical. I want to encourage us to take that view of internet nostalgia where again, I don’t want to be dismissive or condescending to people who have these views because I have my own private set of longings for a different internet, but they don’t always give us a complete picture of how these different things fit together.

I should also say that any project to build a better internet, which is partly what motivated the decision to write this book, my commitment to that project, can’t go in reverse. There is no way to reverse the privatization of the internet, for instance. What we need to do is to come up with a creative reimagining of the internet that takes it forward, we can’t simply put the gears in reverse as much as we might like to.

William Saas: I want to sit with that for just a second. I think the argument that there is no reversal of the privatization of the internet–that’s a very profound observation that may be troubling for some listeners. I want to ask you to expand on that. One might imagine a world where the internet goes down, and there’s some kind of catastrophe. Is there not a clean slate? There’s no reversing the privatization? Maybe you can unpack that for us a little bit more? 

Ben Tarnoff: What I mean by that is that privatization created the modern internet and that process was a creative process. It wasn’t simply a matter of enclosure. Enclosure is a metaphor that is very popular among Marxists, among those on the left, and has been increasingly applied to digital spaces, and there may be contexts in which it’s appropriate. But it would not be accurate to say, precisely, that the private sector enclosed the internet, which had formerly been a commons, which would suggest that all we need to do is to break down the fences erected by those bad landowners, as in rural England, and reclaim the commons for ourselves. 

 That’s not what happens. Of course, the internet, as I’m sure we’ll discuss, was created by the public sector, specifically by the US military, and its development would not have been possible without billions of dollars of public money. And indeed, the private sector did take over the internet without paying the public sector any compensation. However, it didn’t simply inherit it and keep it as it is, because what it was taking over was essentially an academic research network. It was relatively small by today’s standards. It was relatively unusable by today’s standards.

It had to be quite significantly developed and crucially, it had to be renovated for the purpose of profit maximization. Privatization is not simply this passive process whereby public assets pass into private hands and that’s that. In the case of the internet, privatization is a creative process. It involves remaking the internet into what we have today. So that’s what I mean when I say we can’t simply reverse that process because the internet as it exists today is a product of that process. Something, I think, more imaginative, is required.

Scott Ferguson: Before we dive into the details of the history of the internet you tell, would you mind first sketching out the structure or topology of the contemporary internet, as you do in your book, I think it’d be really helpful, especially for our less tech-savvy listeners to sketch this out and define some of the key terms you unpack in the book such as “stack,” pipes” and “platforms.”

Ben Tarnoff: The “stack” is a metaphor that would be familiar to folks who are in the world of computer science or software engineering, it’s a very common metaphor in the worlds of computing and networking. And in particular, it’s applied frequently to the internet. Now, my take on the “stack” is a bit reductive, it’s a simplified schema of the “stack.” I split the “stack” into two layers. A “stack” is really just a set of layers piled on top of one another, like a house, you can think of the floors in a house. 

In my simplified schema, I’m talking about two layers: what I call the “pipes,” which is basically the physical infrastructure of the internet, the fiber optic cables, the routers that are required to get a packet of data from one place to another. And here the companies involved are firms like Verizon and AT&T–internet service providers–as well as companies that operate the deeper networks of the internet. And then when we move up the “stack,” we get to a different layer, which is inhabited by what people often call the “platforms.” I take issue with that term, which is a bit of pedantry we can get into later if you like, but this is essentially the application layer of the internet. This is where the apps and the sites are. This is where we experience the internet. 

Splitting the internet into two helps organize my book, it’s literally the two sections of my book. But there’s also a chronological story implied here, because my book is mostly about not just how the internet was created but how it was privatized. And privatization begins at the bottom of the “stack” with the “pipes” and then it moves up the “stack” to the application layer. There’s a spatial metaphor, which helps us understand how the internet fits together. But there’s also a historical aspect because privatization ascends from the bottom to the top of the “stack.”

William Saas: So where did it all begin? How did this thing we call the internet get started? Where was the first pipe laid? And what does it look like at the outset? And if we could think also about the original vision, values and ideals behind the internet at its origins.

Ben Tarnoff: To talk about where the internet comes from, we probably have to say very briefly what the internet is. We discussed the “stack,” which gives us an architectural overview of the internet, but it doesn’t give us the ontology, so to speak, it doesn’t really give us what is the internet. The internet is fundamentally a language. It’s a language that lets different computer networks talk to one another, and thus interconnect to form a network of networks. What this means specifically is that the internet is a protocol, a set of protocols. And a protocol is basically a bunch of rules for how computers should communicate. 

The very first internet protocol was created by US military researchers in the mid-1970s. And through a series of experiments, they figure out that this internet protocol is capable of stitching together different networks from around the world into a single network of networks. And why this matters, why they’re doing it–the military pretext for these experiments–is to project computing power from the United States into the battlefield. 

Now, what does that mean more specifically? What it means is that there are large mainframes, million-dollar machines, very heavy, very expensive computers, located in places like northern Virginia, that are capable of running computationally intensive programs of the kind that might be useful to soldiers who are deployed in places like Vietnam. The vision is that those soldiers who are deployed in places like Vietnam could have a small, less powerful computer in their Jeep, for instance, and communicate wirelessly with that mainframe in northern Virginia through the internet protocol and maybe get some output from an application that helps them gain an upper hand on the battlefield. 

That’s the vision for the internet. That’s why it gets funded by the Pentagon’s R&D arm, DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]. Now that’s not actually what the internet is used for. Once they have this protocol, the Pentagon realizes that it could be useful for interconnecting various computer networks they have within the Department of Defense. They have various computer networks, and it would be useful for various reasons for these networks to be able to communicate with one another, and they use this new internet protocol to do so. Over the course of the 1980s, the internet goes from being a protocol to a place. It actually begins to describe a distinct set of networks that have been interconnected with the internet protocol, which in turn becomes the internet protocols. 

By the early 1990s, the federal government continues to control the internet. But it’s passed from military to civilian hands. By the early 1990s, the National Science Foundation, which is a federal agency tasked with supporting basic research, controls the internet. In particular, it controls the main backbone, which is really the main artery of the internet at that time, something called NSFNET. In the early to mid-1990s, the National Science Foundation takes steps to rapidly and comprehensively privatize these “pipes” of the internet. 

It’s important to note that privatization was the plan all along, the federal government never had any intention of running the internet indefinitely. But the timetable gets moved up because there’s so much demand–unexpected demand–by people who want to get online. At the time, the internet is mostly for academic researchers. But things like the rise of the World Wide Web, the rise of graphical web browsing, is making the internet more popular. So, demand is soaring, capacity is limited, and the National Science Foundation feels that privatization has to happen sooner rather than later in order to stimulate the type of private investment that would be needed to create capacity to meet that expanded demand.

The crucial date is April 1995, at which point the National Science Foundation terminates its backbone, the NSFNET, and the private sector takes over. Crucially, this takeover happens with no compensation, with no conditions, with no enduring public or non-commercial foothold in the new internet. In other words, privatization of the “pipes” in the 1990s takes a particularly extreme and comprehensive form. And this is really due to extensive industry influence over the process. Telecoms have a lot of money to make from the new internet, from selling access to it, and they don’t want any interference in their profit-making prerogative. 

There were alternative proposals floating around at the time, I talk about them in the book. There were always ideas of how the internet could be organized differently that would not have ceded the “pipes” so completely to the private sector. But crucially, no social movement existed to make those ideas active and to overcome industry opposition. This story is really what I tell in the first part of my book, because privatization was not an event, it was a process. And this is actually just the first part of the process. This is the privatization that begins at the bottom of the “stack” in the basement of the internet, if you like, with the “pipes.” The next piece of that story will be privatization moving up the “stack.”

Scott Ferguson: How would you situate this within the political and ideological climate of the United States in the 1980s and 1990s? I think of familiar stories about the rise of Reaganism and then Clintonism being a neoliberal re-articulation of the Democratic Party and its platform. What are those broader changes doing to shape privatization as a process of the internet?

Ben Tarnoff: The ideological backdrop here does matter. You have Clinton on the one hand, whose politics I think will be pretty well known to your listeners. And then Newt Gingrich’s Republicans in Congress. Gingrich, as some of your listeners may not know, actually had a turn as a poster boy of techno libertarianism. He was interviewed quite favorably in Wired magazine, presents himself as a forward-thinking cyber netizen… so many silly words from that era.

Scott Ferguson: We have no silly words. 

Ben Tarnoff: Nothing that will embarrass us in 20 years.

Scott Ferguson: We’re good. 

Ben Tarnoff: Ideologically, there’s a lot of alignment around the idea that the market is the best mechanism for organizing outcomes, that the private sector should lead not just in the realm of the internet, but in all realms of social life. And that certainly helps create the conditions for industry lobbying to be particularly effective, and to close down political space for alternatives to emerge. I think there is a confluence of factors that conspire to ensure that privatization takes a particularly extreme form.

William Saas: On your telling, it seems like this was almost inevitable, given the historical factors operative at the time. You’ve got Gingrich hanging out with Alvin Toffler and the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. We’re not going to claim this for the public–that’s communist and communism is over. It’s just in the air.

Ben Tarnoff: Absolutely. And I would add that one of the things that makes the fall of the Soviet Union so significant, is that it ends the justification, or an important justification for industrial policy through the Pentagon of the kind that had really laid the foundation for the internet. I mean, the internet is created by DARPA. DARPA, as the Pentagon’s R&D arm, is created in the aftermath of Sputnik, when the US policy-making class has a collective freakout and figures, they’re losing not just the space race but science and technology is falling behind the Soviets. So that demands significant federal investments in science. That rationale disappears after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, for a number of reasons, privatization emerges in a particularly comprehensive form.

William Saas: I recently read with some students an essay by David Graeber called “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit.” His argument is basically we’ve stalled out technologically, we don’t have flying cars now because all the ambition, innovation, and he calls them “poetic technologies” are channeled into this bureaucratic state, you know, R&D for military reasons, and that seems to track here. But I wonder if in those early days, and as part of that early history of the internet that you are so familiar with, were there any internal debates, discussions, alternate imaginations about the kinds of applications for the internet in a non-martial direction? Maybe some more techno-utopian ideas? Or was it all like, “let’s outfit our boys on the frontlines with the information they need?”

Ben Tarnoff: Well I’d say utopian sentiments were part of the internet from the very start. The thing about the military justification for the internet is: that’s how they got the money. But a lot of the people who are actually developing the protocols and working on different aspects of the network were not motivated by the military pretext, they may in fact have had anti-war sentiments of their own.

Many of them, when you talk to them, they’re just scientists. They thought it would be a really cool thing to do, it’d be really impressive to get these different computer networks from all over the world to start talking to one another. There’s a gee-whiz aspect that’s very motivating, which is very familiar if you know scientists. Often, it’s just the kind of sense of wonder that is motivating.

Certainly, once the internet exists as a place, as a network of networks, it’s primarily used for email. It’s primarily used for mailing lists for people to argue with one another. It’s a kind of proto social media. People are getting flamed, I don’t know if “flaming” is still a current term, or if that just become everyday internet, it’s become too normalized to even merit its own term. Certainly, when we think of the creation of online worlds, of virtual communities where people socialize with one another, that happens initially through email. Email predates the internet. Email is actually invented on ARPANET, which is an important computer network created by the Pentagon as a predecessor to the internet and one of the networks that gets linked into this network of networks. 

It’s important to note that, while the initial justification was military because they were getting money from the Pentagon, what it’s used for is basically social. The internet emerges as a social medium from the start. And in fact, the social aspect of the internet is what has endured most today. I mean, the internet of 2022 looks nothing like the internet of 1985, in terms of how you would use it, in terms of the applications, in terms of who is using it. But that social quality, that it’s being used by people to connect with one another, has endured.

Scott Ferguson: So maybe we can circle back to the story of the 90s: privatization and the turn toward the profit motive. I don’t know if you want to talk a little bit more about the privatization of the “pipes” and then the rise of the “platforms” in more detail, maybe getting into some of these flagship companies like eBay, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and more.

Ben Tarnoff: April 1995 was the date that I had mentioned earlier. And this is, again, the date at which the National Science Foundation terminates its backbone and the private sector essentially takes over the “pipes” of the internet. 1995 is important for other reasons as well, because it’s the year that the dot-com boom launches. So ’95 is the year that Netscape has its explosive IPO. Netscape, for folks who might be a bit younger–imagine not knowing what Netscape is! But in fact, there are people who don’t know Netscape. So, Netscape was the creator of the first popular graphical web browser, Netscape Navigator, and it has this very exciting IPO, in the summer of 1995. 1995 is also the year that amazon.com opens for business. And in subsequent years, tens of thousands of startups are founded, billions of dollars flow into internet companies. 

All these folks are trying to figure out, how do you make money not just from selling people access to the internet because that’s what the companies down the stack are doing. That’s what the internet service providers are doing. But how do you make money from what people do once they get online? In other words, how do you monetize not access but activity? And this turns out to be pretty challenging. 

The dot-com boom is mostly a story of companies struggling to find profitability. One company that does manage to be very profitable from the beginning is eBay, initially called auction web. I spend some time looking at eBay in the book, because to my mind, it is a really interesting example of all of the elements that would go into what we later think of as the “platform” being expressed in a primitive form in eBay in the mid-1990s. 

What are those elements? Well, eBay is a middleman. It facilitates interactions, in particular between buyers and sellers. It is a sovereign in the sense that it writes the rules for those interactions, it doesn’t just sit back and say, “you guys connect and figure it out,” it has to be intimately involved in how people connect. So, there’s a governance element that’s really important. The third piece is that it’s a maker and beneficiary of network effects. The more people interact on eBay, the more valuable eBay becomes to everyone. These are the three elements that, to my mind, distinguish eBay and help eBay leverage this social quality of the internet that we’ve been discussing, which has been a very important part of the internet from the beginning. It helps leverage the socialness of the internet and turn it towards commercial ends. 

I talk about eBay as the first community market. People are brought together in a type of community, and, particularly at the beginning, eBay uses that rhetoric very explicitly, but under the sign of capital, for the purpose of commerce. And this innovation–the creation of the community market through those three elements I described earlier–is very profitable. At a time when dot-coms are taking on a lot of venture funding, but in fact, losing a lot of money, eBay is printing money. 

As we all know, the dot-com boom collapses in 2000, 2001. Out of the ruins of that era, the so-called platforms–the big firms that still dominate the internet–begin to build these complex computational systems. Post-2001, that’s when we really see the rise of Google, the founding of Facebook, the founding of Uber, the rise of Amazon, and so on. This is when these various empires of the modern internet consolidate, and they do so, in my view, by applying the same patterns that eBay had developed as early as the mid-1990s. In most cases, that influence is not direct or conscious. But nonetheless, the building blocks of the modern platform were really discovered by eBay in the mid-1990s. 

The one piece that platforms add to the recipe, if you like, is that they are also manufacturers and monetizers of data. Data is actually the most crucial piece of the puzzle for them. If we think about those elements of the community market that I discussed before, what’s most important is that this is a space for interactions. What the so-called platforms do, what I call the online malls, ensure that all of these interactions that are happening, that are transpiring within the walls of their enclosure, if you like, are occasions for manufacturing data, and then this data can in turn be monetized in a variety of ways. 

I think the broad outlines of that story are quite familiar to people in the context of online advertising. Everything you do on Facebook creates data, which in turn can be used for the purpose of selling ads. But it’s important to note the data can be monetized in a variety of different ways. So that’s ultimately, in my view, how privatization gets pushed up the stack, they try and they fail with the dot-com period, but then they finally succeed in the aftermath of the dot-com bust with the platforms.

William Saas: If the metaphor of enclosure doesn’t work to capture the process we’re describing, are there any other metaphors that you could supply us with to help us understand? I think it does sound like a bit of enclosure but I get what you’re saying also–it’s not like there was a commons that was enclosed, it’s more complicated than that. Do we have any abstraction to encapsulate that metaphorically?

Ben Tarnoff: First a note on clarifying the term enclosure. I had just used the word enclosure in my last response, which you may have noticed, and by that I simply mean a structure with four walls. I think then there’s also the Marxist use of enclosure, which is from the Enclosure Acts in Marx’s study of primitive accumulation of a commons that is enclosed. And I think that suggests that there is something within the fence that we can reclaim, if we could only tear the fence down. That’s what I would object to, in the case of the internet. 

Marx also has this distinction between the formal and the real subsumption of labor by capital, which is the distinction between the process whereby capital inherits a labor process without reorganizing it. For instance, let’s say a subsistence farmer becomes a wage laborer, but still works on a farm. Now, he’s been absorbed into the wage relation, he no longer produces for his own consumption, he earns a wage and uses that wage to buy the necessities of life. But the way in which he works has not changed. This is what Marx would call “formal subsumption.” Now, let’s imagine a little further along: The farm is expanded, it’s mechanized, it’s industrialized, and the way in which our wage laborer works is completely transformed. He’s no longer using the same practices that he did as a subsistence farmer, he’s now a cog in a much bigger, industrialized agriculture machine. This is what Marx would call the real subsumption of labor by capital. 

I use that distinction to talk about the internet in the sense that in 1995, when the private sector takes over the “pipes,” the private sector inherits a network, a network of networks, that has not been organized around the principle of profit maximization. Something that was created by the US government, that was developed mostly by research scientists for their own use. At that point, you have formal subsumption. But what has to occur in the subsequent years and decades is the very difficult process of real subsumption: this network of networks, this research network built by scientists has to be remodeled, reorganized for the purpose of profit maximization. And this is ultimately what I think the platforms achieve. This is their legacy: managing to unlock the profit potential of the internet by reorganizing it.

Scott Ferguson: I also think your metaphor of the mall, which I think you borrow from somebody else in the book, but this trope of imagining, the “platforms” as online malls. It’s absurd to imagine a mall as an enclosure in the historical sense of English law. There wasn’t, there’s no “pre-mall”, that then a private corporation takes over. I think that’s one thing to hold on to here.

William Saas: I wonder if there was any internal struggle at the NSF that you were able to uncover or discover about just saying, “okay, here, take this thing that we’ve built and go crazy.” I know that we talked about the spirit of the times being distinctly and acutely neoliberal. But were there any opposing viewpoints from the NSF that you could discover to what actually happened?

Ben Tarnoff: Within the NSF, there was an alternative proposal that I discussed in the book that was embodied in a Senate Bill put forward by Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, which would have created what advocacy groups at the time called a “public lane” on the information superhighway (“information superhighway” being the preferred metaphor at the time for the internet). And this bill would have done a number of things such as forcing telecoms to reserve up to 20% of their network capacity for non-commercial uses, which would have been granted specifically to nonprofit organizations like libraries. 

Broadly, Inouye’s bill, and the organization around it that was pushing for it, looked to the legacy of public media for inspiration. If radio and television could have spectrum set aside for public non-commercial uses, why can’t we do the same with the internet. Of course, public media has always been very weak in the United States, compared to other advanced capitalist countries. But nonetheless, that was an important piece of inspiration.

This bill–I don’t have to tell you–doesn’t get passed, and this idea doesn’t go anywhere. But nonetheless, there were alternative proposals at the time and that’s something I try to emphasize in the book: It wasn’t inevitable the way it went. But it was a question of the balance of forces. And there simply was not a social movement, at the time, that would have politicized this issue and made it legible to masses of people. The internet is still fairly obscure at the time and it would have been hard to have built a movement around the internet. But nonetheless, this is how privatization takes such an extreme form: Not the absence of alternative ideas, but the absence of enough social power to make those ideas active in the face of the opposition of the capitalist class.

Scott Ferguson: Now that we have a stronger sense of how the internet was publicly provisioned, and then multiply privatized in a processual way, it seems like we’re pretty well posed to discuss some of the more exciting democratic and public alternatives you promote in your book.

But before we get into some of those details, I want to make our listeners aware of the fact that you importantly couch what you are calling “an internet for the people” within broader political struggles, as part of the political struggle for the provisioning of food and housing and health care and public financing. Can you talk a little bit about that larger framing? You don’t just offer a narrow politics of the internet, you have a much more nested sense of where we are and how this fits into the broader political order today.

Ben Tarnoff: I tried not to do too much of that in the book because I wanted to try to keep the lens as narrowly focused on the internet as possible. But inevitably, the problem with writing about the internet is that the internet is entangled with everything. So other things start to creep in. 

I think I also want to give a sense of what’s at stake. Discussions about the internet are often quite dry and quite technical. I wanted to try to make the point that what’s at stake is the possibility of democracy without putting it too grandly. We live in a profoundly undemocratic society. And what I mean by a democracy, and this is a definition that I go into in the book, is the ability for people to rule themselves. For people to rule themselves, they need to have certain things available to them. In other words, as I say in the book, freedom isn’t free. If we want to lead self-determined lives, we need access to resources that enable us to do so. You can’t rule yourself, you can’t lead a self-determined life if you’re hungry. If you don’t have a roof over your head. If you’re bankrupt from medical bills.

Similarly, the internet has become an indispensable precondition of participation in social, economic, cultural and civic life. We saw this in the early days of the COVID pandemic, people needed to get online to apply for unemployment insurance, and we had to work from home, their kids needed to attend school from home. And that helps bring into view the stakes of the social crisis around connectivity in the United States. The United States has absolutely abysmal broadband. We pay on average higher monthly costs in the United States for broadband than our equivalents in Asia or Europe. We rank fourteenth in connection speeds–below Hungary and Thailand. And most astonishingly, in 2018, Microsoft researchers determined that 162 million Americans do not access the internet broadband speeds, which is about half the country. We could talk about these statistics in the dry language of the digital divide, and so on. 

But I think we need to elevate our rhetoric and talk about democracy. If people don’t have access to the resources, they need to lead a self-determined life, they can’t exercise self-rule. The ability to exercise self-rule at a personal level is intimately bound up with the ability to exercise self-rule collectively. In other words, the reason that people don’t have access to the resources they need to lead self-determined lives is because certain political choices have been made about how those resources are distributed. And those are choices that those people don’t have an opportunity to participate in.

To my mind, this is the other essential ingredient of a democratic society: Giving people not just the resources they need to lead self-determined lives, but the opportunity to participate in the decisions that most affect them. And those are the guiding principles for my project of how to create a more democratic internet. And it has implications, different implications, we should say, at different parts of the “stack.” It means something different at the “pipes” than at the “platforms.” But nonetheless, these are the principles that I think can guide us, not just in building a more democratic internet, but in building a more democratic society.

William Saas: Let’s talk about some of the proposals that you engage with in the book for doing just that: For creating and recovering the internet as a channel technology with a series of “pipes” and “platforms” we can use to advance democracy. 

These proposals include, but aren’t limited to, creating public and cooperatively owned networks on the model of ongoing experiments in Chattanooga (Tennessee), and rural South Dakota, supporting decentralized open source models of social networking, such as the Mastodon Project, and using public libraries and post offices–I like this one–as local administrative hubs for social networking and journalism across the United States. Can you take us on a brief tour through these alternate horizons for the internet, and perhaps tell our listeners how we might or how they might get involved with such efforts?

Ben Tarnoff: My term for the political project to build a better internet is deprivatization. And deprivatization aims at creating an internet where people and not profit rule, that’s the North Star. What does that mean in practice? It means developing models of public and cooperative ownership that can shrink the space of the market, diminish the power of the profit motive and encode practices and principles of democratic control. In the book, I look at a number of experiments that are, in my view, putting those ideas into practice that represent–even if it’s on a small scale–deprivatization in action. 

One example, which you indicated, is the Community Network. Community Network is a publicly or cooperatively owned broadband network that could be owned, for instance, by a municipality or by the members themselves. More than 900 communities in the United States are currently served by community networks. These networks tend to provide better service at lower cost than their corporate counterparts because they don’t exist to enrich shareholders with stock buybacks and dividends like the big firms such as Verizon, they’re able to prioritize social goals like universal connectivity. 

Crucially–this is the piece that I find most promising–they are able to give users an opportunity to participate in decisions around how infrastructure is developed and deployed. I see community networks as the main protagonist in deprivatizing the pipes of the internet–not the only one because we can’t simply have a series of local networks. That’s not what the internet is, the internet is composed of networks at various scales. But nonetheless, community networks, I think, are the most promising form deprivatization can take at that layer of the internet. 

When we move up the stack to the realm of the so-called platforms, the situation becomes more complex, the path to deprivatization here is less linear because we’re immediately encountering creatures of a greater complexity and greater diversity. Facebook, Uber and Amazon: These are creatures of much greater technical sophistication than ISPs down the “stack.” And they’re more different from one another than ISPs are from one another. So inevitably, how we deprivatize these different sectors will depend a lot on what we’re actually talking about. As a result, the experiments are somewhat less mature.

As you mentioned, I allude to experiments that are ongoing among a number of different communities, such as the decentralized web community, and projects like Mastodon, which aim to create decentralized social media networks, which in turn could enable something like a cooperatively owned and cooperatively moderated social media site, which interconnects freely with other sites. There’s also the platform cooperativism community. This is a group of people who are interested in trying to create worker-owned and -operated app-based services. What would a cooperative alternative to Uber look like, for instance? These experiments are quite limited, we have to say, I think we have to acknowledge their limitations and also acknowledge that they are, in most cases, modeled on corporate counterparts. If you use something like Mastodon, it looks a lot like Twitter. Inevitably, these are the first draft of what a deprivatized application layer might look like. 

To go further, I think we’re going to need a lot more experiments. And in particular, we’re going to need public investment to create spaces of imagination where ordinary people can come in, get connected to the resources and the expertise they need to build the online services that are capable of meeting their needs. This latter part about imagination is where I place most of my faith in the book. I know it can sound a bit wishy-washy and a bit open ended. But I think if we think of imagination not as something a solitary genius does alone in their room, but rather a collective embodied process of experimentation that necessarily requires resources and investment, I think we can get a bit closer to creating the type of process that will eventually result in a deprivatized internet.

Scott Ferguson: To circle back to something you said before, this definition of “platforms.” We’ve been using it in this conversation, just heuristically, normatively, but you also noted that you had a critique of “platform” as a concept, as a term, and the way that it frames our understanding of the world. I want to give you an opportunity to flesh that out.

Ben Tarnoff: You’ll notice I’ve been doing annoying things like saying “so-called platforms,” trying to always put quote marks around “platforms.” I should say in general, the terms and metaphors we use to talk about technology we’ve mostly inherited from the tech firms themselves. And that’s a problem, because we’re operating on enemy territory, if you like. “Platform,” I think, is a good example of a metaphor that does a lot of strategic work for the firms themselves. It suggests neutrality, it suggests openness, and a certain kind of levelness. They have an interest in presenting themselves this way in presenting themselves as not, in fact, intimately involved in organizing and governing our online life, but rather being a neutral receptacle for it. 

Rather than “platform” I use the term “online mall” because to my mind, the best way to understand the systems that these firms create is: They operate like the online equivalents of shopping malls. They are spaces of commerce that incorporate an aspect of a public square. They’re spaces where all sorts of different interactions can transpire. Interactions between buyers and sellers, social interactions. If you’re an American teenager in the suburbs, you probably spend a lot of your social life in a shopping mall. Similarly, online malls can be quite a social space. 

Whatever these interactions are, they are all organized around the manufacture and monetization of data, which we discussed earlier. But data is the essential ingredient and motivating purpose of the online mall. Moving away from the spatial metaphor of a train platform, let’s say, the horizontal line, into a cube, into something that you’re trapped inside of and you can’t get out of. I think that’s much closer to the experience we have of these computational systems.

William Saas: There’s not even a Cinnabon, what a crummy deal. Going along these lines, I think there were some other phrases and words and concepts we use that I would like to maybe plumb just a bit more. We at Money on the Left have been committed to everything you’re talking about doing and specifically around, well, imagination. Advocacy for expanding our horizons–not just on the individual level, in a long office, talking about these things in an academic way. But collective imagination and building in common with each other. 

We don’t have what it seems like the platforms, the corporations, the eBays, the Googles, the Netflixes have, which is the profit motive. I think that this is something that we come up against, in terms of left politics, left organization, there’s a dearth of money, in terms of just piles of money just laying around to fund the movement. Whereas on the right, there are lots of more piles of money for reasons of the profit motive, and the people who have that money are engaged in the business and market activity that leads to profit.

I was thinking, the cooperative motive, the social motive, the poetic motive, I don’t know, if we can devise or think about or just riff and imagine, collectively, we three right now, what that motive could be and how could it be sufficient to, to motivate us, our listeners, people? To say, okay, I have all these bills I have to pay. But what’s more important is building a collective new, imaginative, cooperative internet. I’m going to eschew this profit motive, I’m going to go for the new internet motive. Let’s dream.

Ben Tarnoff: I think you have to politicize people’s relationship to technology. I think you have to help clarify that there are political stakes to these different technical artifacts that surround their lives. And I actually think that conversation has gotten a lot easier in the last few years, because broadly, that awareness is actually there. It gets politicized in different directions, more successfully often by the right than the left. But the idea that Facebook is not some neutral arbiter, some kind of neutral communications platform that you just throw ideas on to but is actively involved in shaping and organizing our online lives with consequences that can be socially disruptive–that’s an idea with very broad currency, it’s nearly common sense. 

That creates an opening. I think from there, you have to make people feel as if their well-being, and even their sense of themselves, is wrapped up with this project. I think that’s how you get people to participate in any project of social transformation, whether it’s joining the union, whether it’s joining a political organization, whatever kind of political work you’re asking them to do. I think they need to feel as if their sense of self and their material interests are bound up in that project. 

I don’t mean to suggest that we should define interests in a simplified way, because I think people often will also have an interest in living in a fairer, more solidaristic world. Interest does not simply have to mean the kind of rational actor definition of interest. In fact, people have a lot of complex and contradictory interests. And it’s the work of organizers to try to give certain interests greater prominence. Interests are, let’s say, another terrain of class struggle. But I think we can make a distinction between a moral as opposed to a material view of how change happens. Which is not to say that morality isn’t useful or justified. There’s certainly some polemic in my book that draws on morality–morality can be useful in organizing projects. Of course, a sense of outrage can be very useful. 

But morality doesn’t change the world. I think this is an observation that I would draw from the work of Marx. Marx uses a lot of moral language, he can be a great moralist, but he recognizes that moral exhortation is not a force for social transformation. It can be a useful agitating tactic. But at the end of the day, in order to bring masses of people into some kind of transformative project, you need to make them feel–you need to make them see–as if their material interests are served by that project, however you are defining those interests.

