Making Digital Public Spaces w/ MUSICat

This month Money on the Left is joined by the folks behind the MUSICat project, an online music streaming service for public libraries designed to share heterogenous local music with local community members. We speak with Preston Austin and Kelly Hiser from Rabble, the company behind MUSICat, as well as with Racquel (“Rocky”) Mann, who coordinates the MUSICat service with Edmontonians as Digital Initiatives Librarian for Edmonton Public Library

Launched by the Madison Public Library in 2014, MUSICat has since been adopted by public libraries, including in Pittsburgh, Nashville, Fort Worth, New Orleans, Edmonton and elsewhere. Artists who share music via MUSICat are paid for their work with library funding and are granted other substantial forms of support through the library system. 

MUSICat serves as an inspirational model for mobilizing public institutions and forms that can provision communities in diverse and locally sensitive ways. Exploring what we at Money on the Left have called a hermeneutics of provision, we affirm public libraries’ critical function as creative stewards and producers of regional public cultures. 

Special thanks to Edmonton artist Jill van Stanton for the album art used in our episode graphic. Thanks also to the Edmonton musicians, whose work is spread liberally throughout this episode. Featured tunes include: Shout Out Out Out Out, “Never the Same Way Twice”; Souljah Fyah, “8 Days of Summer”; Farhad Khosravi, “Escape”; Denim Daddies, “Roadrunner”; and The Tsunami Brothers, “Stink Bug.”

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

Transcript

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

William Saas: Rocky Mann and Preston Austin, welcome to Money on the Left.

Rocky Mann: Thank you. 

Preston Austin: Good to be here.

Rocky Mann: Great to be here.

William Saas: We’ve invited you on the show today to talk about your MUSICat project, which as we understand it, is an online music streaming service for public libraries. Which is an unconventional way for collecting, curating, and distributing music. Could you start off our conversation by telling us a little bit about yourselves and how you came to the MUSICat project and what the MUSICat project has become and where it might be going?

Preston Austin: Sure, I’ll start. I’m the co-founder of Rabble, a company that actually writes the MUSICat software. So I work as a web technology guy in Madison, Wisconsin and my history includes a lot of working with both higher ed and mid-tier media production for the web. So producing audio-video things that work on webpages, especially back when putting audio and video on a webpage was difficult and involved all sorts of plugins and browsers, we didn’t know how to do things. So I had a background in that tech and built a framework for doing things on web pages that was called “media landscape.”

And that mostly had to do with actual stuff like what we’re doing today recording meetings, or presentations to classrooms and producing multimedia from it. That led to me working in a startup that had to do with publishing music for people to consume music collections. And while I was working on that, word got around that I was the music guy for web pages for one of them in Madison, and a music librarian from Madison Public Library approached me and they wanted us to work on a project called the “Yahara Music Library.” 

And I said, “no, it was a cool idea. But I’m really, really busy.” But it remained a cool idea. And so over a period of about a year, I ended up talking to a guy, Hank, the music librarian from Madison. And eventually we said, “let’s do this” and built a prototype. This was based on Iowa City’s earlier music collection online. We built a prototype, and that became the Harlem music library. And that project involved a business partner who will be on the program later, Kelly Heiser, and that all formed a foundation. And we said, this is interesting. Libraries, in general, are going to be interested in this, this is not a one-off product, do you want to start a company to build a platform to make this thing practical? That platform is what became MUSICat. 

And that company has Rabble as the first library partner, and it was really formative. And working with us on that platform was Edmonton, thus the connection with Rocky.

Scott Ferguson: Can you give us a sense of the years here? When did these initial experiments take place? And when did you found the company?

Preston Austin: I’m terrible at this sort of thing. But, I think the initial conversations were happening in 2013, possibly as far back as late 2012. And I think we founded the company in 2014. It’s possible it was legally formed in 2015 as an entity. It was originally in a partnership with a startup that I was in at that time, but we purchased their interest in it. I exited that venture and became full-time focused on Rabble shortly thereafter. Within a few years, we were a completely independent venture. And so currently, Rabble is a company that’s closely held and slowly works with libraries. We have no external investors and we’re not a grantee of any foundation or anything like that.

Scott Ferguson: Rocky, you want to tell us about your background? 

Rocky Mann: Sure. I came to the project in 2016 as part of getting this new position with Edmonton Public Library, the Digital Public Spaces librarian. Prior to that, my background was in music. Before moving to Edmonton, I was pretty heavily involved in the music scene in Victoria on Vancouver Island. I was doing, you could call it “participatory video” or “participatory media,” community-based research with the UBC Okanagan with Indigenous communities on Vancouver Island and all over BC.

The concept of collaboratively built infrastructure online and how to share, distribute, and ensure authority and authenticity with communities when sharing content has always been something I’ve been very interested in and in working on. I started in this role in 2016, which was one year after we launched our collection with MUSICat. But this project with Edmonton Public Library started as part of an internship in 2013 with my predecessor, Alex Carruthers. 

She was looking at: what’s the digital public space? What are other libraries doing? And she came up with a really great trend-spotting report. And through community discussions and things like that, we identified that of all the different types of digital public spaces, people wanted something about music. We’re generally thought of as a blue-collar working-class city compared to Calgary–I don’t know if you should put this on!–Calgary is the Texas of Alberta and Edmonton’s the Austin. 

Scott Ferguson: That’s helpful.

Rocky Mann: We love our arts. Edmonton loves their arts: theater, music, the community is quite tight-knit. She embarked to do an environmental scan of what technology is out there. And from that process, she chose to work with Rabble because it was really important not to work with something that was proprietary. The fact that it was open source, the fact that it was community-based and collaborative, and we can work together to build it. 

Because things change, having that type of relationship was–from what I’ve read from her reports and in talking with her– a key factor. When I was onboarded, I remember the introduction from her and my supervisor, “oh, we’re gonna work with this tiny startup and there’s some challenges, but it’s really great.” I’ve loved every moment of it. And then in 2014, I think our initial feedback–and I wasn’t there yet– was from an “unconference” called YEG, which is our airport code. YEG Band Camp, where we brought in musicians, artists, nonprofits, all the businesses and people who are really active in our music community to talk about what they would like to see in a platform and initiative. So there’s the technology side and then how it branches out in real life. That fed into our early discussions with Rabble: What should this thing look like? What’s our community saying?

Scott Ferguson: That’s so fascinating for a number of reasons. I’m a media studies scholar, among other things. And very often, media studies scholars want to understand social and cultural change in terms of tech as disruptors. What I hear you saying is that, of course tech is playing a big role, but that actually culture and a culture of participation and aesthetic construction is side by side with tech. Could you speak a little bit more about that?

Rocky Mann: Sure. Coming from my background through Indigenous research methodology and the concepts of OCAP, which is ownership, control, access, and possession. Personally, those are really important. And my other portfolio is building an Indigenous digital public space. Similar in the way that we’re working to build it for indigenous content here, but I really see the music community and artists. 

The industry has a historical background that is quite exploitative in many regards. You could really describe artists, upcoming artists, or generally that group, as vulnerable in that sense. So the need to share, the need to be exposed, the need to get your creative works out there often supersedes protecting, ensuring that the standards of who you’re working with are ethical, of a high ethical standard. So my background was coming from that previous research background. 

And every step along the way Rabble’s values seemed to match my personal ones, and the library’s vision of being community-led, which is one of the appeals, foundational philosophies about how we deliver and develop programs, identify barriers, your community discussions, and then, with our communities, find a way to attend to those and reduce those gaps. So it’s a civic gap, participation in your creative community, in your profession, access to technology, access to being a creator and participating in our civic society.

William Saas: Let’s run with that. You mentioned the history of music as an industry, music publishing as having been, well, straight-up exploitative. MUSICat seems to be coming at music making and publication from a very different direction, which seems like it’s probably informed by critiques of some of the larger streaming platforms. How would you articulate your criticisms of the platforms that exist and have existed around music circulation and publication? And how is MUSICat different?

Preston Austin: Who wants to go first?

Rocky Mann: I think I’ll throw that to you.

Preston Austin: MUSICat’s thesis, Rabble’s thesis with MUSICat is that empowering public institutions to invest in artists and with artists together to invest in collecting is valuable, full stop. I want to start there, that the public investment in artists is a thing unto itself. And if you send an artist a $200 check to license their work into a library collection, on very clear terms that are artist-friendly, and leave them able to continue to use their work the way they want to, where they want to, this is a good thing to have done. Somebody gets 200 bucks, and that respects and supports them.

We wanted to build a way to focus on building value. Communities being able to build value and technology that is not disruptive technology really, it’s supportive technology. And I’m not trying to break up the dynamic of how people listen to music and create some new thing that changes the world and deflates the costs and disintermediate people, etc, etc. That gets a little frustrating. So we didn’t build it to compete with streaming services or to replace them or even really to contemplate them. We built it to complement them, we really built it with the idea in mind that it is its own thing. Public spaces for music, a concept that I wasn’t calling it then and had a different notion of before the work with Edmonton. But I really liked Alex Carruthers’ work and Kelly contributed to that. That was a good conceptualization, and we absorbed that value or more of those values. 

What we did is we said, let’s focus on this question of power, local control, local power, artists as real participants in the process, the library as a convener. What is appropriate within that in terms of technology? And what we did was, instead of building a leanback music experience that tries to create an adhesive listening, okay, you’re in there, and now you’re stuck to it. And you’re playing that playlist for a long, long, long time. And we’re trying to get everybody in the world’s music available to every listener in the world, and everybody’s going to pay eight bucks a month or something like that–I just picked that number out of the ether. 

And instead of creating that all to all process, which critically in its incentive structure means that whomever is collecting that money and paying for that streaming is trying to minimize the amount of those monthly revenues that go to the creation because they’re trying to get all the music in the world to all the listeners in the world and they want them listening all the time. So this structure is fundamentally minimizing the return to artists. We designed on the other side of it, we designed on maximizing the public’s ability to invest in their artists. 

And those artists’ ability to invest in their public via the collecting and the community formed around it. And it’s all via invitations, everything is understood upfront, the relationships are personal, the fact that the relationships happen in this public and safe space is important. 

So what’s my criticism of the streaming universe, which I think is what you’re actually asking me to do? It creates a world within which the technical intermediary or the licensing intermediary who licenses art from artists and licenses it to either listeners or downstream services, where those intermediaries’ motivation is to take a piece of that pie. And it does so in a way that really abstracts music into a commodity to be listened to that is valued primarily in terms of listening, and then it turns everything else in the musical community into something around that commodified listening. 

Here we’re saying “no, no, no.” The process of collective involvement in building this collection, building with the library, that these are all part of it. And we actually want the technology to be more part of it, we’re not as open as we want to be. We’re open-source to our library customers, but there’s not a distribution. And getting to that ethos of everyone being able to invest with everyone else around these local nuclei is what we want to do, in terms of the experience created, these collections, we call it “lean forward”, it’s a terminology that I’m not sure if I made it up or picked it up from somebody, but I haven’t been able to track it down. But you have “lean back” listening experiences, you hit a play button and music comes out forever. 

MUSICat and the library collections are leaning forward. It is a collection. It’s more like being in a listening room and being able to look at titles and pick one off the wall and play it on a fancy old-fashioned turntable there and interact with information about the artists, use it as a jumping off place to find their other material online. So we’re not trying to solve the problem of, how on earth would I get music into my ears right now? We’re trying to solve the problem of how would I become a participant in starting as a listener, but possibly in other ways, my local community, my local music community, and were can I make the technical supportive choice in doing that, where can I do that knowing that there aren’t money grabbing assholes, let’s say, in the middle. 

All of that said, it’s a long project, I think we’re about halfway there. So in the aggregate right now, of all the money that libraries spend on artists’ licensing direct to artists, plus Rabble MUSICat fees, money that comes to develop the software platform, we’re not on a very large base of libraries yet. And so the cost of maintaining the software platform is still quite high. When we started, we were probably getting actually two thirds of the funding, there were almost no libraries, and most of the money was going into developing software. 

We’re now at a point where maybe 55% or something in aggregate of the money is going directly to local artists from their local public library if you look at that combined budget. There’s other budgets.That doesn’t include internal budgets at the library and things like that, we’d like to be in a position where more than 80%, possibly 90% of the total spend, inclusive of platform costs, goes to artists, and that’s getting the technology part of it to where it’s just tech that different vendors can compete to do this sort of thing. And then it’s a fairly straightforward and deflated technical process. We’re a few years away from that goal.

Scott Ferguson: That’s so interesting. So can we talk about how, from an artist point of view, how does submission work? And then from a curatorial point of view, how does the review process work?

Preston Austin: Rocky, do you want to take this from the perspective of governing that process? Because from my perspective, it’s a little bit reductive. I can talk about our publishing chain, there’s the artist’s submission and a jury, but I feel like in terms of what it really means for the community, you speak to it better than I do.

Rocky Mann: So I’d say before the submissions, I think the jury and the curators and the terms of reference are the goals, criteria of the collection, which are word for word, but the criteria of the collection being something that a collection that is representing diversity in terms of demographics, genre, and contexts. And perspective, which really matches our Public Library’s collection policy anyway. It’s really important to have representation on the jury that can also speak to that diversity. The balance between ensuring that you have a quality collection, that is of value to be in for an artist. So you don’t accept everything because you need it to maintain a certain standard, but also something that captures all of our niche existences in our community. 

So, for example, when the initial jury came on, it wasn’t a call out to who was invited… members of the jury were nominated, basically, through discussions with the community. Who does the community respect, celebrate? Who does the community think can make really rich decisions on what music is important here and important to represent? So then we would invite those people that were named to those discussions, then what happens is, as submissions go through the years, and through holding open calls, each time we assessed the collection. What’s missing? What are the gaps, what do we have a lot of and what do we not have a lot of and why? 

For example, Edmonton has a very, very active and large indigenous population, and we weren’t seeing music from that community in the submissions. And there wasn’t really representation in our curators group. So reaching out actively to that community to find somebody who would be interested and also a really good fit. And then for the subsequent round, that curator or jury member, I know two different terms are used. We’ve always used jury, but we’re considering going to curator for our refresh in 2023. I’ll stick to the jury for the purposes of this discussion. I do really like “curator”, but there’s something about “jury” that’s exciting during this admissions process.

Scott Ferguson: I had no idea when I was using that word, “curatorial”, that I was walking into a minefield of semantic complications.

Preston Austin: It’s a nightmare, where we’re at right now, to the degree that we have an official line on it, the role is curator, which is both a public role and an internal role and the process and the group formed is jurying and the jury with respect to a round of submissions, that’s how…

Scott Ferguson: That makes a lot of sense.

Preston Austin: That’s how I try to clarify it. However, there’s a long history of discussion around this. And so that is far from normalized language across all of MUSICat. 

Scott Ferguson: Did you want to keep going?

Rocky Mann: Sure. I’ll save that other rant for later. Then those jury members or those curators are active in their community. So they’re reaching out and they’re connecting with other musicians and artists, and encouraging their submissions or just by being present. I think their presence can encourage groups to submit. So on that end, I think the representation and the participation in the community by each jury member is really significant for what it has an impact on what submissions that we receive. 

The submission process, we’ve been through a few practical iterations of it, I think initially, we were going for four times a year. So accepting 100 albums per year. And really quickly… There was one before I came on board, and I think 50 albums were added. There were some big celebration concerts in the city. It was really exciting. And then, after going through that process, I did the next one and realized, well, it takes three months to prep our marketing and communications department to be sending out the message encouraging people, notifying people that the call is open, then it takes a month for that submissions period to be open, then it takes a month or two, depending on the support needed by the jury or lives are busy to select. 

And there’s also always like, Oh, this album or this track didn’t upload. So there’s always technical support needed. So another month, maybe a month and a half for the jury to go through the submission, then another month to support artists who have been invited to the collection, and uploading their submission, uploading their album, creating their profiles, and then another month or two, to celebrate the new additions to the collection. So that’s a six-month process. So I think now, our model is once a year, and to have up to that full amount. So 100 albums a year is what our collections budget has been set aside for. 

Which I’ll say, too, in the submissions, what I really love about Edmonton Public Library’s model– is they have permanently integrated the budget for new albums through capital city records into our regular collections management and access budget. So it’s not with digital initiatives, my department, which is always exploring new technologies. And some things live for a long time, some things fade out, it’s with our permanent collections budget, just like any other type of collection that we have, physical or digital, which I very much appreciate. So it does give that sense of commitment and sustainability. 

With artists’ admissions, too, I do a lot of active work on the ground, we really want it to be inviting. So I’m part of, I don’t know, 20 local music community Facebook groups, I’m going to events, I’m talking to people and making sure that everybody who might be interested is aware, I keep a list of artists who email me through the year with inquiries and I make sure to add them to this list of those who wish to be notified every time something happens just so things don’t get lost in the very overwhelming fear of internet and communications. So it is a very supportive thing. 

If a submission isn’t quite working, or I’ll reach out personally to say, “hey, your track, the quality isn’t so good. Do you have another one?” I would not like to see somebody not be recommended because of a technical barrier, for example.

Scott Ferguson: Is the basic unit of submission an album? That’s what I thought I heard you saying or can a band submit a song or a few tracks?

Preston Austin: Let me speak to what’s possible first, and then the library-ality maybe. So the submit form, the initial process entry point into the technical layer of publishing is a short form and it gathers very basic metadata. And metadata is going to come up later probably in the conversation because it’s so important. But we gather very basic metadata; the album title, or the work in question, the artist’s name separately from the act, so the name of the individual versus the act, which are often not the same, some very basic high-level genre information. 

And then the library administering the collection has control of additional meta information that they might want and ensure and process. And what that includes is how many tracks that are going to collect. So they could collect just one or they could collect many if they want to make many tracks available. And that does vary across collections. So some libraries, for example, they only collect albums, they have minimums and how many tracks they want. And they want to see three tracks presented to the jury so that they can make a judgment across that. So that’s like a very high investment, both for the submitting artist and for the jury in terms of how much is involved there. 

We try to remember all that later, so that nobody ever has to redo any of that data entry, or uploading. But they can also ask other questions. So if they just want to ask a question of the artists they can, and two questions that have become standardized, and I think these actually didn’t both come from Edmonton, but I can’t remember right now where they came from the two questions that have become standardized are basically where have you been playing out? And then how would you describe your connection to the musical community? And so they were these two long-form questions in the submission that are basically like, tell us why you are connected locally. So that’s the technical layer of the process. And that produces a package that you get many, many, many pending submissions that the jury can work with.

Scott Ferguson: That’s so fascinating. I was thinking about comparing that process to what used to be the process of getting verified on Twitter. Which is like, show us your numbers, show us your raw numbers … this is totally different: write us some, give us some language about how you’re connected to the community. It’s so different.

Preston Austin: Sorry, go ahead.

Rocky Mann: I was just gonna say, it’s really important not to restrict what it means to be part of a music community. So our criteria we asked for, I think we have a field for a postal code, but it’s a greater Edmonton region. So it can be you either are born here, produce your album here, or have significant activity within the community here. So we want it to be local, it must be local somehow. But there is always room for that gray area for that one-off or that person who is really important, or that group that is really important to this community, based on their description, so we don’t want it to be a hard line of territory or region.

William Saas: Rocky, when you were talking about the process for soliciting submissions, it sounds to me a lot like canvassing, political canvassing. And the community organizing that you’re doing resembles workplace organizing. A couple of questions. One is: did your background that you were describing before, coming to the Edmonton Public Library, seem to entail some of that organizing work? How did that inform your approach to the submission process? Was it a one-to-one? What’s different about it? And then also, as you’re doing this work, I wonder how often local political community issues come into the conversation? And do you see potential within this territorial juried process, the community music community building that you’re doing there? Is it just inevitably also a political project?

Rocky Mann: It’s interesting the words you select. I would say that it’s more outreach. There is an organization part. But the public library, Edmonton Public Library, first and foremost, is really about outreach. So before this role at EPL, I was a community librarian. Basically, my job is to drive around, look at what’s there, and talk to people. So I might drive by a building and see a sign. Some group or organization that I’ve never heard of that might not even have a website or be in the phonebook. And I’ll try to connect to see what, what they’re up to. 

And the question of, what are you up to? What are your goals? What are your visions? And how can the library support you? So what are the barriers to doing what you want to do in this community and for yourself? And then from those, from that “discovery interview” to use traditional library terms, we try to find ways the library can support. Versus I would say, and I think the platform supports this as well, because it’s collaboratively developed, this community based feedback. We bring that to Preston and Glen, and try to see it technically applied in that in a technical way, how can that technology support that need? 

So we take what they’re saying… This is opposite, I think, of a corporate model where a business says “we’ve built this amazing thing. Now, you should probably want to use it and this is how you can use it.” That, to me, is very like if you build it, they will come where the focus is on the company or the product versus the process. My background is really, process is just as important as product. When I’m reaching out during the submissions process. I’m trying to build a relationship. Everything is about relationships. 

Everything is about trust. I think Capital City Records and the MUSICat platform is the foundation of a safe place for sharing creative works, not just for the artists, but also there’s a gap of access for our Edmontonians, for example, and the world to access local content. A lot of this stuff may exist elsewhere on Bandcamp, or SoundCloud, or other things, but to be part of this collection, that is recognized by the library that is seen as this something that has value in that sense. There’s almost that, for lack of a better word, there’s an authority there, people trust the library, people know that there is very, very strong values, ethics process behind selection, and a historical commitment to intellectual freedom and things like that in a way that, there’s a lot of hot debate around those subjects as well.

And there will never be a clear answer. But the library is the appropriate place for those decisions to be made, as I’ve discussed before. So how do I recruit, how does that all work into it? Relationships are of the utmost importance, whether it’s an individual or group, making people aware of what’s available, but in that talking to people to learn what they need, and then feeding that into creating something available. So it’s ground up that way. And that’s powerful. It’s wonderful, I can reach out to an artist I maybe connected with once and it’s always a pleasant interaction.

I see them in my community on the ground, I really see the technology in the platform as the foundation for that. It’s the foundation for education, artists’ education, artists’ awareness, organizing around it, connecting people in real life on the ground, building those communities between artists and the rest of Edmonton and celebrating the culture and identity here, which in turn, those strong communities helps for that mutual support. That identity of what we are historically and now is really important to this global divide in places. I know it’s so strong between political views, you talked a lot about politics. 

The politics that are thereI hope that this project can help curb that socio-economic gap between access to equitable distribution sharing and representation through the technology and the initiative. But it’s also about taking the politics out in a way that’s about–it’s first and foremost, the people and their works, and the perspective that might encompass politics, but it’s never neutral. But we strive for equity. Long-winded answer.

William Saas: Solidarity maybe?

Rocky Mann: Solidarity and strengthening community access, it excites me so much. And I know the biggest needs because I constantly get feedback. I’ll tell you how the artists really influenced two parts of the submissions process and how we do things, but I constantly get feedback and ask for feedback. What do they need now? What is of interest? So music business industry education, embedding metadata, we could get into that, too.

There’s so many overwhelming aspects to participating in these creative new industries that really important things like having proper metadata to protect your creative works is something I don’t think most artists know how to do or really are informed about. And so there’s that and even in our honorariums, I would say originally, I got some feedback being like, “hey, I’m an experimental artist and my album is two tracks and 40 minutes long.” 

But we have tiers for honorariums. You asked before, can people submit one song or is it albums? It’s not just one track. We don’t have submissions for if you have a single, although I was just asked about this, and maybe that needs to change because singles are a very important thing these days. Maybe that’s a future discussion. But it is an EP, so originally, it was three tracks as an EP and above six tracks is an album and 12 or 10 plus gets the highest honorarium because we do want to attribute work somebody who’s invested in an album-length work, we want to compensate them for that contribution for maybe for an EP length or something. But we were doing by number of tracks, and that really wasn’t equitable. 

So, upon that comment, I further reached out. I did a survey of all 300 artists. Tell me about your work. Tell me about what you consider. So now it’s an either or. So if you’re out and I based it on LP length, so a 7 inch how many minutes of music can that hold? 10 inch how many minutes of that and an LP–12 inch–how many minutes? And everybody agreed, that seems fair. So now the honorariums are based on either this amount of minutes, or this many tracks, because a punk or country album, which might have 12 short songs, but still be 15 minutes long.

Like my album is a full album, but it’s not as long as other genres. So out of all my creation trends, genres, and these works was all through those conversations, and then they result in our submissions process. And how we compensate. Two rants.

Scott Ferguson: Can you discuss a specific example of how artist participation changed the tech?

Preston Austin: Sure. There’s really a bunch. I’m trying to think of some that are odd and core to it. My mind is still on this question of album lengths right now. So which has ended up by the way being a constant area of work? So we’ve revisited again and again and again and again and again. So I think a key area where artist feedback changed the tech that I want to talk about in terms of responsiveness and the fact that this is a public platform and stuff like that. We’re in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, or not, depending on who you ask. But if you’re asking me, it’s still going on. 

And at the beginning of that, we had a situation where everybody whose work was not considered a societal priority, and whose work depended on getting a bunch of people in little venues and rooms together just went away, all over the place. And so, we saw this situation where people who wait tables and artists who play in the venues where people who wait tables, and artists who play in small venues and cities and venues themselves, and we’re all just saying, “oh, we used to do things, and now we sit around at home, and this is ruining us. What should we do about that?” 

