Teaching Economics with Benjamin Wilson

We are joined again by Benjamin Wilson to discuss what it is like to teach Economics from a heterodox Modern Monetary Theory perspective in 2023. Wilson is associate professor and recently-minted chair of the department of Economics at SUNY, Cortland. In previous episodes, we have chatted with Wilson about his research, the Uni Currency project, and his innovative work experimenting with classroom currencies. Developing these topics further, our conversation this time explores the potentials and dangers of using neoclassical textbooks in the heterodox classroom; the utility of classroom currencies for Econ classes of all levels; the place of narrative in neoclassical and heterodox theory; and so much more. Our dialog with Wilson is shaped in several respects by our conversation with Larry Johnson in last month’s episode of Money on the Left. If you are passionate about pedagogy, then this episode is for you.

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Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com


The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson:  Benjamin Wilson, welcome back to Money on the Left.

Ben Wilson:  So great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Scott Ferguson:  So since you last joined us, I hear you’ve become the chair of the Economics Department at your university. Is that true? Are the rumors true?

Ben Wilson:  The rumors are true. I took that role with a tremendous amount of hesitancy. The rumors are true that it is a significantly greater amount of work. But I’m glad that I’m doing it. I’m halfway through my second year, and it’s looking like I’ll probably take on a third year because at the end of my third, then we’ll have enough people that have been tenured and gone on sabbatical and done things that we can go forward and and elect a new chair and then have rotations of two to three years for each of us moving forward, which I think is a really exciting evolution in our department and really part of us getting a series of new hires after retirements and coalescing as a new team for what will be hopefully the start of my second full decade at SUNY Cortland, which is a little bit mind boggling to me.

Scott Ferguson:  What’s it like teaching economics at SUNY Cortland? As an outsider who knows just a little bit about economics and economics pedagogy in the United States, my impression is that most economics departments really suck, and they teach some pretty horrible things and reproduce a culture of neoclassical economics that doesn’t really encourage critical historical, social, political, or ecological thought at all. I have a sense that something different happens at SUNY Cortland in the economics department.

Ben Wilson:  Yeah, it very much does. In terms of what goes on in other economics departments, I have a hard time saying because my graduate work was at UMKC, which is another super unique opportunity and space. Even as an undergraduate at the University of Kansas, which ended up being a pretty strongly orthodox department, my first professor at that university was very much more of a heterodox inclined political economist. I really didn’t appreciate how great that was until I started doing the PhD work there, and it was all models and maximization and all those things. We’ve talked about that previously. So at Cortland, we have a very pluralistic department. Hopefully this airs before we close our next application process for interviews because we are hiring another two new tenure line faculty this year.

Scott Ferguson:  Congratulations.

Ben Wilson:  Yeah, it’s just amazing. I mean, it’s exhausting work. But it is really exciting to bring new folks on. I’m very much the beneficiary of a legacy of people at the school that really valued political economy. All of our students, whether business economics is their major. So we have a business economics degree that’s housed in a college of arts and sciences. We’re ahead of the curve there in that right now, lots of business schools are looking at their programs and thinking that they’ve kind of missed the boat in their School of Professional Studies in terms of being able to incorporate the benefits of developing and thinking about an education that brings forth good citizens and really focused too heavily on the narrow values of productivity, efficiency, profits, individuality, etc, that are the cores of neoclassical economics, really. All of those students, whether in an economics major or the business economics major start their journey with Political Economy and Social Thought 105. That class is taught by four or five of us and we rotate those sections and all of us approach it in a little bit of a different way. We share different textbooks and procedures. I myself have taught it a host of different ways. It’s a really hard class to teach just because you want to do everything. So, do I start with Adam Smith in 1776 and sort of work through it chronologically to the modern day? Or do I start with a modern day and then work backward deconstructing those things? Or do we construct it based on thinkers? Do we construct it based on ideas? I go back and forth. This semester, I’m teaching it as an honor section. This is one of the things that I’m guilty of, I’ll read a book in the summer, and I get really excited. I think this is going to be a game changer. It’s gonna be an awesome read for this class…

Scott Ferguson:  Then you tell me about it.

Ben Wilson:  That’s right. And then I read it for the second or third time as I’m teaching it, and I’m like, God, why did I do this to myself? This book is Robert Shiller’s Narrative Economics. It’s actually been better than I just said, but Shiller is as big a name in the orthodoxy as you could probably put forward, but he’s really wrestling with this idea that narrative matters. It influences the length, duration, severity, etc, of the financial crisis, but he falls a little bit short of really digging into the structures that are causing the crisis. The Great Depression lasted longer than it needed to, because people kept talking about unemployment in various ways, and it’s not that people were actually unemployed that was the problem. Bubbles and real estate happen because everybody’s talking about how great it is that their house price is going up, and it creates irrational exuberance, and all these things, and no mention whatsoever at all of deregulation and assets, and that the US economy was creating the environment for this and these stories. It’s a good book for thinking about just how shallow a lot of Orthodox analysis can really be, and that we need a little bit more complexity in the way that we’re thinking about these things to really prevent and understand and make these sorts of crises less painful for the people that bear the brunt of it. So far, so good. It’s been a great reintroduction to the classroom post-pandemic in a way that has been so rewarding as these students have really engaged with the reading and are giving me a hard time. They’re predicting that I’m not gonna like this chapter, and the reasons why I didn’t really care for it. It’s just been a really good semester so far. And I think, as department chair, the most rewarding part of that job is classroom visits. As part of the evaluation of the quality of our teaching and maintaining a strong culture of teaching, the department chair has to visit anybody who’s coming up for a particular review. I’m just blown away by how much thought and care and energy our faculty puts into their classes. I’ve stolen a few techniques here and there that have been very useful in my classes. I think my favorite is the use of the software Perusal. Are you guys familiar with that?

Billy Saas:  Just got something in my inbox about. I’ve not used it before.

Ben Wilson:  Yeah, it’s been great. It’s like Brightspace, or any of those other online learning management systems, but it allows you to highlight and comment in the readings and everybody can see it. So the students really appreciate it because they say it feels like we’re reading it together. The other really nice thing about it is it keeps information and collects statistics on how long students are in the document. So they can’t just open it and leave it open. So for example, it’ll say it was open for 24 hours, but they were active in it for seven minutes. So I even give people a little bit of a hard time and be like, alright, let’s see if we can build that stamina from seven minutes to 21 minutes and maybe by the end of the semester, a solid hour. For maybe 45 minutes consistently in the readings, and then we’ll really be cooking with some gas.

Billy Saas:  I want to talk about Shiller a bit more. What was the name of the book again?

Ben Wilson:  It’s called Narrative Economics.

Billy Saas:  Maybe a word for it could be a foil for the class. It’s like you’re teaching through critique of the book. And in our last episode, we talked with Larry Johnson, and that’s how he shared his story of coming into heterodox economic thinking through critique of Samuelson. Would it be fair to say that Shiller is on par with modern Samuelson? Not quite every classroom.

Ben Wilson:  He’s kind of been my victim. But it’s been a fascinating book, because it was published in 2019, just before the pandemic. The subtitle is: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events. The whole metaphor throughout is about contagion and viruses. So the narrative is always this sickness that’s happening. One of the questions we asked is, can we write some positive stories? Or are there some good ways that we can turn this ship around?

Scott Ferguson:  Does he not really allow for that?

Ben Wilson:  My reading is that I don’t even know that it’s crossed his mind.

Billy Saas:  Is this meant for a popular audience, do you think, more or less?

Ben Wilson:  That’s one of the reasons why it’s a good one for the 105. I wish one of the things that I would like to see more heterodox folks do is write sort of this 100 level book. We’re confined either publishing in our journals and writing these really heavy books, or the textbooks, like I said for 105. They’re either sort of this, featuring the great thinkers sort of way or…

Billy Saas:  Accessible, heterodox? Yeah,

Ben Wilson:  Raj Patel, he’s got a book, The Value of Nothing, it was published in 2008. So it’s starting to get a little bit dated. But it aligns so nicely with the critique that I levy against microeconomics in my 300 level economics course. So starting with Homo economics and the individual consumer and then thinking about the corporation and the firm. He has a nice chapter on value theory and then the second half of the book kind of explores alternatives in forms of democracy that allow us to think about the state, firms that aren’t maximizing profits, and nonprofits and co-ops and all those sorts of things. I guess there are a few, I just wish that they came out and got as much acclaim and fancy book jackets.

Billy Saas:  You can’t buy him in the airport. So I want to talk about that 100 level heterodox, economics intro book, and see what we think would need to be in there. But before we do, is there an index? Or are there sources cited in that book? I’m just curious, because it seems to me like what Shiller’s describing is also incredibly derivative, and a story that’s been told a bunch of times. I wonder to what extent there’s any kind of citational practice there.

Ben Wilson:  It’s pretty shallow, and for a second, he talks about MMT, but I can’t remember the exact straw man that he uses. But it’s really bad. So those are good things, right, to be able to point out and say, this is the way people write in these books similar to the textbook and in our economics class. They write things like instead of saying in our model, they say that if the government provides a tax incentive to increase investment, it’s going to increase interest rates. Instead of saying, in our model that has all of these assumptions, if the government provides an incentive, then our model predicts that interest rates will rise. There really should be much more thought to that. There’s just no room for thinking that what the model does is not going to happen in reality. Which is really problematic. Especially when you teach a loanable funds situation, and go through all that, and the interest rate is going all over the place. At the end, we really should say, but none of that really actually happens, because the interest rate is a policy variable. I don’t know, it’s really hard. Having been trained in neoclassical economics and spending all that time, when you think about it from an intellectual project, the idea that we can model the economy using these tools of physics, it’s actually pretty creative and kind of a fun idea. But at some point, the fun idea, and the fact that it just keeps failing us; at what point can we abandon it and just stop teaching this stuff? I don’t know.

Scott Ferguson:  You’ve told me about how you teach Orthodox economics in the past, and I think you’ve referred to metaphors of building blocks, there might have been Legos involved.

Ben Wilson:  Yeah, so I mean, it is model building. And, the micro economics, the 300 level class we teach, I teach the textbook, and we develop the model and all of its calculus glory, and drive the demand curve and the law of demand and find our supply curves. Then we go through, meticulously, all the assumptions of the perfectly competitive market. We do the whole shebang, in all of its glory, straight out, honest, and I even speak about its elegance, and how it is sort of captivating to think that we could somehow harness the power of physics to control and think about unemployment and inflation and all these things. What we derive is partial equilibrium and the way that I present it toward the end is that, what we’ve accomplished, people like Alfred Marshall did, and all the economists, long lines of them have done this work. Since then it’s developed into general equilibrium. From general equilibrium, we get dynamic stochastic general equilibrium. Really, all that’s occurring is that we’ve gone from what we did in this class, which is the Duplo, LEGO model of the economy. All you really are doing when you get to the more sophisticated is you’ve made the pieces smaller, and more complicated, and much more painful when you step on them as a parent. But at the end of the day, the pieces are all the same, right? The rational agent is an efficient firm, you’ve just made it much more rigorous, and the assumptions and the assumptions actually become even more narrow and less like reality, the more complex the math gets. So there’s like an inverse relation between the two.

Scott Ferguson:  For example.

Ben Wilson:  To get to general equilibrium, you’ve got to assume perfect information. And you don’t necessarily need perfect information in the simpler partial equilibrium model. So things just get more and more convoluted.

Scott Ferguson:  So is there a theory of the press that goes along with how perfect information circulates?

Ben Wilson:  Oh, man, that’s a good question. I’m not, I’m not aware of it off the top of my head. That would be an exogenous shock that the press is presenting information in the wrong way or something. What’s the press? Is there a market? Where are they exchanging their words?

Scott Ferguson:  So much narrative, so much viral narrative getting in the way. We need more monetary silencing.

Ben Wilson:  It’s an exogenous shock to the system that will create a short term perturbation and then we’ll return to normal.

Scott Ferguson:  So the rational agents get their information by simply using their five senses and by looking at the market?

Ben Wilson:  Oh, I don’t even know that they have five senses.

Scott Ferguson:  They’re just brains in a vat.

Ben Wilson:  Yeah, they’re agents, right? They’re solving optimal problems. It’s not even so much that they’re agents or things because we’re not even really looking at them, we’re looking at the optimal points that emerged from their decisions. So, the aggregation. Economics, from the free market perspective, it’s just constantly aggregating choices, optimal choices, to form these structures that we call the demand curve, the supply curve, and then there’s one magic optimal point …

Billy Saas:  Subjectivity is a veil over real aggregate relations.

Ben Wilson:  Yeah, I mean, this is where we should invite Mitch Green into this sort of conversation, because he is the master of the neoclassical language. And in jokes, the neoclassical dad jokes, he’s the master. So we go through that, and does this Death Star model of Legos really tell us any more about how we behave and who we are and what’s going on in the economy than the Duplo one? I’m not really sure that it does. I wish they had to go through and say all the assumptions every time they make a proclamation about what’s going to happen in this policy choice. Because it’s really unfair, even in their papers or in a presentation, they would just say: assume the standard assumptions. If they even acknowledged the assumptions at all. It just presents theirs as “this is the way that it is.” Then, when you critique or raise an alternative, you have to deconstruct all that stuff. So it’s almost like you’re reproducing it again, in your own head, and then they’re listening to you reproduce it again. And then by the time you get to the punchline, they’re like, Well, you just said, all the same things. You just talk past each other all the time.

Scott Ferguson:  And you’ve cited the hell out of us in our Orthodox journals. Yeah.

Billy Saas:  Yeah. That’s why I feel like the kind of the by now pretty standard, or standardized approach that Shiller seems to be taking in that book, without having read it, but having your description in hand, there’s fundamentally a defensive posture in it. It’s like “what we’re doing is not narrative, everything else is narrative,” right? And to the extent that we can detect narrative, that’s the extent to which we can detect that we’re straying from our Death Star model. And we’re out in kook land.

Ben Wilson:  Yeah, please stop telling all these stories, because you’re shocking people’s preferences, and they’re not making optimal choices anymore. Whereas maybe, the fact that we let people take out a bunch of mortgages without proving income, that’s why we got a bubble?

Billy Saas:  And the trick there is that you can always locate narrative in those points of breakdown. There’s no narrative at the optimal point, but there is always narrative at the non optimal points. Right, the irrational.

Ben Wilson:  Shiller is clearly very much influenced in thinking about the Great Depression. Lots of the narratives and stories that he tells about consumption and frugality and the way that things move through that period come up throughout the book. One of the things that we’ve brought up in the class as a counter is the interview you did on the myth of the redemptive depression, which really goes into how these stories come about, and why they come about and what it was actually like, and what was going on and the vivid descriptions of what it means to have nowhere to go and to be hungry and to be trying to care for children through this time period. At some points, even having to give up your children. That sort of thing is why narrative and story carries on through generations. Not that it was a shoeshine boy telling Rockefeller that something bad is gonna happen. When you get the redemptive depression narrative, thinking about Grandma’s here because she had local supply chains and worked hard and made it through and came out of this morally stronger. Then you transition to the 60s in the civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King talking about the right for jobs for all and why do we need jobs for all? The New Deal didn’t really actually do anything to allocate resources. What’s the argument here? Then, you can pull back these sorts of silly individualist stories and think more holistically about all the things that are interconnected in our lives. The importance of work and jobs and stability and risk and why we study what we study and all these sort of bigger questions that are much more interesting and fundamental. So you guys, big shout out to podcast and I mean, I love returning to this catalog, and listening to these episodes. There’s just so much in this podcast that is so applicable. The value, like I was saying, is that there are these accessible books. Lots of the books, and the people that you guys talk to, the books aren’t appropriate for the class, but hearing them discuss their books and their work in the podcast is sort of like an introduction to how to critically read and how to think about what an author might be trying to do, and the way that they’re structuring their books and their articles and their research. So in those ways, it’s so useful, especially from a heterodox perspective to be able to think about what are these different methodologies? What are these different tools that we can use to start understanding these economic outcomes from different perspectives? Because one of the challenges of being a heterodox economist is there’s no “this is our method.” Right? This is our toolbox. This is what we do, we’re not going to stray from it.

Scott Ferguson:  It’s automated.

Ben Wilson:  Where’s my beta hat? It’s really much more eclectic. We’re always wrestling and grappling toward what is a social science methodology that can give us meaningful and useful knowledge?

Billy Saas:  That’s the thing: meaning and purpose as objectives versus the internal model consistency.

Ben Wilson:  Yeah.

Billy Saas:  I agree.

Ben Wilson:  Let’s tell a really good story about utopia, and there you have it. Right, and that’s frustrating too, right? Socialism gets painted as this utopian narrative, but free market economics is the most utopian story maybe ever told. That autonomous individuals with no constraints will spontaneously decide that these tokens are money and that all of us transacting and doing things will lead to our harmonious and good society. Like, what? This is crazy talk. Like, we can’t even spontaneously agree what to get for dinner most nights. Like society is supposed to spontaneously believe this is our medium of exchange because it has an intrinsic value.

Scott Ferguson:  So I think our listeners, at least our longtime listeners, know you on this podcast, in part because you are a pioneer of classroom and university currency experiments where you model so-called tax-driven money as an obligation to the institution, as the foundation for monetary production. I think often when we gloss those experiments, we’re doing so in different contexts. Now, we’ve invited you on to talk about economics pedagogy, and in a more kind of holistic way. So what happens with these service learning currency experiments in relation to learning about orthodox economic models, the different models of equilibrium, different heterodox models? How do conversations get started? Or how do students metabolize, make sense of all of these things in conversation with one another?

Ben Wilson:  Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s one that has changed, really, every single time I’ve issued a currency in the classroom. It really depends on what classroom. So it started off that I would only do it in the 105 class, as an introduction, so that they would know what I’m talking about when we get to the upper level classes, or at least have been introduced to it. Now, I’m gravitating toward that I just need to do it in all my classes, so that when they get to the upper level classes, maybe they already have some of the currency already in their possession, and it’s transferring between time periods. I mean, this is what Fadhel has been able to successfully do at Denison is this intergenerational thing. I’ve just not quite ever, I think I was building up toward that pre-pandemic, especially with the debt theme that was going on on campus and bringing people like Stephanie Kelton to talk. We still have to get you up there, Scott, to give your talk that was canceled, like so much else that fateful spring. This semester, the last time I did it, I did it with digital money, and they had wallets and that had its own sort of fun to it. But this semester, I went back to just paper money. And it’s a Comparative Approaches in Political Economy class, where we’re looking at the differences and methodologies and political economy from Orthodox and Heterodox around questions of money and how it works and what it does. The primary text in the class is the classic Ten Men of Money Island that I learned about from Jakob Feinig, which is really pretty fascinating, just because who knew you could write an imaginary story about money that’s grounded in state theories of money.

Scott Ferguson:  Tell us about it.

Ben Wilson:  It’s really fascinating and terrific. The characters in the book are named after what they do. So like Sledgehammer, and Reaper, the agriculturalist. The name for the government person is Do Nothing. The name of the banker is Discount. It really builds the story, right? They’re all kind of doing their own thing, they’re building their community on this Fantasy Island, and they decide that they need a bridge, right? They’ve set up shop in ways that, now they’re spending so much time getting around the island that it would really benefit everybody if we just had a bridge right in the middle. They’ve wrestled with how they’re going to do it, how are we going to mobilize the resources to build this bridge? Basically what they arrive at is: Do Nothing writes notes to prove that you spent time building the bridge, and they set a timeline for when you’re going to have to prove that you contributed equally to the building of the bridge. There’s a central ledger, Do Nothing is issuing this new money and it’s comical. I don’t know if it’s intentionally satirical. These conversations that they’re having and thinking like Sledgehammer spending a lot of time on the bridge, but the guy that does all the textile creation in clothing isn’t spending any. He’s so excited about these new shirts, and he’s got extra shirts and Sledgehammer has extra money and what on earth are they going to do? So at the end, they get a bridge and everybody’s contributed to the building of the bridge or they’ve been able to contribute to those who have built the bridge. All the money gets turned back in and they’re like: Alright, great, what should we do now? Then the idea comes up: well, I’ve seen this shiny stuff in the river. Maybe we should go dig that up, and that will be how we established the money is, this gold. So they spend the next chapter, some of them are digging up this river and bringing all this gold and they’re issuing their monies. At the end of they’re like, Oh, what did that do? All we’ve got now is a ruined river and this big pile of gold. Which is so Bitcoin, right? It’s just like, Oh, what do we have now? We’ve got all this carbon coal that we burned in China and nothing really to show for it. So that book is good. It gets them imagining money and gets them thinking about … it goes all the way through. The finance franchise gets developed with the creation of the bank and their over reliance on debt and not issuing credit through the state anymore. The bank gets really greedy, and then the state colludes with the bank to do its thing. Then at the end, they start over and they’re like, “well, we were not going to fall for that stuff again.” Then we read Jakob [Feinig]’s Moral Economies of Money. The parallels between the development and the experimentation and the wrestling with theories of value and production and money as a democratic medium, and that it mobilizes production and the scarcity of money really seems to be a significant problem. We can solve the scarcity of money problem by creating more money. It’s starting to sink in. Along the way, we’ve listened to Saule [Omarova]’s interview with you guys to think about the finance franchise. Then we show Bob and their diagrams and their paper. Now that we’ve gotten to Bitcoin and thinking about digital currencies, that allows us to think, again, about the importance of the philosophy that’s undergirding the monies. This idea of individual, decentralized exchange, and that is not what’s producing stuff. I think it’s starting to sink in. They’ve given some good presentations and done some nice group work, and now they’ve been assigned. I’ve given them all jobs at the Federal Reserve. Their final project is to use the criteria and the four sort of big questions about where does the money come from? How much should we produce? How do we create demand for that money? How do we do these things and those criteria and thinking about should we just edit the US dollar? Some of the ways that it enters the economy, or how much we should produce or the tax circuit? Or do we need new monies in New York state or here in Cortland, like our classroom currency? It seems to be working: we’re mobilizing resources, we’re solving problems. You guys are getting interesting and meaningful work done for loaves and fishes and the SPCA. We’re gathering data with our partners in the Adirondacks about HVAC providers that are part of New York State’s bigger plan to reduce carbon emissions and move to energy efficiency. So we’re doing all sorts of these little things that are adding up, hopefully to big things and, do we need the federal government to issue the money or change the money? Or can you do it at a local level? All those sorts of questions really challenged the idea of governance and challenged the idea of “inside” and “outside” the state and market. I’m having a lot of fun, and I think some of them are having a lot of fun. We’re having writer’s workshop meetings before the break to go over their project and talk one on one, which I think always helps ground the community and get us off on the right track. I don’t know if that answered the question. Next semester with urban I want to continue sort of the same projects in the Adirondacks, but we’ll think about it from the urban economics perspective, and land and land use and data and GIS and all that sort of stuff. It’s pretty fascinating.

Scott Ferguson:  I love this. I think we’ve come full circle because we’re right back at Narrative Economics, but now it’s not a dirty virus that gets in the way of distorting optimal preferences, but instead is the lifeblood of provisioning as an imaginative process. I guess my next question for you that you started to kind of answer is: you ask them to write these proposals, what are the strategies, what are the genres that they can write in? Are they telling stories? You say that they maybe mobilize data in different ways?

Ben Wilson:  Yeah, so in our individual meetings we’re wrestling with their idea that I’ll be able to suggest various opportunities. They could be doing an interview on a podcast. So that could be an interview that they could write. Or the standard sort of field guide, case study style as one of the ways that I think is pretty straightforward. That translates well for professional writing and thinking about that. The writing assignment that has the most freedom that I’ve given this semester is in that 105 class, the Shiller class, where I asked them to write their own economic narrative, and it’s 2050. I just kind of picked 2050 randomly, but it’s actually just about exactly the difference between my age and their age right now. That kind of helps them think about, well, it could be this huge radical change, or it could be sort of still looking fairly similar. But they have the freedom to write a dystopia or utopia and use the different context and stories and what catches fire. How do we rethink the individual as cooperative and altruistic and always interdependent? Or do we keep beating our brains against the wall and trying to separate ourselves and isolate ourselves and be individuals? Homo Economicus. I’m really hoping that these conversations are as fun as I anticipate them being and that they have the chance to free their minds from all the constraints that exist. What is the problem that is keeping you up at night? Right? Is it just about getting a job? Or are you worried about climate, and let’s work through and think about the work that you might do for the rest of your career to make a meaningful and useful contribution to solving that issue? What sort of institutions and support would you need to do that? Hopefully, we’re getting there, because so much of what we talk about is how dire things are, the crises, and it’s awful. But at the same time, we really have to equip them with the vision and the ability to envision a better world than we currently have. I think that that’s something that most of these generations since World War Two in this country have kind of had. That’s under attack right now. Even as the data suggests that this generation of students has got a less than 50-50 shot of having a better income and life outcome than this current generation. That’s kind of terrifying and sad. We don’t want to shackle them with those sorts of doomsday scenarios. I mean, we need to take it seriously. But we’ve got to give them the tools and the freedom to think about what a good and just and verdant and exciting and healthy world looks like.

Billy Saas:  I love that so much. What does a rubric look like? Is an A paper for its convincing portrayal of a dystopia achieved by Goldbug resurrection, insurrection, or the intensity of your feeling of joy and euphoria the vision of a Green New Deal world that they give you? How do you grade this thing?

Ben Wilson:  There’s specific parameters. One of the most important parameters I think students need to get familiar with is following directions. 12 font, double spaced, and then familiarity about where to turn it in. So I use OneDrive and things like this where they’ve got to navigate folders and submit it to the correct space . This is an iterative project, so they’ll submit an abstract or an outline, and I’ll provide comments. How well do you address the comments that I’ve provided? There’s a number of quotations and references and I’m looking for the intertwine of the readings and the materials in the course. Then, I get a little bit of leeway with something like creativity, to sort of emphasize that they should try to have fun with this. I experienced this as an undergrad. My Growth and Development teacher, her assignment was: you are now the leader of this developing country, implement your economic strategy. And I tried to find this paper, because I know that I wrote a super neoliberal, crazy, terrible …

Billy Saas:  Micro loans for everybody!

Ben Wilson:  I remember thinking that it is so good, and free markets. Like everything, you get so influenced by what it is that you’re reading at the moment, and I remember that I got a good grade because I used all the references, and I followed directions, and it was a pretty good story, I think. I could tell that the teacher was just like, oh my god, how did he just totally miss the point of this class? I’ll have some love for the Gold Bug emergence and Bitcoin decentralization occurs. Softens the blow, right?  You know, because we all go through…You gotta have an intellectual crisis at least once in your life, or you’re not thinking hard enough.

Scott Ferguson:  Provisioning intellectual crisis with Benjamin Wilson.

Billy Saas:  Good one-two punch would be you and Larry because his kind of inductive approach alongside your critical narrative driven approach?

Ben Wilson:  Well it’s so exciting to hear that somebody is teaching future teachers how to wrestle with this stuff. Can you imagine the system of education that is cultivating an understanding that money is a productive promise that we are announcing to each other all the time? The Uni project, and the classroom currencies and thinking through Jakob’s book, and the whole thing is really these folks wrestling with how to organize productive activity. This tool is either being used really well, or really ineffectively all along the way. If we could harness that spirit of experimentation throughout our educational curriculum, the same way that we’ve allowed homo economics to infiltrate every dimension of our educational system. All of our disciplines and all of our laws, going back to Oliver Wendell Holmes, giving his “Bad Man” speech at Harvard Square, right? How do we begin to disentangle and take apart all of these ugly structures that assume the worst in one another, and allow us the freedom to experiment and think about production and money and promises in so much more rewarding and effective ways? This sort of thinking is so much a part of social studies, and even the sciences, right? How many great scientific experiments are submitted to the National Science Foundation, they get turned down just because it’s a random selection or the reviewers don’t necessarily like this particular project, or having an affinity to it. Do 91% of the projects to the NSF not deserve to be funded? I can’t imagine that.

Billy Saas:  Then there’s the old thinking about the context of what gets submitted. There is the stuff that is going to satisfy the expectations of the review committee, and that is to sort of colloquially show that you already know what you’re gonna find, right. So, discovery is not a priority in this otherwise discovery-oriented discipline, as a result of monetary scarcity imposed from the top.

Ben Wilson:  Yeah, the question of the unknown. In our conversations about what it would look like if we implemented this full employment program: you don’t know any more than Jerome Powell knows what’s going to happen if they raise the interest rates again. But there’s like, a certain amount of gravitas or so many people saying: yeah, this is what’s gonna happen. That we’re allowed to experiment in that way, but not others. It’s so constraining and so narrow, and it’s so self defeating. It seems like people are finally, at least in the moment, like Galbraith’s piece the other day was really great calling out Jason Furman. Yeah, well where’s that six and a half percent unemployment? Maybe we don’t need to throw people out of work, except for maybe you. Then maybe we can move forward with the business of finding those meaningful and useful jobs. That’s one of the things, selfishly, why I like the classroom currencies and engaging with the nonprofit sector, and in these groups that are trying to solve some of our problems outside the business world, so to speak. Sometimes it is a little bit hard to imagine what all these jobs are going to be and how many jobs we would actually need. If we solve the problem of hunger, what’s next? What’s the evolution of this new care driven economy? How much less material waste do we produce? I think those sorts of unknowns are a lot less scary than the unknown of when we’re gonna burn the final tree on this planet or the ocean isn’t going to be able to support life anymore. I would much rather pursue these other avenues of when there is too much art? When is a workday just way too short? Is it three hours? I put in my half hour today and AI cranked out the rest.

Scott Ferguson:  I’d like to talk about the future of your department. As chair, you’ve discussed with me a little bit in the past that your department is going through a kind of generational turnover, and that the curriculum has been divided and organized in a particular way. The participants who put that plan into place are phasing out and retiring. It’s raising the question of where to go from here. Like all these other topics that we are describing, there’s no automated map for you to follow. Obviously, you’re not doing it single handedly. Being a chair is not being a dictator, or it shouldn’t be. Unless I’m in charge. Can you tell us a little bit about this history of the department and what kinds of questions, challenges, and aims seem to be bubbling up as you reckon with the question of the future of this institution?

Ben Wilson:  This all happened well before my time, so that my institutional understanding of a lot of it is probably guided by conversations and things of this nature. But the short of it is, that a long time ago, they made the decision to create a business economics degree in a liberal arts setting. That turned out to be a really shrewd and an excellent move because over the course of the last 20 years, the department rather than shrinking in size has steadily grown and now we’re the largest department on campus in the liberal arts and sciences. We are operating from a position of strength and stability and the success of that department and our students in those things are all terrific. So we’re wrestling with this question. Out of these 500 majors that we have, 30 of them are economics majors. Is the goal to have a better balance between economics and business economics? Is there a way to more robustly teach the business economics degree as sort of a pluralistic economics degree? I’m a little bit torn. As a political economist, I’d like to see us just teach all these political economy classes. The work of Sanjukta Paul and [Nathan] Tankus on coordination rights and thinking about the firm has been something that I think fits really nicely in the literature for liberal arts management and thinking not of it as management, but as organizational behavior, is the new name. I think that that’s a great sort of way of introducing a lot of heterodox concepts and ideas into a business curriculum. The sole proprietorship is going to, organizationally behave significantly differently than the corporation or the worker-owned cooperative, or the non-profit. So it begins to introduce all the ways in which the corporation will maximize and fit these really narrow value systems of efficiency, production, shareholder value. Whereas the Mondragon cooperative has managed to be a very successful global enterprise for multiple decades by embracing a much more holistic view and a democratic workplace. I would love it to see us sort of embrace this idea of the structure of the organization really matters, and to be training students to adequately be able to assess whether or not I want to run and manage a corporation, or a Mondragon. I think that that would be infinitely more healthy social enterprise and the budding hipness of social entrepreneurship. I think all guide themselves to this idea that we could really create a robust and interesting liberal arts education that gives students the idea to think through these issues. Even beyond, it would turn right back to money, where how we structure access, and who creates and how it is entering the system, and all those things become that coordination right, as well. There’s no inside-outside, we are always all practicing governance. Whether it’s our department or a business or a family or a nation-state, there’s always the possibility for experimenting and decision making and collective decision making that we should be approaching. With all the resources that we have here locally in the Finger Lakes for experimenting in farming and agriculture, tourism. That is just exacerbated up in the Adirondack Park with our partners in our campus up there. I think the possibilities for this really exciting new degree programs that aren’t abandoning business or management, but framing them from a liberal arts perspective is super exciting. That’s not gonna happen overnight. I think a lot of it has to do with how the hiring process goes and that sort of thing, but I think it opens up the possibility especially for grant writing and community partnerships and things in a really exciting and robust way that lots of people are excited about.

Billy Saas:  So where does podcasting fit into the new curriculum at SUNY Cortland, in the economics department?

Ben Wilson:  Great question. I think that’s no more than trying to get other faculty in my department to issue the currency. I would love the communications department to issue for the creation of new digital medias around the reporting and analysis of these new organizational structures that we’re creating in the economics department to mobilize production. Because we need some good news, and we need some good reporting, and we need de-sensationalized our need for breaking news and Donald Trump. Can we just take a timeout from reporting about this person? He’s just not that interesting.

Billy Saas:  A different kind of social media like in a very literal sense.

Ben Wilson:  Yeah, we had a guest speaker, I think it was last year, she did the movie, Tik Tok Boom. It was a pretty good, interesting film about how TikTok is shaping our children’s brains, and how the algorithm works to keep you on it and engaged and how that works for influencing and all that. The heart of the way that that application is structured is all around the idea of attention and attention translates to profits. So how do we create apps that aren’t about that, right? TikTok, it’s not all bad. I think it helped my golf swing a little bit this season. Occasionally, a nice recipe pops up. Otherwise, it’s just a time sink that is so unuseful. TikTok and Facebook, and all these folks are starting to think: we need programmers, but we need programmers who understand some history and the humanities and can communicate. We can desperately not let them go to those platforms. Or take them over, yeah.

Billy Saas:  Maybe from the inside. We’re wrapping up a course in Media Studies, and we just had a conversation about TikTok and the different platforms through Cory Doctorow’s lens of ‘Enshittification’. Are you familiar with this one? The platforms like TikTok, Facebook are designed to degrade right? Essentially, in terms of quality of the experience. They begin as these big, hospitable places in order to get people in, and then the more people get settled in, the less they feel like they can leave. That’s when they turn the levers and start making life more shitty in Doctorow’s theoretical lens. So we talked about with the students what would it take for this ‘Enshittification’ to be reversed? Not to just keep talking about old Money on the Left episodes, but let’s do it. Kim Stanley Robinson, a critical portion of the utopian, mostly utopian near future, a version of climate catastrophe. Part of the story is the development of a public social media. A publicly-funded and non surveillance driven, non ad driven, open platform for social interaction online. That’s where we should send the historians. Let’s build something new and as utopian and far off as that can seem, it seems pretty important.

Ben Wilson:  Yeah, I wonder when you read about the New Deal, and the amazing archives and interviews about family members of former slaves, and the catalog that was developed in that time period: how are we going to know about this time period in the future? Where’s this data going, and who’s cataloging it? Our department is full of file cabinets with all the documents that have recorded the history of what’s been going on in our institution. Now they’re all on our U-drives. Where do those go in the future? And will we even know what our history was, as this technology gets wiped out? I think that’s a lot of meaningful and useful work that’s not getting done right now. Or at least I’m not aware of how it’s getting done or what it would look like. Our vision of things changes as we change what meaningful and useful product is instead of just like, how do we streamline this to be cost effective all the time.

Scott Ferguson:  Do you get resistance in the classroom? Somebody who’s just team Homo Economicus and insists as much?

Ben Wilson:  I think it’s so hard for them to see where I’m coming from ideologically, I think. I don’t know if they know when to be resistant or not. Even when I teach the 301, I do two thirds of the class on neoclassical in 1/3 of the class heterodox micro, with the critique of the neoclassical throughout. At the end, I’ll have two or three students ask me: so are you an Orthodox or a heterodox economist? The real answer is that you’ve got to be both. You’ve gotta keep up with what’s going on so that you’re not straw manning them the way that they do us. But as far as I can tell, the neoclassical model still remains the driving force of so much of the thinking that’s going on. In the Twitterverse, they’ll say, oh, no, that’s not informing our research, and then they’ll post their textbook diagrams in their threads below. I don’t know. I’ve gotten a little bit away from that, because I feel like there’s a little bit of dishonesty there. So in recent years, I’ve just flat out said, I was a really staunch neoclassical orthodox economist, it was in a Ph. D program, and I became disenchanted with what the school of thought was delivering, and I no longer had the feeling that I was doing something that was going to make the world a better place. I really felt lost, and I didn’t know what to do. I left school for a number of years and worked in the professional environment. Then I found out that there was this other school of thought that I could return to, to be part of the academy and teach and that was all very exciting. And so here I am, and every once in a while I look back, and I’ll wrestle with some of the ideas in these pieces. I’ll be like, Oh, maybe that is a meaningful move forward. So I think, as long as you’re never 100% sure of what you’re doing, students respect that. They have the freedom to be an orthodox economist. I’m not gonna tell them no. If you want to do your Orthodox, maximization problems and you find joy and excitement, and you think that that’s gonna make the world a better place, go for it.

Billy Saas:  Just imagine what that looks like. Yeah.

Ben Wilson:  My master’s thesis at Kansas was a factor model. So what’s the impact of institutions on economic growth and development? And there was this really interesting government data that was all like, categorical variables about whether or not they were a dictatorship or not, and the houses of how their government was divided. It was an interesting, fun exercise. It turns out that institutions with more democracies have better economic outcomes.

Billy Saas:  You get a hell of a grant for that one, I’m sure.

Ben Wilson:  Yeah, I mean, so you can still tell good stories from that perspective, I suppose. But I find much more joy and excitement and thinking about social science methodologies, and how to role in the humanities and institutional structures and human behavior as not an individual thing, but as a collective. So I’m gonna stay there for now. Billy, how did your class end up that I talked to, how are those projects?

Billy Saas:  Yeah, so in that class that you visited over Zoom to talk about classroom currencies, the class was called Money, Culture, and Media, or MCM, if you’re into acronyms. But of course, it’s from the MMT perspective. The course, each student is tasked with designing a complementary currency for use in the New Orleans area here, whether it’s in the city or on campus. We had a lot of fun, they did presentations of them. At the end of the semester, we held a vote and the top ones were going to be passed on to the next class. The next class would inherit the top proposals, and then develop and refine those proposals with the idea of iterative design. I think my intervention from the communication perspective was on the design and the discussion and the deliberation back end. Whereas I think a lot of the existing excellent classroom currency assignments are about design, but then it’s also implementation. I’m intimidated as hell of actually rolling out the classroom currency and managing it.

Ben Wilson:  I get that apprehension. That’s probably the most common thing that I hear from folks when I’m like why don’t you do this?

Billy Saas:  Another hang up. So there’s that, and I think it’s understandable. But we also, in that class, talk about grades and debt, like in the framework of debt, and you earn credits, and we’re in this whole accreditation system, and so on. So it ends up being usually a pretty interesting conversation. We’re talking about the rhetoric of debt in economics, and then we just locate it everywhere, like Lakoff and all that stuff. To what extent using the classroom currency as a stand in for, or as a part of their grade is sort of a redundant thing to do. Right? What are we actually achieving other than introducing complexity to the situation in the form of … Maybe complexity is community, complexity is buy in, and maybe that’s worthwhile. I am asking you, I guess, if a student comes up and says well isn’t this just the same as 10 points that you were already going to assign me based on work that I did? I guess for me, the answer is, yes, but we have now talked about it as opposed to just being the de facto.

Ben Wilson:  I think that having the grade component, whether it’s 10% or 5%, that you get that part of the grade through the redemption of the money that you’ve issued opens up the conversation about coercion. Was it even necessary for me to implement this tax? Would I have gotten the same result and the same amount of productive activity without it? Because 10% of a grade for the semesters is a pretty good chunk. It’s also a chunk that they’re guaranteed to get 100% of if they do the work. I think it gives them the choice, how much of this am I going to do? What am I going to do? How coercive is this actually? Because I also have students that just flat out choose not to show up for a midterm. I think it’s an interesting way of thinking about what we’re actually getting out of this credit process and out of education, and how much we’re buying into the way that we’re chunking up these classes and saying, was what you learned working for Loaves and Fishes really 10% of what the learning outcome of this class was, or maybe the most enriching and fundamentally eye open component of the class versus the 25% that I gave you for the paper, the particular readings and all these sorts of things. I think it is worth the physical issuance and redemption process to really drive home that it comes from a particular place first, and that we’re not recycling tax money. That I can always deliver my promise of 10% of your grade, just as the state can always deliver on whatever it is that we collectively promise, whether it’s whatever $1 trillion of military spending is supposed to deliver for us versus however much money I have to mobilize in this class to get the data that I need. We are capable as we the people of making whatever promise we the people want to make. I think employment, education, health care, and all those things are there if we want to mobilize in this different way and wondering and thinking through what the redemption process is in the circuit and how we create demand for satisfying each other’s collective promises, I think it’s an important exercise and thinking about our theories of value.

Scott Ferguson:  It seems to me that it introduces the question of, but also a legitimately new structure of receiveability in the classroom and beyond and among the students because grades are, and credits that they’re earning without the currency, those are receivable higher up the food chain. Those are receivable in the wider institution, and then in different ways on the job market. Maybe for getting into a graduate program, right? There’s many ways in which those grades that they are earning are receivable, but we call it cheating if they try to do horizontal coordination, which I refuse to call exchange, but that’s just me. If they are horizontally coordinating, that’s an illegitimate liquidity, right? Whereas, at least the way I’ve heard it described by you, Ben and Fadhel and some others, there is the possibility for horizontal liquidity. That’s different from the vertical redemption or the vertical liquidity of the teacher to students relationship.

Ben Wilson:  Yeah. I don’t think it’s ever happened where I didn’t have a number of students to weigh more than they needed to satisfy the tax obligation. That might be because they were already doing this work beforehand, or you’re doing community service by mandate already. There’s all sorts of things going on. But there’s also this situation in which a student was like, this was so awesome that I kept going back. This student that was going to feed people at Loaves and Fishes said this is the most rewarding and eye opening thing about people and life, I just did more of it. That’s part of it too, right? When you find reward in your work, that is so insanely valuable. I think that’s an important thing to be teaching our students as anything else, right? It’s not just about clocking in and clocking out, we want to find meaningful and useful work. I love that terminology for the full employment program. So at the end, as we’re closing in on tax day, there’s those students that have way more than they need, and there aer students that still haven’t done anything. I’ve issued more than enough to collect and satisfy a balanced budget, should I just close the opportunities, and you guys can now turn to Jimmy and Sarah and Samantha, and you guys can go work for them? Because now they’re the private sector. So that you can get the money that you need to pay the taxes? Then we will hold the vote, right? Should we keep the government open at the risk of running a budget deficit and running a full employment program? Or should we allow you guys to reevaluate your life choices and pull yourself up by your bootstraps and go do some volunteering or gather the data that we’re working with our community partners to build on. 17 hands go up to keep the government open and three hands or one hand will go up to close it. So those sorts of things are surprising and unexpected, and you would think that when you describe it, it just sounds like all the students will go and do exactly 10 hours of community service and that’ll be the end of it, but inevitably these students are unpredictable, right? Just like all of us are, we all have things going on in life. The question about whether or not these folks had “already had these volunteer opportunities lined up for them, is that fair? It was so easy for them, I had to go find it.” It opens up all those really good and interesting discussions that don’t happen unless some of them have the money, and some of them don’t.

Scott Ferguson:  I’ve been thinking recently a lot about my 15 year old son, who is part of this pretty great … I mean we’d like to see college being free for all and open enrollment and all these ways, but living in the state of Florida, we have a program called Bright Futures. If you get a certain GPA, and you fulfill a number of requirements, basically your tuition is taken care of at a public university, which the future of the public university system in the state of Florida is another kind of impending question. But one of the key requirements is 100 hours of community service, and my son’s been doing a lot of these hours. He usually tries to get in an hour a week or so. And I keep thinking about what a tremendous mobilization of young people and their labor, and my son will go to a local nonprofit that serves communities in need, and whether it’s about food service, or working in their thrift shop, he does any number of things. That is a lot of money! That is a lot of money, that is a lot of labor, and yet, we put out a proposal for a university currency system at the federal level, and people think we are insane. Right? And how do we live in a world in which…

Ben Wilson:  And our workers are old enough to work!

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah. How do we live in a world in which one of those models is gigantic, tremendous, in a currently super right wing state, and the other one is absolutely nuts. It is unthinkable. In fact, they’re not that different. I think that the pedagogical experiment of the classroom currency, in constant dialogue, and in this reflexive relationship around the institution, and grades, and coercion can be one way of pulling down the kind of conceptual barriers that make one of those sound totally rational and doable, which it is because it’s happening every single day in the state of Florida, versus these other proposals.

Ben Wilson:  I would imagine none of these students that are trying to participate are having any trouble finding work. There’s so much that needs to be done. I applaud the idea there. I think maybe that’s a way of merging and thinking through the transition from high school to college, and higher learning in an interesting way. Talk about having exposure to some really important social and environmental issues and going into college with those ideas already in mind. Then, having that experience to be able to continue to grow on what it is that you’ve done in the past in new places, with new people and organizations, and build capacity in those areas that doesn’t exist when we’re only relying on volunteerism. That’s really the hardest thing that occurs. I’ve built really good partnerships here, but all my partners are dependent on soft money. Lots of people work in these places as long as they can and then the reality of expenses and mortgages and family and the turnover in the space is just non stop. Programs just end on a fiscal date, and then you gotta start over again. If this program could grow and provide them with that sort of monetary labor stability such that we’re always building capacity and growing and achieving these goals and objectives and missions, that would be terrific. But we’re still …

Billy Saas:  The transitory nature of public good inflation. People come in and do good work, and then they gotta go.