William Saas: Maybe by sharing our experiences of how we came to see those things as important to our material interests as well.

Ben Tarnoff: Right. And the process of social transformation, I think, involves and entails self-transformation. Part of making the case to somebody about why they should join the union is appealing to one set of interests over another: They have an interest in not getting fired, there’s a risk involved. They may have an interest in maintaining certain hierarchies in the workplace that benefit them. But then they have other interests as well in the context of a union campaign and interests–maybe in job security, in more clarity around job progression. And also, certain solidaristic interests–in being a good co-worker, in taking care of one another. So inevitably, this conversation about which interests should be given prominence and which interests should be downplayed, or de-emphasized, involves a process of personal transformation as well.

Scott Ferguson: To close us out, I was wondering if you could put this book in the context of a lot of the other work that you do. You’re an accomplished author, you’ve published essays, you’ve published many, many books. And you’re also co-founder and writer at Logic magazine. Can you give us a breezy tour through your broader horizon of work and where this fits in?

Ben Tarnoff: I’m trying to think of how to make it breezy.

Scott Ferguson: Or belabored!

Ben Tarnoff: I could certainly make it belabored, that won’t be hard at all! I’m someone who works in the tech industry, I’m someone who thinks about the relationship between technology and society. And I think most of my writing and editing and intellectual projects flow from that concern. But I’m also someone who’s getting bored of the internet. Technology is such a useful way for thinking about power but then it’s easy to get stuck in different threads of it. I find that I have to keep re-centering myself and try to figure out: What am I really interested in? 

Because I don’t want to become just an expert on the internet. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I think my interest in the internet is an expression of my interest in how power is organized in society. I remember doing an event with the great Astra Taylor once. She said something to the effect of “I’m not interested in technology, I’m interested in power. But the reality is that if you care about power today, you have to care about technology.” And I don’t think that’s entirely accurate for me, because I do really love technical details and technical complexity. But at the end of the day, as a writer and editor, what is most important to me is the stakes, the consequences: Who’s going to be affected, whose lives will be changed through the use of these technologies? And I think that’s what guides me rather than a more specific interest in this or that technology.

Scott Ferguson: Thanks so much for coming, Ben Tarnoff, everybody should go out and get your book. Highly recommended!

Ben Tarnoff: Thanks so much. Thanks for having me.

William Saas: When you said you were bored of the internet, you reminded me of the Le Tigre song “Get Off the Internet.” As a kind of left politics, at the turn of the century, the idea of getting off the internet …

Ben Tarnoff: We lost. 

William Saas: We have, I mean, we’re bored, where do you go? You were bored of it. I thought that could go a couple of ways. I think a lot of us are bored with it, angry at it, or frustrated or befuddled by it but feel like we have no choice but to participate and stay on the internet. A little bonus question here if you have anything to say about “get off the internet” politics?

Ben Tarnoff: It’s something I struggle with, I wrote a book about the internet because I love the internet. I vividly remember the first time I used the internet in 1994. I was in the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, which is in Portland, Oregon, right on the river. It’s a lovely museum. And I would have been maybe nine years old. I was wandering around this museum with my mom and I was looking for astronaut stuff–rockets, space shuttles, astronaut ice cream. And we stumbled across a room full of computers: the computer lab. And these are enormous (by our standards) computers–big towers, huge CRT monitors.

And I sit down at one of them. We’re informed that these are connected to something called the internet, which I had not heard of. I must have brought up Yahoo! or whatever was available at the time for finding websites on the internet–this being, of course, before the rise of the modern search engine. I start looking up information about Star Trek and start learning about precisely how many millimeters the width of the starship Enterprise’s wings are. Information about halls and phasers and how many torpedoes are loaded–all sorts of nerdy stuff that I felt I needed to know. I was just exhilarated. There was so much information about Star Trek on the web in 1994, as you can imagine. 

William Saas: I think that’s all there was actually! 

Ben Tarnoff: That could have been! It was probably mostly Star Trek information. I fell in love with the internet and spent much of my childhood online, in online communities. If I didn’t love the internet, I couldn’t write a book about it. But it’s something I struggle with because increasingly the rest of the world has caught up to where I was, as a kid and I don’t think it’s been a constructive development. It was seen as somewhat antisocial, even pathological, although my parents permitted it for me to just spend all my time on the internet all day. 

Now this is what we all do anyway because we have it with us in our pocket and because it mediates so much of our lives. Lives that formerly had many offline components have been absorbed into the internet. It is something I wonder about and struggle with. I try to avoid taking a moralizing tone because I remember how life-giving the internet was to me as an isolated kid–that was actually the world where I felt most comfortable, and I think there’s still a lot of kids who feel that way. I wouldn’t want to take that away from them. But there’s something lost when the offline world has become so emaciated, so emptied out that, we can’t even get offline I don’t know. But now I also listen to myself and I sound like I’m pushing 40. Maybe I don’t have the right perspective on this anymore.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Mercedes Ohlen (transcription), & Meghan Saas (graphic art)

Democratizing University Finance

Benjamin Wilson and Scott Ferguson join guest-host Jakob Feinig to discuss their recent article about Money on the Left’s “uni” project to democratize university finance. Titled “Stop Trying to Find the Money–Create It!,” the article argues that the Public Banking Act can empower universities to issue new forms of public money that serve democratic communities and repudiate austerity. The text will appear mid-October 2022 in the American Association of University Professors’ publication Academe Magazine as part of a special issue edited by Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education. In this conversation, Ben and Scott recount the evolution of the uni project from its original politicization of emergency Federal Reserve facilities early in the Covid-19 pandemic to its most recent iteration joining bottom up learning-by-doing with top-down federal legislation. Along the way, the conversation turns toward the project’s commitments to democratic pedagogy through participation, the need to recognize universities as powerful economic provisioners and anchors, and the uni’s role in challenging the current dollar system from within.  

*Special thanks to Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education for inviting Money on the Left to collaborate and for inviting us to contribute to their issue for Academe Magazine. 

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com

Transcript

The following was transcribed by Mercedes Ohlen and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson: Welcome to a very special Money on the Left episode. This is an unconventional episode in that I am being joined not by my regular co-hosts, William Saas and Maxximilian Seijo but by our beloved colleagues, Assistant Professor of Human Development at SUNY Binghamton, Jakob Feinig, and Associate Professor of Economics at SUNY Cortland, Benjamin Wilson. Thanks for joining us.

We’re convening this irregular episode to update our listeners about and discuss the project that we and others in our Money on the Left Collective have been variously working on: University financing using a Modern Monetary Theory and endogenous money approach. We call this project, if you’re not aware of it yet, the Uni-Currency project. We’ve been developing it over the course of several years–it started during the early pandemic moment when austerity was being threatened and sometimes enacted in all kinds of unjust ways. And we developed it to provide an alternative, and hopefully not just a financial alternative, but a just and new direction for university expenditure and governance.

We’ve published many papers on different platforms over the past couple of years. Last year, we were invited as a group to join and begin collaborating with an exciting group that’s been doing important advocacy and politicizing around University financing, the Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education. We were aware of what they were up to and we were excited about it. We also felt that they were missing the MMT approach that we brought to the table, and they invited us to the table. They’re all really great and nice–we had some meetings and we taught each other about what we were up to. 

Next thing we knew, a subcommittee on university finance in that group was invited by the American Association of University Professors’ Academe magazine to put together a special issue which would eventually be titled “Revolutionizing Higher Education Finance for the Public Good.” A couple members of our team, Ben Wilson and myself, took up the task of writing what is essentially an updated version of the Uni project that we had been developing. The purpose of this particular episode is to work through the latest iteration of the Uni Project that is being published in the October issue of Academe magazine, but also to reflect upon where we’ve been and how this project has unfolded over time. 

We have published a lot about the Uni, we’ve talked about the Uni in different episodes, like our episode with Ben Wilson, but we haven’t dedicated a whole audio conversation to the Uni. That’s what we’re up to today. Jakob has been in the wings the whole time–he hasn’t been part of the core team but he’s been a trusted advisor and editor in the background. And we thought what better person, given his own interests in moral economies of money, to reflect on this project with us. We’ve given him the job of moderator. He’s written up a list of questions for us that we’re going to use to catalyze the conversation as we move forward, but it can also be an open, free-flowing kind of thing. 

Jakob Feinig: My first question would be: What does the crisis of higher ed today look like from other critical lenses, and how is that different from your approach to improving the lives of people on campuses, but also the people who live adjacent to campuses? 

Benjamin Wilson: That’s a great question. And I think it moves through various iterations, depending on the timing of when you talk to people, having started in higher-ed just after the financial crisis, and then seeing the COVID-19 pandemic unfolding and seeing many of the same struggles and questions arising again. The thing that comes up in our union meetings, for example, is people complaining about being overworked and not being compensated. Being asked to do more than what their job actually entails. This is real utilization of us as care workers by the administration, to get us to do more with less, because as a faculty member, my priority is always my students. Even if I’m getting less, I’m still putting out the same efforts and care toward my students. 

And this way of discussing the problems that we’re facing, often just devolves into this complaint, soapbox section, where we’re all sharing the various ways in which we’re being exploited without really being able to articulate how to solve that problem. And the only way the current paradigm presents for us to solve those problems is either the state has to provide more money for universities, or the federal government has to do that. There’s this helplessness in that idea, because it’s just so distant and far off from where we are at the table and where we are in our day-to-day working to try to get through a pandemic higher education year. So, for example, the SUNY system hasn’t increased the state budget since the financial crisis. 

In fact, recent estimates by our Faculty Senate say that we’ve actually had a real reduction in the funding of higher education in the State of New York by approximately $440 million since the financial crisis. We have been asked to do more with less for a very long time. And that presents great challenges for trying to ask for more, especially when we fell short (at my university, apparently, in budget terms by $10 million last year). So there’s this dread and hopelessness, that there’s no way that we can do better. And in fact, we are again being asked to do more with less. 

I would say the objective of this project is to allow us to move beyond these narrow confines, and to relieve the students as the biggest bearers of the financing of the university through tuition and fees, rent, and so on. Imagine what higher-ed would look like if it was able to sell finance and create its own credits, and model the behavior that MMT has made so clear that is available to the United States government through the creation of the dollar and its relationships with the banking sector to mobilize resources that our community sees as valuable and necessary.

Jakob Feinig: Terrific. Maybe you could just spell out for listeners how that would work in practice–maybe outline the basic architecture of the Uni?

Benjamin Wilson: This is a complicated question because I think there’s really two distinct paths that we’ve been talking about as the development of the Uni has advanced. In the case of Modern Monetary Theory, the US government issues the dollar. It’s the sole issuer of the dollar, the monopoly issuer, and all these stories that I think most of our listeners are familiar with. But why stop at the US government? What would it look like if sub-national or nested institutions within the system were given that sort of freedom, and we [already] have a model of that with the banking sector. I think the crises–in particular, the Great Financial Crisis, and then again with COVID–really exposed the connections between the banking sector and the federal government through the way the Federal Reserve backstops the creation of their instruments. What would it look like if universities were able to issue credit to mobilize resources the same way that the banking sector did, what would that backstop look like from a macro perspective? That’s one approach to the Uni.

The other approach to the Uni that we’ve been advocating for is one that’s familiar to those who have studied at places like UMKC, Denison University and Bard College where, in order to demonstrate how the issuer of the currency works and acts, how tax-driven reciprocal obligations operate, we’ve run this program in our classrooms to demonstrate the possibilities of full employment and a Job Guarantee, and the reality that spending creates the space for taxation, and the taxation-based demand for the currency. 

In those humble beginnings, the Uni Project could begin to build a grassroots understanding of how currency operates, and then leverage up to larger institutional legal levels. A learning-by-doing process that would gradually step the reciprocal obligations from say, a certain percentage of the grade in the classroom, to tuition, or the payments on campus for fees. And when we’re doing public goods production through our classrooms and learning-by-doing projects, connecting those to the municipality in various ways through, potentially, acceptance through property taxes and things of this nature. 

These are some ways that we could create the political momentum and pressure to start utilizing this in bigger and bigger spaces rather than simply thinking of it from this top-down perspective that is admittedly a very hard thing to teach, and for people to grapple with. I think this ground-up, grassroots approach is one of the things that’s really exciting about the Uni but it can also cause a little bit of confusion for folks.

Jakob Feinig: That’s fascinating. It sounds like you think of the Uni as a multi-level pedagogical project. That is, you’ve started to implement a classroom currency that actually works. Together with many others you have begun teaching about how public finance actually works, and what the implications are for how we think about our lives together, and how we want to organize our lives together. And now you’re adding intermediate layers between the classroom currency and the federal dollar. There is something that goes beyond the classroom but doesn’t aspire to have the reach of the federal dollar. And each of those levels teaches people about monetary life in different ways. Would that be fair to say? 

Benjamin Wilson: I think that that’s absolutely the objective here, or one of the many objectives. Money is curriculum, so to speak. It really is a new way of understanding and thinking about how the world works, and how we can use money not as the end but a means to an end as you so eloquently put in your chapter for the edited volume that just was released. I think that’s one of the most rewarding things about teaching these things in the classroom: it really does take the process of them receiving the money in class for doing work, and then realizing: Well, I couldn’t have paid the taxes until after payday. 

The lesson there is fundamental and important. And the practice of a new monetary politics is not as simple as just waving a wand and spending more money into the economy. It’s really about connecting that money to the real resources that are needed to address the systemic crises that we face, in higher education, climate, public health, etc. And so the micro-level issuance process really helps people see just how much work we really have to do and how many resources are sitting around and are not applied to those sorts of problems, because we’re so busy trying to find the money, instead of simply creating it and creating the relationships that we need to mobilize the resources to make the world safer, stabler–the resilient, happy, amenable, inclusive place that I think we would all prefer to live in.

Scott Ferguson: I want to say a little bit more about how our approach contrasts with, but also complements, some of the important critical work around university politics and University Studies. An important contemporary figure in this field is Davarian Baldwin and his really important book In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower. He’s tracing a whole interconnected system of political economy in higher ed structured around perverse incentives and pressures that are the result of states not keeping up their commitment to finance public higher ed and basically turning these supposed nonprofits, with these tremendous public authoritative powers, into quasi-private entities who have to scramble for revenues, go into debt, and speculate on the stock market. This has tremendous consequences, as Baldwin tells us, across issues of land, housing, labor, policing, and healthcare. 

While Baldwin teaches us a lot, and I so appreciate his work, it seems like that analysis only goes so far because it doesn’t question the “having-to-find-the-money” incentive. Having to find the money through the taxpayers doesn’t break out of the paradigm enough. And I think there’s a little bit of an implication that money is this necessary evil in this process. Then the analysis, I guess I would say, ends up feeling like a list of indictments. And then those indictments become the ground from which you mount an opposition. 

I think, what turning off the “where we’re going to find the money” question and turning on the endogenous credit creation frame, does is this: It allows us to see universities as complex public authorities who are doing collective care work–but often very badly, often very selectively. I wouldn’t say that we would want to soften the kinds of critiques that Baldwin is making–making visible systematic exploitations, and politicizing them, is very important. But I think we’re recognizing that, nevertheless, universities are community leaders in provisioning. Not just fallen angels or terrible institutions. And as these complex collective caretakers, they can reorganize themselves.

Jakob Feinig: And can you maybe say, two or three words about what that would look like concretely? Maybe give listeners an example of how the lives of people on the campuses, but also beyond would change were we to introduce Unis?

Benjamin Wilson: So when I read Baldwin’s book, I was really excited. Because when I read it, I see it through a chartist/MMT lens. One of the things that I’ve been wrestling with or thinking about in terms of the long legacy of the Land Grant Institution and the University, in particular, is its 501(c)(3) status. They were given all this property in all these communities and very decentralized ways across the United States.

Scott Ferguson: Stolen from Native Americans. 

Benjamin Wilson: Yes, thank you. 

Universities don’t pay any residential property tax. One of the ways that I’ve been thinking about how to diversify the circuit of the Uni: The initial idea was that the Unis would be spent into existence and people could use the Unis to satisfy their tuition liability. And that would be the reciprocal circuit. And, like my classroom currency, that runs into some limitations as students are graduating–they have no use for it any longer. How much labor and resources are you really going to be able to utilize with this limited space for reciprocation? It also may or may not do much to change the tuition model. In order to diversify the circuit, one of the things that I’ve imagined is that the University, instead of paying zero property taxes in their local communities, would pay some portion of those property taxes directly to their host communities–in Unis. And if the city is willing to accept the Uni in property taxes from the University, then they would be willing to accept it from anyone. 

In Ithaca, where I live, Cornell University is by far the largest landowner. They pay zero property taxes, and they give an annual gift of $1.2 or $1.3 million to the city. A couple of years ago, a group did a study of just how much property taxes Cornell would pay if they paid the full amount. In the interview, the then-mayor Svante Myrick said if Cornell paid their entire property tax bill, the property taxes for the other Ithaca residents could be cut in half. That’s an enormous amount of value that would be made available. So if you think about cutting your property taxes in half and thinking about the cost of homes and housing, this is an opportunity to really transform what that looks like. 

Davarian Baldwin’s book points out are all these spaces where universities use not only their property and their tax exempt status, but they use it in such a way that they’re supporting the balance sheets of corporate partners, either new research in pharmaceuticals, or, in Arizona, to create new mixed-use residential properties that also contribute to the university objective of connecting with community, and maybe there’s some classrooms there. But at the end of the day, the [universities’] corporate partner gets financing because the bank is confident that they’re going to be able to generate enough revenues because they won’t be paying the full tax liabilities on those commercial properties. So we’re already booking that tax-exempt status as future wealth, just in a very narrow way, where we could be issuing the currency to book future creation of, say, carbon sequestration or diversified farming systems that better connect people to local foods, or training large groups of people to help students with reading disabilities in middle schools. 

There’s a significant amount of work that’s not being done to address the problems we have. And the reason why we’re not doing that is because we can’t find the money to do it, when the money is really sitting right in front of us: as a design problem. And we can’t see the ways to design an experiment in those spaces, because we’re spending so much time trying to book future earnings and revenues that are just turning the money into more money instead of turning it into meaningful goods and expanded capacity for communities.

Scott Ferguson: I think there’s not one answer to that question, as I think Ben’s answers are beginning to suggest. A Uni, a Uni project, a Uni system–from the classroom to the federal government–can transform relations all the way up and down and back and forth. So you know, we can talk about Unis administering Green New Deals in cities and counties. We can talk about community, staff and faculty governance, we can talk about participatory budgeting. And all of these possibilities, of course, are available to be thought, to be fought for, to be theorized, to be developed. But I would argue that when they are all brought together in a project that is not zero-sum, and that is not oriented around finding the money, they all take on a new kind of capacity. 

This doesn’t prevent neoliberal governance practices, nasty administrators and university leaders with nasty politics, it doesn’t prevent any of any of that from continuing to do what it does. But that nastiness is usually justified by not only the naturalized austerity, but the naturalized necessity to find revenue such that even the critics of that nastiness can’t see beyond that horizon. It would open up these opportunities for contestation. And the old excuses will not no longer resonate in the same way they do now, and have for years and years.

Jakob Feinig: Those are great answers, thank you–I’m really starting to get a sense of the breadth and potential of the Uni project.

Scott Ferguson: When we first began the project, as I think Ben might have referenced previously, this was the beginning of the pandemic, and the Fed, unlike Congress, was willing, at least at first, to really act boldly and to experiment. They opened up their balance sheets and created all kinds of new facilities and new ways of responding to the financial crisis. Now, there’s much to be critiqued in how they did that, and how some of those programs ultimately played out. But in 2020 and into 2021, the Fed became a site of such bold paradigm-breaking that it became a site of politicization. So at first, we’re thinking, well, we can recommend for university communities, activist organizers, and intrepid faculty and leaders to lead a movement to issue their own currencies and then demand, or ask, or dare, the Fed to backstop the liquidity of those currencies, using a new facility they had opened up, the Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF) that was mostly for municipal bonds. Ultimately, the way that was designed was terrible. And the way it was administered was terrible, because it was ultimately just about so-called propping up the confidence of the bond market. They didn’t actually really want to purchase any of those. They just wanted to show that they were ready to purchase them so that the bond investors would feel comfortable enough to invest more. Anyway, that situation called for an intervention, we thought. 

In the meantime, we’ve turned our attention to another intrepid thing that has happened at the federal level: the drafting of the Public Banking Act, which some of our friends helped to draft. The Public Banking Act is what it sounds like: It has not gone to vote, but it is an act that is designed to explore, support, and create a system of public banks in the United States. And it provides all kinds of support for doing so. 

Our reading of the Public Banking Act is: It’s worded in such a way that universities could count as nonprofit organizations that would fall under the Public Banking Act, they could be given what we call the finance franchise, the capacity, the legal ability to issue credit on behalf of the US government. We also argue in our forthcoming piece that we might want to work for an amendment to the Public Banking Act, just to make it clear, just to stipulate that universities are included, rather than arguing about the given language, maybe before it’s put to vote. In any case, we now see it as part of a potential public banking fight that would frame the Uni in this broader conversation about who has the finance franchise in the United States. 

That’s how some of our thoughts about the projects have shifted over time: We have moved from politicizing this emergency facility at the Fed as a kind of lender or purchaser of last resort to a more active provisioning as part of public banking at the federal level. Not to say that that’s the only path: We talk about “bottom-up” and “top-down” always having to work in tandem and speaking to one another. But that’s the federal path that we’re seeing right now.

Benjamin Wilson: I think that that’s a really good point. What does a public bank look like? How does a public bank operate? How does it make decisions? What is it investing in? The language around the bill is pretty vague. AOC says that it’s an opportunity to ameliorate systemic crises. What specifically does that look like? And these are the questions that also come up when we talk about the Green New Deal and a Job Guarantee, what are people going to do? What are these interventions? How does this impact my daily life? And I really see universities as being a great place for experimenting and imagining what that looks like. 

I think lots of people have a really nice idea of what public banking looks like at the retail level, through the post office, for example. But what does the investment arm of a public banking sector look like? How does it operate? How does it assess the quality of the financial instruments and what it is that it’s executing? What are the returns that we’re getting? David Freund’s work in particular really has been inspirational for me here. The United States really reformatted the housing sector after World War II to greatly enhance the availability of mortgages and extend the timeframe for repayment. In that process, they had to really reinvent and create an entirely new sector of appraisal and thinking about who’s going to make these decisions where organizations are licensed and accredited to establish that a house is worth X amount of dollars. 

This is what we need to be doing and thinking about. This is an intervention into climate change that is going to relieve us of so much carbon output and sequester so much carbon, and these are the impacts that we’re predicting and forecasting will occur. Very much a grant model of understanding impact and outcomes and whether or not we’re really reaching success in our projects, I think it is a space where universities are really well suited to start building that sort of infrastructure and a learning-by-doing, ground-up approach to these problems.

The language in the bill, both in the Public Banking Act and in the E-Cash Act, outline that we need participation and experimentation to ensure that we’re creating secure, privacy-respecting and inclusive monetary systems that are, in fact, functional and operating. I would much rather us experiment with these technologies at small scales in different communities and being able to share successes and failures in an open and honest way, than, say the monetarist experiment from the 1980s (that we seem to be pretty intent on reliving) to quell price overheating with a recession. That doesn’t seem to be the way that we should be experimenting with monetary theory, it should be done in much more controlled and smaller spaces so that we can reduce the ill effects and the devastation in real lives that that type of macro-monetary experimentation entails.

Scott Ferguson: What I’m hearing you say and I want to develop is: This really rethinks what banking is and what it can be. We are saying: Extend credit creation functions that have been relegated to a private banking system to universities. But we don’t stop there and what we’re up to really unsettles what a bank even is, or could be. 

One of the threads I want to pick up here is: We have this sense that investment and production gets separated through this private banking system–that the banks have the money, and they decide who gets it, which firms are going to get it and are going to do the production. There’s a division of labor there now, is it in fact, actually much more complicated and, and entangled? Of course, it is. But I think we have this idea that there is this separation, whereas universities are productive centers, in addition to investment centers. And I think universities–as problematic as they can be–being the hubs of cities, of counties. of communities, and imbricated in them, much better situates them for doing the investing, rather than the investing being something that we’re farming out to Chase or other Wall Street banks.

Benjamin Wilson: Community banking is effective, and a good way of running small businesses. You know, the disconnect in the mortgage industry, where you can get a mortgage on your phone–that doesn’t do much for “know-your-customer.” And when they immediately sell off your mortgage and 100 others in one fell swoop. They have no incentive to see that those are paid back in a timely or meaningful manner. The creation of the investment products or systems, the public provisioning that I envision is an interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary connection of the people that are living and doing the work. 

One of the projects that my classroom Uni is helping to finance or mobilize the resources for is an edible park. That is going to be a public space where people will reconnect with nature that is celebrating indigenous culture and past of the area with the revival of plants that have been exterminated by weed killers and things of this nature, that have strong medicinal [properties] and flavors that we’ve forgotten about that previous cultures really understood as a meaningful connection to nature. This re-embedding of the connections between people and ideas, the environment, all start to melt away all the ways in which higher education has been morphed into our different silos where we’re all our specialists, and we’re all competing over scarce resources. And that would really give us an opportunity to branch out and to collaborate across the university with other nonprofit actors in our communities. 

The SUNY system is a 64-campus institution across the state of New York. There’s really not a community that isn’t within easy driving distance of one of these spaces. So we’re talking about projects that would cover the state. And if you start to think about questions of transportation and the movements of students, and people being able to work at multiple SUNYs, then it starts to become a system. (In healthcare, I was always so very frustrated during the time mom was sick that all these doctors–none of them talked to each other, none of their accounting, or their charts, or any of that stuff was connected in any meaningful way. It was just, they all happened to be marketed with the same hospital system). 

[Similarly, in the case of] SUNY, I feel like in our competition across our campuses, for students, and scarce resources and things like that, we’re not leveraging the full power of what it would be to be coordinated and collaborating, and tackling the problems that the state of New York so desperately needs to be addressed.

Scott Ferguson: And we can run small programs and justify them as small programs, rather than in the credit creation model, rather than putting these programs on the chopping block, because oh, well, you know, demand is down. And so they’re not bringing in revenue. And so why even have them? If you’re not chasing scarce dollars, you can proliferate little experiments here and there.

Benjamin Wilson: It changes all of our research questions, fundamentally.

Jakob Feinig: It also changes how people think about money. Just to go back to that, because when you say, the doctors are separated from the accountants and we come to experience ourselves as passive victims of a monetary system that’s out of reach, it’s outside of our lives. And that contaminates the university or makes it work in ways that we don’t like. And I think what I hear you say is that, if money creation and the other things that we do are no longer seen as separate, we experience them as intertwined and inseparable, necessarily going hand in hand, then that becomes a very large-scale classroom for reimagining society in the sense that it’s always something that is in the process of being coordinated. We are the ones who can do that.

Benjamin Wilson: I’ve always seen it as a little bit arbitrary that we go to college from 18 to 22. I think there’s a lot of Americans in the later stages of life that would really benefit from having access to coursework and education and re-engaging in new literatures. Part of the reason I think we’re in so much trouble economically is that you can see when a politician is talking about the economy, the scissors moving in their head from their Econ 101 class 40 years ago, and the textbook hasn’t changed. And that robotic understanding of how things operate is detrimental. The university [could become] this lifelong learning social fabric, where any and all age groups, or people that have been to college before, would just enrich the experience in ways that are fun to imagine.

Scott Ferguson: We can reintroduce open enrollment, we can have multiple kinds of programs that differentiate the traditional four-year degree.

Benjamin Wilson: Which in some ways, they’re already trying to do with all these certification programs and your news types of master’s programs, but they’re all structured in a way to generate revenue. You go to a master’s program, you’re not going to get funding to be a TA. Lots of colleges love big masters programs so they can break in that revenue, and maybe get a TA in the process. 

So we don’t have to do that anymore. Students won’t have to, for example, spend their whole summers working as free laborers for a corporation because they have to get an internship in order to get a job at that particular institution when they graduate. We will be affording them learning by doing, real world experience throughout the year that will help supplement both the costs of their day-to-day life and their education, so that they don’t have to leave the university straddled with massive amounts of debt.

Scott Ferguson: I think another major, maybe theoretical, point is: turning around the causal relationship that is often understood between a university and financing the private sector. I guess the expression to use is: “the tail is wagging the dog.” “The university is just so dependent on the bond investors and their hedge fund and that whole world and all the private contractors, the university, it could do these good things. But you know, really, where’s the power? All the private contractors run everything now.”

Whereas, I think what we want to say is no, it’s very similar to what MMT argues about the federal government, where we imagine that the tail is wagging the dog. The federal government is “always too broke” or “spending too much,” it’s always riding the waves of this force that’s outside of them. So we’re saying, like the federal government, the universities and university systems are at the center of authority and provisioning–they set wage floors, they implement wage ceilings, as (often) the largest employers in cities and in counties. If they raise the wage floor, which actually my university just did a little bit, not enough, but they’re bumping everybody up to $15/hour. That tremendously affects other wage ratios in the rest of the city and surrounding areas. 

The university has to fess up to its power and fess up to its capacities, and fess up to its causal centrality for us. That’s another thing the Uni Project does, and that’s part of the pedagogy.

Jakob Feinig: That is very different from other types of community currencies. Maybe, since you live in Ithaca, Ben, could you maybe say two words about the difference between the Uni and previous experiments?

Benjamin Wilson: I think the community/complementary currency literature and experiments are modeled not on the MMT framework, but on the fictional narrative of the barter economy–if we add more currency into the system, we’ll facilitate the exchange of goods and services. Very much like Bitcoin, it can be this decentralized thing that circulates and solves these problems. And what’s fundamentally different here for us, is: we’re trying to downsize the idea of MMT to local communities. How do we leverage the knowledge of a tax-driven circuit, at smaller scales, such that the tax-driven circuit is even maybe too obligatory, too coercive. Maybe the threat of incarceration for not paying your taxes is not necessary. How do we structure reciprocal obligations so that it allows a currency to continue to circulate while also highlighting the fact that money is a collective endeavor? That is a public instrument that should be designed and created through public discourse in a way that it’s just not in our society. 