There was push-back in a lot of spaces that were non-commercial, to say, “okay, how can we support each other?” So our libraries, we’re hearing from artists, a little bit of, “hey, basically can we do more to link out to places where we can generate revenue?” And so our reaction to that was twofold at Rabble… actually threefold, we did three things. One, we put up a product, which actually I need to take down on the webpage because we can’t afford it anymore. But we put up the product which we said, okay, for the duration of the pandemic, if you will support your local artists, if you have a budget for artists, we will bring up your MUSICat collection rate. And we actually still have one, I’m not going to say who because I don’t like to reveal who’s paying and who has not. 

But we have a city that actually does not pay anything for MUSICat for a major urban market because they wanted to support their artists. And we said “fine, we won’t charge you anything, get a budget worked out when you can when there’s money.” That was one thing we did. Another thing we did though, and this is changing platform in reaction to artists, we added the ability for participating libraries who want to do it to offer their artists the ability to put up links to peer-to-peer payment platforms as part of the artists page that did not exist as a feature. And we just straightforwardly said, if people want to be able to jump off to give the artists money, we’re going to make that an aspect of the artist page. 

So somebody in Rocky’s role can turn a feature like that on or off and an artist can opt into it. And if they want to put in links to things like CashApp, or Venmo, or Paypal or whatnot, we recognize those and offer those links on the page. And that was just one of the ways people are supporting each other during this pandemic, artists in particular are being hit hard by these, small local artists are being hit harder than artists in general, we’re just going to do this. So that’s a durable change to the technology that was just completely in response to that. And then the final thing we did is for two or three months as a company, we put down all of our work at MUSICat completely. 

We built a separate platform for people to simply give money to local servers at restaurants. So we just built something called tipyourserver.org. We built it around a simple spreadsheet driven product that somebody named Emil Wimmer had built, which was cool, we thought that’s awesome. Let’s build a way for people to just give money to people during this pandemic, who were working at restaurants who they normally tip. I don’t think by the way that there should be a tipped minimum wage, I don’t think anybody should be paid in tips. I think that that’s all crazy. But that’s the reality of the world. And we knew there were social relationships there that would support people. So we built tipyourserver.org, which basically leveraged the same approach. Let people say what restaurant they worked for in what city and then jump off to a Venmo, or CashApp or whatever. And we don’t track things in a way that would allow me to know who does what. We’re very anti-surveillance. 

But we did do a little bit of basic logging of how much that got used. And we did some analysis of some of that use from users. Basically, these platforms helped early in the pandemic move, tens of thousands of dollars a week at the scale of a city like Madison into the hands of people who needed the money to buy groceries. So these are reactions in technology. I’ve gone a little afield maybe from when we’ve started. But I think it’s an important aspect of where we’re at and how we’re trying to react to library values. We work with libraries. When the pandemic came, libraries dropped everything in order to become local support institutions for their communities, because they have a public mission. And so they do what’s important if they can, they don’t… this gets to Rocky’s point. They’re not trying to sell their product, they’re trying to react to their community needs. We have to do that, too. So that’s what we tried to do in that case.

Scott Ferguson: So we had a question that I think the language was spin “spin off projects.” But I almost feel like that question is wrongheaded. Because from your answers, it’s clear that the tech and the community and creating values and it’s all related, and everything spills into everything. This is as much about streaming local music as it is about local outreach as it is about supporting people during a pandemic who are restaurant workers. 

But I guess maybe to ask this question in a slightly different way. Clearly, this is a project that goes beyond just a streaming service. Rocky referenced a concert that had happened. What kinds of other projects that are music based, have spilled out of this music streaming project?

Rocky Mann: A lot, so many. I guess I’ll start. Concerts were always part of the goal. And also part of that community building aspect. We started with concerts, every open round we’d have a concert and then there was this thing we were seeing that Capital City Record artists were really excited to be in Capital City Records together and wanted to put on their own Capital City Records events. 

Which is usually they’re hosted by the library or a partnership with an organization or, or venue or something. So that was really cool to see.

William Saas: When you say “in Capital City Records,” do you have a physical space in addition to the catalog?

Rocky Mann: We do. We have a theater and a stage in our downtown library. I think our initial concerts were held in the park beside one of our other libraries, but also in other local venues. It’s really important to be supportive. Those music venues. And those local businesses aside from nonprofits and organizations are the heart of our music community. And especially during the pandemic that was really tough on our venues, who are the most… they’re really actually our pubs and our bars, who put on live music are really trying to be identified as culture hubs versus pubs or bars for funding and other reasons for their contributions. 

So we like to work with those groups, those businesses as well. Concerts can happen anywhere. We started partnering with festivals to have a Capital City Record stage where if you showed your library card, which is free, you could have free access to the Capital City Record stage, because a barrier to participating in local culture is access to music, festivals and events. All our events are free. We don’t charge for anything when it comes to the community accessing Capital City Records work or events. So concerts were one. And they really spread the gamut of what kinds of events are shared.

Sometimes we just support another group if they want to use Capital City Records artists, so we’ll recommend and we’ll make that relationship connection for them as well. The second thing was a podcast with our local radio station here, CKOA Songs of the Week, which was so cool, because it was starting to connect other local celebrities with the collections. So they come and pick their favorite artists or track, and there’d be a five minute mini-podcast about why they love it. We’ve had the mayor on there. It could be anyone. So that was really great. We had two seasons of the podcast. So it was a partnership. 

The technology when Rabble created the playlist, so getting other record stores or local music enthusiasts to also share their picks and playlists just like in other aspects of the library. We have people give book lists and things like that. So that was really important, Matt has been really great for little projects. Then, there’s the Posters Archive Collection, that was a side project or not a side that was always built in. It’s something that I really hope to have the resources to expand. 

I love that as a piece to the site. So I know in Alex’s notes from that original report and transcending that it’s not… There’s the contemporary music collection, which is the submissions process, but it was really important that the platform also celebrate Edmonton local music history, as well. So it’s not just what are the albums in the last five years or that a part of submission? It’s what’s the history that feeds into what makes the community today. So the Gig Posters Archive is part of that. 

Then we had a group of protest, the community group called Legends of Edmonton Music Scene Society, who have probably spent thousands of hours passionately collecting information and media about Edmonton music life. So it started off from the Shoebox Radio Show where Pete The Rocker was interviewing local legends. It’s quite amazing. He’s very passionate about it. These legends are here right now and he wants to celebrate them and make sure that they have a name and he will cry. 

He has a lot of emotion talking about it because it is important. It’s important to those artists themselves, their families, and the community. It’s been a long… It’s an intensive process, but immediately Rabble said, “okay, let’s build a showcase.” We need something on there that can offer the opportunity for libraries to build other types of collections. There’s five categories, musicians, bands, venues, media (media is really important for a thriving music community). Who are those players in media who have really boosted artists in the past? And what are their stories? Builders. So who’s the music community builder that’s a category in the Legends of Edmonton Music Scene Society collection. 

We’re trying to support a volunteer-run group to build a really beautiful collection, celebrating Edmonton music history, with old archive radio shows and other things. That’s another not side project, but that has come from those relationships and that has also fed into new aspects of the technology and platform. And there’s music videos, the video feature that Rabble implemented, we were getting requests to showcase music videos or other projects in the community, there was one called Northern Sessions or the Dead Venues Documentary that was all about our historical venues. So I think originally, we made a separate page that was linked in to MUSICat. 

But then they built it right in. So now it’s part of the product. It’s part of the platform, which is awesome. And now it’s being used in so many different ways by all the libraries who use MUSICat. So I love going on to all the different libraries that are using the platform and seeing what they’re doing with these features and what their other projects are. Because the ways that you can use the technology are endless. There’s so many ways you can represent the community. Aside from the album and submissions collection, then one of the more excited ones was… I think we’re maybe the first public library to press a vinyl compilation. 

So we’ve been building as makerspaces. And making becomes part of a lot of public library services, as it’s seen as another type of literacy and route for civic participation. We built living recording studios, we’ve had them for a long time. And when our downtown library was going into renovations and revitalizing it, we really set up and so we were doing fundraising. It was part of a fundraiser for these new recording studios that are complete and in full use. Very beautiful. But also it was from one of our members on the City Council at the time, who was very passionate about the arts community and he said let’s press a record and I said “well, that’s my idea, too.” 

Councilor Scott McKeen was really wonderful on that. So he just rallied, helped us rally a bunch of players. We had somebody who was an expert in working with visual artists to help us with the artwork. Long story short, Edmonton Arts Council also came on board to fund it. We had a separate jury onboard of very… they didn’t have to be in Edmonton, we had Cadence Weapon from Edmonton, but like a huge mentor and celebrated artists here in Canada, on the jury, so we had a separate jury, we invited artists to really submit tracks previously unreleased in physical format, because again, we didn’t want to limit the ability for artists to be sharing through this long year, wait a whole year for this album to be pressed before they could continue on with their business. So that was awesome. 

We worked with the radio station to curate the record once the submissions were selected. Everything was local, we had a local press here, press the vinyl. The artwork was from a muralist from Edmonton. So that was a really exciting project, you can see the artwork from behind me.

William Saas: I’ve been admiring most of the entire show, our conversations… that’s awesome.

Rocky Mann: There’s… she calls them easter eggs that are inside jokes and the music community you can find in the artwork. But I’ll say that through that process, the feedback from that project was, it’s so expensive, some artists, there was such a range of people present on there like Juno Award winners, and people who maybe recorded that track in the basement, who would never be able to access or afford to have at that time, their music pressed on wax. So it was just really exciting. 

And a challenge to make a compilation across genres. We have the north side because Edmonton is split by a river and there’s a joke of like the north side of the south side. So all of it really celebrates the city. So we’ve pressed a record, we’re hoping to do a volume two. We’ve also had projects during the pandemic through Capital City Records for virtual concerts. So we were holding interactive people on Valentine’s Day and other concerts and streaming them in hospital wards and long-term care facilities where the artist would share messages from between loved ones. So we were making connections between those artists and different kinds of community groups. 

Which led to another realization that not everybody can attend a physical concert I have to say a positive thing came out, the platform and these spin off quote “spin-off” projects that come out of it help us realize other barriers that music lovers and music makers face in connecting their art with local art and culture. And that was one. So we’re continuing to do those even if live venues are open again.

William Saas: How long have you been doing the MUSICat project? That sounds like 10 years.

Rocky Mann: That’s how I started in 2016. Oh, and we started a physical collection of CDs, which is interesting.

William Saas: Amazing.

Rocky Mann: So hoping to represent physical works from the digital collection, alongside local authors and things like that. But, 7… 6 years. And now we’re partnering with the Juno Award. So I’m hoping that can become a thing, too. We’re talking about a song… a music expert, or musician residents like the local poet laureate. So that’s very new. I don’t know where that will go. 

But it’s something that the education artists education and support through the initiative, all founded through the platform and the technology that is the base for all of these other things. It opens up so many opportunities to bring people together. And I think that’s why we determined a digital public space, is because this technology is so deeply entwined into all the ways that we can connect and support artists and Edmontonians. That was a long rant, but there is so much.

Scott Ferguson: Beautiful, it was so beautiful. This is all just so glorious. I think it’s wonderful. Maybe we can have a bit of a meta-conversation about what else we want to get on record. So we’re holding maybe some of the technical discussion for when Kelly arrived. Do we want to do some of that? Preston?

Preston Austin: I’m absolutely happy to. Kelly started this project as the representative. She was doing a public humanities fellowship during her PhD in musicology at University of Wisconsin Madison, she went to work at the library during that and built in the way that a super high-end intern can do moving freely in an institution built the foundations of a few things. One of them was everything internal to make possible the collaboration. So we’re one week into that process of working with her and I go talk to one of my business partners, and I’m like, “wow, like this Kelly Heiser person, holy shit. Is she good at absolutely everything?” So she’s getting her PhD in musicology. 

But she’ll be like, “well, how does the tech work on this?” Then two days later, she comes back, and she’s gone and read StackOverflow, or whatever. It’s not magic work. But she just puts in the work and brings it back and is unafraid to try things. And so I think we were probably less than a month into this collaboration with Madison, when I was like there’s gotta be a way I can work with Kelly in the future on something. I don’t want this to end with this fellowship. And so that’s a little bit of a history of how they came to be Rabble. And I think actually, when she first invited us, when we first said to her, “hey, do you want to start a company or something like that?” 

I actually think that is much like with the art music library project. I mean, I’m pretty sure the answer was no. And I was like, well, I won’t bother. But then opportunity opened up. So as a musicologist and as a scholar and as a participant from the library side, initially, she brought an abundance of theory to this. A thoughtfulness around sound, we can talk for two hours about sound. What is sound? Kelly and I used to go on at great length about how annoying it is to deal with people in technology who are obsessed with fidelity, with linearity, with the reproduction of objectively perfect sound. What the hell does that even mean? I’m not going to do that on your program.

Scott Ferguson: Oh, please.

Preston Austin: Not without Kelly. I have somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about and conversation. Otherwise, I’ll go too far out of land of some bullshit exposition on a topic. So anyway, there’s no aspect of the history of building Rabble MUSICat that I’m not also a party to. It’s just worth understanding that she founded this company, and I worked for her during the period of time prior to and the first few years of Rocky’s work in Edmonton and the establishment of the core values and all of this. There’s never a point at which that’s not under Kelly’s leadership. And I just think that’s important. And there’s Kelly!

Scott Ferguson: There’s Kelly!

Preston Austin: I have invoked her into the conversation. I was singing your phrases here.

Kelly Hiser: I know I missed you. It’s been way too long. 

Rocky Mann: Preston just said that you just miss the good five minutes…

William Saas: It was as though his job was to introduce you before giving an amazing talk. So you’re up.

Scott Ferguson: No pressure.

Preston Austin: No pressure, Kelly. I’m pretty sure that I just said that you can do anything at all.

Scott Ferguson: We’ve taken quite the tour, all around MUSICat. But we’d like you to talk a little bit about the initial challenges with the technology and what the design process was about, especially initially, and then Preston has suggested that because of your musicology background, you have some things to say about music theory or music fidelity or non-fidelity.

William Saas: What is sound? 

Scott Ferguson: What is sound? You take this, however, wherever you want to take it.

Kelly Hiser: In terms of thinking about sound from a more philosophical standpoint, I have always had this stance that being an audiophile is more about status than any real quality in music. So I was always… just make it work, I don’t care. As long as it… once you get to a certain point, people will say they can tell the difference between different levels of fidelity. But in most cases, that’s just not how people are actually using music in their lives. 

And it just ultimately, that’s not what these collections were about at all to me. They are more about building community demonstrating the value of music in a community. And I don’t think the value of that music is in any way tied up with some technological fidelity to sound quality.

Preston Austin: Agreed. That said, the sound quality is perfect. I can speak a little bit to some of this, too. So one of the things that was a question basically, is what formats are accepted. And so what we targeted was making it basically anything. And we encourage these days artists to upload WAV for 4.1 kilohertz 16-bit so that they have a baseline standard that is equivalent to what was used to offer CDs. When you run into all the problems and talk about dynamic range, and loudness, and compressing everything into the upper end of that, artists are going to do what artists are going to do. But if they have mastered tracks in WAV, we’ll use them. But there are other people who are doing their entire workflow in mp3 tools, and they want to upload an mp3 and we’re not going to be like, “oh, it’s 120 kilobit mp3 that you made five years before the first collection was done, and we’re not going to take it because that’s not master quality or whatever.” F that. 

Kelly Hiser: That’s a good point, too, because those differences are very much tied up in genre and race. Fidelity to some audio quality can be a white male status symbol. And a lot of the time when folks are creating stuff in mp3, it’s Black musicians who are working in their local hip hop scene. So another reason to really question audio quality as a marker of value or goodness.

Rocky Mann: I’ll agree and I’ll just say even when on that vinyl record, even on wax, which is “oh gosh, you must have spent $10,000 to get a master to sound good enough for a pressing,” we had such a range of file types, compression, quality. They all sound great somewhere like basement recordings and submitted on mp3. And they sound equally good on wax as they do on the platform. So that to just follow up on what Kelly said.

Kelly Hiser: Rocky, I’m sorry, I have to take a tangent. I have that print of the vinyl hanging in the entryway of my house downstairs. It’s framed. The exact same thing is right underneath me before.

William Saas: Are copies still available? Now I feel like I want in. Can people outside of Edmonton get a hold of it?

Rocky Mann: You can just email me after. We can mail one.

William Saas: Well, I was gonna say, we could also put it in the show notes and invite listeners, if that’s something that you have copies to sell. Awesome. I’m definitely intrigued.

Preston Austin: I need to get in on that as well. So we were going to make our poster that you sent us as a gift for Mark Bracken, who was one of the interface developers who was instrumental in your first submission round. Mark Bracken killed himself to make it possible for Edmonton to get through the jury process. We were literally writing every interface a couple of days. And Kelly was presiding over that process. 

And I was making sure that the servers worked. And Mark, we were going to frame your poster, put a little plaque on it, a little brass plaque. And so it was a framing shop when the pandemic hit. And between one thing and another, it has been lost to the world of framing. So if I can get another poster, that would be great. I want to but I still want to give Mark that gift if I can.

Rocky Mann: No we can get that. I’d have to say that’s another example. We wanted to do this thing, we needed a different type of submission process, we needed the technology to work differently than the regular round. And again, something was created that could support what we need to do. 

Kelly Hiser: And that goes to that question about what was the design process like? Preston says I can do anything. I had zero tech, or UX, or product management experience when I came into the role. And really what I did instinctively, and what was Preston’s philosophy as well from the beginning, was we just worked incredibly closely with our library partners, so that the design process was really working with them and not for them. 

We talk a lot about designing with, not for and that was really what we did. We had librarians in our GitHub repo actually in the code with us checking things out and testing stuff as we went. And it was… there were no mocks, there were no requirements, it was very messy and chaotic. It was a chaotic collaboration among a couple of really talented developers who put in a lot of backbreaking hours for us, which I have sworn I will never ask another developer to do again, if at all possible, because it was not fun for him. 

But he cared about the work and believed in it. And we all did. So I can’t speak to there being some actual process, it was very much more just let’s have some meetings and put some basic requirements together and have Mark go off and build a thing and just keep that circle going.

Rocky Mann: And then I’ll show it to you. So that’s the thing, it opens and then it was even on color, which was a whole thing.

Scott Ferguson: That’s awesome.

William Saas: Blue vinyl.

Rocky Mann: It’s so pretty.

Kelly Hiser: It’s really pretty. It’s really good, too. It’s such a good album.

William Saas: So Rocky, I imagine in the context of Edmonton, the pitch to artists is pretty easy now, after you’ve done this work for over six years and built this community out. I’m wondering, for newer or aspiring libraries who would like to join the network and become part of and have MUSICat. What does the early pitch look like? How do you get artists involved? Is it the honorarium? Is that what you lead with? Or do you lead with the mission of MUSICat and the mission of the platform and the sense of community? You have all of that in Edmonton. And I think that it would be implied in your approach, or at least you could point to it. But in places where that’s not established yet what does the pitch look like to artists to join the network? 

Rocky Mann: To artists… Because there’s a pitch to artists, there’s a pitch to libraries. And there’s a pitch internally to continue. So I’d say to artists, the honorarium is part of what I call this is a safe space of integrity. This is so aside from just sharing music, there’s so much more to part of it. It’s supporting their career, their civic participation, as we say. So all these aspects to be in this archive collection to have… Preston and I were talking last night about the Marc Record, what it means. 

What it means to have a historical authority that applies to your work, so it’ll be discoverable. And as a snapshot of a place in time, and a culture in time, historically is so important. It’s very different than the… I will say it here, but in a sense, it’s part of a community question. It’s something that we talk a lot with the university and there are researchers there and how can we make this something of value into the future to long beyond, which gets into other interesting conversations about forms of technology, how people might want to be not identified the same way, all through history all through time, moving forward, but the value for artists, one, what I call a safe space, that means a lot, it means a supportive space, that means something that strives for an ethical standard. 

Strives from a different agenda, it comes from a different agenda, that they know that we might not always be fluid will be changing. A $200 honorarium is a lot for some people. And maybe for other people, it isn’t so much. If we could pay more we’d love to, but that being paid something to share your work, instead of having to pay or having to have something cut out of your work. Just the idea of that is really meaningful. Then there’s the opportunities on the ground, and not opportunities in the way, if you join us, a corporate mentality, something that’s trying to sell a product might communicate, there’s so much opportunity if you join our organization, or our business or our thing, it’s not like that, it’s let’s connect you. 

There’s other people who have similar interests as you and there’s other knowledge out there in our local community that is exciting. So, that’s the piece. I have a whole paper right or document right here, we come back all the time with quotes from artists and for example, say the Denim Daddies, who are a local country group, I’ve written letters of support for grants they’re applying for. I help with some of those quality files, I’ll help share knowledge. And then if I know another artist, then I’ll connect them to that artist who might have that knowledge to share. 

So that’s part of it. I think it’s the community and being attached to the library, for all the value the library has in society is what’s meaningful. So they say, “the Denim Daddies are excited to be part of this unique project that connects Edmonton talented artists with the library community. It gives the public access to local musicians whom they may not have heard, and gives them an accessible way of discovering artists from Edmonton. DCR is writing an ongoing history of Edmonton’s ever growing and always talented community.” So I think in that quote, it’s the greater importance in place of a public library including accessibility, not just for artists, but for music lovers and for those who need to connect to local culture.

Scott Ferguson: So to close us out, I wanted to explore with you all, a federal policy proposal that we at Money on the Left are very much advocate for, is the Federal Job Guarantee. This would essentially guarantee everyone who is willing and able a public service job to participate in their community, whether it’s in the arts or working in any number of communal senses, and one of the reasons we’re so inspired by your project, is that it seems you’re already doing the work that we imagine would be done across scales, and would be guaranteed by federal spending through a Job Guarantee.

So we were wondering if you feel like your experience in doing what you do… Well, we’re sure that you have things to teach us who are advocates for the Job Guarantee. But what might a Job Guarantee program of public service employment mean to you all and what you do?

Preston Austin: I can speak a little bit to this, or maybe a lot, but I don’t have time. So I assume when you’re talking about looking at this as a federal policy proposal that you’re basically talking about Sandy Darity and Derek Hamilton’s version of this concept.

Scott Ferguson: There are multiple versions of it. And we are in solidarity with…

Preston Austin: Okay, sure, fair enough. So that’s the recent discourse that I’m familiar with. So one of the things I want to say is that, if we’re going to use an Employment Guarantee as a way of creating economic security and economic justice, one of the questions I have is where does being an artist stand in public employment? Is it a public value that can be funded from a public budget? And I think that building a skeleton towards that, with material payments and relationships between public entities that act as a qualifying enterprise for eligibility, and that build the relationships along which funds can flow, I think is important. 

And I think that while it is not… it prefigures something very thinly. But I also don’t want to overstate what’s happening here, like getting a single $200 check from your Public Library is where a $300 check is great, respectful and material. And that’s what we want it to be respectful and material, straightforward, artist friendly terms upfront, no bullshit. But we don’t want to pretend that this is lots and lots of money. Not right now. However, we do want it to actually become lots and lots of money. 

So we’re trying to validate direct public funding of artists’ work. And I think that connecting the throughline from there to direct public funding of lots of people’s endeavors in a Job Guarantee program is not that hard to draw. So I’d like to see that become $200 a month for the duration of work on the collection. And I’d like to see it become more than that. I’d like there to see fellowships within this where artists are really a city’s artists and residents are one of a collection of and then that group gets expanded over time.

This is really, really important. And again our philosophy is not, “hey, let’s find a valuable work.” Our philosophy is “let’s invest in the valuable activity of people producing art and working with very local public institutions to collect and celebrate and share that.” So that’s what I’d like to see funded, I don’t want to construct an increased purchase of your work, I’m not particularly interested in metering or something like that. Instead, it’s increased support for the activity of those who produce these valued local works. I’ll stop there.

Kelly Hiser: I can hop in, too, and just say that I think when you’re imagining other possibilities than the ones we live in, it’s great to have big theoretical frameworks. But it’s also crucial to have real work happening within the cracks of the system. And I think that’s what we’ve been able to do really successfully. I think we heard a lot of doubt about how you can do this with the way copyright is and the way libraries are constructed. And we just pushed and we’re able to create a model that’s been replicable in a lot of different kinds of communities. 

I agree with Preston, we don’t want to pretend that we’re revolutionizing the world, but at the same same time, this is a radically different prospect than the commercial music industry. And it’s one crack in the fortress.

Rocky Mann: What really hits home for when you said validate direct public funding of artists’ work, I can see that happening. I just have never really thought about it that way. For example writers and authors and books are really the traditional content in a public library. So we have a writers-in-residence program, they get paid for a year to be a writer-in-residence. And now, as I mentioned earlier, especially now that we have recording studios and other things, other aspects, and it’s become recognized that this content is also important in cultural content, that the library is a really valid and important piece of our collections. 