Ben Wilson:  The buffer stock is an interesting pedagogical tool and should we choose gold or labor. If it’s really meaningful and useful work, you don’t want people just picking up and going because they got a higher bid from the private sector. That’s not really building capacity and stabilizing communities in the sort of way that I think creates this ongoing social cohesion and environmental awareness and respect for human life. I think it just falls into that trap that we’re automatons making choices and doing our own thing, rather than part of this much bigger collective that is really something that we need to be more aware of.

Billy Saas:  This has been really great. Ben Wilson, thank you so much for joining us on Money on the Left.

Ben Wilson:  Thank you so much for having me. Please, please if you want to issue your own currency and experiment with this, I am always open to talking and chatting. You can reach me on Twitter at @autogestion77 and it’s a similar handle on Blue Sky. I’m just starting there. bcw@cortland.edu is my email and that’s where I’m bombarded every day by all sorts of things. So it’d be nice to get a question about how to issue currency in my classrooms.

Billy Saas:  Where do we go for job ads and when does the job close?

Ben Wilson:  Oh, that’s good. First week in December, it’s available on the JOE (Job Openings for Economists) and our website, our Human Resources website. Thanks for asking.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Mike Lewis (transcription), & Robert Rusch (graphic art)

Monetary Foundations of Education with Larry Johnson

This month, we speak with Larry Johnson, associate professor in the Social Foundations of Education Program at the University of South Florida, Saint Petersburg. In his pedagogy, Johnson focuses on the complex relationship between education, culture, and society with the goal of exploring policies and practices from historical and contemporary perspectives that address structural inequality, and transforming educational institutions into sites for social justice. Johnson is notably a long-time proponent of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and variously mobilizes MMT’s insights when training our teachers-to-be. In our conversation with Johnson, we discover just how constrained the US system of public education is by wrong economic thinking and what it would mean to think otherwise. Together, we ask: How do federal interest rates shape US education policy? What do standardized tests have to tell us about neoclassical economics and the nature of money? Why is the rhetoric of education in the United States so narrowly focused on preparing students for careers? How do classist and racist myths of taxpayer financing create unequal schooling? And how could we ever reasonably hope for the political economy of education in the United States to ever be otherwise? Pondering such questions, Johnson opens a window onto his longstanding advocacy for radically rethinking US public education through the lens of endogenous public money theory.

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

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com


The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson:  Larry Johnson, welcome to Money on the Left.

Larry Johnson:  Thank you. Good to be here.

Billy Saas:  We’re excited to talk to you today about the Social Foundations of Education, which is your area of expertise and something you teach about at University of South Florida. Could you start us off by telling us a little bit about what the Social Foundations of Education are and how one like yourself comes to study them?

Larry Johnson:  Sure, sure. The basic idea is you are trying to look at the relationship between school and society. As an historian, I look at how education is related to political economy and ideology. That really runs throughout the social foundations field. So we’re always trying to think about how, for example, if you’re thinking about kids not doing well in school, we have to look not just at what’s happening in school, we have to look and see, poor communities often–the kids in poor communities often do badly in school because their schools are poor as well. Both the community and the school lack resources, just as an example.

Billy Saas:  And we’re specifically excited to talk to you about the overlap of your research and teaching in the Social Foundations of Education with questions related to what money is and how it works. In fact, I think we have slated this episode, The Monetary Foundations of Education. What do you think of that? Does that work?

Larry Johnson:  Ah, that actually might work. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, maybe even MMT is necessary for education.

Scott Ferguson:  I like it. It’s just too long for our title art, but I do like it.

Larry Johnson:  Okay. I got thinking about issues of the federal budget and how it works fairly early on. When I was in high school, I had a teacher. This is 1965, the year after Goldwater’s run for the presidency. And lots of students in class were Goldwater supporters. They were preoccupied with passing a balanced budget amendment, and they raise those kinds of issues in class all the time. And one day the teacher happened to say, as he was addressing some of these kids, and I can’t remember exactly the context. He told us if we went down to the IRS office in Ogden, Utah, where people in the Rocky Mountain West send their taxes every year. If we paid our taxes, we’ve got a bag full of cash and got down there and paid our taxes with cash, the IRS would shred it. And yeah, so what does that mean? And I just happen to think, well, it means the government doesn’t need our taxes to spend money. And he kind of smiled. That was the end of it. We didn’t go any farther. But I went home and asked my dad about it. And he told me, like he often did: call someone and find out, so call Ogden and find out. So I called. The receptionist was very good. She ended up connecting me with the chief economist at that IRS office. And he got on the phone and said I hear you’ve had an interesting conversation in school. So I told him about it. He said that’s exactly right. If you paid your taxes in cash, we would shred it, because we don’t need that cash. We issue the currency. And that was really interesting. And I must say, the man was very nice. He invited me to come down to Ogden to meet with him. But I was a 17 year old, I never did go. I passed up a real opportunity to learn something. And the next instance where I really got a chance to think about this was the fall quarter of my sophomore year in college, I took a class: general introduction to economics. And the fellow thought it was a guy named George Fuller, a very interesting economist who had read Keynes had read Marx. He used both in the class, and the department had assigned this class to use the Samuelson economics textbook. So what George would do is, we’d go through Samuelson and then he’d give us stuff to read to critique what was in Samuelson. A very interesting way to teach it. During that semester, he gave us a pre-publication copy of something that Hyman Minsky had written critiquing the War on Poverty as a conservative effort to address poverty. So we read that. It was fascinating to me because my dad was a Roosevelt Democrat. Although, he would say he’s a Roosevelt. One time some supercilious businessman tried to correct his pronunciation, and he asked him, How do you say the name of the animal that crows wake up in the morning, rooster or roaster. Rooster. He said Roosevelt. But he was very critical of Kennedy and Johnson, because they simply weren’t doing enough of the kinds of things that Roosevelt did to intervene directly in the economy. And of course, both of them argued that education was the way to solve poverty, which I knew even at the time didn’t make sense, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to make those arguments. So we talked about it a lot, my dad and I. When I got assigned Hyman Minsky’s piece, it really gelled, and he helped me see important ways to criticize the War on Poverty: criticizing it because it did not spend enough money; criticizing it because it wanted to change the people who were poor, instead of changing the economic system. For example, guarantee people jobs or had a full employment policy so people could work. It was always very clear that people who faced long spells of unemployment and frequent spells of unemployment are much poorer than those who are able to work continuously at a decently paying job. So that was clearly the most important thing we can do to address it. Training and stuff was not of any great interest. I wrote a paper about that the next quarter, winter quarter of 1968, in a social psychology class and the teacher was just absolutely enraged, because he was a strong supporter of the War on Poverty and believed it was exactly the way to go and education was the only solution. So we had this confrontation in the class. And, wow, this is really interesting, people really don’t like to be told this stuff. That made me even more interested, so I spent a lot more time trying to find information and then look at it. Then, when I was out of college, I was working for a community action program in Weaver County, Utah where Ogden is. I was put on the Manpower Training Council. John Kennedy passed this law to create these Manpower Training Councils around the country. The whole purpose was you got this federal money, and you could choose programs to train the poor. We were on that for a good couple of years, and it became clear to everyone on the council that this was not the way to end poverty. I mean, you’d have businessmen who really liked the idea of training workers because they want to socialize training as much as they can, the cost of training. But what we needed was more jobs in the county. We needed better paying jobs. So we all began to advocate for that sort of approach. And just reinforced the idea that what we really need is a meaningful full employment policy. I ended up getting my doctorate in education because I wanted to partly address the criticisms of education, which were unfounded, and talk about how education actually fits with our economy and what we ought to be doing, kinds of things. I was always motivated by the history of education, what people have said throughout history the purpose of education was. When I teach my classes, we often start on the first day by looking at what the Manifesto the Plebeians in the French Revolution said: “All knowledge, universities, and schools have to be held in common. If they become the property of a single class, they are oppressive.” And that’s extremely important right? The enclosure movement is driving people off the Commons, and commoners said straight up: you’re not only destroying our livelihood, you are destroying the way in which we teach our children to live. By driving those people off the commons, forcing them into the cities, putting them to work in factories was destroying a way of life. It was also destroying a way of education. They were very tuned into the idea that education has to be for all. Of course, the United States gave Horace Mann who creates the common schools, so rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, would be taught in the same schools. Of course, Catholics criticized his schools for being Protestant. But that’s for another time. So that’s going on. Then, a couple of interesting things happen in the 19th century. African Americans develop very powerful arguments that education should be for liberation. It should help them think about what their freedom means and how to shape it. And of course, you had philanthropists in the North trying to impose what was called industrial education on Blacks. That didn’t have anything to do with industry. It was meant to teach Black teachers how to farm, do all these menial tasks from sunup to sundown, and then get a couple hours of education at the end. Well, let me backup. If you look at the schools that were created to train Blacks by Northern philanthropists, like Hampton Institute, and Tuskegee Institute, one in Virginia and one in Alabama. They promote what was called industrial education, which didn’t prepare Blacks to be in industry at all. These were schools to teach teachers, they were normal schools. But their idea of how to teach teachers to teach Blacks was you’d make them work from sunup to sundown, give them a little bit of training on academic subjects in the evening. But their goal was to work in schools and teach Blacks the value of labor. Odd for people who’ve labored for centuries. But that was their goal. So Blacks clearly understood that that was an education for subordination. What they needed was a much more academic education, what we think of as liberal education, so that they can think about freedom and what it means and how to shape their own freedom. In the late 19th century, you’ve got the Populists, an organization of Blacks and whites, trying to constrain the power, overthrow the power of the planters in the south, and the bankers and railroads in the North. Their conception of education was that education should help us understand the machinery of society, and how to control it to benefit ourselves. How to control it in our own interests as a large working class. Then, one of the statements that my students really gravitate to was from WEB DuBois in a commencement address that he gave at Howard University. He said, “Our task is to out-think, and outsmart the people who own the world.” So they’re very different conceptions of what education ought to be doing. Then we get from presidents of the United States, from John Kennedy, to Joe Biden, that education is about training people for work. And so we need to recognize that people have thought much more deeply about what education is, and why we ought to do it. So that’s how we start and then we move on from there to raise a whole host of issues about education, how it’s related to the economy. I don’t argue with him that there’s no relationship. For example, we know that we in our society use education to compete for things. We compete for jobs, we compete for incomes, we compete for status, and we use education in that competition. So it surely is the case that if you get more education than people in your neighborhood, you have a better chance of getting a job than the people around you. An economist named Barry Bluestone said many years ago: getting an education is like getting a new pair of running shoes to go bear hunting with your friends. On your own, you can’t outrun the bear, but all you have to do is outrun your friends, right? So the bear eats them and you survive. That helps students understand that particular way of thinking about how we use education. Again, that’s thinking just about education in a very narrow way. But it is an important way that we use education. We spend a lot of time talking about why education can’t end poverty. In recent years, we get a chance to see, for example, in 2018, there was a magnificent headline, well two headlines, in the New York Times. One was about how prisoners were being taken out of prison and put to work in factories because the factories couldn’t find enough employees. Okay. And the other one was, employers no longer require drug tests. Okay. Now, for decades, we’ve been told that these people end up in prison, they really can’t get jobs, they’re not job qualified and so forth. And the people who smoke dope, obviously, they’re unemployable. Well, it turns out, they’re not. In a tight labor market, there’s room for all those people to be employed. And that’s important, because it wasn’t that those people got an education in prison that allowed them to go work in an automobile factory. It was that we had a tight labor market, employers were competing for employees, and they wanted to expand the pool of employees. So they wouldn’t have so much pressure to pay them more. So they go into the prisons, they get workers who they would have rejected before, because they would have failed the drug test. But now they can hire them. It really is that these people are functioning as a reserve army of the unemployed, being drawn in when the labor market is tight. All of that helps students to think about education in a much broader way. That all helps students think more deeply about the limitations of the conception of education of our political leaders. They really are misleading us about the role of education. For example, we actually talked about this in class: President Clinton always talked about people who are unemployed and were not job ready, and they needed to get the training, so they would be job ready. Well, the only time you talk about job readiness is when you have unemployment, you’re a political leader, and you don’t want to say, well, I could have different policies, and then people will have jobs. Instead, you put the onus on the unemployed and say: well, they’re just not job ready. But Clinton himself, when he ran for president in 1992, the big conflict between him and George Bush Sr was how low unemployment could go without triggering inflation. Clinton said it could go down to 5.5%. George Bush thought it could only go to 6.1%. So they’re debating this, of course, and they’re saying, oh, unemployment, we have to keep unemployment high in order to forestall inflation. It’s interesting when we talk about that, just as an aside, I tell my students: now if you believe that, how would you distribute unemployment fairly? Would you have a lottery? So it’s not always the same people who get shoved on the unemployment line. But what’s interesting to note is that Bill Clinton, I had this really interesting, short article that for years I had students read. It was titled, “Professors Give the New President High Marks.” Bill Clinton was talking about how low unemployment can go without triggering inflation. Then Clinton says, “we have to have” … It’s interesting, he talks about, these people are unemployed, because we need to have high unemployment, to forestall inflation, but the people are unemployed because they’re not job ready. They don’t have the training and the skills to get the jobs. If we did that, they’d find jobs and it’d be fine. My students read that and just within a couple of paragraphs to get a chance to, okay, here, he’s saying we need high unemployment to forestall inflation. And here he’s saying, we need education so people can get jobs. But if education actually worked and people got jobs, it would undermine his effort to use high unemployment to constrain inflation. Of course, unemployment dropped to 4.0%, and we didn’t see inflation, right? Alan Greenspan, appointed by Ronald Reagan, as chairman of the Fed, continued for many years through the Bush administration through Clinton. He’s saying, well, there is this rate of unemployment that, if we fall below that it will trigger accelerating inflation. But we can’t see what it is. We know it’s there. But we just can’t see what it is. A very odd thing for someone who calls himself an Objectivist to claim, right? I mean, so anyway, you see how Clinton was just simply wrong about 3 million people not having the skills that were needed to get a job. Of course, he’s wrong about the other millions too. Under the right circumstances, of course they would have jobs. They’d be able to do just fine.

Scott Ferguson:  So we’re getting this sense in which your pedagogy around the social foundations of education are not only situating education in a broader social context, but also in a political economic context. And that for you, and for a long time, Modern Monetary Theory, or the ideas surrounding Modern Monetary Theory have been really central. What we’re hearing is that you have a practice of orienting your students to the evidence of the world like. Like a seemingly innocuous article about giving the new president high marks on his economic discourse, how whether it’s explicit or implicit, how the Modern monetary theory perspective makes contradictions in the dominant political, economic and education discourse extremely salient, such that you can’t ignore them. You can’t pass over them. I want to go further into this project of yours. But I want to step back for a second and tell our listeners a little bit about how I’ve gotten to know you in the last year.

Larry Johnson:  Yes.

Scott Ferguson:  You emailed me probably about a year ago. You are a professor at the University of South Florida, as am I. You’re at our St. Petersburg campus, I’m at the Tampa campus. And you invited me to participate on a committee that you were putting together. And that all went very well. There’s no reason for me to talk about the committee work on this podcast. But I remember when you first emailed me, you introduced yourself and said, how about you join this committee? It’ll be good fun. And by the way, I’ve been practicing MMT for something like 40 years. I did like a triple take. I read the email like 10 times and I thought to myself, first of all,: what? I thought I was the only strange Freakazoid at the University of South Florida that cared about Modern Monetary Theory, let alone heterodox economics. Secondly, I was just delighted that somebody else cares. I’m not alone. And thirdly, I was pretty confused because, as far as I know, Modern Monetary Theory is not that old, right? Modern monetary theory came into being in the mid to late 90s, famously on a heterodox economics listserv. And you’re telling me that you’ve been doing this for decades. And I’m just scratching my head. Part of me thought: I’m sure he thinks he’s telling the truth, but is he lying to me? What’s going on? But then it turns out, right, that as you’ve informed our audience, you’ve actually been reading the works of the heterodox precursors to what eventually comes to be known as MMT. Right. 

Larry Johnson:  Okay. Yeah, yeah.

Scott Ferguson:  And then MMT is a much later designation for this body of scholarship. I mean, here’s another aspect to this story that I think is defamiliarizing for me and potentially for our listeners, which is that I think of Money on the Left and our editorial collective as being, along with certain movements in critical legal studies and left law scholarship and activism, I think of us and this generation as being on the vanguard of doing interdisciplinary research with MMT principles and ideas and trying to think about what are the implications for MMT once you start taking them outside of heterodox economics as relatively narrowly defined? And it turns out, I guess you beat us to the punch a long, long time ago. So we genuflect to you.

Larry Johnson:  Well, Thank you.

Scott Ferguson:  But with this background in mind, I’d like to get back into some of this interdisciplinary thinking and pedagogy that you’re doing with your students around education and the political economy of education, and obviously, the sort of political and even radically political importance of education for social justice and environmental justice. But at the same time, the kind of blind spots the normative or hegemonic blind spots that position education as a kind of salve, and as a kind of excuse to perpetuate a society of austerity and all the kinds of sexist and racist and homophobic and ecocidal impulses that are behind it. And I know you’ve talked to us in our kind of preliminary conversations a lot about the way that the rhetoric and politics of testing has informed this kind of dominant impulse of austerity. I was wondering if you could flesh out some of that argument for us?

Larry Johnson:  Sure, sure. Yeah, it’s useful to start with a couple of things that happened in the early 80s, particularly in 1983. Oddly enough, one year. You had the publication of A Nation at Risk; the report from the Reagan administration that claimed that schools were failing, and that’s why we were unable to compete effectively with Japan and Toyota was making better cars than Ford and selling a lot more of them. This report made a number of claims about declines in test scores, what students were and weren’t able to do. I’ll just give you a brief account of that. It has a list of 12 or 13 claims that justify their report. I always have my students go through and look at those claims. One example is that in the report, they say, there’s been an unbroken decline in science test scores for 17 year olds. And this is from the National Assessment for Educational Progress tests, 9, 14, and 17 year olds. So you wonder, well, what about 9 and 14 year olds? Well, I get my students to look up AP scores. And sure enough, those kids do pretty well. There’s no evidence of decline. Then we look at this wonderful graph, and it shows the exact data that the President’s Commission on excellence in education was looking at. You look at the 9 year olds, 14 year olds, and you see no decline in reading, math or science. Same with the 14 year olds. Then you get up to the 17 year olds, and in math and English, they’re doing just fine. But in science, they have a relatively flat line and then a little bit of a downward slope between 1980 and 1979. Before that, there isn’t any data comparable, so they project that data. They assume that well, in the sense scientists assume things I suppose –maybe not scientists, but others — that this brief downward slope they see between a couple of years, that slope continues on into the past. So they retroject or retrodict. Instead of predicting, they retrodict; they predict about the past. And they claim that the scores would have been. That’s how they claim there’s a decline in scores. My students go through and look at every one of those claims in the report, and they find not a single one of them is clearly true. They’re either misleading, they’re false, or you can’t quite be sure what they mean. One of my favorites is that the test scores of students graduating college are also lower. Well, we never had, fortunately, an FCAT testing program to test people as they graduate from college. If you go into graduate school, you take the GRE and stuff, but there’s nothing that we do, like in many states that have tests for kids graduating high school, or maybe their sophomore year in high school. But there’s nothing like that in college across the country, so there really was no way to make that comparison. But if you think about it, test scores are also lower. Well, there’s no clear meaning to it. It’s like the language of advertising. Tied, get your clothes cleaner. Cleaner than rolling around in the dirt? Sure. Yeah. It makes no sense. I have my students look at those kinds of claims. I have them look at a speech that Barack Obama gave his first year in office to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. His major Education addresses his first year in office. In this address, I haven’t listened to a clip lately, but he make some claims about Blacks test scores and test scores in general, it’s always objectionable, but he says in the course of this: if we’re looking at our international comparisons of scores in science and math, we have fallen to ninth place. Well I looked at those scores with my students, and it turns out the previous test, the United States, was in 16th Place. So if you go from 16th to ninth, are you falling or rising?

Scott Ferguson: We fell up! 

Larry Johnson:  We fell up. That’s right.

Scott Ferguson:  A tragic ascension.

Larry Johnson:  A tragic ascension. Yes, yes. So it’s pretty clear that Obama wanted to say something negative about education. It’s been common in politics, for presidents at least, for the last 60 or so years. Going back to the 50s and Eisenhower’s time with Sputnik being launched then people say: oh their education systems are better than ours. Which is another matter. It’s one of those things where just you see political leaders want to say something bad about the school system. And it’s very odd, like Obama, if you may recall, between the time he was elected, and when he took office, he was asked constantly about, should we clawback that money from the banks, the fees that they got. He says: no, the sanctity of the contract has to be respected. Then his first year in office, Providence, Rhode Island fires all the teachers in high school, which violated their contract, right? They hire back all but the leaders of the union there, and Obama says we should have more of this. The teachers’ contracts are like straight jackets, they’re keeping us from reforming the schools. I was asked whenever I ran into a strong supporter of Obama’s. I always ask them, I think it’s a question that he should address too, why are contracts with bankers sacred, and those with teachers profane? It’s just amazing how they maneuver to position schools and teachers as the enemy. And that means that they can deflect criticism of their policies and say, Oh, it’s a failure in education. You think about The Nation at Risk, saying, Oh, our education system explains why Japan’s able to build better cars and sell them better than Ford. Well, Japan’s economy went in the tank a couple of years after that. They didn’t say, Oh, that was their education system. And our car started selling better. They went back and said: our teachers are doing this. Of course not. Now I mean, whether we sell cars, that depends on federal policy. It depends on decisions of people that own car companies, all kinds of things, and has nothing to do with education. Education is just an excuse. Let me come back to what was going on in 1983 because it’s very useful. That year is when you see this testing regime really being put in place in southern states. Mark White, Democratic governor of Texas promises teachers he’ll give them a raise. He goes to a businessman and says we want to give teachers a raise. Well, I know you want to make sure the teachers are competent. So we’ll test the teachers, make sure they’re competent, and we’ll test the students to make sure they’re learning. So they invented this whole big testing rigmarole. Ross Perot heads up his committee that creates his reform plan. Bill Clinton in Arkansas the same year, creates a committee on educational standards headed up by his wife. And they come up with exactly the same plan they did in Texas: massive testing of teachers and students. Richard Riley in South Carolina, he became Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Education and does the same thing there. All Democrats in the south. Then Lamar Alexander, the only Republican that I’m aware of, in Tennessee implements exactly the same plan. These ideas are very prominent in the south. It’s odd because these southern states have among the worst education systems in the country. In Tennessee, they ranked 49th in per pupil spending, and their graduation rates are right at the bottom. Same with all these states. But they end up dominating national education policy. There’s no other word for it than just deplorable. These people, they are the ones who put the straitjacket on education, making it much more limited. Their focus on test scores is: we have to test students to make sure they have the knowledge that their future employers want. That’s a question that we should never ask. We need to ask, what do students need to develop fully? What do they need to interact with the world in useful and interesting ways? I mean, if their employer wants them to know something, they should foot the bill to train them. Of course, they don’t want to do that because if they train them, then they can go to work for someone else. They want to socialize the cost of training by putting more and more of the stuff in the schools. But there’s no evidence that employers even care about these test scores. Bill Gates has put hundreds of millions of dollars into improving test scores, and in the old days his job application used to be available online. It doesn’t ask you to give your high school test score. One of my mother’s great nephews, my grand nephew I guess, went to Microsoft to work. He was from California, I asked him, did they ask you for your California test scores? He said, of course not! The only ones that had to get tested were in the keyboarding pool. The typing pool, we used to call it. So they do their typing tests, but nobody else. His whole thing was to program handheld devices. He didn’t have to report his test scores.

Billy Saas:  So what are those test scores doing then? On your read?

Larry Johnson:  Oh, what do they do? That’s a really good question. One is you can always find a way to use them to undercut education. Think of No Child Left Behind. It divides students up into different groups based on race, whatever. And the more time the more groups you divide any larger group into, the more likely you’re going to have a group that falls below some arbitrary standard. So diverse schools. We’re gonna finally disaggregate the scores so we know how Blacks are doing, how Hispanics are doing, this and that other groups are doing. But the more groups you create, the more likely you’re going to have one group that fails. Now, I’m not just saying that off the top of my head. There were a couple of people who worked in the Bush administration who explained very clearly, when they were interviewed, that the goal of No Child Left Behind was to make schools look like they were failing and make it easier to privatize them. It’s a very simple argument. Testing goes way back. When Horace Mann created the common school system in the 1830s. He and his allies figured they were trying to promote centralizing control of the schools more in the state school board. Mann created the state school board in Massachusetts, and he was its first Secretary of Education. He and his allies created a test to test common school kids. You have to remember, common school takes you up to like the third grade, or what we would call a third grade. They had these test questions, they asked all the kids in Massachusetts, and one of the questions was: you’re in Cincinnati, Ohio, and you’re traveling to Vienna, Austria. Name of the rivers, locks and oceans you would travel through on the way. Now you have to ask yourself, do you think Horace Mann or his friends could have answered that question without looking at a globe? I couldn’t! Could I have even understood what it meant when I was a third grader? I’m not entirely sure. So yeah, and another question they had was, if you’re traveling on the Mississippi, is Cincinnati on your right or your left? That’s the question. Well, it depends whether you’re going upstream or down, right? So you literally can’t answer. So the kids didn’t do well on his test, not surprisingly. Mann could step in and say, Okay, we need greater centralization of the schools, greater standardization. People have always understood how they can use testing to achieve a political goal.

Billy Saas:  Just a little anecdote, I live in New Orleans. We have a four and a half year old who’s looking to get into kindergarten, which means they’re entering into a fully charter system.

Larry Johnson:  Yeah.

Billy Saas:  Very overwhelming org charts. They have CEOs at each of these respective charter schools. And there was this really great pitch that they were giving, these are people representing the school system and trying to help us navigate this just circuitous and helplessly bureaucratic, but also, free market. Yay!

Larry Johnson:  Which, by the way, was supposed to do away with bureaucracy, right?

Billy Saas:  Exactly. Oh, my goodness, just looking at my partner the whole time I’m like, this is not efficient. One of the things is that it used to be the case that in order to get into the schools, you’d have to apply to each one, right? And there’s something like 65. Not all of them service kindergartens. So they made it more efficient by creating the one app, or the common app, where you can apply and then you just list your top 5, 6, 7 or whatever. Then you enter the lottery to find out if you get into that one. Two of the kindergartens have testing. They say that the common app is supposed to be, you fill it out, and then everything’s sorted out. It’s something that makes it easier for parents and schools and everything, and it’s universal. But then they make this qualification. This is what happened throughout the entire presentation, it was like: this is the universal policy, and here’s how it is changed at every individual school. And here’s why you as parents need to start researching last year in order to figure out where you’re going to send your kid to kindergarten. But the testing thing is something that everybody knows in that room. It felt like because charters are so dominant in New Orleans, that they don’t have to give an argument for the system. So I asked about the testing, and is that equitable. I happen to know because we’ve talked to people who’ve had students go there before to take the test that they use iPads, and they complete the tests on iPads. And there are many just sort of transparently prima fascia inequitable practices entailed. So we asked the question, how do you ensure that this is equitable? The question can’t be answered because it’s transparently not equitable. That’s why it exists, right, for separation purposes. That goes back to the testing, in general, as a premise for privatization or creating new markets, right?

Larry Johnson:  Yeah. So we wouldn’t test kids unless we wanted to say they were different and deserve something different, unless we had some other goal.

Billy Saas:  Exactly. Right. So when you are outlining this history, you’re drawing a line between Alan Greenspan’s theory of engagement with NAIRU to funding for education.

Larry Johnson:  Yeah.

Billy Saas:  The fact that the chair of the Federal Reserve is in a roundabout, but maybe not so roundabout way, determining the boundaries of education policy. It seems like you do this very deductively over the semester with students. How do you end up at the end of the class without there being a kind of revolt and tearing down the walls of the classroom itself?

Larry Johnson:  Well, yeah, that’s so funny, worded that way, because one of the things I do is when we’re looking at the criticism of education, I quote from Alan Bloom’s book. He wrote a book criticizing schools and stuff, and he says in there: the American education system has totally collapsed. We’re sitting there and I say, look around, collapsed right? Here you are in college.

Scott Ferguson:  Is this The Closing of the American Mind?

Larry Johnson:  Yes, yes. Thank you.

Billy Saas:  The roof might be collapsing in on you. But the firmament is there.

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah because it’s underfunded.

Larry Johnson:  Yeah, we get a chance to look at another strand of those kinds of arguments.

Billy Saas:  But it seems like it is quite literally, you are inducing a revolution or a full scale change in thought and how we understand or are educated to understand what education is and what it’s for. Maybe you could share anecdotally what the student response is to this kind of cumulative macro picture, political, economic situation in education?

Larry Johnson:  Sure. You know, it’s surprising I taught this way at Utah for a number of years. Then, when I came to St. Pete, when I came to USF, it was really interesting. The very first semester that I taught here, I had some incredible students, one of whom ends up on the faculty with me now. But on their own initiative, they continued to meet after the end of the semester, to continue to talk about what to do with these ideas. I’ve had other students tell me that they have taken what they’ve learned and tried to figure out how to use it in an age appropriate way with their students in elementary in high school. I had one woman, this was actually at Utah, who tried to figure out what she could do with this stuff, what she would do teaching first graders, so they could get a foundation so they could resist propaganda later on. Yeah, surprisingly enough, she actually applied for — there was a national group that was providing money, they just chose one person. It was for somebody who was trying to have a transformative career in education. Here she was, and most of these people are already teaching, and they’re coming back for masters and doctors. She was an undergraduate, and she applied with her ideas, and she ended up being a finalist for this. She didn’t get it, but she went a long way. Much further than I expected. It’s interesting to me, I mean, I have students who come back three, four or five years later and say: when we were in class, I thought it was a bunch of garbage. But now I’m out there teaching, I can see why you had to think about this stuff. They’ll talk about how their curriculum is indoctrinating the students with neoclassical economic ideas beginning very early in grade school. So they’re thinking, okay, now that I have different ideas, how do I respond as a teacher? What can I do? They often come back and ask me and I’m not always much help. I’m usually a listener and ask them questions, try to figure out okay, what do they want to try to do? Okay. You want your students to understand this? Their first graders. Okay, how do you get them to think about this so it doesn’t fall back on the standard “the federal budget is like the family budget.” Okay, how do you help them to do that? And how do you help them understand that the federal government issues currency? Once you understand that it changes everything.

Billy Saas:  The fact that it prints the currency, that it makes the currency, that it circulates the currency is, in this case, maybe not as important as highlighting that, at the same time, it doesn’t do it. Like when it doesn’t want to do it, and to what ends it is not?

Larry Johnson:  Oh, yeah.

Billy Saas:  To those first graders, the reason that we don’t have music class anymore is because the chair of the Federal Reserve thinks that unemployment is too low or whatever, right?

Larry Johnson:  Yeah, so we’re gonna cut everything back. And that means you’re gonna have less in school. Now, they’re not gonna have less in school up on the east hillside where the rich kids go, but we’re gonna have to get by without trumpets and clarinets, for band class.

Billy Saas:  Because our test scores are low.

Larry Johnson:  Because our test scores are low. That’s right.

Scott Ferguson:  I can speak from experience that …

Larry Johnson:  Please do.

Scott Ferguson:  Teaching some of these fundamental principles of public endogenous money gets easier and easier the younger and less indoctrinated your audience is. I can say this about my own children. I mean, my now 15 year old, I think I probably started talking about MMT when he was four, four and a half, and I never stopped. It’s very easy to just begin with money is something that is public and comes from the government and is organized by the government. It is given out and not given out in different ways. Where teaching MMT gets very, very challenging is when you have to cut through all of the neoclassical assumptions and garbage and even cut through some of the more critical approaches to political economy that sometimes come out of the Marxist tradition, and Polanyi, and some of these other traditions. It’s when you have to unwind those worldviews when things get very difficult. The basics of MMT, I mean …

Larry Johnson:  Are pretty easy to understand.

Scott Ferguson:  Pretty easy. I mean, some of the stuff about the interest rate is supporting this and that and the financial system. We don’t have to talk about that with the four and a half year old. But nevertheless, I think it is a lot easier.  I’m actually curious to hear you talk a little bit about pushback, if you get any? When I’m teaching, I don’t get a lot of pushback, but I will get a lot of bewildered faces. Like huh? But I know you’ve told me about, I think I recall, parents have contacted you kinda wagging their fists on some of this stuff?

Larry Johnson:  They’re less resistant!

Scott Ferguson:  Yes, yes. They think I’m indoctrinating their child. But what I found exciting about all those things is that the students were going home and talking to their parents and their spouses and their kids about all this stuff. I mean, that’s great. Yeah, I’m happy to talk to any of them. We don’t have to agree. It’s about, you know, stating the debate.

Larry Johnson:  That’s exactly right. I always hide behind that.

Scott Ferguson:  No, but it is both true.

Larry Johnson:  It is. I’m not trying to change what you believe, I want to change what you understand. I want to help you to understand things that you may not have understood before. You can think about this. And I know my students will think about it for years, and come back and tell me they’ve continued to think about this stuff.

Billy Saas:  Well, I think that you’re talking about the deductive approach, as I’ve called it, where you’re putting the evidence in front of them in sequence over time so that it’s not … If it’s indoctrination, it’s very passive, right?

Larry Johnson:  Very much, yeah.

Billy Saas:  And can’t be considered indoctrination to the extent that you’re just sort of questioning things, right?

Larry Johnson:  Yeah, and it’s funny how students will come to insights. I remember, I was talking about a student we were talking about. Actually, this is kind of funny because I often these days will show undergraduates and graduates the little collection of video clips that one of Stephanie Kelton’s postdocs did where they have people talking about the budget deficit and all that stuff: Obama leads, oh, we’re out of money. We have to get our credit card with the Bank of China, blah, blah, blah. They’ll watch that, and we’ll talk about it. Along the way, we’ll talk about Obama. This is very interesting in, say, 2018 when unemployment had dropped down well below 4%. We talked about Obama, what his beliefs were about the budget, which was always interesting. I’ll mention, you know, his position was that unemployment couldn’t drop below 5.4%. without triggering inflation. 1/10 of a percent better than Clinton, right?

Scott Ferguson:  Progress!

Larry Johnson:  Yeah, progress. Yeah. This kid who had been pretty quiet most of the semester, pipes, and he says, but he was wrong, wasn’t he? I said yes! And for that student, that conversation opened it up, and he’d go back and look at stuff we’d read, that he just hadn’t comprehended. But for some reason, understanding it that day opened up the whole semester for him.

Scott Ferguson:  You never know when it’s gonna happen.

Larry Johnson:  That’s right. It’s kind of the neatest thing. Yeah. Wow, you have a kid back there. He doesn’t say much. He’s kind of you know, morose. He’s just coasting through. And then suddenly, something happens. And you figure a lot of stuff out.

Scott Ferguson:  We’d like to talk to you a little bit about the history and structure of school financing in the United States. And neither of us are experts at this.

Larry Johnson:  Me either, there are people that know a lot more about this than I do.

Scott Ferguson:  Okay, well we still want to pick your brain. As you know, we became interested in this question in higher education, which has an entirely different financing structure, and its own history. We were responding to the calls for downsizing, and austerity, and the elimination of departments, and greater adjunctification, and the exploitation of staff and students and graduate workers, et cetera, et cetera, especially during the pandemic. And the idea was that there was some natural occurrence of this virus and yeah, and state state revenues were going to drop. And so there was really no choice but to not not let the crisis go to waste, so to speak. And to cut, cut, cut are already struggling Universities, especially the big public ones. And we came up with a proposal that understood money as public and as endogenous. And as designed. We called it the uni short for university, a kind of university currency. But we named it the uni to rhyme with Muni, because the Federal Reserve, we’re mounting with all kinds of Windows, so to speak, for various sectors to take advantage of to stabilize their liquidity access. And they have opened up a Muni right. Liquidity facility. And we were first arguing that, well, if it’s good enough for municipalities, why isn’t it good enough for big public university systems? And then over time, we began to experiment and rethink this. And later on, we were thinking, well, maybe we can, we can structure the financing of the public university system across the country, via the Treasury, and maybe we can bake this into the proposed public Banking Act. And this can be public financing as needed for the public purpose through these major centers of research, and these economic anchors and all kinds of regions. And you’re familiar with this proposal. I think a lot of our listeners are familiar with this proposal. And what I would say is, you know, this, this would be interesting to me to contemplate, for K through 12, which I’ll just say what little I know about K through 12 financing, which is that it’s his Historically tied to property taxes, I think at the county level, which is already deeply classed and perpetuates the myth, that taxpayer money finances, things instead of, instead of anchoring the currency, and, you know, we we draw on the work I’m not sure if you’re familiar with her work. Her name is Camille Walsh. She’s a historian who wrote a book called racial taxation that’s all about tracing the kind of rhetorics of taxpayer citizenry, taxpayer citizenship, in the history of American education, policy and politics, and and essentially making the argument that this becomes a highly racialized in addition to a class category, that that of course, justifies, justifies the perpetuation of itself. So I’m wondering, what do you know about the financial structure of K 12 education in our country? And how would you maybe recommend going about transforming it with public, endogenous money in mind?

Larry Johnson:  Yes, very much. Yeah, actually, let me shift gears a little bit, and talk a bit about the effort to restrain the universities. As you may know, in the middle of the 20th century, Republican and Democratic governors had created a higher ed system in California, that was tuition free. You did not pay tuition from community college up through your doctorate if you’re a resident of California. When Ronald Reagan decided to become a right winger, he was the perfect candidate for them to run for governor and he succeeded. He set about attacking universities right away, because universities, of course, he and his allies saw as the origin of the civil rights movement at colleges and universities. The origin of the anti war movement, blah, blah, blah and set the state police out to pull protesters down the marble steps at the administration building there at the University of California, bouncing off the marble steps. Then, even though tuition free colleges and universities were very popular in California, he was determined to impose tuition. A guy who was working in the Nixon administration named Roger Freeman went out to consult with Reagan to help him do this. Freeman was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying, we have to be careful about who we let into and through our universities, because we are in danger of creating an educated proletariat, and that’s dynamite. Spiro Agnew said, straightforwardly, we’re letting too many Blacks into the universities, we need to stop that. Nixon himself made several comments about making universities more expensive. Now, universities were free in California, but across the country, they were much, much cheaper than they are today. When I was a sophomore in college, it’s actually in the economics class I told you about. I wrote a paper that compared tuition in the state at universities that were designated the liberal arts university in the state, sometimes people call them flagship universities like University of Florida here. Then the state universities like Florida State and Utah State, and then state colleges, like Weaver State College in Utah and well New College here. I looked at all 50 states and I looked at their liberal arts university, the State University often had been called agricultural colleges in the past, agricultural mechanical colleges, and then they were all universities, the University of Utah, Utah State University, Colorado, Florida, Florida State. Then, the college system. In the university system, our tuition, across the country, paid between 11 and 14% of the cost of the college education going through a bachelor’s degree. The rest was paid by the state, some federal money, grants, other things, some foundation money. But, state appropriation was a big chunk. Tuition paid a very small percentage. If you looked at the state colleges, that tuition covered about 7% of the cost of the students’ education. People that allied themselves with the right wing of the Republican Party, not the Lincoln wing, which is rapidly disappearing. Their goal was to make universities more expensive, and restrict and make administration more controlling, so they could make the universities do what they wanted, rather than have them be an independent source of criticism, and so forth. They were really pushing that idea and trying to make it so that universities were not as open or inviting or accessible to nearly as many students. Some people say they didn’t anticipate the students would be willing to go into debt with student loans like they have been to get a college education, which really shows how important they are to students. Maybe they were, and that was okay, because that would then strengthen the banks, you had all this debt to the banks. In any case, their goal was to change the universities so they were not criticizing the church and the state. Going back, I used to joke with people all the time. Universities need to understand why Roger Bacon was willing to go to prison in the 13th century. Universities have a long history and have a long history of challenging sources of power. That’s an essential part of what universities are. That’s not the only thing universities do, but it’s one thing they have done, certainly from time to time. So, if you’re representing an authoritarian wing of politics, you want to restrain that at the very least. You want to focus universities on doing things that will benefit corporations or the capitalist class, generally. You don’t want them to be a source of criticism. One way to do that is by restricting access to universities by the working class.

Scott Ferguson:  So can you speak to the problem of K through 12 financing? And if we were going to harness the powers of public endogenous money, that’s just step one. What happens when we need to implement it and implement it in a democratic and inclusive way?

Larry Johnson:  Right, right. I think the problem there would look very much like the problems with universities. How would you make sure it would be used for things that benefited the students or society, rather than some other interests in the community?

Billy Saas:  Say a CEO.

Larry Johnson:  Yeah, paying a CEO. We know with charter schools, they pay their CEOs far more than school principals get paid. In New York, an organization had two charter schools, and the CEO over this, they called it a network of charter schools, was paid more than the Chancellor of Education in New York.

Scott Ferguson:  I like that you laugh at these atrocities. I think it’s healthy.

Larry Johnson:  The only way you can keep fighting. But Juan Gonzalez has written some really neat stuff back in the days when he worked for the New York Daily. He had some really neat articles about what’s going on with charter schools and how they were paying their CEOs exorbitant sums. And of course, that’s what they cared about. You take the Pay for Success stuff that Barack Obama promoted, and George Bush actually started, but they would pay people to …Like the banks, social impact bonds. You get some money from Goldman Sachs. Actually, in Utah, Goldman Sachs was part of this. They came in and they offered programs for disabled kids. Then, each year that those disabled kids stayed out of special education classes, stayed in regular classes which reduced the costs, Goldman Sachs got paid for it. Which, to my mind, is insane. For Goldman Sachs, it was a way for them to get money out of the public schools. This is a big deal. If you read Barack Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act, it’s filled with that. Obama takes away states’ right to limit or prevent charter schools. He says, Every state, if they’re going to receive Title One money, has to allow charter schools. And all the states have to engage in what he calls Pay for Success, this whole system where somebody comes into the program, and it works, you pay them. Like with Goldman Sachs in Special Ed, if you continue to see benefits in your schools, then they’re entitled to get some kind of compensation, because they’re continuing to benefit the school system. That’s a very destructive way to treat the education budget. People have to realize, public education has a budget of right around $800 billion. Students don’t often realize that. That’s a lot of money. If you can privatize this and still keep that money stream going, you can make a lot of money. If you can get even a small share of that, the biggest share of that is state funding. Federal funding is a chunk of it, and then you’ve got local millage and so forth, it provides some of that. That’s a lot of money to spend. You divide it up per student, and you see it’s not a whole lot per student. But the problem is, it’s not distributed equitably. Schools that serve wealthy families may, as Jonathan Kozol points out, get 10 times what schools serve poor families get per kid. Certainly, two or three times as much. I mean, I’ve seen those examples myself. If you think about what happened in South St. Pete, when they re-segregated the schools, they actually reduced the funding going to the segregated schools that would serve just Black kids on the south side. It’s just remarkable. That happens partly because we don’t have a strong enough democracy to control it. We’ve limited the vote, we’ve restricted voting in ways where, if you’re in one of those communities, you simply it’s harder to vote, you don’t have the standing to go to the school board and speak. So I often tell students, if we want to improve the schools, we have to make sure we have universal suffrage. Everybody votes, everybody gets counted. You have to have universal employment, job guarantee, everyone has a job. I used to spend a lot of time organizing poor people to go to the school board. They would ask these people, I mean, they would show up certainly in a different quality of clothing than the school board members wore, for the most part. They would ask these people what they did for a living, and they’d say I’m unemployed. Once they said they were unemployed, you could see people stopped listening. They just don’t have the standing to be heard. So you have to organize in other ways to get their voices heard. You have to put pressure on the board in other ways. But if we had a job guarantee, those people would have standing to speak for their own kids to push for the schools to serve their own kids. Then, I think you could have a chance. One, you could prevent the kind of destructive use of funding or use of funding to destroy schools that serve poor kids. You could actually have people getting something better out of that. Say for example, we had a government through whatever mechanism was willing and able to willing, obviously they’re able to issue the currency so that we could have more money for schools. Really, for poor schools, schools serve kids who are disadvantaged in a variety of ways. That would be great. But unless we control the political situation, that money wouldn’t be spent where I would argue it needs to go. We’ve got to address that political issue so that no matter how much money we can create, it goes to the right places. Don’t use it to fund wars. We use it to actually provide a decent education for kids. I’m always amazed at how committed parents are to education. They need to get that support, the money coming into their schools. We people talk about the schools here in St. Pete, how terrible they’ve gotten after resegregation. But still, most of the parents even though they know there’s a lot of violence in the schools, they know the teacher turnover is high, they have the least experienced teachers, and a curriculum that they don’t necessarily find engaging. But nonetheless, they send their kids there because they believe that the kids will get something valuable. That’s true across the country. I remember attending a conference 30 years ago where a woman was talking about the schools in Chicago, and she described them grimaced, the way Jonathan Kozol describes the schools in his book and in poor communities, especially poor Black communities. The window encasements are falling in, there’s sewage coming up through the drains, or even out on the playground. She describes the schools, and then she shifts and she talks about only 57% of the students graduating. I’m sitting there thinking: if I had a school look like that, I wouldn’t go. I would just tell my parents, I’m not going. But 57% of these kids persisted and graduated from high school. That’s remarkable. That’s an extraordinary commitment to schooling. We ought to support that by actually spending the money. It’s hard to imagine how you would organize a movement to get that funding now from state legislatures. But if you could use the issuing of currency to take away their argument that they can’t afford it, then at least we would talk about it in real terms. It’s okay, well, this is what the kids need. We don’t want to give it to them. It forces them to say, we don’t want to give it to them rather than what we can’t afford.

Scott Ferguson:  It forces the class and racial and, and sexual politics to the forefront rather than having those be hidden behind seeming not laws of nature and economics.