And I think that that’s one of the really beautiful things in your book Jakob, and I’m curious in your studies of moral economies and money in these colonial systems, were there similar experiences in these communities that brought people together to question money? What was the catalyst to say, “Hey, we can do this in a better way, let’s start organizing our tobacco as a form of reciprocal payment” –maybe you can speak a little bit to that. 

Jakob Feinig: I think in many periods of US history, it was clear to quite a few money users that there are different levels of money and different levels of money creation and that municipalities or states or individual provinces can create acceptability. This [the uni] is, in a sense, reconnecting with earlier (in many respects, deeply problematic, but still real) monetary systems, where colonists had this experience of paying taxes either in kind or in labor or–which was their preferred way–in bills of credit. When the provincial government of Massachusetts was longer allowed to issue bills of credit, [they said] we’ll just do it at a local level. And maybe five or ten towns decided to accept that in payment of taxes. So they started knowing that that could work. 

It also worked in eighteenth-century New York City, when they created water works, just before the War of Independence. They put together what was then a high-tech water system by issuing municipal bills of credit–by issuing municipal money that worked only because the university, I mean, the municipality, accepted it in payment of taxes. All those different levels of acceptability and of organizing collective life were, I think, a lot more visible. 

And I think what the two of you talk about is structurally similar, in the sense that different levels of society become more legible. As you understand what’s going on in the classroom, you understand the federal government better. If you already have the MMT understanding of the federal government, then Unis will be more plausible. There is no reason for not multiplying those layers and exploring possibilities for democratization and inclusion, at all those different levels. And if one of the levels fails, maybe the other one is ready to jump in, maybe if one level cannot provision people, then we have something else to fall back on. There is no longer this monoculture of just one possible source of money.

Scott Ferguson: That’s really great. And I think it gets at another way in which what we’re up to is different from certain traditions of complementary currency. I don’t want to say all of them, but certain traditions. The instrument is called complementary because it’s not the main currency, but it’s one that is situated seemingly on the outside. So there’s an inside/outside on a spatial, cognitive map. And the outside, it’s precarious, it’s only as good as people are willing to barter with it on an individual level. I think it has an evil twin, which is the company script model. The company town that gets workers into debt, and makes it so that they get paid in their own currency and can only use that currency at the company’s stores and buying company newspapers, we’re all familiar with that. 

But all the good and evil versions of that inside/outside model are being challenged here with our Uni project. Because yes, like the histories that Jakob has studied, that doesn’t exhaust what is actually going on. And that there isn’t just one currency. Even the US dollar is a heterogeneous hierarchy of multiple instruments. We have dollars that are created by fiscal appropriation, we have dollars that are created in the Federal Reserve System. And then we have all kinds of dollars that are created in our wild, digital financial system and shadow banks and things like that. 

And yet we call most of those things the dollar even though they’re a heterogeneous collection of institutions that have different design models–the fiscal appropriation model is not the same design model as the Federal Reserve system model. So I think when we were first working on this project, we got some negative feedback that suggested: Oh, well, this is weak, it’s like a complementary currency or worse, it’s evil, like company script, but either way, it’s outside the dollar. 

And we want to be helping people, and we want to really be giving them the dollar. I think one way of answering this is to say: Not only is the dollar this heterogeneous hierarchy of contested designs and claims, but I wouldn’t necessarily even say that the Uni isn’t the dollar. We could say it’s a mode of the dollar. It’s one iteration of the dollar in the dollar system. Now, if it’s just Unis in one of our classrooms, it has a limited function in the dollar system, in a similar sense that Starbucks gift cards are denominated in dollars. A “$5 gift card,” right? But they have limited receivability, they have a limited circulation power. So this to me, is how we’re conceiving the Uni and trying to get out of this inside outside weak strong way of thinking about currency creation and currency circulation.

Jakob Feinig: That’s really excellent. To see it not as complimentary, as outside, but as part of a hierarchy. I do have another question: The people who told you you’re trying to reintroduce company script, they might have thought about something that I was also thinking about, which is, who has to accept Unis? When probably in any local setting, most people would still prefer the dollar or some people might still prefer the dollars because I have a hard time seeing faculty and staff overnight switching to “tomorrow I’ll accept 80% of my salary in Unis.” How would that work?

Scott Ferguson: I think there’s multiple ways of answering this. One is at the level of language and packaging. So like I said, you can buy a $20 Starbucks gift card, and you have 20 American dollars in Starbucks gift cards, and I think rhetorically I would want to pursue a similar strategy that you have. Here’s an amount of $200 of Unis–rather than rhetorically making sense of the Uni as it’s just its own weird thing.

Jakob Feinig: Perfect. Okay, that’s exactly what I needed to understand it because it’s like, I have $500 in my bank account, right? That’s not the same thing as Federal Reserve notes, it’s lower in the hierarchy. And yet I’m convinced I have $200 and no one will dispute that I do have $200. 

I love the way you put it, and it really makes me understand that I was still thinking of the Unis as complementary, when in fact they’re not complementary. It’s one way of implementing credit money creation within the dollar system. For me, it was very tempting to think of it as complementary, but actually, no, it’s not. You know, it’s $20, period. So I really thank you for that– I really needed that!

Benjamin Wilson: And I think when you start to think about the gift card and all the other ways that we change our US dollars into less receivable instruments, it starts to make it seem a lot less weird. Especially when it comes to paying for higher education. I’ve got special savings accounts for my children. I can’t use any of that money, but it’s still US dollars. It’s US dollars that can really only be used to pay for higher education by me without being taxed, but that money has been sent to Wall Street and hedge funds to grow. 

That is buffering and creating another stream of revenue that is outside of the university system. It seems a little strange to me that we invest in sending our kids to college, in places that aren’t directly improving the places we want to send our kids to get educated. Why aren’t our savings accounts expanding the resources and educational opportunities in these places? The Uni could be that instrument. You don’t have to save for college in Wall Street funds, you can save for college in Uni funds, and you can design those in all sorts of different ways. 

So from the classroom to the Public Banking Act, these are all just part of peeling away the layers of an onion that has been decades in the making: This revenue-driven higher education model. And there’s just so many places where things could be done differently, that I think do a better job of organizing public provisioning to do the things that we really want it to do, from the university mission statement to questions about what education is as a public good, to the provisioning and creation of all of our public goods from healthcare to public spaces, our parks and where we recreate, I am also thinking from the perspective of an urban planner and designer. The amount of possible reductions in heart disease from having adequate shade in your community and things of this nature, allow us to plant trees and do things that are nice for people that right now just seem unaffordable, or undoable.

Scott Ferguson: And we don’t have to outsource to for-profit corporations, we can build up provisioning capacities within the university, as we are learning from, collaborating with, listening to, and partnering with communities that have been policed and not served, and are being displaced by for-profit university administration.

Jakob Feinig: We could start in-sourcing stuff like food production, or provisioning or kitchens, or all kinds of things.

Scott Ferguson: Simple examples from my own life: On the campus at UC Berkeley that I was at, which has its problems, there were several food establishments that had been there for a long time and were local businesses, and were a part of the community. The campus that I’ve worked at for the last decade plus, it’s all Subways and Chick-fil-As. Of course, all of it is actually Aramark, the firm that is licensing all the logos and the food supply chains and all the stuff for these subcontracted workers to come in and do the work. We could rethink that if we’re owning up to our authority and responsibility as community provisioners.

Another part of this project that I want to flag is, yes, it’s a proposal, and it’s an evolving proposal. But it’s also what I’ve come to call a “problem space” that invites participation. So what we’re offering is not “the Uni–one thing” and that’s going to be the solution, but rather an ongoing participation in a paradigm that opens up new questions, new fights, new possibilities, new responsibilities.

Benjamin Wilson: That’s what we’re in now. Neoliberal austerity didn’t just explode on the scene, right? It’s been a slowly evolving thing, closing off more and more possibilities for decades.

Scott Ferguson: While opening up all kinds of private and precarious ones.

Benjamin Wilson: Absolutely–I love the idea that it’s a problem space, it’s an open invitation. I think the conversation that Erica and Will had was dead on and thinking about debt as this unifying rallying call. This calls into question university debt, it calls into question student debt, it calls into question public debt at large, and we can experiment with really new ways that are nowhere near as limiting as what we’re currently facing.

Scott Ferguson: We should mention that we have the goal of making higher-ed free again. In the problem space of the Uni that is contingent upon what level of receivability any given Unique project is working at. If we have a Uni based on the Public Banking Act, then that is probably the most capacious, authoritative and powerful Uni that we can have as long as it is participatory all the way down. And in that case, we can absolutely not only abolish all student debt, but also all tuition and fees. If we’re talking about local experimentation in a classroom or a program, or even just one university, then we have to move more slowly toward reducing tuition. We have big dreams and a big goal. But achieving that goal is going to have to be connected to which part of the fight or which part of the build-out are we investing in at any given time.

Benjamin Wilson: And the more people that participate in various ways, either through advocacy, at federal and state-level policy-making, to sharing successes that they’re having in these classrooms, the more evidence, the more power, the more buy-in, the more people get involved in, the better the process will be, the more informed, the better trained people will be to be the administrators of a Public Banking Act. It’s not going to be an easy job, just like being the head underwriter for Bank of America isn’t an easy job. But it’s a better job, I would argue.

Scott Ferguson: Less so in the humanities, but primarily in the sciences and social sciences, we have big grants, and then big initiatives and research programs and labs that are granting and provisioning and keeping track and doing that already. I want to get to the point where we’re not simply defending this proposal for the Uni. I want to get to the point where other people are teaching us about what the Uni is and what it can be. That’s where I want to get.

Benjamin Wilson: That would be magic. That would be phenomenal.

Scott Ferguson: And it’s a big hurdle, because it’s a very different way of imagining. It’s a different emotional relationship to the world. It requires a different emotional stance.

Benjamin Wilson: It’s hard to be optimistic sometimes. But this would make that a lot easier and end the “you’re alone” narrative and all that stuff.

Jakob Feinig: How do you make the switch of thinking of yourself as a money issuer?

Benjamin Wilson: Well, doing it helped! Creating “Benjamins” [Wilson’s classroom currency] and I talked to touch base with Michael at EnergyWeb and said that I’m presenting it again, hoping to recruit more faculty to join me at Cortland. And he was like, yeah, the more the merrier, scale is not a problem for us. Like, if you’ve got people at other universities that want to use the system, we can get to work on trying to think through all the different technological dynamics of allowing your currencies to be measured and understood and how many are circulating and how much of the tax liabilities are being extinguished. And all that stuff on like a very large scale, which is super exciting. 

Jakob Feinig: I have mine right now on paper. Students named them “Googly Shallaghs.”

Scott Ferguson: I think too, there’s a double move, which is inviting people and teaching them about how this could work: How you can be a currency issuer and provisioner in your classroom or in a larger program or working with community outreach organizations on your campus and things like that. But there’s also the flip of the switch, which is just a mental one. Which is coming to realize that, if we’re talking about instructors, you’re already doing it, you already are in a system of credits. And you have students who work for credits. And you assess those, you assess their performance, through, usually, grades. Not everybody does that. But my campus does that. And those grades are receivable as part of the university system, right? That leads to a diploma but also when you graduate, and when and when you leverage your degree toward a job or toward another degree. Those grades might matter and be receivable and valuable for different reasons. So we’re already doing it. We just think that we’ve just so naturalized it that we don’t know that we’re doing it.

Jakob Feinig: And when you do it for the first time, it’s like the similar shift from just being a receiver of grades to all of a sudden–the creator of grades.

Scott Ferguson: That’s true, that’s true.

Jakob Feinig: And I hated it. And I still hate it.

Scott Ferguson: You feel this responsibility. Yeah, absolutely.

Jakob Feinig: But this is not something I would hate. It’s different. It’s a different kind of credit. I hate issuing those credits, but I don’t have to hate it. I mean, I don’t think I would hate issuing Unis, that’s different.

Scott Ferguson: I mean, whether they’re like traditional grades, like A, B, C, D. I mean, we could imagine all kinds of different evaluative modes. I mean, they can be just qualitative or whatever. But I think you would feel less bad about that if it wasn’t in the context of an austere punitive cutthroat system where there’s not enough to go around. Different people have different views on grading, but we might not feel as bad even using traditional grades when lower grades don’t mean abjection.

Benjamin Wilson: If you’re known as a hard grader, students will still take your class, because they know they’re getting a really good education rather than avoiding it just because they can’t take that risk in their GPA. It’s amazing. People definitely avoid my classes, because I have a reputation of being hard.

Benjamin Wilson: But I’m not.

Scott Ferguson: So you say. 

Benjamin Wilson: I’m really just a snuggly teddy bear. My mission post-sabbatical, this next phase of my career, is to soften that a little bit. I think part of that is just being new and not wanting to be taken advantage of, knowing that you’re doing it right, and not letting people slack off. I think it’s just part of the mindset, maybe. But I’m not nearly as scared of that anymore. 

I really see education as an opt-in. Some students are going to opt out, and that’s okay. And I’ll do my best to keep you there. But if you’re not opting in, then I’m going to continue to focus on those that are really buying in and ready to take it on. I think the Uni gives us the freedom to do that too. You don’t have to issue Uni to a student that’s not doing the work, just like in the Jobs Guarantee.

Scott Ferguson: The Uni can be a part of the Job Guarantee. I co-authored a piece with William Saas a year or two ago that was published in the journal Liminalities. I will give credit where credit is due: This was Billy Saas’ idea that I supported and co-wrote with him, but this was very much his idea. He came to me with this idea for a Green New Deal-driven and university-focused academic job guarantee which would leverage federal funds to extend security and benefits equivalent to tenure to all workers on public college and university campuses. 

We call this the SBET or SBET: Security and benefits equivalent to tenure, where essentially termination has to be for cause rather than at will. Coupled with a robust unionization effort and legislation, this would make worker power much, much greater. And it would create a collective safety net for expanding not just worker power but the provisioning powers of the Uni currency project.

Jakob F: Wow, I have to read that!

Scott Ferguson: The title of the paper is “Performative Public Finance for Higher Education, Academic Labor and the Green New Deal.” 

Jakob Feinig: I want to read it right away. I wanted to ask maybe as a last question, how do you see the project unfolding in the next years and months? What do you think the next steps should be?

Benjamin Wilson: First, I hope that this discussion, and the piece in Academe magazine, sparks larger discussions. And really the Uni project is something that is evolving and changing and it’s not really this, you have to do X or Y in order to be involved, but really be open to any sort of suggestions or ideas and participation. For me, the next iteration of the Uni is going to take place in my urban class–I am hoping to build an edible park. I’m hoping to expand it up into the Adirondacks where I’m working with some great community folks to ameliorate food security, clean water, and access to health care. 

I’m hoping that as more people get involved, either on my campus or across SUNY campuses, or from other places, we start putting together a database of all the beautiful things that we’re getting done by mobilizing student work, and the production of public goods in all different fields, from public art spaces to food systems to in-stream habitat interventions. Whatever you think is a way of ameliorating the climate crisis or social inequities, I would be super excited to collaborate and hear more. And at the other end, hopefully folks will start advocating for the Public Banking Act and writing letters for state level policies for public banks, the Job Guarantee, the Green New Deal, the E-Cash Act, all these amazing federal legislative projects that would all contribute to moving beyond the austerity model that we’re living in today.

Scott Ferguson: And just to close, we’re also imagining this as an alternative to a lot of the frantic and excited activity around blockchain and other forms that bill themselves as private currencies, from crypto to NFT’s and this kind of thing that have proven to be insecure and volatile, and certainly not serving public purposes. And even after all of these market crashes, companies like Facebook or Meta are still investing millions if not billions of dollars in propping up a vision of the future in which these private monies are supposed to play a central role. 

The notion that people can start participating in money creation is actually everywhere. It’s in headlines. It’s on social media. It’s just that that’s such a terrible model. It’s such a horrible model. But if we can harness some of that energy toward public purpose, then we’re talking. 

I think with that, we can end. Thanks so much for joining me for this great conversation, Ben and Jakob.

Benjamin Wilson: That was so much fun! Thanks for organizing. 

Jakob Feinig: Thank you!

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Mercedes Ohlen (transcription), & Meghan Saas (graphic art)

Rising Tides Sink All Boats

By David M. Fields

So, what is the Fed’s deal? Has Jerome Powell fallen prey to inflationary paranoia and hysteria for all the wrong reasons? Or is a “strong’ dollar a manifestation of a particular response to a policy choice that is more calculated and direct? By facilitating aggressive monetary austerity, the Federal Reserve is ensuring the US dollar is a safety asset to insulate the global rentier from cost-push-markup inflationary unpredictability.

The US dollar is surging to new heights. For instance, the US Dollar Index, which values the greenback against a basket of currencies, has advanced considerably. One of the burning questions is whether this will last? For now, I think, yes, it will, simply because there is no alternative for global trade invoicing and financial accounting. Aggressive monetary austerity policy from the Federal Reserve, a project aimed at using unemployment to tame cost-push-markup inflation, is pushing rival currencies lower, particularly in emerging market economies that suffer from balance of payments constraints, as investors from around the globe rush to purchase US Treasuries for security in the face of world-systemic economic uncertainty.

This scenario is vastly different than the monetary policy from only a year ago or so. Then, to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, central banks around the world cut interest rates sharply — to near 0 — and governments deployed aggressive fiscal support of their economies. As a result, Federal Reserve actions were important in stabilizing world financial markets, specifically with respect to Fed swap lines and the establishment of the Foreign and International Monetary Authorities (FIMA) Repo Facility, which ensured a “buyer of last resort” for foreign central banks desiring to sell U.S. dollar reserves. Capital flowed throughout the world and the dollar fell sharply. In a sense, this was to be expected, and was seen as temporary. Eventually, the dollar was bound to bounce back up. And now it is. And the post-pandemic world paved the way.

Indeed, as the world economy reopened from pandemic lockdowns, supply chain bottlenecks arosecoupled with pandemic profiteering, generating worldwide upsurges in inflation. The response from the Fed, as mentioned, has been to raise the federal funds rate, which has translated into a sharp dollar appreciation as a result of global capital inflows, as the US dollar is a reserve asset to cope with worldwide economic uncertainty.

Yet, is this influential role of the dollar in the world economy an indication of the United States’ core commitment to internal price stability and external cooperation for the deliverance of efficient world capital markets and global trade links? Or acute deposition of the monetary power of the United States? In my view, the answer is the latter.

Here’s why.

The Fed is the world economy’s central bank, which acts as the safety valve for mass amounts of international liquidity. The role of the US dollar in international markets, and the advantages that come with it, are the spoils of its monetary hegemony. The provision of this asset allows the United States to become the source of global demand, and to insulate itself from fluctuations and contradictions of perilous cumulative disequilibria that may arise in the world economy, like the adverse price effects of supply chain bottlenecks and financial contagion that stem from foreign currency devaluations. The US dollar is the numeraire currency in international markets, which is not emblematic of credible macroeconomic performance that fosters confidence, but an arbiter of authority that regulates and dictates the flows of international financial commitments for global economic activity.

Given the current state of world economic dynamics, along with the foreseeable future, there does not seem to be a direct challenge to the dollar’s preeminence, in the same vein as the Euro was not a likely contender given its fallout from the Great Recession. There is not any indication of the greenback’s fall from grace as the dominant international currency. This does not preclude, nevertheless, eventual dollar dethroning, just confirms that the process is (very) long-term.

Despite hysterical contestations of inflationary fragility, the US dollar insulates the United States from global fluctuations and contradictions that may arise. This provides the country the effective means by which the world economy can be stabilized with global demand expansion, without spurring assumed demand-pull inflationary spirals. So, what is the Fed’s deal? Has Jerome Powell fallen prey to inflationary paranoia and hysteria for all the wrong reasons? Or is a “strong’ dollar a manifestation of a particular response to a policy choice that is more calculated and direct? By facilitating aggressive monetary austerity, the Federal Reserve is ensuring the US dollar is a safety asset to insulate the global rentier from cost-push-markup inflationary unpredictability. As such, expectations of future dollar depreciation arising from a return to loose monetary policy is, unfortunately, unlikely.

I hope I am wrong.

***Republished from the Monetary Policy Institute Blog***

Debt Cancel Culture: Media Strategies for Democratic Coalitions (ft. Erica Robles-Anderson, @fstflofscholars)

Will Beaman (@agoingaccount) is joined by Erica Robles-Anderson  (@fstflofscholars) for an examination of the Biden Administration’s public communications around student debt relief. If Trump-era communication was characterized by direct broadcasts from the Tweeter-in-Chief, this new style uses public policy to strategically hail online discussion. Erica and Will read “This You?” debtor discourse as an example of how political media forms can be suited to coalitional, democratic politics.

Visit our Patreon page here: https://patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure…

Music: “Lilac” from “This Would Be Funny If It Were Happening To Anyone But Me” EP by flirting.
http://flirtingfullstop.bandcamp.com
Twitter: @actualflirting

Performing Hard Money with Frederic Heine

Frederic Heine joins Money on the Left to discuss his recent essay, “Performing Hard Money: Monetary Policy, Metaphor and Masculinity in the Making of the EMU,” published this summer in the Journal of Cultural Economy. Heine is a university assistant at the Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies at Johannes Kepler University, Linz (Austria). In his essay, Heine analyzes the cluster of masculine metaphors that ground and mobilize the European Monetary Union’s (EMU) hard-line opposition to “soft” money politics. At the time of this episode’s publishing in early September 2022, what Heine classifies as the masculine performative agency of EMU leaders can be seen all over Europe, with French President Macron decrying the end of abundance and the European Central Bank signaling a coming period of sacrifice across the Eurozone. We speak with Heine about this essay as well as his broader inquiry into the intersections of gender, global finance, and political economy.

See Frederic Heine’s essay here.

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com

Transcript

The following was transcribed by Mercedes Ohlen and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson: Frederic Heine, welcome to Money on the Left

Frederic Heine: Thank you very much for having me. 

Scott Ferguson: To kick things off, can you tell our listeners a bit about your background, be it personal or professional or both, and what brought you to the study of gender, culture and political economy? 

Frederic Heine: I am currently working as a lecturer, or university assistant, at Johannes Kepler University (Linz) at the Institute of Women’s and Gender Studies. I did a PhD at the University of Warwick, and before that I did a master’s in global political economy at the University of Sussex. That’s my academic background. Before that, I studied at the Free University of Berlin, the place where I got interested in gender in political economy. 

Basically, at the Institute for… Political economy, Marxism, feminism. And led me to ask all these questions. And at the same time, shortly after I started, there was also the beginning of the first signs of the global financial crisis kicking in. So that was a big part of me being interested in trying to understand what was happening there. And at the same time, maybe gender and masculinity has been something that had been a more… permanent [interest] in my background. I needed the inspiration by the feminist flare at the university. But then I started questioning masculinity and relating it back to my own experiences of gender masculinity, some gender-related bullying in my youth.

When I came across Roman Connell’s work on hegemonic masculinity and subordinate masculinity, hierarchies of masculinity, that was very much a game changer in understanding my own identity, and also my place within the larger agenda structures in some ways. But at the same time, as male at birth and with a masculine self-presentation, I also experience it very much as a privilege, especially in combination with whiteness. For example, the attribution and assumption of competence, and even some level of authority now that I get older, which seems a little absurd at times.

In any case, that’s my background: On the one hand, there were these big macro events, like the global financial crisis that I was trying to understand. And on the other hand, this understanding of my own identity within that context. I think the tension between those macro events and identity/subjectivity, on the other hand, was what maybe always kept me in this interest about how gender and political economy relate, especially, of course, when I discovered feminist political economy as a sub-discipline, when I came to the UK and discovered IPE [International Political Economy] and the complexity and diversity of approaches. And feminist IPE in particular. That shaped a lot of the ways in which I was approaching these questions.

William Saas: Thank you for that really great answer. We’ve come to your work by way of an article you’ve published very recently in the Journal of Cultural Economy, titled “Performing Hard Money: Monetary Policy, Metaphor and Masculinity in the Making of EMU.” I wonder if by way of starting our conversation and making sure that we all have a common ground or grammar to work with, could you share with listeners who may not know what the EMU is, where it came from, and maybe its role in shaping the neoliberal project in Europe and beyond?

Frederic Heine: The European Monetary Union, the EMU, is the monetary aspect of European integration. It’s the institutional context for the single currency that probably all listeners know, which is the Euro, a currency that was first meant as a currency for the entire European Union, but a number of countries decided not to participate or haven’t adopted the Euro yet. The European Monetary Union is governed by the European System of Central Banks, comprised of National Central Banks, and, at the top, the European Central Bank. 

The idea of some kind of monetary union to proceed with economic integration and political integration has been a long time in the making. Since the first proposals in the 1970s, there has been ever closer European economic integration. As a background to these proposals, that meant that a single currency seemed desirable for economic and political reasons. 

And even before the European Monetary Union, there had been several attempts to reduce currency fluctuations between European Union and European European Community member states, trying to keep exchange rates and inflation rates somewhat aligned, mostly to foster trade and mutual investment. And that had been the case ever since the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates. This is the background why the project was taken in the first instance. And ultimately, this process cumulated in suggestions for a European Monetary Union, a single currency, and so on.

The crux, however, is not so much in the fact that we do now have a currency union, but the kind of currency union we have. Instead of an integration of financial policies and monetary policies, only monetary policy is Europeanized and institutionalized in the European Central Bank. And while there are some restrictive rules for member states, which are also arbitrary rules for how much debt and how high a deficit they can run, there isn’t a political mechanism by which, for example, an expansionary fiscal policy approach could be coordinated. And worse, that’s partly on the insistence of of the Bundesbank [the German central bank], which we will talk about. 

There’s the “no bailout clause” that forbids the European Central Bank to act as a lender of last resort for member states. So the monetary union ended up as a setup that works okay in normal times, but in times of crisis seriously limits the room for maneuver, for example, the demand-led recovery from crisis. And we know all this because of what actually happened in the Eurozone Crisis from 2010 onward. So that’s what we experienced as a result of that.

William Saas: And how have critics and critical scholars engaged with the EMU previously?

Frederic Heine: There has been a lot of attention, especially since the Eurozone Crisis, on the institutional side of of the European Monetary Union. And there’s a literature that looks at the evolution and institutional design of the European Monetary Union and regards it as more or less as institutionally flawed, a result of political compromises between the main players, especially France, Germany, etc. It also looks at the power politics between the main major nations, so this is the intergovernmentalist approach to how the European Monetary Union formed. 

There is also a literature that looks at the relevance of ideas, and especially the emerging neoliberal consensus as discussed by [Kathleen] McNamara, for example–how, in the process of creating the European Monetary Union, there was an increasing shift towards the understanding that a central bank should be independent, that the nation-states should have a limited room for maneuver to run deficits, that welfare states should be reduced.

These elements are also part of the institutional setup of the European Monetary Union by design. And that is the focus of an interpretation that looks at the European Monetary Union mostly as a result of class politics, an institutionalization of neoliberal principles by constitutionalizing them, by setting them up in the treaties of the European Union, and therefore making them uncontestable (by the labor movement especially). And in the way of central bank independence, and this focus on price stability, rather than other central banks also are concerned with making sure that there’s full employment or that levels of employment are as high as possible. This is not within the remit of the  European Central Bank. And so it’s also seen as a way of, through monetary policy, limiting the room for maneuver of trade unions and the labor movement.

Scott Ferguson: In your essay, you take up from a critical perspective what you call “gendered performative agency.” Can you define “gendered performative agency” for our listeners? And why, on your reasoning, does it matter for critically understanding the EMU?

Frederic Heine: One reason why I wanted to do this, and one thing that I haven’t seen in that literature that looks at the evolution of the European Monetary Union was to look at: Did gender plays a role in all of this? I tried to do this with that concept of gender performative agency. And it might get a bit abstract now, but basically, I was looking for a way to conceptualize how gender discourses and narratives might matter in economic governance. 

I tried to do this without reifying either what gender is or what exactly the economy is, and rather understand it as the result of these kinds of processes. Very briefly, it’s a lens that focuses on how agents mobilize performances and constructions of masculinities and femininities in their political discourse in their practices, to serve specific agendas within economic governance. And I use the term “performative” because in this way, this process both describes the performances involved in it: speeches, language, but also bodies, mannerism, dress, etc. I invoke the concept of performativity, the idea that language doesn’t only passively represent the kind of things that describes, but that it has at least some power in shaping it. A very basic example would be that if a child is told that it has a certain gender at birth, and then later is told and demonstrated what it means to be that gender, to perform the gender, then there’s a likelihood that it will behave according to these ideas as well. 

Although, of course, there’s always a chance of failure, and of a critical questioning of these. But basically, the idea is that that language doesn’t just represent something that is outside of it, but does create what it describes, in some ways, and through mechanisms and social practices. This idea has been developed in relation to gender famously by Judith Butler, as the listeners will probably know, and also in relation to the economy by scholars such as Michel Callon and others.

In a sense, I tried to capture how the economy is gendered through this performative language. And then, I looked at how these practices are very much leveraged by actors within economic governance. If we look at elite actors, such as the Bundesbankers in the paper, that have also a lot of moral authorit,y as I will explain hopefully, later. So even though single actors always have limited performative agencym as Butler argues, they still have comparatively more than you and me, for example. 

I argue that this agency and performing the economy is gendered because gender is not always but often a central component of our subjectivity and our worldviews, and even if we’re not necessarily aware of it, it shapes us. For example, V. Spike Peterson argues very deeply how we ascribe cultural value, effective value to things simply because the dominant worldviews are still very much gendered. And for this, studying how gendered meanings are mobilized, basically, look at language and metaphors. I hope this wasn’t too abstract.

Scott Ferguson: It was really clear, thank you. I really want us to spend some time as you do in the paper, unpacking these metaphors. Why metaphor? What are the metaphors? How are they being mobilized? How do they work through very often hierarchical binary oppositions that position certain terms as subordinate? As lesser? And then also how do these potentially change over time?

Maybe, to get things going, I just want to say one of the many things I appreciate so much about your work, is that very often when we’re thinking in terms of gendered performance or gender performative agency, we’re thinking about how broad social constructions, social meanings, discourses, imagery, etc. shape the way that individual persons and bodies become legible. And I think that work is very important.But what I see less done, but I see operative in your paper, is to say no, actually institutions that are irreducible to just–I mean, of course, it matters that these are men, who are the presidents of the Bundesbank, who have this authority in the European Monetary Union, and of course, their individual performativity matters. And legibility matters.