And how do we represent that? So a music expert, or musician, or songwriter-in-residence is on the table. Same with the fact that a lot of the artists who… that validation piece, I know artists in the collection who’ve been able to get CVC spotlight, national spotlight, funding or have gotten big awards through being through… I think it’s supported, I’m not gonna say directly influenced, but I will say that being part of this collection or that validation by a public, not just institution, because CCR is funded here in Canada by residential taxes. 

So basically, that image in public libraries, saying that the community who is paying taxes has determined that this is a value to them. So that money from the pockets of the community is supporting those artists’ work. And being in the collection is indirectly saying to these other ways that an artist can survive and make money and continue to subsist that our civic community has identified that this is of value, and therefore programs are being created that can allow them to maybe make some of a living by what you said… I don’t know… I think the education piece and the whole licensing royalties here is so different than the states. 

But to me, that’s a huge part. When artists come in, some are aware, some don’t know how to properly also receive royalties. And we have several complicated CMOs and PROs. But that’s a piece that we can help with. So that can also play into that income to subsist and continue to provide the public service of culture production and connection.

Preston Austin: Real quick, I want to expand on a point that Rocky made if there’s time. So one of the things Rocky mentioned earlier in the conversation was Marc Records. So Marc Records, M-A-R-C Records are basically catalog card digital records. So if you imagine your old school card catalog with a little… So one of the things we do that feels like a dry library world concern is we export Marc Records of the collection was actually a big hassle. It’s hard to do. And libraries have different standards for it. And we thought it was really important. And the reason why is because for a lot of these works locally, it’s the first cyclical existence of the work and possibly the act, the artist as a band that they can point out that goes into durable institutional memory. 

And I don’t know quite how to tie this together. But I think that this is one of these things that connects to the value that leads to flows of money as is like existing to institutions, as a record, in a good way… Is really, really important and not trivially accessible and being citable isn’t just an academic concern. It’s a validation for all sorts of things. And collectively, it’s the validation that allows things to be counted. 

So for example, Austin Public Library, when they take artists off the collection after the period that they’ve licensed their work for, they’ve ended up using the features that we helped write with Rocky that Legends of Edmonton Music is based on the showcase feature, to keep the artists represented as one of the people who built this collection by making a showcase record for them so they’re no longer an artist page because that’s connected to the published album and that’s not fair after three years. 

They keep 300 albums at a time on the collection. But that showcase page again, it’s part of keeping excitability alive and acknowledging contribution and respecting in a way that has more permanence and I think that that’s going to, as this goes forward, play more and more a role both individually and collectively and why it matters to artists.

William Saas: Well, Rocky Mann, Kelly Heiser, Preston Austin, thank you so much for your excellent, amazing, tremendous work on this. I think revolutionary technology MUSICat and thank you so much for joining us on Money on the Left, it’s been really amazing talking to you. 

Rocky Mann: Thank you.

Scott Ferguson: We did it! Amazing.

William Saas: That was so fun.

Scott Ferguson: Thank you so much. Wow. So I know Billy has a hard out.

William Saas: Gonna get a hard knock on the door here in a second.

Scott Ferguson: But we want to talk about securing permission for using the art in our art… we also and we were talking to Preston before about this. Rocky if you could potentially secure permission to use some clips from local music.

William Saas: Gotta be The Denim Daddies… gotta be.

Scott Ferguson: And we can splice them in as interludes throughout our conversation if that’s possible and we’ll just be in an email contact with you about that.

William Saas: This is awesome. I hope we can talk more in the future. Bye, guys.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Mercedes Ohlen (transcription), & Emily Reynolds of The Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art (graphic art)

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

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)

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.

Cloudmoney with Brett Scott


Brett Scott joins Money on the Left to discuss his recently published book Cloudmoney: Cash, Cards, Crypto, and the War for our Wallets (Harper-Collins 2022). A committed advocate for financial heterodoxy, Scott grounds his perspicuous critique of “cloudmoney”–the conjoined efforts and outcomes of Big Finance and Big Tech’s drive to go “cashless”– in his anthropological training and work as financial derivatives trader in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis.

Through our conversation we explore the possibilities and limitations of different metaphoric frameworks for understanding money, paying special attention to the pitfalls of figuring money as blood-like fluidity. Scott’s own comparison of financial operations with the functioning of the central nervous system prompts further discussion of the temporal and physical realities of modern money. We also discuss how awareness of the principles of monetary design clarifies the need for physical cash and the perils of privatized and surveilled forms of digital money.

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.

William Saas: Brett Scott, welcome to Money on the Left.

Brett Scott: Good to be here. Thanks for having me on.

William Saas: It’s wonderful to have you. It’s been a long time coming. Last time we saw you was at the first international MMT conference at UMKC in 2017. And before that you worked in finance and had been writing about money and crypto for a while. Could you share a bit about how you ended up at that MMT conference and maybe catch us up on what you’ve been up to since then? 

Brett Scott: Sure thing. It’s actually quite a funny story about how I ended up at the conference. I was invited to another conference in Delft in the Netherlands. It was called Reinventing Money. And it was run by these… I want to say quite libertarian Dutch monetary reformers. And I don’t know how much time you guys have spent in the Netherlands scene, but there’s actually quite a long tradition of this quite conservative monetary reform people there. And I think the Netherlands in general has this vibe, which is… it’s one of the first capitalist trading nations. So it has this long tradition of liberal economic thinkers. 

And anyway, I ended up at this conference, one of these Dutch managed monetary reform people, some of whom were quite right-wing. Quite like “gold bug” types. And I ended up on this stage and I was super jet lagged. I had very low blood sugar, partly because I’d actually been blocked from buying a Coca-Cola from this cashless vending machine that refused to take my card. So I decided to start talking about this on stage. But how this machine had stopped me from engaging in a market transaction. And so I kind of ranted on the stage. And right in the front row was Stephanie Kelton, who had also been invited to this since the first time, I guess, she had seen me and then we spoke over dinner. And then she said, “hey, come to this event that we’re doing”. And that’s how I ended up at the MMT conference. It was great. That’s a really cool event.

William Saas: So how’d you end up in the Netherlands at that conference, talking to the “gold bugs” and sharing your market grievances?

Brett Scott: Yeah, so actually in monetary reform circles, there’s a bunch of different traditions, as I’m sure you guys have come across. A lot of the anti-fractional reserve banking, sometimes an anti-credit creation of money people like that sort of one tradition and monetary reform. And so I think that’s quite a sort of strong tradition in the Netherlands. There’s groups like ons geld, which campaign against banks being able to create money. And so I think that Netherlands scene I was… I had new people in that scene, and also new people in the crypto scene. So there’s also this kind of crossover between the anti-bank creation of money, people with this sort of crypto currency, Bitcoin people. 

So yeah, the guys who got me there are kind of in the middle of that world. And actually, the guys who arranged the conference had tried to start the first full reserve bank in the Netherlands. And we’ve kind of, I think it failed, it hadn’t managed to get a banking license, but there was quite an interesting effort. They were trying to create this fully backed bank. They also made a board game about the evils of bank creation of money. So it’s quite an interesting scene. And actually, I remember actually once going into the MMT conference, and some of those anti-fractional reserve people turned up at the MMT conference as well. And so there’s an interesting political dynamic between the MMT movement and the sort of… what would you call those? What do you call those guys? Like the sort of…

Scott Ferguson: Positive Money?

William Saas: Positive Money? 

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, although they’ve… certain Positive Money groups have really changed, I think in relationship to the MMT movement. 

Brett Scott: Yeah.

Scott Ferguson: So I don’t want to blanket call them all the….

Brett Scott: You know, I knew Ben Dyson, who started Positive Money in the UK. [He] sort of then moved away from it and actually became a central bank digital currency researcher at the Bank of England. But, Positive Money has always had this kind of interesting dynamic in the UK where it actually was trying to position itself as a left-wing monetary reform group, but would often attract these people from the sort of political right. You had these conspiracy theories about the banking sector. And I know Fran, who is still the director of Positive Money has always had this trying to sort of distance herself or distance the organization from the more right-wing elements that often crowd around monetary reform.

 But, that’s what partly what makes monetary reform quite an interesting area politically is it actually does attract these different ideological groups who sense that there’s something in the monetary system that needs to be addressed. Yeah, I guess I kind of span between these. But I’ve noticed over the years, there’s been more sort of Positive Money type of community getting into MMT is getting more on board with it.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, that we’ve definitely noticed that as well. So we brought you here today, we invited you here to speak with us about your new book, which is titled Cloud Money: Cash Cards, Crypto, and the War for our Wallets, which is just out last month with Harper Collins. But before this book came out, you published a regular newsletter that was called Altered States of Monetary Consciousness. And you, even before that, were blogging about finance. And I guess, just to kind of frame our conversation, we’re wondering if you could talk to us about, really, how did you come to be thinking about money and publishing about money and advocating in these various kinds of circles? And how has your approach or your rhetorical strategies changed over time?

Brett Scott: Sure, there’s a lot I could say there, actually. The kind of broad brushstrokes of my trajectory, as it was, I have a background in Anthropology and History. But also quite left-wing politics. And I decided to do this experiment. Well, let’s say adventure. I like to call it an adventure, where the side I’ll go into the financial sector and sort of explore it. Or perhaps embody it. I like to experience things with my… to feel the emotions of things. And so I went, in the midst of the financial crisis, I went and worked in this derivatives brokerage. And so for a while, I was actually involved in high finance and over the counter swap contracts. So basically exotic derivatives in the midst of the financial crisis. But coming from this left-wing political background, and that made… it was quite an interesting experience, learned a lot of stuff about the high finance world. 

But also realized how little people knew about the monetary system in high finance, often because you don’t actually need to know anything about the monetary system, often when you’re working in very specialized finance. And after that experience, I went and I wrote a book for activists, which is called The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money, which is basically a sort of simple guide to finance for people who had some intuitive concerns. And people, for example, got involved in the “Occupy” movements, I was actually asked to write it in the wake of the “Occupy” movements. And you know, that was kind of published by a small left wing press, Pluto Press, a London based publisher. 

And since then, I worked in lots of financial reform campaigns and these other types of financial activism, you might call it, but also got involved in alternative finance, which is thinking about alternative currencies, alternative banking, and so on. But fast forward, you know, into the present day, I also got heavily involved in looking at the intersection between tech and finance, big tech and finance. And my newsletter, which is what you mentioned, Altered States of Mandatory Consciousness, I actually started that amidst the pandemic. 

And it’s still going on, it’s temporarily been paused. Because my book right now, Cloud Money… my new book is taking up lots of my time. But yeah, Altered States of Monetary Consciousness, the basic idea was, I was tired of writing. I’d written for many journalism outlets, or big media publications and so on, but I always find them quite constrained. And what I can say in those publications, they always want some sort of… you have to attach everything to the news, and you have to spin everything in a certain type of way. And what I was actually more interested in was writing for an audience who was more interested in sort of meditating upon the monetary system without having to have it attached to current events.

 And the newsletter basically enables me to do that. And one of the big things I was trying to do in the newsletter is to help people visualize systems that are invisible. Sometimes by literally trying to draw them. And sometimes by using metaphor, because metaphor is seen as a kind of like visual technique, in a way, it’s like you have an invisible system. So, you create a visible metaphor, that person can picture in their mind as a way to sort of help them to grasp this otherwise intangible type of thing. And the monetary system in the financial sector more generally, often very hard to conceptualize, which often is why people feel so alienated. 

And so I’m very highly motivated to do the newsletter precisely because I’m interested in, how can you kind of de-alienate, help people to sort of feel these systems more, picture them more, and then, from that perspective, be able to perhaps do more effective action on them? But if nothing else, just be able to understand their position in the economy better.

William Saas: Subscriber to your newsletter, here. I’ve appreciated it for multiple reasons, but one in a kind of academic and pedagogical sense as somebody who teaches and thinks about rhetoric, it’s, what you’re describing is a project of teaching, through different and adaptive, rhetorical strategies. And I think that that’s part of what has drawn me in and I think lots of others, to the MMT project, which is the insistence on… there’s almost a kind of resistance to metaphor. I mean, it never really works. 

There’s always metaphors running throughout the financial system, and the way that people are thinking about things, but the creation of concepts and systems that are deliberately resistant to popular understanding, esoteric, and so the process of translating that stuff and making it apparent like that bringing before the eyes making visible the structures and systems.

Brett Scott: And metaphors are quite… I find metaphor very fascinating, because it’s also quite dangerous. There’s limitations to metaphors. And what I’m often doing in the newsletters is experimenting to see how certain metaphors work and where they fail as well. And with the monetary system this always becomes an interesting task. So actually, talking about MMT, I did a piece, which was called MMT is a Language of Ants, Not Squirrels. And I was talking about how you got to understand the worldview of a squirrel is like, you’re racing around trying to find acorns. And this is the kind of like, sort of “money user” mentality. The person who experiences money just manifesting in front of them and trying to grab it.

Scott Ferguson: It’s very Lockean. 

Brett Scott: Versus the experience of the actual oak tree or these ants who issue these acorns, and actually want them to spread. And I like this metaphor, to some extent. It kind of shows us the dynamic between users and issuers, but then it has all these other limitations to it. So, in my book, Cloud Money, I’m using a variety of different metaphors, but it’s always like, trying to sequence metaphors together in the right order and not let them clash with each other, is always an interesting artform.

William Saas: But there can be something telling or instructive or constructive about mixing metaphors in a way that you might mix chemicals and see what happens. Some kind of reaction to it. So you mentioned the squirrels and the ants. Is what we find in Cloud Money, sort of representative of your best efforts and successes in this sort of metaphor, experimentation that you’re doing in the newsletter? Or do you feel like you might have hit upon something new that you could share with us now?

Brett Scott: Well, Cloud Money has a very particular agenda. I’m talking about the politics of the states or government cash system versus the commercial bank, digital money systems, and what it’s focused on and the crypto world. It doesn’t necessarily go super deep into some of the more… just more generalized understanding of money, perhaps. So in my newsletter I want to do is these deep dives. And I know you’ve probably seen these nervous system metaphors I use. So, my editors in Cloud Money, I had these whole sections, but I’m just trying to do this huge, like nervous system metaphors for the monetary system. 

And they cut it down quite a lot. Because it’s an I can go into the metaphors but… I think Cloud Money has some great metaphors, but it doesn’t have my entire repertoire. I think I’d like to do another book where I go way, way deeper into some of the kind of different approaches to understanding monetary systems, and particularly this nervous system metaphor I’d like to build upon.

Scott Ferguson: So maybe we can pause here and give you an opportunity to talk about the key contrast of metaphors that you put in the beginning of the book. And that’s the blood metaphor, which is very, very old. You can find that in Hobbes. And then this nervous system metaphor and understanding that no metaphor is perfect, and that you are always experimenting with metaphor. What is that contrast help you argue and help you make visible for the reader of Cloud Money

Brett Scott: Sure, yeah. So at a deep level for monetary systems, in general, I’m using this metaphor of money as a nervous system, rather than a circulatory system. So in many typical economics discourse, there’s this idea of the financial system as some kind of circulatory system, money is blood. And actually, when I used to work in finance, you’d actually find many financiers had the self image of the financial sector as a kind of heart of the economy. So it’s like then they’ll say things like, “without us, these industries wouldn’t wouldn’t get funding, they wouldn’t get the lifeblood that they need to live as it were”. So there’s lots of this idea that money itself has some kind of substance of value that sort of pumps around, and I’m not claiming to be some expert on the human circulatory system.

 But you have this idea of these little blood cells that carry nutrients or carry things to tissues and you can have the same sort of metaphoric understanding of money. This idea of money is somehow carrying value to people. This is the very typical sort of what I often call a commodity orientation to money, it’s sort of like the imagination of money as some kind of mystical substance of value that flows around. Which he finds very typical in many… basically, I’d say the mainstream economics is very typical. 

Implicitly, it’s the underlying kind of mental model of monetary systems. Then I think that blood metaphor is deeply flawed, because in my worldview, nothing can actually, I would say… in the MMT worldview, as well, but more generally, in people who understand the concept of money as credit. It’s understood the actual underlying value and an economy, the underlying sort of substance, as it were, resides in human beings and the natural ecosystem. This is what all economies are is human beings applying themselves to the earth, and building things. And that’s where your value it.

 And it’s not like, the unit of money is carrying that around somehow. But what units of the monetary system is often doing is activating people and particularly people who are locked into very large scale into interdependent meshes. And so if you sort of zoom out, the nervous system metaphor is much more accurate in the sense that nervous impulses activate tissues. But if I’ve been rock climbing all day, and my arms are exhausted and I’ve basically just totally pumped out my arms, no amount of me sending impulses to my arms is going to make them work. And this is like quite a useful thing to be thinking about sort of monetary systems. If you’ve just maxed out the actual labor and resources, new economy, no amount of like issuing money is going to sort of make them work. 

But if you haven’t, if you have a bunch of sort of excess capacity or the sort of underlying substance, you actually can. I think nervous system as the metaphor is good. And also particularly for the financial sector, when you start to think about large scale financial institutions, what they often are doing is… I kind of think about them as a sort of motor cortex. So again, I’m not like a neuroscience expert, but very crude terms, the motor cortex is the part of your brain that translates thoughts into action. So I think, “I want to move my arm” and the motor cortex will translate that into action. I think the financial sector can often be thought about that. 

We’re doing large scale financing of big projects, you’re kind of activating 1000s of workers into action. And those workers are what creates the thing, but the financial sector is able to sort of coordinate that action. And this sort of turns the financial narrative on its head to some extent. It’s not like those workers are unable to… the source of value comes from those work. That’s not from the financial sector. But certainly in an interdependent economy where you’re dependent on money, the financial sector has the ability to activate them. That’s basically the metaphor. And I don’t know how well I explained it. But that’s kind of it.

William Saas: I think it’s great. And it calls to mind, there’s a particularly grisly metaphor that’s sort of in the ether right now around inflation. And it recalls the actions of Paul Volcker and the Volcker shock in the early 80s, as breaking the back of inflation. I don’t know how considerate that metaphor is, but they talk about it as thinking, will Jay Powell now break the back of inflation, just like Paul Volcker? But in a way I don’t think it’s thoughtful in the way that you’re thinking, but it lines up nicely with what you’re talking about. What are they talking about in breaking the back of inflation? They’re talking about deactivating all these circuits and modes of action.

Brett Scott: I mean, I think this sort of stuff becomes very important. I haven’t necessarily thought huge amounts about inflation metaphor. But, certainly, for example, one of the things you’ll find in the commodity imagination of money, this is where you’re imagining money is somehow metaphorically carrying stuff with it. A lot of the inflation scare mongering stuff imagines it almost evaporating out of space. You have this idea that it’s almost a gas leaking out into the atmosphere, some other money is disappearing, it’s floating away. So again, it carries the implicit underlying idea that somehow something is inside the money itself that’s escaping. And it’s not thinking about the full sort of circuitry of an actual interdependent network, where all the actual value lies in human beings. 

So this is very partial descriptions of complex systems. And this is often how you do scaremongering or misinformation around what’s going on. I mean, you see this all over and monetary systems, it’s a big, big thing. During another completely different example, during Brexit in the UK, there was all this kind of scaremongering with them saying, “now we’re spending all this money on the EU”. It’s almost like they had this idea that money was sort of evaporating away or floating away, like some substance. And this idea is well, what do you get for that thing? These are complex systems with these multi-directional flows. It’s not like you just find these singular… 

Yeah, I haven’t explained it very well. But I think there’s a huge amount of this very partial sighted descriptions of monetary systems. And often what I’m interested in doing is showing people like the interconnections and interdependent nature of monetary systems.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, the blood metaphor. There’s a version of blood speak here too that sees money as hemorrhaging. Which is such a misleading way of understanding. Like we hemorrhage money and we hemorrhage jobs and free trade contracts or whatever. I think of Ross Perot you know, on the campaign trail, and these are like you know NAFTA might be a problem, but it’s not because of hemorrhaging. It’s not because of this unstoppable outflow. 

Brett Scott: Another fascinating one and monetary speak is when people talk about money going into things, for example, when people say huge amounts of money are going into the crypto market and…

Scott Ferguson: They’re getting pumped.

Brett Scott: They’re getting pumped into the crypto market and I’m like… So what are you saying? Because this is quite bizarre because you’re basically handing money to somebody else to buy a token from them, but now it’s exiting. So, this is a very strange idea that somehow it gets captured inside something rather than it’s within an interdependent system that’s moving around all the time. So we had this very strange partial vision idea, you know modern economics is full of this kind of bizarre sort of partial vision on monetary systems.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah I really appreciate your reflexive experimental approach to metaphors and money because it is so taken for granted and it’s a constant challenge. I think we find and you know we often need to appeal to physical things and physical perceptible entities that we can that we can understand, but they very often run us in all these problematic directions.

William Saas: We start to forget that they are metaphors. That’s part of the reason why you can tell the success of a metaphor, by how few people actually recognize it as one.

Brett Scott: Yeah. I think those machines are made to sort of show a Keynesianism that’ll be like water wheels, and… have you guys seen those machines that they use?

Scott Furguson: Yes.

Brett Scott: Who’s the guy who designed that? But that’s all water metaphors for money and weirdly, the Bank of England has also used water metaphors which isn’t actually that far from the…

William Saas: Filling the tub. 

Brett Scott: Blood metaphors. And again, it’s a useful… it’s an easy kind of one, but it carries with it the oldest dangerous sort of commodity imagery for me.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah it’s so fascinating just to kind of keep going down this path. You’ll find those metaphors even in MMT as a popular explanatory strategy. I believe it’s this guy who writes into the pen name JD Alt. Who created all these diagrams of these bathtubs being filled up with you know fiscal spending. I think there are deep limits to those metaphors, but it just goes to show that you can tweak liquid metaphors and they can have a different valence. Even if I would say that I don’t really like them, they’re certainly a lot better than mainstream economics or the financial sector.

Brett Scott: ​I’ve also used them. Actually that’s my concern about my MMT article that I did about squirrels and ants was precisely… it was somewhat acorns it was just commodity imagery. So I’m dealing with these things that have an actual inherent sort of… and I know that I say this in the article, this is the limitation of this… can show you the difference between an issuer and the person who is a user of money, but it will give you the wrong… give you a commodity metaphor of money at the same time, so that’s that’s a kind of trade off on that metaphor.

William Saas: When you’re also with the ants too, there’s the whole… the rest of the baggage of the narrative of the story…of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit and all that stuff. Okay, so if the ants are… where are they in the cosmos of the Lord of the Rings universe relative to others?

Brett Scott: We should start a mandatory metaphor school or something.

William Saas: I think so! Or at least we have a publishing space on our website, if you want to riff or whatever, but what I like too is that… so talking about breaking it down to there’s a circulatory system which is ultimately a fluid metaphor, that that can be talked about in sort of bathtub terms, as I think JD Alt does, but what we get with the nervous system is another kind of physical system in electricity. And neurons and impulses and things like that, that are coordination at a distance almost simultaneously as possible in a way that the physical water fluid metaphor there’s a slowness to it. One of the things– talking about metaphors– I gotta shout out Scott’s when we’re talking about the central nervous system.

 We were writing about University currency system, and he talked about the Fed as a “choreographer of credit” in one of the things that we wrote together. And it strikes me as like there’s all sorts of modes of performance available if we think about the system as a set, a nervous system there’s clumsy coordination and then there’s fluid coordination, choreography.

Brett Scott: One of the reasons why I call my newsletter Altered States of Monetary Consciousness is that it has multiple meanings. On the one hand, it could just mean helping people think differently about money. But actually, it is sort of deeper meaning when you go into that sort of more nervous system metaphor. I’m actually literally thinking about manifests as a type of planetary level consciousness. An actual sort of… one of the big things many people intuit about, if you have to imagine the economic system as a kind of super organism, that we’re all connected together and an interdependent mass. In a sense we are the body of the economy. And then the sort of monetary systems, are sort of embedded in that as a kind of nervous system. 

And then the financial system, you can almost think about as more a central part of the nervous system is able to activate stuff. And if you think about critiques of the financial sector, often one of the biggest critiques is how sort of numb it is to its body, as it were, if you think about the superorganism concept. During the financial crisis, you’ll find this extreme disconnection between the actions of the financial sector and the reality of what’s happening on the ground. 

So if you sort of think about this metaphor, seriously designed to think about literally, how kind of like disassociated the sort of system is, and then if you think about alternatives, you start with thinking about how do you make the monetary system more responsive to the reality of its actual… the underlying body of the economy as a world terms of resources, and people? Now think, for example, the MMT movement, in listening to the mainstream policy circles, thinks far more about that kind of stuff, saying, “you guys are fixating upon this abstract stuff about how much money there is, or whatever”. But in reality, we should be thinking about what’s the underlying reality of the economy? 

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, and people and employment and suffering and ecological collapse. Yeah. So let’s pivot and really get into the key critical argument that you’re making in Cloud Money. So, you’re positioning your book and yourself against this dominant and largely taken for granted narrative, that’s surprise surprise, coming out of the banking sector. About digital finance, and that we’re moving kind of in this inevitable evolutionary progressive way, from this old bad thing that we call physical cash to this clean, efficient digital payment system? What’s wrong with that narrative? Descriptively, politically, and whatever else you had to say about it, and what are you sort of offering as an alternative or a counterbalance?