Larry Johnson:  Yes. We can never explain why we can’t afford it here, but up there, suddenly, we can afford it. We can afford it last year there, but not this year here. Yeah. That funding is always used to dodge what needs to be done, dodge having to say straight out what they’re actually doing. If we took care of the funding issue, then we can have a much more vigorous debate about what we ought to do, and why we ought to do it. That’s not it’s not a very technical discussion of school finance. It’s what matters. Yeah. That’s an important part of how I see this. It takes one of the most destructive arguments that never leads anywhere off the table. Because now they can’t use it. We understand we can spend the money if we choose to. That’s what we have to address if we choose to. What do we choose to do? Clearly a political problem. Yeah.

Billy Saas:  What a wonderful way to start winding down. Probably a good place to end it but I can’t help myself. I like in my classes where we talk about the job guarantee. I have a similar sort of let’s take steps there and kind of stumble into the revelation and see how encompassing this is. I like to pose the question, visa vie education and money, what would happen to education if there were a robust, strong, universal job guarantee where the jobs paid well, had benefits, did not require in most cases, or if any, credentials in the same way, because you’re learning on the job, right? You’re learning the job while doing it. What do you think would be maybe the most radical changes if we had a robust job guarantee?

Larry Johnson:  I actually asked my students exactly the same question. If we had a job guarantee. What would that mean for education? How would education look differently? How could it look differently? My students, probably because they’re my students, then say: then we could do the things we ought to do in education. We can help students understand the world. We can help them study examples of how people built coalitions to get something they want in the world, that kind of thing. And it would take the straitjacket of job preparation off of us.

Billy Saas:  What’s exciting and makes me a little bit anxious is, it reduces the priority of education in its kind of strongest rhetorical sense, as we’ve been critical of it. Right, it becomes less important.

Larry Johnson:  Yeah, you know, it’s funny, I actually have had a student say, only one, fortunately, in 30 years, that: if we do that, how are we going to motivate students to do well in school, if we can’t tell them they have to do well in school in order to get a job and they need a job in order to survive? Well, then you have to find other ways to make what you’re teaching valuable to the student. I remembered going through school having teachers constantly talk about, when you’re in third grade, or well, my third grade teacher didn’t do this. When you’re in second grade, my second grade teacher actually did this: when you’re in sixth grade, you’ll need to. Everything’s about preparation for the future, and then in junior high it’s: you’ll need this for high school, and you’ll need this when you apply for a job. I had my student read a piece which actually addresses this question. The people who pushed vocational education, really, were able to establish this idea that the purpose of schooling is job preparation. So they get a chance to read some of the people who make these arguments and they read a really nice piece from a different perspective, comes back and says, …Herb Kliebard characterizes this process: All education is just shilly-shallying, waiting for the future. There’s nothing of value in itself at the time. And arguing as Dewey did, that we need to make education valuable to kids at that time. We have a sense that there are many things they need to understand about the world in order to make the world the place that serves them, a good place for them to live. They need to understand those things. They need to have those conversations. They need to be educated and learn things so that they can have those conversations. Like Blacks in the 19th century wanted education, to give them the intellectual tools that they needed to discuss what freedom would mean for them.

Billy Saas:  The return to education as liberation. Yes. Not shilly-shallying your way to a job. Well, increasingly, the carceral apparatus of the state is working to ensure that you are there shilly-shallying, and you have no other option.

Larry Johnson:  That’s right. Yes, for sure. And nothing else can be of any interest to you. I was like my parents’ attitude. When I was growing up, we didn’t have much homework in public schools, not in grade school. The only time you had homework was if you were sick, and you missed a few days, and sent some stuff home to catch up. In high school, not a lot of homework. I tried to do most of my work in and around my classes. So when I got home, my time was my own, I could do other things. My parents really supported that. Don’t just stay locked into school. You don’t want to be someone who comes home and then just goes into your little cubicle and continues doing schoolwork. This is the time for you to do other things you need to develop other things. If you do that, you’ll get more out of school. So that was a really interesting approach. They were very clear about that. My mother was a schoolteacher. They just said, you can’t have everything revolve around school. I was so surprised when I came to Florida. I happened to go to an eye doctor’s office, right when I got here, and a secretary was bemoaning how she had spent four hours the night before helping her second grader with homework. What can you do to a second grader, that would take four hours, it would be in any way useful. Of course, what you find out with all this crazy homework is the parents do it. Because it’s not of any value to the kids. They can understand it. I noticed that my great grandkids get assignments. I remember this a few years ago, they gave my great grandson something to do on the computer. The computer program was so clunky, it was virtually impossible to figure out what he was supposed to do. They gave instructions very briefly at the beginning, then you entered in part you’re supposed to do. There was no way to go back and listen to the instructions without exiting, and going back and starting. I was sitting there watching him and I said: boy, you are patient, you must have gone out and started that five times to get clear on the instructions. He said yeah, it’s what I have to do. I said I would have given up.

Billy Saas:  Near guarantee that that software cost the school quite a bit of money and was sold by a private vendor who contracted someone else out to slap it together and there was no oversight.

Larry Johnson:  Oh, gosh, I’m absolutely sure that’s true.

Scott Ferguson:  And that’s why there’s homework.

Larry Johnson:  Yeah, that’s why there’s homework and homework that can’t be done. What better way to do it, than you ensure?

Billy Saas:  The lesson that you’re supposed to learn is very clearly secondary to the lesson that you’re actually learning about how impossible this whole thing is.

Larry Johnson:  Yes, yes. I could never understand how students, I mean, clearly, well, off family students managed to get through this stuff. Maybe it’s just because school makes a decision that they will get through. It doesn’t matter what they actually do. How do they learn to pass these tests? One of my students said, Well, one thing if you’re lucky enough to go to school in a rich community, you learn you don’t think about anything too much. You learn what you’re supposed to say, and that’s what you do. I had a student who I thought had misread a passage and something we’d read the other day. I criticized her and gave her that feedback. She got back and said, No, no, this is what the piece said, and this is what I said. She copied and pasted from each. And I looked at it and I thought, I think you left a note out of what you said, and she got back to me. She says, Yeah, I did. I left a note out of it. And I said, Well, you were willing to read the feedback, and follow up on it. That’s the whole purpose of this. If you had gone through this in a discussion group, I would have given you full credit. You went through with me, I probably would still give you full credit. She was willing to come back and challenge my feedback, which I thought was excellent. That’s what you hope your students will do. So look at it, think about it, try to understand it, and come back. So I said, You’re doing everything I could ask of the student.

Scott Ferguson:  I think that is a beautiful place to end our conversation. Larry Johnson, thank you so much for joining us on Money on the Left.Larry Johnson:  Thank you. It was great talking to both of you. Take care.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Mike Lewis (transcription), & Robert Rusch (graphic art)

Reparations for Black Americans w/ William A. Darity

We’re joined this month by William A.( “Sandy”) Darity to discuss reparations for Black Americans. Sandy Darity is Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics and the director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. A founding theorist of stratification economics and foremost scholar of the racial wealth gap in the United Stats, Darity is perhaps best known for his committed public advocacy for acknowledging, redressing, and resolving histories of racist violence against enslaved black people and their descendents through a federal program of reparations for black Americans. In April 2020–just weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic and two months before the global uprisings that followed the murder of George Floyd–Darity and co-author Kirsten Mullen published the book From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century. We speak with Professor Darity about this book–including its conception, reception, and circulation over the last few years. We also ask Darity about related projects like his proposals for “Baby Bonds” and a Federal Job Guarantee. We conclude, finally, by suggesting that the U.S. Treasury mint a $12 trillion-dollar platinum coin featuring prominent figures from the black freedom struggle for the purpose of financing reparations and educating the public about how money works.

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

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com


The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Billy Saas:  Sandy Darity, welcome to Money on the Left.

Sandy Darity:  Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Billy Saas:  It is such a pleasure to have you. To get us started, you spoke just a few days ago at the reparations symposium at Spelman. It was put on by the Spelman Social Justice Program, and it was meant to be a dinner and a discussion. I’d be interested to know the shape of that conversation in late September 2023; what were some of the key takeaways and points of excitement that might have come from that dinner and discussion?

Sandy Darity:  Well, I did the presentation as a conversation, and the other person who was participating in the conversation with me was my partner, Kirsten Mullen, who is the co-author of our book From Here To Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century. There were two faculty members from Spelman College who posed questions for us to answer. One of them is Cynthia Spence, and the other is Romie Tribble. I think it was a pretty lively exchange because the best part of these discussions always is the question and answer period, and there were some very, very provocative questions that were raised. Most of them concern our perspective about who should be eligible to receive reparations from the United States government under the orbit of what might be referred to as African American reparations. A lot of the discussion hinged on our perspective about states and localities conducting projects that they call reparations, something that we’re extremely skeptical about. Then, there were a number of questions that concern the issue of how you would go about financing a reparations plan. So I think those were maybe the three hot button issues that came up during the course of our conversation.

Scott Ferguson:  To me, one of the thornier questions is: who counts? How did you answer that question?

Sandy Darity:  Well, I think for about 20 years, we have had an answer to that question. I’m not sure it’s an answer that’s acceptable to everyone. But we have proposed for a long time that the eligible community for reparations from the United States government, for African Americans, should be those Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved in the United States. And so we’ve advanced a two pronged criteria for eligibility for reparations. And the first prong is: an individual would have to meet what we refer to as a lineage standard. That is to say, they would have to demonstrate they have at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States. But in addition to that, and this is the second prong of the criteria, they would have to meet an identity standard, which for us, involves self-classifying oneself as Black, Negro, African American, or Afro American for at least 12 years before the adoption of a reparations plan, or the adoption of a study commission for reparations. So our view is that the individuals who may be living as white in the United States, who might happen to have an ancestor who was enslaved in the United States should not be eligible for reparations. And similarly, individuals who are Black, who are immigrants from other parts of the Black diaspora, should not have an expectation of receiving reparations from the United States government. Now, from my perspective, they are fully deserving of reparations, but not necessarily from the United States government. Their countries of origin should be seeking reparations from the nations that colonized and enslaved them. Some people complain about this, but we do accept the existence of the nation state structure as being relevant to the way in which reparations should be executed and administered.

Billy Saas:  Well that nation state structure is certainly very relevant to the question of financing. At risk of asking you to repeat everything that you talked about at Spelman just a few nights ago: how did those conversations go on that end? I know the financing one is something that we are particularly interested in.

Sandy Darity:  I think it’s important to explain that we have been pursuing a very specific set of standards for determining what the amount is that is due. That, in turn, influences the way in which we think about financing reparations. So in the work that we’ve done, we’ve highlighted the racial wealth gap as the central factor that needs to be addressed by a reparations plan. And based upon data from the survey of consumer finances for 2019. For some reason, they have not yet issued the results for the 2022 survey. I expected that to be out by now, but apparently it’s not. So if I just stick with the 2019 survey, I come up with an estimate that the average Black family or Black household has about $841,000 less in net worth than the average white household. And if you were to try to construct a rough estimate of how much that amounted to per person, it would be about $350,000. If, in turn, about 40 million Americans who are Black whose ancestors were enslaved in the United States, if those 40 million persons were multiplied by $350,000 per person, you come up with a number of approximately $14 trillion. That’s the baseline from our perspective for the amount that is due under a reparations plan. And we focus on the racial wealth gap, because we think it’s the best single economic indicator of the cumulative intergenerational effects of white supremacy. So that said, it poses a major difficulty for states and localities to even approximate getting to that number when their total combined budgets are less than $5 trillion. And in addition, if we were to think about generous individuals who felt some sense of obligation to address the nation’s history of racism, putting together a fund where they cast in $1 billion on a monthly basis, so $12 billion a year, it would take a millennium to get to $14 trillion. So it’s really only the federal government that has the capacity to meet a bill of that magnitude, particularly since the federal government, and this is where the MMT dimension comes into the conversation. The federal government is not constrained by tax revenue, in terms of its spending activity. From our perspective, the only constraint is the danger of producing significant inflation from any expenditure that the government makes. We spent a bit of time in the final chapter of our book, trying to talk about ways in which expenditures for a reparations plan could be designed in such a way that they mitigate the inflation effect. And we suggested two very simple steps. The first step is that you could space the payments out over a period of time so that the amount of expenditure in any given moment, or a given year, would not be as large as it might possibly be if the total amount was distributed at once. And then we say, we’d like to constrain that to a 10 year period. We wouldn’t want the reparations payments to be spread out longer than a decade. But then the other way in which you could limit payments is by providing people with direct payments in the form of less liquid assets. So, part of the reparations payments might be direct cash transfers, but they could also be an endowment. It could be a trust account. Could be some form of an annuity. I don’t have the expectation that people would have no savings whatsoever in the absence of these kinds of constraints, but you could, in some way, kind of force a higher rate of savings, and thereby reduce the potential inflationary effects, as well. So that’s our concern. It’s not whether or not you’ve got the tax money to do it. It’s whether or not the distribution of the funds under a reparations plan would trigger a significant depreciation in the value of the currency. That’s something we would not want to have happen.

Billy Saas:  You’re talking about the final chapter of From Here To Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century, which, correct me if I’m wrong, came out in April of 2020?

Sandy Darity: That’s right. Then we have a second edition that came out last fall in paperback. And the only real difference is that the paperback edition has a new preface that we prepare, trying to bring the conversation up to date,

Billy Saas:  Right, which would include everything that happened around that time, and after!

Sandy Darity:  And especially January 6, 2021.

Billy Saas:  So what was it like having that book come out in the thick of the early days of COVID, and just before, some of the most significant social and political action in the United States in some time.

Sandy Darity:  We had hoped that the book would prompt a renewed conversation about reparations. But by the time the book came out, it wasn’t necessary for it to prompt a renewed conversation. In fact, from my perspective, the way in which the trajectory of reparations talk had gone in the United States after the 1960s, in particular, is that there really wasn’t much of it. There was discussion of reparations within certain circles in the Black community, but in terms of it being something that was on the national stage, that wasn’t the case. So in the year 2001, or so, in the beginning of that year, David Horowitz put an advertisement in a series of college newspapers attacking the idea of Black reparations kind of out of the blue because nobody was really talking about it. It actually triggered a greater degree of interest in reparations, at least among college students than had existed in the past. But at that point, in September, we had the assault on the Twin Towers. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, conversation about reparations just evaporated. It was not renewed until Ta-Nehesi Coates put out an article in The Atlantic in 2014. I think the significance of that article was in making or trying to build the Case for Reparations, he talked about atrocities that had taken place after slavery had ended. And I think that that was very, very significant and distinctive, because Kirsten and I are typically repelled by the phrase slavery reparations. We certainly think reparations are due for the long term effects of slavery. But slavery is not the only atrocity that’s relevant, and it’s certainly not the central policy that created the current racial wealth disparity in the United States. Especially if reparations had been provided, like the 40 acre land grants that were promised at the end of the Civil War. We might not have any kind of significant racial wealth differential in the United States today. So that’s one phase of the process that took place. But even after Ta-Nehisi Coates article, I think that there was a real diminution in conversation about reparations, which didn’t alter until 2019, the year before the pandemic, when there were a handful of candidates for the presidency running for the Democratic Party nomination, who actually said they endorsed reparations for Black Americans. This would include Julian Castro, Tom Steyer, and then perhaps most significantly, Marianne Williamson who actually came forward saying that there was an amount of money that she had in mind. Now, at the time, I think she talked about $500 billion dollars as a maximum. And in comparison with $14 trillion, that’s actually somewhat of a paltry amount. But nevertheless, that kind of projected a reparations conversation onto the national stage. Then in 2020, with the combination of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd that had worldwide repercussions, I think that kind of cemented the presence of the reparations conversation. So this is a long winded way of saying that when our book came out, it came out in a climate in which there was a greater degree of interest in reparations than then had existed at any point in my own lifetime previously. I think we were concerned that the effects of the pandemic would mean that it would grossly limit our opportunities to do book readings and the like. Turns out quite the contrary, because of the virtual process. And we ended up probably doing many more presentations about the book than we would have been able to do in a situation where we would have had person to person contacts. In fact, it got a little bit ridiculous and exhausting. I think there’s a day in which we did five presentations on the book, and we said we’ll never do that again. I think, you know, there was some serendipity, actually a product of some very horrible circumstances that actually led the book to get more attention than it might otherwise have received.

Scott Ferguson:  I have so many follow up questions. I’ve long been a supporter of reparations for Black Americans. I was very compelled by the Ta-Nehisi Coates piece back in 2014. But as a Modern Monetary Theory and heterodox economics fellow traveler, I was always concerned in multiple senses about the rhetorical and emotional appeals and fault lines and dangers of the question of who will pay, which Ta-Nehisi Coates raises in that article, without really giving an answer. Right, but who will pay? Suggesting that someone must pay. And from a certain point of view, from a MMT point of view, as we’ve been saying, the federal government should pay. Absolutely, the federal government should pay. But I think there’s a larger question being asked here, which is, should a group of people be taxed or punished or subtracted from in order to repair, in order to make things whole? And I guess what I would say is, there might be a moral case for maybe not literal taxation, because we know we don’t need that literal taxation. But there might be a moral case for making certain groups “pay” or have there be a lessening of their wealth or something like this. But I think I’ve also been very concerned to not frame reparations as a national reckoning in zero sum terms, and that that’s crucial for the emotional politics of and the emotional political viability of reparations. If a group of people rightly or wrongly feel like they’re losing out so that others can gain, I think that can be politically really toxic. And I’m curious if you’ve thought about these kinds of questions?

Sandy Darity:  Yeah, this is a pretty challenging set of issues. I think the way in which we’ve focused on this notion that the federal government should finance this without raising taxes is from the point of view that we know that an objective of closing the racial wealth gap would alter the relative position of Black and white households in terms of wealth. And it would improve the relative position of Black households significantly. In fact, if the plan that we have in mind was enacted in which $350,000 was distributed to each Black American who was an eligible recipient, we would raise the median level of Black household wealth above the median level of white household wealth, although the mean levels would be equal. So that said, and I think if one’s going to attack the racial wealth gap, or do anything that’s of substance under the aegis of a reparations plan, you’re going to have to improve the relative position of Black Americans. So the best that we can do in terms of trying to insulate white Americans from damage from this process, is to avoid altering their absolute position. And so that’s why we focused on this notion that you could fund this thing without imposing taxes on anyone. And also without, in essence, taking money from white Americans to put into Black Americans pockets. That’s not what we have in mind. And that’s why federal funding becomes a critical engine. If you’re to do this at the state or local level, they are entities that are constrained by their tax base. And so money has to come from somebody and go to somebody else in terms of the state and local initiatives. Even if they borrow the money, well borrowing is deferred taxation. I think that’s why we focus on the federal case. But yes, the bullet will have to be bitten in terms of relative position.

Billy Saas:  You and Kirsten talk about some of the misconceptions about why things are the way they are today, attributing life choices and lack of financial acumen or awareness for the wealth gap. It seems to me like, in addition to all of the wonderful outcomes that would follow from administering the reparations program, as y’all have outlined it, there’ll be a tremendous opportunity to have a conversation and to get some acknowledgement and engagement of a kind of more radical financial literacy: that this is how the money system works and has worked historically to reproduce these conditions of disparity. And what we’re talking about doing now is mobilizing and redirecting the potential and power of money toward redress, toward closure. The very thing that sort of ends up as kind of an avatar for an obstacle to reparations: how are you going to pay for it? Who’s going to pay for it? becomes an opportunity to think about money through the histories of this country and its place relative to regimes of repression and violence, but then also potentially, for liberation and redemption. Is there a place for a conversation about money in this context of advocating for reparations?

Sandy Darity:  Yes, there is also a place for a conversation of the attentiveness that we give to the nation state. There’s also a possible conversation about the question of whether or not an objective that Black Americans might pursue with these additional resources would be an objective that really maintains a general structure of inequality and inequity. I think that those are all questions that are open ended, but I don’t necessarily see us moving off of that path in the absence of reparations. So I would not want to claim that the political decisions that Black Americans might make with additional resources would necessarily be revolutionary. I have no idea. They might not be. Regardless, there is a whole set of issues concerning the question of the denial of full citizenship of Black Americans. For the entire period of time we have existed in the republic that was formed in 1776.

Scott Ferguson:  One of the other criticisms that you have, I think, a really meaningful response specifically when it comes to reparations and cash payments. So the criticism is that: ah well, it’s just money, and money is not a substantial enough moral recompense. And, of course, you have all kinds of other proposals and ideas that are in excess of building wealth, and closing the wealth gulf for Black Americans. You have a really strong response to that. Maybe I’ll let you respond to that criticism.

Sandy Darity:  That kind of question came up the other day. Kirsten and I both said, well, just imagine a world in which the typical Black household in the United States had the equivalent of about $1 million in additional resources, say in 2019 dollars, if you will. Actually, it would probably be 1.2 million in a household before. Think about the range of opportunities, options, and also capacity to exercise political influence that those resources might provide them with. And then we begin to talk about having a very, very different world.

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, that’s exactly the answer that I was thinking of. I appreciate it on multiple levels. One, as an advocate for public money, I’m very skeptical, I’m very critical of certain, let’s say, mainstream, liberal ambivalences and moralizing around money and imagining that money is something that’s … It’s mere instrumentality, or it’s merely about private wealth acquisition and greed, or it’s somehow empty. And I think your response suggests that money is not empty private greed; money is a substantive, multifaceted, medium and social and political relationship that dearly matters for all of us, including those of us who have been structurally deprived for centuries.

Sandy Darity:  Yeah, I mean, less hierarchical societies. I’m not aware of any society that’s non hierarchical, but less hierarchical societies or societies that have a better social floor for wellbeing. People still use something that we might call money. The more of it they have in those contexts, the more options they have to exercise. I mean, one of the tragedies of actually existing socialism has probably been the disproportionate amount of power that’s been registered with the individuals who run state bureaucracies. And it’s not accidental that they typically have more wealth than the other members of their society. So the question is not money, per se. The question is, what is the system in which money operates?

Billy Saas:  Along those lines, we brought up the nation state as a category or concept that’s up for scrutiny. I think one of the ways that Scott and others in our orbit have tended to rethink or engage that question, as it relates to the financial system to money and to the form of government that exists, is around the question of sovereignty, which tends to be at the center of the story for conventional stories of Modern Monetary Theory and the history of money.

Sandy Darity: Right.

Billy Saas:  And reconceiving of the problematic or the concept of sovereignty in terms of agency. It seems to me like that’s also a word or a concept that works better in the terms that you’re talking about and Scott was excited about with your response. It’s about who has the agency in a society and the distribution of that relative to others, and it happens to be in the money form most often.

Sandy Darity:  Yeah, and the companion issue is always how fair or even do we want to make agency?

Scott Ferguson:  So we’d like to talk to you about some of your other long term projects and proposals, but maybe to set the stage for that we can pause and step back and ask you, to the degree that you feel comfortable speaking about your personal and professional background, a little bit about how you came to these questions and how you came to them with such boldness. These proposals are not run of the mill. They’re really outside or they have been very much outside of a certain mainstream orthodoxy. And yet, you’ve been very committed to thinking outside that orthodoxy. How did Sandy Darity get here?

Sandy Darity:  I think a lot of it has to do with my parents point of view. I was raised in a family where both of my parents earned doctorates at later points in their lives than when I earned mine. But I grew up with two parents who were very engaged in the academic world. But they never took the position that the reason they got to the points that they did was because there was something extraordinarily special about them. They always emphasize the kind of support that they had received from others that had given them the capacity to get to where they were. I remember my father, who came from a small, small town in the mountains of North Carolina called East Flat Rock, and there is no West Flat Rock. East Flat Rock was the Black side of Flat Rock. He tells a story about the point at which he was about to go to college and he really didn’t have any significant amount of clothing. And surprise for him is that the folks in his community left him a suit and a pair of shoes at the house for him to take with him to go to college. They didn’t have a lot of resources, but they contributed. His own parents had never gone beyond sixth grade. In schools, three of their four children, including my father, all completed college. And he said it was because his parents said you were going to go to college from an early age. He’s always said he didn’t know where they got that idea from. But the notion that my parents left me with is that your life outcomes are largely a consequence of the luck of the draw of the situation that you’re born into. So I never started with this view that people who were doing badly were doing badly primarily because of their own behavior and actions. I think that that’s been central, or that’s been at the core of my thinking. Now, of course, there are people out there who make serious mistakes. An individual, in the course of their own lifetime, can do good things and bad things in terms of building their own life success. But the phenomenon of poverty is something that I always thought of as something that was structural, rather than a consequence primarily of individual actions and individual decisions. When I went to college, I decided I was going to study economics, because I assumed that economics was the field in which I could have the best understanding of inequality. I’m trying not to laugh. I take these classes, and I say this doesn’t make any sense to me. This is not how the world works. So that’s how I kind of got launched on this by being an outlier economist. I guess I’m less of an outlier now, but I don’t know. Still feels like I’m not on the inside, and that’s probably a good thing.

Billy Saas:  Your focus from early on, thanks to your parents sharing their perspective with you, is on the consequences of structures, less individuals. And I wonder, going back to reparations now, but it’s there in your other proposals as well. It’s about reparations, but it’s about reckoning with the consequences of structures that have been in place for so long. Not, you know, in addition to and alongside and adjacent to the institution of slavery, of racial inequality, as it was propounded and elaborated by the state over time, on the dispossessed, suppressed, and oppressed. But also, that part of this reparations and the reckoning or the conversation and the redress process has to be reckoning with the effects of those structures. I’m talking about white supremacy, right, the ramifications of white supremacy for everyone.

Sandy Darity:  So we live in a hierarchical society. So conditions are uneven for all people in the society. All white Americans are not in the billionaire category. In fact, a very small number. On the other hand, when you have a racialized hierarchical system, then it’s a system that protects the dominant racial group from having to be in the bottom most positions, or having to bear the burden of the harshest circumstances that are associated with that system of stratification. So I am very, very concerned about the disparities that exist on the basis of race. But I also recognize that the overall system of hierarchy is damaging. So in addition to thinking about policies that should be pursued for the purposes of bridging the disparities that exist on the basis of race, I’ve also tried to think about policies that could at least moderate the worst effects of the overall system of hierarchy. And so in particular, I’ve thought about this idea that it’s not, it’s not new with me, by any means. We could have extraordinarily rich people in a society, but we could ensure that no one was in a position of deprivation. And we might then be less concerned about the fact that we have very rich people in the society. You know, if we could ensure the folks at the bottom actually had a decent existence and had a satisfactory array of opportunities. This is the question of the social floor that I think I referred to a moment ago. I’ve been thinking for many years about how we could create a social floor that would ensure that no one would be in a position where they had to suffer, or where they had to deny their children any significant range of opportunities to participate fully in the society and to fulfill their own creative ambitions. So, while reparations is a policy, specifically African American reparations is a policy that I’ve focused on from the standpoint of eliminating racial disparities, there are other policies that I’ve tried to think about and help develop, that are focused on raising the social floor in the United States, and potentially elsewhere, those policies could be applied in other places as well.

Scott Ferguson:  So for our listeners who are less familiar with your work, or would like a reminder, maybe you can tell us about your proposal for a federal job guarantee. How that might look? How might that work? And what problems would it be addressing?

Sandy Darity:  Yeah, and I definitely do not want to claim that the idea of a job guarantee is uniquely mine, it definitely has not. It has a long tradition and heterodox economics in particular. People like Hyman Minsky were advocates of a job guarantee. There may be some uniqueness to the particular way in which I think about how it should be done, but the idea itself is a fairly old one. I think that when it was introduced, most people were concerned about the question of trying to ensure that people had employment in bad times. I think that I’m at least as interested in the question of creating a floor on compensation. The access to a guaranteed job is something that should be permanent. And it should be a mechanism for compelling the private sector to improve the compensation standards that they provide. So individuals would always be able to opt out of bad private jobs by turning to the public sector for a guaranteed opportunity for employment. So I would couple the business cycle benefits of having a job guarantee with the potential benefits that are associated with ensuring a decent standard of compensation in all employment, both in the public and the private sector. So you know, some people could say, well, what you’ve really done is introduced a minimum wage mechanism. Yeah, you have, but it’s different from the traditional minimum wage, because it is something that would be available to people who are unemployed, we are guaranteeing an employment option for everyone. And it also could be structured in such a way that there is a benefits package that typically is denied to individuals who don’t work a sufficient number of hours under minimum wage law conditions. So in a sense, what we’re doing is sort of resetting the table with respect to what the kinds of conditions are that must be provided to individuals who are at work, including the opportunity to be at work. So that’s what I have in mind, the federal government would ensure that every American adult would have access to a decent job as a public sector employee, and that would be an option that would be permanently available to them.

Scott Ferguson:  What kind of criticisms do you hear in response to that proposal?

Sandy Darity:  One set of criticisms is you destroy smaller businesses that rely upon low wage labor. And my response to that is regardless of the scale of your business, if your business plan is projected on hiring people at very low wages, that’s not a socially acceptable business plan. The other argument that frequently is made is that we don’t have enough types of work for people to do productively. And my answer to that is, we may not have enough work that appears to be profitable to the private sector to hire people to do. But we have an immense amount of socially useful work that is going undone in the present moment. And then, you know, there’s the argument that AI is going to just destroy jobs anyway. And I would argue that, yes, AI is probably going to destroy a wide range of jobs. That’s all the more reason to have a public sector structure where you could identify the types of work that AI cannot replace. The last point that’s related to that is, would we be satisfied with care work that was conducted by robots? And I don’t know, we might be, but my personal reaction is that I still think that there’s an important place for the human touch.

Billy Saas:  I don’t think we’re there yet.

Scott Ferguson:  I don’t want to be there. I don’t want to.

Sandy Darity:  Well, you know, you have human-like androids I guess maybe we wouldn’t be able to tell.

Scott Ferguson:  I suppose. But why wouldn’t we want to care for each other? It just presumes so much, right? Oh, well, if I can quit caring for you, then that’s just an automatic good. So in addition to the federal job guarantee, another proposal you’ve been working on for many years, is something that you will often refer to as the baby bonds proposal. What is that? How does it work? What does it aim to do?

Sandy Darity:  Well, I’m trying to think when Darrick Hamilton and I first started working on this. We may go back to 2008-2009 or so. The late Manning Marable at Columbia, heard me talking about this, and he piped in, and he said: Oh, baby bonds! So it’s been called that ever since. But it’s not really a bond. The idea is to provide every newborn infant with a trust account. And the trust account will be calibrated on the basis of their parents wealth position. So a child is born into the wealthiest of families, maybe we give them a $50 trust account, but for children born into families at the lowest end of the wealth distribution. Let me say, the idea of calibration was based upon your family’s wealth position relative to the median for all households in the United States. And so kids at the lower end would get, say, $50,000 or $60,000 as a trust account for families that might have a negative or zero net worth. The idea was to bring everybody’s wealth position, every child’s wealth position, closer to the national median. This is what distinguishes it to a large degree from the reparations plan, which focuses on the mean difference between household wealth rather than the median. Now, if you designed your baby bonds proposal to focus on targeting the mean level of wealth, then you could replicate the kind of objective that’s built into the Darity-Mullen version of a reparations plan, which is to get rid of the racial wealth gap. But the original formulation of the baby bonds proposal could not do that, because it’s median centered rather than centered on the conventional average.

Scott Ferguson:  And what are the responses, criticisms, affirmations of that proposal?

Sandy Darity:  I’m not aware of any real significant criticisms of that proposal. In fact, it always struck me as ironic that it hasn’t had even wider traction than it has had. There are three state governments or so that have pursued it. And I think Congressman Cory Booker has had some legislation on the books for something like that. It’s not in his proposal, the calibration is based upon the income position of the household rather than the wealth, because of some arguments that it’s harder to measure household wealth accurately. We have an income tax system. So presumably, we do have relatively good data on people’s incomes. But I’m not aware of any real substantive criticisms of it.

Scott Ferguson:  I haven’t heard any.

Sandy Darity:  Yeah, and it’s not that expensive. I mean, it would be, you know, given the typical number of newborn infants in the United States, it wouldn’t cost much more than $100 billion per annum. So yeah, that’s not big, big money in terms of the US budget.

Scott Ferguson:  Right. But we also know that often it’s relatively small, small money that gets politicized and blown out of proportion as it is.

Sandy Darity:  And people invoke this phrase, well, what are you doing with our taxpayer money? Right?

Scott Ferguson:  That’s right.

Sandy Darity:  And people are people on both sides of the aisle, the ideological spectrum, loves that phrase, taxpayer.

Scott Ferguson:  Oh Absolutely!

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, that’s where they unite. They reach across the aisle to bemoan the loss of taxpayer money. So I’m wondering, what are you working on nowadays? What’s in your immediate or long term future? Anything you’d like to share?

Sandy Darity:  Yeah. We’re doing some work at my research center, the Sammy DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity that’s related to various dimensions of wealth. We’re trying to launch a project that’s focused on international comparisons of intergroup wealth inequality. And then also, we’re hoping to have a major conference, overseas, presumably, in London. We’re in the process of trying to get funding together to be able to do it. But to have a major conference on stratification economics that might accompany the launching of a new journal called the Journal of Stratification Economics. I guess, from the standpoint of my own sense of what contributions I might have made or be making to the field of economics. I think that that’s largely attached with stratification economics.

Scott Ferguson:  Can you tell our listeners a little bit about stratification economics? About where it comes from, and what are some of the basic suppositions? It seems to wear its meaning on its sleeve to a certain extent, but I’m curious if you could explain a little bit.

Sandy Darity:  I think I introduced the term stratification economics in a speech that I gave. No, I’m not going to remember the exact year but it was, it was at a conference that was held by the Academy of Economics and Finance, which is a southern based economics and business scholars professional association. I gave this talk in Savannah, I guess it was 2005 or so. I had been thinking for a long time about how one could go about building a theoretical framework that did not blame individuals for being poor. I mean, that’s basically what it was. I increasingly began to develop a set of ideas that I decided I would put under the label stratification economics, borrowing from the field of sociology which has a fully developed sub-discipline in what they refer to as stratification. I was thinking that maybe there was a way to merge some of the approaches in economics with the approaches and sociology, to come up with a new sub discipline in economics that are called stratification economics that attempted to explain disparities between social groups, and between individuals that was not primarily focused on group based deficiencies or individual deficiencies, but was focused on the nature of the social system in which these people live. And so that’s how it began.

Scott Ferguson:  That’s clarifying. Thank you so much. So are you familiar with the various proposals and legislation to mint a trillion dollar coin?

Sandy Darity:  I am aware of it. I’ve never fully understood it.

Scott Ferguson:  Well, there’s a proviso in the law that allows the Treasury to mint a platinum coin of any denomination. It’s been proposed several times over the last decade, in response to the so called sequestration and the so called debt crises, and the debt ceiling and these kinds of issues. It also ended up in Rashida Tlaib’s ABC Boost for Communities Act, which of course, didn’t pass, but was proposed legislation for emergency financing to individuals in the height of the pandemic era. But I was thinking, it would be great to expand this project, and maybe start dreaming up a $12 trillion coin for reparations, that perhaps on one side of the coin, on the beautiful platinum coin, we might see a picture of George Floyd. And maybe on the other side, there’s a medley of figures like A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. I’m wondering how that strikes you?

Sandy Darity:  Well, I guess I’m not sure how that’s different from just putting the money in people’s accounts.

Scott Ferguson:  It’s not. It’s different symbolically. But that’s what it is. Right. It’s about instructing the public on where the financing comes from right?

Sandy Darity:  It’s coming off of this coin.

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, it’s coming off of this coin that we can make as a matter of law, and that it’s a matter of national imagery. So if we put certain figures instead of a bunch of dead white men, but we put other kinds of figures on the coin, that might have some profound meaning, as well.

Sandy Darity:  The big reparations coin. I kinda like that.

Scott Ferguson: Ok, good. I have your endorsement. I hope to see this go viral very soon. Sandy Darity, thank you so much for joining us on Money on the Left. It’s been such a pleasure to talk to you.

Sandy Darity:  Thank you so much for having me on. It’s great. Cheers.

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

The People’s Ledger with Saule Omarova

This month, we discuss democratic possibilities for public finance with Saule Omarova, the Beth and Marc Goldberg Professor of Law at Cornell University and President Biden’s original nominee for Comptroller of the Currency. Omarova’s work on financial regulation and banking law has long informed how we at Money on the Left understand the modern monetary system. Her and Robert Hockett’s “finance franchise” metaphor for modern banking-–according to which the federal government is the franchisor and chartered banks are all franchisees–renders an often-times opaque system intuitive and readily politicizable. Throughout our conversation, we learn from Omarova about how she arrived at this work, what other metaphors she and Hockett considered as alternatives, and exciting democratic possibilities for social policy development, including proposals for a National Investment Authority and a public banking system called “the people’s ledger.”

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

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com


The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson:  Saule Omarova welcome to Money On The Left.

Saule Omarova:  Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Scott Ferguson:  We’re so glad that you could join us today. Maybe to kick off our discussion, you can tell our listeners a little bit about your professional and academic background, how you got into thinking about law and finance from the point of view that you pursue?

Saule Omarova: Sure. So I am currently teaching at Cornell Law School. I write and teach on a variety of subjects that have to do with financial markets, financial institutions, and various regulatory issues in finance, understood broadly. I came into academia from private practice, I was a bank regulatory lawyer primarily, but also have done a lot of transactional work with various regulated financial institutions, broker dealers, insurance companies, and so on, so forth. And I did it in New York City, as part of the specialized financial institutions group. I really, really enjoyed the work, it was really difficult and quite demanding, particularly of a young lawyer with no prior experience. 

I came into the legal practice actually not thinking about banking law, even as a potential area in which I would pursue my career because prior to law school, I did a PhD program, and I’ve completed my doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, in political science. I studied comparative political economy, and was interested in economic development and all of this wonderful, interesting historical stuff. So as a lawyer, I was thinking I was going to be just a business corporate lawyer. And then I ended up being in the financial institutions group. 

What I’ve learned in that practice was quite invaluable, and it spurred my interest in returning to academia, to share the knowledge, but also to contribute to the discussion of public policy matters that as a practicing lawyer, I simply didn’t have the luxury of thinking about or addressing in any significant way. I did spend one year in the Treasury Department between my leaving the law firm and becoming a law professor, which was also focused on potential regulatory reform and financial stability, oversight, and so on. That was actually right before the bottom fell out of the subprime mortgage market. I left the Treasury in early July of 2007, and quite literally a couple of weeks later, things began unfolding.

So my academic career began in the midst of an unfolding global financial crisis. And of course, given the fact that financial regulation and financial markets was something I was interested in to begin with, this was a very, I suppose, fortunate set of circumstances in terms of directing my research interest into law and finance. And as I continued to learn about finance and financial regulation from an academic perspective, rather than from a purely practical perspective, gradually, I came to appreciate and realize that my long forgotten, perhaps, academic training in comparative political economy and institutional, developmental, political science, whatever you call it, actually had a lot to contribute in terms of shaping the perspective with which I approached various legal and policy issues in financial regulation, and kind of presumptively focusing my attention on structural issues, because that was really what I’ve been interested in all along.

I gradually started expanding my research, beyond writing about specific dysfunctions and specific regulatory and policy problems in the regulation of banking institutions, including banking conglomerates, so called bank holding companies or financial holding companies. Expanding that focus to encompass broader, perhaps deeper issues in what it means to have this type of a dysfunctional banking system or malfunctioning banking system at the center of the financial market that is itself supposed to serve the interests of the real economy, and real people. That’s how I started researching and writing about issues of power and structure in finance, and I suppose that’s why I’m here right now talking about it.

Billy Saas:  So I first became aware of your work in a paper that you co-wrote with Robert Hockett on the “Finance Franchise”. And of course, you’ve done subsequent work on The People’s Ledger. I’m curious, in the context of this bio that you’ve just given us. I think a lot of academics when they come into contact initially with heterodox economic, financial or monetary theory, it seems like a surprise. Or things need to be relearned. But I wonder about your history as a regulator, and that sort of journey that you took… Could you kind of narrate that experience for us when it came time to kind of think about finance as a franchise? Was it novel or did it just sort of make sense in the structural thinking that you were prone to do at the time?

Saule Omarova:  I suppose it was both a surprising development and something that did not surprise me at all, more of a natural trajectory, I guess, of my thinking and learning and experience, both as a practitioner and academic. But the surprising part was, perhaps the excitement of a discovery, and the excitement in that moment when, suddenly, a lot of the pieces that you’ve been thinking about or writing about, or talking about, fall into place, more or less, to cohere into a whole of which you were not aware of previously. That was something that I don’t think anybody can kind of predict, or that’s definitely going to happen. Certainly not for my work. 

Every time I start writing a paper, It’s always a process of a lot of doubt, and worry, and thinking about, is it really new enough? Is it interesting enough? Is it valuable to share with people? So the “Finance Franchise” was kinda like that, but it was also a different experience, because it was a co-authored work. When you are collaborating with somebody else, the dynamics change. Bob Hockett and I, we started talking and discussing various issues in finance a few years before the “Finance Franchise” was actually published. And it was not our first quarter piece, we’ve written a couple of shorter ones, and a really longer one about the developmental finance state previously, so this was a process. 

What I am really grateful for in that process was that chance to find a comrade-in-arms in a way academically, someone who shared certain fundamental premises and understandings, but brought to the partnership a complementary set of ideas and knowledge. For example, I am not, and I do not consider myself an expert on monetary economics per se. I have never been formally trained, I don’t have a degree in economics, and whatnot. So it was really fascinating for me, to start from my usual, typical, let’s start from the ground, from the understanding of the mechanics in the market, certain financial instruments or certain market dynamics and relationships, that financial institutions and regulators and various other actors in the economy enter in starting from that understanding, building up toward the whole. Whereas Bob came into this experience, perhaps from a slightly different perspective, which was absolutely complementary. He has tremendous knowledge of economic literature and philosophy and history, so we worked really well together and it was truly a great partnership. 

That was the “Finance Franchise” and I remember we’ve gone through many, many iterations of the draft. We developed and discarded multiple metaphors for the arrangement that we were trying to describe. I remember talking about the solar system and how the federal reserve, the central bank, the sovereign public is the sun, and emits that full faith and credit as the energy into the universe, and the first layer of planets would be commercial banks, and then the outer layer capital markets, and so on, so forth. We were writing and rewriting this draft. And at some point, we have decided to discard that particular metaphor for the sake of coherence and certain writing editorial choices. 

That was the process. And I, perhaps I don’t know if Bob has a different recollection of that process. Perhaps what he valued is not exactly the same as what I value, but I really did value that chance to really build something from scratch. Because for both of us, I don’t think I will be speaking out of turn here on behalf of my colleague. But I think for both of us, that concept of the “Finance Franchise” — that particular public private partnership type arrangement in the creation and distribution of sovereign money and credit throughout the modern economy — that concept continues to be the foundation of whatever work we’re doing separately now.

Billy Saas:  I know that when I came to that work, I had been fairly deeply immersed in Modern Monetary Theory and heterodox economic discourse, generally. There was something special about that, that seemed to sort of click things into place in a new way. And the metaphor, just want to say, is very effective, very useful. And I think, as a metaphor, it’s not too far out of bounds from what it’s attempting to describe or carry over. It fits, it’s fitting. And I’ve found it very useful to share with students in courses.

Saule Omarova:  Thank you so much. Thank you so much. I do notice that with students as well, that I always start talking in my classes about what the financial system really is, what is it for, who are the main players and so on, so forth. And I start with the Orthodox description of financial intermediation, because to be perfectly fair, it’s not that that description is entirely and completely wrong. It does have its place. It is just not the correct description for what happens with money, as we know. 

So you start with this kind of traditional description, and then suddenly, you problematize it. And you ask them the question, well, then what do you think JPMorgan does when you come and ask for a loan, let’s say for a million dollar loan? Do you think JPMorgan needs to go into its books right away and make sure that it actually has the extra million dollars in deposits sitting there ready for it to extend to you as a loan? Because if that were the case, do you think JPMorgan would ever find that moment at which is: “yeah, yeah! Right now we have it! Oops right now we don’t have it,” right? Because people withdraw money and put money in and things happen. 

That kind of simple, and silly as it may be example, makes students wonder, wait a second, if that’s not the case, then what is happening here? Then I introduce them to this concept of “Finance Franchise” and how complex but yet incredibly simple it appears, and how it sheds light on so many problems that we seem to be walking around in practice, with respect to policy and regulation. And suddenly, understanding of that fundamental dynamics just changes the way you approach solutions. 

Scott Ferguson:  We’re starting to wade into it, but I’m wondering if we can do a little teaching for those listeners who are not familiar with this very important paper that’s so foundational to your work. How would you describe your criticism of what we might call the conventional, micro economically-oriented approach to money, to law? You use the word intermediation, maybe we could spell out how is it that the dominant ways of understanding comprehend money and banking and finance? And what are the problems with that? And maybe a little bit about how that dominant model has shaped financial regulation and reform, especially after the Great Financial Crisis and Dodd Frank. The kind of sensibility that’s built into Dodd Frank that you criticize.

Saule Omarova:  Yeah, well, that’s quite a lot, so let’s see if I can actually do that. So if you pick up any textbook on economics, or finance, or corporate law, or financial regulation, for example, usually it starts with some introduction into what a financial system is, what it does, and its functions. Very respectable scholars, and practitioners have written those books and contributed to those books. Their view of what the financial system is, it sounds familiar, it sounds plausible. 

They basically talk about how the financial system helps to transfer wealth across time and across space, and it helps to generate capital and do XYZ. But when they talk about banks and securities firms and insurance companies, and mutual funds and fund managers and other financial institutions, usually, the description is quite simple. They’re just introduced as this sort of middleman entities, intermediaries, whose job is to bring together two groups of actors in the financial system. 