But it seems like you’re arguing that the very kind of constitution of this vast institution is a gendered performance. Is that fair to say?

Frederic Heine: I think that’s correct, thanks for your thoughts and for your developing the ideas of the paper. What I try to do is to see how the construction of certain institutions and certain cultural political economies as gendered is a process that is in principle contingent. It does use, of course, the larger discourses and cultural meanings ascribed to gender and mobilizes this data is only possible because there are shared understandings of what gender is and how it matters, etc. 

But the idea is that how this is articulated in a specific context is principally contingent. And that there can be variations, be specific institutions that do this more than others. I think you understood exactly what I’m trying to do. Thanks for these thoughts. But to go back to your first question, sorry. 

Scott Ferguson: Let’s get into some of these metaphors. I don’t know if you first want to talk about your archive a little bit more? What you’re studying?

Frederic Heine: I was going to start with the background of why I think metaphors matter in the discourse of these Bundesbankers. To talk about the archive: I looked at a lot of speeches and interviews these Bundesbankers did in the context of of the question: How should an EMU be structured? Should it exist in the first place? And all these issues. In that context, I looked at the public performances and speeches they did. 

And on the one hand, some of that discourse is pretty dry for the average audience member. It might seem surprising that metaphors play a key role here. But despite the technical role these central bankers often have, it is curious that in the German public, there used to be quite well-known, quite important public figures. Jacques Delors, for example, who was a very important figure in the EU negotiations and the President of the European Commission at the time, made the joke that not all Germans believe in God, but all Germans believe in the Bundesbank. So it had quite a big cultural role within the German polity. How is that possible for technocrats? Part of my argument is that this is the case because their discourse is not just technocratic, it’s not just about economics, but it carries a moral message that carries an effective stance.

And this is where the metaphors come in. They help to imbue the speech and discourse with meanings borrowed from other source domains. And metaphor theory has shown that metaphor is an important way in which cognition works. We understand something in terms of something else that we already know, that we are already familiar with. And metaphors can also mobilize affect and motivation, borrow authority and legitimacy from the source domain. In the paper, I argue that the Bundesbankers use a range of metaphors in their discourse on inflation and the necessity of price stability, that they were trying to make sure that the EMU was going along this direction. I examined these metaphors and I argue that the the range of metaphors used weaves together a tapestry that constructs a more or less coherent narrative. But the moral story of why price stability should be so important as to make it the cornerstone of the European Monetary Union.

And one element of this is how inflation is described through the metaphor of temptation. So this is something that seems irresistible. So this is literal, for example, when Karl-Otto Pöhl talks about the always lurking temptation, or related metaphors, such as a pinch of inflation, or the drag of inflation, and so on. The most pointed one is when Helmut Schlesinger, his successor, calls this “the siren calls of inflation,” a metaphor that is then repeated a few times. Or back in the 60s, one of the first Bundesbank presidents called inflation a nymph that doesn’t contend itself with the light flood. So what we have here is a discourse that compares inflation to something that equalizes giving in to desires and in the Greek mythical figures of nymphs and sirens, and this is a sexualized femininity that represents this temptation. 

And you can imagine this temptation to the assumed heterosexual men that are usually the assumed subjects in this language as well. So it plays on this feminization of temptation. And the assumed consequence of these temptations, following the songs of the sirens means shipwreck, flirting with a nymph, in this mythic mythological background means a threat of madness, distraction, taking drugs, addiction, etc. So, these are all consequences of losing self- control. The key to resisting that kind of temptation that inflation supposedly is, is the idea that of self-discipline. 

Self-discipline is regarded as the key not only to not giving in to this temptation, to resist the temptations, to [not] walk the path of least resistance, and all these kinds of metaphors are also implied to represent the remedy against the temptation of inflation. And so, this discipline in relation to EMU–the metaphor is used to stress the importance of discipline on the side of member states, for example. 

Pöhl evokes self-discipline, on the one hand, on the part of member states. Also market discipline is thought necessary to avoid these temptations. Market discipline as a result of investor behavior. And then also external discipline, through institutional mechanisms. And the latter, especially the the mechanism to create discipline, on an institutional side was the focus very much of the Bundesbank, who argued that this external discipline was required because member states couldn’t be trusted with this kind of self discipline, nor could market actors in themselves. 

The idea here is that there needs to be an authority that instills this discipline and that itself needs to be highly disciplined. So, these kinds of binaries between temptation and discipline that are connected to femininity on the temptation side and masculinity on the discipline side, were used by Pöhl to argue for the kind of an EMU focused on instilling discipline. And it did so from the position of the Bundesbank that prided itself in having that function within the German economy and arguing that the German economy has been much better placed to resist that kind of temptation. Because of its “stability culture” that is called in the language of the Bundesbank, and that stability culture itself then, is the result of the past tough choices and tough policies of the Bundesbank. 

So, again, we have here, or I’ll come to that set of metaphors in a second. And basically, I argue that these metaphors of temptation and discipline reference enlightenment, as well as reformist ideas of masculinity, of the composed, rational subject, that never strays from its mission, so to speak, that is always in control. And I also argue that these ideas of masculinity were particularly strong. 

For reasons we might later go into, in Germany, where the idea of the rational will conquering the bodily temptations was a key component of constructions of masculinity vis-à-vis femininity hich was seen as much less able to control the self, the impulses etc., in 19th century discourse, and therefore, needed a male guardian and patriarchal ideology. And at the same time, it was also constructed in an emerging national discourse as something that distinguished Germans. 

And the assumption here is, again, particularly German masculinity, which was often the focus of the national stereotypes as they developed in the 19th century. And also from other nations within Europe, particularly France, and Southern Europe as reference points. And here, this was not only a nationalist discourse, but also related to the idea of race because the idea of rational self controlled masculinity was also very prevalent in European colonial discourse, seen as a key feature that was supposed to distinguish white Europeans from people of color, ultimately, this discourse was one of governance. 

So it justifies and legitimizes governing over others, because one is able to demonstrate the ability to govern over the self. And that is the context in which this self discipline became central in these self representations subjectivities in that context. And so, another set of stereotypically masculine traits that is also used through metaphor in this context is strength, toughness, hardness, they often use to talk about currencies and to talk about basically, relationships to others. So, when choosing, for example, frequently emphasizes that the European currency, the euro, needs to be at least as hard as the D-Mark. 

This is on the one hand, common pylons and currency trading. So hard currency is one that has has a relatively low level of inflation. But it carries the potential metaphorical charge. So the Bundesbank was founded, basically on the mantra of its first president, who repeatedly said with soft measures, you can’t have a hard currency, meaning basically, that you need to be tough and resilient for your currency to be hard as the result of the toughness of the decisions that are being made. 

And the Bundesbankers themselves needed to perform this toughness as well. Schlesinger for example, was asked whether he had turned into a softy when he was perceived as not defending the D-Mark enough, which Schlesinger then sought to strongly deny. And Tietmeyer, who was the third president I look at, described himself as a tough oak, this fabian oak, to instill this idea that he will be unwavering in the face of crisis. And there’s this level of trust and resilience and resistance towards any attempts from outside to influence the decisions that might be present. And so you have, on the one hand, this reference to self discipline, and on the other hand, these references to toughness and hardness as a badge of honor of the economyt hat is masculinized in this discourse. 

For example, maybe I should add this is Schumpeter, for example, described also the idea that basically, the monetary policy of a people demonstrates, shows, as he formulated it, what kind of wood it is made of, which is the literal translation of the German which also expresses this idea that there’s a sort of… it reflects the morale, the toughness of the people that it represents. And this is very much present as the badge of honor in some ways of the national pride of the hard currency. It relies on the fact that it demonstrates this toughness. 

And both references to self discipline and toughness, together, make sense as a discourse of the strict father. This is also what George Lakoff has identified as the metaphorical, a kind of core argument also in US Republican discourse. The idea that the moral authority of a strict father is the desirable cultural trait. The strict father that is, on the one hand, morally strong and constantly and in self control, fighting off the possible internal temptations that he might have. And on the other hand, disciplining the dependents. So children, especially, and also the wife, to some extent, to do the same. And by being also strong and tough enough, to confront external dangerous or external kinds of threats.

The metaphorical tapestry of the Bundesbank invokes this strict father performance both for themselves and as the authority figures and as a cultural moral ideal of the ideal economic behavior. And in that way, there is this charge of the discourse around the D-Mark and the German values of being very hard-working people and tough etc, is reflected in these metaphors. I hope I made myself somewhat clear.

Scott Ferguson: Extremely clear, just for our listeners, something that I think is implicit in what you’re saying, but just to air it out: When you’re discussing the political rhetoric and legal construction of the EMU, you threw in metaphors of temptation versus self- discipline and hardness.

We’re talking about fiscal capacity, and how it should be constituted. And we’re also talking about interest rate policy. And we’re talking about employing and not employing certain kinds of people. So that while we have this intensely gendered institution, that’s a real legal construct. It’s a real social-ideological construct at this macro-political, economic, and even geopolitical level, but that construct is doing real damage through enforced austerity, whether it’s through the… baked into the Maastricht Treaty which founds the EMU. Or its individual decisions in relationship to crises, such that this metaphorical language and talking about being self-disciplined and not being tempted is about not being tempted to provision jobs that might be needed for an immigrant community.

This is dangerous, not just because the discourse itself, the metaphoric city itself, is so colonial and patriarchal and exclusionary as a cultural imaginary, but it itself is justifying all of this institution-building and policy work that is systemically violent in its ways. I just wanted to spell all that.

Frederic Heine: Thank you. That’s very important. As you say, completely implicit, or… and what I said, but an important consequence, … it’s also related directly to the discourse that makes it seem as if inflation was a result of indulgence and of overly luxurious consumption practices–basically, of living beyond one’s means and all these other kinds of narratives that belong there as well. 

And not about abilities to have a welfare state that that is able to take care of people in need and to create jobs and to have an economy that works for everyone and all these possibilities that could be created by an environment in which monetary policy could be used in a way to support policy goals, rather than as a result of this approach of the Bundesbank being in the hands of unelected set of people, mostly men, that make the decisions about the bounds around which the economy and economic policy basically has to orient itself.

Maxximilian Seijo: In your essay and in this discussion, you focused a lot on the German specificity of the EMU’s hard money, metaphorical and damaging discourse and policy as well. And I wanted to maybe hover a little bit on some of these threads that I think I’m sensing in your answers here. 

At the end of one of your answers, you implied Max Weber’s idea of the Protestant work ethic or perhaps that there’s something specifically German, even embedded in German history, in the language about this hard money, patriarchal discursive and cultural approach to monetary and fiscal policy. Can you talk about this history? I mean, I think of Protestantism, a word you just use a second ago was “indulgence,” which I think also links up to that history in its own way. There’s something there. I think that I want to hear you dive into a bit more.

Frederic Heine: Thank you. I definitely think there is a of specificity in German history on that. However, I haven’t looked at it comparatively. But as you say there’s specifics to German culture that one can trace this discourse back to and I have done that a little bit in the context of my PhD thesis, which maybe I can also later talk about a little bit. But for me, there might also be a larger picture that I’m missing. The two key processes that I have identified as maybe one of the reasons why this is prevalent in German monetary policy discourse, in particular, is on the one hand, the polarization of discipline in Prussian culture. 

And that’s partly because of Prussian state formation. Gorsky has this argument that in the Prussian state formation, under the first kings that was central to the Prussian state formation and the reform reforms that created the bureaucratic and military structures of that state, very much informed by Calvinism. The Protestant Ethic that you just mentioned, was very important in the top-down formation of the state, and particularly through military discipline. The Prussian state was very much an innovator in that respect. And stereotypically the German, the Prussian military, was known for its extreme level of core discipline.

That was reflected in the Prussian culture as well, where the military had a particular hegemonic quality, representing masculinity in that period. So I think that’s one reason for the historical trajectory for that kind of discourse. And then why, what does that have to do with central banking, monetary policy? This is where I believe the Weimar Republic comes in. The experience of hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic, after the First World War in the period between 1918 and 1923, there was a period of hyperinflation in Germany. At the end of it, people had to carry bucket loads of cash to buy basic necessities because it devalued so rapidly after the First World War. So on the one hand, there’s a scare about inflation there. 

That is often referenced as well, as one of the reasons for a general culture of stability, the hardest core. But then again, you could have similar experience of national trauma in relation to hyper deflation in some ways, if we look at the consequences of the world economic crisis of the 1930s and of mass unemployment that happened in Germany at that time, that was certainly had arguably a lot more economic social consequences than hyperinflation period. But in any case, so, I also looked at that period and the cultural discourses around that period, around hyperinflation and partly building on Ben Videx’ work in relation to that. 

And what we have seen just now in relation to the references to metaphors, about temptation, discipline, etc., are … how to say this? Basically, I kind of tame in relation to the metaphors that were used at that time because one of the sort of key metaphors there was of inflation as a vicious Sabbath, the figure of the witch was basically mobilized in relation to the experience of hyperinflation. And so that’s another sort of deviant femininity that is kind of seen as being involved in this process and this experience of inflation. And that’s very interesting, right? Because that goes back to misogynistic representations of femininity, as they were abound in the period of the witch hunts in Europe, which were particularly savage also by the way in German speaking regions. 

In that context, witches stood for those aspects of deviant femininity that are seen as threatening to the patriarchal order as Silvia Federici, for example, has argued, famously argued, and witches were seen as kind of those aspects of femininity. Mentally weak, being insatiable, insatiably lusty, insubordinate, incapable of self-control, etc. So the witch embodied all these things that threaten patriarchal social order. And this mobilization of this metaphor, I argue, has to do with the time period in which this happened, because after the First World War, Germany has lost the kind of military ideal of masculinity, has lost a lot of legitimacy in that context. 

And on the other hand, there was renewed a progress for women in the Weimar Republic, who had during the war taken on a lot of jobs in the economy that had been reserved for men previous to the war, and were still employed in that area. So there was a lot more female employment. There were also a lot more political rights in the Weimar Republic, they were granted the, I mean, the world suffrage, universal suffrage was introduced in the 1980s, as well. 

So I think it also reflects in some ways that there’s anxiety not only about the loss of monetary stability and monetary order, but also the anxiety about patriarchal order, expresses itself in some ways in those metaphors of witches that can contribute to inflation. And on the other hand, just to finish on that, then, when inflation was ended by the introduction of a new currency, and the appointment of a new central banker, named Hjalmar Schacht, the kind of patriarchal military masculinity that he represented in that context was again celebrated as he was called a magician who was able to rein in these demonic forces of the inflation, and in that context, also had a specific ways of retooling certain decisions, fiscal budget decisions, and started that discourse of “we have to limit the fiscal resources of the state” etc. 

So I think, in that context, the attention to monetary policy and what it means culturally and this association with ideas of masculinity on the one hand in order to bring under control some aspects that were ascribed to femininity is something that also dates back to that historical base.

Scott Ferguson: I’m fascinated by all the tensions and the contradictions that I think are teeming beneath all of these metaphors. So certainly from the point of view of Modern Monetary Theory, hard money policy, let alone hard money metaphors, tend to be destabilizing because they induce crisis, and they have a crisis response to crisis. 

So it’s ironic, it’s contradictory. It’s hypocritical in addition to being violent and unjust, that it’s the very construction of hard money as an institution and as a metaphoric that is actually a massively destabilizing element in its own right. And then there’s so many other things I want to ask you about, for example, have you thought much about the figure the “schwarze Null,” “the black zero” that is so prized in in German banking? I think it’s fallen out of favor in more recent years. But, you see these these helicopter view shots of all these bankers celebrating a balanced budget. With this aestheticized giant zero, like a plastic sculpture that they treat as a kind of fetish object. I don’t know if how much you’ve thought about that.

Frederic Heine: Totally. I also talk about the years on the crisis period itself in my thesis, and there’s a lot of… the shots celebrated when Schäuble was stepping back from the Finance Ministry positions. You have actually the Prussian references that I was kind of making, you have the Bild Newspaper, which is the biggest German tabloid. And at a certain point before Mario Draghi was doing the “Whatever it Takes” speech that was a turning point in the European Crisis Governance. When he was appointed, they depicted him with a Prussian spiked helmet, which is this military thing, kind of declaring him an honorable German, that was adhering to the monetary ideals of of Germany and later also, during an interview, presented him with the precious spiked helmet–an original one–from some time in order to remind him of the Prussian virtues that he was supposed to inhabit. So there’s a lot of fetishism is I think the right word to kind of describe this. 

Obviously, the Bild newspaper is not the Bundesbank itself, but actually you even have at one point and this is shortly after the announcement of the of the “Whatever it Takes” speech. You have the then-president of the Bundesbank, Jens Weidmann kind of deliver a speech in which a press release which is about the treatment of monetary policy in Goethe’s work, Faust. And where basically he cites Mephistopheles, or the devil, in relation to un-backed paper money, and kind of I don’t have the exact quotation but something else you know, if the devil says you know, if you have un-backed paper money, you don’t have to worry about gold or silver or anything like that you can just indulge in lovemaking and wine drinking and everything and that of your problems will be solved essentially.

Maxximilian Seijo: Well, just to add on that point–Goethe, in his life, and feel free to add to this, is responding to this feeling of expropriation and in his era in the context of the French Revolution, and later on, and these particular monetary allegory and Faust as, as you say, is dealing with in that same model of trauma and then looking and searching for that hard ground and allegorizing all of the externalization that that that go on whether it’s in the figure of the witch or later on, or the vampire or…

Of course, during World War Two and precursors with the Nazis, the figure of the Jews. But I find your exploration of this really, really exciting and fascinating, I think precisely because that history that you’re bringing up all the different strands is so rich with all of this detail and all of these metaphorical tensions and problems that you’re playing out.

Frederic Heine: Thank you very much. And you probably know more about Goethe and Faust than I do. And I realized recently that probably I should do some more studying of that, because it also combines the sort of thinking about inflation on the one hand and a very present kind of work that prominently places the witch as a cultural figure in German discourse, might also be related to why that was so present in the Weimar Republic as a metaphor. Just to say that, maybe I should go into that a little bit more.

William Saas: A little bit more out of left field, but I was intrigued–Was it Schäuble who got the spiked Prussian hat? The pickelhaube? 

Frederic Heine: It was Mario Draghi.

William Saas: Mario Draghi. Okay, I was just very curious, because one of the things that I think another thing that’s been implicit in our conversation and maybe it’s worth talking about or not is the sort of phallic character of a lot of these metaphors. And that that helmet, of course, is quite… I got I got interested in the relative height of the spikes on top of those helmets, and a very reliable source here, maybe you can correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like: “an AKO of May 1899, would set the height at 9.5 centimeters for officer spikes and 8.5 centimeters for all other ranks.” 

Lots to talk about here, I suppose. I wanted to also circle back to talking about hard money, hard leaders. And kind of the theory of history at play here. It’s very tragic and romantic and zero sum where you have these hard leaders managing hard money systems in order to kind of defend but also fend off vulnerability and femininity. And I wonder if, as we’re having these conversations and talking about the EMU and your published work, if it’s hard not to in the States, look at our situation, and try to trace out and track the perhaps, German lineage of much of the same kind of rhetoric and discourse over here around inflation, especially today. 

And so for example, we talk one of one of our most recent episodes with Brett Scott, and we got into all sorts of money metaphors, and we sort of brought up the metaphor of Paul Volcker, at the end of the 70s, breaking the back of inflation, which is an interesting also that kind of displacement of or characterization of inflation in this case, thinking of them as kind of like a mortal enemy that you want slain, maybe not so feminine. 

But in any case, Volker, probably not who you would think of as this sort of heroic figure of history being cast in this heroic role. All of that, by way is saying, have you done much thinking about the way that these metaphors and systems of metaphors have ramified and played out in international finance discourse?

Frederic Heine: I think… Well, that’s very interesting observations. The short answer to this question is not very much. But Melinda Cooper, for example, has looked at the inflation period, like the 70s, sort of high levels of inflation in the US and kind of traced is somewhat similar discourses kind of in social conservative thinkers that kind of also have seen this as a sign of moral weakness and moral kind of lack of morals in the American population. 

I can’t recall any particular metaphors at this moment, but certainly I think there’s a lot of circulation of this kind of thinking I mean, Schumpeter as well was widely regarded economists that kind of also contributed to the circulation certainly have these ideas. I would have to speculate maybe to answer.

William Saas: This is following my Germanist colleagues. Maybe y’all can help me figure out… are there… can we track any? Are you seeing direct connections, as you’re asking these questions between these sort of inherent or essential Germanness of many of these metaphors, and the way that these are also found, I think commonly in other and especially US contexts.

Scott Ferguson: I guess Max’s questions about Protestantism, reformed Christianity’s role in and beyond pressure is maybe one avenue. One thing I’ll say is that the metaphor of whipping comes up everywhere. The Ford Administration had a campaign called “Whip Inflation Now”, and that’s in Frederic’s article, there’s whipping all the time in EMU discourse.

Maxximilian Seijo: One thing I’d add, when I was studying economics, it was very common for people to ask you, “are you a hawk or are you a dove?”  And there’s something complicated there, too, with regards to I think metaphors. Hawk is the predator. And the dove is in a sense, well, as an image in religion and theology is important. But but also is not a predator, we just say, so that’s maybe another avenue in the US context to… where this kind of exploration would be fruitful.

Frederic Heine: That kind of hawk was the stuff kind of metaphors have also been also used in the European discourse around central banking and during the Eurozone Crisis, there was also this kind of talk about Mars and Venus relating to an IR-type approach, which kind of position the US as Mars, so the masculine kind of foreign policy, and Europe as the Venus which was kind of trying to have influence through soft powers, as it’s also called. And that was kind of referenced in the German press in relation to monetary policy being like, “Yeah, but in monetary policy, we are Mars and the USA is Venus.”

Scott Ferguson: Maybe we can situate this article in your dissertation. So it’s our understanding that this article is one of the fruits of your dissertation that I would presume you’re turning into a book, although I don’t want to speak for you. What’s the broader project of the dissertation and perhaps a future book?

Frederic Heine: Basically, this is correct. Yes. It’s based on one chapter of my thesis. And in that thesis, I kind of look, I mean, the focus of the thesis is the governance of the Eurozone Crisis. And I asked similarly to what I do in the article we just were just talking about, I asked what role cultural gender politics play in the governance, discourses of the crisis. And the rationale to do this was because there was a lot of research about how the crisis and austerity had gendered impacts on social reproduction on public sector employment, on gender equality policy, in that regard, but not so much research to understand maybe gender, if gender can also be seen as integral to the governance of the crisis. 

And so I ended up looking at these metaphors and this cultural kind of politics. And I also ended up taking a historical approach, right discussing these things we’ve just been talking about both in relation to Weimar Republic and then the period of the making of the European Monetary Union. And so the broader argument and the thesis maybe is that masculinist performative agency, as discussed, for example, today has been constitutive for the crisis by asserting a valorization of disciplinary masculinity in the governance of the European Monetary Union.

But secondly, that also that cultural gender politics have shaped and contested crisis governance in a contingent way as well. And that there were sort of variations in the kinds of performative agency that was the general performance of agency that was employed. We’ve already talked about some aspects in which they have been reinforced right in certain levels in relation to how central banking views of the ECB have been represented–the Prussian spiked helmet for Mario Draghi, etc. But also, there have been variations, for example, when Angela Merkel, advanced as a figurehead of austerity with the image of the stabian housewife. 

So kind of mobilizing more an image of domestic femininity as as a sort of virtuous kind of role to apply to austerity. And that sense, in a similar move to some of the discourses around, post financial crisis, would the crisis have happened, if it would have been Lehman Sisters, rather than Lehman Brothers? And this kind of valuing valorization of certain kinds of femininity in this context, as a result maybe of a portrayal of certain masculinities as well. 

And I also look at how anti-austerity discourse, for example, that masculinity is also mobilized with some exclusionary effects, partly in anti-austerity mobilizing. I look at the context of Spain, where at first there was this kind of sense that feminism doesn’t really have a place in this kind of anti-austerity movement. But then, at the same time, that was very strongly contested by feminist activists and kind of formulating centrality of social reproduction as well as the topic of contrasting austerity. I look at those politics as well in my thesis.

And so overall, the argument basically, is that gender representation still matter very much in legitimation of that economic governance, but how they do so is principally subject to specific circumstances, but also to agency in some level. And to answer the the other question that you have, I am working on a book of manuscripts on the basis of this, but I haven’t sort of formalized the book contract yet. So it might be a while until it sees the light of the day.

Scott Ferguson: We wish you luck. I want to follow up with one comment, before we move on to our last big question, which is yet another dimension of what you’re up to a bit we really appreciate that really jives with our project is that while on the one hand, it is important to have a critique and a refusal of austerity is as natural or given or necessary. And zero some trade offs and other kinds of exclusionary punishing systems. 

But it’s not enough to have a positive political or economic language of anti-austerity, because because the world is more than just narrow, political and economic language, all kinds of other language, all of language and culture is involved. So what I think what we’re often trying to do and you’re doing spectacularly on your own journey here is teasing out and shining a critical light on languages that remain austere, that remain exclusionary, that may remain deeply problematic, even as you suggested in the midst of overtly anti-economic austerity campaigns.

Frederic Heine: I like very much what you’re saying here, and it’s important to remain also self critical, and not to kind of assume a sort of coherent understanding of the economy and sort of a coherent system of contrasting power structures within the economy with reference to one’s own class position, for example, without also reflecting intersectionality on the one hand, on sort of the different impacts that crises have on different subject positions. 

An important paper, also on the subject of the Eurozone Crisis, by Bassel and Emejulu made the argument: whose crisis? If we talk about economic crisis, it might be experienced as big crisis in particular by maybe privileged subjects who are immediately losing out, but then for very sort of marginalized people it might not even sort of register as much because they’re concerned a lot more with for example, refugee status within a country. And obviously, crisis still affects them in the long run, but it also… so it’s important to reflect on the way… on the intersectional ways in which economic social policies matter. 

And also often in anti-austerity movements and discourses there’s a tendency of men participating in these movements of assuming this grand analysis and grand strategy approaches that have it all figured out and have this sense of authoritative knowledge that doesn’t need to concern itself with the details maybe or the internal processes. What’s happening within one’s own movement. And that’s also one place where then hierarchies reestablish themselves within contrasting austerity and those those hierarchical relationships. It’s important to be reflective of these things.

William Saas: Absolutely. Frederic Heine, it’s been wonderful having you, but before we let you go, we’d like to take some time and chat with you about another essay you’ve recently co authored and published with James Brassett titled “Men behaving badly”? Representations of Masculinity in Post-Global Financial Crisis Cinema, published in the International Feminist Journal of Politics in 2021. 

Essentially, the essay analyzes complex and shifting gendered depictions of finance and films released after the Great Financial Crisis, such as Inside Job, Margin Call, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Big Short. Can you, as we’re on our way out the door, give us a window or glimpse into how you and your co author read the role of gender in these post-GFC films?

Frederic Heine: Thanks for asking this question. Basically in those films about finance, we look at how they represent masculinities and how this changes in some ways over time, so more often than not films about finance do center quite strongly on the male protagonists. Even in more recent films on finance, despite maybe the rhetoric of Lehman Sisters that kind of emphasize a bit more the increasing role of women in finance as well. Anyway, so, we try to understand how these representations of masculinity is what functions they serve in those firms. And often in these films, there is a kind of analogy basically between a critique of finance and a critique of masculinity or a critique of excessive masculinity. 

So, the predatory excessive masculinity if, for example, take the film Wall Street and the iconic figure of Gordon Gekko it portrays financial excess in terms of a toxic financial system and in some ways, that is seen as toxic to the real economy or to the heteronormative family, or the fabric of society. Kind of understood in the context of embedded liberalism. And this toxicity of finance in this respect is represented through hyper masculinity. So, masculinity is of, for example, Gordon Gekko, that are seen as extremely dominant, as greedy, as extremely sexually active, promiscuous, predatory. 

And in that kind of sense of embody in some ways, this disembeddedness of finance being represented as toxic through toxic masculinity basically. And that happens also in the post financial crisis films to some extent, the most extremely this is the case in The Wolf of Wall Street, which is a film about excess anti-gravity from the beginning to end basically. But it also focuses quite clearly on the realm of the legal because it’s actual financial fraud that is described in the film. 

And so, in some ways focuses more on the behavior of the bad apples rather than systemic issues. And it’s also partly coupled with class distinction. So, in the film, it’s about working class guys basically turning to investment banking, and sort of adopting some elements of working class culture within that process, and then you have a representation of brazen risk taking, overt sexualization, etcetera, in in these processes. As a shift cipher for something going wrong in finance, but in The Wolf of Wall Street, through the distancing through humor, and through the distancing through class and through sort of focusing on a particular case of clearly illegal sort of practices. It’s not necessarily as sort of indicting as the Wall Street film. 

But then, in the films, Margin Call and The Big Short, you also have elements of this brazen risk taking, overt sexualization, partying, as metaphors for the excesses of finance. But you have a redemption of certain masculinities in those films. And with them off finance, too, as we argue, so that’s on the one hand, the geeky masculinity that doesn’t understand social clues and therefore doesn’t get caught up in the irrational exuberance that is portrayed by the sort of culture of excessive partying, etc. 

And so this idea of this hyper rational, geeky masculinity that’s not subject to these temptations, if you want to connect this also to some of the stuff that we’ve been talking about before. And these masculinities don’t get distracted and they look at the real data and therefore aren’t taking part in the herd behavior, as Keynes would have said, for example. And then turn out to be the real men and the heroes of the films like Michael Burry in The Big Short, or Peter Sullivan in Margin Call. And on the other hand, there’s a level of emotional learning as portrayed in the films particularly in The Big Short that sort of good apples and that behave that sort of have a moral compass still intact that learn from past mistakes from past or working like Baum in The Big Short

And so, we kind of see this sort of redemption of some aspects of masculinity as a way in which the potential of both finance and masculinity is kind of seen as to kind of remain with maybe unfortunate toxic masculinity referenced earlier. But sort of the kind of redeeming that and sort of kind of portraying a masculinity that has come under some level of criticism within the sort of kind of discourse of excessive predatory masculinity in the context of financial crisis, the excessive risk taking, etc.

And kind of redeeming a figure of reinstating rationality of the market and of finance, through references to on the one hand geekiness and rationality and that aspect. And on the other hand, of sort of emotional learning of appropriating, if you will, some aspects of femininity of kind of off yet constitute femininity of being emotionally more aware of oneself into sort of a discourse of resilient finances. Basically, what we come out with at the end of these movies.