Brett Scott: Yeah. So in some ways, what I’m… there’s a few different things I’m trying to do in the book. But, one of the big ones is to cut through the inauthentic narrative about why we’re seeing declines in the cash system around the world. Now, the typical narrative is very much this idea that it’s something that we’ll want, and we’re driving it through our ordinary everyday actions. And it’s also driven from the bottom up. It’s very, very typical, you’ll find this language if you look at a newspaper article, which says something like, “customers move towards digital payments”. There’s all these articles, you’ll see them in the store. Well, they’ll say “banks shutting down ATMs as people move towards digital payments”. 

The agency is always imagined to exist in the sort of small individual. Everyone’s just collectively acting like this and this is why this is happening. And all the big institutions are then following what the everyday person is doing. So the bank is shutting down its ATMs because all of its customers don’t want the ATMs anymore. All right. Now, that’s a very, very typical narrative. Whereas what I’m doing is sort of filling in the other side, the top down part of that story, saying, “actually, if you look at this, what’s been going on, there’s been a huge amount of top down pushes against the cash system”. 

And actually, the move away from cash is frequently far more in the interests of very large tech and finance companies than it is in the interest of everyday people. And if we go back to the more broad points we were making earlier about an economic system being a huge interdependent network of different players. One of the political questions you ask yourself is who has the most power In the economies that we find ourselves in? We’re all dependent upon each other. And we’re also locked in these huge webs with each other. But also, we’re often operating via these sort of huge corporations. And actually, their economic actors as a collective, they often have a lot more power than ordinary people do. 

So if, for example, you got oligopolies or banks and tech companies who are moving in a particular direction, they’re able to actually alter the whole nature of the overarching economic system. What’s called “the War on Cash”, sometimes, about these types of top down actions with these oligopolies of players are all moving against the cash system at the same time, and pulling people along with them. Now, it’s true that there might be some people who willingly go along with that trend or perceive themselves as you know that it’s in their interests. But in the long term, that’s sort of irrelevant.

 What’s most relevant is that these players are going to do it anyway. And their main job is to either initially convince enough people through sort of ideological techniques and marketing techniques. But they don’t need to convince everyone, they just need to convince enough people that they can set in motion the changes that will then force everybody else to make the change. And if you imagine in some sort of hypothetical future state, it wouldn’t… in countries like Sweden right now, where this process has gone far enough ahead, it’s no longer a choice. These companies no longer have to sort of spin stories saying, “oh, people are choosing to do this”, because they know people no longer have a choice.

 So Cloud Money, I’m basically looking at the… cutting through the spin of why these changes happen. And also pointing out that if you zoom out and look at the trajectory of corporate capitalism, what’s happening is, big tech and big finance are fusing together. Increasingly, Amazon, all these players are saying they can’t operate unless they are fusing with transnational digital finance infrastructures. And then the capitalist system, when you try to maximize profit, your overarching sort of impulse is going to be towards increasing scale speed, interconnection, complexity, acceleration. And cash basically is antithetical to that. Cash is a thing that sort of slows stuff down and creates friction. 

So even if individual human beings who are physical and on the ground actually resonate with the cash system, the overarching economic system they find themselves within, those corporate players doesn’t. Alright, so this is why people will often have this the story in their head, that the end of cash is inevitable. And for that matter, the end of anything that’s not automated or not sort of digitized. That’s the sort of the basic overarching thing in the book. And then I’m also looking at then how the cryptocurrency movements perceive themselves in relation to that growing tech finance vortex. That’s the broad brushstrokes.

Scott Ferguson: Can we dig a little bit deeper into what we might say is your defensive cash? Why cash? Why cash at all? What do people resonate with when we are talking about physical cash? Why is the narrative, the mainstream corporate narrative that is destined to be outmoded. Why is that so problematic?

Brett Scott: Sure bear in mind, cash is still the most widely used one payment in the world. Yet the narrative in the sort of public domain imagines that it’s some kind of thing that’s just obviously destined to disappear. So in terms of actual everyday usage around large parts of the world remains the biggest form of payments, but definitely the ideological tide is against it. And so that’s just one sort of meta point to make. But in terms of it’s the appeal of cash, I’m not saying people have some sort of self conscious love of the cash system, often these are unconscious types of systems. 

But either way, I will describe the cash system as a public utility, or I can describe it as the kind of the public bicycle system of payments. It’s got this public utility aspect to it. It doesn’t require any type of interaction with large formalized institutions. It just works, has immediate finality. A lot of people when they are asked on the Central Bank’s surveys about why cash, there’s a kind of hierarchy of reasons why they prefer cash. One of the immediate ones is that you know the transactions done. So this concept of finality, this immediacy to the transaction. Another big one is budgeting purposes. So there’s a very, very big correlation between the use of cash and income levels. So, and there’s lots of interesting studies about this. 

But cash basically slows down spending. And for people who are already on low incomes, this is important. So it’s in terms of… many people will cite it as an important budgeting tool. They know how much they have, they’re not getting into debt. And actually, one of the things that visa will actively market to businesses is that people will spend more with digital money, so they can spend up to 25% more actually, often. So in terms of going to that point about acceleration in economic systems, you spend more digital money systems on digital systems in general. So in terms of the overarching capitalism possible, more profit accumulation, digital systems were just far more ideologically aligned. 

But there’s also a lot of… there are some people, like libertarians, who like the privacy aspect of cash, right. So this idea that you don’t need to watch what I’m doing. But as you know, many people like that. I’m in Germany right now, and Germany has a big historical tradition of valuing privacy. Especially in the context of the Stasi, lacks surveillance by states and sort of valuing financial privacy. So that’s one aspect, but also distrust of institutions. You’ll find very high cash usage in places where institutions are distrusted. So by contrast, in places where institutions are very highly trusted, you will find quite high digital payments. 

So for example, in Sweden and Norway and places where basically everyone finds it massively surprising that you might distrust the banking sector or the state, this is where they sort of find it feel that it’s somehow obvious that you should want to transition and have been absorbed into large institutions. And you’ll see this in the States probably politically, I haven’t done any sort of detailed ethnographic research. But if I was guessing, I’m going to say, kind of like your urban yuppies are going to find digital payment systems, un-problematic because they’re sort of steeped in this institutional mentality. 

You get easy access to credit, you’re basically viewed as a high status member of society. Whereas if you’re not in that demographic, you’re probably much more likely to use cash. And I’m imagining this goes from like your libertarian rancher doing farming through to your kind of ethnic minorities who don’t trust the banking sector who don’t feel that Bank of America represents them. So there’s lots of…

Scott Ferguson: Or they can’t afford the fee. 

Brett Scott: Yeah, there’s also a bunch of these sort of more immediately practical things like the fact that some people can’t get these accounts or actually, they will get them on detrimental terms. But I think that’s fairly well known in some ways. But so in some ways, I push this idea about the sort of cultural dimensions more because it’s less thought about. In much of the debate around cash, you’ll find this idea that, at least in the mainstream, that if only people could get access to the digital systems, they would obviously want to transition to that. But they face barriers, and that’s the only reason why they don’t. Whereas I feel it’s important to push out this idea that actually within many parts of society, there’s an inherent distrust of formal banking institutions and so on. 

And this is actually one of the things that’s going on underneath the surface if you think about gentrification. This is one of the things you immediately noticed with gentrification is gentrified places automatically are the ones that are most prone to being quote unquote “cashless”. AKA being dependent upon using very large corporations for their payments. So yeah, there’s lots of the sort of cultural dimension. I could go into this further, but you know there’s… does that resonate? Does that make sense?

William Saas: Totally. 

Scott Ferguson: Yeah. Resonates.

William Saas: Yeah. And in what you’re describing with the certification, sounds like it’s probably very similar in most countries.

Brett Scott: I was on NPR Wisconsin a few days ago and it was quite interesting taking calls from listeners who called in and they said a lot of the stuff. The idea that the tangibility is important to me, the budgeting. Also fears about the system going down in length. This is one thing that’s seen in the States is quite important for weather events. This is you know, this is kind of the sort of black swan events. But a lot of people intuitively have this realization that offline forms of money are more resilient. And this is why this metaphor, which is a different metaphor now because the cash is the public bicycle system of payments, actually is very effective. 

Because often what people are told when they’re being shamed for using cash is they’re told you’re using the horsecart of payments, you’re using this old stupid form, what’s wrong with it? Where as soon as you switch to this bicycle metaphor, suddenly it’s like, oh, this makes sense. Actually, bicycles are actually a pretty advanced form of transport, even though they’re technologically simpler than, say, the Uber system. And digital payments are very much like the Uber of payments. And I think this is like a great way to get people to think about this. There’s reasons why we value simple system operators because they just work.

William Saas: Do they have public bicycle systems in Wisconsin? I don’t think we have any down here in Louisiana.

Brett Scott: I don’t know. I mean.

William Saas: Sounds great.

Scott Ferguson: We have lots of privatized bikes…

William Saas: Yes, you can rent them. But you have to use a card usually.

Brett Scott:  Yeah. But also what’s interesting about the cash system for me is politically, it actually appeals to a whole bunch of different players. So if you zoom out and look at the current state of global capitalism, there’s actually a sort of weirdly anti-capitalist element to the cash system. And what I mean by that is in an earlier phase of capitalist systems, cash would have been at the leading edge. It would have been the thing being used to expand market systems.

Scott Ferguson: This is why Marxists say they formulate their critique in terms of the Cash Nexus. The cash Nexus is like the cradle of evil.

Brett Scott: Imagine an early pre-capitalist society, and then there’s some kind of sovereigns trying to sort of move in. One of the first frontiers is going to be the issuance of these units of cash. That slowly infiltrate the communities and break down their local networks and integrate them into a larger economy. So it’s one point in time relation, yeah, the cash system would have been this on the frontiers of capitalism. But in the current phase, it’s this thing that slows it down. So in a weird way, it’s become this break upon the system. And in this context, it has a sort of anti-capitalist element, especially because it actually enables all the many sort of marginalized people in the system to participate without getting watched by the main institutions of capitalism.

 So this is what’s called the black economy or whatever, the sort of the margins of the economy. So that’s one. So it has this kind of anti-capitalist part to it, but also from a centrist perspective, you speak to these various sort of like policy wonk types, they realize that the stability of the monetary system kind of depends upon people having access to government money. So this is a very center political argument. And then also on the right, you’ll find all this sort of nationalist type stuff, where it’s like, I want my national money, and I don’t want to, screw the banks, and give me the actual dollar and so on. And it’s quite fascinating from a political spectrum perspective, seeing who resonates.

William Saas: One of the things that I like, and I think it might be the final paragraph or so of your book, you sort of insist on and defend and advocate for cash precisely because it is dirty and inefficient. And you want to maintain the right to that sort of thing. And I love this idea of cash as anti-capitalist. Part of our project is at Money on the Left and Money on the Left Editorial Collective is to sort of recover democratic public potentials of money. And so I guess I want to say that one of the interesting things about reading your book and engaging with your work, is that it seems like you’re into that, too. 

But you’re also– correct me if you think that I’m wrong– like somebody could read Cloud Money and think that you’re sort of after a post money world, you’re partisan for cash, you’re defending it. That’s not necessarily saying money itself is good and could be used and mobilized in an affirmative ways. 

Scott Ferguson:  And just to clarify, we’re not saying money is good. 

William Saas: Oh, yeah. 

Scott Ferguson: Or that the system now is good. But we’re saying that it is certainly not just flatly evil. And that it is a powerful and capacious medium for collective transformation and democratization. 

Brett Scott: Bear in mind, I don’t have a sanctimonious take on monetary systems like many monetary… they’re are parts of the sort of monetary reform community who had this almost visceral sort of puritanical disgust about money and so on. I don’t have this at all. I see the world in contradictions. I understand that we’re stuck in systems that often we don’t quite know how we’ve ended up in these systems. And there’s trade-offs built into these systems. So for example, in large scale monetary systems, one of your trade offs is that you’ve increased the scale of your economy, and thereby actually gives you access to more and more stuff, but simultaneously increases your alienation, your distance from each person. And you can even imagine, the opposite of this is extremely small scale economies, where you might not even have monetary systems where you have very low amounts of stuff, because you’ve got very low labor pools we’ve connected together. But you have a very, very strong idea of who you are and where you are in the economy. If you picture your sort of quintessential hunter-gatherer type of setting you’re under no illusion as to what your position in that economy is and how you survive. Whereas of course, if you go to an extremely large scale economy, held together by large scale monetary systems, you’re in this much more sort of alienated state, and yet, you have access potentially, to incredibly high end things because you’re tapping into gigantic pools of global labor that you can’t see. 

And this is a sort of contradiction we find ourselves in modern economies. And so I’m not really trying to say that we could live without the monetary system at all. But you know, kind of going back to the nervous system metaphor, there’s a part that didn’t actually make it into the book. That was extending the metaphor. Actually, it did make it in a little bit of a conclusion. But what am I arguing in terms of the cash system and the nervous system metaphor, as I say, in the human body, the nervous system is split into a central nervous system, and the peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system is a realm of like the brain and like the spinal cord,  it’s a very conscious part of you. Whereas the peripheral is a sort of well, as the name says, is peripheral, right. 

And I’m kind of arguing that if we’re taking this metaphor, seriously, the financial sector, and all these kind of digital systems that are connected into it, are part of the sort of central system whereas the cash system can be understood as a the peripheral nervous system, is the movement of this money depends on the sort of person to person contact. Now, I don’t have to go deeply into that metaphor, but the basic idea is that if you’re interested in creating a balanced monetary system, you’ve got to think about how all these different parts intersect. 

And if you think about alternative forms of money, like the mutual credit system that you’re mentioning, the sort of rippling credit systems or local currencies, you can almost imagine those as kind of an…I don’t want to go like too deeply into this nervous system metaphor, but part of the autonomous nervous system is kind of like semi autonomous things that like act by themselves, and I kind of like only partially integrated into the central system. And so I’m interested in future… to think about, okay how do you know, because what we call the “cashless society” would essentially be a type of system where you’re completely always plugged into the central system. 

You’re always going by the banking sector, and the sort of big tech companies. And the cash system actually is maintaining this kind of lack the ability to stay out of that central system whilst remaining within the overarching economy. And that’s what’s kind of the political dynamic of it. But then in terms of the actual political message of the book, the main message is to protect the cash system. But there is a part of me that’s maybe this is for a different book, which is arguing for people to build different systems entirely the sort of like alternatives, and you know, I can go into those if you’d like me to.

Scott Ferguson: Well, maybe we’ll have you on again to talk about that future book. But I think we would be doing a disservice to this book if we didn’t ask you to talk about cryptocurrency. But so what’s your… Yes, crypto tokens, not currency. What’s your experience with crypto tokens? What’s your assessment of crypto tokens? And also, what are your thoughts about the recent cascading crashes in those crypto markets?

Brett Scott: Yeah, I mean, crypto, I could say so many things about crypto. Well, the first thing I’ll say is that actually I was involved in early, early Bitcoin back 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, which was quite a different time in the modern world where it was far more innocent in a sense. It hadn’t turned into a giant, grotesque, speculative marketing/grifter scene. It was an interesting moment to be in it. I kind of got involved in that, because I was… I’d written this other book, the other The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance that was coming out back in 2013. But I was interested in general in people’s attempts at building alternative forms of economy. And obviously, crypto was one of these attempts. So my inner anthropologist was really fascinated by this, and as you know, doesn’t have any potential. But what became very, very apparent to me, and that’s the crypto world or the Bitcoin world in particular, was that you had this sort of political problem, which was that the actual underlying technological architecture was quite radical. 

The core technological feat is basically that it enables large networks of people who don’t know each other to coordinate action between themselves without a central player. Now, that politically is interesting. And actually, a lot of groups can agree that that’s interesting. And, in particular, it was about these people being able to issue tokens, or at least for the system to issue tokens. And then for them to be able to move those tokens between themselves. And this is where all the problems started to emerge, because that was a sophisticated technological architecture, but a very, very crude token system implemented on it. But many people who had no training in any kind of like monetary stuff, visually the token sort of like superficially resembled monetary system. 

And actually, in many ways the imagination that Bitcoin is a monetary system was created through linguistic hacks and visual hacks. So the very term cryptocurrency was the first one of those, but the fact people just started calling it crypto currency. And journalists would report on it as if it was this currency. And then all the visual imagery that was pasted over it as being a monetary system, and many people just sort of took it for granted. They’re like “well, this is a new monetary system”. And what was particularly interesting with it, when it started getting $1 price, the thought of getting price, this in a way kind of just confirmed for people somehow that this was a monetary system, which is very, very fascinating. Because many things that have prices, people don’t perceive as money. 

So it’s not like if I have a ceramic vase, and it gets a price on the market, I don’t fully think about it as a monetary system. But if I take that ceramic vase and I paint monetary imagery all over it, and make it very small and sort of like a disc shaped, suddenly you can be like, “well, it’s money, isn’t it?” And this is actually sort of psychologically literally what was happening in the Bitcoin world, you had these digital objects, which were kind of pasted with this monetary branding and which had a price, and which then superficially, kind of started to resemble a monetary system. And since then, I started writing this about how crypto counter trade works. I don’t know if you guys have sort of seen me doing that. 

But it’s basically saying, well, what’s happening in the crypto markets is you basically have these digital objects that are created, that are then traded on speculative markets, and which get a price on those markets. And once I have a price, you can then swap them with other things that are prices. Which is essentially a way of clearing that sort of money priced things against each other which is counter trade. Now, if I did that with two objects that obviously weren’t money… so for example, if I took a $500 vase and I swapped it for a $500 guitar, nobody would say to me, “oh, the vase is a monetary system”. 

What they would say is you’ve swapped something that’s worth $500 for something else that’s worth $500, implicitly, what you’ve done is you’ve sold the vase to the person who has the guitar, and then you’ve given them the money back to buy the guitar from them. So you’ve had these separate monetary transactions that have been superimposed over each other, giving rise to the barter-like scenario. Okay. I don’t know how clear that is. But that’s concentrated and the whole Bitcoin world works like that. And I know this, because I used to do. I used to buy, quote, unquote, “buy things” with Bitcoin. And this is exactly what you do. You take its current dollar price, compare it to the price of the thing you’re trying to, quote unquote, “buy”, and then you would work out the ratio from that. And this is countertrade. 

And I think this is really, really fascinating actually, because what the Bitcoin system effectively is, is a type of parasite. It’s a kind of monetary parasite. And if we, you might want to think about the US dollar system as being like a host, in a sense. It can’t actually survive unless it has this pricing. The ones that have it, it’s able to sort of do the sort of money-like kind of thing within that system. And I actually think that’s an incredibly interesting design and in a way, that’s not even a critique. I’m sort of saying, well, kudos in a sense. You’ve designed a monetary parasite. That’s very interesting.

Scott Ferguson: But you can expand this out and say, from an MMT framework, at least, there are degrees of moneyness that exist in all kinds of credit systems. So we often will refer to airline miles, which have different degrees of receive ability and liquidity. So, to a certain extent, you can kind of de-exotisize size, if that’s even a word. De-exotisize crypto, it’s just sort of another, dependent system that depends on this larger system. And then it becomes a question of, but how does this system work? What are its values? What are its social and ecological consequences?

Brett Scott: In my newsletter, I do a lot of analysis of these different types of… if I’m looking at a voucher, for example, let’s say. Airline miles kind of have a sort of voucher-like vibe because they’re redeemable back for a particular thing. So let’s say I have a voucher for a store for a particular thing. Like, I don’t know, a Starbucks voucher or something. In a sense, it’s tethered into the actual monetary system, right? It’s like you and you kind of like it has an issuer, it has a redemption process. You know what you’re gonna get if you hand the voucher back, so it’s very easy to kind of integrate that, and it’s quite easy to describe how it works. 

Scott Ferguson: And the production system, I think as well. It’s tethered into the production system of coffee and of airline vouchers. 

Brett Scott: Vouchers are a credit system. There’s an issuer, there’s a redemption process, and particularly, maybe be able to transfer them. So all credit type systems or IOU type systems have this sort of three part process as an issuance process, some of the issues and out as a kind of promise, then they might be able to be transferred depending on what the nature is, and then they’re redeemed back for the thing that they can supposedly can get. Vouchers are like that. Bitcoin is nothing like that. There’s no ability to redeem Bitcoin. It doesn’t actually even have an issuer. 

If you look at how it’s structured, what happens is you could sort of argue that the miners and the system are kind of like issuers. But they’re issuing it to themselves, they’re not issuing it as a liability. So what happens, they basically exert energy and then write out a number as an asset for themselves. So they’re basically… it’s literally numbers written out off the exertion of energy, which then are then branded in a particular way. But they’re written out as assets to the person who is successful at maintaining the system. And then it has no redeemability. There is no liability side to a Bitcoin token, it’s just this object. But it superficially has the visual appearance of what you would see in a bank account because it has this number. 

So it kind of looks like a bank account, sort of, but it has no actual liability structure. So this is what’s quite interesting. So really, what it ends up being is it’s kind of like branded collectible. With the monetary price which you can swap for things and that does actually have a certain degree of moneyness in the sense of it’s highly swappable. So it’s actually quite like liquid in the way it moves around in a sense. So this is why Bitcoiners get very angry with me when I say it’s not a monetary system. And I don’t have any problem with that. I’m just like, well, it’s not used for pricing. And it very, very clearly… one of the easiest ways to sort of see this like… El Salvador is currently being used as an example of a place where Bitcoin is used.

 But if you go into an El Salvadorian restaurant right now, I would love to see an El Salvadorian restaurant where they put up a fixed menu on the wall with fixed prices in Bitcoin for things. They won’t do this because actually the stuff there is priced in US dollars to work out the quote unquote “Bitcoin price”, they’re always gonna have to constantly check what the US dollar price of Bitcoin is, and then work out a countertrade ratio. So actually, if you go to eat a meal in this restaurant, the price of a meal, you’ll quote unquote, “Bitcoin price” of this meal will change constantly. Because the actual price is in US dollars and it’s constantly being refracted through Bitcoin. That’s a kind of complicated way of saying it. This is a very good example of… clearly the US dollar system is being used here. But you’re kind of disguising it via Bitcoin transaction.

Scott Ferguson: We actually have an episode of one of our other podcasts coming out that’s going to come out before this interview, actually, where we’re interviewing a professor and journalist named Ricardo Valencia, and he is reporting on this Bitcoin situation in El Salvador. And there are protests against this. The president of El Salvador is becoming increasingly authoritarian and wedding his authoritarian politics to this Bitcoin adoption. Bitcoin is not being adopted well in the country. They’re trying all kinds of things, like offering discounts to make it receivable, and people don’t use it. People don’t want it.

Brett Scott: I mean, he’s obviously heavily invested. And actually, it’s quite interesting. I mean, he’s an interesting character, because he’s clearly working the US libertarian scene to get forms of financing and funding, but, probably is doing it with a sort of… probably my intuition was well, we got nothing to lose, we might as well just try and work this angle. I think, in a sense, him aside, the Bitcoin community has quite a lot to lose from backing him. 

And I think a lot of them sort of threw themselves into this kind of euphoria, it was like, “ah, it’s become a legal tender, it’s now the official money” and ignoring all these… not only the protests, but also the fact that in reality, it’s the US dollar that is being the actual… it’s happening since this countertrade process. But now it’s becoming politically difficult to the Bitcoin community, because the whole sort of rhetoric has always been around this like stateless money and this whole kind of thing. So the reality of backing this increasingly authoritarian leader is an interesting one.

Scott Ferguson: So do you have a read of the most recent failures in the crypto markets?

Brett Scott: Not really. Actually, I’ve kind of got bored about following all the specifics of it. A lot of my focus has been on critiquing the ideology of Bitcoin, because… and so the broader crypto scene is going out, a lot of people are being involved, and I know lots of people in it, but the actual sort of downturns I don’t follow. I used to work in financial markets. The way I often see these crypto tokens is  in typical financial markets, you can do fundamental analysis, and you can do technical analysis. Fundamental analysis, you’re looking at the reality of something or trying to look at the reality of something and saying, “well, this is, this company is overvalued, for XYZ reason, they haven’t actually built the factory that they said they were going to build, nobody’s gonna buy their products”. 

So you actually make these little arguments, but it’s actual prospects in the world. And then work out from the projected income streams, and you can sort of work out a theoretical price for a share. That’s a fundamental analysis. And then there’s technical analysis, which is like you watch what other people do, basically. Abstracted through graphs. But basically, technical analysis is just watching what other people in the market are doing. Now, whereas in the crypto world, often the only thing you can do is technical analysis. There’s no way to do fundamental analysis of these objects because they’re not redeemable for any particular thing. 

They’re not legal claims upon anything. There’s no way to work out if they’re overvalued or undervalued. They’re just floating objects, which makes them highly prone to these breakdowns. So I’m never surprised when there’s like a massive spike in the price or crash in the price either. Precisely because they’re untethered to slack. But in terms of the stable coins that were breaking down recently, I suppose that’s a slightly different situation. But like yeah, I didn’t… What’s your take?