Those people or entities, those persons who have surplus funds, extra money, that they do not need for consumption immediately, but they’re willing to put into the game of investment one way or the other. And on the other side, there are those persons and those entities that have the need of money, of capital, of investment, so that they can actually build factories, hire people and produce goods and services that basically keep our economy going and, in fact, constitute our economy. 

The banks come in, for example, in a particular way, banks are typically considered in the traditional standard explanation the quintessential archetype of financial intermediaries because what they do is that they step right between those two sets of players, the suppliers of funds, investors, lenders, and so forth, and the users of funds, the various companies that raise capital or individual borrowers and so forth. And the banks solve various problems in that relationship by absorbing the risks that the suppliers of finance fundamentally face because they are supposed to give their money up today, in exchange for some promise to be repaid at some point in the future, because nobody knows what the future holds. 

Because these lenders or investors, they really often have no way of accessing or evaluating the information about their borrowers, or the issuers of securities, those companies’ future prospects and the ability to repay. Because of all these risks, frequently, that relationship simply fails to take place, which is not good for anybody. We need money to get inside the economic activity somehow so that the production happens. So banks come in, and they essentially become the borrowers to all those people who have extra money. They don’t have the use for it right now, but they also don’t really have the information or the expertise or the time to research any potential lending opportunities to see: Oh, to whom can I give this money temporarily for a fee? So those people can come to a bank, open a deposit account, and put the extra money into that account. The bank collects all these deposits, because those are what we understand by deposits from a myriad of individuals, each one of whom may put in a very small amount, but then the bank ends up sitting on this huge bag of money. 

The bank then turns around and looks to the other side of the river, where all those other entities and people are standing there with hungry eyes and stretching out their hand, asking for capital because they want to build factories and they want to construct houses or buy those houses, whatever. And then the bank being the professional, now sitting on that huge amount of money, can actually conduct the necessary investigation into these people’s ability to repay or make good on their claims. And once they determine that a particular borrower is a worthy borrower, then the bank can essentially dip into its bag of money. Well, perhaps it’s not a bag of money, but their vault, because that’s where they were supposed to keep the value, right? Dip in the vault, take out a bunch of money and then extend that loan. 

And that’s what this intermediation process in the banking sector is supposed to do: alleviate all these fears, all these risks of everybody who actually has that spare money that they don’t need to use, and then bundle it together and then extend loans to various borrowers. Of course, even within that traditional view of the banking relationship, there is already an element of surprise that students usually encounter. Because once you tell them, well, guess what if you go to the Tompkins Trust or to Citibank and open an account, putting your money in, open a checking account, right? Guess what, you become the lender to Citibank or the lender to whatever bank you open an account with. So you are basically an investor, and they are your borrower, and they owe you money. Is that how you think of this relationship? 

And of course, the students just go: no, that’s not how I think of that relationship. I think of them selling me a service. The bank gives me some kind of a benefit by allowing me to keep my money safe. That is the fundamental, first step in the learning process in which you start pushing students toward rethinking what actually happens. This is when you tell them well, guess what? It’s not your money. If I asked you how much money you have? You would probably not give me the amount of cash in your pocket, but you would give me the balance in your bank account. And guess what, that’s not your money. You don’t have that many dollars. 

What you have is a claim on a bank, a private corporation, that is your borrower to return that money to you should you have the need for it. And so that’s where it starts, but then you start explaining the fact that, well, if you think about the bank in this kind of terms, it’s just a middleman or middle person or middle entity. The player in the middle who essentially collects existing money that people have out there, combines it all and then out of that pile makes loans to other people, then what is the difference between the bank and the mutual fund? Well, then functionally, there shouldn’t be any difference, right? We could just all put our money together in one big bag, and some person in charge of that bag might actually then, extend loans out of that bag. Would that be the same as a bank? 

Clearly, it’s not the same. It’s not the same because there is another very standard textbook explanation of what banks do. And that is typically known as fractional reserve banking, where people came to understand that banks don’t necessarily simply just disperse the money that all these little ladies like me brought to the bank and open deposit accounts. But what the bank does is whatever money it’s collecting in deposits from various depositors, it puts in the vault only a fraction of that amount. But then it can write pieces of paper, essentially, granting loans making promises to various borrowers out there in the real economy, to make payments on their behalf to their suppliers, or to their clients, or to their employees and whatnot. 

What they do is they open these accounts and put that money in there. They create these loans, but the number or rather the amount of the lending activity is not directly limited to the amount of deposits that were brought into the bank because there is this magical understanding that all depositors are not going to knock on your door at once and withdraw all the money. As long as that’s the case, you don’t need to keep 100% of deposits in your vault. You could put in, typically, 10%. So you put in 10%, that’s your reserves. Your reserves, that’s your most liquid cash in the vault or whatever it is. But then 90% of that money that somebody brought in, you can actually extend in loans, and then those loans get deposited elsewhere, or maybe even at your own bank. And somehow, the balance sheet, the books of the banks–individual banks but also the banking system in general–grows. 

This is what usually is meant by this phrase, that banks create money out of thin air because they’re able to use that fraction of the deposits brought in as some kind of reserve base, and then multiply that base by 9 or 10, or 25. That’s a very popular description of what banks do. But it’s so fascinating if you think about it. So which is it? What is it that banks actually do? Do they simply collect deposits and then use that amount of money to extend loans? Or do they have some kind of magical formula and where does that formula come from? Where if you have 10% in the vault, somehow, you can multiply that 10% so many times and everything will be hunky dory. 

Those two descriptions do not really, necessarily cohere. They’re not consistent, but nobody really cares, because in the standard sort of economic textbooks, to the extent that I’m familiar with them, I don’t mean any disrespect for the economists, or corporate law textbooks or whatever textbooks, right? These questions do not get asked because money is frequently taken for granted as something that naturally in any kind of capitalist, or exchange based, private property based, market based economy is something that is almost a natural phenomenon. You need that universal measure of value, so money just happens. So yeah, we know that banks make money, but also, it’s not that somehow they have some magical power to make money. They make it out of thin air, but there is that reserve base. And where does it all come from? It comes from depositors. 

The problem with that is that well, if that were the case, then how would we account for the fact that some countries, for example, don’t even have the mandatory reserve ratios for their banks. In other words, there is no 10% of all of your assets, or whatever deposits that you have, you have to keep in the vault. In some countries, it’s not even necessary. And yet their banks operate pretty much the same way as all banks operate. And banks create money. And there is this concept of the elastic money supply. 

Sometimes banks create more money. Sometimes they create less money. And there’s monetary policy with a central bank in the middle, the whole point of which is to manage the supply. If it was all some kind of preset formula of what the little old lady brought in, and then how much it can grow because Citibank decided that’s okay, then why do we even need the whole complex edifice of monetary policy and whatnot? If we start thinking about it, then you start thinking, but what happens on the ground? How do banks create money? What happens when somebody comes to the bank and wants to borrow from that bank? Does the bank really have to look into his vaults? Does it even have any vault? Where does it look? And how does that decision get made? 

In reality, of course, what happens here is that imagine Billy or Scott, when you went to the bank to borrow money to buy a house, the bank didn’t tell you: “You just wait here. Let me go check how much money I have in the vault or whatever my deposit base is.” No, they don’t do that. What they do, however, is they make you jump through millions of hoops to prove that you have income, you have a steady job, you have assets, to get an appraisal of your home so that you can give them security interest in your house. 

In other words, they assess that loan, that prospective loan as an investment opportunity. And once the bank decides that this actually is a good investment opportunity, we can price the risk of this loan not being repaid and establish that interest rate, but we think this is a good loan to make, because over the next 10, 15, 30 years, we will actually make profit on that loan. And this person is actually going to use that money for some socially beneficial purpose: we want houses to be sold, we want the construction companies to actually build those houses. 

Once the bank makes that decision, then the bank simply credits a deposit account that is in the borrower’s name with the amount of the loan. And that process is the moment of creating that purchasing capacity, that money that didn’t exist in the system before it was created. And at that moment was that bank actually credited that account, from that moment immediately, almost immediately, you can start spending that money. You can start writing a check out of that deposit account to cover your debts to cover your purchases, write a check to the seller of the house or to the construction company or whatever. 

In the current modern system that we have in this country, nobody will start asking: well, which bank opened that deposit account for you? And essentially how liquid is this check? What is that? Maybe we should just discount it? Nobody does that. Why is that the case? There is no reserve requirement that presumptively limits the bank’s ability to create this new purchasing power. Right? And yet, nobody questions the fact that this is good money, because it’s drawn on a particular bank. 

That’s because certain things, certain relationships involving money creation, in particular, and the banking system cannot be understood within this sort of narrowly, micro-level transactional framing that this financial intermediation concept conveys. And that framing being, you can only understand the relationships by looking at the private market interactions between specified private market participants. Like, here’s a lender, and here’s a borrower. Here’s a depositor, and here’s a bank. Here’s a bank, and here’s a borrower. 

You can only understand that when you expand your view, and you look at what happens in these types of transactions as part and parcel of the broader system in which the government and government supported entities, the public, the sovereign, in effect, the sovereign public, various actors, that are typically just treated as being outsiders to private market exchange, in fact, are fundamentally important in terms of enabling those private market exchanges to take place in the form that we know. 

The reason why the bank can actually credit the borrower’s account with the amount of the loan without being constrained in that moment of money creation, by the amount of deposits sitting “in its vault” is because each bank in the United States or in most modern economies, modern banks, is a participant in the system which we call the “Finance Franchise” arrangement, which is basically the principle of how the banking system works. It is tied into and directly plugged into the balance sheet of the Central Bank, which is a public actor, which is basically the embodiment of the sovereign public in the sphere of banking and money creation.

The central bank, on the surface of it, is essentially just a bank for those private commercial banks that extend loans and take deposits. Those banks open their own deposit accounts, effectively, with the central bank. When they have to make good on their promises, on the checks that are written by the depositors on them, these banks essentially have to make those payments out of the accounts that they hold at the central bank. In the US, those are called reserve accounts. 

What happens is that once the bank created new money by extending a loan, at the end of the day, those checks that the borrower wrote to suppliers and employees and various other people that were accepted as good money, no questions asked, those checks at the end of the day have to come back to the original lender, the bank. And the bank would have to make a payment on those checks, make good on those promises. So that system is operated on the books of the central bank, a public agency, a public entity, a sovereign entity, which basically means that all of those new monies that were being created, because they were good investment opportunities for those banks– in other words, good creditworthy projects in the real economy that needed money, and they got the money from the banks–all those projects are able to take off and happen. 

Now the banks have to actually make good on those promises because if they don’t, then those relationships will break down tomorrow. And the reason they are able to make good on those promises is because they do have those accounts on the books of the central bank. So for example, if on any particular day, suddenly, there are too many withdrawals from ATMs from the deposit accounts of a particular bank, and too many checks came in for payment on that same day. And suddenly, you don’t have enough in your account at the central bank in your reserve account. You can actually borrow either from other banks who also have reserve accounts in the same system, or worse comes towards, you can borrow from the central bank itself. And this is the most underappreciated, and the most fundamentally important institutional underpinning of our entire banking system and the system of money creation: an elastic currency that is meant to meet the needs of the growing, modern economy. 

Because in the traditional, the standard, mainstream picture of things, when we just focus on private market participants, banks and companies and broker-dealers and borrowers, whatever, in this micro-transactional sense, and we think of the government as some kind of an outsider, usually, this function, the payments and clearing function, and the provision of this reserve accounts by the central bank to private banks, is considered something mundane, and kind of back office support function that is really, at most convenience, but generally speaking is just like, I don’t know, it’s just the way things are. Sometimes I joke with my students, it’s kind of teenage kids, just think that it’s, of course, how things are that there is a house and the parents provide the house.

Scott Ferguson:  Somebody will do the dishes.

Saule Omarova:  Yeah, somebody does the dishes. Do teenagers ever talk on their social media about how mom does the dishes and dad drives them everywhere? No, because that’s sort of considered part of the duty. So in that same sense, the central bank’s ability to provide that incredibly important support that maintains the ability of private institutions with limited financial resources to engage in money creation in this elastic manner, that we really need as a society. That function has consistently been underrated and misunderstood. And in the “Finance Franchise” framework, we are supplementing these two mainstream concepts, financial intermediation and fractional reserve banking, with this more comprehensive and coherent system-based approach, in which we say that the banking system is not just a collection of individualized direct micro level transactional exchanges between banks and depositors, of banks and borrowers, for example. 

It is actually an institutional arrangement in which the sovereign public represented by the central bank injects its own credibility, its own credit, the full faith and credit of the nation, into that system by enabling certain licensed and regulated private corporations, banks, to have direct access to that public, sovereign credibility. And use that as a backup so that the private liabilities, those deposits liabilities that private banks issue, that we can use in everyday life as a form of money and think of it as sovereign money. 

If I have $100 in the bank, I’m actually quite confident that I have $100, even though it’s actually a private liability. That ability is a result of this particular arrangement. And in that arrangement, effectively, private banks are not some independent creators of monetary value. They are essentially the agents of the sovereign public, to whom the sovereign public outsources this function of finding the good investment opportunities out there in the real economy, finding those potential borrowers, those companies, those individuals, households, that have good productive use for the money, and they need that money. 

That’s why when private banks are doing their due diligence on any kind of prospective loan, that’s what they do on behalf of the public. And once they extend that loan and create new money, those banks can be confident that, as long as they of course comply with all the requirements of that relationship that are imposed on them by virtue of them being the agents of the sovereign public, as long as everything else goes right, that their private liabilities actually are treated in the entire economy as de facto sovereign money, even though it’s not.

It’s kind of like, again, going to my favorite, very basic example of teenage kids and the parents: it’s kinda like the parents giving those teenage kids their credit card, on which the parents pay the bill at the end of the day. And the kids now can use that credit card, to buy things, to do things to pay for services, whatever, because everybody in that exchange knows that ultimately, the parents stand behind the kids. And this is the relationship and that relationship is fundamentally hierarchical. 

I think that hierarchy, that the public sovereign is the ultimate source of all the money credit, the safest money, that is, at the bottom of that entire pyramid of financial claims in our modern economy. The ultimate source of it is the sovereign public, we all of us. That fact gets completely brushed aside in mainstream economic thought. I think by bringing it out through showing the institutional dynamics in the very simple transactional context of the banking sector, that is what allows us to see how all these other relationships and the financial system are fundamentally about the balance of public and private power.

Billy Saas:  That was an amazing tour de force. So a couple of thoughts. One is it seems like a job one is in the classroom, in your classroom, but then also, more broadly, generating and disseminating and educating people about what actual financial literacy is, right? There’s a kind of baseline financial literacy, but also baked into the kind of popular understanding of how the banking system works is a fundamental disinterest, or even say ignorance. The full picture that you’re providing here includes the “Finance Franchise” and highlights and focuses on the support role, but it’s actually foundational and enabling from the very start. So you can’t have those two other models without having the foundation of this unaccounted for thing. And so what follows from that for you? There’s a full picture here. Now what? 

Saule Omarova:  Right, so that’s an excellent question, because being a lawyer by training, and also a legal scholar, for me, the “so what?” is the ultimate question? It’s not just about getting the description right. But the reason why we need to get the description right is that the wrong description gives life to so many misguided policies and decisions that affect everybody’s daily lives. So if we understand the fundamentally central role of the sovereign public as the source of sovereign money and credit in this incredibly complicated financial system that we have, the smart person or critical thinker can actually address whatever burning policy or regulatory issue that they are looking at from the perspective of the public-private balance of roles, functions, responsibilities, and bring out normative implications. 

One example is, in all this current, perhaps not so current, but the recurring and unfortunate political debates about the debt ceiling and federal budget, and those really unseemly political maneuvers in Congress that jeopardize, effectively, the United States credit standing as the global power and whatnot. A lot of these debates become, quite obviously, silly when you start thinking about the public debt that we issue as a form of that solar energy that needs to be emitted, and that is being emitted into the universe, that it’s not the same as a household borrowing money to pay credit card bills, right? It’s not that kind of a dynamic.

For me, I’m not really an active participant in those types of political debates. It’s just something that, quite obviously, everybody’s aware of right. But in terms of financial regulation of financial markets, the recent emergence of new digital technologies and digital currencies, and whatever we mean by this beautiful term, crypto, these are the issues that are very much front and center on many people’s professional and policy and academic agendas. 

This is where the understanding of the fundamental dynamics of the financial system as we have it now can seriously inform our view of potential pitfalls, potential huge policy mistakes that we may make, as we’re trying to adjust ourselves or somehow respond to all of these developments and the crypto markets growing and so on, so forth. But also, and perhaps more importantly, it can inform our understanding of how we can harness the power of digital technology to make our financial system, this hybrid “Finance Franchise” system in which there is inherently that tension between the public and private, between private banks, franchisees trying to increase their private profits by abusing the public subsidy and by abusing this full faith and credit that they can disperse for money. And the interests of the public in keeping the system stable and safe and actually geared towards the needs of the real economy. 

This inherent tension can become much much worse, if we switch to cryptocurrencies and various digital monies that are generated outside of this banking system that continues to be the core of our financial system. But of course, once they’re created outside of that system, they definitely need to be connected to the traditional financial system, particularly the banking system, because those cryptocurrencies need a way of being exchanged into US dollars, or euros or whatever, the real sovereign money that we have in circulation. Whatever happens in that realm really is something that can fundamentally disrupt the system we have today. So rather than sitting there and waiting passively for the disruption to occur, and then encounter the traditional arguments that: Oh, the genies out of the bottle, you cannot change anything. Now all you have to do is extend more public support to this newly created private type of digital money, or maybe financial transactions and financial markets that are built on top of that new private digital money. 

Instead of saying, Well, you know, all parents just dish out more money. We can proactively say: how about we seize on the fact that there are these new technologies, and that we actually as a public together collectively, we are the source of all credit and finance in the system, ultimately. So to the extent that we know the tension in our hybrid finance franchise system, to the extent that we see that this system operates, yeah, more or less, it’s alright. But it does tend to miss allocate credit to over-generate risks to over-generate leverage that is unproductive. In other words, that energy that the sun emits into the system somehow gets trapped in the layers of the solar system, and never reaches the intended recipients, the real economy, the real people. 

Why can’t we use this new technology? Why can’t we re conceive the relationship at the core of this financial system, the relationship between the public, the sovereign public, and the private financial institutions, the franchisees of the sovereign public, in a way that rebalances the currently sort of skewed control over how much money is out there and where it goes — that currently is residing mostly with the private institutions– rebalances it so that the public, the sovereign, the source of the credit, has a greater say, in how much credit money is generated, and where it goes for what purpose. If we can actually solve that puzzle, and I believe we can, it’s not easy, but it is conceivable, to think about various ways of approaching that problem. 

If we can solve that problem, then we will actually be able to resolve for the first time a really, incredibly complex knot of not only financial, but also broader economic, political, and social problems that we have been dealing with for decades, if not centuries in our society. A lot of the problems that currently seem to be far removed from the idea of digital money, or digital currency, or the banking system, per se, and so on so forth, a lot of those problems actually will be able to be tackled, or we will be able to tackle those problems with these new tools. Because guess what, money, credit, finance is the universal input into every economic activity. And it is the most potent tool that we can use as a collectivity to resolve some of the tensions that we will not be able to resolve by looking at each individual tension individual problem in isolation, and trying to fix it with existing, very technical tools. 

I know it’s a little bit abstract, but this is basically the “so what.” The “so what” is, here we have potentially, I don’t know, the Samurai sword that we can take and go to battle, to actually defend, protect our future, from a lot of the challenges. So let’s appreciate the sword, and let’s appreciate the hand that can wield that sword. And that is our hand. It is not the hand of an individual bank or an individual hedge fund or anybody else, not even Elon Musk. So there we are.

Scott Ferguson:  So you have laid out in your work a number of what you sometimes describe as radical proposals for remaking the financial system, the banking system, how deposits for everyday people work, all the way to really rethinking a macro structure and strategy of investment. Could you, and I know there are other proposals out there, and I think you put yourself more on the side of let’s go big or go home, whereas others want to kind of take baby steps with some of this knowledge. Can you maybe spell out one or two of these major proposals for pretty radical overhauls and how they might have effects on democracy, or social life and taking care of people and our environments? 

Saule Omarova:  You’re absolutely right, Scott. There are, luckily, many proposals and many attempts, at least, to deal with these big social challenges we’re facing. That of course includes climate change and the great economic socio economic inequality we have in this country, in many societies. The fact that our economy has been gradually starved of productive capital and investment, and yet there is a lot of speculative investment that’s going on. So the reason I think that it is important to supplement a lot of the existing efforts, maybe to solve particular aspects of these particular types of problems with a more systemic or systematic structural approach to redefining the fundamental functions and dynamics of the financial system, is that sometimes the most practical way of achieving the desired result is not go to the smallest possible denominator and tackle each individual issue separately. 

Sometimes it is the best, most pragmatic way of solving the problems. But sometimes all it does is disperse and diffuse the energy the efforts, and also pushes the pressure elsewhere in the same system. So you push on one lever, and suddenly, the problem comes out in another pocket, right? So I, for the longest time, have been thinking about the, again, the financial technologies, FinTech and digital money and digital financial products and crypto, because that’s basically in my wheelhouse as a former, currently recovering, financial regulation lawyer. 

The more I thought about those specific issues, how do we deal with the emergence of all these private tokens that circulate supposedly, as a form of payment as money? How do we accommodate this kind of new financial markets into the existing framework, the more I realize that this is precisely one of those moments in history where we really need to go all the way to the very bottom, to the very root of how the system operates as a whole. 

So when I use the word radical, I know that in common parlance, it is often considered a bad word, because radical means extreme. And it means almost violent. It means something that is unrealistic, or not something that we want if we’re pragmatic adults. We don’t want to destroy, but we want to construct, right? But radical, actually, it’s the root of that. The root of the word is root, right? So actually it means fundamental. And so when I call my proposals radical, I am hoping that more people will recognize the fundamental nature of the overhaul I’m proposing. So one of these proposals again, very little under the sun is brand new. But particularly during the pandemic, it became very clear that we need to make sure that everybody in the economy, everybody in our society, has equal, direct and easy access to sovereign money because that determines the ability of an individual person to buy goods and services, to pay for the housing, to pay for education, to feed themselves and to provide very essential basic needs. 

For example, not being able to have a bank account in our current society means not being able to make those types of economic decisions and to take that action on a daily basis without having to pay an exorbitant, in many cases, unacceptable price. Those of us who are lucky enough to be part of the existing banking system, to us that may be a natural thing to use. But too many people were sort of in a position during the pandemic, in particular, where even the checks from the federal government that were supposed to help them continue paying their bills and feeding their families during the lockdown those checks had to be cashed by the recipients in some non bank institutions to which they simply didn’t have access during lockdown. They couldn’t even often get to the mailbox in which that check maybe was sitting. So that was an extreme situation. But it brought to the fore of public attention the fact about which many scholars and policy activists have been talking for many years before the pandemic hit; the fact that we actually do not have the kind of banking service, the basic provision of basic payments and banking services that we need to have in order to basically provide effectively economic citizenship rights to everybody. 

During the pandemic, there was this sort of fermenting sentiment that perhaps we should think about a public option for deposit services, and that public option would alleviate the need to basically wait for banks to judge whether or not you’re a prospectively profitable client, before they open a deposit account for you. Of course, again, the idea, for example of using either a post office, or postal banking, or maybe even the central bank itself, the Federal Reserve, as an actual provider of services directly to individuals and households and businesses, in terms of opening deposit accounts directly with a central bank, or maybe a US Post Office in the postal bank. That idea has been around forever. 

But one of the knock down arguments against that was the administrative difficulty of basically having a central bank, let’s say the Federal Reserve, actually manage these deposit accounts. Is the Fed going to open bank branches in every village out there? That’s ridiculous, right? So now we have digital money. We have the possibility of a central bank, for example, issuing digital currency, or I don’t know, any kind of let’s say public authority. It doesn’t have to be necessarily a central bank. It could be monetary, it could be the treasurer. It depends on the choices and the design and whatever. 

Now, there is technology that allows the public money being issued digitally, and therefore managed those deposits accounts or wallets in which that money sits, and out of which it goes and into which it comes, with greater ease than was ever possible when all the ledgers had to be the manual or individually maintained on some proprietary computer systems, for example. So, I hesitate to say, “Oh, I am the smartest person in the universe, I was the first one to …”, of course not. But there were several of us thinking and writing about these things and discussing these things with one another. And, for example, Morgan Ricks, Lev Menand, and other people, in various ways, have been thinking and talking about the idea of the central bank actually offering deposit services directly to economic actors, individuals, households, and companies. 

Of course, there was this great economic debate among central bank economists and particularly central bankers about issuing central bank digital currencies, CBDCs. But during the pandemic, I felt that look, right now is exactly the time when we need to bring those two debates together. First of all, those two ideas, the Central Bank Digital Currency and Fed Accounts, let’s call them, the central bank opening directly deposit accounts. But not only bring them together and think about how it could be done in greater institutional detail than was done before. But also address one big elephant in the room that, in my view, hampered all of these discussions and proposals with respect to CBDC are Fed Wallets and Fed Accounts before them, and that big elephant in the room was: Okay, let’s imagine that you can now have the central bank, the Fed, open deposit accounts for everybody potentially, in the economy. Issue these liabilities directly to everybody, so now, there are sovereign liabilities functioning in the economy as truly sovereign money. Which is how we think of it anyway, right? 

Currently, it’s not happening outside of the cash. In the electronic world, there is no sovereign money. So why not create that sovereign money in the electronic form? But what that means is that the liability side of the Fed’s balance sheet will increase tremendously, immediately. Something has to be done on the asset side, on the other side of the balance sheet, to balance it out. Even if, as we understand, maybe not everybody, but let’s just postulate. Of course, it doesn’t mean that the Fed actually has to look in its own vaults and take out the money that some little ladies deposited in there and then bundle it up and lend it to somebody else. 

That’s not what that balancing act is about. But the balancing act is, nevertheless, an important factor that if there is an increase in liabilities, you actually get greater capacity to invest. As the Federal Reserve, you have the greater capacity to use your own balance sheet to channel capital into the economy. And the question becomes, how will you channel it? Where will you invest? 

So right now, the Fed doesn’t invest in many things. What does the Fed typically invest in? It extends loans, for example, to banks that need loans in emergency liquidity, whatever. So there are some of those discount loans to banks that the Fed has. It invests mainly in government debt, right? There are some treasury bonds, there are a lot of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, housing related bonds, because a policy decision was made many, many decades ago that we’re going to use the Fed’s balance sheet to support housing finance because we want homeownership in America. That’s basically it, maybe there are some precious metals, there are these claims on other central banks, but there are no commercial loans, no household loans on that balance sheet right now, and not much is happening. 

So the question that both central bank economists, the CBDC guys, encountered, and that proposes to basically provide the public option for deposits, public option in banking for the people encountered was that well, what should the Fed do on the asset side? So most people pretty much either were just quiet about it, like, we don’t need to talk about that. Let’s just focus on the deposit side. But you cannot do that because there is always that question. But most people just sort of very … and it’s really funny, because very much in passing would admit to, well, the Fed or whatever, the central bank will just do more of what it does currently. So maybe invest more in whatever treasury bonds or agency bonds. And if you run out of those bonds, because you might run out of those bonds. 

What does that mean? Does that mean that the Treasury now is going to be forced to issue more debt? So then, the Fed could invest in high quality corporate bonds. And what happens if the liabilities are growing and growing? Well, then maybe the Fed could even invest in corporate equity: stocks of some companies. And that is an incredible thing to even contemplate, because what that would mean is that private corporations would effectively have the captive buyer, the captive supplier of capital for them, which is the Federal Reserve. Do we really need that? Do we want that? What will the private corporations do with all that money flowing their way? Will they actually go into poor neighborhoods and build fancy facilities for the kids there or something like that. Or maybe… 

Billy Saas:  Stock buybacks

Saule Omarova:  Yeah, exactly. Stock buybacks and dividends, all this wonderful stuff. Bonuses, whatnot. So clearly, that question created a problem, a conundrum, but also opened a possibility for rethinking the direction and the nature of the credit flows in the economy overall. Because now we can have one platform, the central bank’s balance sheet, that has a tremendous capacity to channel that investment, that capital, into the economy, into the economic activities that are going to generate greater employment, stronger supply chains, better life, greater infrastructure, better infrastructure for more communities because that balance sheet belongs to the public, effectively. 

So I wrote up a paper that basically, it’s called The People’s Ledger, because it was kind of playing on the whole “distributed ledger” concept. Distributed ledger, well, you don’t just distribute it in that sort of technical sense. You give it to the people that write to basically use this central bank balance sheet as the platform for providing safe, sovereign money that is digital that is convenient, and universally accessible, and not predatory. But at the same time, with the other hand, channel the resources that are generated on the asset side of that platform, of that balance sheet. Channel those resources into productive activities. 

And so once you start thinking about it, then you can imagine what kind of new assets the central bank, the Fed, can invest in. If it’s not corporate bonds, if it’s not treasuries, what else can it do? So I was thinking, first of all, the Fed could actually start supporting lending for productive enterprise rather than lending that goes into margin loans; the loans that support speculation in financial markets. How can you do that? You can basically build on the existing practice of those discount loans that the Fed already extends to banks, who need some liquidity support on a short term basis, and secure those loans with good loans of their own. 

So to the extent that banks, for example, private banks will lose their access to deposits because deposits will be provided directly by the Central Bank. The central bank can actually open this kind of a discount window to a wider range of public and private lenders. They don’t have to be called banks; it can be called banks, call them whatever you want, right? And establish certain eligibility criteria for the kinds of loans that those lenders can extend and then bring a “discount” effectively sell to the central bank. Those criteria don’t have to be anything weird or radical in any way. But loans cannot support financial speculation, for example. It’s not the kind of loans that private equity firms will take in order to buy out some company and run it to the ground. But loans to productive companies, industrial corporations, loans to cooperatives, loans to universities, public entities of various kinds, like a State Transportation Authority wants to build something and needs to borrow money, they could get a loan now from a bank, a private lender, because the private lender knows that if they extend that loan, they can actually finance that loan at the Fed’s discount window, and essentially, not take too much risk and get a little bit of a profit on it and why not for instance. So that would be one asset. 

The other asset to me is even more important, and that is the fact that rather than basically directing increased investment capacity toward blue chip corporate debt or something like that. The Fed could buy bonds and other securities instruments issued by various public and public-private entities, institutions that are financing large scale public infrastructure, for example, at the state level, but also at the federal level. For example, at the state level, we have various green banks, and there is a movement to create more green banks or some other public institutions like that. 

To a great extent, access to financing becomes a real serious constraint on the potential of state level green banks or similar institutions to really spearhead sustainable economic development and maybe target other problems are on the local and state level like inequality or certain geographic imbalances and decay in certain communities, because those green banks have to finance itself either out of the budget, which at the state level is limited, or by issuing bonds in capital markets, which basically subjects them to the desires and profit seeking motives of private bondholders. 

So now, what if the Fed can become the potential buyer for those bonds issued by state level public banks and state level green banks, for example. That would enable those institutions to really fulfill their missions. Rather than just promise some improvement, they will actually have access to patient capital that is not out for profit there. But in addition to those kinds of existing forms of public infrastructure investment institutions, one can now imagine the creation of a new, more capacious and more ambitious kind of federal level, national level investment institution that is public. For me, that is the National Investment Authority, NIA. Again, it was a big part of the “Finance Franchise”, “so what” answer to the “so what?”

 The question is that, look, we’ve been talking for decades about the need to create some US infrastructure bank at the federal level, or investment bank. But of course, the devil is always in the details, right. All of the existing proposals to date have specifically envisioned those entities along the lines of what can be done in the financial markets and economic markets that are presumptively dominated by private financiers and private profit making motives and are subject pure to existing private market logic, and can only come into plug certain holes that are identified by a reference to market failures. So even where the private market “fails”, and does not provide credit for something that would be beneficial to the public in the long run for the economy, for example. Only then can a public investor come in, and take the risk and whatnot. And there are all kinds of problems with that limited approach to public investment. 

What we can think of, instead, is a standalone federal institution that would actually be just as important in the overall federal structure of public institutions, financial institutions, as currently the Fed and the Treasury are, but it would perform this role that neither the Fed nor the Treasury department currently can perform. And that is the role of directing and managing the flow of public and public-private mixed capital into certain types of critically important public infrastructures. And it’s effectively an industrial policy entity. 

The NIA, the National Investment Authority is not envisioned as a traditional public investment bank or the traditional sovereign wealth fund or whatever, but as a system that would have the political body, the federal agency, the governing board, that would be explicitly charged with a very political task of identifying the gaps in the public infrastructure, and in the structure of the US economy and developing some kind of a strategy for the types of investments and the places in which those investments need to be made and define the goals of that investment. 

Those goals are not going to be commercial viability, per se, but the goals are bigger. Sustainability, resiliency, equality, creating jobs, increasing the well being of various communities and so on. And then in the second level, there will be the operating arms. And here we can actually have a variety of subsidiaries that will tackle various problems in various ways. The National Infrastructure Bank would actually be a much more traditional credit institution that would create a secondary market for various bonds issued by various institutions and enterprises that are building those critical public infrastructure projects. 

As a public lender, the NIB, of course, would not have to squeeze the life out of those entities on those loans, but actually would be very patient and would be ready to absorb some of the losses because some projects will, let’s face it, never be commercially viable. And that’s okay. But in addition to that kind of traditional credit provision, we can actually now think about something alongside the public venture capital fund type of an entity or public asset manager, a slightly different function for a public institution that would essentially perform the same role, as currently private asset managers perform for really wealthy investors and institutions. But this particular institution can perform that function for a certain kind of publicly important type of institutional investor, like pension funds, for example, particularly public pension funds. 

Right now, public pension funds are part of this financial market that lives according to the private financial logic. And when pension fund managers are looking at the menu of financial options that they have, should we put it in the treasuries? Should we put it in corporate bonds? Or maybe should we go into private equity because private equity funds offer higher returns? Well, how about this new asset manager that is a public asset manager can offer new type of a collective investment fund, a new type of investment opportunity for pension funds, where pension funds can put their money into those new vehicles that are managed by the National Investment Authority in the long term interests of the US economy, in US public, and channel that money into long term public infrastructure of the kind that cannot be built by private actors or via private funds. There has to be some financial engineering involved, of course. 

This is where things get controversial, to some extent, but not to me, because all we’re doing here is essentially taking existing financial instruments that currently are being used for pure private profit maximization. But the instruments themselves, you know, a shovel is a shovel, right? A good person can use a shovel for good purposes. And a bad person can use a shovel for bad purposes. In the same spirit, we can use some of these financial techniques to replicate some of the returns, for example, as a reasonable reward to pension funds and other institutional investors for participating in the financing of certain long term public infrastructure projects. In effect, subsidizing the building of those critical public infrastructures. But doing it in a way that helps to avoid a lot of the political problems around budget and debt ceiling, and what have you that currently are plaguing our system. 

So if we have that kind of National Investment Authority, it would be much easier to build it up and to enable its function as intended. If the Fed, as the issuer of the digital dollar, the CBDC and the provider of deposit accounts to the entire economy, is able to provide liquidity support to the NIA using its capacity on the asset side. These are the kinds of systemic, structural reforms that we can and should debate. Not everybody will agree on my particular proposal for example, and they don’t have to. 

There are other proposals, other ways to skin that cat or you know, whatever animal one skins. I hope nobody skins anybody. In any event, there are many ways to approach this problem. The key here is to overcome certain premises, certain presumptions and assumptions, that limit the scope of the debate. We can never talk about, basically, the central bank channeling credit directly into the economy, because that is a political problem. Well, it may or may not be. It’s not like a central bank is apolitical. It’s not meant to be apolitical. But what we can talk about is, which specific instruments are better suited to the public purposes? What public purposes really should we pursue? These kinds of deliberations, they need to happen today, and they need to happen because if they don’t happen, then we will never be able to solve the problems we have in front of us.

Billy Saas:  When you’re talking about investment, and asked the question about what the Fed and the Central Bank currently invests in, one of the things that came to mind in response to that a little bit later, as you’re unfolding The People’s Ledger and the National Investment Authority proposals, is that to the extent that the central bank is not taking these actions, is not actively having these conversations, or in fact, that there’s not a huge constituency to have these conversations at the policy level, could we say that the central bank is actively investing in the status quo where the status quo means mass inequality across all sectors, health, climate, wealth, and all that sort of thing? So the thinking of investment in a kind of negative way, right? Investing in the bad today, and pushing away any discussion of a better future. 

I’d be interested, by way of kind of closing out our conversation, Saule, which has been wonderful, in anticipating that I’ll play this or share this conversation with students in the future, I’ve had, through discussions, and I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience, and Scott probably has as well, you’re talking to students, and you’re doing the thick description of the financial picture: here’s how money works. And you see a light go on, or something snaps or clicks or ticks or whatever. And then you talk about what that permits, that fuller picture, as you have done so eloquently and thoroughly. And then the savvy student, or the savvy person you’re talking to says: “Yeah, but that’ll never work.” 

So there’s a cynicism or a pragmatism, maybe both, that kicks in at that point where it’s like, well, if this is the case, why haven’t we been doing this the entire time. And it reintroduces that question of power and investment in the status quo. So what would you or could you sort of share with us? And maybe provide me with a good way to answer that question? I don’t think I’ve come up with one. How do you reckon with the apparent, cultivated ignorance or resistance to acknowledging how things really are and then there by refusing to have conversations about what a better world we could have, if only we recognized it that way?

Saule Omarova:  Right. Well, that is, to me, a much harder question than a question about designing a potential mechanism, for example, for achieving this or that goal. And it’s a hard question for a number of reasons. And some of it is maybe personal to me, because I’m not that good with blame assignments. It’s my temperament. At the moment when I’m asked, Can we affirmatively say it is your fault for affirmatively basically reproducing the bad thing? It’s not that I don’t think there are situations when such a statement is warranted. 

There are situations like that. It’s just I don’t know how far it gets us in a way because by highlighting the specific political choices of certain entities or certain individuals, where on the other hand, doing a very important job of pinpointing the fact that this is a choice. So by not making a particular choice, the good choice, you are effectively de facto making a bad choice. 

But then I think about sort of it from my personal experience, about the fact that I grew up in the former Soviet Union, at the very end of the Soviet Empire’s lifespan. Sometimes it is difficult to imagine the possibility of change or resistance that is not futile. Because the existing system is so entrenched and so powerful, and so oppressive in many ways, that when you look at it, and even if you are in a position, for example, to take a stance on a particular issue, or at a particular level, sometimes it just seems that there is no way things could possibly change. 

Right now, when I think about the political obstacles to even having a serious conversation about these issues, let alone actually enacting the reform of any kind along those lines, I do feel that kind of despair. And it makes me feel powerless, let’s just admit to it. And in that moment, it’s very easy just on a personal level, for every individual who is part of an institution of whatever kind, even if you want that change to happen, it’s very easy to sort of feel like all it will do is kill me. It will not save it. So that’s sort of like a personal kind of thing.

 When people are in certain positions of power, and their voice actually matters, definitely the responsibility on them to act in the interest of the public is immeasurably higher than the responsibility of any other individual in any other position. Right? Maybe there is that stronger case for basically saying to the central bankers that because you’re pretending this conversation isn’t happening, you are effectively enabling really bad things to continue. So 20-50 years from now, don’t you dare hide behind some kind of excuses, like, Who would have thunk that this would happen, right? And write your memoirs about how you were thinking about all of these things, but nobody could ever really imagine? Because here we are, we are imagining. So it is your job to give us the time that we deserve in terms of listening to our arguments and engaging with us, rather than pretending we don’t exist. 

So yes. But ultimately, you know, what, Billy? Look, the Soviet Union fell apart. And nobody, nobody could have predicted it would happen this particular way, in this particular timeframe. And people were taken aback, even though everybody, everybody in that country knew that this was not a system that was going to last. But at the same time, nobody could imagine the specific mechanism and moment in which the Colossus will fall. So I’m thinking that politics is fickle. Right now, it seems to us the way central bankers are, the way the politics is, the way people think about these things, is so entrenched that there is no way that we can shift anybody’s view in the immediate term. People are just sort of so selfishly stuck in that mode of thinking, and because of the political economy and the lobbying and the corruption and whatnot, because of these various reasons. Those who could make change will never make that change. That may seem to us as the only possible reality. And 10 years from now, we could find ourselves in an entirely different situation. 

This is why I try to focus not on pushing this narrative of, “if you’re not with us, you’re against us,” but rather conserving my limited mental capacity for trying to really engage with a ton of actual substantive design issues, because there are so many open questions. Even in that People’s Ledger scheme that I briefly described, there is a ton of problems that need to be addressed: privacy of CBDC, and how to actually insulate this particular institution from the corrupting influence of new kinds of political economy forces that will inhibit new types of vested interests that might emerge, and so on, so forth. These are the issues I want to engage with. So I’m sorry if it’s really a convoluted and unsatisfactory answer. But there it is.

Billy Saas:  There it is. You’re not alone and keep fighting and stay positive. Sounds like a one way to distill that.

Scott Ferguson:  One of the ways that doing critical work and doing and contributing is not necessarily always in the most direct way, but it is contributing to the conditions of legibility, right, and helping to make the debate and what is legible shift around the powerful actors, rather than necessarily…Sometimes it’s important to go after the powerful actors and to put their feet to the fire. And, of course, this podcast is called Money On The Left, and we’re all for that. But I also think that we’re committed, like you, to a long game, that is about a politics of pedagogy, a politics of shifting how we even approach problems in the first place, and what the conditions of possibility for doing so really are.

Saule Omarova:  That’s absolutely right. And I completely agree. You put it so much better than I could. It is very, very true. And I don’t mean to dismiss the progress that we all collectively have already made. Just a few years ago, some of these notions and ideas were absolutely nowhere to be found in the discourse outside of a very, very small circle of nerdy people. And now, the mainstream press, even, here and there talks about certain things and mentions certain things. For me personally, I consider a huge achievement already for me, the fact that the NIA, the National Investment Authority, even that term now is in circulation! In 2020, when the pandemic hit, nobody but a few academics in the FinReg world even heard of that term. So you know, we’ll take it one step at a time. At some point we might actually get to the change we all need.

Billy Saas:  Saule Omarova, thank you so much for joining us on Money On The Left, it’s been a pleasure.

Saule Omarova:  Thank you so much.

Scott Ferguson:  All right. Yeah. Thanks. You did great. I didn’t hear your allergies but yeah, now you need to get a coffee and decompress.

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

Job Guarantee as Historical Struggle with David Stein (NEW TRANSCRIPT!)

We are excited to rerelease our inaugural episode of Money on the Left alongside a brand new transcript.

Conversation originally published on May 27, 2018

Money on the Left is the official podcast of Modern Money Network: Humanities Division (@moneyontheleft).

In our inaugural episode, we consider the recent resurgence of full employment politics in the United States from both a political and historical perspective with historian David Stein (@davidpstein). Stein is currently a fellow at UCLA’s Luskin Center for History and Policy and a lecturer in the departments of History and African American Studies. Check out his recent article in Jacobin: David Stein, “Full Employment and Freedom.”

Intro music by Hillbilly Motobike.


The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Billy Saas:  Hello, you’re listening to Money on the Left, the official podcast of the Modern Money Network Humanities Division. I’m Billy Saas. 

Scott Ferguson:  I’m Scott Ferguson.

Billy Saas:  And we are co-directors of the Modern Money Network Humanities Division or MMNHD.

Scott Ferguson:  MMNHD is a big tent organization for scholars, social critics, and political activists dedicated to recovering and redeeming the cultural and political aspects of modern money, past and present. We do this primarily from a humanities perspective. But we welcome participation from anyone interested in engaging with the School of political economy, known variously as Neochartalism, or Modern Money Theory. MMT for short.

Billy Saas:  So from our perspective, what’s so transformative about MMT is that it turns conventional political economy on its head. Rather than figure money as a politically neutral commodity invented a long time ago by some particularly clever traders in some remote marketplace, MMT shows that money is always in everywhere a boundless public utility, as well as a deliberate political, cultural, and ecological project.

Scott Ferguson:  In doing so, MMT makes so much more thinkable and possible than liberal modernity’s austerity-driven imagination has historically permitted. It not only expands how money can contribute to collective flourishing, it also reorients how we conceive of cause and effect, as well as how we research and write history. In this podcast, we want to develop and complicate the Neochartalist imagination, on and for the left.

Billy Saas:  A key way that Neochartalism reframes money’s history concerns the question and politics of employment. While the hegemonic liberal paradigm treats employment as a function of private hiring and firing. Neochartalism understands employment as a thoroughly political decision. The liberal variation permits modest government assistance and makes unemployment inevitable. But MMT insists that employment is first and foremost a policy choice. And that full, inclusive, and ecologically responsible employment is always affordable.

Scott Ferguson:  In terms of format, the Money on the Left Podcast plans to feature conversations scholarly and political, close readings of texts, interviews, and occasionally some fresh hot takes on current events. In this, our first episode, we invited historian David Stein to help us make sense of the recent resurgence of full employment legislation and debate in the United States. David is currently a fellow at UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy, and a lecturer in the Department of History and African American Studies. His first book will be published in 2019 by University of North Carolina Press. Its title, Fearing Inflation, Inflating Fears: The Civil Rights Struggle for Full Employment and the Rise of the Carceral State 1929 to 1986. With Betsy Beasley, he co-hosts Who Makes Cents, a history of capitalism podcast, which we chat with him about at the end of the interview.