Maxximilian Seijo: Well, Frederic Heine, it’s been a real pleasure having you on Money on the Left, we hope at some point, maybe to have you back soon.

Frederic Heine: Thank you very much. It was a great pleasure. And thank you so much for these great questions and spin offs. It was a very good and pleasurable experience. Thank you very much.

Austin Credits with Jonathan Wilson (White Paper and Podcast Interview)

For this special episode of Superstructure,  cohosts Will Beaman (@agoingaccount) and Andrés Bernal (@andresintheory) are joined by Jonathan Wilson (@DeficitOwl24601) to discuss his new white paper, “Proposal for a Local Currency Issued by the City of Austin,” which proposes a complementary currency for the city of Austin called Austin Credits.

Jonathan’s proposal contributes to a developing conversation in the Austin City Council, which was tasked by recent legislation with exploring possibilities for new public banking and payments structures by a resolution. The conversation delves into the proposal’s legal design and implementation strategy, while also contextualizing its political meaning and stakes for progressive politics. 

Proposal for a Local Currency Issued by the City of Austin: A White Paper by Jonathan Wilson

In 2022, the need and desire for alternative visions of economic organization is higher than it has ever been. Undemocratic national governments and international crises have taken agency and power away from local communities and diminished their ability to protect and nurture their citizens as they see fit. In the United States, the prevailing economic ideology at the national level has committed to trading quality of life for nominal price stability, pursuing policies which deliberately exacerbate unemployment and refusing to make robust use of programs to provide liquidity to local governments. The time to develop local alternatives to this system is now, and this white paper will explain one such vision. In addition to providing a basic means of funding and payments for local governments and their citizens, this proposal aims to provide a new lens for how people view cooperation and interdependence. By illustrating how valuable assets can originate from negotiated credit relationships, this white paper shows how communities can express their values among themselves and between each other, opening up new possibilities for local and global solidarity.

Resolution 20220324-057, passed by the Austin City Council on March 24, 2022, directs the City Manager to explore how financial innovations can improve government processes and better serve Austinites, through (among other things) public payments platforms, public banks, and local complementary currencies. This proposal outlines how  the City can (i) increase income and employment for Austinites, (ii) increase financial inclusion by providing a privacy respecting method of electronic payment for the unbanked and maintaining an affordable means of financing and emergency liquidity for low income Austinites, and (iii) allow the City to fund public works. One way to accomplish these goals is to issue a valuable electronic financial instrument called the Austin Credit or “AC”. In order for Austin Credits to be valuable enough to supplement incomes, allow the City to create employment, and serve as a vehicle for financial inclusion, the City must ensure that they are in demand and marketable. To ensure that Austin Credits increase financial privacy, the City will provide an option to load Austin Credits onto an anonymous stored value card. Finally, in order for Austin Credits to serve as a source of financing and emergency liquidity, the City itself will serve as a lender of first resort for Austin Credits.

Of all these requirements, the most important is that Austin Credits are demanded by members of the public. The primary demand for Austin Credits will stem from the fact that the city will accept Austin Credits for all payments to the city, including utilities, public transport, local taxes, fines, and fees for any city-sponsored events on a one-to-one basis with the dollar (moving forward, I will use the term “City Bills” to refer to these payments and “City Services” to refer to actions by the City that people are paying for). To further encourage use and widespread acceptability of the Austin Credit, the city will offer a small discount of 5% for paying City Bills in Austin Credits rather than in dollars. Historically, there is precedent for a credit towards taxes or government services at a local level retaining its value so as to become a fungible, money-like object. In the 1930s, American cities which were  short on dollars circulated tax anticipation scrip which could be used to make any payment to the city. Additionally, during the Civil War, until the government stopped them, individuals used United States Postal Service stamps as a replacement currency, knowing the stamps would always have some real value so long as the post office accepted them.

To give Austin Credits value beyond paying for City Bills, the City needs to encourage acceptability of Austin Credits by businesses. The easiest way to do that is by offering businesses which agree to accept Austin Credits a small discount on their City Bills. For example, a grocery store that agreed to accept Austin Credits as payment would register with the city and receive a 5% discount on their City Bills. Additionally, businesses that agree to pass any part of this savings onto their customers would receive an additional discount on their City Bills. For example, a store that offered its customers a 2.5% discount when they pay in Austin Credits would receive an additional 2.5% discount, for a total discount on City Bills of 7.5%. Additionally, Austin Credits would be free to transfer within the Austin Credit system, meaning stores would save money whenever someone paid in Austin Credits instead of credit or debit cards. This not only gives the grocery store an incentive to accept Austin Credits but it gives their customers an incentive to acquire Austin Credits and save them.

To respond to this incentive for Austin Credits, residents would be able to buy Austin Credits directly from the City, but Austin Credits would also exist on a web and app based platform that would allow users to request and transfer from one another, similar to pre-existing payment apps, like Venmo, Paypal, and Square. Users would have the option of connecting their bank accounts or credit cards, and there would also be a market function in the app and website called the Austin Credit Online Marketplace where users could buy and sell Austin Credits with dollars, similar to a foreign exchange market. Just like with Venmo and Paypal, users would pay no fees for transfers within the AC system, and if users wanted to take money out of the AC system by transferring it back to their bank accounts, they could do so for free if they the standard option which goes uses the Automated Clearing House and settles in three days, or they could make instant transfers for a small fee. The purpose of this market is to give the recipients of Austin Credit a way to convert to dollars if they need to, which enhances the liquidity and desirability of the Austin Credit. Additionally, several public buildings in the City would have indoor and outdoor machines that dispensed stored value cards carrying Austin Credits in various denominations.

Once Austin Credits become widely accepted in the City and their demand and value is established, the City can begin offering personal loans in Austin Credit, providing an affordable source of financing for Austinites. Because the purpose of these loans would be to enhance the purchasing power of Austinites, the terms of these loans do not need to be structured with the goal of maximizing revenue. Rather, the terms should be geared towards encouraging Austinites to demand and save Austin Credits. To those ends, Austin Credit loans should have three essential features. First, the rate of interest should be zero. Keeping this rate at zero ensures that consumers will prefer to borrow Austin Credit. Because legal tender laws would require the City to accept dollars in payment for public debt, to incentivize people to pay loans in AC, the zero-interest rule would be contingent on people paying the loans back in AC. Second, instead of charging interest, to encourage frugal use of this credit facility, the City can simply charge small late fees for missed payments. Third, all loans in Austin Credit issued by the City must be collateralized by surrendering Austin Credit in an amount equal to 10% of the loan value prior to the loan being issued.

For example, if someone wanted to borrow 200 AC, he would have to surrender collateral of 20 AC and would receive the loan at 0% interest. Because the loan would carry no interest, he would prefer this loan over a payday loan, and because he needs to keep at least 20 AC on hand to qualify for the loan, he is encouraged to save at least some of the Austin Credits he receives. This feature of Austin Credit loans capitalizes on people’s natural tendency towards precautionary saving. To prevent the potential for abusing this loan facility, each resident would only be allowed to have one of these loans outstanding at any given time. In this way, residents who take out these loans will be encouraged to pay them off, not only to receive their collateral back, but also so they can qualify for another loan. Additionally, although anyone would be able to set up an AC account, only permanent residents of Austin would be able to access these loan facilities.

The value of personal loans would be capped at 5,000 AC, but eventually, the goal should be for the City to offer secured loans to allow residents to finance the purchase of large items, such as cars and homes. For these consumer loans, there would be a much higher maximum loan value, but there would be a minimum down payment amount of 35%, and the loan would be secured by the asset being purchased. Because saving for large purchases is empirically the second most important reason people save money, incentivizing Austinites to save Austins Credit by offering them a 0% loan in exchange for a large down payment will be a very powerful way to bolster demand for Austin Credits.

Once this system of acceptability, transferability, and loans has been established, leading a private sector demand to hold and save Austin Credits, the City can start using Austin Credits to supplement income and create employment. The City should establish a system that allows residents to vote on new public works projects which will pay workers in Austin Credits. As the Austin Credit system gains adoption, the City can gradually increase the amount of projects offered until it can guarantee a job paying in Austin Credits for all Austinites who want such a job. The revolutionary potential of allowing local residents to vote on spending projects that are not tied to direct and immediate taxation or borrowing cannot be understated. As long as there is idle labor and the demand for AC is not exceeded, such a program would create a means for residents to democratically participate in non-zero-sum development, motivated by the needs of communities and not merely the profit motive, strengthening the City’s economic environment and its sense of community. Moreover, the Austin Credit can be used to recognize work that is already being done but is currently undervalued or uncompensated by issuing AC to community service organizations. Additionally, the City can issue Austin Credits to the elderly, the disabled, and parents of minor children to supplement their income.

The structure of the Austin Credit system should allow people who receive income from the City in Austin Credits (either from public works jobs or from supplemental payments) to sell them for dollars if they wish. Because Austin Credits grant residents a discount on their City Bills of 5% and a discount at participating businesses of 2.5%, if enough people are using Austin Credits, they should trade in the Austin Credit Online Marketplace for around $1.00. The logic here is that if I have 100 Austin Credits, I should be able to use it to buy products valued at $105 from the City and at $102.50 from participating businesses. If I want to buy something from outside Austin, I may want to sell my Austin Credits for dollars, but unless there is an emergency, I will avoid selling my Austin Credits for significantly less than the value I transferred to pay (either in dollars or in labor) for them. Let us assume that I offer to sell 100 AC for $101. If Austin Credits have not been over-issued, other Austinites who want to buy something from the City or from a business who accepts AC should accept the offer to buy 100 AC for $101 for two reasons. First, 100 AC will allow them to buy products valued at $102.50, so they have essentially gained $1.50 in value simply by doing the transaction if they spend their Austin Credits in Austin. Second, the $101 price I offered is less than the $102 ($100 plus $2 transaction fee) they would have to pay the City if they purchased the 100 AC directly from the City. The only people who will insist on paying less than $1.00 to buy 1 AC in the secondary market will be people who do not have an immediate need to buy something from the City or from a business  that accepts AC. For this reason, encouraging private sector adoption is key because the more places people have to spend AC, the less need there will be to sell AC at a discount. 

The promise of redemption from the city will guarantee that Austin Credits have some value, but to protect this value, the City must avoid issuing too many Austin Credits. If the private sector has a net desire to save 1,000 AC, and the City net issues 1,200 (net issuance being the remaining outstanding Austin Credits after redemption), then residents will begin selling Austin Credits at a discount for dollars. If this happens, the first person to sell his Austin Credit–the person who receives the 1,001st AC–will receive a good price for it, but the last person to sell his Austin Credit–the person who received the 1,200st AC–will suffer a significant loss. That first seller might be able to sell his Austin Credit for 99 cents, but the last seller might only get 80 cents. Consequently, if the private sector has a net desire to redeem and save 1,000 AC, and the City Issues no more than 1,000 AC, each recipient of an Austin Credit will have a financial asset valued at approximately one dollar. However, if the City issues more than this net redemption and savings desire, then at least some recipients of Austin Credits will find themselves holding a financial asset valued at less than what they exchanged for it. Either they will have bought Austin Credits directly from the City that are now worth significantly less than one dollar, or they will have provided labor to the city that is now worth less than the value they placed on that labor. For example, if the City pays workers 20 AC per hour but issues too many AC, causing the value of the AC to drop by 25%, those workers might have valued their labor at around $20 per hour, but they now hold a financial asset worth only $16.

Similarly, in order for this value creation not be a net loss for the City or an indirect transfer from some citizens of the City to others, the private sector must save a number of Austin Credits that is greater than the discount given to those who pay City Bills in Austin Credits. For example, imagine the citizens in total have a City Bill of $100, and the city issues 95 AC in exchange for $95 of goods and services and offers a 5% discount on City Bill payments. If the citizens redeem all 95 of their Austin Credits to pay their $100 City Bill, then the City has essentially foregone $5 in value. In this scenario, if the city had simply never issued the Austin Credits, they could have simply accepted $100 to pay off the $100 City Bill, paid the same $95 for the goods and services, and had $5 left over. Avoiding the problem of foregone revenue is important for the City because it still has bills and liabilities denominated in USD (for example, it must pay payroll tax to the US Federal Government, and it must purchase garbage trucks from Waste Management, Inc., which is headquartered in Houston, Texas and will likely not accept AC in payment). On the other hand, if the City issues 100 AC, and the private sector redeems only 90 AC at the standard 5% discount, then the City has effectively gained about $5 in value. A City Bill of about $95 would require 90 AC to pay at a 5% discount. If the City pays for $100 of goods and services with Austin Credits, then provides $95 of City Services, which the private sector purchases using 90 AC, then the difference between the value received by the City (the $100 of goods and services) and the value given by the City (the $95 of City Services) results in a net gain by the City of $5. Because the City and its citizens benefit if not all of the Austin Credits are redeemed, some of the value from the Austin Credit System can be thought of as partially analogous to breakage revenue, the profits businesses recognize when their gift cards are purchased but not redeemed.

Therefore, to protect the financial health of the City and to maximize the value of the financial assets given to Austin residents, the City must structure the economy of the Austin Credit  to maximize the desire to save Austin Credits. As stated above, there will be a basic underlying precautionary motive to save Austin Credits because they will allow residents to benefit from a small discount on their City Bills. Additionally, residents who want to take out loans in Austin Credits will be incentivized to save Austin Credits to surrender as collateral to allow them to qualify for larger loans. In addition to these precautionary and financing motives, the City should encourage saving Austin Credits by only selling Austin Credits in predetermined amounts with a small, fixed transaction fee of $2. At any point, a member of the public should be able to buy Austin Credits at the price of one Austin Credit per dollar, but if they can always buy the exact number of Austin Credits they need for every transaction, they will never need to save any. To remedy this, the City should only sell Austin Credits through its online platform or at its stored-value card dispensing machines in moderate but equitably sized lots. To illustrate, let’s assume the lot size is 50 Austin Credits for the sake of simplicity. In that case, if a person has a monthly City Bill of $25, they will have to purchase 50 Austin Credits at once by spending $52 dollars. After paying 23.75 AC to extinguish their City Bill (leaving them with 26.25 AC), this person will have about 1.25 more Austin Credits than they need to pay their next City Bill. They could spend those AC on something else, but this would mean that the following month they would need to purchase additional Austin Credits and pay another $2 fee. 

Additionally, any one person or common enterprise will only be able to use USD to purchase a maximum of 1,000 AC directly from the City using its online platform in any given month. This minimizes arbitrage opportunities and limits people’s ability to buy AC immediately before redeeming them in payment of City Bills, which would otherwise diminish any need to save AC. Together, these elements form a structure that incentivizes residents to save at least some of their Austin Credits or to seek Austin Credits from sources other than the City, which means they will request Austin Credits in payment from other members of the public, further fueling the demand for Austin Credits.

The aforementioned fixed-lot issuance, loan policy, AC purchase limit and transaction fees are best described as non-interest monetary policy, meaning they influence the volume of Austin Credit financial transactions without primarily relying on charging interest to borrow money or paying interest to those who already have money. However, the City must also have rules for fiscal policy, meaning it must have a rigorous system to decide how many net Austin Credits it will issue in any given period. Because the measurement of value created by the City and held by its residents will be the residents’ desire to save Austin Credits and value them at or near the price paid for them, the City will know that it has issued too many Austin Credits if the number of Net Austin Credits Saved, or “NACS”, does not increase from one period to the next. NACS will be defined as the number of Austin Credits issued by the City minus the amount of Austin Credits accepted in payment by the City, and if this number is positive, it is multiplied by the fair market value of the Austin Credit as a percentage of a USD, as determined by sales on the Austin Credit Online Marketplace.

Now that I have defined what I mean by Net Austin Credits Saved, I will explain how the city will adjust its number of Net Austin Credits issued (Austin Credits issued excluding loans given) in response. The process is very simple: in any given period, the City may issue an additional number of Net Austin Credits equal to the change in Net Austin Credits Saved in the previous period. To illustrate, consider the following example. In Year Zero, before any Austin Credits exist, NACS is zero by definition. If in Year 1 (the first year of the Austin Credit program) the City issues 400 AC, people spend 300 AC and AC are traded on the Austin Credit Online Marketplace for $.95 each, then the NACS for Year 1 is 95 (400 minus 300, all multiplied by .95). The difference between NACS for Year 1 (95) and NACS for Year Zero (0) is 95; this means that the City can safely increase the number of Austin Credits it issued by 95 in Year 2. If in Year 2, the City follows this advice and issues 495 AC, and the NACS for Year 2 is 180, then the net change in NACS will be 75 (180 minus 95 equals 75), and the City can increase spending by 75 in Year 3. If the City issues an additional 75 AC in Year 3 (for a total of 575), but NACS for Year 3 remains at 175, then the net change in NACS is zero, and the City should not increase the rate of Austin Credit issuance in Year 4. 

The purpose of adjusting the total issuance of Austin Credits in this way is to ensure that issuance of AC increases when the citizens desire to save AC increases and that issuance of AC decreases when the desire to save AC decreases. It is impossible to perfectly predict the net desire to save Austin Credits going into each new year, but aligning the additional issuance with the actual saving desire of the previous period should be an acceptable proxy. Initially, the net issuance of AC needs to reflect the availability of real resources which can be purchased with AC and grow gradually. The City should start by limiting AC issuance to some small fraction—perhaps 5%—of the combined revenue of the City and the businesses that agree to accept AC. This would ensure that even if no one wanted to save AC at the outset, the supply of AC would not exceed the supply of things one can buy with AC, so people can become accustomed to viewing the AC as a stable unit of account. As the use of AC grows among the population, this formula will allow the supply of AC to naturally grow around the same pace as the people’s desire to hold it.

Because the goal of this project is to increase income for Austinites, if the change in NACS is ever negative from one period to the next, the City should not immediately reduce the number of Austin Credits it issues in the next period. It should first adjust non-interest monetary policy for at least 1 year. For example, if in Year 4, NACS declines from 175 to 140, instead of reducing Austin Credit Issuance by 35 in Year 5, the City should increase the collateral requirement for Austin Credit Personal Loans and the down payment requirement for Austin Credit Consumer Loans to encourage more saving. These increases should be proportionate to the negative change in NACS. For example, if NACS declines from 175 to 140 from Year 3 to Year 4, this reflects a decrease of 20%. Consequently, in Year 5, the City should increase the collateral requirement and the down payment requirement by 20%. For example, the collateral requirement might rise from 10% to 12%, and the down payment requirement might rise from 35% to 42% (each a 20% increase from baseline). Only if this does not work in Year 5 should the City be allowed to reduce the number of Austin Credits it issues in Year 6. Once the change in NACS resumed being positive, the down payment and collateral requirements would revert to their original values.

In addition to protecting the value of the Austin Credit, the City must ensure that the AC system benefits low income people and increases financial inclusion by giving access to financial services to those who do not already have it. The primary reason people are unbanked is a lack of income; public jobs programs and supplemental income paid in AC will help address this concern. Another reason some people remain unbanked is the combined effect of having no permanent addresses and no identifying documents. To address this concern, the City should partner with shelters and other facilities that service the unhoused to verify resident-status for people who want to open AC accounts with permanent resident privileges. Another reason that people are unbanked is physical distance from a bank, and a distrust of traditional financial institutions. To address this concern, the City should maintain manned or automated kiosks where people can purchase AC stored value cards and troubleshoot problems with their AC account at every City building that is open to the public.

As well as increasing financial inclusion at the local level, the City can use the Austin Credit to create economic solidarity with other cities or organizations. As this form of local complementary currency becomes more popular, the City can make agreements with other currency issuers. These could come in the form of swap lines, some form of reciprocal receivability of their currencies, direct exchange of surplus resources, or other forms of cooperation. Such agreements between two local communities could strengthen both and emphasize the interdependence of their residents.

If the City takes these steps in the correct order (establishing the value of the AC, protecting the demand for it, then slowly expanding issuance to meet that demand), it can create a financial instrument that enriches the population of Austin and increases financial inclusion. The combined result of all these measures will be an economy where use, exchange, and value of the Austin Credit gradually increases over time, allowing the City to increase income, employment, and credit access for Austinites while reducing its own costs, fulfilling the vision set out by the City Council when they passed Resolution 20220324-057.

Appendix: Is any of this legal?

Federal Constitutional Issues

Article I, Section 10, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution forbids states from issuing “bills of credit.” This is sometimes referred to as the clause which prevents states and localities from issuing their own money. However, the term bill of credit does not simply refer to any note or debt-like instrument, or indeed any instrument which circulates between individuals. The Supreme Court, in Briscoe v. The Bank of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, 36 U.S. (11 Pet.) 257, 314 (1837), held that a bill of credit is “a paper issued by the sovereign power, containing a pledge of its faith, and designed to circulate as money.” This definition contains three parts, (a) issued by the state, (b) containing a pledge of the state’s faith, and (c) designed to circulate as money, and an instrument must meet all three to be considered a bill of credit. The simplest way for the Austin Credit to be constitutional will be if it avoids meeting the second and third part of the definition.

We will begin by examining part (b) of the definition; Briscoe goes into great detail on what is meant by a pledge of the state’s faith. Id. at 320. One issue before the court was whether the notes issued by the Bank of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, of which the state of Kentucky was the sole shareholder and provider of capital, were issued on the faith of the state. Id. The Court held that the capital of the bank, even though it was in part derived from the state, had its own income stream, and together with the contributions of the state “constituted a fund to which holders of the notes could look for payment, and which could be made legally responsible” for redemption of the notes. Id. The fund was in possession of the bank and under the control of its president and directors, not under the control of the state. Id. Most importantly for the purposes of the Austin Credit, the Court held that “whether the fund was adequate to the redemption of the notes issued, or not; is immaterial to the present inquiry. It is enough that the fund existed, independent of the state, and was sufficient to give some degree of credit to the paper of the bank” (emphasis added). Id. at 321. Additionally, every holder of the bank’s notes had the legal right to sue the bank to enforce payment. Id. For these reasons, even though the state of Kentucky accepted the notes of the bank in payment of taxes, and in discharge of all debt to the state, the notes were not bills of credit. Id.

From Briscoe, we can derive the general rule that an instrument is not a pledge of a state’s faith if there exists some fund which is legally distinct from the state, which has any source of income independent of the state, and which holders of the instrument can sue to redeem the notes. To conform to the requirements of Briscoe, the City, through statute, will establish a permanent, charitable trust called the Austin Credit Trust whose stated purpose is to aid in the economic development of the City of Austin by redeeming Austin Credits for U.S. Dollars forty years after the date of their issuance. In Texas, under Brazos County Appraisal Dist. v. Bryan-College Station Reg’l Ass’n of Realtors, 419 S.W.3d 462 465, “providing services to aid in economic development for a local community” is that a valid purpose for a charitable trust. The trustee will not be authorized to make payments to the City. The terms of the trust will also state that holders of Austin Credit are persons with a special interest in the enforcement of the charitable trust and will have the right to bring suit to enforce the trust by redeeming the notes. The City, in a separate statute, will be required to place money in the trust every year, but, the trustee will be directed to invest the money in the trust in U.S. Treasury Bonds, so that the trust will have its own stream of income, independent of the City. Because the trust will be a separate legal entity with its own stream of income from investments which cannot be sued and from which the City cannot withdraw funds, the Austin Credit will not be a pledge of the faith of the City of Austin. Instead, it will be a pledge of the faith of the Austin Credit Trust.

We now turn to part (c) of the definition, which requires that an alleged bill of credit be designed to circulate as money. The case preceding Briscoe, Craig v. Missouri, 29 U.S. 4 Pet. 410, 432 (1830), which Briscoe relied upon without overruling, explained that an instrument which circulates as money is one which is “intended to circulate between individuals, and between government and individuals, for the ordinary purposes of society” (emphasis added). Additionally, a later case, Houston & Texas Central Railroad. Company. v. Texas, 177 U.S. 66, 89 (1900), holding that a warrant issued by the state of Texas was not designed to circulate as money, relied partially on the fact that “when the warrants once came back to the treasurer of the state, they were not to be reissued.” From these two cases, we can derive the general rule that an instrument cannot be described as intending to circulate as money if there is no circulation between government and individuals because the instrument is redeemed without being reissued. Austin Credits will be extinguished once used for payment, therefore they cannot be reissued and will consequently not circulate between government and individuals. Thus, Austin Credits are not designed to circulate as money.

Because the Austin Credit will neither be a pledge of the city’s faith nor designed to circulate as money in the specific context of the constitutional prohibition on bills of credit, the Austin Credit will not violate the United States Constitution. Requiring the existence of a separate fund which will pay out in dollars will require the Austin Credit Trust to have some dollars on hand, but this will not eliminate spending flexibility for two reasons. First, Austin Credits are designed with various incentives to save them built-in. Second, the City could make the face value of AC significantly below the purchase price for AC. For example, the City could sell AC for $1 that had a cash redemption value of $0.05 while still accepting AC at $1.05 when tendered in payment of City Bills. Because they would be accepted by the City at the $1.05 price in payment of City Bills, AC would trade with a fair market value much higher than $0.05, but the chance of a cash-run on AC would be virtually eliminated.

State Constitutional Issues

The City of Austin is a “home rule” city, meaning it is authorized by the State of Texas to do anything which Texas law does not prevent it from doing. Because Austin Credits will carry some legal obligation by the state, they will be classified as “public securities,” which are defined by Texas Government Code § 1201.002 as “an instrument, including a bond, certificate, note, or other type of obligation authorized to be issued by an issuer under a statute, a municipal home-rule charter, or the constitution of this state.” Because they are public securities, Austin Credits must conform to the requirements of the Texas Government Code.

There are certain types of public security which the Texas Government Code authorizes all local governments–even ones that do not have home rule powers– to issue, under certain limitations. For example, Section 1431.002 of the Texas Government Code authorizes municipalities to issue anticipation notes. However, this statute places restrictions on anticipation notes that make it not the best means of issuing the Austin Credit. Fortunately, because Austin is a home-rule city, it does not have to rely on Section 1431.002’s anticipation note authorization. Instead, it can rely on Section 1201.002’s authorization to grant an instrument authorized under a municipal home-rule charter. Article I, Section 3 of the Austin City Charter is incredibly broad and grants it the ability to “pass ordinances and enact such regulations as may be expedient for the maintenance of the good government, order, and peace of the city and the welfare, health, morals, comfort, safety, and convenience of its inhabitants.” The Austin City Charter regulates the issuance of bonds, but nothing within it governs the issuance of notes, so there are no city-level prohibitions on the Austin Credit in the Austin City Charter. If there were, the charter would need to be amended by a majority vote before the Austin Credit program could be established.

At the Texas State level, the relevant statute is Texas Government Code § 1202.003, which requires the issuer of a public security to submit a proposal to the Texas Attorney General, who must confirm that the public security was issued in conformity with the law before it can be issued. Many of the legal requirements surrounding public securities govern the calculation of interest. However, since Austin Credits will not pay interest, these regulations are inapplicable. The one that is applicable is Texas Government Code § 1202.021, which requires that the public security authorization designate a registrar who will keep records of the public security. This statute states that “a home-rule municipality with a population of more than 100,000” can be the registrar of its own security, so this will not be an issue. The City merely has to designate itself as registrar for the Austin Credit.

Texas State Law grants immense discretion as to the terms of a public security. Tex. Gov’t Code § 1201.021 and 1201.022 read as follows:

§ 1201.021

“A public security may:

(1) be issued in any denomination;

(2) bear no interest or bear interest at one or more specified rates;

(3) be issued with one or more interest coupons or without a coupon;

(4) be issued as redeemable before maturity at one or more specified times; and

(5) be payable:

(A) at one or more times;

(B) in installments or a specified amount or amounts;

(C) at a specified place or places;

(D) under specified terms; and

(E) in a specified form or manner.

§ 1201.022

(a) A public security may be:

(1) issued singly or in a series;

(2) made payable in a specified amount or amounts or installments to:

(A) the bearer;

(B) a registered or named person;

(C) the order of a registered or named person; or

(D) a successor or assign of a registered or named person;

(3) issued to be sold:

(A) at a public or private sale; and

(B) under the terms determined by the governing body of the issuer to be in the issuer’s best interests; and

(4) issued with other specified characteristics, on additional specified terms, or in a specified manner.

(b) The governing body of a county or municipality that issues bonds that are to be paid from ad valorem taxes may provide that the bonds are to mature serially over a specified number of years, not to exceed 40.”

These sections grant a great deal of flexibility to the issuer of a public security. Particularly, the fact that public securities may be payable under specified terms and in a specified form or manner necessarily means that the city can limit their redemption to credits against City Bills. This section also implies that a public security must have some maturity period and redemption, which out of an abundance of caution, we interpret to mean that there must be some way for holders of the public security to get cash, but there is no maximum statutory maturity period that applies to all forms of public security. At the longer end, maturity dates for bonds tend to be 40 years, which is why 40 years is the period at which Austin Credits may be redeemed for cash from the Austin Credit Trust. Although the Austin Credit is not a bond, the 40 year maturity provides a failsafe in the event that the Texas Attorney General does decide that Austin Credits are a type of bond secured by the ad valorem taxes of the municipality. However, because Austin Credits are ultimately payable from the Austin Credit Trust, it’s not clear that the regulations surrounding bonds apply. Most likely, because Austin Credits are not direct promises by the City to pay money, they are public securities which do not fall into any statutorily defined subcategory, but the 40-year maturity is intended as a show of good faith that should bring them into general compliance without causing them to be restricted by provisions which are more specific to certain types of public security. In the worst-case scenario, we would use the authorization to issue Anticipation Notes. However, since Austin Credits would be used for general operating expenses, under Tex. Gov’t Code § 1431.009, they would need to mature within one year of receiving approval by the Texas Attorney General. This would limit flexibility, but would not be fatal. As described in the section above, dealing with Federal Constitutional issues, Austin Credits are designed with various incentives to save them built-in, and the City could make the cash redemption value of AC significantly the City Bill redemption value. For example, people could buy 1 AC for $1, but the cash value would be $0.05, although the City would accept them at $1.05 when people paid their City Bills. This would effectively make them anticipation notes with a negative 95% base interest rate and a conditional 5% interest rate; the relevant statutes only define a maximum interest rate, not a minimum one. Because they would be accepted by the City at the $1.05 price in payment of City Bills, AC would trade with a fair market value higher than $0.05, but neither the City nor the Austin Credit Trust would ever need to worry about a cash run on AC, and the AC would qualify under the anticipation note provision.