Scott Ferguson: I don’t have one. I appreciate your blase attitude. I think you you have your eye on the structural, larger anthropological, political, ideological, 

Brett Scott: Gets boring.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, rather than following the roller coaster ride and pretending that that’s actually…

Brett Scott: I think what’s probably the best way to analyze it is probably through religious studies. Or like, yeah, a lot of what’s happening in the crypto markets is you have these… And I think there’s interesting sociological ways of analyzing it that are far more interesting than trying to have some economic analysis of why the price has gone up or down. There’s many, many people who feel sort of forms of existential despair in the world who have come to believe that somehow the crypto thing represents some way to escape that and then engage in this fantasy where you can make returns whilst also bringing down the system somehow. So no, actually I empathize with that to some extent. 

There’s part of me that has a certain degree of empathy for people who are caught up in it. Because I have a lot of friends who are caught up in it and they can see this as hope where you can engage in political activism through speculation.

Scott Ferguson: And there’s also a lot of pain and suffering. There are suicides. There are people losing a lot of state money. 

Brett Scott: Yeah, and the main concern in the crypto world because… look, bear in mind that speculation has been going on for a very long time of the capitalist system, this has nothing particularly new. And so I could do a critique of speculation. But I’m not that interested in doing that. Other people can critique the mentality of speculation, it’s well established as a phenomenon within capitalist societies as people trying to get rich quick and escape their situations and so on, whatever. My main concern is that in the process of marketing the speculative objects, a particular narrative about money is projected into society. So the Bitcoin community, those objects… the Bitcoin tokens are not actually a monetary system. 

They’re this collectible, almost like digital medallions branded as money with a monetary price. But in order to get them to compete upon a market against other assets, like shares, or whatever else you could potentially buy with your disposable income, the proponents of it have to market it as a competing monetary system. So its marketing pitch is that some are competing against the dollar. And in order to market that story, they have to create this conservative story about money where they sort of say, money should be this constrained thing, this commodity that’s held taut and rigid. And so it has a sort of weird, puritanical, hard money ideology that goes along with it, which is very heavily associated with libertarian ideology. 

Which is all about engaging in the fantasy that markets exist independently of states. Which requires this fantasy of apolitical money. But you have to have this… the monetary system is somehow natural. And markets are natural, and the states a parasite upon the market, rather than the thing that actually underpins the market with monetary systems. So a lot of the sort of fantasies in the crypto world are about projecting this conservative notion of money, which my concern is that the debt then becomes a big… that’s become the foundation or mandatory training for young people right now. 

Interestingly, the MMT movement is one of the counter narratives in terms of like trying to create a different narrative around money, but there’s lots of 16 year olds right now who basically sitting on crypto forums because they believe it’s technologically exciting, and so on, who sort of imbibing like Murray Rothbard, and stuff like that. You know, if you think about if you’re a conservative strategist from the 19th century, you will like be like, “wow, this is like a really amazing way of projecting ideas into society without actually having the monetary system disrupted”. So it really empowers the Conservatives within the ordinary monetary system. So that’s my concern. Long answer, sorry. 

William Saas: No, that’s perfect. I love the fundamental versus technical analysis. And I think that that’s… it’s almost like if you have the fundamental mental analysis that I think we all share here, then it sort of makes the technical analysis irrelevant. It’s like okay, this is just going to be a carnival. It’s something to watch. And people are gonna suffer. But they have… there are contending fundamental analyses that do kind of seem to… I don’t know, I guess you can be suspicious here and wonder how many people are actually invested in the fundamental analysis that would enable them to think cryptocurrency is actually a viable alternative to existing monetary systems. What’s your read on how many people are actually sort of wedded to that now versus at the sort of speculation side if we’re not going to speculate about speculation.

Brett Scott: Well, I think it’s contradictory because… actually I actually wrote this piece for CoinDesk, which is one of the big crypto publications, possibly the biggest one, actually. And that CoinDesk actually has… there’s a couple of editors there who actually are quite reasonable, critical and want more critical voices. And I did this piece was just called How to Win a Bitcoin Street Fight. And it was based on the old arcade game Street Fighter. And I basically talked about walking into an arcade, an old arcade game. There’s on the one side, you got Street Fighter on the other side, you have Mortal Kombat now to old school like fighting games, and each one has its own universe. Each one has its own like characters in it. All right, so you know, Street Fighter has… I forget the names of the different people. 

William Saas: Ken, Ryu, Blanka. 

Brett Scott: Yeah, exactly right. And then you know, more you can do Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat got Raiden and all these other characters. But once you pick a game you can’t use a player from one of them in the other game. So they were sort of sitting in separate paradigms, and they’re in their own universes. And I think in the Bitcoin world, you find this a lot of the argumentation is based on this sort of trickery, paradigm switching trickery. Because on the one hand, it’s marketed as being that who it’s competing against is the dollar. So this is like the monetary story. So this is like one arcade game, right? That it’s like somebody’s competing monetary system. On the other hand, it’s marketed as an asset within a monetary system that has a monetary price that you could trade to get more money. And in that sense, it’s actually competing against things like the Gamestop shares, or the world or whatever else. Because if I’m spending my $5,000 in savings on Bitcoin, I’m not spending it on Gamestop shit, right? So they’re in a sense competing each other. 

But what happens in the crypto world is that they often try to blend those two arguments together. They’ll say things like, “well, when the price of the asset is rising, it’s a symbol that in the future, it will sort of invert and become the monetary system”. Which is… I’m like, how did you work that out when other things rise in markets, that doesn’t mean that becomes a monetary system. So there’s lots of this sort of justification. And because the actual object being traded has monetary imagery branded over it, it’s quite easy to actually sit with that cognitive dissonance. And many people in the world constantly sit in the state of cognitive dissonance, where they have a sort of almost millenarian story that at some point, it will invert, and everything will become priced in it. 

But in the meantime, we’re trading it for US dollars, and clearly perceiving it in terms of US dollars. And when I say this will happen, you’ll meet some of the hardcore Bitcoiners will be set will say stuff like, “well, I price everything in Bitcoin”. And I’ll be like, well, it’s interesting, because those prices will be constantly fluctuating, right? And what often will say to them is if I’m sitting by a tornado, and there’s like things flying around the tornado, you know, whatever it is… people’s bits of debris, I can psychologically choose to believe that actually, the tornado is flying around the pieces of debris. 

I could imagine the pieces of debris being like fixed points and then perceiving the tornado flying around. But that’s like a mental illusion. You can choose to believe that everything is priced in Bitcoin, but it’s a total mental illusion, right? It’s actually priced in the dollar. And if you’re just choosing to try and see it in this way. And this is a lot of what’s going on in that community. Just another metaphor there.

Scott Ferguson: Well, I think that’s a really… let’s finish this conversation on that mind whittling metaphor. Where do our listeners find you? Where Where should they look for you?

Brett Scott: Well, my newsletter is BrettScott.substack.com. Altered States of Monetary Consciousness. My book is Cloud Money: Cash, Cards, Crypto, and the War for our Wallets. And my Twitter handle is @SuitPossum: S-U-I-T P-O-S-S-U-M. I always get asked how that one came about.

Scott Ferguson: Are you gonna tell us?

Brett Scott: It’s kind of a weird story. I had a musical act, Apocalyptic Possum and then from that a nickname developed called Soul Possum for me. And then when I went to work in the financial sector, I had this girlfriend at the time who said, “now you’re super awesome”. So that’s how it developed but when people see it nowadays, I have no idea what it is. It’s just weird…

Scott Ferguson: Right. That’s great. Well, now all the Money on the Left listeners who have made it to the end of this interview are all cued in. Well, thanks.

Brett Scott: Thanks a lot. Nice chat.

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


Money on the Left: History, Theory, Practice

In this special episode, Billy Saas, Maxximilian Seijo and Scott Ferguson announce the launch of the collective’s new scholarly journal: Money on the Left: History, Theory, Practice.

Click here for the journal’s inaugural publication, “Food, Money, and Democracy: Cultivating Collective Provisioning for Resilient and Equitable Communities of Work,” co-authored by Benjamin C. Wilson, Taylor Reid, and Max Sussman.

As Billy, Maxx and Scott explain in their conversation, Money on the Left: History, Theory, Practice is a peer-reviewed, open access journal of scholarship in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. The journal places money’s public origins and capacities at the center of left inquiry and action. It cultivates interdisciplinary approaches to past and present, aesthetics and politics. And it advances intersectional forms of research and practice in service of a just transition from social and ecological devastation. During their dialog, Billy, Maxx and Scott discuss the journal’s key aims and publication schedule, while offering advice for prospective authors. 

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

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com

If you are interested in submitting or pitching an essay to the journal, see our Instructions for Authors page.

Monetary Modernism

In this special episode of Money on the Left, the MotL Collective shares an audio recording from a conference panel titled, “Monetary Modernism.” Including papers by Scott Ferguson (University of South Florida), Rob Hawkes (Teesside University), and Maxximilian Seijo (University of California, Santa Barbara), the panel was presented at the Hopeful Modernisms conference organized by the British Association for Modernist Studies (BAMS) at University of Bristol, June 22 – 25, 2022. 

The conference sought to revive hopeful and more generative impulses in modernist art and literature, challenging a persistent view of modernism as relentlessly bleak and angst-ridden. It did so, moreover, for a present moment similarly burdened by dead-end accelerationist and pessimist imaginaries. 

The panel begins with Rob Hawkes. He introduces the BAMS audience to the wide-ranging contributions of the Money on the Left Editorial Collective. He also makes the case for reading Georg Friedrich Knapp’s early twentieth-century chartalist approach to money as a modernist project deeply entwined with myriad other aesthetic modernisms. 

In the first presentation, Scott Ferguson explores how Len Lye’s Rainbow Dance (1936), a short experimental promotional film for British public postal banking, embraces the abstractness, publicness, and heterogeneous plentitude of both money mediation and avant-garde cinema. In the second talk, Rob Hawkes uncovers how tensions between fixed and fluid understandings of identity formation and history inform John Maynard Keynes’ chartalist-inspired writings on money as much as Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella Passing and Ford Madox Ford’s 1933 novel The Rash Act. Lastly, Maximilian Seijo’s presentation carefully works through metaphors for money in Virginia Woolf’s book-length feminist essay, A Room of One’s Own (1929), complicating the text’s appeals to monetary substances and fluids by teasing out its experimental approach to imagining non-patriarchal infrastructures for provisioning aesthetic work. 
If you are interested in the texts and images that accompany some of the presentations, see here for Rob Hawkes’ slides and here for Scott Ferguson’s PowerPoint deck.

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

Money on the Left: The Journal featuring “Food, Money & Democracy”



Benjamin C. Wilson, Taylor Reid, and Max Sussman join the podcast to discuss their forthcoming co-written essay, “Food, Money, and Democracy: Cultivating Collective Provisioning for Resilient and Equitable Communities of Work.” Inaugurating our new journal, Money on the Left: History, Theory, Practice, the article politicizes what Sanjukta Paul and Nathan Tankus term “coordination rights” across monetary and production sectors and focuses on the coordination of food systems, in particular. Coordination rights are fundamental to the process of building resilient communities, our guests argue, determining whether social provisioning systems are “collective” or “concentrated.”

In our conversation, Wilson, Reid, and Sussman consider several promising cases of collective provisioning, which prioritize democratic participation and ecosocial stewardship over the austerity and profit-maximization associated with concentrated industry. Such examples include La Via Campesina movement for Food Sovereignty, the Black Cooperative Movement in the U.S., and restaurant reactions to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lamenting the failures of such models when faced with systemic illiquidity, our co-authors also importantly extend collective coordination principles to monetary systems, exploring small and medium-scale monetary experiments that use food systems as a way to build community capacity.

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.

William Saas: Max, Ben, and Taylor, welcome to Money on the Left

Max Sussman: Thank you. 

Ben Wilson: Great to be here. 

William Saas: We’ve invited you all on the show this month for a very special reason. You three have collaborated on the very first– the inaugural– peer reviewed article to be published in Money on the Left, the journal, and the title of that article is “Food, Money and Democracy: Cultivating Collective Provisioning for Resilient and Equitable Communities of Work”. So first of all, thank you all so much for this really great article. And congrats! This was an anonymous peer review process. There’s probably nothing wrong with saying that the anonymous reviewers were very impressed with the piece and I think the editorial team was as well. 

We can’t wait for listeners to read your piece. While we don’t want to spoil it exactly, we do want to give a sense of what’s coming. And I don’t know if there are– and maybe listeners or anyone else on the call can correct me– existing journals that do this sort of thing. So we’re experimenting, and we’re glad that you’re experimenting with us. But to kick things off, would each of you mind telling us just a bit about yourselves; your professional and personal backgrounds in ways that may be relevant to the stuff that we’re discussing via your article? 

Ben Wilson: Oh, maybe I’ll go first. 

William Saas: We know you. Then you’re the easy one. You’ve been on twice, right?

Ben Wilson: So yeah, this is my second appearance on Money on the Left. So I’m really excited about that. I am an economics professor. Currently at SUNY Cortland in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. I study food systems and monetary systems and I’m always looking for ways that I can teach students doing– creating learning by doing opportunities supplied and service learning and things of this nature. 

This paper is kind of the confluence of all the things that I really enjoy– about the academy, about teaching, about learning, and about trying to make the world a better place through public provisioning and education, etc. So maybe I’ll pass it on to Max next.

Max Sussman: Well, let’s see where to start. I’ve been a chef my whole life. And that is primarily what I’m doing here. I started cooking when I was in college, I was studying American Studies at the University of Michigan. And I got into cooking, because I really enjoyed it and as a job in college to make some money, and I basically just never really stopped. I worked in Ann Arbor, Michigan for a good seven years or so and then moved to New York and cooked there. I’ve always been interested in food and everything that goes into it. 

When you’re a chef, you pay attention to where your ingredients are coming from and you pay attention to the farms that grew them, the seas that produce the fish that you’re eating, and the people that grow the food– I should say, not all chefs do that, but they probably should. These things were always super important to me. As I started to kind of go further in the career, I ended up working with a group of like minded chefs in New York, and helped found a group called FIG, which stands for “food issues group”. Catchy name. 

And we formed this group as a sort of education and action group for chefs and restaurant professionals who were interested in some of these social justice issues, environmental issues, workers rights issues that aren’t commonly considered part of the food media landscape. That was a big part of what I’ve done and then I moved back to Michigan just before the pandemic. Then I left being in a day to day restaurant environment. 

I started basically working for myself in that environment. I made pizza as a pizza pop up, took my pizza operation, my mobile pizza operation around to different bars and coffee shops in Ann Arbor. And I’m also currently working as a private chef for a family. I also own a fast casual restaurant with my brother in New York City where he is the managing partner. So he’s there on a day to day basis and I’m still a partner. So there’s kind of a lot of– that’s kind of a little flash background of my professional career. I think it was probably two years ago, I don’t know exactly the date, but it was around two years ago, where I actually heard Ben on Money on the Left talking about the Uni proposal. 

And as well as talking about food systems and food justice, and how to tie all these issues together. And I just kind of stumbled upon MMT in that moment and heard the podcast and I reached out and we started the conversation that kind of led to– I think led to us all being here today. So roundabout answer to that question. Told us not to be brief. So there you go.

William Saas: Don’t be afraid. Yeah. Also your mic sounds amazing. What are you rolling with there?

Max Sussman: It’s an Audio Technica mic. I’ll send you the link after if you want. I’m glad I got it in the right spot, too. So that’s good.

Taylor Reid: Hey, I’m Taylor Reid. I’m an associate professor of Applied Food Studies at the Culinary Institute of America. And I always have to tell people that even though I work at the Culinary Institute of America, I am not a chef. I teach farming and food systems, farm to table. I teach a lot about the connections between the restaurant and the rest of the world. I teach topics like climate change, food waste, and my research interests I think, my background are pretty eclectic. I’ve studied beginning farmers and organic farming standards. I’ve also done some work on farming and foraging and food insecurity in the zombie genre. More recently, I’ve been pretty interested, since coming to the Culinary Institute four years ago, I’ve been really interested in thinking about what chefs do and why they do the things that they do. 

And we can talk about this in a little bit, one of my initial interests that we were originally going to study was chef’s motivations for including foraged foods on their menus. I’m really interested in foraging. I love that there’s this new kind of resurgence of interest in foraging. I think that there are a lot of interesting economic questions around that too. Because while it’s simultaneously this free re-democratization of the food procurement process it also, within the restaurant world can have an element of elitism and tends to be the purview of some of the higher end restaurants that you might pay $400 a plate to eat at. 

So I’m still really interested in that question. But we kind of drifted toward COVID. Because I guess when we first got together, we were going to ask that question and then this pandemic hit and it just didn’t seem appropriate anymore. It seemed there was another much bigger question that was a lot more pressing because not only was the pandemic the dominant piece of the news cycle at that time, but we were all seeing what it was doing to the restaurant industry, and calling up chefs and talking to them about something other than COVID, it just didn’t seem right. It didn’t feel right at the time.

Scott Ferguson: So maybe this is actually a good moment to pivot to our second question, which is, I think some of you have already started to answer, but essentially, how exactly did you all come together? What shape or shapes has this collaboration taken? What do you guys talk about? What do you guys think about together and how are you learning from one another? Just tell us about this kind of process and how it’s unfolded.

Ben Wilson: Taylor and I have known each other for quite a while now. I think I met Taylor early in my family’s relocation to Ithaca. Through our children’s friends and friends’ networks and birthday parties and those sorts of things. I was immediately drawn to Taylor and his work because it dovetails with so many of the questions that I’m asking them politically, economy and you know, the foraging question in particular. So, to give a sense of where the conversation’s going, Taylor just assisted me in the delivery of my Political Economy of the Adirondacks class up at Raquette Lake, where we hiked this peninsula that was originally owned by the Durant family, which is the Intercontinental railroad robber baron family, massive Gilded Age wealth. 

And this property kind of represents this weird space where they were using local materials and labor and work that kind of on the surface might look like an ecological decision, but it was really just this colossal amount of wealth and power that allowed them to mobilize all those resources. But today, now, the property is a teaching resource. It’s a property of SUNY Cortland, it’s a National Historic Site. So on that site, we were trying to transform it from its Gilded Age exploitation origins to this teaching space, where we’re exploring the possible measurements of carbon sequestration on the property, and we’re exploring what types of food are maybe able to be forged or grown on the property based on soil contents, lake, and all the environment around it.

And it was really interesting to see my students wrestle with the eating of a dandelion on the property. Not only the lack of bitterness in their regular diets, but this idea that food isn’t just coming from the kitchen or the grocery store. These other places, and how we define food culturally, was a really interesting thing to watch them wrestle with in real time. So yeah, I think the forging question will be an interesting one as we move forward in terms of anarchy and exploitation, and all these different ways that we might feel to process it. And on the other side, Max introduced himself to me via– I think it was you, Scott, who introduced us over DM or something along those lines through the Twitter verse. And Max, and I started talking and reading an awesome essay that he wrote about third spaces.

Scott Ferguson: And what are the third spaces?

Ben Wilson: Max, do you want to?

Max Sussman: Yes, I definitely– I think I just sent you a DM somewhere and said, “Hey, you have no idea who I am. Would you want to talk about stuff?” 

Scott Ferguson: That’s often how it goes. 

Max Sussman: Yeah. So thanks for not thinking that that was too weird, I guess. 

Scott Ferguson: My pleasure, and thank you.

Max Sussman: But let’s see. So I was thinking a lot about restaurants, having spent probably 20 years of my working life in them a lot and thinking about some of the– what are some of the wonderful things about them and what are some of the things that we could probably stand to improve on them. I think one thing that struck me in the early parts of the pandemic was in a lot of other areas, a lot of the changes that happened in the restaurant world were underway beforehand and then were somewhat accelerated by what happened during the Coronavirus pandemic in the early part. And so, we were thinking about what is the social role that restaurants play in communities? And what are some of the essential– how are restaurants part of the essential fabric of communities and in the way that people use them as gathering spaces?

And the idea of food as being this natural way that people are connected to each other, and to the land, and to big, broader parts of society without even realizing it. And so, in that moment, when restaurants were facing this huge challenge of being cut off from their customer base and separated from the people that support them, at the same time you have people cut off from each other and unable to connect, you know, be near each other physically. And so we were thinking about what is something that a restaurant could be imagined as in the future? Or in that moment, without some of those pre-existing ways of people connecting to restaurants? So you know, how can a restaurant support people in the community without having a dining room? How can customers or people connect to each other without having that space to go to? And that’s some of the ideas we’re playing around with, as this project developed.

Scott Ferguson: And so what is the definition of a third space? Why is it third, rather than second or seventh?

Max Sussman: So there’s the idea that it’s a space outside of work and home, that can serve as a gathering place, and where these spontaneous interactions can occur between people. So the third place could be a restaurant, a cafe, it could be a park. Any sort of community, you know, other community space. But we have, in this day and age, there’s not very many spaces that are totally de-commercialized, where you can just sit and get together with people.

 And so restaurants and especially cafes that are a little bit less of the fine dining type place, it’s a place you go to get food, but you could eat food at home, right? You could always just eat food by yourself somewhere. So I guess the idea behind the third place is that beyond just providing sustenance to people in the form of food that you eat, it also provides a really important social role to communities for people to be able to gather with each other around food.

Scott Ferguson: Beautiful. Taylor, do you want to talk about maybe more specifically how this particular project that became the article that’s forthcoming with the Money on the Left journal came about? How did you pivot from foraging to what you’re up to here?

Taylor Reid: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it really started with Max’s essay. And we originally met to talk about foraging. And then as we were looking at that essay, one of the things that came up for us was that I was at the time, I was just for a class project, I was trying to figure out how to teach online. I had a capstone project class, and I had my students interviewing chefs and restaurant owners about their experience with the pandemic. That’s what seemed appropriate at the time. And we really started to develop this incredible dataset of these in depth interviews. And a lot of the things that Max was talking about in his essay were things that were coming out through this data. 

So I honestly don’t remember how it happened. But it transitioned into the process of all of us going through these interviews and trying to figure out what was there and how it linked with our ideas about the importance of the restaurant industry, and what was lost. When people couldn’t meet that way and we were seeing all of this– people were predicting that emerging from the pandemic, it was just going to be ghost kitchens. What ended up really happening through the process of us looking at this is that it really became apparent that restaurants are really important for other things besides just providing people with delicious food. 

A lot of that came out in the interviews as well as we started looking through the interviews. And then all of this other other stuff started to emerge too, like the way that despite– I mean restaurants pre pandemic, it was clear to everybody in the restaurant industry that restaurants were– there were so many restaurants and they were so competitive in a way that often they’re on the same street in the same building. They’re competing for customers on a daily basis. And there’s a lot of failure in the restaurant industry. And one of the things that we saw from the data is that you would expect, when an industry is hit hard like that, from the classical model of thinking about business competition, that they would become more competitive and cutthroat. But what we saw was exactly the opposite. 

There were at least four specific instances where restaurant owners were intentionally collaborating, sharing recipes, getting together to talk about business strategies, thinking about ways to overcome the challenges of the pandemic, and sharing information, collaborating with growers. Supporting growers and customers too. It just became a much more collaborative and cooperative space, the restaurant industry, at least from what we were seeing in this data than it was before it had this huge shock. And that really led to a lot of Ben’s thinking about cooperative provisioning. Maybe Ben, you can talk a little bit about how the theory developed from those conversations.

Ben Wilson: Sure. I mean reading those long form interviews was really powerful. Because so much of our lives were really kind of following the same pattern. So we were all trying to solve problems, and re-figure out our lives on getting our kids to school, and the dining room, and all these really strange things that occurred and worrying about restaurants and our communities, and what the future was going to look like. But we’re really started to stand out to me, right, because the restaurant, specifically the neoclassical or orthodox economics is kind of always used as this perfect example of the competitive firm. 

It became pretty obvious to me that it doesn’t really work that way. And it always bugged me in neoclassical economics textbooks, when they make the jump from the consumer that is an independent decision making entity, that as long as it’s doing it rationally, and then the aggregation of all those optimal decisions, least optimal outcomes. But if they made this jump to the firm– the firm is this coordinator of resources and that most of the textbooks will use that word, is the coordinator of labor and capital without really talking about what is doing that coordination. And I’ve heard Sanjukta Paul on your guys’ show and delved into her “Antitrust as Allocator of Coordination Rights”, along with the co-authored piece of Nathan Tankus on “The Firm Exemption and the Hierarchy of Finance in the Gig Economy”. 

And I really felt like this was something that was gluing all this stuff together for us that restaurants were seeking to coordinate, but they didn’t really have the rights to do so in ways that other organizations might. And the same sort of pattern, I think, was also emerging in my studies of Black cooperative movements in the United States where they were organizing these collaborative, cooperative structures for both consumption. So they began with large buying practices of grains and dairy and things of this nature to drive down costs and allow them to feed more people that emerged into more finished goods production and things like this that allow for them to coordinate on much larger scales. 