Billy Saas:  We asked David for some historical perspective on the proposals for a jobs guarantee put forward recently by Senators Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker, who each seem ready to make the JG a critical plank of their 2020 presidential campaigns. Lots of us in the MMT world are thrilled to see the JG taken up by the front runners for the Democratic nomination. But some others on the left, many of whom have never challenged the liberal money story, worry that the jobs guarantee is alternately pie in the sky progressivism, or just another route to Workfare. As you’ll hear, David puts both the historical fight for full employment and these left critiques in a broader historical context. We were joined in our conversation with David by Max Seijo, a graduate student in Film and Media Studies at University of South Florida. Without further ado, here’s our conversation with David:  You’ve done fantastic work documenting the history of full employment movements in the United States. How exciting have these last couple of weeks been for you? What has excited you most? 

David Stein:  Thank you for having me. It’s been thrilling to see the reemergence of full employment and guaranteed jobs to its place of prominence within the dominant agenda of the Democratic Party. It is a demand that has a long history within the Democratic Party from the 1940s through through the 1980s but really fell out of the Democratic Party’s platform in the 1980s and grew weaker in the platform in 1984 and 1988. I know a number of activists who really fought to get it back into the party’s platform in 2016, so that in and of itself was really exciting. I think to see Senators Gillibrand, and Senator Sanders and Senator Booker all come out in support of various versions of guaranteed jobs has really pushed it to the front of our political agenda. And I think it really can reopen our imaginations about what’s possible. I think that’s really exciting and the idea that this is going to be a durable kind of conversation over the next few years, to me is completely a reorientation of where we were just a few years ago. I started writing this project, this book that I’m in the process of finishing, back in the years after the 2008 recession. I was puzzled as to why guaranteed jobs weren’t emerging as a key solution to the unemployment crisis that so many people were facing. So to see it now, a decade later, after years of inadequate recovery, in terms of how the recovery has been experienced in everyday people’s lives, to me is a real exciting moment and testament to a lot of activism that a lot of people have been doing over this past decade.

Billy Saas:  Yeah, it’s interesting that this conversation is starting back up 10 years after the worst of the financial crisis. What do you think it is? What had to go away or what had to happen in order for this conversation to be happening now, do you think?

David Stein:  I think there’s a combination of a number of factors. One, I think the completely inadequate recovery of government jobs at the state and municipal level, which we’ve now seen over recent weeks, also with all the teacher strikes happening, I think that’s part of that inadequate recovery over the past decade. I haven’t seen the recent stats, but I know a little while ago, it was something like a million jobs were lost in state and municipalities that have just never returned. Those of us who are in academia, we really have seen this very clearly. That’s one element. I think another element is the 2016 election. Just like after the 1972 election, the Democratic Party believed that they had moved too far left in that election and began reorienting towards the right, and especially after the 1980 election. I think the 2016 election, alongside the immense energy that was posed that met the Sanders campaign. I think that’s propelled some of these conversations. I also think just the tremendous amount of grassroots activism has really propelled this conversation. And then I think, at the Federal Reserve level, or at the level, policy wonk conversations around inflation, the inadequate wage gains that have been made by workers, even amidst relatively low unemployment rates over the past few years, has really posed questions about the extent to which the Phillips Curve and ideas like that continue to hold purchase. I believe it was Daniel Tarullo, a key powerful actor within the Federal Reserve System now retired, who gave a talk at Brookings a few months ago saying “the Federal Reserve has no coherent theory of inflation.” Whereas inflationary fears really stifled the efforts to legislatively win guaranteed jobs over decades. So I think all of those factors have contributed.

Scott Ferguson:  So on this podcast, we’re really interested in the humanities and what the humanities can bring to the study of Political Economy and specifically through a new charter list lens. Much of this story in the way it’s playing out now and the big actors are politicians, economists, as you said, policy wonks, certainly organizers and activists of various stripes. But clearly there’s a place and a role for us humanists, right? You in particular, you’re not just studying what’s going on, you’re participating in your own way. Whether it’s with Fed Up, or, or just on Twitter. And I’m curious if you can speak to your own role in how this is playing out, and how the study of history and maybe the humanities approach, more generally, is important for this fight?

David Stein:  I think there’s a few different answers to that question. One of them is, I’m glad you asked this early on, because I think if anyone tunes out or later, I think I have two key lessons that I would say are really important going forward. The first one is that: if we think about how this was a key goal of the civil rights movement–one of the most powerful social movements I know of ever to exist, that broke the US apartheid system–that that movement was not strong enough to fully achieve a governmental jobs guarantee. I think if history provides a guide for us, it’s that our movements may, or will, need to be stronger than that, which I think is a really, really daunting task and a humbling task. But I also think from having studied social movements, that an appropriate power analysis is a key starting point for any struggle. So I think that’s one lesson and think the other key lesson is that in the post 1948 era or so, I can think of about a four year span, when winning these sorts of proposals could have been possible had the movements been strong enough. That’s the years 1964 to 1966, and 1976, to 1978. You can make an argument that had the movements appeared in 2008 to 2010, that they might have been legislatively possible. The movements were not anywhere there during 2008 to 2010. What that lesson shows us is that these openings can appear quickly, and they can disappear just as quickly, and we don’t know when they’re going to return again. So I think it’s really vital, back to the first question about one of the things I’ve been most excited about right now, is that I think and I hope we’re preparing for that opening that might occur between 2020 and 2022. I think that we need to be ready when that opening appears because we don’t know when it’s going to appear again. Those to me are the two key lessons that history teaches us. The third and sort of subsidiary to those two, and this more goes against some of the articles and essays that I’ve been reading that are a bit ignorant of the history of this demand that portray it as a demand so far out of left field or so incompatible with US history and US policy history is to assert that in the key reason that we don’t have this already, or at least it wasn’t achieved in 1945. We don’t know what would have happened after that. We can’t jump too far back into the counterfactuals. But the key reason this wasn’t achieved in 1945 was because of Jim Crow. And because of the role of Jim Crow power in Congress and to a certain extent it’s a similar story in the 1960s. One key reason why demands for full employment and job guarantees weren’t included in the war on poverty was because Johnson knew they could never get through Wilbur Mills’s House Ways and Means Committee. Wilbur Mills was considered at the time to be one of the most powerful members of Congress if not the most powerful member of Congress. Well, where did Wilbur Mills come from? He was the longtime congressman from Arkansas, from a Jim Crow district. So his power was very much linked with the kind of daily life of a Jim Crow society, and of course, when we look at all these key Dixiecrat congressmen, most of them don’t leave Congress by way of democracy. They leave Congress, in Mills’s case, via scandal and disgrace. In many other people’s cases, via death. They didn’t leave Congress until the 2000s, some in the 90s, some of the 80s. It’s not like the Voting Rights Act passes, and these congressmen and I say men specifically. And these congressmen didn’t just pack up their briefcases to go home in 1965. They continue to win election after election. Knowing that history can also show that although job guarantee movements were never ever to achieve those goals legislatively. It wasn’t because they weren’t a dominant moral value, I think guaranteed jobs, full employment was a dominant moral value from the 1940s through the 1970s. But they were never able to push those Dixiecrat congressmen out of their positions of power in order to win legislatively.  

Scott Ferguson:  So a follow up to that. Let’s say skeptics will often point to Michal Kalecki’s now famous article, “The Political Aspects of Full Employment”. They presume that his argument is that sure this is monetarily, economically possible, but it may not be and probably isn’t politically possible. My response to this is always, well, let’s be historical about this, right? I mean, Kalecki was engaging and wrestling with this question at a very particular juncture, when we were in a post war context, the question of full employment was haunting everybody. Very different groups were weighing in, had different visions for what this might look like, how possible it was going to be or not be. I guess my question to you, David, is, if the political aspects and or obstacles to full employment are historical, what do you see today? What are the historical conditions which may facilitate this movement and may block it?

David Stein:  It’s a really good question. Well, I think to me, one of the biggest lessons of history is that one is forced to confront with immense humility what is possible in a given moment, and how few people have any sense of what is both optimistically and pessimistically. One of the lessons that I really try to teach my students is a lesson that the scholar George Lipsitz writes about, and that his writing has taught to me. He says: very few people in 1859, very few abolitionists could have known that their decades of effort, the self activity of enslaved people, the resistance of running away, of breaking one’s hoes, all sorts of things like that. That those would see their expression in the self activity of enslaved people amidst the Civil War, and that enslavement would be abolished, never to return in the United States. Very few people could have envisioned that in 1859. To me, one of the things I’ve been inspired by in my writing about full employment movements is that I tried to write as if these movements could and would reemerge. And the second they achieved their goals, suddenly, the entire history of struggling for these goals would look different. That right this second, you can look at the history of struggles for full employment and say: it’s been 80 years of failure. The second that that changes, that history appears differently. The second guaranteed jobs appear, it’s like, wow, it took eighty years of robust activism to achieve this goal. And I’ve tried to write with that day in mind. I’ve thought about it alongside other activists. In the weeks after the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin, the lead organizer of the March on Washington is giving a speech, and he says things like, “we’re losing the fight my friends,” he says, “we’re losing quickly, where are we winning?” He’s very frustrated at that moment. After three decades of activism, he doesn’t know what historians know, which is that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is right on the horizon, then the Voting Rights Act is right on the horizon. And so in the weeks after the March on Washington, he doesn’t feel this tremendous swelling of success, because he doesn’t know what’s on the horizon. We don’t know what’s possible, so for those who are writing, “full employment is so difficult because of x, y, z problem or x, y, z thing.” I tell one person writing, “what about the Fed?” It’s like, okay, yeah, that’s a key issue that Coretta Scott King really, really cared about. To me, it’s really important to ask that question, but not in a way that’s about saying it’s impossible and throwing up hands, but to say, yeah, the Fed, which is an institution that is created by Congress, it’s relative autonomy, its independence is institutionalized in congressional legislation. So that would need to be addressed in any legislation, how the Fed would need to adhere itself to an employment mandate, to a federal employment mandate for all, at least so far as the US continues to have a capitalist democracy. I think those are elements to struggle over and to work out and to be aware of in the writing of the policy, but they’re not reasons to not struggle for it.

Maxx Seijo:  You brought up Coretta Scott King already. I was wondering if you could talk about the relationship between her lifelong activism and this current movement and maybe dig in a little bit into the details as to the things you were linking to your last comment about the Fed and things like that.

David Stein:  Yeah. So you mentioned in an earlier question about the Fed Up campaign. A few months ago or maybe almost a year ago, I co-wrote a report with the economist Dean Baker on behalf of an in collaboration with the Center for Popular Democracy is Fed Up campaign which has worked really hard to get the Federal Reserve to be more accountable to everyday people whose lives are impacted every day by the interest rates they pay on their credit card bills or student loans, or car payments, as well as the general level of the economy. Coretta Scott King was the founder, she co-founded and led this group called the Full Employment Action Council and the National Committee for Full Employment and they were kind of parallel organizations that were slightly separated for tax purposes. She co lead that organization, that coalition, starting in 1974, and the goal was to achieve guaranteed jobs legislation. She was well aware, as anyone was in the 1970s, that the high interest rate policies of the Fed and how the Fed needed to adhere to its employment mandate. There’s debate from scholars about where the employment mandate comes from. I found recent evidence that it does indeed go back to the 1946 Employment Act. But the Fed didn’t abide by that employment mandate as strongly as they might have to say the least. It was for that reason that many scholars traced the employment mandate to the 1977 Federal Reserve Reform Act and the 1978 Humphrey Hawkins Act, of which Coretta Scott King was the key activist and her organization were the key activists promoting the 1978 Humphrey Hawkins Act, which had been around and been drafted throughout the mid 1970s. They knew that in order to achieve guaranteed jobs and full employment, they needed the Fed to accede to those goals. Dean Baker and I wrote this report in a sense trying to remember this history of the Fed’s employment mandate, and promote the goal of the Fed keeping interest rates low, continuing to facilitate economic recovery, and continuing to adhere to the law. If people know of the 1978 full employment Humphrey Hawkins Act at all, it’s because when the Fed comes to Congress twice a year, it’s called the Humphrey Hawkins testimony. This was one of the acts that Coretta Scott King and legislators Augustus Hawkins and Hubert Humphrey tried to create in order to ensure that the Fed would be accountable to those who are democratically elected to Congress. The reason that’s really important is because prior to that, in the 1970s, you had a leading economist with the Joint Economic Committee saying they couldn’t even get basic data from the Fed at the time. The Fed was acting as if it was completely autonomous, that their independence was completely autonomous from Congress. This legislation was the attempt to get the Fed to be more accountable to Congress, and thus, more accountable to the people of the United States, who are impacted by their policies. In order to fight for that legislation, there’s all sorts of exciting stories that I can tell you about. I think the 1977 Full Employment Action Week is really inspiring, where 1.5 million people took all sorts of actions in order to protest and propel the legislation. There were parades in Erie, Pennsylvania, with 40,000 people attending, things of that sort that I think are really on a scale of activism that is quite significant. Augustus Hawkins said it was the most amazing activism he’d seen since the March on Washington of 1963. That can give our audience a sense of just how powerful this effort was.

Maxx Seijo:  Coretta Scott King argues that we’ve never really dealt honestly with the question of a peacetime economy. And this is something that I’ve spent a little bit of time thinking about in relation to the kind of full employment debates of today. And I was wondering what you thought about the relationship between World War Two and the mobilization and the job guarantee debates and her activism and kind of how those all go together in this history, especially as you say, if we’re to really succeed now and really actualize this history for our present moment. We need to understand the way these certain strains of contestation interact with full employment and the war itself. So I was wondering if you had any thoughts about that?

David Stein:  Yeah. So I think this is also really important for thinking about some of the contemporary critiques of full employment and guaranteed jobs. The people who say: “Oh, it’s too hard! Administratively, how would it work? It’s just way too complicated.” When we think back to the generation that Coretta Scott King was a part of: she was born in 1927, she lived through the Great Depression, she saw World War Two. They saw just a complete reorientation of the scale and scope of what the federal government could do, and that enliven their imaginations about what was possible, and gave them confidence to call for these sorts of bold demands. I was thinking, while you were asking your question, of a quote from William Lucey, who was the leader, and co founder of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists in the early 1970s. This was a group, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, which, as far as I’m aware, no group has continually promote full employment guaranteed jobs as long as this group has. So to the extent that people remember full employment, I stumbled on an article, that was a fairly good article, but that was like, Why Full Employment Is Back From The Dead, something along those headlines. I was like, well, it never died, and the reason it never died was because of people like Bill Lucy and people in the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, as well as you all are well aware of the Post Keynesian economic tradition. Bill Lucy has this quote in the early 1970s, amidst these full employment movements, this is in 1975. He says, “In the wartime, when they gear up the war machine, everybody fits into a slot. They make welders out of laborers and pipefitters out of farmers.” So for him, he’d seen that experience, and so he then said, “This is why the federal government should now employ people in transportation, construction, and health services, and environmental work.” So they were thinking dialectically, if you will, to say the military industrial complex and the World War Two efforts showed them what was politically and economically possible. But as dedicated peace activists, like Coretta Scott King was, like her husband was and like many others, they said: well, why don’t we reorient this spending and this energy towards social needs that really fulfill human human lives. I think that’s a key element. They had also just seen, we need to remember, this is amidst the Vietnam War and the years after the Vietnam War, depending. Scott King’s activism continued after the Vietnam War. For her, she saw, okay, we have this economy that’s so tied into militarism, that has helped propel this war effort. And so as an anti war activist, she was like, okay, well, we need an economy that’s geared towards peace and an economy that’s geared towards social needs. As she puts it, she says, “We’re going to have to create meaningful jobs, jobs that serve human needs. As long as there are people, you are going to have certain health care needs, education needs, things that will make for a better quality of living.” So this is what she believed in. She also believed that, she says, “jobs that go beyond the profit making motive.” Thinking a lot about what the job guarantee could do to decarbonize our environment, to clean up the environment, of course, to end the water poisoning of an entire city. We’ve just accepted that the Flint water crisis is going to continue indefinitely and I’m struggling for words to describe how we wake up every day, and we just allow that to continue. 

Scott Ferguson:  There’s such a disconnect between this pervasive feeling and discourse around crisis and around needs, right? We know the many, many things that we need to address. Then, when we get to some of the job guarantee rhetoric in the job guarantee debate, especially this last week, and suddenly those needs go away. Suddenly, everything is good enough. Suddenly, well, oh the private sector will take care of it. I wanted to bring up something that David, you and I have talked about in the past. I know you’re not principally an aesthetic theorist or a student of visual culture, principally. But I’m curious to have you speak to the aesthetics and visual culture around various moments of full employment, struggles, campaigns, fights. And it seems to me that questions of certainly race, if not also gender, and sexuality and of course class play a part in this. One of the things that I’ve been extremely frustrated by in contemporary discourse around just employment, especially around national elections, like pre job guarantee debates that have been happening very recently, where we can only imagine jobs, or employment politics through the image of a kind of Nixon hard hat. Like, a white guy who’s gonna do some tough infrastructure jobs. Sure, we want plenty of those. But there’s a whole diverse world out there. And I’m curious, if just in your research, maybe even anecdotally, could you reflect on just the aesthetics of full employment politics in the past?

David Stein:  Yeah. Well, I think there’s a few things that I’d say to that. I think one, like you’ve suggested, we need to reorient our conception of work. There’s all these conversations about the future of work, but there’s a group of people at the Bureau of Labor Statistics who, at least among a lot of the kind of big headline conversations about the future of work, the Bureau of Labor Statistics folks don’t seem to be really consulted on. I just pulled it up on my computer, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts out the fastest growing occupations outlook every few years. If you look at it, I think it’s quite indicative and quite important, and can reorient our ideas around what this looks like. So the number one fastest growing occupation, says BLS, is solar panel installers, then wind turbine service technicians, then home health care aides, then personal care aides, then physician’s assistants, then nurse practitioners, right. So that’s what the future of work, at least according to BLS, looks like. If we think about especially the care work of home health care aides, personal care aides, physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners, these are jobs that historically have been done by women of color, by Black women. To the extent that things like home health care aides, to the extent that those jobs are low paid right now, according to BLS, the median pay for home health care aides and personal care aides is $27,000 per year. Anyone who knows anything about those jobs knows that those are incredibly difficult jobs, incredibly skilled jobs, and jobs that require tremendous amounts of compassion, of energy, of physical hard work of lifting, making beds, doing so many different tasks. So if we asked, why aren’t these jobs paid $100,000 a year? Why aren’t they compensated commensurate to the skill that one sees in those jobs? Well, a big part of that goes back to the history of racism and the history of patriarchy in this country. When I think about what the future of work could look like, or does look like, I think about home health care aides, and how they can be compensated in ways commensurate with how difficult those jobs are, and also with how important those jobs are to dignified life for elderly people and all other people who those home health aides and personal care aides are helping with their daily lives to lead fulfilling, dignified life. And then I think there’s all sorts of other questions. If we think back to aesthetics, and the WPA, and art, I was just speaking with a friend of mine, who I think is a really brilliant, inspiring artist, Evan Bissell, who’s out of the Bay Area, who did a really extraordinary project a few years ago around around the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, as well as a number of other real community engaged art projects. Evan also is an urban planner, so he’s done a lot of work around community art to talk about the housing crisis and things of that nature. I just think about how many other artists are out there doing work like Evans, that is not necessarily going to be compensated by the market? There’s not a strong market for creating beautiful murals that educate a community about their rent control rights, which is the kind of work that Evan does. He did a project with the Morris Justice Project out of the City University in New York, to organize against broken windows policing in New York. He painted these beautiful pictures in collaboration with members of the local community that say “we are not broken windows” that showed what the community actually looked like. I think there’s not a strong market for that type of work. I always ask what images of beauty and safety can be proliferated with a job guarantee. Of course, as I mentioned a minute ago, if we go back to the WPA, you had people writing plays, the Federal Theater Project. You also had murals, you also had art workers, you had people writing guidebooks to their cities, people like Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright. There’s so much that people could be doing, work that the market has not necessarily chosen to compensate.

Billy Saas:  What’s been exciting about this week, like watching how people are talking about the job guarantee, is to sort of notice the kind of arguments that have fallen off, that were active for the last 30 years, specifically around the pay for question and the idea of fiscal responsibility and the fiscal constraints, and that’s too ambitious, you’re going to take our taxpayer money, and all those sorts of things. That seems to have taken a backseat if not disappeared. But we have, at the same time, these other kinds of rhetorical currents or obstacles that are rising up as we talk about full employment in a real sense and a federal jobs guarantee. So the rhetoric of Workfare is circulating now, and as this is happening, and thinking about these new rhetorical obstacles that might take the place or take precedent over the fiscal responsibility talk. I wonder if you might say a little bit about the sort of rhetorical currents and arguments that were used between 64 and 66, and 76 and 78 when you say that these movements were most possible. What were the arguments then? What were the big rhetorical obstacles put in front of Coretta Scott King and others like Bayard Rustin and Leon Keyserling, the freedom budget. What were people saying then?

David Stein:  Firstly, I’ve been, frankly, a bit mystified, by the claim that this would be Workfare in the sense that every single person who I know who has fought for guaranteed jobs over the past 80 years, it was always about expanding the social welfare state, through social movement organizing. Like most activists, they thought dialectically. So they thought, okay, we win something, and then we continue working on it. It’s not like we win a goal, and then we go home and retire. It’s always about winning something usually. For these activists, they demanded 10 things, and they won three of them. And then they took that list of seven things, they didn’t win and continued working on it. So for them, the job guarantee was never was never the end of the road. It was always okay, well, now, how does that reorient the political landscape? And now how do we keep working towards greater degrees of justice and equality for all people. The other thing is that, for these activists, a job guarantee wasn’t the only thing they were fighting for, it was one of many. For them, a job guarantee wasn’t about reducing the social welfare state that currently existed in any way. It was about expanding it, as I said a minute ago. In the 1960s, there were various ways in which the full employment campaigns did and did not work in synchronicity with the Welfare Rights Movement. Some of which had to do with assumptions about male breadwinner ideas and male work, some of which had to do with a number of other things that are a bit more idiosyncratic. But then there’s also elements to where, and this won’t surprise anyone who’s involved in contemporary activism, or who has ever been in contemporary activism was that, at least in Seattle, and I haven’t been able to explore this more thoroughly in other locales, but at least in Seattle, the people who are meeting around guaranteed jobs and full employment on say, Wednesday night, were then meeting and organizing around welfare rights on say, Thursday night and or Friday night. They were like, these organizations are going to be formally separate. They weren’t collapsing them. And, of course, no political formation fought against the nascent system of Workfare more than the National Welfare Rights Organization in the mid to late 1960s. And Coretta Scott King was a strong supporter of the national rights organization and their support of a guaranteed annual income for all which, of course, is different from a universal basic income. They’ve kind of collapsed historically in recent years but I’ve seen some collapse but that’s very different from what Martin Luther King or Coretta Scott King or what the National Welfare Rights Organization was fighting for. They were promoting a guaranteed annual income for everyone who was unable to work for whatever reason due to care work responsibilities, and they were fighting for dignity for all people. Whether through a job or through or through guaranteed annual income, it wasn’t a universal basic income that would apply to everyone. All that’s to say that the claim that adding a federal jobs guarantee to our otherwise existing welfare state that that would somehow be Workfare has, I find it, as I said, a bit mystifying. It doesn’t. There’s not one significant supporter of guaranteed jobs that I can think of in the past 80 years who would have endorsed that type of proposal, and I can’t imagine very many people, if any, would endorse that kind of proposal today. I mentioned Wilbur Mills earlier, the congressman from Arkansas, he was one of the chief proponents of the Work Incentive Program and the types of early Workfare that was created in the 1960s that the National Welfare Rights Organization and the Poor People’s Campaign and Coretta Scott King were fighting against during that era. So not only is the charge that job guarantee advocates would create Workfare inaccurate. In point of fact, job guarantee advocates and guaranteed annual income activists fought against the nascent system of Workfare in the 1960s. Back to your question about what some of the arguments against full employment were in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1960s, a lot of the arguments were about upsetting the balance of payments problems that were going on during that period. And by the 1970s, the key arguments against it were that it would be inflationary. 

Billy Saas:  Would it be inflationary?

David Stein:  To be honest, I’m probably not the best person to answer that. As a historian, I think there’s reasons to think it might. I think, to paraphrase Coretta Scott King, the unemployed are not pawns to be sacrificed in some economic chess game. So the cost of a bit of inflation is, the human cost is the immense unemployment that hits transgender workers, formerly imprisoned people, Black people, Latino people, the worst. If that’s the acceptable cost of stabilizing the economy, then I think we really need to pose critical questions about that, and who those policies serve and who they don’t. As Daniel Tarullo said, as I mentioned, the Fed and most economists don’t have a coherent theory of inflation. That’s where I’m like: well, I trust Daniel Tarullo. He knows more about it than I do. And so if he says that the Fed doesn’t have a coherent theory of inflation, I don’t see how and why you can continue to go along sacrificing such human capacities in human beings lives to this idea that it would be inflationary when people like him are not even sure that this idea has any purchase any longer.

Billy Saas:  That definition of full employment was one of the things that Coretta Scott King pushed back on, and you’ve written about this, defining it as 5% unemployment doesn’t quite make sense. So zero involuntary unemployment being the preferred definition of full employment for Coretta Scott King. Have you seen people bringing up that discussion of the rhetorical aspects of full employment recently around these jobs guarantee proposals?

David Stein:  I’ve seen a bit of it. I haven’t seen a ton. My colleague, the economist Mark Paul and I have been talking about maybe writing something–Now that I’ve said that out loud to you all, maybe we actually have to write it–that traces that. And that was a consistent ideological struggle during this period was the definition of full employment. As the idea of the non accelerating inflation rate of unemployment takes hold, the idea of the NAIRU takes hold, people keep saying, full employment equals, like you said, 4% 5% 6%, and so forth, which really contrasted to what full employment meant, say in the 1940s when it came a popular concept as William Beveridge, who really helped popularize the concept says in his book. He says, full employment means jobs at decent wages where people are located, that there should always be more vacant jobs than, he says, unemployed men. I think we would think that concept be excised of the “man” in that sentence today, but I think that definition is really important. To see how that was what it meant in the 1940s, and what is being struggled over in the 1970s, is the definition of it. The definition we’ve inherited is one that was antagonistic to what Beveridge and many others proposed. And we can even see that if you read the congressional debates over the 1945 Full Employment Bill, you can see that definition being struggled over and you have leaders of the National Association of Manufacturers arguing for the definition that many people currently have of it today that it’s whatever percentage economic policymakers deem appropriate in order to stabilize the inflation, right? That’s obviously not the Civil Rights tradition of what full employment means.

Billy Saas:  It strikes me as one of those phrases or terms that has gotten the historical privilege of not having to be defined. And when I talk to students about, or I ask them about, what is full employment? The first thing that comes to mind is not 5% unemployment, it is everybody has a job. What might be salutary about this current resurgence of jobs guarantee talk is a real politicization of that idea of what counts as full employment. Sorry, please write that essay.

Maxx Seijo:  I wanted to shift gears a little bit to the more contemporary and think about the relationship to the history that you’ve discussed, and the fight for full employment, and also kind of a step beyond that to the contemporary Black struggle, specifically in the rise of Black Lives Matter over the last decade, and how your history and what the questions that you’re thinking about in your book can inform the movement today, and the fight for racial justice today, and how that coincides with the job guarantee?

David Stein: I mentioned the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, they’ve continued to promote a job guarantee for decades. In other new formations alongside the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement groups, like the Black Youth Project 100, have also called for a job guarantee. The way I see it is that the broad Black freedom movements have had the longest tradition fighting for guaranteed jobs for all, and a lot of it comes through the moral values of people over profit, that human beings lives are more important than the profit motive, and more important than profit, which is a durable, moral value across Black freedom movements. The other way I think about it is I think there’s multiple streams of welfare state traditions. I’ve been thinking about this as I develop my dissertation, in collaboration with one of my advisors and mentors, and now friends, the historian Robin DG Kelley. One thing that he and I talked about, and that I really learned from him, is that while many people trace the welfare state tradition to Germany and Otto von Bismarck, there was also as I’ve written a contemporaneous Black radical tradition of welfare state struggle during Reconstruction. W.E.B. Du Bois called this tradition “abolition democracy”, which was the focus on creating new democratic institutions in order to provide safety and social provision for all people, while also seeking to eradicate institutions of racial violence and any vestige of enslavement. There needed to be both a negative abolition of enslavement and a positive abolition, the creation of these new institutions. I see the kind of moral values of abolition democracy that in the 1870s might have expressed themselves as calls for things like land access for the formerly enslaved. In the 1940s and after, I think we really see those expressing themselves or articulating themselves as calls for a job guarantee, within Black freedom movements. I think we see that tradition continue through today. It’s also part of the radical humanism of Black freedom movements, that’s a consistent force throughout their history. I’ve been teaching a course on women in the Black Freedom Movement for the past few weeks and this quarter, we just finished reading Ella Baker’s biography, by Professor Barbara Ransby. One thing Professor Ransby notes is that, for Baker, she secularized her childhood social values in the black Baptist tradition, and expressed them throughout her life in the form of radical humanism, calls for job guarantees and economic justice for all. We can see the expression of those types of social and moral values throughout the Black Freedom Movement in different forms from reconstruction, through today.

Scott Ferguson:  Well, I was thinking, perhaps to conclude what has been a really rich dialogue, we could get you to talk a little bit about plugging your podcast.

David Stein:  So I host a monthly podcast called Who Makes Cents, a history of capitalism podcast. Cents is spelled C-E-N-T-S. And you can find us on whomakescentspodcast.com I produce and co-hosted with my colleague, Betsy Beasley. We talk about some of these issues. I do a lot less talking on that show. Folks who are listening to this show might be interested in a number of our episodes. We have an episode with Sandy Brian Hager on public debt and inequality that harmonizes with Modern Monetary Theory post Keynesian tradition. We also have great episodes with LaShawn Harris on the history of Black women in the informal economy. We have, you know, an episode with Geoff Mann on what he describes as a Keynesian sensibility. Also an important episode with Kim Phillips-Fein on the fiscal crisis in New York in the 1970s and the rise of austerity politics. One more episode folks might be interested in is an episode with the scholar Mehrsa Baradaran on banking for lower income Americans and she talks a bit about some of her ideas about postal banking, and things like that. And then lastly, I’d just say one more thing. I know I’ve given you a lot, but folks might be interested in our episode with Sarah Jaffe on social movements since the 2008 recession. Sarah Jaffe is a really important journalist who did a really important interview with activist Ady Barkan about the jobs guarantee and how it’s coming in this moment of resurgence. So Sarah’s episode on her own show with Ady, might be inspiring for folks listening as well as Sarah’s work generally, and our interview with her about social movements since the 2008 Recession.

Billy Saas:  Do you want to say anything about your book project? And yeah, I mean, we’ve spoken about it generally, and I think maybe very specifically at points.  

David Stein:  Yeah, I think I’d just say that I’m finishing a book on civil rights struggles for guaranteed jobs, and how and why those were stifled and how the kind of stifling of those struggles helped facilitate the rise of mass incarceration. The temporal scope is from 1929, the Great Depression to 1986 with the passage of the Omnibus Crime Control and with the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Tax Reform Act of 1986. And I’m finishing that up as we speak, and it should be out in the next 18 months or so from the University of North Carolina Press.

Billy Saas:  To keep up with David and his many projects, follow him on Twitter at @davidpstein. For more Money on the Left related content, follow us on Twitter at @moneyontheleft, and subscribe to our YouTube and Vimeo channels, which are each called Modern Money Network Humanities Division. Special thanks to Alex Williams for producing this podcast and for being one half of Hillbilly Motobike, the excellent Montreal based drums and electronics duo that hooked us up with our theme song.  

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

The Ends of Freedom w/ Mark Paul

Mark Paul joins Money on the Left to discuss his new book, The Ends of Freedom: Reclaiming America’s Lost Promise of Economic Rights (University of Chicago Press, 2023). Paul is assistant professor in the Bloustein school of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. In his book, Paul scours U.S. political and economic history to recover, reclaim, and adapt the rhetoric of economic rights for our current political moment. For too long, Paul demonstrates, progressives and leftists have let conservative and sometimes charismatic economists define the boundaries of our economic thinking. This even as the left has underappreciated its own rich reserves of heterodox political thinking and radical rhetorical action. Hence Paul’s outspoken advocacy–within and beyond the book–for durable and democratic policy interventions like Medicare for All, a federal jobs guarantee, and a Green New Deal. 

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Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com


The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson:  Mark Paul, welcome to Money On The Left.

Mark Paul:  It’s great to be here today. Thank you so much.

Scott Ferguson:  So we’ve invited you to talk to us today about your very important new book, The Ends of Freedom, Reclaiming America’s Lost Promise of Economic Rights, which is out from University of Chicago Press this year, 2023. And we want to get into a discussion about the book. But before we do, maybe you can tell our listeners a little bit about who you are, your background, your training, you’ve certainly studied and worked with all kinds of interesting folks along the way. So maybe just give us a little bit of a flavor of where you’re coming from?

Mark Paul:  You know, when I was born, I wanted to be a PhD economist, and here I am now. No no. When I was younger, I wanted to be a chef. I love food. I grew up on DiGiorno pizza, and Dino nuggets, and it was terrible. And I thought there had to be something else to life. And thanks to public programming, good old PBS, Julia Child taught me how to cook. And so I watched Julia Child and just fell in love with food and worked in kitchens throughout high school. I ended up going to culinary school and working in kitchens more. And it was my time working in kitchens and thinking about our food system that actually got me interested in economics. I spent just years working on the line and hot, semi miserable conditions, but in fairly high end restaurants. And I’m working on the line next to often immigrants who show up for work every single day, year in and year out. And they are making marginally above minimum wage, it’s 15-20 years ago, but still, they’re making under $10 an hour in most instances. And it dawned on me that they, nor I, could ever afford to eat in the restaurants we’re sitting here cooking in, and that is just messed up, what’s going on here? And further, my love for food got me interested in gardening and farming a little bit. And so I started down that path. Next thing I know, I’m reading about climate change and the climate crisis. And I’m sitting here in my early 20s thinking, how screwed up is this world we’ve built? From there, I guess made for some people a rather large leap, but to economics. 2008 struck. All of a sudden, the economy comes crashing down, I start reading about the economy. And I realized the food system is the way it is; people are paid shitty wages and good food is expensive where Captain Crunch is essentially free because of poor economic policy. And in fact, I realized we can choose different economic policies and that set me on my path to becoming a PhD economist. It’s not what I ever thought I would do. But here we are, and it was really my passion for food and my observations in the real world that set me on this rather strange path to pursuing a degree in economics. But I came to economics not because I love studying economics, I came to economics because I wanted a decent world where everybody could afford to eat good food and people who worked on the line of kitchens didn’t have crappy jobs, dangerous jobs and low paying jobs.

Scott Ferguson:  Can I ask how did you find heterodox economics? I mean, one can have a desire for a more just, abundantly provisioned world and then think, well, this is probably a problem of economics. And then when you go to research, “well, how do I learn about economics?” The main pathways are the orthodoxy. So how did you find an alternative? I mean, what was that process like?

Billy Saas:  How did you end up not self blaming for not having access to those restaurants and being able to pay for the swordfish plate?

Mark Paul:  It’s such a good question, right? I mean, if only I had worked harder. If only I’d worked 80 hours a week instead of 60 hours a week I’d be able to afford a decent meal. No, but in all seriousness, it in part was luck, and it was in part just the books I happened to pick up. Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose first economics book I ever read, and when I finished it I thought this guy is absolutely insane. This is not the world I think we want to build here. I mean, what’s funny is I and I think most people agree with Milton Friedman: we truly want to be free to choose, but the type of policies he talked about is not like getting us to a world where we actually have meaningful and real choices in front of us. And so reading Milton Friedman left me scratching my head thinking this is crazy, what else is there? Next thing I did was I picked up a book by Keynes and read that and was like, Oh, this is pretty interesting. But the real luck happened was that I’m from Massachusetts, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst is a premier heterodox alternative Economics program in the country. And when I applied to colleges, I had gone to culinary school, and I was taking some part time classes in community college. But I didn’t have money to pay for college, I was on my own financially. And I applied for a number of schools and UMass Amherst gave me free education. I said, you can’t beat free plus, hey, they have some interesting people in their economics department that are a little wonky. And so I went to UMass Amherst to finish my undergraduate degree. And from there, I just never looked back. I was really lucky to be mentored by a host of amazing progressive economist from Nancy Folbre to Sam Bowles and Jim Boyce and others who really opened my eyes to the fact that we can build an economy that works for the people rather than just working for the 1/10 or 100th of one percenters that get rich at all the rest’s expenses. It really was a once in a lifetime opportunity to go to a place like that and study economics.

Scott Ferguson:  You’ve also done some work with Sandy Darity. Is that something that you can talk about a bit with us?

Mark Paul:  Yeah. In 2015, I was finishing my PhD, and I started doing some writing with with Sandy Darity and Darrick Hamilton, two absolutely luminaries in the field that have just done phenomenal work in advancing economics as a profession, and also bringing economics into the policy space to demonstrate how it is that we can build a more just an inclusive economy. I had the wonderful privilege to go spend two years at Duke University working with Sandy Darity as a Postdoc. And I do want to say here, I’m a K through PhD public school kid. I deeply believe in the public school system. My two years at Duke let me see how the, it’s tempting to say how the other half lives, but it’s really it’s how the 1/10 of one percenters live. It was really an amazing change in so many ways. But my time working with with Sandy just really helped further my intellectual development: my belief in stratification economics, my study of economic history, in particular, which I really bring into the book, where I look at the fact that the neoliberal order that we like to talk about so much isn’t the only way to organize the economy. More importantly, it was an incredibly radical vision that came about, and we can talk about this later, in the 40s and 50s. But my time with Sandy helped me really develop into the scholar I am today as I had the chance and freedom to just read far more wide ranging texts. Folks like Du Bois, who I had never read before, and others that helped me broaden my horizons as a political economist. I don’t just study economics, I study history, I study philosophy, I study political theory. And if we want to have a true holistic vision of the economy, we need to go beyond reading the American Economic Review, which has many important articles, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not going to help us actually shape a proper vision for where we want to go and why.

Billy Saas:  K through PhD. I like that a lot. K through PhD public school similar here.

Scott Ferguson:  Me too. Yeah.

Billy Saas:  You end up at UMass Amherst, which is just a wonderful accident, coincidence, providence heterodox school, and then you work with Sandy Darity. I guess one question is, what was your sort of interest in your dissertation? Because I imagine that anticipated your collaboration with Sandy Darity and Darrick Hamilton, as you were going into your postdoc, they must have liked what they saw or knew of your work at that point. So talk to us a little bit about that experience at Amherst and the shaping of your intellectual foundation and platform from which you sprung into this wonderful collaboration.

Mark Paul:  Yeah, it’s a great question. So The Ends of Freedom actually isn’t really that related to my dissertation. In fact, The Ends of Freedom is really new work. A lot of that work that came out of my time working with Sandy, as a matter of fact, where actually Sandy, Darrick and I co-wrote a piece for The American Prospect magazine calling for an economic bill of rights back in 2018. And that was kind of the predecessor to the book. So my relationship with Sandy really came out of actually my involvement in the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign at the time my dissertation was essentially done. It’s three essays on sustainability where I was really focused on the climate crisis. I should say here that half of my work is really focused on causes, consequences, and potential solutions to inequality. And the other half of my work is really focused on addressing the climate crisis. Now of course, the two are inextricably linked, but they are two slightly separate buckets. And so the dissertation focused much more heavily on the climate crisis, and what to do about it. And really, through this work, I came to understand that first of all policy is climate policy. And second of all, when we address the climate crisis it’s going to be a substantial reorganization of economic activity. And we have a choice here. And that choice is that we can allow policy to continue along the current fault lines of inequality. In which case, we would most likely be deepening existing inequalities. Or we can be quite intentional about taking redistribution seriously, in which case, the climate crisis actually presents an opportunity for us to fundamentally change the structures that exist within the economy, and to address both our emissions and our inequality challenges simultaneously. So the work with Sandy and Derek, though, really came out of my involvement in the Sanders campaign where I had finished my dissertation, but I still had some time on my hands as a graduate student. And everybody’s coming out swinging against Sanders for putting out radical proposals like Medicare For All, which was going to clearly bankrupt the country and make sure everybody quit their jobs and $15 minimum wage, which would eradicate half of low income jobs in America overnight, they just disappear and all these terrible things. And people were starting to ask, are these policies truly crazy, or is there some economic rationale for them? And at the time, that bench of progressive economists was incredibly thin, of course, Stephanie Kelton was advising Senator Sanders. But there were very few economists that were out there defending, I think, these very modest proposals that Senator Sanders was putting out. And so I decided to do a little bit of work with the campaign, and to start writing both policy pieces and opinion pieces to show the economic rationale for why $15 minimum wage, or programs to invest in higher education through making college free for everybody, or programs to actually make healthcare a human right were actually economically smart. Now, it was this opportunity that really changed my work to focus on policy issues first and foremost, where I kind of became a policy economist. I still do academic work quite extensively, but what drives my academic work is the real world. It’s thinking about policy issues, and how is it that we can improve the economy and the functioning of it? Therefore, my academic work heavily ties into my policy work. It’s kind of a two way street, so to say. And it was through that work that I got to know Sandy and Darrick quite well, and Sandy was able to offer me a postdoc to come do some additional research with him for two years.

Billy Saas:  Was the dissertation then sort of incidental or coincidental to or with the Sanders campaign? Or did it inform your advocacy directly in any kind of way?

Mark Paul:  In economics dissertation, yeah, “Three Essays On Sustainability” was the title of the dissertation. Look, in economics, a dissertation is three essays that you slap together, you write a quick introduction and conclusion, you call it a day. I mean, a dissertation is really about learning how to research. And that’s what my dissertation taught me. I mean, it grounded me in economic theory, it taught me a great deal about economic and climate policy. I did a number of studies looking at kind of sustainable agricultural policy, in particular, as well as sustainable responsiveness to climate disasters. But the dissertation didn’t dig into the more pressing inequality policy issues that I ended up pivoting towards. The dissertation really taught me how to go about doing economic research? How do I develop my tools as an econometrician and as a policy researcher? I published it all in academic journals, but it didn’t necessarily go on to have a substantial policy influence the way that some of my later work luckily has, and the way that I hope that this book will moving forward.

Scott Ferguson:  So I have a question that I think you’ve probably begun to answer, but I had this written down so I am going to ask it anyway which is: why a book? When you and I, Mark, have had encounters in the past we’ve hung out at conferences, you graciously invited me down to New College where you used to be to give a talk. I remember you pondering aloud in earshot, “should I write a book? Should I write a book?” And ultimately you decided to write a book. But as I understand it, that’s not actually typical of what an economist does, right? That it’s a kind of rarity. So I’m curious to hear, as we move to talk about this book, and what it’s really about, why did you decide not to write four journal articles? Why did you go for a book? And I guess, a related question, or an integrated question would be, who’s your audience? Who do you imagine would read this? And of course I’m sure there’s not just one answer to this, like, X type of person, but I’m curious who you’re thinking about your audience and why you’re deciding to take up the genre of the book?

Mark Paul:  I’m going to take those in reverse order, because the audience question is what drove me to write the book. So look, I’ve been privileged, and I’ve written numerous journal articles, and each time I read a journal article, I think this is going to change the world in some important way. And then, you know, maybe 100 people read it, it goes out in some academic journal, where subscriptions are 1000s of dollars a year, and it kind of dies in the PDF white paper ethos of the interwebs. And you hope that these journal articles change some academic minds, and in turn, maybe 50 years down the road, when those people are advising PhD students, those students will read it, and it will change the future generation, but I’m a little bit of an impatient person. I see the economy as it operates today, and it is screwed up. And I’d like to do something about that. As Marx said, that philosophers have only henceforth interpreted the world, the point is to change it. And that is, indeed, what brought me to the discipline. I want to change the world. I want to make the economy a better place. And so my audience is policymakers as well as the American public. So the book is aimed for the New York Times to Wall Street Journal readership, ranging from hill staffers to just interested voters. And I’m trying to lay out an affirmative vision for a post neoliberal world. We’ve all read dozens of books about neoliberalism’s rise and fall, how it’s either dead or on death’s door. But what always drove me nuts about all those books was that they’d have 10 chapters about neoliberalism, and then one chapter at the end is: here’s what comes next. And they just really quickly sketch out a few ideas. But if we actually want to move past the neoliberal order, we need to start envisioning what that would look like. We need to start envisioning what is the North Star that we are working towards? And so I set out to write an affirmative book that discussed what the economy can and should look like post neoliberalism. What is it that we want? Why do we care about the economy? And what is it that we’re collectively working towards achieving? Now, why a book? With my audience in mind of changing the hearts and minds of the American public, and also in trying to change policymakers and Hill staffers, because I know we talk a lot about policymakers, but really, it’s the hill staffers that have a lot of sway, in hill offices. I decided to write a popular book in order to reach just a far broader range of people than I could with an academic article. I had already written at this point enough articles for tenure, so I was feeling rather secure. It’s a shame but in economics, they don’t really count books towards tenure. At most research universities a book might count as one article, but your chair would tell you absolutely don’t do it. Versus if you’re in kind of more open minded disciplines like sociology, political science books are completely welcome. What’s crazy about this is that when you go down the list of Nobel Prize winning economists, they all write books. Now why? Because they want to reach broader audiences with their ideas. They know that very few people are going to open up an esoteric economics journal and actually read their ideas. So household economists’ names from Paul Krugman to Joe Stiglitz, and the likes, they all primarily write books to reach broad audiences. And I thought, I want to reach broad audiences like Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz are now Stephanie Kelton. So I’m going to write a book. And I have to say it was an absolutely wonderful experience. Challenging, but truly wonderful to dedicate a year and a half of my time to just sit down and focus on one project, and one project only, and really to have the space to deeply articulate my thoughts and ideas to what I hope to be a very wide readership was an absolute joy. While I was writing the book, my partner was pregnant, and I thankfully finished the book prior to having our child. But I really felt like I had two babies; I had the book, and then I had my human kiddo that arrived at fairly similar times. So it was a true joy in both respects.