Superestructura: Latin America Edition

Money on the Left is thrilled to release English and Spanish transcripts from our Superstructure podcast with Daniel Rojas Medellin (@DanielRMed), now Coordinator of newly inaugurated President Gustavo Petro’s transition team (@petrogustavo), and Mexican economist Jesús Reséndiz Silva (@Tlacuachito). In the episode, co-hosts Andrés Bernal (@andresintheory) & Naty Smith (@orangeasm) speak with Medellin and Silva about what it means to think beyond economic orthodoxies in Latin America. 

This episode was published originally in May 2021.

Link to our Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music: “Yum” from “This Would Be Funny If It Were Happening To Anyone But Me” EP by flirting.
http://flirtingfullstop.bandcamp.com
Twitter: @actualflirting

Transcript (English–See Spanish Below)

The following was transcribed and translated by Natalie Tabb S. and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Natalie – Hi, I’m Natalie, co-host of Superstructure, or ‘Superestructura’ for today’s purposes, as well as an editor at Money on the Left. We’re going to do something a bit different today and have our first Spanish language episode. We care a lot about centering Latin America in our analysis of international economic and political possibilities.  As an American living in Chile I’m living between a variety of worlds. I’m doing this neochartalist or MMT political education project with a mostly American collective and while we try our best to always take an international viewpoint our main network is still in the US.  So we wanted to expand the conversation a bit and bring in some more international voices. Apologies in advance for my Spanish which is still sometimes all too Gringo  even after all these years. We also have with us today my fellow Money on the Left contributor Andrés Bernal and a couple of great guests. But first, Andrés, handing things off to you; you, tell us about yourself and your story.  

Andrés – Hi everyone, I’m Andres Bernal; I’m an editor at Money on the Left and Superstructure and I’m excited to be here today to help build out this conversation about MMT and Latin America. I teach Urban Studies at CUNY Queens College and I’m finishing my doctorate at the New School with a focus on the Green New Deal. I’m also a political advisor; I worked on Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s initial congressional campaign and I’m currently working with the Diane Morales campaign for New York mayor. Happy to be here today to have this really important conversation. We’ve been wanting to talk about international economic issues that lots of people to try to avoid or ignore, especially in mainstream economics, but you see this blind spot pop up in heterodox and neochartalists circles too. Like Natalie, Spanish isn’t my first language so who knows, maybe we’ll speak some Spanglish and mix it up a little. 

We have a couple of guests with us today; first, from Tampico, Mexico, we have Jesus Resendiz.  Jesus, tell us a bit about yourself. 

Jesús. – Hi Andres, Natalie; thanks so much for the invitation, it’s an honor to be with you all here on Superstructure. I’m an economist and I’m from Mexico; I’m a researcher for the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity where our friend and colleague Fadhel Kaboub is the current president.  I’ve been advocating for MMT informed policies with you and many other MMT friends for a while now, especially in my case in Mexico. That’s my principal work and I’m also a professor at the Autonomous University of Tamaulipas and have worked as a political advisor for a variety of political actors over the years in addition to my work as a social activist. 

Andrés – Thanks Jesús. We also have with us today José Daniel Rojas from Bogotá. Colombians have been glued to current events recently to keep track of what’s happening with the social movements.   Daniel; tell us, who are you, what do you do ? 

Daniel – Pleasure to join you all from Colombia and contribute to this discussion; we’re all trying to fight back in the wake of the latest crises. Now that we’ve made some progress fighting Covid it’s as good a time as any to consider whether there are other ways of managing the global economy. It’s been a contentious conjecture in Colombia. The social movement isn’t just for fun, it’s an existential necessity for us to be able to forge new paths forward. My name, as you said, is Daniel Rojas; I’m an economist and Congressional economic advisor; right now I’m working for senator Wilson Arias and I’m also part of Colombia Humana. We’re supporting the candidacy of Gustavo Petro for a new path for Colombia in 2022. We hope things work out how we hope and we have a lot of faith. The Colombian national anthem says; “The horrible night will end” and that’s what we’re hoping and aiming for. 

Andrés – Thanks Daniel. 

Jesús – I forgot to mention that I’m also on the Money on the Left editorial board. 

Andrés – Thanks ! So to give a bit of context, one of the reasons we wanted to get together was … 

Naty – …That there are indeed MMTers from outside Europe or the US. 

Daniel – Of course ! 

Naty – That’s what we’re going to talk about. 

Daniel – This is how you cross borders. 

Andrés – We want to push some boundaries because not everything happens in the US or Europe. In the MMT world we’re always getting pushback that these ideas are only relevant for countries with more monetary capacity; countries like the US that have, for example, a global reserve currency. There are really a whole series of excuses people are always giving for why the insights and ideas of MMT can be ignored.  

Unfortunately much of the world rejects the lessons of MMT precisely because they are told it’s only relevant in powerful countries like the US. We want to reject that idea and have this conversation to demonstrate how the MMT frame can help structure how we think about public policy in the Global South. We want to ask what we can take from MMT for these countries that have a history of brutal colonization; that have suffered under the thumb of imperialism; that are variously historically and politically disadvantaged.  

Naty – Most of the Spanish language MMT movement is coming out of Spain, so we wanted to expand the MMT framework to Latin America a bit. This way we can get a clearer understanding of the economic situation in countries with less monetary capacity or sovereignty. Contrary to popular belief, these are places there are MMT policies you can implement.  In Argentina for example they had the MMT inspired Job Guarantee “Plan Jefes.” But people will still say, “No, their hands are completely tied  because they’re pegged to the dollar and have foreign denominated debt.” But it’s just not true; there’s still space to spend and implement some social programs. Unfortunately, the only model in Chile for financing public spending is still just to tax the rich; this is an international impulse. I’ve been watching the Chilean elections and everything is about funding the upcoming government with taxes on the ultra wealthy. 

Andrés – As if it’s the only way you can spend. 

Nay – Exactly, and of course, that’s great ! We’re happy for the government to tax the rich. But taxpayer money is not the source of spending. 

Andrés – That’s some of what we’re gonna be talking about today. Like Natalie said, we have some Spanish MMT colleagues with a project called Red MMT, but we wanted to open the conversation up to Latin America as well. Let’s go ahead and start with Colombia, which is going through an intense time right now. Daniel, tell us about what’s going on there and the connections with issues of money, public spending, austerity, and so forth. 

Daniel – The situation in Colombia right now isn’t so different from the situation anywhere else in Latin America. We have a government that gets into power by promising to lower taxes on big corporations, with tax breaks on the wealthiest tax brackets supposedly creating jobs and jumpstarting the economy. When that government gets into office in 2018, their strategy is to get tax revenue so low that according to the dominant international model they all follow, you have to severely restrict public spending. And right in the middle of this discussion; Covid hits. We have an emergency where we need the government to increase public spending in order to meet the demands of the crisis. And they are telling us they don’t have the resources to meet the needs of the crisis;  that they’d need to raise taxes and generate revenue. And not just any tax ! No, it would have to be a tax on working class consumption and income. Unemployment in Colombia has gotten as high as 14 – 17 % in recent years, so this is affecting the middle class, the people who have jobs.  

All these factors help create a situation that leads to an “estallido social”, uprisings where everyone from the most vulnerable classes to the middle class are taking to the streets. We’ve had some really impressive mobilizations, but unfortunately the only response the government knows is repression. Some political currents have come out at this moment, including us at Colombia Humana, to say, “You know what. It’s not really the ideal moment for tax reform. There’s no reason the government needs to handle this crisis by raising taxes; we can just raise the public deficit.” The government could be increasing public spending to do things like implement  the Job Guarantee proposal we’ve brought before Congress. But increasing the public deficit is politically tricky; I assume that’s one of the topics we’ll be addressing today. MMT ideas are absolutely applicable in a Southern Cone or Latin American context. Obviously we are perfectly aware that the Colombian peso is not an international reserve currency. But we are also aware of the fact that there is no other government that emits Colombian pesos so we can increase public spending in Colombian pesos. A public deficit creates a private sector surplus. We can  stimulate demand from Colombian families and businesses. But we’ve been told we are macroeconomically irresponsible for making these kinds of proposals. 

Naty – Populists. 

Daniel – Populists, because we are proposing creating inflation. 

Naty – Venezuela ! 

Daniel – Yes, an example that gets thrown around a lot is that of Venezuela. I think there’s a good debate to be had there. Unfortunately, fights in Colombia such as the latest for tax reform have been consistently met with violence. The state’s response has never been dialogue. We could have a real dialogue, democratic debate, and ask, “ What’s your theory and what’s mine ? What’s your proposal and what’s mine ?”  But there is no debate; they simply believe that other formulas do not exist. It’s the orthodox formula or the bullet. Some of the most orthodox sectors of the Colombian academy recently put out a statement alongside some of the more conservative professional organizations, including the financial guilds, insisting there is only the classic orthodox model.  In response, 11 heterodox economists, mostly from  Colombian National University, the biggest public university in the country, put out a letter insisting that there are indeed other paths; that it simply cannot be the case that the only way forward is with exogenous money. 

The current situation has opened up opportunities for economic discussion and debate on social media. These debates have primarily remained limited to social media, but we have a real opportunity to get more of these ideas out there with the Gustavo Petro campaign.  That’s where we find ourselves in Colombia right now; there’s a brutal repression in the streets, but a really vital intellectual debate has taken root online. This is all great news for Colombia because we’ve been living under the boot of the same repressive vision for the last 30 years. There’s a Job Guarantee bill in congress that the opposition is all supporting; it may not get passed,  but a debate has absolutely taken root in the streets, the academy, and online. I think a new way of economic thinking is making its mark in Colombia. 

Naty – That’s great; they had a lot of signatures on their letter. It’s worth noting as well that MMT got its start in the 90s on social networks. 

Daniel – It’s true !

Naty – The repression reminds me of what we went through in 2019. When  I’m watching videos coming out of Colombia now I’ll notice the dissipated molecular revolutions and think “Ah yes, we have the same phenomenon here in Chile.”

Andrés – Daniel, tell us about that, about your participation in the revolution. 

Naty – It turns out that theory comes from a Chilean Neo- Nazi, by the way. I was like ‘Ah, it all makes sense.’

Daniel – There’s an important articulation between the Chilean and Colombian right.  The repressive forces of Colombia train the repressive forces of Chile; Colombian SWAT teams train the Chilean police. Then Chileans send us their Neo Nazi thinkers to teach the Colombian how to invent nonsense about molecularity. 

Naty – 80s Frenchies.

Daniel – Their goal is to seed Colombian and Chilean society with a popular imaginary where all protestors are enemies,  enemies of democracy and stability. The same way sound finance is the only way to  manage the economy, the only model of governance the regime knows is repression. You must be violent; there is no other way. 

Andrés – I’ve always thought Pinochet’s legacy manifested itself really clearly with Uribismo in Colombia. I think it’s one of the places where Pinochet’s military neoliberal legacy has had the most profound impact.

Naty – There’s people with power in Chile who are going to go out and protest if Judith Butler comes to town. They’ll be like “Oh no, there are criminals and vandals in the streets for gender!”

Daniel – The Chicago Boys would have never been able to enter Latin America the way they did without the use of military force. 

Andrés – And that’s the thing too with these so-called molecular revolutions. To give  listeners a bit more context, ex-president Alvaro Uribe has been spreading a conspiracy theory saying Colombia is in the throes of dangerous dissipated molecular revolutions. This is how deeply they fear the social movements on the streets. Speaking of Judith Butler and feminism, one of the biggest objections people made about the Colombian peace accords in involved “gender politics” as they say there. The Colombian right is terrified of feminism, of movements for LGBTQ rights;  it’s all connected. In a way these movements do share some of the strategies you’ve seen in the US from movements Black Lives Matter where there isn’t one particular leader . . .

Naty – I think a lot of popular momentum in the region was jump-started in recent years with movements like the International Women’s Day marches, in 2018, 2019;  in Argentina, Chile, Peru . . . you have “Not one more” anti-femicide protests, in Mexico too. These movements have given people experience with mobilization . . . There’s lots flowering in Latin America. 

Jesús – A question — why molecular ? 

Naty – Because of Deleuze and Guattari!

Andrés – There’s two French post-structuralists; Felix Guattari, not sure on the pronunciation, and Gilles Deleuze. We disagree with some of their ideas here at Superstructure but it’s a very different disagreement from the one these right wingers and neonazis have, it’s more ontological. Jesús, thinking further with some of these issues; Mexico is a country that’s considered very politically important in Latin America. You had a change of administration with the election of Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador that raised a lot of expectations and hopes. Can you tell us about the experience Mexico has had since those elections ? 

Naty – Mexico was just in the news the other day, too. (with the metro crash in Mexico City)

Andrés – So what’s been going on in Mexico;  what policies have been proposed and /or put into place by Morena; what role have economic debates played ? 

Jesús – Honestly with Mexico I barely know where to begin. 

Naty – It’s a small country where not much goes on. 

Jesús – Like all the countries in the region, Mexico is a complicated place. This has been especially true with our experience of this administration.  It’s really hard to describe the sensation. First, we had so many years of PRI governments, the party of the Mexican Revolution. Then, we have a PAN government and what happens next ? Without going into too much detail, the current president AMLO ran for president in 2006 against the PAN candidate, Felipe Calderón, and lost by a small margin, giving PAN continuity in a transition from Vicente Fox to Calderón. Then, we get to the 2012 elections and AMLO runs again but this time loses to the PRI frontrunner, Enrique Peña Nieto. 

So what you have now is a president who has been gunning for the job over the course of two presidencies. In 2018, he finally wins overwhelmingly, with very high approval rates in the majority of the country. What we’re seeing now is interesting; for some people it will be surprising and for others less so. We have what Andrés, Natalie and Scott have called in some Milenio columns the “conventional left” in power at a federal level. This conventional left models its political and economic programs on the old-line economic orthodoxy. The economic platform, the macroeconomic spine, is really exactly the same as the one the previous PRI and PAN administrations had. Obviously this has created a lot of problems. The AMLO administration has tried to meet the country’s needs by financing big showcase programs like the Tren Maya or the refinery in Tabasco called Dos Bocas. 

Naty – AMLO looked very happy in that video the other day – “Look at me here with my beautiful refinery!”

Jesús – This also includes the new airport in the state of Hidalgo, Santa Lucia. All of our public economic resources have been channeled towards these projects. But now, as Daniel said, the pandemic is really laying bare some of the shortcomings of the orthodox model AMLO’s government is organized around. This is an austerity program that has explicit Fransiscan overtones, as Scott Ferguson has so often pointed out. The government is tightening its belt as if it were a private firm or household. 

Naty – And money is the devil so the right thing to do is to not spend, but from the left. 

Jesús – You have a discourse where money is literally diabolic; it can only shape and influence society for the worse. So you have to reject spending in favor of austere simplicity. In this vision it’s always important for the government to be humble, simple, and austere.

Andrés – This is the same president, Jesús, who literally gives speeches describing money as demonic. In a way you really end up romanticizing poverty. 

Jesús – Exactly, he’s pretty much adopted the Fransiscan view of money whole cloth.

Naty – Listen to Money on the Left, we’ve had episodes about the history of Latin American colonization with … 

Andrés – Franciscan thought. 

Jesús – This leads to a lot of suffering.  No resources have been put into the education, health, science or technology sectors because according to them, there’s no money !

Naty – For the police, though, I’m sure there’s infinite money. 

Jesús – Indeed,  the armed forces, particularly the army, are actually in charge of the government’s big construction projects like the Santa Lucia airport project, among others. So yea, as Naty says – for this kind of project of course there’s money. 

Naty – There’s always money for oil. 

Jesús – It’s truly wild what’s going on in Mexico right now. Last year they pseudo-raffled off the presidential plane to supposedly pay for the government’s bills. This is a plane that had originally been purchased by Felipe Calderón and then Peña Nieto used it after him. So AMLO said, I’m not going to use the plane, let’s sell it and use the proceeds to purchase medicine and pay our medical personnel’s salaries.  Of course there’s a political dynamic at play here, but the message they’re sending people is that the government doesn’t have money and has to sell off its assets to finance itself. You have people buying five hundred dollar bills to help the government. 

Naty – Perverse. 

Daniel – Unfortunately these ideas that seem funny to us have a lot of purchase in the population; people really believe that the government doesn’t have money !

Jesús – Exactly. 

Daniel – They think there’s just literally no way to pay for anything. Here our Treasury Secretary, the Minister of the Economy, said a month or so ago that Colombia had only 6 weeks left of liquidity ! Obviously, people were completely panicked;  “We’re going to run out of resources, what are we going to do, the government is out of money.”  People really think about the economy this way; as if government accounts were equivalent to a household’s account. 

Naty – In Chile, instead of actually spending public money on some sort of Covid support, they’ve had people withdraw from their private pension funds. Of course people are going to think the government doesn’t have any money if you make it seem like the only way you can get people money is by funneling some from their retirement savings. If you say, “This is the only money left,” obviously people will learn that. 

Andrés – Wait, so what’s this? I haven’t heard about this; they’re recycling or returning money ? 

Naty – Yea and this is in part a left move ! Instead of getting a public payout you have to take out money from your AFP pension fund. AFP is the private pension system that Sebastian Piñera’s brother José helped design in the 80s during the dictatorship. So we’re on the third withdrawal of 10 % of your pension savings . . .

Jesús – But the difference is that Daniel is talking about a right-wing government and in Mexico we’re talking about a left-wing government. It’s one of the worst, most surprising things to go through  what we’re going through right now. Even worse, we have heterodox economists supporting these kinds of measures. 

Naty – Like at the Treasury, right ? There’s a Marxist doing the Doug Henwood sound finance thing ? 

Jesús – They nominated a sociology professor which created a bit of an outcry from the business sector; they wanted to know how you could put a Marxist in charge of the Treasury. But as we all well know, being a Marxist hardly disqualifies you from supporting sound finance socialism. 

Naty – So tragic; such an embarrassment. 

Jesús – In the end they got exactly what they wanted. But I hope Jacobin won’t come after me now for saying that.  

Andrés –We’re in such a crucial political moment; we’re in the middle of a global environmental crisis and we have fascist movements on the ascent working to win power internationally.  But the left is all too often stuck on models that are paralyzing us and preventing us from seeing a way forward; a different path. In my eyes there’s three different formations we’re trapped in. First, there’s the left that thinks our only possibility is to redistribute a bit from the rich and then maybe we also pay for some plan or other by raffling off the presidential plane. Second, there’s the left that thinks nothing is possible without world revolution, only then will we be able to do anything. When the US is no longer the global reserve currency, then we can finally invest. 

Naty – Before that, sorry Latin America, no MMT for you.  ‘Because of colonial finance your hands are tied.’  Some of these detractors will never get the irony. 

Andrés – I think something you see a lot on the US left is people who talk about Latin America like it has no agency, as if the whole region were completely powerless.  So there’s that tendency. The third formation I see is an alliance between austere sound finance and petroleum lefts.

Naty — With resources … state resources … 

Andrés – Exactly. These are people who think the only way you can implement left policy is by getting funds from the oil companies. Under this framework you actually need the petroleum industry to be successful for your country to thrive or have space to maneuver and if prices fall you’re in huge trouble. 

Naty – It’s the same with copper, really with any of these resources. 

Daniel – Commodities ! 

Jesús– You have these generic heterodox economists whose only solution to a lack of funds is to raise taxes on the rich. These are left economists, and they’re out on social media promoting the idea that you can only fund the government with a “Tax the rich” revenue increase agenda. But it seems like there’s been more of a reaction to MMT in Colombia than in Mexico where there is a total silence. 

Naty – Chile is the same;  barely anyone has heard of MMT . . . maybe there’s some people who’ve studied abroad but there’s not really a presence . . .  Maybe when Stephanie Kelton’s book arrives? I’m not really sure. 

Jesús – That’s the elephant in the room. Like Andrés said, there are people supporting the oil sector whose whole plan is to “tax the oil rich”,  that’s literally their whole agenda. 

Naty – Yep, “tax the super-rich”;  they say it every day. 

Andrés – Daniel, what’s your experience been with the Colombian left as far as sound finance debates ? 

Daniel – I don’t think my experience has been too different; the left here tends to be pretty conservative. It’s almost  impossible to get people to imagine revenue not funding spending.  There was even a movement a few years ago that opposed any public debt whatsoever. It still exists; I’ve been to some of their meetings and the culture is just ‘no to debt because no.’

Naty – Money is the devil. 

Daniel – Well, they claim that public debt is bad because it’s a Northern tool of subjugation over the Global South. And there’s not zero truth to this; I don’t think it’s so, so, so far from the truth. But this framing puts you in a position where you have to deny that you can spend on public debt, that you don’t always need new revenue. Sadly the Colombian left is completely convinced by this frame; Jesús  is totally right about that. But you have people doing other things. Take, for example, the economics faculty at the National University, which is a public university; they’ve really made an effort to seek out dialogue with research going on in other parts of the world. This alone is already a way of saying, “Yes, there are other ways.”

Now we have this open letter that’s come out and it’s been signed by 100, 200 economists from all over the country. These are university professors who are in the academy and have been published saying, “There are other ways.” They’re not just saying in other words, “Let’s do a progressive tax reform and tax the rich.” Obviously a progressive tax reform is urgent in Colombia,  but not because we need it to generate resources; it’s more for a kind of leveling. In Colombia the rich don’t really pay taxes at all and that creates a concentration of wealth where the GINI coefficient is literally the same after taxes as before. So there’s an imbalance. But this is not the real  fiscal issue for Colombia. No, the fiscal problem in Colombia is that the state isn’t investing where it ought to be. We are working from a sound finance model that the people in charge don’t really even believe in. I think the presidential candidate Gustavo Petro gets what we’re trying to say or at least or is starting to get it. It’s certainly not immediate, but at least people are starting to be able to say, “We don’t need to fear a fiscal deficit.”

Naty – I wonder if there may be a bit more awareness of MMT once the Job Guarantee proposal gets more publicity . . .  Certainly that hasn’t always happened in the US, whether with the Green New Deal or Job Guarantee proposals. Most people still think those bills would be paid for with tax revenue. But I still think proposals like these can create some space for MMT ideas. 

Daniel – That’s right. The main question you get in debates these days is how you are going to confront the crisis. The answer we should be giving is that the central bank ought to use its power to emit money and finance the government and generate employment and stimulate demand and put some money in people’s pockets. It was like we committed heresy for the Colombian media when we said the central bank can emit money.  So now the first thing you always hear is, “Gustavo Petro prints money,” so that’s just one more thing we have to confront when talking to people. It’s easy for the opposition to distort our proposals. In Colombia they always start by conflating emitting money with printing money and then as you know, they invoke Venezuela. 

Naty – And cocaine. 

Daniel – Last year Colombian banks emitted 40 BILLION pesos via quantitative easing. You have the government basically gifting private banks with liquidity, so we’ve used this fact to say to people, “ Look, emission is not the problem. The problem, rather, is profoundly political.” I think Jesús is right to say that we’ve made some progress on these issues in Colombia. So much so that the director of the doctorate program at Javeriana University had  some choice adjectives for our program; the debate has definitely escalated in Colombia, especially in academic circles. I have faith that this escalation will lead somewhere positive. 

Jesús – You have a dynamic underway in Colombia where people are trying to take the severe adversity really all nations have been facing during this crisis, but especially countries like ours, and use this moment of crisis to challenge the dominant economic framework. The effects of the pandemic have hit Mexico really hard over the past year.  Yet some progressive left economists recommendation was simply for Mexico to take out a line of credit with the Inter American Development Bank; that’s to say, more external debt. There’s really no better illustration of how lost this segment of the left is in this regard. 

Naty – And foreign debt has a very serious history in Latin America. 

Andrés – I think it’s important to clarify some subtleties that are confusing for people, because a lot of people who are afraid of public debt think foreign-dominated debt is the same as domestic debt. And this leads people to implement sound finance policies that just creates an ever stronger dependence on foreign-denominated debt. This is why people always think  they’re dependent on the dollar as a reserve currency. To be honest, the left hasn’t really had an answer to this problem. We haven’t really led on putting forward a strategy to get us out of the trap of foreign-denominated debt or dollar debt. 

Daniel – I think we have to push ourselves to be less reticent in certain areas too. When they ask us about inflation we always say, “Well, hey, we don’t support inflation.” And that’s true. MMT is not advocating outbreaks of inflation. But in practice, for countries like Colombia where we import pretty much everything, up to and including screws,  there are certain issues we have to  be concerned about with the currency. But this is just one more battle we must refuse to be afraid of.  What we really ought to ask ourselves is how much inflation we’re willing to accept. How much unemployment do we think is tolerable ? People act as if the Phillips Curve has died, as if it didn’t exist anymore. But in countries like ours, it absolutely still exists. 

That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t allow for some inflation to bring down unemployment. This is really the core paradox; it’s a fundamentally political question. If we want, we can keep inflation super low and decide we don’t care how high unemployment gets. We can keep unemployment at 15% and inflation at 1%. Sometimes we have DEFLATION in Colombia. It’s important to do some self-criticism sometimes and I think we’re making a mistake if we respond to questions about inflation by insisting we completely oppose inflation. No, we can permit a certain level of inflation if it means bringing unemployment down. But in Colombia the orthodox economists say that inflation is the worst possible tax you could impose on poor people. My answer is to ask whether it’s worse than leaving your population in misery; poor, unemployed and hungry. Like seriously? So what you have here is a moral debate. 

Naty – I wanted to ask you Jesús, since you’ve talked a lot with Fadhel Kaboub  who is I think the most prominent MMT economist on Global South issues; on countries with less monetary capacity that tend to import a lot because they haven’t been able to develop their domestic food or energy capacity and maybe rely heavily on commodities exports, what are some of the challenges or limits when you’re thinking structurally?

Jesús – Ever since the implementation of neolibral policies in the 80s in Mexico, technocrats here say that the best industrial policy is no industrial policy at all. That’s what they say ! So Mexico has had no real industrial policy to speak of in recent decades; no way to build up their internal market and strengthen domestic productive capacity. Instead, they’ve increased our dependence on the exterior. We’re importing goods under the framework of these free trade deals that have Mexico only exporting low value added products. 

Daniel – And petroleum. 

Jesús – Exactly. So Mexico, in terms of industrial manufacturing, is really just an assembly line. It doesn’t have the domestic capacity to produce high value-added products because we don’t invest in science, technology, or innovation. In fact the government eliminated important resources in these areas. So what I’m getting at is we don’t really have an industrial policy; this leaves us with a weak science, technology, and innovation sector, reducing the scope, range and spectrum of economic activity and capacity possible. If we keep depending on the exterior for development, it’s going to continue to cause us problems moving forward.

Andrés – And then the pandemic comes and the infrastructure collapses. 

Jesús – That’s another thing; you have poor planning and corruption in addition to this total shortage of public resources that have been allocated towards maintenance of the public infrastructure. 

Naty – What happened the other day in Mexico City with the metro. 

Jesús – In that case people had been warning the government about problems for quite some time. So of course this is the result. At the federal level the policy is austerity and budget cuts and it’s the same at the state and municipal level. You mention cutbacks on the metro line,  but what’s interesting is recent budget reports that came out show that Mexico City just didn’t spend the funds it had budgeted for the metro. A planned austerity regime creates a whole series of errors and problems. 

Andrés – I think Daniel and Jesus both open up really well some different lessons we can take from MMT. Something I really want to highlight is the way economic orthodoxy tends to conflate inflation with hyperinflation; as if it’s all the same and 1 % inflation means we have hyperinflation. 

Daniel – Disaster !

Andrés – Yes, disaster, like it’s interwar Germany. 

Naty – It always comes back to Weimar. 

Andrés – I think it’s really important to draw out some of the subtleties modern money theory can help illuminate.  For starters, our argument is that Colombia and Mexico not having international reserve currencies is not the most important thing. They will still always be able to emit the domestic currency to mobilize domestic resources, period. This is just logical. The limit isn’t that you can’t find the money;  that you don’t know where you’re going to withdraw money from next; that it’s all running out and  you have to raffle off a plane. The real limit is the question of at what point inflation becomes a real problem.  But this never happens because there is simply too much money in the economy. No, it’s a question of the country’s domestic productive capacity. So that’s one issue. The second question is what a country’s productive capacity is, whether you’re really using the resources you have at your disposal. In Colombia and Mexico both you have people and resources that you aren’t utilizing. So the inflationary pressures in these countries have less to do with public spending than they do with private power. The issue is the power of the private financial system, the monopolies and corporations that have the power to set market prices, that’s where the inflationary pressures are coming from.  So we’re not going to talk about money as if it were a solid thing with actual value like a piece of gold. Money doesn’t just have intrinsic value and we need to locate the rich people to get some of that value. It’s not like those cat memes where the cats are running around trying to escape the red light and get the white light that isn’t real, that doesn’t exist. It’s the same with MMT’s understanding of money; money isn’t like a nugget of solid gold with some intrinsic value. No, money is an institutional infrastructure, a way of organizing debt.  It’s how we mobilize our productive capacity and form our most important governing relationships. So you have that element. The last point I want to make is that, as both Jesus and Daniel mentioned, our countries haven’t invested in domestic productive capacity. Instead, we have depended on foreign investment; we depend on dollars. If we don’t have dollars, we don’t have an economy. This gets us deeper and deeper into a hole where we have to ask the World Bank for a loan or hope some American or European investor comes in from abroad to rescue us before they leave us high and dry the moment they see fit. This is the current system and it makes our currency weak. The failure to invest in public education, a sustainable energy system, just food systems, or public employment makes us more vulnerable to inflationary pressures. Without investment in these vital areas our economies are severely weakened. 

Naty – We need a Latinx Green New Deal. 

Jesús — To add to what Andrés is saying about currencies, one of AMLO’s advisors proposed a few years back that we should go off the peso and adopt the dollar as the Mexican currency.

Daniel – No ! 

Naty – That’s gone really well for Ecuador, great. 

Daniel – But this was someone from Morena ? 

Jesús – No, a businessperson. Another proposal was to anchor the value of the peso to silver. 

Naty – Back to the future, it’s the 70s, great. 