What neoclassical economics does in obscuring this and just defining the firm as a coordinator is that it doesn’t allow us to really think about law and institutions and decision making practices and how we arrive at those sorts of decisions and those practices. And I felt like this pattern is not only part of the firm structure and its problematic nature. But you know, it’s very much plagues the way we talk about money as well. Right? So where does money come from? Who gets to make decisions about when it’s created and for what purposes? Even in Modern Monetary Theory, the use of the terminology, “the monopoly producer”, I think, is problematic and part of this obscuring of the coordination that’s required from money to get where it’s supposed to go. And that was the other really big pattern that we saw in the restaurant data was that, no matter how big the relief package was, it wasn’t designed to help the small independent producer.

And so the restaurant owners kept talking about how they don’t– how they’re not heard, they’re not seen, the government doesn’t understand them. So this fit really nicely into this bigger question that I’ve always been interested in since my time at UMKC and studying Modern Monetary Theory, and the jobs guarantee is maybe coordination rights, when we start to break this down, can really contribute in the way that we understand something like the jobs guarantee in a more tangible way. 

You know, Randy Ray and others have written about social enterprises as being the vehicle for creating the jobs in that space. But what exactly are those jobs? And what’s the connection between the federal government and social enterprise that allows those funds to flow in such a way? I’ve always thought that there’s a gap– there was something missing and the coordination rights kind of create that legal infrastructure for starting to think about the connection between money resources and real resources, and how we define those things and how greatly they would change if credit provisioning was done in order to facilitate coordinated production for collective provisioning rather than the concentrated provision that we talked about in the paper.

William Saas: So let’s roll with that. What possibilities become possible in that context?

Ben Wilson: So I think– Max, do you want to talk about your friend’s restaurant group in Ann Arbor? I think that’s kind of a nice vision to get that conversation started.

Max Sussman: So in Ann Arbor, there’s a very well known and beloved group of restaurants called Zingerman’s. So it’s founded over 25 years ago, started as a small deli. And then they realized that they could– that they wanted to make better bread than they were getting. So they started a bakery, and then they decided they wanted to source better dairy than they could find. So they started a creamery. And then they wanted to open another restaurant, and they started roasting coffee. And now there are multiple businesses that are all supporting each other. They’re all each other’s customers, and they are– they raise the profile of each other and support each other. 

They can get a lot more done as a bigger institution than as any of them could get done as an independent restaurant on their own. And when I say get a lot done, I mean they have purchasing power, so they can support smaller local, more sustainable farms in more significant ways than a small independent restaurant could. They can support initiatives, like providing workers health care more in a greater way than the small independent restaurant could. So it’s a really interesting model for them to have pursued. In addition to all that, they’ve basically expanded horizontally, I guess, and created this self-sustaining network of businesses. So the bakery, it sells bread to the restaurants. 

So now the restaurants don’t buy bread from another bakery, they buy from their own bakery, and they can also participate in conversations about quality control, and sourcing, and all the workers talk to each other as well. So there’s just a lot that can become possible through getting organized in that fashion. That I think is– there’s a lot to look to for them to aspire to certainly from the perspective of restaurant owners, and I think from the perspective of workers as well as the perspective of the producers. 

Taylor Reid: Yeah, well, I was just going to add, this is something that’s come up in our conversations, because I have a background in ecology. And I think in academics in general, we tend to emphasize competition over cooperation. And there was a study that came out a few years ago looking at the number of papers in ecology that are emphasizing competitive relationships over cooperative relationships and it’s astounding the difference. But in nature, cooperative relationships are actually more important. 

The more diverse an ecosystem is, the more total productivity there is because its cooperation and actually is the dominant mode of interaction. And I think that we see the same thing in economics, we see the same thing in the restaurant industry, even when there isn’t the intentional setup cooperation like Max is talking about Zingerman’s. There’s cooperation that happens all the time. That’s really important. And we don’t recognize that when we study these things, we’re always just talking about competition. I’m not sure why that is. But maybe that’s another paper for some point.

Scott Ferguson: From here I’d really like to have you guys elaborate your critique that frames your paper. I think you’re doing a lot of positive work and work with counter examples that I want us to get into. But you also level a pretty strong critique at, I guess we could say, dominant models– the firm model and the firm exemption, which Ben has already kind of spoken to, but maybe we can say a little bit more about that. And then what Ben brought up and what you call in the paper, a concentrated provisioning system. 

So I think I get the sense that you’re calling out entities in the world, that actually are concentrated systems. Concentrated provisioning systems. But then you’re also critiquing the models by which we understand them. So what’s going on with these two terms, and maybe you can give us a little taste of some of the industries or histories that you critique in your paper.

Ben Wilson: So I think I’ll start. I’ll give the basic idea behind it. And then I think I’ll pass it off to Taylor to talk a little bit about industrial agriculture, because he really captures the dangers and the problems that are created when we concentrate provisioning, specifically in our food production system. But the neoclassical story that I was critiquing before, it wasn’t always that they just assumed that this coordination would occur. One of the more seminal articles by Coase in 1937, “The Nature of the Firm” asked a very specific question: why do firms exist? 

Because it is an ontological inconsistency to go from the individual to this, the thing that they just call “the firm”. And he comes up with this interesting definition that the firm may consist of a system of relationships, which comes into existence when the direction of resources is dependent on an entrepreneur. So he goes through all of this jujitsu to arrive at the fact that we have to have firms because we have this entrepreneur and the entrepreneur, we need to give them the freedom or the authority to direct resources in efficient and productive ways. And it’s interesting in that piece, he references somebody named Batt, B-A-T-T, who doesn’t use the word entrepreneur, but he uses the word “master”. So it’s a master-servant relationship.

And the master determines what the work is that the servant is to be doing. And when the servant is to be working, and for how long, and for how hard and all these sorts of things, which, you know, the lineage of this is a quick jump to slavery, and white supremacy, and patriarchy and all the things that are really pretty disgusting about the idea that the firm just spontaneously emerges out of nowhere. So we’re not really thinking about the firm as this hierarchical structure, then that allows them to produce and reproduce themselves as hierarchical structures over and over again, and the decision making process becomes increasingly anti-democratic. 

And Alfred Marshall and classical political economy really wrestled with this and argued that this is dangerous, right? Because there is the possibility that we would have bad masters that aren’t treating their workers very fairly. And if the workers aren’t afforded collective bargaining rights in their own right, then the exploitation is just going to continue to be exacerbated. And I think industrial agriculture really epitomizes this both in the way that the transformation of the farm has occurred over the 20th century. 

The directives of production on the farm, and then the corresponding community and the way that the community engages with farming, based on this concentrated provisioning system. The use of larger and larger scale production systems. And also has really taken nature out of the conversation as something that we should be reciprocating our relationship with in order to cultivate healthy diversity and all of these sorts of things that, like the worker, it is really left out of the conversation, the decision in meaningful ways. So that’s really where the hierarchy and concentration comes in. If we’re prioritizing an entrepreneur, then we’re disenfranchising those that are going into the production process and part of these communities of work.

Taylor Reid: There’s lots of things to talk about with industrial agriculture. But one of the things that we look at in the paper, there’s, I think, this myth that– farms are getting bigger and bigger. That’s clear. That’s happening. And you can see the graph over the last 100 years– cycle kind of accelerated in the 1980s. The myth is really that they’re getting bigger because they’re getting more efficient. It’s the idea that farms, bigger farms are more efficient. One of the things that we talk about in the paper is this research that’s been done by agricultural economists showing that once– when there’s consolidation in the industry, it forces farmers to get bigger. 

And so they’ve developed this measure that shows that basically, once the four largest firms have at least 40% of the market, they’re basically able to set price. And so concentration in the meatpacking industry is way above that, I think it catalysts like in the 80%, or something like that, and import gets in the 60s. And chicken, it’s up there as well. And so what’s happening is that, when the firms are able to set price, they’re always going to push price down, because then they’re able to sell more. So farmers that– and I’m making these numbers up– maybe they were making $1,000 per beef cattle before and now they’re making $100, they’re forced to get bigger, there’s no other choice in order to make the same amount of money that they that they had been making before from a smaller number of cattle. And so there’s this that we’ve been told is that farms are getting bigger, in order to increase efficiency, but they’re really getting bigger in order to maintain their meager profitability.

 And that’s just one of the things that we talk about in the paper. I think the bigger idea goes back to the complexity that we were talking about before. Farms have been increasingly forced to specialize, there’s no way to be– it’s hard to be a huge farm. Equipment is so expensive, and so specialized, and do a lot of different things. And I think that we see the breakdown of cooperation within rural cultures, when the farms get so big, that basically towns can’t exist anymore. 

You can’t have a school district within the county because all of the landowners have thousands and thousands of acres. And there are lots of pieces to it like that. The less cooperation that there is, the more dysfunctional the biological system is, and the more dysfunctional the social systems are.

Scott Ferguson: Max, what’s your experience in the industry? And can you can you flesh out some of that?

Max Sussman: Yeah. And I just wanted to go off of that, and say that we’re accustomed to thinking of consolidation as being something that inherently causes a lot of these problems. But if you go back and look at the restaurant industry, it’s definitely an industry that’s by and large, pretty unconsolidated. It’s a collection of many, many, many independently organized entities. And so then you realize that, well, that doesn’t necessarily inherently solve any problems, either. Because regardless of the size of the organization, there’s all these problems that are being caused to the environment and bad working conditions, and et cetera, et cetera. 

So I think that thinking about the coordination rights framework is so important, because it doesn’t necessarily refer strictly to things like size as the determining factor as to what things are going to be. It allows you to really think about things more qualitatively. Going back to I think, the question you asked before about what does this allow us to envision? What new possibilities does this allow us to envision is rather than, say, a relief package that’s based on a certain dollar amount, we could imagine a relief package that has the creation of new institutions that would help us create food based solutions to climate change. 

There’s any number of ways to [approach] the climate crisis. You know, there’s so many ways that we can imagine working together to solve those problems. It’s hard in a lot of ways, because restaurants are generally so discreet, they’re oftentimes separate. Maybe you have a couple of chef friends that you know or you’re a big chain. And that’s a whole other type of relationship there. But I think by and large, when people interact with food, it’s at the end of the supply chain. 

Most consumers are not seeing all these things. So I think that’s why, for me personally, it was really incredible to be discussing these issues with Ben and Taylor, because I, my whole life, I’ve been seeing things at the end of the supply chain, being like, well, how can I impact the world in a positive way? And it’s like, well, it’s actually really important to go up the supply chain, learn about more about the institutions that exist, that are impacting things that create the conditions that you’re facing, instead of necessarily, instead of just– it’s at the end of the supply chain, you’re just kind of tinkering around at the margins, and there’s not too much you can do in terms of impacting the bigger picture of the food provisioning system. 

I think that’s not to belittle any of the really incredible work that’s happening right now around workplace democratization, which is something that we’re seeing a lot of which is really, really incredible and should be celebrated.

William Saas: In the workplace democratization vis-à-vis, the need to go up the supply chain and think about coordination is interesting. In the context of a restaurant, I feel like where it seems like the default, at least in terms of stereotypes of how restaurants work is hierarchy, right? There’s a chef and there’s a vision and everyone executes on that vision. And others support that. I guess I’d just be interested– and maybe we don’t spend too much time on this– But maybe Max, your kind of observation about how a restaurant works, if there’s anything that we can abstract or or pull from that to help us understand better what– the benefits of coordination, how that might be more efficient than something like executing on a single entrepreneur, restaurant group, like Brinker International or something. 

Chili’s, shout out. I was a busboy there– first job. But yeah, I mean, it seems your experience in the restaurant space as a third space, which interestingly, I think also functions importantly, as you’ve talked about it as the second, as a place where second shifts are carried out where people come and do their interpretive labor about what’s going on at home. There’s also, having worked in restaurants, the people who are there have to frequently find their own third space, right? Whether it’s the bar next door, or down the street or whatever. A lot, a lot of stuff to chew on there. But what might you be able to pull from your experience in the restaurant space to help us understand coordination rights, I think?

Max Sussman: Well, I mean, I think we could probably talk about, we could talk about restaurants for as long as you want. But I think that there are restaurants– there’s a lot of different kinds of restaurants, there’s a lot of different kinds of people that work in restaurants by a very large caveat, but I think we can see the usefulness of structure in terms of a hierarchy in a lot of restaurants. And then at the same time, the potential for that structure to become toxic, and to help facilitate exploitive relationships and create situations without any accountability whatsoever. And I think those are– that’s the flip side of the structure and of the hierarchy there.

And right now, I think that something that we talk about in the paper is how to create more positive structures and relationships that are intentional and that we’re trying to see positive outcomes from. And I think where a lot of that work gets sidetracked or gets taken off the path is when there’s this intense focus on profitability in the restaurant world and how that becomes the main and the only goal that a lot of the people that are involved in the decision making pursue. And they aren’t even achieving it, but they think that they think that that’s the only thing that they need to be doing and focusing on. And once those two things clash in the current system, there really isn’t much to talk about. If you have a great idea, then oh, that’s cool, but oh, it’s gonna cost too much money. 

So, we explicitly talk about financing. And realize that in order to achieve some of these more positive beneficial outcomes, we need to figure out different ways of funding these projects, rather than these private investors, who are only looking for a return on their investment. And we need to figure out different ways to fund these projects and finance them, so that we can achieve more social outcomes. Otherwise, it’s just going to be, oh, you know, run this special and keep your food costs below 28%. And send the dishwasher home because it’s slow. And it’s the same old stuff that is going to be happening all the time, if all we have to go towards is some artificially constructed bottom line on the piano.

Scott Ferguson: So what’s the composition of private investment in the restaurant industry? Do you guys have that data? How often are banks investing? How often is it just individual investors? How often is it groups? If you don’t, that’s fine. We can skip this question. 

Max Sussman: I don’t know the answers.

Scott Ferguson: Okay. 

William Saas: And the context of the supply chain, you know, people interact with food, at the end of it. The restaurants are very close to the end of it. And that’s, I think what you’re talking about, Max. It’s natural that the squeeze of those if we had four groups that are at 40%, setting the price, like they own 40% of the farms are setting the prices that squeeze is shaping and determining what’s happening to that dishwasher at nine o’clock when it slows down. And the dining. Right, so–

Max Sussman: Yeah, and I just think that it’s such an important piece to the puzzle for people that are in restaurants to make those connections to realize what’s happening. I guess further up the supply chain is the way that I think about it, I’m sure there’s other ways to frame that. That’s impacting their ability to do the right thing. To do what they want to do is the right thing, and to make demands on those other institutions in our society that are affecting those conditions. Not just to be like, okay, well, what do we do? Do we charge a little bit more? Do we educate our customer base? Do we pivot? Do we do this through that? 

It’s like, wow, there’s all this other stuff, there’s a whole. There’s bills that determine what we subsidize in the agricultural industry. There’s laws like Taylor was talking about that govern how much consolidation there is in industrial agriculture. And all those things go into how much a case of cauliflower costs and doesn’t even kind of go into all the issues around sustainability and biodiversity and climate that we’re facing now that are also super, super important.

Taylor Reid: I think one of the other interesting things that we saw in this restaurant research is that during the pandemic, a lot of restaurants, a lot of the chefs and restaurant owners that we interviewed, use the pandemic as a moment to address some of the inequity issues, disparity in pay between front and back of house, toxic restaurant culture. 

And it seemed to me from that what was limiting their ability to do that wasn’t actually margins, because if anything, they were squeezed more during the pandemic was just not having the time to think about those kinds of issues and we saw that change. You know, at a time when restaurants were really struggling, in a lot of cases.

William Saas: If you’ve got time to lean, you got time to clean, but what if everything’s already cleaned?

Ben Wilson: One of the things that we heard was that it’s really expensive to do what’s right. And it’s just really– that’s one of the questions that we’re trying to tackle is, why is it so expensive to do what’s right? And part of that Max I think hit on really well was that this narrow objective of profit maximization is just not a good way to organize your society. Not a very good way to organize your food system. Certainly when Taylor’s talking about industrial agriculture and the ability to set prices, part of the price that they’re setting is the costs that it’s going to take to change all of this, right? The cost of water that we can’t drink. The cost of soil that is not going to produce food anymore, right? 

The dietary changes that this monoculture growing techniques create across our country. The pandemic really exacerbated these hotspots of food deserts and access to unhealthy foods and how these patterns overlap with bad access to public health care and limited resources and budgets in your education system and squeezing public universities in all these ways that, you know, when crisis happens, it’s the the actors that are working to solve public provisioning problems that get squeezed the first. 

Immediate response to the pandemic from our leadership was the Federal Reserve reenacted all the same tools it used in the financial crisis to stabilize the sheets on Wall Street and then the big banks. While our leaders in Congress debated and considered and thought about all the ways in which maybe they could halt the pandemic and arrived at really some answers that weren’t really all that beneficial. So how do we diversify those decisions about who gets their balance sheet saved? And how do we continue to foster environments where the Zingerman’s group is enabled the freedom to expand on and share the knowledge that they’re gaining through their cooperative enterprise behaviors? 

How it’s coordinating geography, how it’s coordinating price, how it’s coordinating where it’s getting its resources from, how much it’s investing in research and development. Right, how it’s sharing that information and teaching others, I think, is a big part of what we’re trying to figure out here is how do we help these successful coordinating systems continue to do the business of good work? In a way that doesn’t seem like it’s so expensive anymore? The folks that I work with up in the Adirondacks. I think the minimum number of jobs any one of them is holding right now is three. 

Three jobs to live year round up in a place that they love and they care about plus the volunteer work. The task force work is volunteer care work where none of them are getting paid to do that. And so how do you enable that sort of effort and care for a place where there’s just no monetary device right now to stabilize that other than constantly applying for and hoping that you get grant funding. Which, you know, if you’ve written grants, you’ve been turned down for grants. It’s far from a sure thing. And it’s super competitive because of the way that we structure it right? 

Money and finance that preferences profit driven activities over those that are gonna stabilize the environment, build climate resilience, educate folks, and rectify some of the ills that come from the development of an economy based on a master servant sort of relationship in our most dominant economic thinking.

Scott Ferguson: So I want to tee up a question about the Positive Alternative Financing Model Public Provisioning of Money of Liquidity model that you all are proposing. That’s really, I think, the heart of this paper. But I want to do so by maybe regrouping and flagging some really important points that have been made in the last few minutes. So one is while the various industries, the agro industry and the restaurant industry, may be driven by greed. 

What I also am hearing from you all is that an equal problem, if not worse problem from your all’s perspective, is the austerity of a profit driven model. And it’s the austerity of the profit driven model that makes everything so quote unquote, “expensive in a relative sense”, that often can feel absolute. And then that austerity creates a number of what feels like forced choices down the supply chain that– while as Taylor says, none of it is absolutely determinative, because in the midst of an economic crisis, we see the restaurant industry actually making things better. Nevertheless exerts all kinds of pressures, that might feel actual but might just be ideological or emotional. And that kind of thing. 

And then I guess another thing that I’m hearing you all saying is that as we think about whether we want to use the vertical metaphors or not, we can obviously use other ones as Max is saying, we think about up and down the supply chain. It’s absolutely necessary to think of not just the first kind of material producers, but to think about liquidity and to think about money at the apex of the supply chain, which doesn’t mean that it’s the only causal force, but it is certainly a major one. So I guess with all of these aspects of the problem in mind, what are you proposing would be another way forward that wasn’t profit driven, that wasn’t austerity grounded and wasn’t passing along these unhealthy forced choices and antidemocratic forced choices down the system?

Ben Wilson: So you guys want me to take this one? Well, the way I see it is we’ve got to really learn how to use money. And one of the things that we hear in the media right now, especially around the question of inflation, is that money needs to be tied to real resources. What better way to tie money to real resources then and to our food system? To start with specific spaces of production, where we can more closely link those resources to the money creation process. And so in order to help really learn how money works and operates, I think we need to enable people to set up and design and experiment their own monetary systems, especially around things like the restaurant group that Max talks about, La Via Campesina and its food sovereignty. 

Efforts to explicitly declare a set of production goals and objectives that are beyond profit and really don’t even include it. Like I think the triple bottom line narrative of social enterprises is a dead end, right? You know, whenever you have this triple bottom line, where you include profit, community, and environment in a crisis, you’re always gonna have to fall back toward keeping your doors open kind of thing. And then you spend all your time trying to find the money instead of actually doing the work that you would like to be doing. So allow these folks to find community organizations. We target anchor institutions, even though they’ve kind of received a little bit of a pejorative kind of connotation and other writings. 

I think universities, hospitals, hospital systems, these are big things in communities that aren’t just going to pick up and move at the drop of a hat, that have a relationship with our community that are already connected to all sorts of different production systems. That makes sense to be issuers of these sorts of credit provisioning opportunities to emphasize environmental production, emphasize mental health initiatives, education, school districts, all of these things, because they’re designed from the get go not to be profit driven, but our provisioning institutions. And so how do we begin to create goods and services outside of the profit driven motive is something that we’ve got to learn how to do. 

And learn that there is another way of producing and doing things for each other that makes life easier and not so expensive. And we’ve given banks the run of this experiment for 100 years now. With the idea that we will finance it infinitum, these profit driven activities and will underwrite this activity. For anybody and everybody to the point where they’re now underwriting activities that aren’t producing anything, right? It’s the shadow banking and the invention of the secondary markets and shadow markets and all these things that aren’t really driving actual production. So maybe it’s time to start reorganizing this different way to allow folks the opportunity to produce robust, healthy food systems locally to figure out how it is they want to make sure their kids are all feeling healthy and getting the care that they need, and so on and so forth.

Scott Ferguson: So you talk about in the article, some kind of possibilities that exist in some fairly recent legislation that’s been proposed, but hasn’t been passed, per se. And then you also talk about kind of bottom up community complementary currency options. Can you potentially speak to those two models?

Ben Wilson: Yeah, so, you know, La Via Campesina, I think we start with that as our example of food system change. Because it’s international in scale. And it sets forth a goal and an agenda that is sort of macro, right, so culturally appropriate foods for everyone. And I think the Green New Deal, the Public Banking Act, the Stablecoin Act, the E-Cash Act, these really large forms of legislation, kind of give us a vision for what people want, in terms of a democratic society, a sustainable economy, these sorts of things. So the basic idea is there. 

The question is, how do you enact a Green New Deal, right? What does it look like in our neighborhoods? And I think lots of people are already doing that work right. The Seven Valleys Health Coalition here in Cortland, New York is working tirelessly to solve food access issues– the Community Task Force is trying to do similar things. They just don’t have the resource connection and liquidity provisioning necessary and those acts– those bills all kind of give us the beginning pieces of that infrastructure on what it would look like in order to do that. 

So the Public Banking Act, in particular, I think, could be used to license things like universities and hospital systems and school districts to provision for themselves to ensure that we don’t go through this sort of austere terrible decision making crisis where we’re sending kids back into a classroom too early or we’re not supporting teachers adequately enough. Just the shortage of the provisioning of health care such as some communities are just so much harder hit by a pandemic than others, because they just don’t receive the standard of care that others do. We really don’t have to experience that sort of inequity if we are designing public provisioning of monetary systems with the idea that we don’t have to engage in that sort of behavior anymore.

Max Sussman: And I wanted to, Scott, I wanted to go back and answer a question that you asked earlier, and that might fit in at that point, but you asked how restaurants are financed? And I think it’s relevant. I think it’s a really important question. So, generally speaking, small restaurants are financed through smaller investors. They’re called friends and family for the most part. So they’re people that are connected to the people that are going to be the operators of the restaurant. And it’s through networks that already exist, which tend to favor power structures that already exist around race and class and gender and other hierarchies.

And as the restaurant itself gets bigger, then you would tend to also, comparatively, start to source your financing from bigger institutions as well. So you might then go to an investment group, or if you’re going to be a multi unit operation might be private equity that’s financing it, and then at some point, you might get a bank loan, but it’s not really a common thing, I think, probably due to the high failure rate of restaurants. It’s not really an exciting thing to give a loan for. But a lot of restaurants will have lines of credit at the bank after they’re operating. 

So just to tie it all back into that, I think the one way that we can make it easier for people to do more good things with food projects, is to make it easier for them to access credit and capital to make these projects happen. And that can happen in a lot of different ways. That could happen through changing laws, that can happen through– as we know, banks are licensed agents of the government that make decisions based on certain sets of criteria. So it’s been something that people have been calling for and in the wide– in all areas, right, like, make access to credit easier for businesses, people of color run businesses, for example. 

So we could also similarly call for access to credit to be made easier for restaurants that fit a set of criteria about how they treat workers and how they’re organized internally, and how they relate to their local economy and how they source their products and all that kind of stuff. And then the other thing I wanted to mention was that– so like Ben was just talking about, the interrelatedness of institutions, especially anchor institutions and the role they play in their local economies. Not just not just hiring workers, but making their own procurement decisions. 

And so one thing that is important in the food, and the food world is for schools to be changing how they source their product. And they have contracts that they signed with, you know, big, often really institutional food service suppliers, that are definitely not thinking about sustainability, not thinking about workers rights, and not thinking about a lot of these issues. And so applying pressure there, which is something that, say parents could do if they have if they have kids in a school, or students could do if they’re at the school and applying pressure for these institutions to make their purchasing decisions more responsibly and to not. 