Billy Saas:  It’s fascinating to know, I didn’t realize that economists were disincentivized from writing books and publishing books. And that’s interesting to know, and makes it I think, even more remarkable that you’re going this direction. As you did so, did you have any models or figures in mind that you looked to as examples of effective public communicators of affirmative economic messages?

Mark Paul:  That’s a great question. So I kind of had two different sets of people that influenced me in mind when I set out to write this book. And one was just leaning on some of my favorite writers, largely out of the civil rights movement, both favorite writers and orators, people like A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, James Baldwin is just one of my all time favorite writers. So I really spend a lot of time with his texts thinking about how they are relaying ideas? Because look, we have to be storytellers to get ideas to stick. And ideas truly are one of the most powerful weapons that exist. But we need to think about how to effectively relay those ideas and embed them in people’s minds, or at least get people to contend with them, which is really what I’m aiming to do is just getting people to think about these ideas. In the economic space, I absolutely spent quite a bit of time with a host of economist books, and thinking about how it is that they laid out their arguments? And how is it that they relayed their messages to a diverse set of readers? And I have to say, folks like Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek were great writers. I truly do admire their ability to communicate complex and radical ideas to the voting public. And so I absolutely spend a lot of time reading their works and others and thinking about how to write an effective book. But here, I have to say, I’m also deeply in debt to one of my dear friends and editors, Jed Cohen, he is an editor for Duke University Press, was one of my best friends during my two years at Duke and remains one of my closest friends and he helped me through the writing process a good bit. Behind every good book is a good editor, and I think we need to acknowledge that quite openly because books are always a collaborative process, even when they just have one author, they have a whole host of people that helped them make it to press and into your lap, hopefully, on a nice, beautiful, sunny day while sitting outside and kicking the feet up. It was really through my collaborative work with him that I was able to find my voice as a writer. Because learning how to write journal articles, earlier we were talking about the dissertation is just very different from learning how to write a book for mass consumption.

Scott Ferguson:  Here, here. So the title of the book to say it again, is The Ends of Freedom, Reclaiming America’s Lost Promise of Economic Rights. So to get us into this argument, maybe you can unpack the title, and talk a little bit about how you’ve structured the book in three parts.

Mark Paul:  Yeah. So let’s talk about freedom a little bit. I think freedom is our most powerful and salient word in our political discourse here in the United States. Everybody declares for freedom. But in declaring for freedom, unfortunately, we often all mean different things. And that’s what allows President Biden to launch his election campaign in the name of freedom. And it’s what allows Ron DeSantis to launch his also declaring he’s seeking to make America more free, although he has to do some serious twists and turns to come up with any real definition of freedom given his set of policy priorities. So The Ends of Freedom really comes from the idea that the right has very effectively weaponized the idea of freedom to simply mean negative freedom, which is freedom from government, famously articulated in the Bill of Rights, coupled with access to markets. If only we have limited government plus access to markets, which to be clear, requires government in the first place, then people will be free. But this really differs with more holistic understandings of freedom, which also incorporate what the philosopher Isaiah Berlin deemed positive freedoms. Now, by positive freedoms, I mean freedom to certain things, importantly, the freedom to the good life, Jefferson’s promised life, liberty and pursuit of happiness which is enshrined in the very ideals of this nation. And in order to actually be meaningfully free, people don’t only need negative rights, they don’t only need civil and political rights and reproductive rights, which are increasingly coming under attack, especially across conservative states. But they also need economic rights, these positive rights like things to you know, the right to an education, the right to health care, the right to a home and the like. And what I try to do in the book is lay out an argument in the first third about first how it is that we got here, but I do that quite briefly, really kind of flipping the traditional book about neoliberalism on its head, as we talked about earlier. So I can briefly talk about how we got here and where here is with 40 million Americans still in dire poverty, the same number of Americans that were in poverty when Johnson launched the war on poverty or when President Roosevelt, at the height of the Great Depression, declared 1/3 of Americans are ill clad, ill housed, and ill fed. But it’s also about the 100 million Americans that are just one emergency room visit, one layoff, one missed bill away from really severe economic hardship. And in that first third of the book, I lay up these two contending visions for freedom. On the one hand, we have the classic neoliberal vision of freedom, which is, as I mentioned earlier, limited government plus access to markets, which was championed by people like Frederick Hayek and Milton Friedman, and then brought into the political sphere by folks like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. But also adopted essentially hook line and sinker by the New Democrats, starting really effectively with Jimmy Carter, who I would argue as the first neoliberal president before Reagan, but culminating in Bill Clinton’s presidency and certainly heavily influencing Barack Obama’s. Then, I talked about what I call “America’s other freedom”, which is the fact that we’ve had this long march towards a more meaningful, robust notion of freedom, starting with the founders, folks like Thomas Paine and Alexander Hamilton, who advocated for a robust state that legislated in the public’s interest and ensured that all people had a share of the economic pie not as a matter of charity, not as a matter of welfare, but as a matter of their citizenship right. And what’s really fascinating and this is fairly well connected to Jefferson’s ideas of a landholding citizen, right now of course we need to acknowledge that in the case of Jefferson and many others of the founders, they really envisioned a white male kind of ownership class. To be a citizen was largely to be white and male and educated. But, as we increasingly expand the notion of citizenry to be far more all encompassing, we start to see that these economic rights championed by the founders and then later by people like President Abraham Lincoln, who tried to enshrine this into law with the Homestead Act, where he’s redistributing land to people as a matter of right, really becomes a centerpiece of the vision for freedom in America. Yet, it’s language we’ve just lost here today. And I think that this language really came to its most powerful height during the Civil Rights era, where you have leaders like Martin Luther King, and others fighting not only for civil rights, but also for economic rights. When we learn about King today, we forget the radical side of King. That King not only championed the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act, but after the passage of those two bills, he turned his attention full time to enshrining an economic bill of rights into law. In fact, his final piece of writing, which was published after his untimely assassination, was entitled, “We Need An Economic Bill of Rights” and was centered in the Poor People’s Campaign, around the demands that I essentially outlined here in the book: the right to a job, the right to housing, the right to education, and more. So in the book of the book is when I actually dive into these various economic rights, and in each chapter, for instance, the first chapter on the right to work, I tried to do three things. First, briefly talk about the history and struggle for this, right. A lot of the time we think about the right to a job or the right to healthcare, and we say, you know, oh, this Scandinavian country does it fairly well, and that’s true and we can learn a lot from them. But I think that there’s also a lot lost in kind of pushing American history to the side. So I tried to rediscover and retell the economic history in the US where these rights, in many instances, had been fought for for well over a century. The second thing I tried to do is debunk the common economic or neoliberal wisdom around why, say, providing people universal education is a terrible idea. Because I think if we want to convince people of this idea we need to talk about the criticism and explain point by point on why it’s just deeply misguided. And then third, I make the positive case for the economic right in each given chapter. The final section of the book, which we can maybe talk about a little bit later, takes on what I like to call the trillion dollar question. And we might say a right to a job and the right to housing is wonderful. And in fact, most Americans want it. We did popular polling with Data For Progress, and we found that two thirds of Americans want an economic bill of rights, including a majority of independents and Republicans. But when the rubber hits the road, when it’s time to pay for these things, that’s when we might hit some serious speed bumps. And so I lay out a comprehensive argument of how it is that we finance an economic Bill of Rights?

Billy Saas:  Yeah, so okay, this is probably going to happen, if it hasn’t happened already for you, you are going to find yourself in a situation where you’re in a conference hotel, and there are some hill staffers over there. And this table is full of like Republican Hill staffers, and this table is full of like Democrat Hill staffers, I wonder how your pitch goes? Is it the same for each of those tables? Do you even bother with one or the other? What do you say this story is? And I wonder if this came up in your conversation and your collaboration with your editor? What is this book offering us? What is its main contribution? And I think, how would you pitch that to those two different audiences, which I think are probably both very interested for different reasons and in different directions in what this book is doing, what’s about what it’s about?

Mark Paul:  Yeah, it’s a great question. I mean, at its core, the book is trying to offer us an agenda to attain freedom. It’s trying to lay out a vision and a policy prescription that details, how is it that we restructure the economy to ensure that people have choices to be and do what they have reason to value rather than to be stuck in this current economy that we’ve built that really hamstrings human flourishing left and right, and really places people at the service of the economy rather than placing the economy at the service of us. When we think about what the point of the economy is, the point of the economy is to ensure that we all get to lead meaningful and dignified lives, that we all have homes and food and can go to school and get health care. Yet we’ve structured an economy that’s essentially based on the bastardized version of the game of Monopoly, which was, of course, originally a parody on capitalism, yet really, it’s all about who can grab the most property, and who can fill up their bank accounts the most. I mean, that’s kind of the game that we’ve set up for ourselves. But instead, I want to change the conversation. Instead of playing the game of Monopoly, I want us to play the game of Life; think about how we structure that economy that dictates so much of our lives, right? I mean, Americans work 47 hours a week, often 50 ish weeks a year, thanks to our limited to no vacation. And, we’re often working to 65, or well past that in order to make ends meet. How is it that we structure that economy to actually prioritize a decent life? It’s funny, we always talk about living in a democracy and how important democratic values are, but why is it that democratic values stop when it comes to the door to the economy opening? It’s like, there’s this massive gate we put up. And what I’m interested in doing is tearing down that gate between the democratic realm of politics and the private realm of the economy, where money is the only currency that matters rather than votes. And so when I talk with Hill staffers, first of all, unfortunately, I haven’t had any excited or interested calls yet from Republican staffers, although I eagerly await them. What I make the conversation about is about freedom and about realizing the American promise; the promise to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness and the promise to be a truly free nation, where people have meaningful choices as Milton Friedman put it, people are actually free to choose. If you graduate from college with $200,000 in debt, you’re not free to choose much. You’re free to choose the highest paying job to make sure you are able to meet your bills. If you have a kid and you have to send them to daycare to keep working, you’re not free to choose much. You have to stick to your current job because that daycare bill is going to come due every month, no matter what. If you’re living in an apartment and you want to downsize because your apartment is eating up half of your take home pay, unfortunately, you’re not free to choose a better paying job or a cheaper apartment, because let me tell you, they just don’t exist in most cities across the United States. So I think this notion that we’re free to choose is a farce. And the question is, how do we build an economy that actually provides people some meaningful sense of freedom? And here, you know, when I talk about freedom, it’s frustrating because I think the word that always comes into my mind is enduring freedom. I don’t know if that brings up any bells for listeners here. But that’s actually the codename for the war in Afghanistan.

Scott Ferguson:  Oh, no.

Mark Paul:  Oh, no, is right. The right is just far better at marketing, be it “freedom”, “right to work”, you name it, they have co-opted every powerful word in our political dialogue and turned it into something evil. So part of my mission here is also to not give up on freedom but to reclaim it.

Billy Saas:  I think that project of reclaiming, it’s a common rhetorical move for heterodox economists arguing along the lines that you are for embracing, reclaiming, reanimating, rediscovering the kind of progressive roots of these ideas and the progressive elements of them. And I wonder along those lines, and one of the things I like about your book and talking with you now, you do; you lean into and sort of try to pull back the idea of free to choose, we want to be free to choose. Yes, let’s do that. And by that you’re maybe offering a hand to those Republican staffers or opening up space for conversation. And then in the book, you highlight how Hayek, Friedrich Hayek, was not opposed to social welfare programs, like health care programs, and how that sort of gets left out. On that note, I wonder if you’ve thought about entitlement as maybe a rhetorical obstacle here. So I imagine that those Republican staffers might hear you say, the right to, or the freedom for and say, okay, you’re talking about entitlements, which has become a sort of a demon term over the last 40 years over the neoliberal period. Do you have any clever way to get us into recovering entitlement as a kind of affirmative positive progressive trope or direction?

Mark Paul:  Look, I’m gonna be honest, I think that most of the Republican members of Congress and staff on the Hill are largely a lost cause. I do not think that we’re going to change many hearts and minds there. Now, that is very different from Republican voters. I do think that there is a tremendous opening to convince Independent and Republican voters, as well as Democratic voters for that matter, this is the type of vision that we need to be working towards. And those are the folks that I’m trying to capture more of. I don’t focus much on entitlements. I agree that it is a challenging word. But what I like to talk about instead is what I call the “well being state”. How do we move away from this notion of entitlements, this notion of welfare, to embrace a well being state? And this is precisely why the policy prescriptions that I outlined in the book are what I call targeted Universalist policies. So they’re universal policies, things like college for all that benefits everybody. Hillary Clinton famously quipped that she wasn’t for sending Donald Trump’s kids to free college in the presidential primary back in 2016. And I explain why that’s exactly wrong. Yeah, I’m fine with paying for Donald Trump’s kids to go to college as I am with paying for low income students to go to college across the board. We have a great way to capture the income and wealth of high income earners, I’m not so sure Donald Trump is one, through something called the progressive income tax and we need to couple that, of course, with a progressive wealth tax. But rather than having these means tested gates through every program that are essentially just meant to make programs more complicated and, in return, create political divides over them. What we need to do is have simple straightforward universal programs, things like Medicare For All, things like universal free college, and then you know, tax the rich via income and wealth taxation and let the programs do their jobs. “Programs for the poor make poor programs” was this great quip by Wilbur Cohen, one of the key architects of the New Deal and Great Society, and I think he was absolutely right. If we want broad based buy into these types of programs, we need to ensure that they serve a broad swath of America, economically, racially and geographically. And that’s precisely what I aim to do in building this wellbeing state, where the state is there to ensure that we are all lifted up, that we all have a floor under our feet at all times. The vision is essentially to constrain the market, both using floors and ceilings, to ensure that everybody is taken care of at a fairly high quality of life, but also that nobody is allowed to have undue economic power. And this is one of the things I talk about a lot. When we think about taxing the rich, it’s not only to create the economic space to ensure that we can fully afford everything we need to lead to a high quality of life for all people. But it’s also because we need to effectively put an end to the oligarchy that we find ourselves in today. By actually placing ceilings in the economy, saying that, whether it be a maximum income or maximum wealth level, we’re actually able to reclaim our economy in better entrenched democratic processes into the economic realm, rather than just allowing the billionaires of the world to essentially be mini dictators.

Scott Ferguson:  So I’d like to invite you to speak to some of your particular proposals. You can speak to any of them, but I guess maybe to get us going, I’d like to hear about the chapter titled the route that excuses me. I’d like to hear about the chapter titled “The Right to Housing” and what you’re proposing policy wise for this, to secure this right to housing.

Mark Paul:  So it’s a great question, slogans matter. And in fact, slogans often are best at changing hearts and minds. It was a particular slogan that actually set the initial seed for this book in my mind, and it was when I was spending time at Occupy Wall Street as a first year PhD student where the rallying cry was an economy for the 99%. And it’s a fine slogan, but they didn’t have a 10 point plan. People love criticizing them for that. And, I don’t think that’s a fair criticism, I think it’s fine for a social movement to have a vision, but not necessarily articulate policies. I kept thinking about an economy for the 99% what does that look like? And that’s largely what I tried to articulate here in the book. A right to housing, I think, is a good example of this, because it’s a nice slogan, but what does it really mean? And I had the wonderful privilege of working with a group called the Homes Guarantee Campaign and actually fleshing this out. So it’s a group associated with the grassroots organization, People’s Action, where they brought together a whole host of housing advocates, people that were section eight voucher recipients, people who are either currently or previously unhoused, elderly people struggling to make their bills. They wanted to re envision what a right to housing looked like, and the grass tops leaders were selling them on extending section eight vouchers or this or that. And they said, no, no, no, we want a radical vision that would actually put an end to the homelessness and housing insecurity crisis here in America. And so they brought me in as the economist on that team and a number of other academic policy experts that helped through a bottom-up policy development approach to flesh out what an actual right to housing looks like. And that’s what this chapter is largely based on. What I focus on in the chapter is two key elements to this policy prescription. The first is rent control. Look, we have rent control for the vast majority of Americans already. It’s called a 30 year mortgage, where we essentially freeze rent payments for 30 years thanks to government policy which created the 30 year mortgage out of whole cloth. Almost no other country has it. The United States did not have it before the New Deal which essentially legislated it into existence. And that has led to the creation of the wealth that exists today for the middle class. It’s a beautiful, brilliant policy, but in creating that we left out rent controls for the other half of Americans who rent. And in turn, what we’ve done is we’ve created a housing market that leaves renters at the whim of landlords. And I think this was on full display during the COVID 19 crisis, where in many cities, landlords were jacking up rent prices by 15-18%, in some cases, 23-24% a year thanks to the market power that they have. And it’s not because they were investing in those apartments and making them better, it was because they simply could. What rent control does is take the fact that both landlords and tenants both have rights to the housing, and it redistributes the bundle of rights that landlords disproportionately currently enjoy, and it says that tenants have a right to stay in their house. And it limits how much landlords can increase the rent on an annual basis. And I argue for an increase in the order of magnitude of three to five percent per year as the absolute cap. Now, that will help many existing tenants stay in their homes today, but what it won’t do is help ensure that we have additional housing options given our lack of affordable housing that exists on the market in the first place. To do that, we need much more comprehensive reform. And I think one of the most crucial areas that we should be investing in today is by building millions of units of social housing. Vienna, Austria is, I think, the key example here where the majority of residents live in publicly owned social housing that serves a diverse set of stakeholders. It’s mixed income housing, high quality housing. Many of these housing units have daycares on the bottom floor, have public swimming pools on their rooftops, and have gorgeous community gardens. I mean, this is not the public housing that we think of here in America. This is truly high quality, beautiful luxuries. Beautiful temples of public luxury. And we can have that here too, if only we will it to be the case. And through building such public housing, what we would do is actually set a real floor in the marketplace for rentals, because if a private landlord wasn’t offering decent housing options, people could simply go to the public housing option and get a nice apartment at affordable rent. And so it would fundamentally rebalance the housing market away from a nexus of profit towards a nexus of home and community.

Billy Saas:  Are there any other of the proposals that you feel like are especially, I mean they’re all important, but do any standout to you as maybe… Is there a sequence that you have in mind here for these sorts of rights being afforded? These freedoms being embraced and distributed? Is there an order of operations? Or do we have a sense that we’ll take what we can get when we can get it and figure it out accordingly?

Mark Paul:  That’s a great question. I think, later this summer, we will hopefully be having a resolution calling for an Economic Bill of Rights introduced in the US Congress highlighting the fact that you can’t take any one of these things in isolation, that if you actually want to deliver on economic rights, just like if you actually want to deliver on political rights, you can’t just give one piece of the puzzle to voters and say good luck. We really, ideally, want to adopt a package together. That said, sometimes in politics, you do need to prioritize. For me the two rights that really come to the fore are the right to a job, and the right to a clean and healthy environment. And let me briefly explain why. The right to a job would fundamentally restructure the labor market, which is where the vast majority of us earn our paychecks that pay our rent and put food on our table on it on a week to week basis. And by implementing a right to a job, which I argue has three pillars: running the economy hot, permanently expanding the public workforce, and finally the almighty job guarantee to actually eradicate unemployment and poverty level wages once and for all. By implementing such a program, you would fundamentally restructure the power relations of the economy because workers would have a viable exit option. They would actually be able to tell their bosses F-U if they have a shitty boss, an abusive boss, an exploitative boss as, unfortunately, so many people do. And it would provide them with a reasonable fallback position where they can get a well paying job working for the government and contributing to improving society, to making us all better off. That fundamental restructuring of the power relationship between employees and employers will have massive ripple effects throughout the economy. It will just fundamentally shift the dynamics of capitalism in crucial ways that I think are frequently under-appreciated when we’re talking about the Job Guarantee program. The second area is addressing the climate crisis. Unfortunately, we’re dealing with this crisis in the here and now. It simply cannot wait. Look, nobody has economic security on a burning planet. And if we don’t start investing in ensuring a clean and healthy environment for current and future generations, then most of the conversation we’re having here is rather moot. So given the absolute necessity of the moment, I think that we need to do everything we can to pivot our economic activities away from extraction and fossil fuel consumption and towards a truly sustainable future that all of the evidence shows is both eminently reasonable, affordable, and is completely achievable. It’s simply political hurdles that stand in the way, it’s really how we can neutralize the power of fossil capital in order to reorganize economic activity away from the current, dirty polluted state that we live in, and towards one of green abundance.

Scott Ferguson:  Education is often thought of as being a kind of magical lever for class mobility, and we sort of reify it and extract it from the rest of our policy horizon and our policy imagination, but importantly, for you, you’re putting a right to education, right in the heart of your economic bill of positive rights. And I’d like to hear you talk about the way you conceive of education within this, let’s say, menu of policies?

Mark Paul:  Yeah, that’s a great question. The reason I prioritize the right to an education is kind of multifaceted. So in the economic realm, we often talk about how education provides people with more opportunities, and also how education has a high return on investment, and both pays off for the individual through higher future earnings. But it also pays off collectively: a more educated population means that we have a higher GDP across the board and higher living standards for the entire country. So in econ speak, there’s positive externalities from a person obtaining a higher education degree, so to say. And we frequently thought of education as a silver bullet, and really sold education to people as the key way for them to advance themselves. Well, there is one thing that education will guarantee you in America, and that is debt. That’s not because it needs to be the case, it’s because we’ve made it the case. But before I get into the debt question, let me just say, there’s a second argument for education. And sometimes I’m slightly uncomfortable with the first, though I do make it myself. And it’s because the point of an education isn’t just for economic advancement. It’s not just for money. The point of an education is also to be a fuller human, to lead a more enlightened, informed, and interested life. I mean, often that pursuit of knowledge does not come from the pursuit of money, but it comes from the pursuit of passion and interest. We are a deeply inquisitive species. And I think recognizing that there are huge benefits to us, as individuals and society from promoting education from a social standpoint is really sometimes undervalued and thought of second to the economic benefits. And I think that’s a mistake. I really do, and particularly when it comes to democracy. Why is our democracy under threat? In part, it’s because we do have a bit of an education problem, and a kind of political literacy problem. Will education solve all of these issues? Of course not. But do I think that reinvesting in our education system can help improve the very functioning of our democracy? Absolutely. And I think that that’s something that we need to think much more deeply about. So, given these multiple benefits to education, I prioritize the right to an education in the book and talk about how we can and must expand it. And right now it’s the right in the books that actually people are most familiar with. We have a right to K to 12 education enshrined in most state constitutions. But what’s fascinating here is that we didn’t always have the right say to high school. Indeed, in the early 20th century, the high school movement, a grassroots movement that pushed to expand the Right to Education passed primary school, was able to successfully get the right to high school for the American people that we so enjoy here today. And what’s funny about it is that the arguments made against free college were essentially the exact same arguments made hook line and sinker against free high school, 100-110 years ago: it’s too expensive, it’ll disproportionately benefit the rich, because the rich are the ones who are getting high school degrees in the first place. Why were the rich getting high school degrees then? And why are the rich getting college degrees now? It’s because they have access to them. Once you open it up to the masses, you see that low income people go for these degrees just as frequently as high income people do. It’s the fact that education is serving as a barrier in the first place. And by making it a right, we tear down that barrier. And so I think if we want people to be truly free, if we want them to have the opportunities truly available to them, I think that we need to provide them with a high quality education for them to think about what does it mean to be free in the first place? And for them to think about what is the life that they want to lead? What do they want to do with their life, with their time? I mean, time: we talked about valuable resources, we’re often talking about money, but really time is the most valuable resource we have. And I think an education allows people to think about how to spend their time and to what ends. Now one thing I do want to add here, is I don’t necessarily think college is the right path for everybody. I think it should be available to everybody. But by no means do I think that a college degree, a four year degree should be a prerequisite for a high quality life. And one other thing that I don’t discuss enough in the book is the role of things like trade schools and other avenues that we also need to invest much more in today. And it’s not only about investing in those avenues, things like trade schools, but it’s also changing the ethos around them. Today, we have, I think, a stigma to a degree around the trades and really prioritizing four year bachelor’s degrees. And I think that’s a little bit of a mistake. I think that, yes, college can and should be open to all, but I also think that we should recognize that not everybody needs to go to college, and that college should not be a prerequisite for leading a high quality life.

Billy Saas:  And there are a lot of problems with colleges that would surely be solved or could be solved as we’re dealing with this question of education and a freer, more democratic democracy here in the United States. You talked about education as a path to greater political literacy, which we definitely need. And I think one of the interesting things about being in the heterodox wing of political economy is the kind of stark realization that financial literacy is actually at the same time as important, I believe, right. And this relates to chapter 10. “How do we pay for it?” I’m not talking about financial literacy in terms of balancing your checkbook. I’m talking about financial literacy in terms of what is money, how does it work? Where does it come from, and that sort of thing? So let’s go back to that dimly lit DC bar where we’re at a table with five, Democrat Hill staffers have ordered, like a fifth round. They’re really into what you’re saying. And they say this all sounds really great, Dr. Paul, but how are we going to pay for it? First of all, do you expect that that will be the question? There’s been a lot of gains, I think, in kind of making that question itself questionable. Certainly, still prevails, I think, in policy circles, or in policy discussions, at least on the macro level. But in this scene, in this ideal scenario, where you’re talking to your ideal audience, A.) do you anticipate bumping into that question and B.) to kind of close out our conversation of your book, as you do close out the book. What’s the answer?

Mark Paul:  So, yes, I do anticipate the question. I think that we have made huge advances, often thanks to the work of Modern Monetary Theorists in really advancing the conversation around debt and deficits and the like. But I think as the recent debt ceiling fight that played out in Washington demonstrates, people still care a tremendous amount about debt, they still misunderstand debt to a huge degree. They still are going to bring this up at every single turn. And so we need to talk about the trillion dollar question. But when we do it, we need to break it up into two questions. When we ask how are you going to pay for it? You’re really asking two questions. The first question is where will the money come from, the dollars and cents. And the second question, and I contend the more complicated question that deserves far more attention, is where will the real resources come from? In the case of Medicare For All, where are the MRI machines, and the anesthesiologist and then nurses and the hospital staff going to actually come from? And that is the question that I think we need to be paying far more attention to today. The dollars and cents is the easy part. Let me briefly explain why. First of all, there is a tremendous amount of space for us to increase our national debt. As John Maynard Keynes famously said, anything we can actually do we can afford. Now, the first half of that question, anything we can actually do gets to my second question, that where will the real resources come from. If we can do it, we can indeed afford it. So, part one, let’s increase the national debt, and let’s do so substantially. There’s plenty of economic headroom to do so. Particularly when we’re investing in the American people themselves. Things like education, housing, health care, these all are investments that pay enduring benefits. That’s very different from, say, straight, upward redistribution that, for example, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) undertook, which is a very different type of growing the national debt that doesn’t necessarily pay enduring benefits for years to come. In fact, I would argue that it makes us all worse off. The second thing is, I do think that we’re going to need broad based taxation, and I use the example of Medicare For All as one example. So I have a good job, I am a tenure track professor at a major public university. Yet here, I pay $830 a month for my health insurance. And it doesn’t even count my co-pays or deductibles. Now, under a Medicare For All type program, if I were to have to pay $500 a month more in taxes, and then have access to Medicare for All, I would normally have better insurance and one insurance for the rest of my life, I’ll add. I actually counted it up the other day, I’ve changed insurances 13 times since I’ve been an adult. But I would actually be saving money, I wouldn’t have to pay $830 a month to my insurance company any longer. Yes, my tax bill would go up a little bit. But in fact, I’d have more money in my pocket at the end of the day, and superior health insurance. So I think we need to move away from thinking of taxes exclusively as toxic and to embrace a different language that really demonstrates to the American people that there are two sides of the equation. There’s public taxation, and then there’s also public benefits that exist. And I think that’s really undervalued. The third area that we could ensure that this is fully financed is particularly high taxes on the wealthy. Now, I want to talk about this in two different ways. First of all, taxes on the rich would create additional economic space if we needed it, if the economy was running at full capacity and needed more space. But also I think that taxes on the rich have the additional very important benefit of being what economists call, and I’m going to get a little wonky here, Pigovian taxes. Pigovian taxes are taxes on social harms; often that’s thought of as taxes on pollution, taxes on cigarettes or alcohol. Well, guess what? The rich are a social harm, too. And so when we talk about taxing the rich, it’s not only to create more economic space, but it’s also about controlling the undue economic and political power that they have thanks to the wealth that they’ve accumulated through the rigged rules of the game. And so I think that is a fundamental aspect. Now, the real resources, that truly is the challenge. In many instances, this is going to take a lot more government planning than exists here today. I think that this is one of the primary challenges that we face that we have, essentially neutered the government for decades, we’ve been defunding the government we’ve been, you know, outsourcing government work to places like McKinsey. And government capacity today doesn’t exist to stand up an incredibly robust state on a dime. And so we need to reinvest in government capacity in order to ensure that, you know, our transition towards a sustainable economy that’s relying on 100% clean and renewable energy or a College For All type program runs smoothly. And I do think that that’s going to take some serious time and attention to accomplish.

Scott Ferguson:  Well, Mark Paul, thanks so much for joining us. Everybody should run out and buy your new book, The Ends of Freedom, Reclaiming America’s Lost Promise of Economic Rights. And thanks so much for joining us.

Mark Paul:  It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for taking the time.

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

New Deal for Higher Ed w/ Jennifer Mittelstadt

We’re joined by Jennifer Mittelstadt (@MittelstadtJen), professor of history at Rutgers University, to discuss her involvement with Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education. We speak with Mittelstadt about how Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education is organizing to address the most pressing threats to US public higher education today, as well as about how her own scholarship on publicly-provisioned welfare systems in the United States shapes her political organizing and advocacy. We also consider the role of Modern Monetary Theory in the struggle to democratize university finance, including Money on the Left’s controversial proposal for a federally backed university currency called the “uni.” 

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

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com


The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Billy Saas:  Jennifer Mittelstadt welcome to Money On The Left

Jennifer Mittelstadt:  Well, thanks for having me. I’m glad to be here.

Billy Saas: We, I think, came in contact first through some mutual friends and by way of the Scholars For A New Deal For Higher Education, and have continued to stay in touch and keep abreast of the developments with a Scholars For A New Deal For Higher Education. Could you talk to us just a little bit? I mean, just to kick things off, give us a sense, or your sense, or your read of the lay of the land for higher education right now. And, you know, the biggest sort of obstacles, big question to start us off on this conversation that’s largely going to be about you and your work. But what’s the lay of the land right now for higher education, as you see it?

Jennifer Mittelstadt:  I think, as I look at higher education now and reflect back on the last three years, that the group I’m involved with, Scholars For A New Deal For Higher Education, has been actively working on it. I think that there are a lot of developments that are even scarier than I imagined, when we began our work thinking about how to make higher education a true public good in the United States three years ago. At the same time, I think there are a few rays of hope. Overall, though, if I’m to balance those two things, I’m very worried about what’s happening in higher education right now. It seems that a lot of the indicators we might look at whether it’s funding from state legislatures, whether it’s the attempts to take over governance at institutions of higher education, public institutions of higher education, whether it’s the trends in tuition, whether it’s the perhaps faltering of the movement to really forgive student debt at a meaningful amount. Like all of those indicators, I think, are suggesting that we’re entering a period of what might be I mean enormous crisis. I hate to say things like this, because there’s been a long crisis in higher ed, but it feels almost like an ending. I feel very nervous about it. That said, the only thing to do is to get up each day and keep fighting it. So we’ve got lots of work to do, is the other way to look at it.

Billy Saas:  Yeah. And it’s come to this point, and you would say you’re a co-founder, one of the founders of the Scholars For A New Deal For Higher Education. And you’ve written publicly and published about all or some of these threats over the last few years as you say it, but you’ve been an academic researcher for much longer than that. So you’ve made your career alongside this long crisis. Can you talk to us about how your professional research interests in the military and the market and the relationship between public spending and militarism and imperialism? How do you end up leading this Scholars For A New Deal For Higher Education?

Jennifer Mittelstadt:  Yeah, I was trained as a historian of politics, but like very broadly defined, I think, with really strong interests in the state, political movements, political economy, and over time, I actually have varied pretty widely in my subject matter. I began by studying actually what I would think of, I guess, as the civilian welfare state. Then, I moved on to the military and thinking about the military welfare state, and then the broader questions of the political economy of the US military. And now I’m actually working on a project on US foreign policy. But I think I have the same questions of power and governance at the heart of the analysis in all of those different projects. Questions like why some people have a different relationship to the state than other people, I guess more or less, that’s at the heart of it. How some programs might be created in the welfare state, but other programs are pushed to the side. How the military evolved certain functions and programs, particularly of social welfare, even as civilian ones were fading. I guess how some people believe they can act on or with or against the state and how they do that. So I’ve had this broad focus, I guess, on state and society with a sharp analysis of the power dynamics in those for a really long time. I will say that as I started to research my subjects of the welfare state and the military, this was happening for me in the beginning in the 90s. And so I was sort of living neoliberalism, and then asking historical questions about the mid to late 20th century that couldn’t be disentangled from the actual present day dynamics that I was in. And so it sort of felt like I was starting to embark on a history of the present that I was trying to figure out these, these questions. And so, I just bumped into them over and over again, and then began to really, particularly after I was working on the history of the military, and had to face privatization really squarely, I think, and it’s a huge… Privatization has affected the American state at the national, state level and local level, profoundly, over the past 40 years or so. And having to learn it really carefully in one sector, the military, is what I ended up doing. And so that puts this question of like, what are state functions? What is the role of the private sector? What does it mean to govern a public good? What does it mean to delegate that governance at the center of that analysis? And then, I think that really what’s happened is that that has come home to roost, and the very institution in which I have done all of this work in the institution of the public university, in the United States. And it’s no secret, of course, to anybody who works in higher education that the same political and economic trends that have affected the US State have profoundly affected higher education, largely public, but also private, I think, to very significant degrees. And so it’s like, then I was not only sort of living in the same time period as neoliberalism and asking historical questions that related to the present, but I was actually living the historical experience of it in my own institution, watching the increasing devastation that’s resulted from it. And then more or less, I think, panicked. I panicked when COVID-19 happened, and I was like: now what will happen? It will only get worse. I don’t think I would have had the wherewithal, I have to say this, to call some people together, some friends and scholars, to think about what we could do for higher education. If two things weren’t also happening, and that is that if I hadn’t been a member of a really effective union at Rutgers, and I think it’s worth thinking about the importance of the labor movement, when we think about what’s happening in higher education right now and what’s happened over the years. I think we’re seeing, as you know, resurgent organizing in higher education across a variety of different job descriptions. There’s a lot of activism and militancy among graduate students, and grad workers, grad fellows, postdocs, but also I think, for contingent faculty, and we see this in strikes that have taken place over the past year and a half in higher education across the country. But my union at Rutgers, I think, is doing something with that militance and doing organizing in a new way that is, in fact, really exciting, and allows for the opportunity to imagine really different, not just outcomes for workers in higher ed, but different formations within higher education that return it to the public good. And so if I could just say, my union at Rutgers, which is Rutgers AAUP AFT, has been organizing for about the past five years on I guess what can really be described as quasi industrial lines. It’s been uniting workers from different divisions of Rutgers. So medical faculty with faculty at the University, with many different unions. I’m gonna get this wrong. It’s somewhere between 16 and 18 different unions representing Rutgers workers from staff, all the way through students, all the way up through different kinds of faculty members. It’s called the Coalition of Unions, And they have been working very hard to build solidarity among those unions and to confront the university collectively to make them consider the power of the entire group. And I think my leaders in my union are also really strategic, really politically savvy. They think of the work that they do at Rutgers as part of a much larger, national movement, not just only the work they’re doing at Rutgers. I think they have a vision of where they would like higher education to go, which is a vision of a real, public good, restored public funding, restored public governance, and protection of worker rights. And within that framework, I think, that vision allowed me to imagine what we might talk about as scholars who are playing a very different role from a labor union. We’re not a membership organization. We are trying to change the way people imagine what’s possible for higher education in this country. Imagine what’s possible for students, for families, for staff, for faculty, for communities, when they’re part of these institutions, and connected to these institutions; that they might have a democratic say in them that they might benefit from them without going into usurious debt, that we might actually, really prioritize research and teaching and focusing on our students and producing knowledge, understanding, the things that we think are important and necessary in a complicated and changing world. And I think that drawing on the vision that comes out of this particular union was a real source of inspiration for the work that we’re doing. And then I would just say, the other place that the work came from in Scholars For A New Deal For Higher Education, for me, was as a graduate mentor. I think that is very personal. When you are at a big research university, and you have a Ph. D program, and you’re taking on graduate students, these are long term commitments that you take on to students. You get to know them and their work very well. And it is heartbreaking, and a travesty to think that these students who are smarter than me, who are fantastic, are not going to have a secure place of employment going forward. And that really, I think, is devastating. It’s devastating for them, of course, even more than me, but just, it’s heartbreaking. And so that was another real source of this desperate move to see what maybe we could do as researchers, scholars, teachers, to change the discussion on higher education.

Scott Ferguson:  So maybe we can pivot here, to hear the story of how the organization came into being. Who called who first? Where did the name come from? What actions did you pursue at first and that kind of thing?

Jennifer Mittelstadt:  Well, so it started with me panicking. And I was panicking because I was the Director of Graduate Studies. And I was watching my own university struggle with the adjustment that occurred in March of 2020, to this pandemic world. And I had a lot of hope that the university would do right by the graduate program and the graduate students. And I also had a lot of hope that maybe the federal government and the state government would do right by the university. And by early April, or mid April, I guess it was,  it looked like it might not go that way. And it looked like in fact, the university was not going to collect the statistics on the number of people who had had their field work, or their research in archives cut short, and we’re clearly going to need extra funding. The state legislature made it clear that it was cutting the budget, not increasing the budget. And it wasn’t until June that the federal government actually agreed to think about giving any funding to higher education. So I just contacted a few of my friends who, like me, were really trained in the history of the state and the welfare state. And we’d work together over the years, particularly on issues of social welfare, coming together in different formations at different times around mostly trying to advocate for programs for low income Americans and for women. And I said, Do you want to start a change.org petition that just asks Congress to give funding to higher education like they give to the airlines. We’re a much bigger industry than the airlines, actually, higher education. We do very important work and so they agreed right away. There was a collection of about six of us. And that was the start of it. And then once we got a massive number of people signing on to it, we started to think bigger, like, what could we do with some of this energy? And then we moved to professional organizations in higher ed and asked groups. In my field in history, that would be the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association. For people who worked in musicology, it was the National Association for Musicology, etc, and asked them, would you sign a letter in support of this? And in the course of doing that, we moved to the national AAUP and AF T. And that’s where we started to talk to them about whether or not a bigger program oriented around advocating for a new funding model for higher education could actually take place during this time of crisis. And I have to say, as historians, most of us in the group, because that’s who I knew, were historians. I guess we honestly looked back to history a little bit to try to imagine what was possible. And we landed on the New Deal, which is not a perfect historical model. But in the crisis of the 30s. I think a lot of people asked not only what had caused the crash of 1929, but more importantly, what was the depression telling them about the broader failures of economic and social systems. Why they needed to be totally overhauled in order to give people new and better security in their lives. And it wasn’t perfect, as I said, it had a lack of commitment to gender and racial equity that actually we find ourselves dealing with today, this legacy. But I think, actually, we thought that both its successes and its failures prompted us to ask, at this historic moment in this crisis, could we do better? And so we started to think of it as actually a True New Deal for higher education. And then just worked in an ad hoc, manic fashion, talking to anyone we could talk to, having meetings whenever we could, trying to pull people on board, and producing the series of partnerships. So we did end up partnering for about a year and a half with the AAUP and the AFT. And they took on a campaign for a year that was aimed at trying to get the Biden administration and Congress to consider in that period, would they provide massive support for higher education, with strings attached that protected labor, that sent money towards research and teaching, that considered lowering drastically the cost of tuition, and considered the matter of student debt and debt forgiveness. That didn’t pan out, as we all know. At the same time, we worked with the Roosevelt Institute to write a white paper on this subject. And then we began talking with labor unions. And I think also because of the really good connections that we had with with Rutgers, and being here in the Northeast, where there are a lot of active unions like PSC CUNY for it, which is the City University of New York union and the big SUNY unions, which is State University of New York. We worked with them to think about even alternative formations in higher education labor. We had a big plenary session where the idea for Higher Education Labor United was born. And Higher Education Labor United, for people who don’t know, is like a cross-union organization that brings together people in different higher education unions across the country who really want to pursue what I would call the closest model that exists right now: College For All. Their vision of protecting labor and higher education has to be embedded within College For All. So actually, then, we all pushed not only for the Biden administration to do more with things like the infrastructure bill Build Back Better, for example, but to support the Bernie Sanders and Pramila Jayapal College For All bill, again, which was reintroduced. And that was not successful either. So I think a lot of us who were involved in that mobilization in 2021 are now going back regrouping and seeing where do we go forward? I think Higher Education Labor United is really drawing in more and more people working at the local, state and national level to try to build support for this broader vision. We are doing our part, we’re writing op eds, we started a newsletter. We have toolkits that people can use to bring these questions, the fundamental questions about what is the crisis in higher ed, the fundamental questions of governance and academic freedom in higher ed, the fundamental questions of College For All and supporting a truly public good: we’ve created these toolkits that people can use if they want to bring it to one of their national conferences, if they want to bring it to their faculty senate, if they want to basically do an educational process in whatever organizations they’re in to raise awareness about it. So we’re working on a number of different fronts to change the horizon on what’s imaginable, I think, in higher education, along with a collective of allied groups who come from different spaces, to see what we can do and how we can sort of keep planning and strategizing for what’s coming down the road.

Billy Saas:  So glad you have mentioned twice now that those initial moments early in the COVID pandemic. I remember them very vividly, it was such an intense time. And I think I wonder if we have higher ed workers to reckon with at that moment. Or even culturally, broadly, I’ve thought this a lot and just in general terms, it’s like, oh, that happened. Yeah, we’re moved on now. Like, COVID is definitely not over. But do you sense that moment, that energy that accumulated in March, April, May, June, July, around higher education, or I mean, we at Money on the Left, were very busy with the Uni currency project. And that was that moment. There were just a lot of ideas and energy flowing. Do you see that still today? Is that continuous? Has it diminished as it naturally would?

Jennifer Mittelstadt:  A really good question, I think, I think it’s taking new forms is I think what’s happening. I mean, one can’t operate at a level of panic and manic organizing, at the same level, for a continuous period. If you look at the history of social movements, there are these peak moments where everyone can come together and put in what you might think of as a double time, you know, they can put in double time, double resources. But it’s unsustainable for a long period of time. So then you sort of see periods of consolidation of the knowledge and gains that have been made. A repositioning, a gathering of energy and deciding, again, what your strategy is, and the tactics that go with that strategy for a new period. And that’s if you’re lucky, right? Because sometimes these things are so exhausting for the people who are involved that it’s very hard to sustain, period, right. So I think a lot of people are who’ve I’ve worked with here, so both in the scholars group, and in some of the other formations, were able to make real gains in getting the messaging out, or in organizing in the labor movement and enforcing contracts in the labor movement, or in really putting a new possibility, like forgiveness of student debt on the table. And then there’s this pushback, and then you stop and you think, Okay, what do I do with the gains that were made? Because those were real. And how do I continue to fight the barriers that are coming up? And I mean, I can really only speak for myself and our group. And in some ways, I think our group is better organized, with a clearer understanding of what we might think of as we’ve done a full power analysis of the lay of the land, I guess, in higher education is what I would, I would say. We’ve learned a lot in the past three years about what we can do, where our relative strengths are, where our weaknesses are, where someone else is better suited to do the work. We’ve learned a lot about strategic possibilities of partnerships. We’ve started to learn more. I mean, you think that people who study politics and the state would be savvier about governance and trying to influence elected officials, but we’re, I think we’re still maybe I don’t want to say we’re naive. I would just say it’s a more complicated terrain than we would have known. So we’re learning a lot of that, and are really committed to keep going. I mean, I have to tell you with all of the sadness, and I guess, pessimism that accompanies doing this work, I feel like the only way you can go to bed at night and get up in the morning, is if you try to do something about it. And so I wouldn’t say so much that I have optimism as I just feel like a necessity to keep trying, to keep throwing things at it. And I think that’s the way a lot of people in our group feel. What we’ve learned is, it can get worse. So even stopping it from getting worse is important. And so the things that we can do, to mobilize and throw obstacles in the way of worse, are worthwhile, as well. So, you know, that’s my take on it. It’s interesting, I wonder if you talk to somebody in labor, they might feel a little more excited, because of the particular gains, sort of, in particular realms in that sector. But what’s so complicated is that they’re occurring on almost separate tracks. So like, here in the Northeast, and in California, I think labor unions are making big gains in places where labor unions have sway in state politics, and with people who are in politics of the state who have national ambitions and who have declared themselves on the side of labor, and some gains have been made. I see what’s happening in Florida, for example, or in North Carolina, for example. It just looks like not only can labor not make any gains, but the legislature is on fire in their attacks on higher education. That looks like it’s growing stronger, those attacks. They are more emboldened in what they’re doing. And that’s, you know, half the country, more than half the country. Those are essential institutions in the states where they operate, employing hundreds of 1000s of people overall, educating millions of students, and that I find sort of terrifying. So like in certain parts of the higher education world, I think there are these reasons for hope. And then there are other reasons I think, for I mean, maybe not despair, but terror?