Daniel – It’s funny because you have this debate gaining momentum in Colombia; more and more people are talking about these issues from a variety of different viewpoints. Sometimes it’s a very fair, very enlightened debate; other times people are completely distorting the truth. But at least people are talking. And it’s so funny because we have these orthodox economists who a professor at the National University started calling “The Seventh” economists. This was meant to be a cheeky allusion to the US where people say there are the freshwater economists and the saltwater economists. There’s a similar professional differentiation in Colombia. “Seventh” economists are working in the seventh region of Colombia which is the Bogotá area where all these historically orthodox economic faculties are; the Andes, the Externada, the Javeriana. And when we met with this group of economists they took out Stephanie Kelton’s book and opened it up and said, “look, Stephanie Kelton says right here that in countries like Colombia that rely heavily on imports MMT doesn’t make sense.” 

It’s so ironic because these are the same people who have spent the last 30 years running Colombia’s industrial and productive apparatus into the ground. They have brought us to a point where Colombia is only producing petroleum and cocaine. Yet they are so shameless and spineless that they have the gall to then say “ Sorry, Colombia doesn’t have the right productive system to allow MMT ideas to have a seat at the table.” Really they are confessing how badly they have managed everything. They ran the Colombian productive apparatus into the ground. So of course, I really like the idea of a Latin American Green New Deal because it helps us think about how we can mobilize our society’s productive apparatus. If we don’t do that; if we keep importing everything, we are really going to have problems. Integrating Latin American value chains is really important here to break borders; it could be a really important idea. I think about something like lithium production in Bolivia, or gas and copper . . . and I think about how, of course, we really need to look at things from a climate perspective because we are in the throes of a full-on climate cris. But I think it’s also possible to generate Latin American value chains and allow ourselves to think about a Latin Green New Deal from the South. 

Andrés – Daniel, where do you think the Colombian left is heading; do you think they’ll really be able to internalize this vision we’re putting forward ? 

Naty – Tomorrow. 

Andrés – Literally tomorrow. 

Daniel – I think it’s a process. Look, I’ll tell you right now, the truth is that there are some very conservative ideas on the Colombian left. But I think Petro´s presidential campaign will have an opportunity to get people debating some of these ideas. When you’re in the midst of a crisis  and have debates where suddenly public figures are actually able to say the words “monetary emission”, that is actually a huge step forward for a society as conservative as Colombia’s. And now a lot of people are repeating it! So we need to direct more energy towards theorizing and pushing these ideas. Having the job guarantee bill in the congress can help open up some space for debate. I think we’re heading down an underexplored path, and while progress is slow, taking a step in this direction is already an important advance.  The other thing that makes me optimistic about Colombia is that we are not putting forward some singular isolated proposal. No, this is the platform of the presidential candidate who is leading the polls today. So we know there is popular support and therefore the possibility of pushing  some of these ideas and programs forward. I think the first and maybe most difficult battle is going to be with our own side; we have to defeat some conservative ideas our friends and comrades on the left still harbor.  It’s hard, but I think we can do it. 

Jesús – We are really paying for the errors we’ve made in Mexico, these issues are so important. 

Andrés – These “Seventh” economists seem to me more like, as they say, garage economists. 

Daniel – But they govern Colombia;  they’ve governed the country for 30, 40 years. 

Andrés – Jesús;  expectations for Mexico, how do you see things going ? 

Jesús – I think it’s very unlikely the current administration will change in the next term. They have made their position clear. Nevertheless, we are being observed; the world is watching us. We are being observed and furthermore there is some turn to MMT. I can say that there’s been some timid outreach to our camp. It’s slow but there’s some movement. 

Daniel – That’s great to hear. There’s a part of the Colombian left that really sees AMLO as an important referent. They say, “Wow he doesn’t use the presidential plane” and then their whole big program is to lower the presidential and congressional salaries in order to fund the government. 

Andrés – There was a time when I would see Mujica in Uruguay living in his little house and I’d say “Ah, that’s the left.”

Naty – He smokes weed and has a small house so everything with Uruguay is obviously okay. 

Daniel – It’s like with Petro; they published some photos of him wearing Ferragamo shoes and they said, “See, he’s a fake, a hypocrite;  he wears expensive shoes; how can you be on the left and not be barefoot?”

Andrés – Jesús, before we recorded you were telling me about some social justice initiatives in Mexico, can you talk about these as a vehicle for integrating MMT ideas into a Mexican social justice agenda ? 

Jesús – Absolutely, MMT in a  Latin American context;  especially in Mexico, MUST go hand in hand with a social justice agenda; you have to dialogue deeply with the sectors of the population that are suffering the most right now. It’s critical to integrate and consider the strategies social movements are using to develop the left. In Mexico you really have many different countries; every locality has its own particular problems, whether it be security, the environment, or the lack of job opportunities forcing people to emigrate to the US. For MMT to be relevant it has to take these issues seriously and make social problems integral to its framework. The issue of security is also crucial for a functioning economy; I think in Colombia you’ve had similar issues ? 

Andrés – In the Colombian case, absolutely, a vision for peace is so central. It’s the same as in Mexico where so many people have lived through really serious violence, whether it be caused by narcotrafficking or a general lack of social stability. We aren’t creating public employment opportunities; we aren’t investing in sustainability. Those are the things we need to create a serious, durable peace that is sustainable long- term.  

Naty – That’s how you actually try to get out from under the domination of the empire, right ? To defeat the ‘empire’ you can’t just keep importing more and more forever. 

Andrés – To wrap up, government accounts are not like those of a household, states have constitutional power over their currency, and you don’t need taxes to fund spending. Taxes are important, rather, to keep people from accumulating obscene amounts of wealth. 

Naty – Allowing people to purchase dissipated molecular revolutions. 

Jesus – We need to raffle off planes. 

Daniel – Lower congressional salaries . . . 

Naty – Ok, great conversation, thanks so much everyone for coming to talk with us. 

Daniel – In a world where people are literally dying in the street it’s immoral to continue down our current path. Any state can rescue its citizens and guarantee certain rights if it wants to. The fact they don’t isn’t because they can’t; it’s not because they don’t have the resources. The question is political power. The issue is political, not economic. The economy is honestly almost over-diagnosed. We have so many studies and theories that show that governments can allow themselves to rescue their citizens. So the issue is not really technical. 

Naty – Right, it’s not technical. I think at Superstructure and Money on the Left that’s one of the most important arguments we want to make, that MMT isn’t just some cold technical trick where you say, “Ah, we have the best science,” and that’s all she wrote. These are deep, serious, important social questions for everyone. 

Andrés – For us, technical issues are also social and political issues !

Naty – True, the binary is false.

Daniel – The economics academy teaches you that there is a natural rate of employment, that this is something natural which exists. This is a lie, it’s a total lie. 

Naty – And then you have your little mini-Friedmans on Twitter with their ridiculous little cartoon avatars.

Andrés – According to orthodox economics,  unemployment is like gravity; it exists in nature, just because. This is an idea the left must resoundingly reject. 

Daniel – When the textbook says there is a NATURAL rate of unemployment, you have to naturalize this “natural,” no ? They’re telling you this is something you cannot dispute. It’s a great farce. 

Naty – That’s the idea, no ? They don’t want people actually discussing these topics; they want neoliberalism to continue;  they want the hegemony of the World Bank and IMF and their friends at Harvard Business School to continue.

Andrés – The other one is the natural rate of interest . . . 

Daniel – Everything is nature. When they’re screwing you over, that’s just nature. 

Naty – Ok y’all, great conversation, thanks so much. Excuse my Spanish at times, despite living here for years my Spanish still isn’t nearly as good as I wish it were ! 

Daniel – Really cool to talk with you all. 

Andrés – Listeners, thanks for being here with us for this special episode of Money on the Left and Superstructure.

Naty – Superestructura.

Andrés – Please follow us and listen to our work;  we have a patreon you can support;  I also suggest you follow the work Daniel is doing in Colombia, especially with Colombia Humana and with senator Wilson Arias. Also follow Jesus Resendiz and his work with his column at  Milenio. 

Naty – What are your twitter handles ? 

Daniel – @ DanielRMed, from “Medellin”, but it’s just “Med.” 

Jesús – Mine is @ Tlacuachito. 

Andrés – Perfect, we’ll write those up on twitter too so people can follow you all, thanks so much ! 

Jesús – Thanks so much.

Naty – Thanks.

Daniel – Thank you all, a pleasure. 

Transcripción en Español

Natalie – Hola, yo soy Natalie, co-host de Superstructure  o Superestructura, y una de las editoras de Money on the Left. Hoy día vamos a hacer algo un poco diferente, un episodio en español. Para nosotros, es súper importante incluir a Latinoamérica en nuestro análisis de las posibilidades económicas y políticas en el mundo. Y yo como estadounidense que vive en Chile, de una forma vivo entre varios mundos. Estoy trabajando en este proyecto de educación política con respecto a MMT y aunque vivo en Chile, la mayoría de los miembros o todos los miembros del colectivo viven en EEUU  y mientras el podcast tiene un ámbito internacional, igual su red principal viene de los EEUU  así que igual quisiéramos expandir la conversación un poco. Hay que unir fuerzas y las vías de comunicación. Por cierto, disculpa mi español, que sigue siendo muy gringo después de tantos años aquí. Tenemos con nosotros dos invitados y también Andrés Bernal, que también es parte del colectivo – ¿quien eres Andrés ?  ¿ Cual es tu historia? 

Andrés – Hola, buenas tardes a todos, yo soy Andrés Bernal, editor también de Money on the Left y Superestructura, aquí también para hacer parte de esta conversación sobre MMT y Latinoamérica. ¿Quién soy yo? Bueno, yo soy un profesor en CUNY Queens College de Estudios Urbanos. Estoy terminando mi doctorado también en el New School, con enfoque en el Green New Deal y soy asesor político. Estuve un momento con la campaña de Alexandria Ocasio Cortez; en este momento estoy con la campaña de Diane Morales para la alcaldía de Nueva York. Entonces bueno,  un placer aquí estar con todos Uds. para tener esta conversación que nos parece muy importante, primero, porque para abrir el espacio lingüístico de idioma, y también para hablar de temas que muchas veces evitamos o se ignoran en el mundo del pensamiento económico y también de MMT. Entonces bueno, también, yo; español no es mi primer idioma, entonces quizás qué –we’ll speak some Spanglish– and we’ll mix it up a little. 

**

Andrés – Tenemos dos invitados aquí con nosotros, primero tenemos aquí desde Tampico, México, Jesús Resendiz, Jesús, díganos, ¿ quién eres? 

Jesús – Hola Andrés, Natalie;  muchas gracias por la invitación, es para mi un honor estar aquí en Superstructure. Bueno pues yo soy mexicano, soy economista de profesión, y soy miembro e investigador de Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, donde el presidente de este instituto es nuestro colega y  amigo, Fadhel Kaboub y bueno, ya llevo cierto tiempo impulsando junto con Uds., con mis amigos de la Teoría Monetaria Moderna, esta como le decimos en inglés– la MMT o la TMM en español– impulsándola en mi caso particular de México. Entonces, digamos que en grandes rasgos esto es mi trabajo aquí, y bueno soy profesor en la Universidad Autónoma de Tamaulipas, he sido asesor de algunos actores políticos, y también activista social. 

Andrés –Gracias Jesús. Y también tenemos con nosotros José Daniel Rojas desde Bogotá, que ahorita, bueno yo también como Colombiano, todos estamos muy pendientes de la situación que está pasando en Colombia– los movimientos sociales que se están viviendo en este momento. Daniel, cuéntanos ¿ quién eres, qué haces?

Daniel – Hola, ¿cómo están? Placer estar aquí con Uds. y desde Colombia integrarnos en esta discusión que emerge en medio de esta crisis ¿no ? Ahora que el mundo global empieza a soportar la crisis de Covid, está bien empezar a pensar si es que existen otras formas de gestionar y de gobernar la economía y desde Colombia también  en medio de este maremagnum de confrontaciones que emerge de la movilización social. Pues para nosotros no solamente es un placer sino una necesidad empezar a encontrar nuevos caminos y nuevas fórmulas para el desarrollo. Mi nombre, bueno como se lo dicen, es Daniel Rojas,  economista de profesión; soy asesor económico en el Congreso de la República;  en este momento trabajo con el senador Wilson Arias y también hago parte de la Colombia Humana, que es el esfuerzo de el candidato presidencial Gustavo Petro para encontrar un nuevo rumbo en Colombia en el 2022. Esperamos que así sea y tenemos muchísima fe en que va a ser así. Esto, como dice el himno nacional; el himno nacional de Colombia , dice –cesará la horrible noche– y vamos a esperar que así sea, vamos por eso. 

**

Andrés – Muchas gracias Daniel. 

Jesús – Se me olvidó decir que también soy miembro del consejo editorial de Money on the Left. 

**

Andrés – Bueno, para un poco de contexto también en esta conversación,  este diálogo y una de las razones . . . 

Naty — . . .  Parece que sí, sí hay gente fuera de Europa y los Estados Unidos; parece . . . de MMT. 

Daniel —- Claro, claro que sí.

Naty – Eso vamos a hablar. 

Daniel — Así asciendan fronteras.  

Andrés — Asciendan fronteras; no todo pasa en EEUU o Europa, exactamente. Entonces pues, en nuestro mundo de MMT o la TMM, como mi amigo Jesús aquí lo dijo, muchas veces escuchamos que solo hay relevancia para  EEUU, que simplemente es porque  EEUU tiene una moneda que es reserva mundial o una cantidad de razones o excusas porque ignorar las ideas, los –insights – que no sé como se dice en español –insights– ? 

**

Jesús –  ¿ Características, no ? 

**

Andrés – ¿ Visión ? 

Naty – Sí, percepciones, entendimientos . . . 

Andrés – Sí;  bueno, el conocimiento;  el conocimiento que nos da MMT es rechazado en muchas partes del mundo porque se dice que solamente funciona o es relevante en los Estados Unidos. Entonces nosotros queremos rechazar esa idea y poner en práctica y tener esta conversación sobre cuáles son los aprendizajes y las cosas importantes de usar  . . .  la TMM o MMT como un marco de referencia, como una estructura para pensar en las políticas públicas y las ideas basadas en el dinero;  en la función del dinero en una economía, específicamente, para países en el sur; para países que han estado en desventaja política;  que tiene una historia de colonización, de imperialismo, etc. ¿ Qué podemos aprender de MMT en esas situaciones? Entonces, bueno, Naty, ¿qué más ?

Naty – Sí, sin embargo, yo creo que hay más movida de TMM en España dentro del español, pero queremos expandir para Latinoamérica y lo que pasa es que el marco de TMM macroeconómico nos puede ayudar dar a entender cómo funcionan las cosas. Incluso cuando no haya tanta soberanía se puede usarla como en Argentina donde tenían Plan Jefes, una garantía de trabajo. Pero sin embargo, igual dicen –No, no puedes hacer nada ahi, porque estan vinculado al dólar y tienen la deuda externa y bla bla bla– pero sí, se puede hacer programas;  se puede gastar. Pero también tienen muy arraigado esta idea de que . . .  en Chile todo el mundo en la izquierda está hablando de –impuestos a los super ricos– cierto? 

Andrés – Como la única manera que hace algo para gastar. 

Naty – Sí y bacán; genial que haya un impuesto a los super ricos, cierto? Pero no es la fuente de gastar. 

Andrés – Exactamente. Esos son los temas que vamos a tocar hoy. Como dice Natalie, tenemos unas camaradas en España que tienen un proyecto de MMT, se llama Red MMT, pero nosotros aquí también queremos abrir esta conversación a Latinoamérica. Bueno, entonces empezando con Colombia;  por el momento que se está viviendo ahorita ¿que está pasando, Daniel ? Cuéntanos un poco sobre ¿qué pasa en Colombia? y ¿cómo se conecta esto con cuestiones de dinero, de gasto público, de austeridad, etc. ?

Daniel – Bueno, ya, es que lo que está pasando en Colombia no es muy distinto a lo que se está pasando en Latinoamérica, sinceramente. Tenemos un gobierno que llega y que gana las elecciones bajo la promesa de que disminuyendo impuestos a las grandes corporaciones y a las personas que están en el nivel más alto de ingresos y de patrimonio podría reactivar la economía, creando puestos de trabajo.  Y en 2018, cuando esa propuesta empieza a gobernar evidentemente, lo que hacen es disminuir los ingresos tributarios para llegar al punto en común en EEUU, en Europa, en todo el mundo: bajo la visión dominante de como hay pocos ingresos tributarios;  hay pocos gastos públicos, ¿ verdad ? Poco gasto público. Y en esa discusión, llega el Covid. Y entonces, en el momento en el que el gobierno requiere aumentar el gasto público para atender la emergencia, lo que eso nos dice es que no hay recursos y que los recursos solo se pueden recaudar vía impuesto. Y no cualquier impuesto, sino que tiene que ser impuestos al consumo y a la rentas laborales de la parte baja. Claro, eso afecta mayoritariamente a las personas que tienen trabajo y las personas que tienen trabajo en Colombia es la clase media porque el desempleo en Colombia ha llegado a unos niveles del 14 a 17 % en el último año. Entonces, en ese escenario se crea todo un estallido social porque es la clase media la clase que está –digamos, esos sectores;  esos segmentos de la sociedad que está en la vulnerabilidad; la que empieza a llenar las calles y a colmar las calles en unas movilizaciones impresionantemente grandes; que solamente tienen como respuesta el gobierno la represión. Ante ese escenario; algunos expresiones políticas hemos dicho, dentro de esas Colombia Humana, de que no es momento de hacer una reforma tributaria. Es decir, de que el gobierno no tendría porqué atender la emergencia imponiendo impuestos, sino que pudiéramos aumentar el déficit público de tal manera que el gobierno responda mediante un proyecto que hemos radicado en el Congreso de Trabajo Garantizado en el cual pudiéramos dar respuesta a la crisis aumentando déficit público. Y aumentar el déficit público tiene muchas aristas y eso creo que lo vamos a hablar en este espacio. Yo creo que, claro, estos tipos de ideas que vienen de la Teoría Monetaria Moderna tienen su grado de aplicación en los países del Cono Sur y en países Latinoamericanos. Somos perfectamente conscientes de que el peso colombiano no es una moneda de reserva; pero también somos perfectamente conscientes de que somos el unico gobierno que emite pesos colombianos y que por lo tanto podemos permitirnos a aumentar el gasto público en pesos colombianos de tal forma que el déficit público sea superávit en el sector privado y que las familias y las empresas colombianas pudieran tener un choque de demanda. Lo que se nos han dicho es que somos unas) de irresponsables, macroeconómicamente hablando . . . 

Naty – Populistas. 

Daniel – Y de populistas, porque lo que estamos proponiendo es crear inflación y ya. 

Naty – ¡Venezuela!  

Daniel – Sí, el ejemplo que sale a flote es el de Venezuela. Bueno, creo que ahí hay un buen debate para dar. Afortunadamente, en este escenario y en el que se impone esa reforma tributaria; los hechos de violencia  en Colombia han sido el pan diario. La respuesta del estado no ha sido al diálogo y miremos –¿ Cuál es su teoría y cuál es la mía ? ; ¿ Cuál es tu propuesta y cuál es la mía ?–  dentro de un marco democratico del debate; sino que simplemente no existe el debate; no existen otras fórmulas. Es el fórmula de la ortodoxia o la bala y ahora mismo salió un comunicado de la academia más ortodoxa colombiana y de los gremios, principalmente gremios financieros, en los que se decían– esta es la única vía que existe y ante eso sale una respuesta que es una carta abierta de once economistas heterodoxos principalmente de la Universidad Nacional Colombiana, que es la universidad pública más grande en Colombia, que dice — No. Hay otras formas. Hay otras formas porque no puede ser que la única manera que tengamos dinero es exógeno.–

**

Daniel – Que existen otras formas, digamos.  Y eso ha puesto que el debate económico en Colombia una muy buena discusión en las redes sociales, principalmente en las redes sociales. Pero la campaña presidencial de Gustavo Petro para el próximo año empieza a escoger estas ideas y en eso nos encontramos en Colombia. Nos encontramos en las calles una represión brutal; pero en las redes y en los escenarios de debate y de pensamiento; ya hay un debate instalado. En este momento hay un debate instalado y eso es muy bueno para lo que pasa en Colombia porque llevamos 30 años con una sola visión- Hay,  con esos términos; hay en el congreso de la República en este momento cruzando un proyecto de ley de Trabajo Garantizado que lo ha afirmado todo la oposición y que quizás no tenga suerte de ser aprobado en el congreso; pero en las discusiones, insisto, que se empieza a dar en las calles y en la academia y en las redes sociales; está ya empezando a instalarse otra manera de pensarse la economía en Colombia. 

Naty – Está buenísimo eso– que tenían hartas firmas y como también– la TMM empezó en los años noventa en las redes sociales.

Daniel – Es cierto. 

Naty – Interesante también como la represión– me acuerdo de Chile;  cuando veo videos, como es en Colombia ahora y veo las revoluciones moleculares disipadas y digo –ah, tenemos el mismo fenómeno!–

Andrés – Sí, Daniel, cuéntanos de eso; cuentanos de tu membresía en la revolución. 

Naty — Esa teoría viene de un neonazi chileno . . . 

Daniel – Aquí hay una articulación entre la derecha chilena y la derecha colombiana; las fuerzas represivas colombianas entrenan a las fuerzas represivas chilenas; los SWAT colombianos entrenan a los carabineros chilenos y los chilenos nos mandan sus pensadores neo nazis para que instruyan a la derecha colombiana y entonces se inventan  de estas cosas de la molecularidad …

**

Daniel -– Tienen como destino crear en la sociedad colombiana y en la sociedad chilena el imaginario de que las personas que están en las protestas son vándalos; son enemigos; son enemigos de la democracia;  de la estabilidad ¿no ?  Así como solamente existen finanzas sanas como única forma de tener la economía;  también solamente una única visión de democracia;  que es entender el régimen como lo demuestran y otra forma tiene que ser represivo;  tiene que ser violentado;  porque no existe; no existe otra forma. 

Naty – Se van juntos.

Daniel – Pero insisto;  aquí hay algo que es valioso y es que hoy ya la gente se está entendiendo que hay otras formas; hay otras formas de entender, tanto la economía como  la política; como el orden social. 

Naty – Sipo.

Andrés – Yo siempre he pensado que el legado de Pinochet se manifiesta en Colombia con el Uribismo como uno de los momentos y los espacios que más profundamente representan lo que fue eso. 

Daniel – Así es. 

Naty –  . . .  Es que hay gente con poder que si viene Judith Butler a hablar van a protestar, como –ahh – están andando vándalos a la calle por el género!–

Daniel – Los Chicago Boys jamás hubieran podido entrar así en Latinoamérica si no hubiera sido por el uso de la fuerza militar. 

**

Andrés – Y también como eso mismo, todo esto de las revoluciones moleculares; que bueno, para los escuchantes– el ex presidente Alvaro Uribe ahorita está hablando de una conspiración de una revolución molecular disipada; que para mi demuestra el miedo que le tienen estos grupos a los movimientos sociales que se están tomando las calles.  Pero hablando de Judith Butler y el feminismo, etc., bueno, uno de los argumentos más fuertes en contra de los acuerdos de paz en Colombia fue la política de género, como lo dicen allá, la derecha en Colombia le tiene mucho miedo al feminismo, al derechos de la comunidad LGBTQ  . . .   Está muy conectado esto. Entonces eso me hizo pensar que es la misma estrategia. O aquí en EEUU – Black Lives Matter, que es un movimiento de protesta que no tiene a un líder en particular, sino que es disipado  . . .  

Naty – Y también con 8 M – 2018, 2019;  empezó mucho en Chile y en muchos lugares– Argentina, Perú  . . . Ni Una Más, en México también– contra el femicidio;  que mucho de la práctica de movilizar viene en los últimos años de esas movilizaciones. . . . en Latinoamérica florece mucho. 

Jesús – Una pregunta … ¿ por qué molecular ? 

Naty – Por Guattari, por… Deleuze y Guattari. 

Andrés – Sí es que hay dos post-estructuralistas franceses; Felix Guattari, no sé cómo pronunciarlo y Gilles Deleuze; que tienen sus ideas y bueno; aquí en Superstructure tenemos un conflicto con ellos, pero un conflicto muy diferente  . . .  Tenemos desacuerdos ontológicos con ellos pero no de la manera que estos derechistas y neonazis están proponiendo. Bueno, Jesús … Hablando de estos temas; México, que es un país que, bueno, se considera extremadamente importante en la política Latinoamericana, vivió un cambio de líder con la elección de Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador . . . Hubo muchas expectativas, pero ¿ qué ha pasado? ¿ Qué hemos vivido desde esas elecciones ? 

Naty – Recientemente estaban en las noticias también;  el otro día, justo.  

Andrés – Exactamente. ¿Qué ha pasado en México? ¿Qué ha sido de estas políticas públicas; ¿Qué ha propuesto Morena y en qué manera los debates de pensamiento económico han tenido su función ? 

Jesés – Bueno, en el caso de México, no sé por dónde empezar. 

Naty – Un país chiquitito, no pasa nada ahí. 

Jesús – Sí. Pues bueno, como los restos de los países latinos, México también es un país complejo. Pero en el caso particular de lo que estamos viviendo ahorita, nosotros pues bueno,  no puedo explicar que – el sentido de que después de tener gobiernos del PRI, del Partido Revolucionario Institucional, el partido de la revolución mexicana. Pues, tuvimos también gobiernos del PAN, del Partido de Acción Nacional. ¿ Qué pasa ? Pues, para no entrar mucho en detalles,  en el 2006 el actual presidente de México, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, compite en las elecciones, en donde gana por un pequeño margen el candidato del Partido de Acción Nacional, Felipe Calderón. Entonces, pues, comienza la continuidad del gobierno Panista, que inició con el ex presidente Vicente Fox. Después, llegan las elecciones del 2012. Vuelve a competir el actual presidente Andres Lopez Manuel Obrador por las elecciones ahora, siendo el candidato más fuerte a vencer Enrique Peña Nieto del PRI y gana Enrique Peña Nieto.

**

Jesús – Bueno, pues, entonces ¿qué pasa? Pues, fueron en términos generales, que serán dos sexenios en donde, un poco más de dos sexenios, en donde la actual presidente empezó a luchar para poder ganar las últimas elecciones. Entonces gana las elecciones en el 2018 de manera masiva; con un nivel de popularidad muy elevado; con una aceptación enorme en la población, la mayor parte de la población. Y lo que vemos ahorita es algo interesante, que puede para muchos sorprenderlos;  pero para otras personas no. Lo que estamos viendo es que el actual gobierno federal, un gobierno de izquierda;  de izquierda convencional como lo hemos llamado Andres, Natalie, y Scott en unas publicaciones que hemos tenido en las columnas de Milenio. Un gobierno convencional en donde lucha o tiene su plataforma económica y política desde la ortodoxia económica. Entonces, plataforma económica que la tuvieron los gobiernos anteriores. Entonces la columna vertebral, en términos macroeconómicos, es exactamente la misma de los gobiernos del PRI y los gobiernos del PAN. Entonces esto ha generado muchos problemas porque el gobierno del presidente Lopez Obrador, para poder hacer frente a ciertas necesidades del país, incluyendo el financiamiento de los proyectos insignia por ejemplo el Tren Maya, la refinería en Tabasco que se llama Dos Bocas . . . 

Naty – Está feliz! Hay ese video ahí el otro dia— ¡Ah, mírame con  mi hermosa refinería!–

Jesús – . . . El nuevo aeropuerto en el estado de Hidalgo, Santa Lucía.  Entonces todos los recursos económicos públicos han sido enfocados en esos proyectos y bueno ahora llega la pandemia y como lo mencionó Daniel; desnuda aún más las deficiencias del enfoque ortodoxo que está inspirado del gobierno del presidente Lopez Obrador. ¿ Entonces qué estamos viendo? Estamos viendo que hay una política de austeridad franciscana, como lo menciona Scott Ferguson, en donde el gobierno está abrochando el cinturón como si fuera una empresa privada o un hogar.

Naty – Y que el dinero es como el diablo . . .  así que hay que no gastar, pero desde la izquierda.

Jesús – Hay una discusión en donde se ve al dinero como algo diabólico, como si fuera un mecanismo que va a influir negativamente en la sociedad y que por lo tanto no hay que hacerle caso y hay que ser austeros y sencillos.  También por lo tanto es importante tener un gobierno sencillo. 

Andrés – Jesús, el mismo presidente en tu discurso también invoca estas imágenes del dinero como  algo demoníaco y como una romantización de la pobreza a veces . . . 

Jesús – Si, exacto.  Básicamente se está pegando lo que es este el enfoque fransiscano del dinero. 

Naty – Escucha Money on the Left . . .  hemos tenido episodios sobre toda esta historia de la colonización de Latinoamérica con . . . 

Andrés – El pensamiento Fransiscano. 

Naty – Sí. 

Jesús – Y eso tiene a la gente en sufrimiento. No hay recursos públicos en el sector educativo; en el sector de salud; en el sector de ciencia, tecnología e innovación ¿Por qué ? Porque no hay dinero, según ellos. 

Naty – Pero para los pacos y la policía; imagino . . .  eterno. 

Jesús – De hecho son las fuerzas armadas, principalmente el ejército, el que administra y está construyendo las grandes obras que tiene el gobierno;  como ese el aeropuerto en Santa Lucía, entre otros proyectos.  Entonces algo bien, como dice Naty—para este tipo de proyecto; sí, hay dinero. 

Naty – Claro, para el petróleo siempre. 

Jesús – Sí . . .  Está tremendo lo que está pasando en México, que el año pasado se dio la –rifa no rifa– del avión presidencial y supuestamente esta rifa del avión presidencial;  que lo compró un avión;  el avión presidencial lo compró Felipe Calderon;  lo usó el presidente Peña Nieto. Entonces el presidente Lopez Obrador dijo –Yo no voy a usar ese avión; vamos a venderlo; vamos a venderlo para pagar los sueldos del personal médico y comprar medicamentos.– Sin duda hay una dinámica política detrás de eso, definitivamente. Pero el mensaje que se le está dando a las poblaciones es que el gobierno no tiene dinero y que está vendiendo sus activos para poder pagar el gasto público; para poder financiar el gasto público.  Entonces tienes a la gente comprando sus billetes de 500 pesos para ayudar al gobierno. Es realmente . . . 