So that’s something that’s always been happening, but also to apply pressure to perhaps create new institutions that are interrelated and connected and can make these decisions together and in local and regional economies can happen.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, that’s wonderful. I just want to add something that I think is, I think we’re all assuming, but no one’s actually said it aloud, which is: if we saved through the Public Banking Act, establish all kinds of different bank licenses in banking and financial institutions in the public interest that have certain kinds of criteria, and that some maybe are specially designated for regional and local restaurants, or maybe they specialize in a host of similar kinds of services like that, I mean, I’m not an expert, I’ll let the experts take it from here. But crucially, right, this access to credit, A) need not be something like a traditional loan, where precisely one has to drive the business forward through the motive of profit in order to repay the loan. 

So that’s the first thing. Maybe some of it is a loan, some of it is a grant, maybe all of it is a grant, as long as your obligation is a social, qualitative and ecological obligation rather than merely a quantitative one. And then I think, secondly, thinking about the public banking system itself, as being what we might call using conventional language perpetually in deficit. Perpetually in debt to the society that it is serving. And that way you reverse the kind of drain that the private banking system creates, right? The private banking system says, “no, feed me. Feed me or we’re going to die and everyone has to feed everybody else, or else everyone’s going to perish”. 

Whereas if you have a bountiful– like the Fed is right– a bountiful source that says, “no, are we meeting the eco-social goals that we’re after here?” Then you’re really putting– I love water metaphors– you’re really putting a plug on that drain.

Max Sussman: I mean, it makes me think of the line that the public deficit is the private surplus. And it’s like as Ben was saying, we need to figure out ways to use the monetary framework to do good things and to create public things that have public purpose in society, as described.

Ben Wilson: And then we need to– I love calling money an IOU, right. And I think more than just being a promise to pay, it should be a promise to do. And the more you gather folks like the Seven Valleys Health Coalition or the restauranteurs that we studied– when you are bringing together collective effort to feed your community to stabilize employment, all of that work is unpaid care, labor for your community, that you are taking on more, and you should be receiving the credit for those efforts and that work, so that it can continue and grow and expand. So what are we prepared to promise one another? How are we willing to promise each other an ecological culturally appropriate food system on a global scale? And if so, where are the resources that we need to do that? 

And this is really just a change in the underwriting practices, right? Max keeps bringing up standards or criteria. We rewrote the book, all the books and created all sorts of coursework on underwriting when we changed mortgage lending laws. So that soldiers returning home from the war could buy new suburbia, tracts of land and houses, right? This is the same sort of work that needs to be done.We need to figure out how to underwrite and to provision a healthy, sustainable and culturally appropriate food system at a global scale. And that starting there is a good place to expand into other areas – a culturally appropriate and sustainable arts culture and healthcare and all the things that make life meaningful and useful and wonderful, and that tends to get crushed by other things. 

I think something that really captures this was on Twitter not too long ago, there was this kerfuffle about whether or not restaurants would exist under socialism. It’s like: Where is your imagination, right? What? You know, why would people stop wanting to prepare foods and to do it in an interesting and artistic and opening and grateful way for one another? Why would that experimentation and that desire to do things for one another disappear? I think McDonald’s would disappear under this sort of public banking infrastructure, but I think we would still have wonderful arts and culture experiences in our society. 

Maybe more so and more readily available, instead of having to sit by ourselves or on the couch in the dark watching Netflix. We will be out in the public space watching performances and have a much greater and larger third space for all of us to enjoy.

Scott Ferguson: Can I ask just– Taylor, how much has the work you’re doing in collaboration here informed your pedagogy?

Taylor Reid: That’s an interesting question. I mean, wow, I’m gonna have to think about that. I think, in so many ways, I think we artificially segment economics and biology and in agriculture is one of the places where they come together. Restaurants is one of the places where they come together. I spend a lot of time talking to my students, especially my young students, about the interconnections between these things. And for example, healthy soil. Healthy soil is really important for having good tasting, nutritious food. 

That’s obviously really important to a chef. It also has the added benefit of helping us to store carbon, which addresses the climate crisis. And we’ve seen from agricultural economics, that it’s also the best indicator that we can find, for the financial success of farms. There’s an almost direct correlation between the percentage of organic matter that you have in your soil, and the financial viability and resilience of the farm. 

And so I’ve been thinking since having these conversations a lot more about the artificial duality that we create between the various silos in our institutions. And I think food is a perfect place to start breaking those apart and making these connections. Because there are some very obvious and intuitive connections in the food system that challenge this notion that these are all separate ideas and entities. And I think that’s something that I’ve been able to bring to my classes and bring to my students in a richer way as a result of our conversations and as a result of our collaboration. 

Ben Wilson: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. You know, the siloing and academics’ work is really detrimental. And so hopefully, this paper and some of the things that we’re thinking about foods, can help us to start to break down some of those false barriers between our intellectual pursuits. And that’s, frankly, why I was so drawn and interested in submitting the paper to you guys, because I think you and the Money on the Left is really at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity. 

And really creative in amazing ways. And if you scan the references here, it’s a who’s who of people that have been on this show. So, yeah, in terms of teaching people, I think as a counter example of what not to do, Bitcoin serves as a point of reference in the paper. Like, here’s a philosophy grounded and scarcity exchange that is just gross. It’s not working, it becomes a speculative asset, right? It’s burning all sorts of energy for the production of nothing– except like, Twitter followers, you know.

Scott Ferguson: That’s something!

Ben Wilson: So, we can design monetary systems and we can implement them and all sorts of scales. And so, don’t be afraid to try to set up a monetary system in your community or your classroom. And use design principles that you’ve learned about in this podcast and from people that think about money and monetary sovereignty and how it needs to be dissolved from a narrow borders sort of perspective to be more likely La Via Campesina and inclusive and beyond boundaries, sorts of ideas. 

And so yeah I’m trying to teach my students by running monetary systems in my classes to promote nonprofit  work, and they seem to get it. And they like the idea that money isn’t the root of all evil, but could be something more productive and as a means of connecting folks, rather than segregating them and separating their interests.

Scott Ferguson: Max, what’s it like to be an MMT Chef? In whatever resonance you hear.

Max Sussman: Weird. I mean, one thing I wanted to say quickly was how important I think it is to take the MMT insights and apply them in areas where they’re not traditionally, or rather, just where they have not necessarily been applied yet. And I really think food is super important. And I think it’s something that we have to do moving into the future. Things are gonna get not great in a lot of ways. In terms of the climate, there’s some things that are kind of, there’s changes that are going to occur that despite our best efforts will probably result in things getting tough for farmers and for our food system. Coming from the land and from the sea. And it’s going to change things a lot. 

So I think that we’re going to find that communities that have  taken a lot of the MMT insights and figured out how to translate them into local and regional levels, it’s going to be such an important development. And it’s not going to be all “oh, well, the federal government can do anything– can pay for anything.” Because if it doesn’t, then we still have to fix problems and take care of each other. We can’t only be just waiting for that to happen there. And food systems, they work regionally. So it’s a natural way to  take a lot of this learning and figure out ways to apply it. 

And I like, would again, I would echo what Ben was saying, to encourage people to try to experiment in their communities and work with each other, to build these systems that are resilient, that use money, and that take care of each other because it’s important now it’s going to only become more important, for sure.

Ben Wilson: And just to build on that for a second. One person who is not with us, but was really instrumental in the development of this paper is Jakob Feinig, who really helped with an earlier draft of the paper and his Moral Economies of Money really served as inspiration for a lot of the ideas here. And that book is full of real world examples of how we have come together as communities to create monetary systems and to change the provisioning, not just of agricultural products but build entire public waterworks systems. So definitely familiarize yourself with his work if you haven’t done so already. 

Max Sussman: And I love that you brought up that Twitter moment about whether there would be restaurants in some unspecified post revolutionary future, but I really hope that we– which is a really silly premise– but I really hope that restaurants change in the future. I think that we can all together envision ways of creating social spaces that benefit communities that feed people. And that don’t replicate these harmful systems and these harmful hierarchies and these toxic work environments.

 I think “culturally appropriate” is a really important phrase, and I think that a restaurant– places where you can get food in a community should serve the community and there should be a relationship there. And yeah so there’s plenty of imagining that we can all do, and if any other chefs are listening, get in touch. We can imagine together and hopefully build something.

William Saas: Any additional closing thoughts or reflections?

Taylor Reid: Yeah I mean, I really think that we’ve covered a lot of ground here and that’s been one of the really nice things about this collaboration is that because we come from different perspectives, a lot of the things that Max was saying about the restaurant industry goes for farming as well. It’s very clear that we need to change our farming system, and you know the environmental reasons are very clear and the food security reasons are very clear. The economic reasons are very clear. The crumbling of our rural communities. I don’t think that we are as explicit about that in the restaurant industry. 

I think that critique has been made more powerfully about agriculture, but I think we also need to think about the connection between the two. I tell my students all the time, restaurants drive the agricultural system that we have. Because restaurants are the end users. And we’ve told farmers for the last hundred years that what’s important to us in restaurants is cheap food, and I think that we need to start changing that conversation and thinking about how to send farmers a different message. Because farmers will respond. 

If what’s actually important is flavor and nutrition and a healthy environment and healthy water– sorry Scott– then farmers will respond to that. And so I think we got to keep in mind that that connection within the food system, these aren’t isolated enterprises. Food is one interconnected web of activities and people and culture.

Scott Ferguson: Well that’s a beautiful place to stop. Ben, Max, Taylor thanks so much for writing this piece. Thanks so much for joining us for this wonderful conversation.

Ben Wilson: Thank you, it’s been fun.

Taylor Reid: Thanks for having us.

Max Sussman: A great honor to be here and to be working with you all.

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






Municipal Money After Crypto: Austin Edition

Mike Siegel and Mike Lewis join Money on the Left to discuss municipal currency politics. The conversation focuses, in particular, on our guests’ recent success in Austin, Texas, where they helped critically rewrite anti-public and anti-environmental crypto legislation to open fresh possibilities for public banking and payments that support local communities and ecologies. 

A former public school teacher, Mike Siegel is a civil rights attorney, a co-founder of the progressive non-profit Ground Game, and a former Democratic candidate to represent Texas’ 10th Congressional district in the US House of Representatives. Mike Lewis, meanwhile, served as communications director for Siegel’s 2020 campaign, works regularly to advance Ground Game’s commitment to progressive electoral politics, and remains a prolific advocate for public money. 

In early 2022, Siegel, Lewis and Money on the Left Collective member Andrés Bernal mobilized an effort to block the development of an official cryptocurrency in the City of Austin. Initially, they appealed to the Austin Chronicle opinion page to reshape public opinion. Next, Siegel, Lewis, and Bernal persuaded and then worked alongside Austin City Council members to amend recently-passed crypto legislation. Impressively, these amendments introduced new language into municipal law, warning against the eco-social dangers of crypto, on one hand, and articulating a broad-based need for robust public banking and payment systems, on the other. Woefully underreported in comparison to news about all things blockchain, the story of municipal money politics in Austin represents a powerful model for local public money action worldwide, particularly in light of the recent catastrophic crash in crypto markets.

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.

Maxximilian Seijo: Mike Lewis and Mike Siegel, welcome to Money on the Left.

Mike Siegel: Right on. Thanks so much for having us.

Mike Lewis: Hey, thanks for having us.

Maxximilian Seijo: We’ve invited you two on the show today to speak about your efforts to redirect some… what we could say, misguided attempts around cryptocurrencies and municipal politics. Moving it more towards a movement for public banking and public payment systems. And so we’re especially interested in hearing about your organizing in and around the city council in Austin, Texas. We feel strongly that this still relatively underreported story can serve as a powerful model for local public money action worldwide, particularly in light of the recent catastrophic crash in crypto markets, including certain stable coins. 

Before we launch into this conversation, though, we’d like to give you each a chance to tell us a bit about your professional and personal background. Let’s begin with Mike Siegel. Mike, can you say a bit about yourself for our listeners, who might be unfamiliar with your previous congressional campaign or your organizing efforts with ground campaign Texas?

Mike Siegel: Well, thanks again for having me. Great to be on Monday on the Left. I’m Mike Siegel, I’m a former public school teacher, union organizer, and civil rights lawyer. In 2018 and 2020, I was the Democratic nominee for Congress… challenged this guy, Michael McCaul, one of the most wealthy and most corrupt members of Congress. And, you know, it was endorsed by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortes and labor and progressives and environmental groups. With the help of a really broad coalition, you know, ran a campaign that was probably the strongest pro Green New Deal campaign in the South among congressional candidates. Built a really strong base of organizers and volunteers and turned what was previously a safe Republican district into a national battleground race. 

Despite being for the green New Deal Medicare for All and endorsed by Bernie, I also was a D-Triple-C candidate. So somehow was able to thread that needle of getting both mainstream and progressive support. After 2020 I didn’t want to keep running for Congress every year of my life. I stayed in the fight and politics. I joined together with another progressive Democrat, Julie Oliver, we founded Ground Game Texas. The basic idea is to fund year round work in politics, not just getting out the vote for a candidate on the eve of the election. But working year round, focusing on places that don’t get enough investment, and focusing on progressive issues. We know that the Democratic Party in many parts of the South is not popular, but our issues are. I would include what we’re talking about today, you know, the idea of public banking. I mean, these are issues that really appeal to working class people. 

What Ground Game is doing, you know, we’re basically based on 2020. Joe Biden was outperformed in many states by progressive issues. Florida, 60% voted for $15 an hour, but voted for Trump. South Dakota legalized marijuana and voted for Trump. We’ve got a set of issues we call workers, wages, and weed. The idea is to lead with these populist, popular issues, and then use that as a way to engage more people in the political process. Long story short, right now, Ground Game Texas is running ballot measure campaigns in 10 cities to get issues like these on the ballot as a way to excite more voters.

William Saas: Mike Lewis, you are a great friend to us at Money on the Left,  having transcribed some of our important back episodes. Could you say a bit about your own roles that you’ve played in Austin politics and how you might have collaborated with Mike Segal in particular?

Mike Lewis: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Billy, Max, and the Money on the Left crew. I’m Mike Lewis, I’ve been a volunteer activist since the Bernie 2016 campaign. Prior to that, I was kind of passively aware of politics. I kind of identified loosely as a “Ron Paul libertarian” as folks do who grew up in rural Texas. Turned around thanks a lot to my Mom who started organizing against a sinister landfill company. She was posting Bernie memes on my Facebook wall. I got into organizing and showed up at a Fajita Phonebank for Bernie in January 2016. I’ve been working on various campaigns and issues ever since. 

I worked on Mike Siegel’s campaign in 2020 as comms director, really helping kind of develop and organize around the green New Deal. We actually organized the first major Green New Deal town hall in Texas. Built that into winning over the labor support in Texas with AFL CIO across a bunch of different labor unions. Building their trust around the programs just transition and whatnot. I’ve been working also as a volunteer research assistant for different projects in the MMT space as well. Helping Andrés Bernal publish a paper as a research assistant on inflation. Then we have an upcoming paper that we’re working on around MMT for local government. Really helping progressive candidates up and down the ticket, especially around messaging public finance approach, the classic “how do you pay for it” question that we all love.

Maxximilian Seijo: Thanks so much, Mike. Maybe to set up this narrative for a bit, can you all explain what’s been going on with the crypto industry at this sub-federal level, both in Austin and elsewhere? As you do so, maybe try to provide some basic definitions and context for our listeners who are not closely following this space? So for example, what for instance, is meant by the term “crypto”, “blockchain” or “web point three”? Who are the big players in this world and what are they trying to accomplish? How is the crypto industry strategy and rhetoric been changing as of late, at least prior to the recent crypto market crash? By contrast, where do orthodox municipal commitments to bond and tax financing fit into crypto’s advance? 

And how are you all working alternatively, to transform Municipal Finance, guided by the insights of MMT? Most important, finally, how do you all see municipal public money politics affecting various struggles for social and environmental justice? There’s a lot there, but maybe we can wait into some of these questions.

Mike Siegel: Mike, you want to start? I feel like you’re more of the expert on these issues.

Mike Lewis: Sure, right on. Yeah, I guess I’ll start with the definitions. Cryptocurrency is, you know, it says it’s a currency, right? But it’s a private token on what’s called a “blockchain,” which is a line of code that has a consensus mechanism. There’s proof of work, proof of stake, different consensus mechanisms out there. All the popular cryptocurrencies operate on a proof of work blockchain, which is basically a justifiable rage at private banks. Bailouts from the 2008 financial crisis kind of led this this project of cryptocurrency on a quest to create this, quote, unquote, “trustless money system”, where not only is code law, but apolitical laws, as Ron Gray recently pointed out responding to one of the Winklevoss tweets, that was talking just about how, you know, there is no politics here. It’s a trustless money system, you don’t have to have any kind of mediation between parties, but you can basically trust in a line of code. 

It’s kind of a deeply libertarian ethos that’s built into the technology itself. It’s basically, you know, a cyber collectible asset priced in dollars. It uses money aesthetics, to prop up a revolutionary technology narrative. It’s most likely… it’s an unregulated security. It’s something that is kind of imagining money as a scarce object. That is, you know, finite. Of course, most people really only buy into this stuff because it’s going to increase in value, in dollars. It really kind of defeats the purpose of what money is, which is the things that price, things are priced in the actual unit of account. That’s kind of the basics. You know, Web3, is basically just imagining the internet. If we’re in Web 2.0, right now, which evolved out of Web1, Web2 being the platforms, you know, Facebook, the different kind of centralized platforms. This kind of venture capital backed project around so called Web 3.0 imagines putting the internet onto a blockchain. Just to make sure to zoom in on what a blockchain is really just think of that as a distributed ledger that is append only. It’s imagined to be something that’s immutable, that can’t change. 

But of course, there’s many examples throughout crypto history of exactly the opposite happening. I think one of the things to really understand about the crypto space as we get into this conversation has to deal with stable coins which when you walk into a casino and you get casino chips, you trade your dollars for an official casino chip, and that’s supposed to have exact value to the the amount of dollars that you put in. So the way that the crypto space works– the way that people on ramp and off ramp out of these crypto tokens is they convert their dollars into these so-called “stable coins”. What we recently saw with this huge crash, with the Terra stable coin, the fourth largest crypto token that was out there about $18 billion in market valuation, we basically saw the value proposition of the crypto space kind of contradicting itself and failing as it has repeatedly again and again. 

There’s been so much money pouring into culture and the politics from the crypto space. It seems like they’re kind of desperate for new suckers, new liquidity, so that they can kind of exit from their initial investments. We’ve seen, of course, massive amounts of celebrities endorsing everything. Maybe that that kind of leads into where we picked up with things here in Austin, I’ll kind of pass it over to Mike.

Mike Siegel: Right on, yeah. To be clear, I don’t promise to be an expert in any of this. Mike Lewis is kind of my translator for a lot of this new financial technology. He turned me on to Stephanie Kelton and an MMT. I think what I’ve been trying to do the last several years as a relatively high profile kind of political figure on the left in Texas, is like how do we translate these ideas into political campaigns and action? And how do we build coalitions that kind of understand these concepts and combat the status quo in Texas? I would say, the way this issue came up in Austin is essentially… I mean, first of all, think of Austin– all the big tech companies are ramping up more and more. Google just bought 50 stories of commercial office space on a riverfront property, like the most beautiful building in Austin. Facebook, Oracle, everybody has these huge footprints… Amazon going down the line. 

That’s often an extremely booming city that is unaffordable for even working class, middle class people at this point. And you have the Super Bowl, where everyone knows that there’s all these pro-crypto ads in the Superbowl. That’s followed up by our annual festival in Austin, South by Southwest. And I think most your listeners are generally aware of what South by Southwest is. But it started out as this kind of cute Music Festival, Film Festival, and has now become this major cultural moment where all these big venture capital folks, tech bros, and what have you are coming to Austin, spending 1000’s of dollars for tickets to the festival, spending all this money and hyping up their various pitches and proposals. So this year, South by [Southwest] was bigger than the last couple years because of COVID. 

There was kind of like a big push to make South by [Southwest] this huge event. It seems like in concert with that, the crypto money came to town, and particularly the crypto political money. And this is something that I’ve been very aware of that there are now, you know, super PACs trying to influence candidates on crypto issues. Trying to give congressional candidates millions of dollars. Trying to influence city council candidates. So what seems to have happened in Austin is it in concert with South by Southwest, the crypto lobbyists started reaching out to city council members in Austin and other local political figures to try to get some sort of symbolic win in Austin, timed with South by Southwest. And it seems like their goal was to push Austin to adopt a coin similar to Miami, or some of these other places– an “Austin coin”– that would be this blockchain style currency.

 That was kind of the move they were making. I got word of this because through my political work, some of my labor allies who happen to work in City Council offices, they pinged me, “hey, you should take a look at this draft resolution circulating”. It was basically… it was going to be a city of Austin official action that endorsed blockchain and crypto, and basically offered the services of the city bureaucracy to advance the local so-called Web 3.0 movement in Austin. And there were two or three draft policies. Some of them were extremely supportive. My immediate concern was that these folks, what they were basically going to do is get the city of Austin to endorse this get rich quick pyramid scheme, as Mike Lewis described it. And that a year or two from now when crypto crashes, all these working class people would invest in crypto because the city of Austin put their reputation behind it and they would be screwed.

 I’ll pass the mic back to you in a second, but long story short, what happened was once we got word of this move that was happening in the Austin City Council, Mike Lewis kind of gathered some experts. We created basically an educational guide for the City Council staff and officeholders so they understand what these different terms mean. Because a big part of this is all these crypto advocates come in and they use all these terms of art that most people have no clue what they mean. They were basically starting to convince the city council that, oh, what’s the harm in supporting local business? You know, that’s how it’s being framed. These are just local business people in Austin, so let’s support them. We produced an educational guide that kind of showed the risks, the history of Bitcoin, that the fluctuations, how it’s basically a scheme to transfer wealth from late adopters to early adopters. We started lobbying individually, with council members and council offices.

 Then as it progressed, we realized that even though we were kind of raising these flags and bringing up this history, that the council was going to move forward. In particular, the mayor of Austin, who I consider a friend of mine, and another council member, did this big press conference right before South by Southwest launched that they were going to introduce these two resolutions. And that’s when we kind of mobilized even more, we’re like, oh, no, this is about to go through, with almost no debate. 

Together, we wrote an op-ed, in the local paper, The Austin Chronicle, which got a lot of circulation. That created this opportunity where multiple council offices were willing to work with us to say, okay, hold on, let’s put a brake on this pro-crypto stuff. Then that’s when we introduced the concept of public banking and complementary currencies. I guess this is kind of giving away the end game, but ultimately, we’re able to get these resolutions amended. So now technically, even though they passed something that was ostensibly, pro-Web 3.0, they also passed a resolution that’s pro-public banking.

William Saas: Could you say more about– either Mike or Mike– about the particulars of that proposal? That sort of “wolf in sheep’s clothing” of something for small businesses that’s actually about the transfer of wealth from late adopters to early adopters? We particularly understand that y’all were troubled by and I think we share that concern, the potential tax receivable ability of this Austin coin. Could you talk about the particulars of the proposal and your critique of it in that op ed and other forums?

Mike Siegel: Well, I’ll start Mike, and then pass it to you to fill in. The most extreme version was going to allow city workers…  the city of Austin employs 13,000 people, right? It’s not just cops. It’s a whole class of the city is employed by the city. So people were gonna be able to receive their salaries and crypto, people were gonna be able to have their retirement get transferred to crypto, people were gonna be able to pay their water bills and their electric bills in crypto. It was basically like fully using this as a quote unquote, “currency” were some of the proposals that were out there. I’ll never forget, while Mike and I were working on these issues, going to my barber– I go to a black barber in kind of far North Austin– And I’m like, I’ve got all these kinds of blockchain questions on my mind. 

And in the barber shop, I’m hearing one of the barbers talk about how his son has $15,000 invested in crypto. Like basically instead of a college fund, this working class family has put $15,000 in the crypto. What the guy said was like, we can’t touch it until he gets to college. So not only are they invested in it, but they can’t get out even if things go wrong. To me, it just seemed like hucksterism. That these extremely wealthy donor types had convinced the mayor and these other politicians, oh, there’s no harm in lending the city’s name to it. This is all… this is all good. And there was no discussion of the drawbacks. Basically, this op-ed we put together… I forgot how many words… 600 words or something, but basically just introduced the real high points of how risky this investment is and how disastrous the Miami coin has been. But yeah, Mike, how would you flush out what we were going through?

Mike Lewis: Sure. We saw how the whole purpose of the resolutions were to A) get support for cryptocurrency, generally speaking, and all of the tax perceivability especially on the most extreme end. And then also kind of using the mysteriousness or possible, magically innovative potential of blockchain technology in a separate resolution as being kind of two separate things. We kind of saw that there were some folks on council who said, I’m skeptical of crypto, but I’m interested to see what all types of use cases there are at the municipal level for blockchain technology. The crypto industry is very interested in getting that narrative out there  because they want to be able to say that there’s a whole lot of use cases for this distributed append only ledger and whatnot. 