Scott Ferguson:  Absolutely terror. I mean, I can speak to the Florida situation a little bit since that’s where I live and work. And hope and terror comes from strange, strange sources. So the faculty senate at my university really was a sleepy body for a long time, but I think it really stepped up when it came to the financial politics of the university around COVID austerity in ways that were really helpful and impressive. Obviously, the moves of this hard right Governor and legislature are terrifying. And then what’s so interesting is that just in the last couple of weeks since at least the recording of this who knows what’s going to happen by the time this comes out, but they are so out over their skis with radical right wing authoritarian, if not fascist legislation, that they are testing the bounds of administrative workability. So they want to make all of these drastic changes. They want to abolish DEI funding and discourse. They want to abolish, not just Critical Race Theory, but Critical Theory and anything that can be associated with it. They’ve wanted to dissolve women and gender studies programs, Africana Studies programs. And just in the last couple of weeks, the reconciling of the two bills in the House and the Senate have led to people in the legislature realizing that the Florida US state education system is going to lose its accreditation. And they actually can’t do this even if they want to. Obviously, they’ve taken over New College, which is a public small liberal arts college, which is a bastion of left wing and LGBTQ+ culture. And that remains terrifying there. They’ve denied tenure to a handful of hardworking scholars. So it’s an ongoing situation. But I will say I breathe a sigh of relief, whenever it was a week or two ago, when I learned that, actually, these bills going through the legislature were being really, really rolled back or tempered down from what their original plans were. But I guess I remain rattled, terrified, and I know that they think they have a mandate, and they’re going to keep going and going and going.

Jennifer Mittelstadt:  I think we’re seeing that in other places. I mean, that’s just what happened a couple of days ago, in North Carolina. There’s been a progressive attack there as well, but the breadth of the budget cuts, and the breadth of the takeover of academic governance, decisions about hiring, firing, tenure, you know, promotion, things like that is now becoming clear. And, of course, the things are tied, right? So I mean, the right is really emboldened by these portrayals of people in higher education and pedagogy curricula, right, that it’s radical, and that it’s, you know, filled with ideas that they find terrifying regarding sexual and gender rights and understandings about racism and inequality. And those serve as a cudgel, really, to attack higher education that makes possible the actual administrative and budgetary gutting of it at the same time. The two are not disconnected, they’re of a piece, and if you look at the longer history, of course, the right has been railing against higher education for a very long time. It just so happens, I’m in the archives on a project now on the right and US foreign policy. And although I’m mostly looking at foreign policy, every folder I look in, in the correspondence has something about the corruption, subversion and perfidy of professors in higher education, whether it’s in the 50s, 60s, or 70s. It really took form, I think, in the 1980s, with David Horowitz and some others who were really going after Women’s Studies programs, and African American Studies programs, and I think, in some ways, never went away. It became a hallmark of thinking on the right, that universities were these hopelessly left as places where people on the right were discriminated against. But as other things were, I think, vivified by the election of Trump and the transformation of the Republican Party in that period, so too was this long term argument reignited. And now it’s on steroids, I think. And it’s no coincidence, though, that the other thing that has been happening over that period, and more so in Republican dominated states than democratic ones, is the diminution of funding, the cutting of state funding for higher education. So where the states spend far less in general, per student proportionally than they spent 30 years ago, and the portion of the state budget that goes to higher education is much lower. There are some complicated reasons for that. There are a lot of health care costs that states didn’t have before that they have now. But mostly, it’s been a decision to defund and privatize, to some degree, well, to a significant degree, public higher education. And those two things I think, are now both reignited with this idea that there is a budget crisis because of COVID. Right, that there’s an overall lack of funding in the United States now. That we all have to return to austerity, whether it’s a national government, the state government, or individual institutions. It coincides with the ramping up of the attack that is ideological in nature, on higher education and its self reinforcing. Your point though, about whether they sort of — what was that phrase you used? They’ve gotten out in front of their skis?

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, out over their skies.

Jennifer Mittelstadt:  Out over their skis, right. One wonders, maybe not only in terms of accreditation, but I think that people who are attacking higher education right now underestimate the degree to which actually a lot of Americans have a lot of trust in higher education. These are major employers in their towns, they’re proud of the schools that they went to. They want their kids to get an education that allows them to get a job and be, in their view, a productive member of society. It might be that the University is one of the few that supports the arts in their town, and they have a kid or a spouse who loves drama, or something like that, right? It might be the only museum within a 150 mile radius. The related spin offs that come from higher education to produce new firms doing work and the research that I don’t do, but so many colleagues do in the sciences and engineering, computer science and things like that. Yeah, keeping up the ability of your state to educate its own young people and not have a tremendous out migration of people to other states spending their tuition dollars in other places, right? I think that there’s a real possibility that I’m hoping that they will hit the limits of this, and that the people who, for very practical terms, have always relied on higher education will speak up and say: enough is enough. I mean, one of the things that I think is really interesting to think about is whether or not you will indeed see students in shorthand, what we might call red states, where more of the attacks on higher education are happening, make the decision to go to school in blue states. Now, for most kids who are going to school at a public institution, that might not be an option for them, because the in-state tuition is vital for their ability to attend a school of higher education. For those where there’s some reciprocity between states, and I know like Wisconsin and Minnesota have reciprocity. So you can use an in-state tuition voucher to go to school in Minnesota, if you live in Wisconsin. You could see the state of Wisconsin losing people to the University of Minnesota, because the state of higher education in Wisconsin is significantly poorer compared to the state of higher education in Minnesota. But I’m curious to see what are some of the outcomes of doing this? I mean, I’m not curious in a way, like, Oh, that’ll be interesting. I’m actually terrified and curious about it. Right? But I do wonder about how this is a long term trend, it’s very powerful. It’s just damaging higher education terribly right now. But your point about the overextension, your point about going too far, I think that’s real, too. And I’m hoping that the more we talk about it, the more we make our voices heard, the more we partner with communities and families and students, maybe we can get people to stop and say something about this, rather than just shake their heads at it in the paper.

Scott Ferguson:  To pivot from here, I would like to hear you talk a little bit about the educational challenges when you’re writing op eds, when you’re putting together workshops, when you’re putting together resources. I know when we first joined up with you all and had a Zoom, meet and greet, some of your colleagues in the organization were stressing over and over again how surprisingly little, let’s say faculty members at the universities in our country are aware of the budgetary politics. So maybe you can speak to that.

Jennifer Mittelstadt:  I can and when I when I think about this I feel like I have to be careful and diplomatic in a way because I think the lack of awareness among faculty members, particularly tenured faculty members, and maybe it particularly at institutions, which have a little bit more in the way of budgetary or political protection from attacks on higher education are unaware of it because some things haven’t changed that much in their own everyday lives. And I think it’s true for almost all of us, right? That the way that we become involved in a social movement or a political movement is when a problem comes to our door, our doorstep, and it affects us. And when it’s affecting you, and you can no longer do the things that you wish to do in the way that you wish to do them, you are forced into some action. And so that’s a shorthand to say that I think for some people, they feel that the problem hasn’t appeared on their doorstep in a form that can’t be ignored. And it, of course, is in their university, right? Any number of what we might call these bogus accounting systems that universities have adopted in order to shift the money around in ways that they want surely are affecting their lives. Any number of the privatized contracts that they’ve purchased, either for assigning rooms or class periods, poorly I might add in most cases, and they’re spending too much on them. That does affect their life. There are graduate students being unable to find jobs, those who teach at programs where they have PhD programs. That has affected their life, but maybe not dramatically. I think more and more people are now being affected dramatically. And the move by state legislatures in conservative states, affect even the flagship universities, public universities and their states. And so I think there is a growing awareness of the problems. That said, the very system that we are all operating in, in higher education, mitigates against this recognition because it has created this two tier system of, at least if we’re speaking of faculty of faculty members, where there’s actually not much interaction between tenure line faculty and non tenure line faculty and contingent faculty. And I don’t think that tenured faculty have fully appreciated the conditions under which non tenured faculty are working. And the penury and lack of dignity that is associated with that work. Not for all people who do that work. There’s some people who really just want to teach one class who are financially secure, who really enjoy it. But for a lot of other people, it’s really, incredibly difficult. And they haven’t realized that. So it is strange to take on the role of talking to your colleagues about the things that you think are really self evident, and have been happening for a long time in the very institutions where they’re working and saying, even if it’s not affecting you at this moment, it’s more than you think. It’s affecting you more than you think. And it’s affecting a lot of people around you who you’re relying on to have this university function, and we really have to do something about it. So yeah, I think it’s difficult. Another way to look at this, I will say, I use that metaphor of like a problem coming to your door, and you being unable to ignore it anymore. I think the other way that people become mobilized to act is when they can sit back and tell themselves a story, a coherent story about what they think is happening. And I think a lot of people don’t have the time to either learn about and then tell themselves the story, or they don’t even know where to go to get the full story. They’re just sort of living it bit by bit. I sort of imagine it as like, you’re driving down the road, and there’s this windshield, and one thing is coming at you after another but you haven’t risen up to, you know, 1000 feet to look and see Oh, there’s more stuff coming. And there was a lot of stuff behind me and what do I say about this perilous road I’m driving on? And I think that’s true, too. I have found that in my discussions, so one of the things that we do in Scholars For New Deal For Higher Education, is we get invited to go talk to faculty senates, or like the State Association of faculty. And it’s really interesting, there are people who feel like they’re hearing the story of the crisis in higher education for the first time, even though they say, oh, yeah, I remember that. And I saw that and I don’t like that. But it’s as though no one ever framed it as a really important historical narrative in which they were an actor, and there was sort of something happening to them, and there was something they could do about it. And, you know, I think, in large part, it could be because many of us who are in higher education are there, because we love our teaching, we love our research, we get really involved in day to day classroom issues, we get really involved in our day to day labs, we get really involved in our research, you know, moment by moment. And it’s hard to make the time to sort of come up when you’re taking all that really seriously. And we all know that that just has its own inherent challenges, to sort of look up and take on even more. So, you know, I think there are a variety of different reasons for why there isn’t just a massive outcry of the, whatever it is, over a million faculty members or something that people who work in higher education all at once. And there’s also, let’s face it, drastically different experiences. The experience of somebody who is teaching at Harvard is really different than the experience of someone who’s teaching at a community college in Louisiana, and sort of making the alliances between that we’re kidding ourselves if we think that there’s not a gap there and a difficulty. So there’s plenty of room for work, I guess that’s what I would say. There’s plenty of room for talking to people and hearing from them, and having them find a way to articulate their own stories, telling them stories about what’s happening and sort of seeing what can happen. For what it’s worth, I don’t think we, as a group of people who care about higher education, are much aided by the national media. And this, I think, is a great disappointment. I do think if there were more local news, unfortunately, journalism has been gutted by Neoliberalism over the past 40 years, as well. If there were more local news, I think really local journalism would be all over this. These are really important institutions in towns, cities and states, colleges and universities, right. But at the national level, really, the interest seems to be only about, oh, trigger warnings, excessive use of trigger warnings. Are basically college students delicate flowers who can’t hear things anymore? Is there a scandal at Harvard about somebody who was fired for saying something that was perceived to be insensitive? I mean, this seems to be the level of interest, certainly of the New York Times. But I think other national publications in the media as well. And I think they just believe, like they don’t believe issues about labor and inequality and poverty are very interesting, in general and don’t believe they’re interested in higher education either. And so it does make it very difficult to educate the broader public about what’s happening when these stories aren’t covered. I have to say as I am incredibly worried about the attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion and the intrusion into research and teaching about gender and race, all of my courses hinge on these historical subjects. They hinge on the analysis that comes out of people who take those historical subjects seriously. But at the same time, It troubles me that often those stories are reported without the discussion on the takeover of tenure, promotion, hiring, budget. Because those are really existential questions, as well, for higher education. And we could be protesting about freedom of speech. And if we don’t also bring to light and have a light on these questions of governance and budget, we’ll all just not have jobs. We won’t be able to teach period, full stop. And so I think the media is really not doing us any favors. And if I could crack the code, I mean, we’re just trying to–the scholars group–we do a lot of joint writing in the group. There’s individual writing, too, but we do a lot of joint writing. And right now, we’re trying to put out an op ed about what’s going to happen when COVID funding ends May 31. So that’s the end of COVID relief funding. Three successive laws have been passed that have put about $76B into higher education. What’s going to happen when that funding disappears? Well, it looks like state legislators and governors, even in blue states, are using that opportunity to confer with our Board of Governors to institute greater cuts. And they actually are sort of pointing at institutions of higher education and saying, Well, you got all this extra money for three years, like, now it’s time to pay the piper. Now, there’ll be budget cuts, because you spent that money. But of course, they were supposed to spend that money. That was the point, right? And they’re using this as an occasion to enact yet more of the same types of policies of poor choices in a corporate style governance, that de-emphasize research, teaching and the services that students need in favor of spending on other things. We can’t get anyone to take that op ed. We’ve gone to three different places, and they just say, that’s not really on our agenda. And you think, Okay, this is an industry that educates 19.7 million students every year. It’s in every single state, every, many different cities and towns. We thought Ed’s and meds, we were told, were supposed to be the source of economic growth in the United States, but isn’t it an interesting story that they’re being cut to the bone? So it’s difficult, it’s difficult to do the work and, and get the word out. And I really wish people who worked in the national media would understand higher education is more than an opportunity, basically, for clickbait by bringing up sensitive subjects.

Billy Saas:  I’ll go ahead and bring up my own sensitive subject. You mentioned a couple of times, tenure, which also, in the last couple of years, Georgia has put tenure under threat. We just talked to Liz Anker for a previous episode, and she’s at Cornell studying paradox and looking at the importance of the logical framework of paradox and like critical theoretical work over the last, you know, 30-40 years in the humanities. I feel like tenure is one of those paradoxes where it is critical, critically important, in that it guarantees academic freedom. Guarantees are in quotation marks, right? It’s never really 100% certain, but it’s this important thing, right? We need to defend it, and we have come out and the AAUP and other organizations do a lot of work to make this case. On the other hand, to get there as a junior faculty member, which a lot of those folks who I think would like to be vibrantly participating in and spending their time in addition to teaching, in addition to research, fighting for higher education. The instruction broadly, and not everybody does this, but the mandate on the tenure track is keep your head down, do your work, spend your time wisely so you can get tenure, and you can get that prized security, and be a better advocate. But you go through that process of six, seven years, eight years of keeping your head down, and it’s hard to recalibrate. And so the paradox of tenure as a thing to be prized, but also maybe in its current structure, as it’s been developed over the century plus that it’s been around as problematic, but also, I think, as importantly, emblematic of a deeper rooted problem of faculty culpability for the situation that we find ourselves in now. I think tenure is good. In one of our Uni papers, we talk about Tenure For All. We want those basic rights and job security for everybody. Is there space in this conversation, or maybe it’s a conversation best reserved for later or for offline about not just say, Hey, this is happening. But hey, this is happening, and here’s your part in it, and here’s how here’s what we need to do differently beginning yesterday.

Jennifer Mittelstadt:  Let me just give you an example. I mean, those are excellent questions, I just want to say, and I like the opportunity to think about it and to think about how it’s operating in the work right now that we’re doing and Scholars For a New Deal for Higher Education. It’s exciting, sort of think about this. Let me give you a really specific example. So I told you that we’re just trying to get this op-ed placed. So I’m co authoring it with a colleague of mine in North Carolina. And we’ve been writing together for many years, and we’re very good friends, and we hit an impasse Monday. We had the weekend to think about what we were looking at, and very understandably what she said is this op ed contains a criticism of the administrations and leadership in higher education in the use of COVID funds that I as a faculty member in North Carolina, where the state legislature is so vicious, and so heartless and loath to air, publicly in a way, right now, when mostly what I need is to attack the legislature. That is where the greatest danger is right now. I don’t disagree that people in the administration have made and continue to make terrible decisions, the austerity of 1000 cuts type decisions. But I can’t make that an equal partner in this critique that we have right now about what’s going to happen to higher education. And I, coming from New Jersey, in a state where there was more funding for higher education where I have a powerful union. And where, really, I think one of the real problems we have at Rutgers is terrible administration. Literally horrible administration. It has made budgetary decisions that are illegal, we were sanctioned for the way that the accounting department did its accounting, taking I want to say, I’m gonna get the number wrong, many, many, many, many, many millions in the 10s of millions of dollars out of the education budget, putting it in the athletic budget, and calling it revenue for the athletic budget. That got hearings in the state legislature. So we have a terrible administration. And I felt like that’s something that I can talk about, that needs to be talked about. But I think in different places, in different settings, the question of where, how much we bring to light, elucidate and discuss critical University matters is a question of real politics that I think has to be taken seriously. I don’t fault my colleague for wanting to shift the op-ed so that readers that she felt in North Carolina and the South could sort of take clear aim at the state legislators. It’s complicated to tell the story of higher education in a way that does justice to the numerous sources that are undermining it without undermining overall support for higher education. So I mean, a way that we might put it as just if we take a look at the COVID funds, right. So if you do a deep dive into the way that the COVID funds were used, half of the COVID funds went directly to students who are in need. The other half went to institutions. The funding that went to institutions was allowed to be used for a wide variety of reasons. I think one of the things that’s most remarkable is that there’s actually been very little detailed reporting on what institutions have used that funding for. A shocking level of opacity, really I think, surrounding it. Whether it’s on purpose, or whether it’s because everybody’s moving quickly, whether it’s because the federal government hasn’t demanded the detailed accounting that one might want. I don’t actually know. And I’m not an expert in that. However, there is self reporting that they did at a very general level. And it really looks like, except for HBCUs, about only 60% of institutions used their funding to maintain critical programs and to maintain faculty and staff. So that means they’ve pocketed the money and used it for other things. They might have used it to pay down private debt, for example. They might have used it just to compensate themselves for certain losses in revenue. What they didn’t do is draw on their rainy day funds, and many big research universities, even public ones, have them, and a fraction of a percent would have allowed them to keep a lot of the programming that they wanted. Or to put the COVID funds back in the rainy day fund, but spend some of it out. I mean, there were many, many options, and that didn’t happen. And it leads us to conclude when we think about the end of COVID funding that because so many schools basically doubled down, school leadership doubled down on their ongoing long term plans to build revenue through high tuition and attracting students. Meanwhile, cutting academic teaching and research and support budgets in order to fund the bells and whistles that need to attract those students. Right? They doubled down on that during COVID, using the COVID funds. It seems like they’re going to triple down on it when the COVID funds end. That’s a complicated story to tell people who live in communities where a university operates. It’s a complicated story to tell parents who may have taken out a loan for their child to be able to get a higher education, right? It runs the risk of making people who won’t differentiate between the university and its leadership, it runs the risk of portraying the institution as sort of feckless or disorganized, or untrustworthy or something. Part of the difficulty is carving out, in these critical discussions of higher education, the nuances of the different groups that we know exist within the orbit of higher education. Thinking about who they are, how they evolved institutionally, what their particular role is, and then communicating why some of those roles are more detrimental than others. It’s really complicated. So I think tenure is one of those things, right? Talking about tenure is one of those hard nuts to crack. And it’s difficult because in fall 2021, I saw an interview with trustee McMillan Cotton. And she talked about tenure. And it was one of the best discussions I’d seen about tenure ever. And what she pointed out was that it’s really hard to defend tenure right now. Because job insecurity is endemic across every sector, not just higher education. And it looks more and more like an outlier and a period where people don’t have steady careers and steady jobs, where unions overall have declined. The whole changing nature of the economy that you all know very well, right. It’s very hard to do that. And also, when we want to defend it on the grounds of academic freedom and expression, that’s something most people in their day to day lives don’t have a lot of familiarity with, and contact with. And it doesn’t really move them, I think. And what she said, and I think this is true, is that really the only way to defend tenure is to think about it as the best expression we can imagine of what it means to have secure, stable employment. And that it should be, as you said, Billy, for all. That some version of stable, secure employment should exist in this country for people. Tenure is one expression of that. And if we let it go because it looks slightly better than the work situation in other fields, we let go like one of the bulwarks that we can have for envisioning, for protecting and I think envisioning what stable, secure employment could look like. What you’re pointing to, I think, is this paradox, because you started with the word paradox, that tenure can also function counter to the very political processes that we would like to foster and ignite. Of course. It asks faculty members to do precisely the thing that we as activists don’t want them to do, which is to put their head down to do nothing but their work to close their vision on the things that distract them from that. And if you’re one of the lucky people who basically got your hands on the golden ring as it’s evaporating, you’re loath to let go. Right? That’s real for those people to be one of the last quarter of people in the United States who have access to tenure. Right now 75% of people who work in higher education work in contingent positions. That’s not nothing. And that person may have a tremendous amount of student debt. They may have obligations for care in their community or in their family, and it makes a difference that they get this. And so to sort of admonish them that they can’t do what I, for example, did, which was keep my head down for seven years and get tenure. I wasn’t ignorant of other things. It was also another period of time long ago. But I did have that privilege to be able to do it. And it’s now that I do have a secure position that I am able to actually say really hard things about my university, about my university president, about the board, in general. I have the space to be able to do that. So yeah, I think it really is a paradox. And I don’t know if I have a solution to it. In general, I think that the –how would I put it– that the limiting and inaction that it might produce among a small number of people who are actually going through the tenure process, it’s not the most important thing that is standing in the way of success in this movement. It is one element. And so making it a target, for me, doesn’t make sense.

Scott Ferguson:  Speaking of difficult nuts to crack and other metaphors like that. So we came to you because obviously, we’re we’re dedicated to Modern Monetary Theory and other theories of what’s sometimes called endogenous money creation, which sees money as a governance project, a creature of law, and essentially, as a credit relation or a credit-debt relation that does not behave like a finite thing that must be transferred from one entity to another. Evacuating the coffers of one space to fill up the coffers of the other. And we’re very dedicated to critiquing the kinds of zero-sum logics that come with Orthodox and even a lot of critical political economy. We were so grateful that our historian colleague, David Freund put us together, and that you were willing to hear us out. And I think especially when one is trying to make the case, often in places of power on the national stage, or the stage of the state or wherever, this organization of yours is working and trying to convince people. Modern Monetary Theory, and this whole other perspective, can feel, I’m sure, like a lot. Like, yes, I understand. But, people already think I’m crazy. So why would I add more crazy to my crazy, and I respect that. I respect it, and I am, again, so grateful that you’ve invited us to collaborate and to publish alongside you all. And it’s been really wonderful. And I look forward to more workshops, more collaboration, more publishing. But I’m wondering, do you have any thoughts about this? And you can be honest, I mean, I’m trying to open up the door to honesty. Yeah, so the floor is yours.

Jennifer Mittelstadt:  So David Freund and I went to graduate school together. And I was down in DC for something in I think 2008-2009. He told me he was starting on a new project. And the way David works is really exciting. I think he’s one of the most exciting historians who does 20th century US history. And what he tends to do is take on a subject matter and then question the knowledge creation that is behind that subject matter and historicize it right. So he did that with property in his first book, and now he’s doing it with money. And I’m sure he’d be the first to say, the learning curve on money was steep for him. And I remember he gave me a really early draft, I want to say somewhere around 2010-2011 that I don’t even know what it was, if it was an article or piece of a chapter or just some thoughts he had. And I remember where I was when I was reading it, which took like two and a half hours, because every sentence I had to say to myself — Okay, so he was basically explaining going back to the history of heterodox money, right? Like heterodox money theories. And then recapitulating what the orthodox view is and and what the heterodox view is, and where it made its way into certain policies in the US. And I mean, I was pausing like every sentence to sort of say: OK, now say this out loud to yourself. Now put it in your own words to see if you can understand it.  And it was so hard, though, is my point. I can learn other things more easily than I learned this. What was hilarious about it is I went back to the memo I wrote, because I think I wrote him something on it. And I forgot all of it. Like, I don’t even remember it now. And so when David said to me I think you should meet these people on Monday on the Left, who are talking about this Uni considering what you’re working on now in higher education, I thought, Okay, well, I have to learn it all again. So I’m just going to just say from the outset, that I have not learned it all again, but I’m going to tell you the bit that I’ve learned, that I think is really compelling, as somebody who has studied the history of the state and Governance and politics broadly construed. I have to make an analogy, really, with the ways that the subjects that I’ve looked at, in order to understand it. And the way I understand it, and it may be imperfect, is that many government functions have been performed through delegated governance outside of the government, or inside the state by state actors. And can be considered public, in some sense, in either framework. But in fact, the balance of power shifts, the control over whatever the function is can shift if it’s delegated governance to the private sector. It depends on which institution and in the private sector that might be, but it might become associated with things that are decidedly non-public, whether it be religion, or whether it be profit making and corporations or what have you. And for me, the way I understood what David and what you all are sort of saying about money is not just this question of the finite that you pointed out, and not just understanding money as credit, but for me, what’s most compelling is understanding money and credit as public functions that have, in fact, for reasons that I don’t know, because I still don’t know the history, I’m waiting for David. Why they have been, in fact, turned over largely to the private sector and are treated in a way that does not allow them to be marshaled for public democratic governance or good. And that is what I think lies at the heart of what the problem is in higher education. It’s deciding that so much of it will not, in fact, operate as a public good or for the public good. But deciding that higher education is a site for revenue generation, or deciding that it’s a market that firms can feast on and grow their own profits on. Deciding to operate it using logics within the institution itself that come from the private sector. That is creating terrible problems of effectiveness and inequity. Basically what happened to me is, I thought hey, anyone who wants to bring some tool in this battle to reimagine higher education as a public good is an ally. And I’m going to really try to wrap my head around it, and I’m going to really try to think about it. And this is a particular value because it, like no other theory out there, I think, like no other understanding questions the total logic of finite resources, full stop. Right? That, I think, is a really powerful tool. And if what we in Scholars For a New Deal For Higher Education want to do is provide opportunities to change the horizon of what’s possible. This seems like a pretty astounding horizon. One undervalued underappreciated, and I will not lie more than one person said. Oh, they’re crazy.

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, that’s learning!

Jennifer Mittelstadt:  Yeah, I’m not surprised at all. We feel crazy. We feel crazy, but also we can’t unsee it.

Billy Saas:  I feel perfectly sane, Scott.

Scott Ferguson:  Well, my sane colleague will speak.

Billy Saas:  Yeah. I think, in terms of heuristics or keywords or shortcuts to understanding MMT and how this transition that it sounds like David’s describing, for me that’s been helpful, and Scott and I have had conversations about this before, to read the ascendance and maintenance of Orthodox money theory as a fundamentally demophobic, like it’s informed by a deep fear of democracy. Yes, it positively also serves private interests and profit seeking for all the fun that that can be for people. But I do think we can point back to, there’s a great quote from Paul Samuelson that we love to talk about where Paul Samuelson wrote like the most influential economics textbooks of the 20th century. He’s on camera for a documentary about Keynes and he’s asked about the importance of the balanced budget. And he says something along the lines of, I might play the clip here for people who haven’t heard it enough, saying that it’s important that the idea we must balance the budget remain in place because if it didn’t, anarchistic, chaos and inefficiency would prevail., Those are his exact words. So you have this authoritative, probably the most widely recognized, at least in academic circles, economist saying: Yeah, it’s not true effectively, but it serves important social, cultural, political functions, and so we ought to keep it in place. And I think that that bears out when we look at, and maybe I’m not locating demophibia in critics of MMT so much as I am saying there’s a discomfort, potentially, that I think comes with it. I think, maybe full stop, unmitigated democracy isn’t the best way to go. But then that’s a conversation we can have, I think, but I do think that there is something fundamentally, there’s more faith in democracy in the heterodox money theory of MMT, than you can find in others.

Jennifer Mittelstadt:  There’s more faith in public institutions, also. Like the way I read the Uni, there’s a way to read that, and wonder what it is about the leadership of public universities, that makes them actually decline to take a power that they might have. Decline to gain greater autonomy than they might otherwise have. You talk about demophobia, and I’m not sure if that’s right, but there is a fear, I think, of relinquishing the discipline and authority of the private sector and banks. And there’s a fear of moving outside of that world. I don’t think it’s only an intellectual question. I think it’s a real question of power and people and material interests. I mean, there’s absolutely no question that the people who run universities, whether they’re presidents of universities or whether they’re the boards, have real material ties to private sector firms, and banks. Some of them come from that world in order to sit on the boards. Others expect that when they finish up their positions, they will be able to take those positions. The idea of declaring themselves able to issue credit, and to take on that power and authority would make them anathema among the very institutions that they currently rely on in order to make their institutions run and that they rely on for a material and political status or legitimacy. Because when I looked at it, I said it was fantastic. I’m a desperate Provost or university president. And I need some ways to be able to keep my programs running to fund my amazing staff, you know, and faculty, to benefit people who live in my community. Let me see if I can give this a try by exercising my power to really think about credit and what it could do. And I feel okay, so that’s what we would do. Maybe, I don’t know. If I do, I’d need a consultation on that. I don’t really know how it worked or anything like that, despite having read the article multiple times. I mean, what is it? I mean, it brings you back, I think, to these questions of learning a power analysis of the situation, the disincentives that there are for people to acknowledge the multiple ways in which we all might more have have more control over the resources and functioning of the institutions we’re a part of than we think we do.

Scott Ferguson:  One of the things that I often point out is that the MMT and endogenous money framework is actually far more straightforward and dare I say simple than the neoclassical framework, the Marxist framework because it simply says that money is a function of government, loosely defined. It doesn’t have to be the modern nation state of governance. And it is a legal structure that is designed and that can be allocated and designed in any number of ways. So then, you just hit the ground running from there. So you ask, well, how is my society of money designed? How is it set up? Is the power to issue money delegated, principally, to private banks and private financial institutions? Is it organized to fuel a profit motive? Or is it designed in another way, and maybe it’s a mix design, and usually it isn’t a mix design. Where things get really complicated is when you have to work through the thorny forest of the dominant ideology to pull back all of its obscuring assumptions to see what’s actually going on. Where the authority, where the power structures are, and how they’re being delegated. And to me, that’s the ultimate lesson of the Uni. Look, we are 110% behind this project, and we’ll continue to advocate for it and theorize it and write about it. We want to see it manifested in one way or another. But on the other hand, it also is a rhetorical tool, right? It’s designed to open up the question of wait, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, how are we delegating financial powers in this country, in general and then specifically around higher ed. So whether or not this leads anywhere that we’re projecting or imagining or wanting it to go is less important for us than cracking open the conversation such that we stop talking about, as we say, finding this finite money that’s circulating in private coffers, but instead going to the source and asking, how might we structure that source in a different way that’s serving people and communities and environments rather than private profit and corporate capital?

Jennifer Mittelstadt:  So when you say that it raises a question that I have for you two, and I’ve had from the start. I think, for me, the answer was very simple about why, after reading the Uni, I would want to hear more from you to bring you on board and to say, hey, you know, what can we talk about here, and that is because I want resources and I want democratic accountability in higher education, and this is one way to get it. However, there are a million other things and let’s just face it, College For All doesn’t take into account at all what you are thinking about, right? It is funded on a completely different model that we know, as is literally everything in the United States. Like all legislation. So I can see why I would just say, Hey, let a million flowers bloom, right? Like anyone who’s got an idea, let’s bring it. It seems to me, you can do two things at the same time, like we can try out Unis while we still live within a universe that still operates on a Keynesian or Neoclassical model. These two things can happen, right? But for you, I’m wondering what it’s like for you to imagine, as part of your larger project to also, I think, changing the horizon on what we can imagine about money. What it is, what it does, how it functions, what does it mean, for you all to collaborate on specific projects, where things get really down in the weeds with real people, real institutions? I mean, you are living in states where there’s real attacks on higher education, where you’re just gonna have to say, no, please don’t cut the budget. Not: actually, you can cut the budget, because I’m still going to just work on the Uni here. Right? Like, how does that feel for you all?

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, Billy do you want to take it?

Billy Saas:  I’m gonna see where you go.

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, I mean, the answer is complex. And it depends on what time it is. Right? Yeah, we all make strategic decisions to open our mouths and articulate certain things at different times. Okay, so one of your questions in there was about what does it mean to be thinking about — The broader project is reimagining money in its political horizon. I think the university system in the United States, but also elsewhere, but the university system in the United States is such an important case study. Not only because it’s in crisis, and we live in that crisis, and it’s a way of doing the organic intellectual work that Gramsci would appreciate. But it’s also an important case study because it develops and even problematizes some of the Modern Monetary Theory discourse. Some of the Modern Monetary Theory discourse, especially when it in its popularizing forms, will draw this very clean distinction between the state as a sovereign issuer of the currency and cast off everyone else off that sub federal government, all private entities, all nonprofits, any kind of economic organization as mere users of this currency. So the sovereign issuer can decide as sovereign when to spend, what not to spend, when to delegate currency-issuing power, or when not to delegate currency-issuing power. And everyone else is a user. And for us at Money on the Left, we’ve, for a long time been keen on complicating that, and nuancing that what to us is too severe of a binary opposition that actually is disempowering for local politics for sub federal politics. The state university systems are critically situated, I think, in the midst of this problematic as tremendously powerful public, often public, institutions that actually do have credit creation power, but instead we call it a bond issuance, and we say they produce credits for student credit hours, right? It’s already engaged, in a massive way, in credit creation, but pretends that it’s not. We all pretend that these institutions are weak and running out of money, and they’re on their heels, and whoa, what are they going to do? Well, we have to cut the budget. So I think one of the central points of significance about taking on the Uni and taking on university spending has to do with problematizing that anti democratic distinction between the issuer and the user. So that’s one thing I can say. When it comes to trying to collaborate, I mean, it also happens at different scales. So some of us, especially those of us who come out of heterodox economics and come out of the PhD Program at the University of Missouri Kansas City, they have learned and participated in and now continue to practice in their own classrooms, these very small scale community service based class currency projects that might last a semester at a time. Maybe they carry on beyond the semester, maybe they begin to grow ties with the surrounding community in a more ongoing way. And certainly, the work of our colleague Benjamin Wilson at SUNY Cortland is a premier example of that kind of work. And no one really thinks that’s crazy. That just seems like good community service learning out of a classroom. And our point is that well, yeah but what if you bring in the United States Treasury, and you scale this up to the entire University System across the country, and it would essentially be doing the same thing. But that’s when people start using words like nuts, right? Like, what are you even talking about? How could that even possibly work?

Billy Saas:  On that note, the ‘nuts how could that even possibly work’, I feel like it’s been illuminating over the years to come into that and, and get it said in different ways with sort of different implicit meanings. And I think most often the implicit ‘you’re crazy’ comes from a lack of faith that it’s politically feasible, right? Not that it’s wrong, right? Or that you’re fundamentally nuts. It’s that, yeah, because of all the entanglements that exist in place, and the lack of willingness of administrators at the university level to put themselves out on the line and risk their relationships with the private sector. That’s what’s crazy about it, it’s not that the thing itself is not. I think, for me, that’s heartening, because it’s good to not feel crazy. On the classroom currency thing, too, in the class that we just ended, or are ending now. Students designed, following the models of UMKC and other places that have done the classroom currency project, which is all about teaching money. But then also, you learn that teaching money is teaching collectivity, and living in common. What is this thing for and what social purposes does it serve? Rather than do the sovereign, I’ve developed this currency, you are now going out into the community to earn it and pay a tax at the end of the semester, which is roughly what those experiences have been so far as like, okay, you’ll design your own currencies, identify a social purpose or problem around this area that we’re in, in New Orleans, that can be solved by the creation of a complementary currency. They all came up with their own ideas, some of them were really great. And it’s clear, I guess, Scott. For me, it’s clearest, and it’s sort of a localist expression, and then the politics of the thing get impossible the further and further you get out from that classroom, that’s like a controlled thing. And that’s where I think that the skepticism, the critique is often coming from not on the logical analytical level, but the, you can’t do that level.

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, and we’ve worked with folks. Some Deans at a major university system that we will not name.

Billy Saas:  We had an article spiked in the Chronicle.

Scott Ferguson:  Oh, yeah. That’s something else. I guess we’re going on record saying that

Billy Saas:  No, I think cut out. Between you and us.

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, we finally got into The Chronicle of Higher Ed. And we wrote a piece and then they got cold feet, and they paid us not to run it. They paid us off.

Jennifer Mittelstadt:  Wow. Wow.

Scott Ferguson:  Talk about entrenched.

Jennifer Mittelstadt:  I will just add one last thing that it sounds like the way for this to go. I mean, y’all have to build up from the bottom right, you’re just gonna have to find a university you can take over and then see.

Billy Saas:  Or system! CUNY maybe.

Jennifer Mitelstadt: Exactly, and see how that goes. I just want to say it’s a really rare thing. One of the great things about Scholars For New Deal for Higher Education is meeting all the people and having fun. Honestly, one of the true gifts of having gone down this road is just meeting other super engaged people who are smart and fun and want to solve things and yeah. I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m really enjoying it. I plan to enjoy it in the future.

Scott Ferguson:  Well, let’s keep working together. So thank you so much for joining us and yeah, come back. Let’s keep talking.

Jennifer Mittelstadt:  Sounds good.

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

On Paradox with Elizabeth S. Anker

Elizabeth S. Anker joins Money on the Left to discuss her provocative new book, On Paradox: The Claims of Theory (Duke University Press, 2022). Anker is Associate Professor of English at Cornell University and Professor of Law in the Cornell Law School. In On Paradox, Anker contends that faith in the logic of paradox has been the cornerstone of left intellectualism since the second half of the twentieth century. She attributes the ubiquity of paradox in the humanities to its appeal as an incisive tool for exposing and dismantling hierarchies. Anker, however, suggests that paradox not only generates the very exclusions it critiques but also creates a disempowering haze of indecision. 

Tracing the ascent of paradox in theories of modernity, in rights discourse, in the history of literary criticism and the linguistic turn, and in the transformation of the liberal arts in higher education, Anker shows that reasoning through paradox has become deeply problematic: it engrains a startling homogeneity of thought while undercutting the commitment to social justice that remains a guiding imperative of theory. Rather than calling for a wholesale abandonment of such reasoning, Anker argues for an expanded, diversified theory toolkit that can help theorists escape the seductions and traps of paradox. In our conversation, we explore strong parallels between Anker’s call for a reparative “integrative criticism” and our own constructive hermeneutics of provision. 

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

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com


The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Billy Saas:  Elizabeth Anker, welcome to Money On The Left.

Elizabeth Anker:  Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here. Wonderful to meet you guys.

Billy Saas:  It’s great to meet you, too. We were just talking about coming into contact with your book and some of the reasons we’re excited about it. That book is On Paradox: The Claims of Theory out with Duke University Press in 2022. Before we get into and I think to help us contextualize our discussion, could you share a little bit about your personal and professional background and kind of the academic fields and concerns that have driven your scholarship and, and your teaching up to the point of like the publication of On Paradox?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, absolutely. I have an unusual background, and that I have both a JD, and a PhD in Literary Studies, and a joint appointment between the law school at Cornell and the English department. So I’ve spent lots of time thinking about both the stakes of interdisciplinarity and some of the challenges of doing interdisciplinary work and kind of speaking across audiences. So I’m incredibly sensitive to the difficulty of certain humanities fields that they experience in addressing wider audiences. But in a way, this book really stemmed from two different projects that I spent a lot of time working on, both of which were edited collections. The first was a big edited collection on law and literature, which is actually an interesting field because it was one of the first interdisciplinary junctures, so to speak. So scholars already back in the early 80s, were bringing literature to bear to think about legal questions, and vice versa. So a few years ago, I edited this collection with my friend and colleague at Stanford Law School, Bernie Meyler. And in the process of doing that, we really tried to make sense out of the dominant shape and orientation of scholarship that thinks about law and literature together. And in that effort to taxonomize and dissect these main approaches to that particular interdisciplinary field, we seized on a series of problems. And there’s a way in which those problems also inform some of the arguments that I make in this book. For instance, literature scholars tend to almost scapegoat law, precisely so that they can make the argument that literature comes along to save the day. So a lot of humanistic work on legal questions turns law, this big monolithic thing, into almost a kind of straw man. It’s really easy to be torn down, but through a series of super reductive critiques that actually ended up falsifying the legal process, and its real world operations in certain ways. One of the arguments in On Paradox has to do with this ongoing tendency to explain law in ways that are just plain inaccurate, and reductive and simplifying, I’m sure I’ll get to talk a little bit more about that in a minute. But the other big project that I spent years working on that very much sowed the seeds for this book, was another edited collection with my former mentor, Rita Felski on critique and post critique. Rita has written a lot about the limits of critique. And in a way, that’s a big project trying to weigh in on what people refer to as the method wars within theory. So this book On Paradox is kind of my own foray into the method wars to account for where theory has gone wrong, so to speak, and for the ways in which it needs to reinvent itself. So, just to sum up, a lot of the book stems from the fact that I’m somebody who has one foot in law and one foot in literary studies, and have therefore been able to assume something of an outsider’s vantage point, asking about the crisis in the humanities, and these larger trends that are overtaking humanistic inquiry. But with all of that in mind, there’s a way in which the book is also kind of my take on the crisis in the humanities. People have probably seen the recent article about “The Death of the English Major”. And these outcries about the end of the liberal arts or the corporatization of the university, have been on everybody’s mind of late. And in a way the book is also its own account of where that crisis came from. That’s in part an account taken from an outsider’s viewpoint and there’s a way in which I take an unpopular view, which is that humanists are in part responsible for their own growing obsolescence. Obviously, there are all sorts of other big factors tied to neoliberalism, and so on. But some of that responsibility that humanists carry themselves has to do with what I call paradox, or this idea that some other primary methodological approaches have either backfired or gone astray or simply haven’t delivered on their promise. So there is a way in which the book is a plea for humanists’ own self reckoning.

Scott Ferguson:  Thanks for that. So maybe we can focus a little bit more about the specific origins of On Paradox. It’s a pretty wide ranging book in terms of the topics and the issues that it covers. So what are the origins of this specific project? What questions did it emerge from? Did its arguments spring from a core inquiry or focus, we know from communicating with you that you were going to write a modest, small book about one little thing, and then it kind of blossomed into what it’s become?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, the book initially was going to be a mere fraction of its current length and scope. And it was initially an attempt to wrestle with what people have referred to as the human rights turn in the humanities, about 10 to 15 years ago. A whole series of humanistic fields: history, anthropology, even gender studies, literary studies, were all abuzz with excitement talking about human rights, and what rights were their limits and their promise, and I decided I was gonna write a short book that attempted to make sense out of that growing preoccupation. Given the skepticism about law that prevails within a lot of these fields, to me, it seemed perplexing that suddenly a bunch of literary critics thought human rights were so important, and were kind of rah rah jumping on the human rights bandwagon. In the process of accumulating, trying to digest, trying to make sense out of what on earth people thought they were talking about, when they started talking about human rights. I was struck by a series of things. The big thing being almost everybody either began or concluded by observing just how paradoxical rights were. So as a diagnosis of rights, paradox was held out and arrived at by almost everybody. And often people did so in a way that also presented paradox as some kind of epiphanic recognition. So I was struck by the kind of rote predictability of paradox as a way of talking about rights discourse and human rights. And in a way that’s absolutely true. There’s no question that rights have proven deeply paradoxical. They’ve been kind of impaled by their paradoxes, again and again, whether in practice, or as a philosophical construct, or even as a discourse. Rights are deeply contradictory. There’s no question about that. But I was nevertheless troubled by the uniformity of the ways that theorists were talking about rights. And in the process, I was also struck by the fact that paradox tended to stand in for deeply polar things. On the one hand, paradox was a way of talking about the fatalities of rights, the failures, the limits, the disappointments, the spent promise, so everything wrong with rights, it was almost a way of critiquing rights by saying they’re too paradoxical to be valuable. But at the same time, all sorts of other theorists and literary critics were citing paradox as the very locus of rights’ ongoing promise. The fact that rights were paradoxical was what made them fertile, fecund, open ended this valuable source of justice for the future. I was trying to make sense out of the fact that paradox meant two totally different things. And it often would even do so in the same study. Somebody would blame rights for being willfully paradoxical and therefore complicit with power. But then say, well, their paradoxes is also what makes them democratic and ethical, and just, so I was initially trying to wrestle with all of this and suddenly realized that this framework, these tendencies for making sense out of rights, were showing up in all sorts of other areas: debates about democracy, debates about the humanities, debates about modernity. And so I came to recognize that I was really attempting to map and contend with a whole kind of worldview or mentality, or even epistemology or way of knowing, we could say that really has been definitive of theory. So I felt the need to really broaden the focus of this initially narrow study on right, to make sense out of and grapple with the genetics of theory, so to speak, or some of the dominant assumptions that inform critical theory as this really far reaching intellectual formation and intellectual tradition. So it became, as one of my friends would tell me, a book about everything.

Billy Saas:  It really is a book about everything. And it got me thinking a lot about the evolution of my relationship with critical theory from the experience of graduate school, this sort of initial excitement of encounters with paradox. And then the eventual kind of malaise, melancholy and inertia that comes from paradox, ultimately realizing while on the job market, and then in my first job, that humanities scholars have been talking about these things for a long time, and our work conditions, our workplaces have not gotten the same kind of critical attention or critical self reflection, and that the paradox of that is, is very difficult to live with. And so I think part of what we’re up to here at Money On The Left, and our collective more broadly, is the kind of constructive, let’s build something, in place of this void of paradox. Let’s improve our workplaces. Let’s take that inventory and get to the business of making a better world which is why your work and Rita Felski’s work resonated for me, especially, but I know that her work and your work are also having broader and deeper impact. So we’re super excited to have you and to talk more about this.

Elizabeth Anker:  That comment very much captured the trajectory or history of this style of thought, or sort of intellectual mindset that I’m trying to track and make sense out of, which is that you’re absolutely right, that paradoxes are thrilling, and a particular style of thought, grounded in reasoning through paradox or the discovery of these, again, revelatory eye opening capacities of paradox was this exhilarating, new, highly creative thing when theory came of age in the Academy right. So with the advent of theory 50 years ago, or what have you, 40-50 years ago, paradox was new. But over the last 40 years, it’s become routinized. This particular style of thought that once carried all this promise has become too predictable, too much of what we do, and really fails to speak to our kind of lived conditions, and ongoing, most urgent political realities. So some of the book’s arguments are, first, that this style of thought needs to be updated. It’s become passe, right? Ideas that made sense 40 years ago, don’t necessarily make sense in the present. And one of the big reasons, secondly, that it needs updating is that it’s failed to translate into what we could call a practice, or an applied theory, or a set of tools for building better worlds. And I think one of my arguments is that it’s not only that it’s failed to translate, that this style of thought that I call paradox can actually short circuit or impede forms of real world action, because of the various sort of hang ups that come with it.