Naty – Qué perverso.

Daniel – Eso que nos parece chistoso a nosotros tiene mucho arraigo en la gente. ¡La gente realmente piensa que el gobierno está sin dinero ! 

Jesús – Exacto. 

Daniel –  . . .  Que no tienen manera, ni forma. Aquí el Ministro de Hacienda, el Ministro de Economía, dijo hace un mes que Colombia tenía seis semanas de liquidez . . .  y la gente entró en pánico; es verdad, la gente entró en pánico –Nos quedamos sin recursos ¿ que vamos a hacer? El gobierno ya no tiene plata.– Y realmente la gente piensa que así como es la economía de su casa, es la economía del gobierno. 

Naty – Y con Covid; ahí Chile, en vez de dar un bono, están dando solo plata de los fondos de pensión.  Obvio que uno va a pensar que no hay dinero si hay que darme mi propia plata de mi fondo de pensión privada y me dicen –Ahí está la única plata que queda.–  Obvio también ahí van a aprender eso. 

Andrés – ¿Cómo es eso? no he escuchado mucho, ¿están reciclando dinero o están devolviendo el dinero? 

Naty – Sí y ¡ eso es la movida de la izquierda !  En vez de dar un bono;  hay que retirar plata de la AFP.  La AFP es el sistema de los años ochenta del hermano de Piñera;  Jose Piñera, Pinochetista. Pero sí, ahora están en el tercer retiro;  tercer retiro de 10 % . . . 

Jesús – Pero la diferencia es que Daniel habla de un gobierno de derecha y aquí estamos en un gobierno de izquierda . . . 

Naty – Claro.  

Jesús – Lo más sorprendente, lo más grave, es lo que estamos viviendo. Y no solamente eso, porque grupos de economistas que se dicen progresistas heterodoxos están apoyando estos tipos de medidas. 

Naty – ¿Como en la tesorería, no ? ¿ Que hay un marxista que está haciéndose igual a Doug Henwood, como finanzas sanas? 

Jesús – Se nombró una persona, una profesora,  que es socióloga . . .  Hubo muchas reacciones de  determinados sectores económicos, principalmente la empresarial, para decir;  en el sentido de que dijeron –¿Cómo va a estar una marxista frente a la Tesorería de la Federación en México? –  Sin embargo; bueno, nosotros sabemos que ese perfil de ser marxista cumple con los requisitos para cuidar el –sound finance socialism–. 

Naty – Qué tragedia. Qué vergüenza. 

Jesús – Entonces realmente era el adecuado, pero espero que con esto no se me echen encima en el Jacobin.

Andrés – Es muy importante el momento político en el que vivimos. Estamos con una crisis ambiental mundial; estamos con el fascismo por todo el mundo, se está  subiendo al poder. Y la misma izquierda está reforzando ciertos principios que nos están paralizando como sociedades mundiales de poder salir, de poder encontrar una salida diferente. Entonces estas izquierdas de las finanzas sanas; las veo yo como paralizadas o encarceladas en tres puntos. Por un camino, ven que lo único que es posible es poder redistribuir un poquito de los más ricos para hacer algún u otro plan o no sé, poner el avión presidencial en una rifa. Por otro lado; el segundo punto, hay una izquierda que no ve que nada es posible sin la excepción de una revolución mundial; sólo en ese entonces podemos hacer algo; si por todo el mundo hay una revolución y ya EEUU deja de ser la moneda de reserva, ahí de pronto podemos tener bienes públicos; ahí podemos invertir.  

Naty – Antes, Latinoamerica cagó; nada de MMT para ellos. –Por la colonización financiera, no pueden hacer nada– . . . no captan la ironía nunca. 

Andrés – Y algo que es muy común es escuchar ese tipo de izquierda; acá siempre es izquierda norteamericana hablando de Latinoamérica, como si Latinoamérica no tuviera ninguna capacidad de actuar, de hacer nada; porque todo está jodido.  Entonces está eso. Y el tercer punto creo yo es la asociación entre las finanzas sanas y este tipo de austeridad por la izquierda y el petróleo . . .  la izquierda del petróleo. 

Naty – Y los recursos . . .  estatales . . .  

Andres – Exactamente. La única manera de hacer políticas de izquierda es si los petróleos, si el sistema petrolero nos da dinero a nosotros. Entonces en ese sentido tiene que ser muy exitoso en la industria del petróleo para que los países puedan hacer cosas y si caen los precios; nos jodemos todos.  

 Naty – Y igual con el cobre, con cualquier recurso. 

Daniel – ¡ Commodities ! 

Jesús – Yo agregaría que, por ejemplo, este grupo de economistas heterodoxos genéricos, para llamarlos así, que ven;  creo que Daniel lo mencionó, que para darle solución al tema de la falta de dinero hay que instrumentar impuestos a los que más tienen, los ricos, Y que solamente así es posible financiar programas sociales. Entonces uno puede ver por ejemplo en las redes sociales este grupo de economistas de izquierda, están promocionando; están impulsando esta agenda- de –tax the rich– para poder financiar el gasto público. Y yo lo que veo es que en Colombia ha habido un poco más de reacción a la TMM, a diferencia en México. En México como que hay un silencio.  

Naty – Chile igual . . . nadie ha escuchado de la TMM . . . creo gente que ha estudiado fuera quizás . . .  es como que no hay nada de arraigo ¿Quizás cuando llegue el libro de Stephanie Kelton? No sé. 

Jesús – Ese es el elefante en la recámara.  Andrés menciona que en la parte de petróleo también está lo que es –los impuestos a los más ricos– y esa es la agenda, definitivamente. 

Naty – Si, 100% – impuestos a los super ricos–; cada día lo dicen. 

Andrés – Daniel, ¿cuál ha sido tu experiencia en la izquierda colombiana con estos puntos de finanzas sanas en el mismo grupo de camaradas ?

Daniel – Yo creo que no nos diferenciamos mucho. Acá, la izquierda suele ser muy conservadora. Y casi que es muy difícil para nosotros comprender algo distinto a que los gastos solo se pueden suplir con ingresos. Incluso, aquí hay un movimiento o hubo un movimiento muy fuerte en contra de la deuda pública. Todavía existe y yo he asistido a algunas de sus reuniones y la cultura de ellos es –No a la deuda, porque no.– 

Naty – Es el diablo. 

Daniel – Claro, es el diablo . . .–La deuda es mala porque es un mecanismo de sometimiento de los países del norte contra los países del sur– y puede ser cierto; yo no creo que sea tan tan tan lejano de la realidad. Pero te pone también en una posición política de que te niegas a que existe la deuda pública y que solamente el gasto público pueda financiarse con impuestos y una izquierda colombiana que está convencidisima de eso, convencida. Pero lo que dice Jesús es cierto, fijate que a través . . .  y esto ha sido muy importante  . . . lo digo así muy sinceramente– la Facultad de Ciencias Económicas de la Universidad Nacional, una universidad pública;  que se ha encontrado, digamos, que ha buscado, ese mecanismo de interlocución con lo que está pasando en otros lugares del mundo.  Es decir, existen otras formas.  Y fijate que esta carta que yo menciono, que hasta ya lleva la firma de algunos ciento o doscientos economistas en todo el país, gente que ha publicado; gente que está en la academia; gente que son profesores universitarios, diciendo – Hay otras maneras.– Y no solamente otras maneras de decir –Cobremos impuestos a los más ricos– o –Hagamos una reforma tributaria progresiva.– Claro, en Colombia es urgente la progresividad tributaria, pero no para encontrar recursos, sino para que haya una redistribución, porque realmente en Colombia los ricos no pagan impuestos. Entonces eso ha generado una concentración . . .  el GINI en Colombia antes de impuestos es igual después de impuestos. Entonces claro, ahí  hay un desbalance. Pero ese no es el problema fiscal en Colombia. El problema fiscal en Colombia es que el estado no está invirtiendo en lo que se debe invertir y que esa teoría de las finanzas sanas,  incluso no la creemos nosotros. Bueno, yo siento que el candidato presidencial Gustavo Petro lo ha entendido. Lo ha entendido a la forma en la que empezamos a entenderlos, los que empezamos a centrarnos en esto ¿verdad ? Que no es de forma inmediata, pero sí por lo menos empieza a decir –No le podemos tener miedo al déficit fiscal.– 

Naty –  Mi pregunta . . .  yo creo que habrá un poco mas de conocimiento quizás con esta propuesta de garantía de trabajo . . . no ha pasado todo el rato con el Green New Deal por ejemplo o Job Guarantee en EEUU . . .  igual hay gente que piensa que el Green New Deal y Job Guarantee van a venir de los impuestos, pero igual tener estas propuestas en la mente pública da un camino para abrir las ideas de TMM. 

Daniel – Así es. Y fijate que la principal pregunta en el debate de hoy es ¿Cómo piensas enfrentar la crisis? Y la respuesta fue que hay que emitir el banco central debe emitir y financiar al gobierno para generar empleo, para generar una renta, para reactivar la economía, un choque de demanda vía emisión. Y eso fue, en los medios de comunicación de Colombia  como si hubiera dicho una herejía. Los medios de comunicación, lo primero es que –Gustavo Petro propone imprimir dinero–  que es otra cosa a la que tenemos que enfrentar cuando hablamos de estas cosas. Porque tergiversar nuestras propuestas es demasiado fácil. Y en Colombia lo primero que hacen es confundir emisión con impresión de billetes. Los memes de Gustavo Petro;  está con impresor imprimiendo billetes; Venezuela, como Uds. ya saben. 

Naty – Cocaína. 

Daniel – Pero fijense en Colombia,  el año pasado el banco de la república emitió 40 billones de pesos; billones, mediante –quantitative easing–. Le dotó de liquidez a los bancos privados. Y entonces, eso lo hemos utilizado dentro del debate para decir a la gente –Fíjese que el problema no es la emisión. El problema no es la emisión. El problema es profundamente político.– Y creo que como decía Jesús, sí hemos avanzado en Colombia en dar ese debate. Tanto así que el director del doctorado de la Universidad Javeriana piensa que tiene que acudir a unos adjetivos;  a adjetivar debate, porque ha escalado en Colombia. Por lo menos en el plano académico, ha escalado. Y yo tengo la fé de que ese escalamiento nos va a llevar a un buen punto. 

Jesús – Para agregar quizás un poco, como que en Colombia se está dando la dinámica de cambiar el marco económico bajo el contexto adverso que todas las naciones estamos viviendo, especialmente las naciones como las nuestras. Aquí en México el año pasado empezaba a sentirse ya los efectos de la pandemia y de la crisis económica que llevaba  méxico arrastrando antes de la pandemia; esos economistas progresistas de la izquierda pedían que México aceptara una línea de crédito del Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo, o sea, deuda externa.  Entonces nada más para situar que tan perdida está ese segmento de izquierda en este aspecto. 

Naty – Que la deuda externa tiene una historia tan fuerte en Latinoamérica . 

Andrés – Pienso que es muy importante hacer esta diferencia porque hay mucha gente que con el miedo que le tiene a las deudas públicas, piensa que es lo mismo una deuda externa que una deuda pública doméstica. Y las mismas políticas de las finanzas sanas construyen una dependencia más fuerte de nuestros países en las deudas externas. Es el problema, que la misma izquierda no ha podido proponer una solución. Entonces por eso es que siempre están pensando que dependemos de la reserva de dólar  y que esto y lo otro, porque no hemos construido una estrategia que nos saca de esta mentalidad que el problema es la deuda externa.  El problema es que tenemos deuda en dólares. 

Daniel –  Fijate Andrés que nosotros también tenemos que despojarnos de algunas reticencias, ¿no ? Es decir, a nosotros nos dicen –inflación– y entonces, nosotros decimos –eh no, nosotros tampoco estamos por la inflación.–  Y es verdad. En la teoría  MMT no está proponiendo brotes inflacionarios. Pero en la práctica, los países, países como Colombia; en Colombia importamos hasta un tornillo. Tenemos que preocuparnos por ciertos asuntos.  Sin embargo, es otra batalla a la que no hay que tenerle miedo. Es decir, ¿cuánto inflación podemos permitirnos? o ¿ cuánto desempleo podemos permitirnos ? Es que, pareciera que en el mundo se murió la curva Philips; ya no existe. No, existe; y en los países como el nuestro existe. Pero podemos permitirnos un poco de inflación con tal de reducir el desempleo; esa es la paradoja y esa es la pregunta política porque es fundamentalmente político. O tenemos que tener unas muy pequeñas inflaciones sin importar cual sea la  tasa de desempleo.  En Colombia la tasa de desempleo está en 14,7 % y una inflación del 1 %. Las variaciones mensuales a veces son de cero; a veces hay deflación en Colombia. A veces pienso; y esto es una autocrítica, que de pronto debemos hacernos, qué cuando nos dicen –inflación– y decimos –No, no nos gusta la inflación, no nos gusta para nada la inflación.–  No, permitámonos un nivel de inflación, pero permitámonos también reducir el desempleo. Porque en Colombia los economistas ortodoxos dicen –es que la inflación es el peor impuesto para los pobres–. Y yo les digo –¿es peor que estar desempleado y en la pobreza y con hambre y en la miseria ? En serio?–  Y ahí hay un debate moral. 

Naty – Quería preguntar a Jesús que ha hablado harto con Fadhel Kaboub; que es como yo creo el economista de TMM más famoso en términos del sur, de países  con menos capacidad monetaria o también donde tienen que importar harto; porque no han desarrollado sus recursos de comida, o de energía, o tienen que exportar ¿Podrías hablar un poco de esos desafíos o esos límites de pensamiento estructurales, en términos de ser el ‘sur’ entre comillas?

Jesús – Bueno, desde que se instrumentaron las políticas de corte neoliberal a partir de la década de los ochenta, en México, lo que decían los técnicos es que la mejor política industrial es que no hubiera política industrial. Eso es lo que decían. Entonces, México, a lo largo de estos años, ha carecido de una política industrial que fortalezca el mercado interno, que fortalezca la estructura productiva nacional y por el contrario lo que se ha hecho es depender del exterior, depender de importar las específicas de los tratados de libre comercio en donde lo que México exporta son productos de muy poco valor agregada. 

Daniel – El petróleo también. 

Jesús – Exacto. Entonces México es, en términos de la industria manufacturera, una línea de ensamblaje, no tiene la capacidad para aportar ese valor agregado porque no se invierte en ciencia, en tecnología, innovación. Y a propósito de ciencia y tecnología e innovación, el gobierno eliminó recursos importantes en esas áreas. Entonces eso realmente va . . . si ya no tenemos política industrial y ahora con un débil sector de ciencia, tecnología e innovación, estamos debilitando el espectro de capacidad económica que tiene el país y eso nos va a generar muchos problemas al futuro;  depender del exterior para poder salir adelante. 

Andrés – Y después llega una pandemia y se colapsa toda la infraestructura. 

Jesús – Exactamente, sí; ese es otro tema, en donde además, obviamente de la mala planeación, de la corrupción, está el problema de la falta de recursos públicos para el mantenimiento de la infraestructura pública. 

Naty – Lo que pasó el otro día en DF, con el tren de metro. 

Jesús – Sí y la cuestión aquí fue que ya la gente llevaba tiempo advirtiendo de estos problemas. Entonces, hay resultados,  tanto a nivel federal; si hay recortes, hay austeridad, tanto a nivel estatal y municipal. Ahí se mencionaba que no había recortes a la línea del metro. Sin embargo, en la cuenta pública, de la recién publicada de las cuentas públicas,  ahí se ve que el metro de la Ciudad de México no se gastó lo que al inicio se había presupuestado. Entonces, una serie de errores; una serie de problemas que van desde la corrupción, la planeación, y desde luego; la austeridad, la política económica. 

Andrés – Entonces yo creo que hay dos puntos muy importantes de lo que dice Daniel, tanto como Jesús;   que como que nos conecta con la importancia y el aprendizaje que viene de MMT,  la TMM. Por un lado,  que la ortodoxia confunde la inflación con la hiperinflación y piensa que todo es lo mismo . . . como que si ahí crece la inflación por un por ciento, tenemos hiperinflación como . . . 

Daniel – Desastre.

Andrés – Como el desastre; estamos como Alemania antes de la segunda guerra mundial. 

Naty – Siempre, siempre hay Weimar.

Andrés – Exactamente, y diferenciar eso es muy importante  y ahí la teoría de la moneda moderna nos da enseñanzas para aprender, primero de todo, que nosotros argumentamos que no importa si Colombia o México no son las monedas reservas mundiales; siempre van a tener la capacidad de emitir su moneda en su país a los recursos que tienen domésticos, punto.  Eso es un hecho lógico. Y que los límites no son límites de encontrar el dinero o que vamos a sacar la plata; de donde va a salir, que se nos va a acabar todo, que hay que rifar un avión. Los límites son límites de a qué nivel puede ponerse problemática la inflación; pero eso no es un resultado de que existe mucho dinero en la economía, sino es un resultado de la capacidad productiva de un país, por un lado. Por un lado, la capacidad productiva de un país y si estamos usando más recursos de lo que tenemos. Pero en Colombia, como en México, tenemos una cantidad de gente desempleada y recursos que no estamos usando.  Y por otro lado, en nuestros países hay presiones inflacionarias que no tienen nada que ver con el gasto público y todo que ver con el poder privado, del sistema financiero  y de los monopolios, y las corporaciones que pueden poner precios donde ellos quieran porque tienen mucho poder sobre el mercado. Ahí también hay poderes inflacionarios. Entonces nosotros estamos hablando no del dinero como si fuera una cosa que tiene el valor, un pedacito de oro, que tiene cargado el valor y todos tenemos que ser ricos, como esos memes de gatos que están buscando la luz, que están corriendo, que tiene la luz y el gato está corriendo por todo el piso tratando de escapar la luz roja, y que nunca la puede porque no existe. De esa misma manera, la teoría de la TMM no ve el dinero como un pedacito de oro, como algo que captura el valor, sino que el dinero es una infraestructura institucional. Es una manera de organizar las deudas. Es una manera de movilizar capacidad productiva, es una manera de crear esas relaciones de gobernación;  que son tan importantes. Entonces por ese lado también, y esto es lo último que digo aquí ahora en la conversación,  es que nuestros países,  como decía Jesús y Daniel también, no han invertido en su capacidad productiva;  dependemos de inversión extranjera, dependemos  de dólares; y si no tenemos esos dólares, no tenemos economía. Entonces cada vez nos hundimos más y más en este hueco;  que nos dan préstamos el banco mundial o si un inversionista americano o europeo entra en su país y ellos se van cuando se quieren ir y nos dejan jodidos; eso es el sistema que tenemos ahorita;  eso crea pesos débiles;  eso está resultando en los problemas inflacionarios que podemos tener y el hecho de que no invertimos en la educación pública, en los sistemas de energía sostenible, en los sistemas de producción de comida justa, en estas cosas tan importante, en el empleo público;  eso es lo que nos tiene nostros como economías débiles. 

Naty – Necesitamos un Green New Deal Latino. 

Jesús – Para agregar un comentario, lo que dice Andres sobre la moneda; hace unos años, un ex asesor de la ahora presidente tenía la propuesta de quitar el peso y que adoptáramos el dólar como moneda. 

Daniel – Noo. 

Naty – Se ha ido muy bien para Ecuador, está buenísimo. 

Daniel – ¿ Pero es una persona de Morena ? 

Jesús – No, es un empresario. Otra propuesta era anclar el valor del peso a plata. 

Naty – Volvemos al futuro. Años 70, genial. 

Daniel – Fijate que en Colombia pasa algo curioso, porque como yo les decía, este debate está cogiendo fuerza, hay mucha gente ahora este debate, desde diversas perspectivas. A veces es un debate ilustrado o a veces simplemente se tergiversa sobre el mismo. Pero por lo menos la gente lo está hablando.  Y es muy chistoso que a estos economistas ortodoxos, un profesor de la universidad nacional les llama –economistas de la séptima–,un poco haciendo la alegoría, en EEUU – los economistas de agua dulce y los economistas de agua salada.– Bueno el trabajo ese es símil a la colombiana y les dicen –economistas de la séptima– porque sobre la carrera séptima en Bogotá están las facultades de los Andes, de la externada, de la Javeriana; que han sido muy ortodoxos históricamente. Y entonces decían, escogieron el libro de Stephanie Kelton y nos mostraron la página, – -Mire, aquí dice la señora Stephanie Kelton que en países como Colombia que importan mucho, nos decías no tiene ningún sentido.–  Y es muy chistoso porque son los que 30 años han llevado a Colombia a que el aparato industrial y el aparato productivo se deprima y ya que solamente Colombia produzca petróleo y cocaína, porque lo único que producimos hoy  es petróleo y cocaína y nos trajeron hasta acá. Y son tan descarados y quebraduras que nos dicen –es que fijate, no tenemos un sistema productivo como para que las ideas de MMT tengan un asiento en Colombia.–  En realidad, fijense que es una confesión,  de todo lo malo que han hecho, verdad ? Deprimieron el aparato productivo colombiano y por supuesto;  yo creo que me gusta mucho la idea de un Green New Deal Latinoamericano porque eso nos tiene que poner a pensar en cómo potenciamos el aparato productivo de nuestras sociedades; porque realmente si no lo tenemos, si seguimos importándolo todo, vamos a tener problemas. Y la integración latinoamericana; las cadenas de valor latinoamericanas, romper fronteras en ese sentido, podría ser una muy buena idea. Yo pienso algo así como la producción de litio en Bolivia, del gas, del cobre, de buscar, claro . . . esto tiene que tener una perspectiva climática, porque estamos en en el marco de una crisis climática, pero podemos incluso generar unas cadenas de valor latinoamericanas que nos permitan pensarnos en un Green New Deal Latino desde el sur. 

Andres – Daniel, ¿Ud.  piensa que la izquierda colombiana va en camino para, de verdad internalizar esta visión que aquí nos propone? 

Naty – Mañana. 

Andres – Mañana mismo. 

Daniel – Yo creo que estamos en un proceso. Mira, la verdad, como les decía ahora mismo, en la izquierda colombiana hay unas visiones muy conservadoras, pero siento que la campaña presidencial de Gustavo Petro está poniendo en el debate estas ideas. Y cuando se pone en el debate en el marco de una crisis, de una crisis, que por ejemplo el tipo sea capaz de decir, –emisión monetaria–, eso es un avance impresionante en una sociedad tan conservadora como la colombiana. Y fijate que él lo dice y ya  hay un montón de gente repitiéndolo, ¿no ? Hay un montón de gente diciendolo. A esto hay que ponerle un poquito mas de teoria, un poquito mas de fuerza, a estas ideas. Tenemos en el congreso de la república un proyecto de ley de trabajo garantizado y eso también incentiva el debate. Creo que vamos por un camino que sigue siendo un camino un poco inexplorado, pero empezamos a caminar, empezamos a andarlo, y eso ya es una garantía impresionante. Y lo otro, que a mi me hace ser optimista de lo que pasa en Colombia; es que no es simplemente una propuesta aislada, sino que la del candidato presidencial que hoy está liderando las encuestas, y eso quiere decir que tiene apoyo popular, y si tiene apoyo popular, podemos tener la posibilidad de echarlo adelante. Y de vencer, los primeros que hay que vencer es el conservadurismo de nuestros propios compañeros y amigos de la izquierda, que a veces suele ser los más difícil, pero yo creo que lo podemos lograr.  

Jesús – Y versa en nuestro caso, en el caso Mexicano, o sea los errores que ahora estamos pagando, es muy importante. 

Andrés – Estos economistas de la séptima me parecen más a mí como los economistas de garaje, como dicen por ahí. 

Daniel – Pero son los que gobiernan en Colombia, llevan treinta, cuarenta años gobernando. 

Andres – Jesús, ¿esperanzas para México, como lo ves ? 

Jesús – Yo creo muy difícilmente en el sexenio, en la actual administración, va a haber cambios. El gobierno ya ha claramente fijado su posición. Sin embargo, estamos siendo observados;  el mundo nos vigila. Estamos siendo observados, y bueno, parece ser que están volteando a la TMM. Incluso, me atrevo aquí mencionarlo, se han acercado a nosotros, al equipo de la MMT. De manera un poco tímida, pero se han acercado. 

Daniel – ¡Qué bueno ! En Colombia hay una parte de la izquierda que ve a Andres Manuel como un referente, y dicen, –Mira que no se monta en el avión presidencial–. La gran iniciativa de ellos, es decir, –Propongamos bajarles el sueldo al presidente y bajarles el sueldo a los congresistas, y ahí tendríamos recursos.–

Andrés – Sí, hubo un momento en el que yo veía al presidente Mujica de Uruguay viviendo en su casita y decía –Ah, eso es la izquierda.–

Naty ––¡Fuma marihuana y tiene una casa chica así que con Uruguay, todo está bien.–

Daniel – A Petro le ponían unas fotos porque tenía zapatos ferragamos y entonces era incoherente, una farsa,  usaba zapatos caros, mira, – ¿porque no anda descalzo si es de izquierda ?–

Andrés – Jesús, antes de esta grabación tu me hablabas de las iniciativas de justicia social, temas sociales y cosas así , ¿ves eso como un vehículo para integrar las ideas de la TMM en México con temas de la justicia social y cosas sociales ?   

Jesús – Sin duda, la TMM, en el caso Latinoamericano, específicamente  en el caso de México, tiene que ir de la mano con el aspecto social; en donde se busque platicar, dialogar con los grupos sociales que están viviendo dificultades específicas y considerarlas en las estrategias que se vayan a desarrollar. Entonces en México . . . tiene diferentes . . .   muchos países  y cada localidad tiene sus diferentes problemas; desde el tema de la seguridad, el tema del medioambiente  y el tema obviamente de la falta de oportunidades de empleo en donde las personas tienen que emigrar a EEUU para buscar mejores oportunidades laborales. Entonces la TMM tiene que aterrizarse, considerando esos aspectos y más por ejemplo,  un Green New Deal tendría fuerzas que consideran los aspectos sociales y sobre todo el marco también de seguridad que existe; la dinámica de la seguridad, en la economía, es fundamental. Y obviamente; en el caso de Colombia, definitivamente, sería algo semejante al de México, ¿no ? 

Andrés – Claro, en el caso de Colombia también creo que esta visión es fundamental, para la paz, ¿no ? Como en México, que se está viviendo violencia también; en nuestros países que han vivido tanta violencia con narcotráfico y también con falta de estabilidad social, programas de trabajo;  empleo público, inversión y  sostenibilidad;  todas estas cosas garantizan la paz de manera profunda y de manera que es sostenible ¿no ? a largo plazo. 

Naty – Sí. Y es la manera de salir de ser dominado por el imperio, ¿ cierto ? La manera de ganar al –imperio– entre comillas, no es importar aún más cada vez más. 

Andrés – En fin, amigos, los estados no son hogares; los estados tienen capacidad constitucional sobre sus propias monedas; los impuestos no son necesarios para la capacidad de gastar, son necesarios para otras cosas– para la desigualdad;  para no dejar que la riqueza se acumule de manera obscena. 

Naty – Para comprar revoluciones moleculares disipadas . . . 

Jesús – Necesitamos hacer rifas de los aviones . . . . 

Daniel – Bajar el salario de los congresistas . . . 

Andrés – Exactamente. 

Naty – Ya, muy buena conversación, gracias por venir y hablar. 

Daniel –  . . . Que exista gente muriéndose literalmente de hambre es una inmoralidad. Todos los estados pueden permitirse rescatar a sus ciudadanos y garantizar ciertos derechos. Que no se hagan no es porque no puedan;  por no tener recursos. Es porque hay poderes políticos detrás . . .  eso es simplemente político; eso no es económico. En lo económico;  está sobrediagnosticado, existen todo tipos de estudios y de teorías que demuestran que los estados pueden permitirse rescatar a sus ciudadanos.  Entonces es más moral y política que técnica.

Naty – Si, no es técnica. Yo creo que con Superstructure y Money on the Left es uno de los puntos más importantes; que queremos que TMM no sea solo como algo técnico, como ah –Mira, es solo ciencia.– Estas preguntas sociales son importantes para todo el mundo. 

Andrés – Para nosotros, todo los asuntos técnicos son asuntos sociales y asuntos políticos. 

Naty – Claro, que el binario también no es cierto.

Daniel – Le enseñan en la facultad de economía que existe una tasa natural de desempleo y es natural que exista. Mentira, eso es mentira.   

Naty – Todos los mini Friedmans de twitter – que van con sus monitos.  

Andrés – Según los ortodoxos, el desempleo es como la gravedad. Existe en la naturaleza, porque si. Y eso, como hemos estado hablando,  es algo que tenemos que rechazar profundamente como izquierda. 

Daniel – Es que cuando los libros de texto dicen –tasa NATURAL de desempleo–, ese –natural– hay que naturalizarlo ¿ no? Que es algo sobre lo cual no puedes pelear, no puedes controvertir. Es una gran farsa. 

Naty – Es la idea ¿ no? No quieren que vayan discutiendo estos temas; quieren que siga el neoliberalismo, la hegemonía del Banco Mundial, el FMI y con sus amigos de Harvard Business School . .. 

Andrés – La otra es la tarifa natural del interés; eso es la otra – natural rate of interest–

Daniel – Todo es natural. Cuando te estafan ellos,  es natural. 

Andrés – Si, exactamente. 

Naty – Ya, muy buena conversación, muchas gracias, perdon mi español a veces, llevo acá años y años  pero igual me molesta que no hable mejor. 

Daniel – Que chevere hablar con Uds y compartir. 

Andres – Escuchantes, gracias por estar aquí con nosotros en este episodio especial de Money on the Left and Superstructure. 

Naty –  Superestructura. 

Andrés – Nos veremos pronto, por favor siganos y si quieren escuchar más, tenemos un patreon y también les sugiero el trabajo que hace Daniel en Colombia, en  Colombia Humana, con el senador Wilson Arias y también Jesus Resendiz, en su columna de Milenio . . . 

Naty – ¿ Cómo se llaman en twitter ? 

Daniel – @DanielRMed de – Medellin–, pero –Med–

Jesús – El mio es @Tlacuachito. 

Andres – Perfecto, lo tendremos escrito también en twitter para que los puedan seguir. ¡Bueno, muchas gracias ! 

Jesús – Muchas gracias. 

Naty – Gracias. 

Daniel – Gracias a Uds, que estén bien, un placer.