I guess there’s a lot of problems with tha though, from a privacy standpoint that folks who’ve had on Money on the Left, like Rohan, I’ve written about. There’s also just the aspect that it’s a predatory financial scheme and that there’s folks that are pushing massive returns when they’re basically left holding the bag. The whole system is riding on this whole stable coin industry that’s kind of a ticking time bomb in terms of… its basically shadow banking or 19th century “Wildcat Banking”… kind of all the reasons we have modern banking and finance regulations is what the crypto industry is kind of speed running through the last couple of years. So, I think that at the local level there was organizations like CityCoins that were trying to push their agenda to get Austin to adopt a CityCoin. Basically, how this scheme works is a Peter Thiel acolyte-run organization. Basically, the idea is they allow… once the city announces that they’re willing to allow a CityCoin to be created, they allow the mining to start. 

Miners mine the cryptocurrency with their computers using a bunch of computing power. Then people gain those tokens and then you can sell them or buy them on… there’s one exchange for just for CityCoins, for MiamiCoin, in this one use case. What’s interesting about that is the mayor of Miami was pressed on the fact that this one exchange, Okcoin, he was pressed by a reporter from CoinDesk, that they were advertising 430% returns on investment annually. This is a token is now down like 98%. The idea is the mining reward… 70% goes to the miners, 30% goes into a wallet that basically belongs to the city and they’re just the beneficiary of it. So, it’s basically kind of a bribe, if you will, to the city to kind of put the cities and perimeter on this speculative token that doesn’t have any use cases for payment system, for banking the unbanked, all the different narratives that they put out there. It’s just a speculative coin and it’s lost a lot of people a lot of money.

Maxximilian Seijo: You’ve both narrated some of the aspects of the problems with these resolutions, and obviously as well touched on the sort of rapid advance the crypto industry is making towards politics. Before we move to some more general questions though, I want to ask specifically about the resolution amendments that you all lobbied and had introduced. Particularly maybe some of the language that describes some of the limits and problems of crypto that you’ve been outlining, as well as the language that legally enshrined support for public banking, complementary currencies, and public payments platform.

Mike Lewis: Sure, I can go ahead and read those. I’ve got our after action report pulled up. On the cryptocurrency resolution, the first one we got added into their awareness statement that basically pointed out that cryptocurrencies present notable consumer risks including volatility scams, lost encryption keys, the inability to reverse transactions, and privacy issues. And then we also got added to that, whereas existing and potential public payments, currency and banking technologies and infrastructures that exist for the city of Austin should be also considered for broader investment, creation of a digital wallet based payment platform that’s public, administered by the city as well as the creation of a local complementary currency issued and accepted by the city. Then on the blockchain and Web3 resolution, we got a whereas statement that pointed out that blockchain technologies have known power consumption challenges that should be researched to determine the environmental impact. 

Just pausing for a moment there, one of the whole reasons that the cryptocurrency industry professes that they can create this trustless environment for peer to peer transactions and things like that, is that we can trust in this line of code. But we can also trust in the fact that there is a sea of computers that are running calculations to guess at numbers. Basically, that’s what we can put our trust in versus people. It’s putting our trust in that kind of that waste of massive amounts of energy. Bitcoin alone wastes as much energy as the entire country of Argentina consumes, or the Netherlands. Then lastly, we got added into the resolution in the be it further resolved, supporting the creation and development of any financial innovations that could benefit Austinites and city governments, and applications that could include public payment platforms, public banks, or local complementary currencies.

Mike Siegel: And to just add a little color to that, the frame for our critique of what the crypto lobby was trying to do was equity. That was really resonant for the politicians and community groups. Who is this serving? To really clarify, for the office holders that this is serving the early adopters, the crypto proponents themselves. But you know, something Mike said earlier about Miami, really goes to the heart of why the crypto lobby was able to get as far as they did. It’s this bribe that they’re essentially offering. I mean, here in Texas, where a progressive city like Austin is operating in extremely challenging financial environment, where the state has basically constrained sources of income. We have no income tax in Texas. And beyond that, the city is constrained from even raising local taxes. 

But by state law, such that you actually have to have an election, if you want to increase taxes, or sorry, increased spending above a certain amount each year by, I think it’s 4%. We can’t even to keep up with the cost of living. We can’t even keep good staff working for the city, where they’re talking about lawyers or engineers, or all sorts of specialists. There really is this overall feeling of financial desperation. How do we fund the bare minimum? I mean, we have a housing crisis, but we can’t afford to pay for housing. We’re in a climate crisis, but we can’t afford to shut down the coal plant that powers the city. And so I think the promise of this crypto money is so tempting for the politicians. And that’s where Mike and I talked about… as we were doing it we tried to kind of perform a little bit of judo energy transfer, like, okay, the crypto lobby created all this energy and momentum. But can we somehow turn this moment and shift it towards complementary currency and public banking? I think we did like really establish a foothold here. Were multiple council members at the council meeting, when all this was decided, spoke in favor of public banking. And now we’ve introduced this concept to the city that presents an opportunity in the years to come. Oh, well, you know, we might be able to pay for that housing that we need, if we set up a public bank, we might be able to generate additional local income if we have a complementary currency and introduce these progressive financial technologies as an alternative to crypto.

William Saas: As a sort of, several years ago, as a recent transplant to Louisiana, we had a new governor replaced Bobby Jindal– John Bel Edwards, a Democratic governor. There was a lot of hope and excitement around that. And he came in saying, basically, that we’re going to move forward putting Louisiana first. I was pretty new to MMT and interested in public banking at the time, and wrote an op-ed in The Advocate, which is the Baton Rouge paper, basically advocating for public banking. The responses to that op-ed– they made it a letter to the editor– were shocking enough for me to just be like, I’m not gonna look at those again. Could you share a bit about… and there were some good ones and I actually made some good connections with folks as a result, but it was illuminating. Could you share a bit about the reception of y’all’s work and y’all’s op-ed? And I wonder if there’s any overlap between the constituency that is sort of is interested in weed wages and money or–

Mike Siegel: Workers, wages, and weed?

William Saas: Workers, wages, and weed and crypto. So what sort of conversations have you had? How are people receiving this work?

Mike Siegel: I think… Do you want me to go first, Mike, or do you want to go?

Mike Lewis: Yeah, all I was gonna say is we’ve basically kicked off a conversation and it’s picking up across a bunch of different kind of intersectional bases of the grassroots climate organizers, racial justice organizers, folks that combat predatory payday lenders and whatnot. There’s a whole lot of different sectors that should have a major interest in public money and what it can do and how it applies to what they’re trying to accomplish. Go ahead, Mike.

Mike Siegel: I think there was a lot of interest. The local DSA chapter, there was a lot of interest. An Austin interfaith that deals with workers with working class. Faith communities, they’re interested, Austin Justice Coalition. I think the challenge for the activists was like, this sounds good. But how do we do it? I think, overall, in Texas, I mean, shit, we’re recording this couple days after the horrible Uvalde shooting. I mean, they’ve banned abortion in the state. I mean, we are under such immense pressure on so many fronts, that a lot of the good organizers are completely maxed out. So, I think the reaction was from some of the key folks, that sounds great, but where do we come up with the resources, the leverage to actually make this real? Then the other concern is that basically, even if Austin does this, will the state of Texas just preempt it? 

There’s this long standing struggle with Democratic cities in Texas, especially in Austin, where you do something progressive, you lead the way– we pass a paid sick leave ordinance. We pass protections to ban the box for formerly incarcerated individuals. And then the state at the next session of the legislature passes a law that preempts or overrules what we’re doing locally. Some folks feel not only are am I overwhelmed and don’t have enough capacity to take on this project. But also, if we win, isn’t the state just going to overrule us one year later? I think part of where we’re at right now with this movement, is people understand the idea. And in particular, it’s the Bank of North Dakota, right, Mike, that is a great example? I think the two stories where we were able to tell really effectively is one, the Bank of North Dakota is an amazing example of a public bank, like you wouldn’t expect this amazing… you know, socialist, progressive institution to exist in North Dakota. But it does, it was extremely successful. 

During COVID, it was able to get more PPP loans for small businesses in North Dakota per capita than any other state. It’s a bank that’s actually fighting for the people. And so that example, teaching the story of the Bank of North Dakota, really got a lot of people excited, including some like, relatively conservative, Austin City Council members, they’re like, wow. And so like the record of the Austin City Council meeting, there’s a lot of discussion in the Bank of North Dakota. And then from the organizer point of view, we were pointing to the successful campaign in Philadelphia, to take major steps towards the public bank. I think where we’re at right now is, we’ve established this concept, it’s enshrined in city law. If we work on this as a movement, the city manager and city staff are obligated to help us under the resolution. Now we just need to get like another wave of momentum to push the project forward more.

Mike Lewis: Yeah, all it took in Philadelphia was one, really active city council member, Derek Green, activating the Black community in Philadelphia, especially around the fact that historically denied access to credit, and how this could help Black entrepreneurship, small businesses, but also people who are unbanked, underbanked, low income, as well. And then, just a handful of volunteers. I think the important other thing to point out about Philadelphia is,  they just passed last… or in March, 15 to 1 passing the creation of the Philadelphia Public Financial Authority. So that’s not quite a bank. They don’t have a charter yet. They’re on the way to, they’re the first city in the US that is on its way to a public bank charter. But there are things that can be won between no bank and bank. 

And I think that’s important to point out, just in the fact that, it’s not all or nothing. The PPFA is going to be able to establish letters of credit to help provide more loans to low income folks and folks who had been historically denied access to credit and other other financial services that it can offer. Just wanted to make sure to point that out. There’s a huge movement across the country for public banking. California. 10 different cities looking at it there. LA, San Francisco, New York– there’s a huge movement going there. But even like New Mexico, New Jersey, there’s other places like that too. 

And, of course, North Dakota. If you can point out the fact that… and one of the organizers on the Philadelphia campaign told me that they kind of appeal to that local pride by pointing out, like, hey, if these Republicans over in North Dakota, who are running this socialist institution… it was won by socialists between 1907 and 1919 and it’s been around for 100 years successfully running, it’s like, if they can do that, and has 7 billion assets under management we can too. So that’s definitely been kind of the rallying cry.

Maxximilian Seijo: Then, as you’ve both already said and started getting into, there’s latching into this movement nationally for public banking seems to be a part of these steps that you all are suggesting. And I guess I wanted to ask, in framing and linking together the political work that you’ve both been doing on public banking and complementary currencies, with the contextual environment of crypto finance and the recent crash. I guess I’m wondering if you all had particular thoughts about how public banking organizers such as yourselves, but also around the country, can take advantage of… I heard Judo mentioned? Take advantage of the context and some of the news coverage of this kind of the crypto crash, and as well as the real losses that people as you said, who are not always like high class investors who that are taking, in light of some of these particularly smaller– smaller than Bitcoin, at least, but not at all small coins collapsing.

Mike Lewis: I think that’s a huge moment for public education. Being able to help organizers, help policymakers, help the public generally better understand that there is an alternative from the horrible situation that we got into with the global financial crisis. And the response to that of crypto, which doesn’t appear to be any better, if not massively worse than what got us into the financial crisis. That there are better alternatives to that involving our public institutions, having better governance, having better accountability for the system that we rely on for transactions, for money, for our economy, for care, and for taking care of each other. I think that when it comes to just providing that alternative to kind of a private offering, with what we can have under public institutions that benefit everyone. 

That’s that’s kind of the moment we’re in I think, is is really around public education, and then getting folks to act on that, because they have to realize that, at the municipal level, the the revenue model, the taxpayer model… the idea that, you know, our cities are funded by taxpayers, the wealthy. Of course, we know this is a deeply racist, sexist, classist institution deeply embedded in American white supremacy. We know that that institution has led to the status quo that we’re at. It’s led to the status about the crisis of public education finance, like our local public schools. We know that setting that up with property taxes to pay for it was a product of systemic institutional racism, to drive segregation. We’re understanding the foundation that we’re on, how money relates to what we’re trying to accomplish, and then how public money is going to get us to where we want to go.

Mike Siegel: Yeah, just to add to that I agree. This is a huge opportunity this moment. Unfortunately, what’s missing as a movement is our capacity to do the organizing and do the outreach. I think the idea of a public bank really appeals to a lot of people’s ideas, especially Texans’ ideas of self determination and self sustainability. In Austin right now on our tax bills, for every $8 that were tax for school’s finance, $7 actually doesn’t go to our local schools, it goes to the state of Texas to use in all sorts of ways–good and bad. People here really do feel trapped. They’re looking for answers for how we can fund the schools we want, how we can fund green infrastructure, how we can fund housing. I think the moment is really here, because crypto has people thinking about money or… fake money, obviously. But so what’s the real alternative? I think my thing is, from an organizing point of view, we need infrastructure. Y’all have this wonderful show, Money on the Left, y’all are educating the people doing the Lord’s work, right? Extremely important. 

But how do we get a major national union for example to realize that public banking might be the way for their members to have better quality of lives? Better health care? How do we get national political groups to invest in public banking or national foundations to fund it? Because, unfortunately, we’re operating in this market economy, this capitalist context. This movement requires a lot of public education. It requires a lot of nuance in terms of how we communicate the message to the people, how do we build the coalition? Part of what I’m looking for, and maybe all the hosts of the show have some ideas, but, how do we make this more of a mainstream concept? I mean, think about Medicare for All. 

 When Bernie ran on Medicare for All, he educated a ton of people about it. But now you’ve got, you know, the National Nurses Union that spends millions of dollars every year organizing for Medicare for All, 15 an hour, the SEIU National Union has an entire program that’s been going for 10 years at this point, “Fight for 15”. How do we inspire folks to develop similar infrastructure for this essential tool, which is a public bank?

William Saas: You talked about capacity and infrastructure. And earlier you talked about, and I hadn’t really realized that there was a crypto lobby, but it makes absolute sense. You’ve got millionaires and billionaires investing in this speculative asset, of course they would hire some of the best lobbyists to look out for that asset and tt’s continued existence. So you got the crypto lobby on one hand and then you also have in terms of like state banking and state finance, you have the financial industry itself, which is, in Louisiana, I think that our state revenue goes into Chase Bank. If it still does, right? And is that the same for Texas? 

Mike Lewis: Austin banks with JP Morgan Chase.

William Saas: Okay yeah, they probably have a lock on the South, maybe even more. But they also have armies of lawyers and lobbyists that are arrayed against something like this. So the capacity and infrastructure argument is just tremendously important. I mean, daunting, right? I guess one of the things that I can think of an immediate example from this morning actually as we record this, a very qualified and unsatisfactory, and maybe it’s not a win, but the announcement, sort of, in a roundabout way that the Biden administration is thinking about canceling $10,000 in student debt. And this is not the first time we’ve heard this, but the work of the debt collective, which is pretty… they’re not a huge organization.

Right? They are a posse, they are lots and lots of people who are– myself included– who count themselves as like somebody who would be a member. I guess we can, I don’t have… you can pay dues and be an actual member of the Union now. But something along those lines, they’ve been very, very successful on a small… with a small team and infrastructure relative to what they’ve been up against, with the student loan industry and the medical loan financing industry to get student debt cancellation at front and center. Presidential politics and making it something that Biden cannot ignore and get away from… and is probably very annoyed by, but I mean, that would be an example. I don’t know how you would replicate that energy and effort. But I think it would maybe some inspiration there for a small team doing big things.

Mike Lewis: Yeah. Just to piggyback off that, like some other examples– Chicago’s bailout for the many that Rohan Grey worked on. Back to Philadelphia beginning of COVID, they passed a unanimous resolution calling on the Fed to create a facility for municipal loans at zero interest, you know, we got the Municipal Liquidity Facility, but the it was completely unusable. The rates, which were a total policy choice… could have put cities, you know, balance sheets and a lot better position. And that’s all a policy choice. Of course, we know. 

Maxximilian Seijo: Yeah. And it makes me think, too, that in the coming months and years as there’s more crypto volatility, which there no doubt will be. I think that’s the one thing that is we can say for certain, there’s gonna be a lot of people that have lost a lot of money in this space. And we’re promised like you mentioned with the MiamiCoin, we’re promised returns. We’re promised a certain kind of path to flourishing and amidst, you know, all the hardship that we see around the country in the world, it’s some level understandable when the culture is speaking those potentials. 

People are making money around you to want to get in on that. I do think that will present some opportunities for maybe bringing some people on board into the public money, space, and just politicizing money more so on these terms and you know, it’s not always a happy story, but same goes for after the financial crisis in 2008. That this was an impetus to politicize a lot of different aspects of financial malfeasance, and then bailouts as well, and the political capture. So, it’s not exactly hope, but it’s… there’s certainly paths that these sorts of things might go down where there will be potential to make some gains. 

Mike Lewis: I was gonna say, Hamilton Nolan wrote a piece in In These Times, it was about kind of after crypto’s crash, what happens. And in exploring the high potential that he sees and folks going even further right, more fascist and whatnot. I don’t think any of that’s inevitable or deterministic. Of course, we have… it’s kind of our job to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Maxximilian Seijo: Yeah, and then I think the last thing I’d also add too is this environmental component that you both brought up is really important, too. Because, particularly for these municipalities, who all variously have commitments to environmental sustainability. I know in California, for example, there are often municipalities that pass ordinances right to… moving towards environmental sustainability, and that’s in a state where we have a commitment to net zero carbon emissions, but on the table sometime in the future. Thinking about the ways that perversely crypto is kind of a perfect storm, to move against that sort of commitment or those sorts of values. Potentially that’s another angle that it seems like y’all are pursuing so I appreciate the work.

Mike Lewis: I was gonna say, Texas has 40% of Bitcoin mining. Of course, we all know that we have the best power grid here. And I’ll let Mike take it from here.

Mike Siegel: I think unfortunately if you look at future opportunities, if we’re analyzing the opportunity for this movement, we not only look at future crashes of crypto, but we also look at future failures of the Texas grid. We had the terrible freeze I guess about a year and a half ago at this point. And right now, our grid is not stable enough to survive the summer. We’re most likely going to have blackouts this summer, hopefully not long ones. But it’s extremely likely and the fact that crypto mining is such a huge load on the grid could be a potential turning point. 

Right now, there’s a governor’s race for Beto O’Rourke. I wouldn’t say he’s a longshot, but he definitely not the favorite to beat the Republican incumbent Greg Abbott. But when he launched his campaign, there were actually only two issues he was highlighting: fix the grid and legalize weed. And you gotta know, I loved it when I heard him talk about marijuana on the first day of his campaign, because this is one of these popular wedge issues that can change politics. But in the history of Texas politics, actually, grid failures and electrical failures have led to major restructurings in the state politics. There was a major series of breakdowns about 60 years ago at this point, that actually led to municipal electric utilities being formed. So, right now in Texas, it’s not the majority of cities. 

But, for example, Austin controls its own electric utility. San Antonio has a quasi-public electric utility. So you don’t want to root for a grid failure. But it’s possible that if we have 100 degrees in a row for 60 days in a row, as we often do in Texas, that there could be major failures that are then politicized through this governor’s race. That can create another opportunity to fight back against crypto, because what are they doing for the people of Texas other than taking away our electricity that’s life sustaining for so many others?

William Saas: I guess I’m not familiar with the Texas grid in the same way that y’all are but, I know that in Louisiana, very close to y’all, our own grid and our own sort of energy infrastructure, and then our sort of environmental situation are both precarious and made then more so by lack of public investment. And wondering, seeing I guess, as you’re talking about that, Mike and Mike, the opportunity for even more intimately interweaving the the grid and the public bank as public infrastructures that ought to be managed by public officials. Which is a tricky thing, I guess, probably in Texas and especially in Louisiana, where it’s like, okay, so we’re going to make these public things. And then we’re going to hand it over to the politicians? We got to make sure to develop these robust and durable democratic structures at the same time as we’re advocating for these things. 

So yeah, no shortage of work there. I wanted to maybe ask y’all to close by sharing any sort of major takeaways that you have from your experience here. Thinking about your… maybe your experience with developing your own arguments in the face of the sort of swarm of Web 3.0 crypto bros. Anything you learned from tangling with them that you might share with others who might be interested in fighting that swarm when it comes to their city next. Maybe what you might have learned from collaborating with or learning from organizers in Philadelphia, and any through lines you see, or possibilities for developing a more national movement as they’re emerging right now? 

Mike Lewis: Want me to go first, Mike?

Mike Siegel: Sure. 

Mike Lewis: Cool. Yeah. I think that my final thoughts, I definitely want to make sure to give a shout out to local complementary currencies, too, we didn’t get to chat too much about that. But the idea that below the federal level, cities, states, any level of government can use its role as an active legal agent in the community. It’s taxing power, fees, fines, the settlement of legal disputes, all sorts of different ways, you know, granting of landlord licenses and things like that. We have the ability to increase the capacity of liquidity fiscal capacity at the local level, with local complementary currencies. Then bravo to the UNI proposal doing that exact thing at the university level as well. 

Really just being able to use local complementary currencies, like, you know, it could be an AustinDollar, for instance, or something like that. It could be issued with a digital wallet or a digital payment card or something like that. And really being able to… you could directly spin that into the local economy with direct job creation. Tenino, Washington did that with Tenino-bucks printed on wooden dollars, which is how they did it during the Great Depression. The mayor there busted out this printing press from the local museum, and during the beginning of COVID, started creating local complementary currency in Tenino-bucks printed on these wooden wooden pieces… a piece of wood, excuse me, and helping with local stimulus and care at the local level. 

That’s something that we can do at the local level. I think that there’s a lot of different steps that are involved with getting that accepted, of course, but it is definitely something that could be used to increase the spending in public housing or increase the spending on local arts and local community care and things like that. So just want to make sure to give a shout out to local complementary currencies. I think that the big takeaway from all of this is that the crypto industry is very wisely and cleverly utilizing the spectacle of culture to advance their project. I think that we would be very wise to understand why Austin is covered in billboards that say crypto is a peaceful revolution, or I don’t know, they say all kinds of wacky things. But you know, the point… or why they’ve put their name on all kinds of sports arenas and things like that. 

So. it’s really important just to understand that in order to push back against that, we have to have a counter mobilization, that does include how we make an impact in culture to get our project in advance of public money, and public institutions for care.

Mike Siegel: Right on, Mike. Yeah, I mean, I think for me a couple reflections. One, it’s actually pretty daunting. As a layperson, that’s how I would consider myself, to get involved in organizing in the space, because there’s so much terminology. And even when I would… after we wrote the op-ed, and I would talk to family members and friends. And there’s all these assumptions that blockchain is good and it’s better to move away from fiat currency. I mean, there’s all these kinds of arguments in the ether, that are hard to refute. I’m here with Mike Lewis, my friend, and he is pretty expert on this. It takes a lot for him sometimes to explain to me the different rebuttals for some of the bullshit arguments out there. So I think, first of all, we have to acknowledge that these things are complicated and daunting. 

It’s hard for people to engage with these ideas. So unfortunately, a lot of people probably just turn off their brain and be like, oh, that crazy crypto stuff. It doesn’t have anything to do with me. We have to somehow improve our public education, our outreach. Let people know that it’s not as complicated as they think it is. And it’s actually a bad idea overall. But the second idea, and to me is more optimistic, is that I think public banking has huge potential. Because basically it’s a different worldview. It’s not a worldview of scarcity. It’s a worldview of abundance. Right? So much of what we’re being told is that we can’t afford it. We can’t pay for it. But public banking makes sense. Like, here we are in this ultra wealthy city in Austin, Texas. Why can’t we afford enough housing? Why can’t we afford environmental programs? And even Texas? Probably Texas is more wealthy than most of the nations in the world. Why can’t we afford a good grid? 

Why can’t we afford public education? And so to me, public banking as a demand just makes a ton of sense. Like, why should we be letting JP Morgan hold our money? Why can’t we hold our money? And we decide who gets loans, and we decide where the investments go. And so to me, there is this overarching argument that that public banking kind of fills a void. And if we can get more people to embrace the demand, I think that’s really exciting. And then the last note, I just want to raise the specter of Elon Musk, who has moved to Austin, unfortunately. Has relocated Tesla from California, because he has so many racial discrimination and sex discrimination lawsuits in California, that he wants to move his terrible business to a different state. 

Now, Elon Musk is sitting in my backyard, threatening to take over my city here. We need to fight back. I do think this is going to come down… I don’t know how much y’all talk about class war on this podcast, but I really do think this is coming. We have this guy, that’s Twitter billionaire, whatever he is, and he’s selling this crypto and playing with the DogeCoin. Because he knows he’ll make money if he can trick everybody to buy some. I think all of these issues could come together in a major movement, because Elon Musk is on the wrong side of environmental issues, whether it’s through his support of Bitcoin, or what he’s doing with SpaceX, down by the Mexico border in Texas ruining a rare local ecology for his ships. If somehow we can unite these struggles– the environmental movement, public banking, even public education, and how do we pay for it? I think there is a lot of potential. So that’s what keeps me animated and excited about this. Even though it’s a steep learning curve to understand the issues.

William Saas: Austin is getting weirder and weirder in all the wrong ways. 

Mike Siegel: That’s right. 

William Saas: Mike Lewis and Mike Siegal, thank you so much for joining us and sharing about your work. The good work that you’re doing in Austin with us on Money and the Left.

Mike Lewis: Thank you all so much for having us.

Mike Siegel: It was great to be with you, thank you.

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