Billy Saas:  When you start to encounter administration, within the context of the university, you start to wonder to what extent that paradox, that style of thought, actually serves the system as it exists, the de facto administrative apparatus, and, of course, folks who end up in administration have been around for a long time, and they weren’t in those theory wars at the beginning or theory development at the beginning.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, just piggyback on that, we theorists have tended to presume that this method of reasoning that again, I call paradox, equals a particular politics, that to be attuned to paradox is to be a good lefty, to be a good radical to be social justice oriented. And that’s just not the case. This style of thought is highly susceptible to being co opted or hijacked. And in fact, I really think that’s what we’re witnessing at this moment in history, whether by administrators who might not actually have the best interests of English departments or other humanities fields in mind, or, frankly, by really powerful political actors who are kind of ruining democracy right now. I hope we get to talk a little bit about my next project at some point. But the thing I’m working on right now is precisely to try to track how this style of thought is being actively misappropriated to undermine and sabotage a left social justice progressive political agenda.

Billy Saas:  You can sort of see it in your teaching. And I wonder if this is something that you may have experienced, too, where the same kind of surprise and delight that I got from paradox as a student, maybe it’s my own failings as a teacher, but I struggle to reproduce that for students today because it feels so de rigueur, and not surprising, and not delightful, right? In fact, it’s all over everywhere. So where does pedagogy figure into your kind of view of the situation of paradoxes effects?

Elizabeth Anker:  You know, to be totally honest, pedagogy is where it gets hardest for me. On the one hand, it is absolutely true that paradox has become second nature to our current generation of college students, kids in their 20s. All you have to do is a quick search of Amazon for books with “paradox” in the title. That language actively works to trivialize and dumb things down and, again, applies to everything from food crises. So if anything, it’s become its own sort of neoliberal mantra, or self help recipe to talk about paradox and there’s a self-indulgent-wallowing-in-paradox-feel-good-self-discovery element that gets capitalized on in a lot of bestsellers, popular culture or what have you. So students, there’s nothing new about paradox to students. But I find that it’s tricky because I myself in the classroom sometimes do, nevertheless, praise the virtues of things like indeterminacy, inconclusivity, indecision, irresolution as values for awakening, or eliciting a particular kind of moral and ethical engagement. So pedagogy and the experience of teaching very much helped to crystallize and motivate some of the book’s arguments but, to be honest, it’s also where I find myself still championing and celebrating the powers of paradox and insisting that we still need some paradox, and there are still lots of things that we can learn from it. I’m by no means arguing that we need to do away with this style of thought, the book’s main take is that it’s simply become far too much of what we do. And if anything, the only thing that theorists have learned to do, and that’s the problem with it, not that it doesn’t contain value in certain contexts, but that we’ve lost sight of the specificity of context and deploy this reasoning everywhere, whereas it should be confined to much narrower types of debates and inquiries.

Scott Ferguson:  So across your first five chapters, and a brief interlude, your book traces paradox’s surprisingly consistent importance and centrality for a wide range of critical disciplines, fields, discourses, and even social movements. Would you mind walking us through some of your key arguments in the specific chapters and maybe we can start with chapter one where you take on the grand conception of modernity as a periodizing term. And you make the case that our very theorisation and conception of modernity is, to the bones, thoroughly paradoxical.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, again, one of the book’s goals is to really show that this reasoning shows up absolutely everywhere. Basically, any issue that has been deemed worthy of serious intellectual attention, or theorisation, ends up being found to be paradoxical. And one of the prime sites where that occurs, and I would wager even one of the earliest sites where that occurs, if you think about intellectual history, is debates about modernity. And if you do one of those Google ngrams it’s even right when people started using the language of modernity, late 18th century you see a spike in the use of the term paradox. Once again, that diagnosis makes total sense: of course, to be modern is to be steeped in paradox. Basically everything about modern life, selfhood, individuality, politics, you name it is no doubt paradoxical. But one of the things I tried to trace in that chapter is, again, the routinization of that diagnosis, and how it came to be a kind of intellectual second nature, so that it became impossible to talk about something like modernity, without citing to its paradoxes. But I kind of use modernity and debates about modernity in that chapter as an example also to show the very ambidextrous and multifaceted intellectual labor that that citation to paradox carries out. This is true within most theory that performs a particular kind of reasoning. So paradox basically oversees all stages and all aspects of the reasoning process. So for instance, it’s a diagnosis. Right? Modernity is paradoxical, of course it is. But that diagnosis usually embeds a critique of certain aspects of modernity, we can think about classic Marxist critiques of capitalism as a distinctly modern bequest, right. Capitalism is obviously a bad thing. It’s by way of citing to or excavating its many paradoxes and contradictions, that it’s revealed to be so lethal, and predatory, and all of those things. So paradox is a diagnosis, it’s a critique, it comes to basically oversee method or become the backbone of method. Again, it’s almost impossible to find theory that doesn’t operate or proceed by way of the identification and mining of success of paradoxes. So it becomes hardwired into a method. One of the things I try to wrestle with in the book is how this diagnosis of paradox which most immediately encodes all of the bad things and liabilities is something like modernity, with the emergence and arrival of post structuralism, and all of the intellectual ferment that happens in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of identity politics, the revolution in the humanities, etc, also leads to a change in the way people started thinking and talking about paradox. So that this very notion of equality, that sums up all of the perils of something like modernity, simultaneously comes to be redemptive or salvific, much in the way I was talking about with rights. So the fact that modernity is paradoxical, also comes to be something to be celebrated as the source of modernity’s untapped promise. And I develop an account for the confluence of factors and intellectual developments that allow this diagnosis of paradox to suddenly also become a salvific one. What happens is that paradox also emerges as a kind of destination or cure, or remedy or antidote to all of these liabilities. And that’s in part because paradox does something else too. And that is that it becomes deeply autobiographical for theory. It becomes its own kind of self-referential way of talking about what it means to be an intellectual to inhabit paradox. And paradox almost comes to be transposed onto the persona or character of the great thinker, or the harbinger of modernity, or the great intellectual stage. And there, too, everybody from Max Weber to you name it. These great thinkers are almost always deemed embodiments of paradox and what makes them great is because their own personas metabolize all of these different paradoxes. So it also becomes, again, deeply autobiographical or about the identity of what it means to do theory. And just really quickly, we can see how that would play out. Even in terms of the way people have defined theory over the years to be Paradoxa: as to be contrary to Orthodoxy, to be a dissident, to be a gadfly, to be anti-authoritarian, all of those things. And so it makes complete sense that we as theorists would cathect onto that logic of paradox, or see within it mirrors of our own understanding of our job as leftist, critically-minded intellectuals. Paradoxes are also deeply anti normative. So we can see just thinking about the sheer etymology of the word paradox, why it would be part of the genetics of theory.

Scott Ferguson:  Could you talk a little bit more about the Cold War context in which you trace the rise of post structuralism, especially in the states and why paradox becomes so newly enticing given that context?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, absolutely. Basically, my argument about what happens in the 70s is that there are a whole series of intellectual development and a particular historical milieu, that come together in ways that really reinforce paradox as a way of knowing or an epistemology, but all provide separate kind of intellectual warrants for intellectual reasons that paradox becomes so incredibly powerful as an explanatory framework. One of those is absolutely the Cold War context. And a particular definition or account of totalitarianism that begins to take hold, and that everybody agrees on and totalitarianism is increasingly defined as a political system that is hostile to pluralism, plural vocality, paradox. And so totalitarianism is misunderstood as the sort of unifying force that’s going to, by definition, devour multiplicity and paradox and dissent, and all of that. Democracy and everything anti totalitarian, is increasingly explained in terms of its paradoxes. This sort of thinking is, I think, generally in the air at that moment in history, the kind of anti totalitarianism of paradox, but also explain why deconstruction would continue, would be one of the most influential progenitors of this kind of reasoning, perhaps, within the academy. So there’s something about that cold war environment and a celebration of speech for speech’s sake, that lends this logic of paradox incredible currency. That cold war environment, one of my arguments, also colluded with these lingering residues of the 1960s and 68, which also endowed the dissidents of paradox and the anti authoritarianism of paradox with a particular kind of purchase. We can think about the sort of magical psychedelic thinking of 68 as its own appetite for paradox, and for those mind altering discoveries that we can associate with that thinking, but a series of other things come along in sort of intellectual developments within the academy, perhaps the biggest is the linguistic turn. And the rise of Saussurean theories of language and representation provide a separate warrant for why paradox is so powerful and all meaning is going to stem from or inhere within paradox. I also talk about the rise of literary study. The 80s are sort of the heyday of aesthetic theory. I talked a little bit about how these thinkers are also drawing from theology. But the point is that all of these things kind of come together in the perfect intellectual storm that all separately reinforce and incite this sense that to be paradoxical is to be alive and energetic and attuned as a thinker.

Scott Ferguson:  Would you mind discussing one particular example of one of the supposed paradoxes of modernity, whether it’s in reference to Baudrillard or any other of the thinkers that you cite.

Elizabeth Anker:  I guess I would come back to something like democracy. And I’ll use that as an example simply because I think this mode of thought, this modality, is particularly rampant still today within a lot of political theory, and especially radical democratic theory. We can see why democracy would be paradoxical, right? It’s a perennially failed project. Democracy depends on this artificial construction of ‘the people’. But we know that nation states are woefully exclusionary, and are never going to have perfect representation. The paradoxes that extend from modern practice of democracy are countless and incurable in many respects. So again, no doubt that democracy as an institution is fatally flawed, and fatally flawed because of these paradoxes of incomplete representation. But what occurs in a lot of political theory is that that very incompleteness comes to be celebrated, because it’s seen as paradoxical. So the fact that ‘the people’ is forever and complete, gets read as a positive thing. And the source of the very fluidity and indeterminacy and open-endedness of that category of ‘the people’. If ‘the people’ was closed, then it wouldn’t be paradoxical. So there’s a sort of embrace of the very properties that one might, and simultaneously in the same breath, is despairing of. So one of my arguments about what this logic of paradox that again, starts to take hold in the 1980s, does is that it performs a kind of alchemy or almost a transient substantiation. There’s almost kind of something theological about it where it works to redeem legitimacy deficits, or justificatory deficits. The fact that ‘the people’ is fatally flawed, going back to Rousseau, it’s clearly a problem for the legitimacy of democracy. One of the reasons democracy is paradoxical is because it confronts this irresolvable legitimacy, crisis and deficit of legitimacy. But by describing that legitimacy deficit is paradoxical, that very failure comes to be rescued and, lo and behold, fully celebrated or extolled as the very wellspring of democracy’s promise. And this is a move that comes very, very clearly from the long history of aesthetic criticism and theology. Let’s think about The Odyssey and attempt to reckon with the limits of a deity, right? We’ve all had to study this stuff once upon a time. The fact that God is omnipresent and omniscient, yet nevertheless allows evil in the world, that’s a paradox. But that, unknowability of God, and unfathomability of God within theology comes to be embraced and exalted as the very essence of what makes God God. Again, this logic of paradox performs a kind of conversion that takes what looks at first blush like a liability into the very locus of the just and ethical promise of something, whether it’s God or the humanities.

Scott Ferguson:  I’d like to try to paraphrase some of the argumentation you’ve been working through in order to tease out some of the resonances that I’m hearing, which is: part of the problem with this mode of paradoxical thinking that, maybe there’s other paradoxical modes of thinking, but this particular mode that’s so widespread that you’re tracing. Part of its major problem is that it weirdly wants to unsettle the master signifier, the law of the Father. Yeah, in order to unsettle these dominant, hegemonic terms, ‘the people’, democracy, right? It has to perform the failure of its univocity. The failure of its single or array of clustered, singular meanings and say, “no, no, it actually does the opposite. You think it does inclusion? It does exclusion. You think it brings people together? No, it brings people apart!” Right? And I think one of the ways in which what you’re up to resonates with what we’re up to, I think, is you don’t have to take those hegemonic understandings for granted. You don’t have to give away the game to a particular enlightenment understanding of “the people”. For us, especially, you don’t have to take the liberal understanding of money and its ontology and its topology. You don’t have to take it for granted and just do immanent critique and show how it’s internally contradictory. You can say: Well, wait a minute, what if you start from different premises? What if you don’t start from the premise that money is a private barter relationship that ends up in this massive system of mutual exploitation? What if you start with it as a public utility or a legal design question, what opens up instead? So to me what’s so illuminating about your book is it gives us this language and so many historical analyses of this problem of giving over to the master term that you’re supposedly trying to undermine.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, I love that point. And I have to confess that I haven’t thought about one of the things I’m after along those lines, and that’s why I love it so much. But I think you’re absolutely right, that some of the problems with this style of thought is that it ends up reinforcing the authority of the very thing ostensibly being critiqued. So it ends up almost like reifying, or ceding the game, to the explanatory power of liberal accounts of capitalism, or liberal accounts of rights, because it’s so dependent on that, again, almost kind of reductive notion of what’s being critiqued. I think you’re absolutely right. And for me, another extension of that is that it can contribute to this kind of romance of failure and romance of impossibility, because part of the logic of paradox is to be adamantly resistant to ever lodging itself, or installing itself as a new dominant or a new normativity. So the moment you win, you have to immediately undercut what you just want. So they’re almost like tripwires installed in this logic. The moment what’s excluded comes to be included: Oh, that very thing becomes bad, right? Because it’s the new dominant, but that becomes an endless game that leads us nowhere. So yeah, I love that way of framing it. Yes. Another paradox. Yeah.

Billy Saas:  Is there something about paradox, inherently, that we could say is atomizing or alienating, and maybe affectively discouraging? It’s exciting, but there’s a sort of flat affect afterwards where there needs to be a kind of supplement. And that might be what you’re after or suggesting here?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, and again, I’m perhaps most critical of the modes of thought that we can associate with post-structuralism that took hold in the 80s. First I very much agree that there’s nothing about this reasoning on its own that’s inherently problematic. The idea is that this logic that’s been so dominant, and, if anything, the exclusive way people think in certain fields really needs to be supplemented or complemented with other styles of thought. We’ve been doing half of what we need to do, and we need to do and the other half. But just kind of is one further example of where this perhaps comes from, to sort of explain how it takes hold and why it has placed a stranglehold on more affirmative, constructive modes of thought. Again, I think so much of this style of thought can actually be attributed to post-Saussurean linguistics and the theories of meaning that emerge. If we think about Jacques Derrida in his account of a text or writing, meaning inheres with the slippages, the deferrals, the gaps between words, the impossibilities of clear presence, the fact that you’re never going to have a transparent understanding. Meaning is going to kind of emerge through those impossibilities, through those delays, through those foreclosures and limits to what we can know. Meaning, action, agency, everything has been imagined to inhere within those kinds of slippages and deferrals. And I think what’s taken hold within a lot of theory is anytime there’s an effort to account for meaning, or agency, or action, that’s not displaced along such lines, it’s dismissed as simply wrong or selling out or “liberal”, or again, just plain mistaken. And one of the challenges in writing the book has been recognizing just how thoroughgoing this mode of thought is, while really trying to push back against a tradition that’s hardwired to dismiss an effort to be affirmative, concrete, constructive, etc, as point blank mistaken, or point blank wrong or missing the picture.

Scott Ferguson:  So this is a great pivot, I think, to our question about your second and third chapters. And that’s where you uncover what you reveal to be this deep anti-legalism that subtends, paradoxically, both a positive discourse of rights, but also the critique of rights. We’ve been kind of referring to it, but can you delve into this problem, and how are dismissals and recuperation of rights both rooted in paradox? And then what, for you, does this have to do with aesthetic theory?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, absolutely. It’s a big question. One of the things I tried to do throughout the book is to think about how reasoning that lends precedence to paradox can lead to polar impulses. One of them that I think we were touching on or you brought up when you talked about how this logic can end up reinforcing the power of the very thing being critiqued is that when something like capitalism, and this is where I, would have a fight to pick with at least some Marxist theory, capitalism, for instance, is seen as fundamentally contradictory in ways that basically ontologize or reify that property. And I’m sorry, right? Paradox is something that my brain is a quality in my head that I’m reading onto something to help me make sense out of it. It is not a material property of reality. I would dispute that it is, but when it is deemed thus, or fatally part of something’s architecture or gene pool, that ends up rendering paradox a foregone conclusion. I worry about that tendency, in terms of how it can tie our hands in resisting a given structure or cause the problem to seem so fatally incurable that it can lead to forms of defeatism and inertia in the face of this structure that’s deemed paradoxical. I think that plays out with particular vividness in the skepticism about law that has prevailed within and basically across the humanities, and even within a lot of critical legal studies circles. My favorite example, Wendy Brown and Janet Halley have edited a collection called Left Legalism/Left Critique, and their introduction basically says, submitting any otherwise principally minded left project to the law is going to contaminate it in certain ways. So making recourse to the legal system is going to, by definition, dilute a particular left progressive justice-oriented agenda and is inevitably going to involve a form of self betrayal. And I think that’s just wrong. But that mindset that law is fundamentally bankrupt prevents all sorts of political action that might be really, really successful. I think that mindset is incredibly widespread, and really gets us in trouble as theorists, because it rationalizes and can lead to an excuse for forms of opting out, or not trying in the first place. And that suspicion of law is so pervasive in a lot of theory. The other example I like to bring to mind is a text like Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, probably one of the most influential theoretical texts, and rightly so, right? It revolutionized our ways of talking about gender, in ways that have trickled down into the popular consciousness, amazingly important and successful text. Nevertheless, within this otherwise fantastic book, the rhetoric of the juridical circulates throughout in ways that basically are shorthand for power and oppression. So to describe something as juridical is basically to mean that it’s oppressive. And again, that just erases and obscures and it’s just plain wrong about all of these really important social, political advances that over the centuries, the law has facilitated. So this kind of suspicion of law is really problematic in terms of how it can basically sanction inaction and discourage inaction. Like I’m sure some of my humanities colleagues kind of looked down their noses at me even having a joint appointment in the law school as its own form of selling out. So, I’m really trying to push back against that legal skepticism as one of the reasons that so much theory has really failed to actualize itself in a viable practice, or why so many humanities fields have remained cloistered and refuse to get their hands dirty by actually tangling with real world forms of action.

Scott Ferguson:  And then what about the school that embraces rights as a framework, and yet in your reading, always predicated on the anti legalistic failure arguments that the straight up anti law scholars embraced?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, yeah, the school of post-structuralism, deconstruction, somebody like Jacques Rancière is this very hot figure these days, I think subscribes to its own kind of anti legalism or legal skepticism, but it plays out in a somewhat different way there in that justice is seen as fundamentally uncodifiable. So the minute you can actually codify or consecrate something in a legal decision or law code, that is seen to be the betrayal of these otherwise just ideas. And again, this comes directly from a particular theological tradition that is antinomian. So antinomianism is perhaps the better way to describe that impulse.

Scott Ferguson:  Can you describe what that means for you?

Elizabeth Anker:  Antinomianism simply means that it’s tied in more Protestant traditions to a conception of grace that is very individualistic. It basically means that law in the books is going to be fundamentally incomplete and flawed. It’s almost more of a Pauline Conception of divine inspiration.

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, the term that we often use at Money On The Left is anti-medial or anti-mediation, right? There’s a sense that mediation is necessarily extrinsic and imposed. And it’s something that we may be all fallen into in a biblical and Lacanian sense, or a Heideggerian sense. We’re all fallen into it, but it is still nevertheless an imposition that we sort of wish that we could be outside of, and we try to conceive of and imagine a just world with that critical leverage of not being fallen into language or not being fallen into the juridical. Yeah, so that’s how we make sense of it.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, and thinking about the antinomian a bit further,  the big prophet of paradox that, again, everybody was reading in the 80s, is Søren Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling, this meditation on Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and the language of paradox is everywhere in a text like that, and it’s the incommunicability, the un-translatability, the fact that nobody would understand that willingness that it would see mad and, frankly, evil to everybody except Abraham is its own version of antinomianism. Kierkegaard was also a big conduit for the thrill of paradox, right? You probably remember reading Kierkegaard for the first time, and I’ve had people over the years when I tell them about the book say: that sounds like the first time I read Kierkegaard!

Billy Saas:  You mentioned a couple of times the phrase “selling out”, which resonated with me for a couple of reasons. One, we’re talking about, actually, Scott’s book in class yesterday, Money, Culture, Media with students, we were talking about critical theory, so this is very pertinent to what we’re talking about now. The concept of, through discussion, how selling out was more of a concern, it seems like in the heyday of the logic of paradox. I’m making this connection myself. It’s sort of an early rise. And I think today, there’s a romance of selling out now, as opposed to… So it’s the rise and grind. There’s the culture of hustle as a completion of that rejection of selling out as an abject thing that you don’t want to do as a participant in the economy. And it’s part of this idea that money is bad, whereas now it’s like, yeah you gotta get your hustle on, you gotta get your stuff. And selling out is probably a good thing. So you probably have some colleagues who are like, get the bag. Do your thing. Scott, I know that you wanted to get us into the aesthetic question.

Scott Ferguson:  Right. Well in your interlude, Liz, you wrote this anti legalism into an argument about the “aesthetic” as an intellectual project, as an institutional project.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, I think one of the big sources of this style of reasoning is aesthetic theory or literary and poetic criticism, frankly, going all the way back to Plato. There are brief interludes in this long history of literary criticism where people are doing something different in the 18th century for a couple of decades. But there’s been a remarkable centrality attributed to paradox when talking about the power of art, I think to be able to see the symmetries are parallels between what that work does in theology. A lot of these early theorists were also doing literary studies, and as theory kind of migrated through the Anglo American University, it stopped first in English departments. So English departments were the big proponents of it. So I think it picked up a lot of these tendencies there. But already the early moderns, Renaissance thinkers, were obsessed with a paradox that you get from Plato, which was referred to as the liar’s paradox. Everybody loves this paradox, right? If I say I’m about to lie to you, it’s raining outside. Am I telling the truth? Or am I lying? It’s actually like 90 in Ithaca. If you tell someone you’re telling a lie, is that telling the truth, or is it lying? But that’s what fiction does. That’s what all art does. All of art says, I’m a fiction, this is imaginary. And so it’s different, it’s a paradoxical form of truth telling. For Plato, that was one of the reasons to expel the poets from the Republic, because they were fiction tellers, they were lie tellers. And basically, since the early modern period, someone like Sir Philip Sidney is a great example. The logic of paradox, they’ve recuperated that epithet and said: actually, no, what was the problem for Plato, we tell lies, is the very power of art that we tell lies. So this kind of spirit of paradox has defined accounts of what art is, and what the value of art is, you know, basically for hundreds of years. And I think that the endurance and longevity of that tradition is one thing that people picked up on. One of the reasons that this style of thought that I’m saying took hold in the 1980s was so readily internalized, because it capitalized on intellectual traditions that have been around for a very, very long time. There, too, there’s a particular relationship to truth telling, or meaning, that needs to be routed through forms of deferral, and delay, and that it can’t be present and actualizable. It’s something that can’t be codified in any kind of positivistic regime. Does that speak to your question or not?

Billy Saas:  No, I think that answers our questions. Probably better to segue to the selling out bad versus selling out good.

Elizabeth Anker:  But do you mean like an embrace of the fact that everybody’s complicit? And so why not just —

Billy Saas:  Yeah, maybe the headline is: there is no ethical living under capitalism, right, as a kind of catchphrase for millennial Gen Z online life.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah. So, I think that’s showing up and, again, the stuff that I’m kind of working on is a spin off of this project. I don’t see that kind of embrace of selling out so much in my colleagues, or among my English majors. I wonder if that’s kind of the mindset of the New Right or the Alt Right. There’s a lot being written and kind of in process on the extent to which the New Right NatCon youth are kind of embracing a certain bastardized version of Marxism. But some of the animating creeds of that kind of crowd are, I think, precisely this real politic where everything is deemed coercive. There’s a generalized view among the right, increasingly, that all actions are coercive, all power is dispersed. So we might as well just engage in some power play, unabashedly. I think this reasoning is kind of in the air in some of these Alt Right circles, but increasingly in institutions of power that are pretty mainstream.

Billy Saas:  I think I see it in left cultural spaces, maybe not among left academics, maybe so much. I do think that there is a kind of well what are you going to do, give people a hard time for working and trying to make money so that they can take care of themselves. And then that being sort of like the baseline, but then we should be happy for so and so that they have gotten this big deal or this big outcome, and, if if nothing else, that abject state of sellout is no longer a category, I feel like so much today in the way that it was.

Elizabeth Anker:  I think the kind of internal, the going small, is very much among the left. This kind of downsizing of ambitions, and your comments also making me think about Anna Kornbluh’s forthcoming book, and her accounts of the rise of auto fiction and first person narration. All we can do is think about this very narrow sphere of influence. Everything is so sullied and suspect, so there’s something deeply … kind of retreat or withdrawal, that I think license or sanction by this, like, “everybody’s selling out.”

Scott Ferguson:  I’d like to pivot to your fourth chapter, fourth and fifth. To me, in these chapters, you really drill down into very specific paradoxes or specific fields. And I think that they’re maybe among the most likely to offend, to put it mildly.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah. You’re the first person who has said that so directly.

Scott Ferguson:  Oh well, you’re welcome. And I think they are, another way of putting this is that, because they really touch a sensitive nerve of, I think, what the left Intelligencia takes for granted. Just to start with your Chapter Four topic, The Paradox of Exclusion. The paradox of exclusion is that dominant forms exclude. This is bad, it’s unjust, it’s painful, it’s harmful. There’s so many things, negative things, that you can communicate about exclusion. And then the response is often, in this modality, to give voice to the excluded or in an Adornoian parlance, to give voice to suffering. And that becomes the injunction of the paradox of exclusion. And just re-articulating this paradox, it’s really hard to think otherwise, it’s really hard to think: Wait a minute, so what are you saying — exclusion is okay? And are you saying we shouldn’t give voice to the subaltern? What are you saying? So, I want to give you a chance to kind of nuance your critique, and put your most persuasive case forward?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, my critiques have less to do with the power of that mode of consciousness raising, because this really emerges with the consciousness raising campaigns of the 70s and 80s. Right with, you know, it shows up in Catharine MacKinnon’s early work trying to awaken women to their own oppression. But that logic, or that project of forever uncovering new sites of exclusion epitomizes the way in which this style of thought can backfire. On the one hand, it’s limitless or insatiable, there’s no end or stopping points to uncovering yet new sites of exclusion. Because once something gains recognition, or is included, it’s no longer excluded, and so becomes part of the problem. And in my own account, a lot of this has contributed to some of the infighting in a lot of humanities fields. A lot of humanities departments, literary studies, perhaps in particular, have become really internally self divided, even though everybody is on the same team, so to speak. And that’s because we’ve identified with that plight of the excluded. Humanists perceive themselves as being paradoxical or, contrary to doxa, themselves excluded. So if our primary mission is to speak to terms of exclusion, there needs to be exclusion somewhere. So we’re going to find them or create them even if they don’t really exist. I think that this project of giving voice to exclusion has really consumed certain humanities fields in ways that have become really counterproductive, and, again, led to forms of internal infighting and rivalries that prevent those fields from taking up other challenges. We only have so much energy and can only fight so many fights. When we’re incessantly fighting with our colleagues, we’re not going to take on other battles. The kind of internal self reference has become a real problem in certain disciplines. It’s one of the reasons for the crisis in the humanities. And I tried to argue that this political consciousness raising project that, again, has governed some of these fields has ironically, led to a form of navel gazing in certain ways. I know that’s a harsh condemnation, I have two other big complaints that I’ll highlight for now about why this project of consciousness raising by giving voice to exclusion became self limiting. One, the problem with this reasoning is that it gets applied to everything in a self reproducing structure. So regardless of what’s being analyzed, there’s a particular methodology that gets brought to bear. And that does a couple of things that lead to the exact same conclusions when you’re applying the same methodology, regardless of whether the object of exclusion is racial oppression, or misogyny. You’re going to reach the same conclusions. But what that does is that also works to obscure or minimize differences between different sites of exclusion. And that can lead to its own forms of inertia, because I’m sorry, to act in the real world, we need to make decisions about which problem is more grave, or more severe, and which is less severe. And there’s a real reluctance to undertake any sort of judgment, that hierarchizes in a lot of these humanities fields. I’m not saying we should do this, but I’m just using this as an example. So if I were to walk into my faculty meeting later today, and say: I think that abortion access issues are more important than the fight against police violence right now. And I think that that’s where I should direct my energies, I would be exiled from the department within the next half hour. But real world political action requires that we differentiate and draw distinctions. Again, because this particular methodology of analysis has tended to operate on autopilot, it prevents normative analysis that actually tries to differentiate between the magnitude of injuries and their severity suffered in diverse sites of exclusion. So in a way, one of my arguments is that we haven’t been critical enough. And that’s because in critiquing everything, by way of the same methodological apparatus, we actually end up preventing ourselves from making critical judgments about where to direct our limited resources. And this logic of exclusion tends to do that. The third real problem with it is just how easily it’s appropriated. All of the men’s rights stuff buys into and reproduces this exact same formula for talking about exclusion. I’ve mentioned a couple of times, I’m starting to work on what’s going on in the US Supreme Court. I have a reading of Dobbs, the decision that overruled or did away with the right to abortion, and I’m sorry, Samuel Alito deploys this logic of giving voice to exclusion, to talk about the rights of the fetus, and to start to pave a pathway for recognizing fetal personhood. And so this thinking is, again, by no means tied to a particular left progressive agenda. It’s super easily plundered and misappropriated. So I’m not sure that it’s the recipe for all of the good things we expect it’s invariably going to be a recipe for.

Scott Ferguson:  So in your fifth chapter, you take up the role of paradox in what’s called trauma theory. Maybe to get us into that argument, you can tell our listeners a little bit about what trauma theory is, how it arose, and how it’s been on your view, overridingly positive, but that it, too, has limitations and blind spots that we need to be thinking about otherwise and especially when it comes to pedagogical cultures in classrooms where trauma theory is taught?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah. Over the course of the book, I look at a series of innovations that demand to be attributed to theory, or this revolution in the humanities, and just how much they’ve really revolutionized popular discourse. Ideas about gender would be one wherein theory won, right? We’ve changed the game, talk of structural oppression. Even five years ago, discussing structural oppression would not be in common parlance. It’s become a kind of dinner table fair. My students arrive in college knowing what structural oppression is. And that’s amazing. Another way in which everything we’ve been doing in the humanities has, in fact, changed things. Trauma theory is another enormous site of influence. Before Vietnam, trauma was not a recognized medical diagnosis. And trauma theory arose in the academy in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and gained enormous popularity. It initially thought specifically about trauma stemming from the Holocaust, and it was heavily influenced in its earliest incarnations by both psychoanalysis, specifically psychoanalysis in the vein of Jacques Lacan, and by deconstruction, so thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man. It’s changed a lot and departed in many ways from its roots and what is often thought of as Yale school, because it happened at Yale. Yale School of Trauma Theory. But trauma theory has also been widely critiqued as colonizing our available vocabularies for talking about victimization and injury. So all sorts of people have complained about… there’s an influential book called The Empire of Trauma, have complained about the ways trauma has become, not that trauma theory is wrong or bad on its own, but it’s become our dominant and often only framework for thinking about forms of abuse, injury, victimization, and all of that. So the perfect example of a theoretical innovation that’s reverberated throughout the real world instituted all sorts of enormously positive change, yet, nevertheless, needs to be rethought precisely because it’s dominated our explanatory framework so much. The book actually concludes by thinking about the ways it has proven limiting. And some of those limits have to do with this recurring theme of just how easy it is to be hijacked. It’s easy to deploy these dominant definitions of what trauma looks like, and to kind of weaponize them in ways that discredit particular injuries. And I’m also concerned about the ways that it draws from an understanding of representation and linguistic meaning that can work to strangely deem trauma ethical. So in a way, it buys into a line of thought that’s really commonplace, and again, enormously productive in many instances, that asks us to think about pain and suffering as endowing the victim with privileged insight and understanding. This is the kind of reasoning that shows up in one of the most influential texts from the African American literary canon W.E.B Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, where he coins the notion of “Double Consciousness”, which is this idea that to be the victim of protracted racial and other persecution endows one with an elevated way of knowing, or a double and multiple consciousness that allows more sophisticated grasp of not only the forces that lead to oppression, but of one’s own relationship in the world. Du Bois actually called Double Consciousness a paradox, believe it or not. And that thinking is super positive and super empowering, but what it does is it nevertheless takes pain and finds something redemptive within it. Again, this is valuable thinking for all sorts of reasons. But I tried to reckon with the ways it’s maybe gone a little bit too far. And trauma theory draws on a similar type of understanding, but supplement it with a model of the psyche that understands trauma as fundamentally elusive, repressed, fragmentary, that kind of resides within these gaps of consciousness. Trauma is something we can never actually localize, all the brain does and cycles around it kind of questing for its origin or cure. Hence, this repressed nature. But there’s something about that mode of thought that can take repression, and treat it as restorative and even ethical. So some of this early trauma theory actively describes trauma as the ethical connective tissue that will provide a link across cultures. You can see why I may be skeptical of that kind of move. I do try to wrestle with how that kind of thinking can be problematic, among other reasons, and that it can disqualify certain kinds of injuries from counting as trauma, lots of people have made that argument about it. Early trauma theory has been widely critiqued for being beholden to a very Eurocentric conception of the subject along these lines, but I’m interested in how especially that model needs to be updated due to historical factors. But how that model for understanding injury can again be turned on its head, or exploited and manipulated, to discount historical forms of oppression to actually undermine the victim, to gaslight, or ghost particular kinds of injuries. So for me, some of these ways of talking about trauma, again, kind of epitomize the ways all of these really great innovations that come from theory can nevertheless be misappropriated and misused by hostile forces.

Scott Ferguson:  So I want to try to use some legalese. And you can tell me if I’m not using it correctly, but it seems to me that when trauma theory reaches its limit, it sort of edits worse. In the realm of law, it’s like turning everything into torts. It’s like everything is an injury, and from the point of view of what do we do going forward? How do we construct and fight for a just world? Well, let’s tally up the injuries and then remedy the injuries, which we should do. But that’s only one place to start. And I worry that we foreclose posing questions about the right thing to do for people, the right thing to fight for individuals, for collectives, for groups, for the globe, that aren’t necessarily predicated upon intelligible injuries.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, that’s a critique of trauma that others have also raised, that I absolutely agree with because trauma assumes that there was some clearly-isolatable injury that happened at one discrete moment in time. It actually writes off more systemic forms of injustice and injuries that can’t be pinpointed in such a precise fashion. So it can actually do a real disservice to thinking about generalized conditions of harm, or low grade forms of violence and Injury that are woven into the day to day. Trauma is often thought about as exceptional. For most people, a decent percentage of people in the world, trauma is written into their most ordinary, mundane, non-exceptional interactions and realities. And I would also say that one of the things I tried to reckon with in the book is how this particular methodology of reasoning, that I call this Logic of Paradox, tends to be reproduced quite formulaically again and again and again, everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. And trauma theory exemplifies the way in which all sorts of wildly divergent and very, very different injuries nevertheless come to be digested and deciphered, by way of this recurring formal logic. So all traumas end up looking the same or being defined in the same way. And there, too, it works to actually level or erase differences between different traumas that are profoundly meaningful, and that I think we as theorists should be setting out to measure and to wrestle with and to document. A lot of trauma theory precedes from the notion that there’s something fundamentally unverifiable about trauma that can’t be documented, and that can’t lend itself or that will elude legalistic regimes of evidence. And maybe, yes, that clearly is true for certain traumas. But it can actually obscure our ability to engage in forms of documentary labor, or to undertake the kind of normative differentiation that I think the humanities have really forfeited, but that seems essential,

Scott Ferguson:  You have an analysis of the trauma theory classroom that I’d like to give you a chance to elaborate. The classroom in which the pedagogue is encouraging students to confess, I have to say that I don’t think I’ve been in one of those classrooms. But I don’t think I ever took a strictly trauma theory class, either.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, you’re totally right. And I think this plays out within a lot of these really foundational theory texts from the 80s and 90s where, in fact, witnessing one’s own trauma is heralded as its own form of pedagogy. And so the sort of confessional mode has overtaken a lot of humanity’s classrooms. It’s perhaps different now than it was back in the day, but I can absolutely remember classrooms wherein you authorize your own voice as a speaker by first confessing to the forms of injury that had been inflicted on you. I’ve even taken exams back in the day where that confessional mode was how … I won’t name any names … how one was guaranteed an A or not. But what that does is that also deauthorizes certain voices. Again, it risks trivializing the injuries at hand. So I do think that part of the consciousness raising aspect of pedagogy has been about broadcasting one’s own sites of victimization, and that that kind of exercise has become compulsory in a lot of different spaces. I think the other reason we should be a little worried about that model of pedagogy, that’s oriented around consciousness raising in the classroom, is that it presumes that symbolic change in these elite institutions of higher education is going to trickle down or translate into action on the streets. I’m not so confident the symbolic awareness when one’s in college is actually going to meaningfully activate an electorate. I mean, it’d be nice to think it does. But the seamlessness of that trickle down effect, I think, has been overstated, or over-wagered, in a lot of humanities scholarship.

Billy Saas:  I think that there’s some interesting overlap potentially, between what you’re kind of calling for which seems to me like a little bit more specification about trauma like a reconceptualizing, that is about expanding and becoming more specific and not, not just sort of identifying all trauma as co-equal. With some of the histories of money that we interact with, as opposed to the kind of original, primordial barter situation where we’re all just autonomous actors, hopping around trading with each other, and then some genius person or group invents money to make it more efficient. There’s a anthropological history that’s much more feasible or tenable, that locates it in Medieval Period Weregild, which is trying to identify specifically, quantitatively forms of recompense that are adequate for trauma that one inflicts on someone else. And in this case, it’s like, how much is a nose worth? If you took somebody’s nose off, what is that worth in terms of livestock, and gold and money and things like that? And it’s a gruesome origin story. And it’s not the whole story. I want to ask you to maybe specify or differentiate how your theory of integrative criticism, which you have identified toward the end of your book in the second interlude, and then the final chapter is a potential path forward for left theory? How is it not in the field of trauma or in the logic of paradox and trauma studies? How is it different or more than, better than, different from, distinct from? You know, one ear is worth 10 pieces of gold?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, a great question. I think, first, why is an integrative approach to theorizing things different from the way trauma is often accounted for? I mean, one of the staples of a lot of especially early trauma theory is that it’s resistant to healing or defiance of the cure precisely because it’s kernel, that traumatic kernel is going to remain fundamentally elusive. So what that means is, if you’re a trauma victim, whose trauma is no longer repressed, whose trauma is self present, who maybe thinks that they’re cured, you’re not properly traumatized. And that’s not really trauma that you’re suffering from. So if trauma can be integrated into the psyche, it ceases to be trauma. We can see why we have this really narrow definition and super normative lens for dismissing or discounting certain traumas. In thinking about those types of issues, types of debates that have been left off the table, or kind of prohibited by what I tried to describe as an epistemology of paradox, or paradox as a way of knowing, are a lot of things that are vital ingredients of a livable and effective politics. And so by thinking about the integrative in a way that’s my framework for trying to put my finger on a series of things that it’s been impermissible to talk about, not to mention analyzed, in a lot of critical theory, or lefty circles. And those are things such as when things succeed or work relatively well. I mean, how often have you read a book written in the humanities that takes the relative success story in the history of politics or law and says, I’m gonna write a book about why this worked? Never! Right? So we’re just allergic to taking stock of, not to mention celebrating, our limited accomplishment. Even here, I’m like mincing my words. I’m scared to say success. Right? I certainly can’t say progress, right? Not to mention, I would call something a victory. Ah, right. But come on. There are political accomplishments that have been successful, that have proven lasting and effective, that we should take seriously and take stock of and ask why they worked, so that we can emulate them and replicate them. We should also ask those types of questions about forms of community, day to day practices that prove sustaining and effective. When I appeal to the integrative it’s a call to train our attention to all of these things that have been off the radar screen of theory and actually deemed impermissible. So I think about the integrative as also a matter of when things hold together as sort of something different from the logic of paradox. Paradox has worked to fracture, break apart, fragment established truths, break down orthodoxies. But sometimes it’s important to examine the kind of glue or connective tissue that isn’t about when things fall apart, but is what renders things sustainable, livable, habitable, again, are when things kind of come in hold together in ways that we want to applaud. So it’s really a plea to turn our theoretical attention to those things that prove non contradictory, or we might experience as non contradictory. Not that they’re going to be permanently thus, but even just episodically so…

Scott Ferguson:  One of the things I really appreciate the style of your theorizing, the stylistic turn, that your theorizing takes in the late interlude in the last chapter, is you really stage for us, not in like a “woe is me”, but I think as an important intellectual project. How difficult and challenging this has been for you and has been part of your pedagogy? And how do I get out of those rote forms of the paradoxical with students? And what do they think? And what am I even saying? And what language am I going to use, and what kind of stylization or aesthetics are going to matter for this one potential of many alternatives to the paradoxical? So I just want to say, I really appreciate that bringing us into the problem, that’s a stylistic choice that you make. And I was wondering if you can speak to that, but also tell us a little bit about Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own, which is a bit of a touchstone in the Money On The Left community, just because precisely I think we’re picking up on similar things. She’s making normative demands, a room of one’s and this much money. You want to solve the women in fiction problem, people? Well start paying women to, and furnishing their lives to be able to write fiction. So your response?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, no, thank you. And thank you for saying nice things. I mean, this last chapter of my book where I put forward a kind of alternative or supplement to paradox: single-handedly the hardest thing I have ever written or will ever try to write. I can’t tell you how many different iterations of that I went through. Initially, I had settled on the rhetoric of the prescriptive, or the need to be prescriptive. Getting at normativity without fully going normative, a tentative way. So, to me, that was really a lesson in just how stifling this intellectual tradition had become, and also just how hard it was to escape, again, what increasingly felt like a stranglehold or its own sort of internal policing mechanism. So, to me, it was just an unbelievably both fascinating and kind of arduous and painful experiment to try to think differently. I do feel like I put forward the integrative as one way to think about a supplement to paradox. I do want to emphasize that I’m not saying it’s the only way or the right way, it was the best I could come up with. But to me, what matters most is that we do something different. And we kind of add something to the mix, and that we don’t walk away from every conversation, throwing our hands up in the air and citing paradox. For me, what matters most is that we try to undertake so much more constructive, affirmative, and practically oriented labor. I think there’s a way in which theory has lost sight of all of these aspects of lived experience, and the very pragmatic, practical realities of day to day decisions about how we guide our lives, necessary decisions that factor into any political decision making process, right or any legal judgment for that matter, since I think about law a lot. For me, the integrative was one way of focusing our attention on certain elements of those practical choices that get elided, or written off, and a lot of our intellectual labors. By deploying the term integrative, I am also, of course, trying to think about how we might better integrate our intellectual activities into our lived routines. In directing us to the day to day, you probably also have picked up on the extent to which the day to day is written off as some kind of debased sphere of intervention. There’s an incredible utopian future oriented impulse and a lot of theory that any politics needs to be utopian in its fundamental ambitions. I’m pretty skeptical of that, too. So looking at the integrative is an effort to counteract that impulse that shows up in a lot of places. That’s cool you’re also Woolf people, too. I didn’t realize that everyone’s own …

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, I’ve taught a class on essayistic writing across text, and photo essay, and video essay, and film essay, and I always do A Room of One’s Own. So I have a really intimate relationship.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, I’ve actually never taught it.

Scott Ferguson:  Oh, god, it’s so great. Yeah.

Elizabeth Anker:  But I’m also in literary studies, right? There are so many of these canonical or widely celebrated texts that tend to be read in through a particular framework. That’s why I’m so, even having written about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and I’m still kind of fixated on it because it on the one hand rightly tends to elicit these interpretations that think about it as a meditation on structural oppression, and the tenacity of this kind of monolithic edifice of racism. And that’s right, that’s in there, that absolutely lends itself to those interpretations. But there are all of these other moments in the text that just get neglected or overlooked, that are actually gesturing towards something a lot more complicated, a lot more affirmative. And that’s one of the reasons I’m also so interested in Woolf right, as she’s often one of the great spokespersons for a particular kind of queer consciousness. And that’s true, that’s there. But she’s also doing this really normative project.

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, while being a radical critic of British Empire,

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, yeah. And those two things can go hand in hand. Right? And for all sorts of reasons, again, hence, the book, we’ve just been utterly resistant to thinking about those things as going arm in arm or being part and parcel of the same intellectual fabric, and they can be and they are, and they should be, and they need to be.

Scott Ferguson:  It’s interesting, there’s a certain kind of contemporary defeatist utopianism that I think you’re speaking to, which is like: well, we must overcome capitalism, right? And if we don’t overcome capitalism, which, by the way, on this show, we actually find the word capitalism to be highly reifying. But that’s another conversation. But if we don’t over time,

Elizabeth Anker:  I’m going to be the new regular listener.

Scott Ferguson:  You’re welcome to! So if we don’t fully overcome capitalism, then you can’t ultimately have legitimate justice, right? One of the normative political projects that our heterodox world of econ and law and US humanities folks are committed to is a federal job guarantee, a right to work. This goes way back to Louis Blanc in the 19 century, throughout the Reconstruction period, the Black struggle for freedom. There’s a long, long tradition to point to. And there’s a lot of other leftists we’re in critical conversation with who will say: no, that won’t work under capitalism, capitalism won’t allow that to happen. Our point is not to say, “No, utopia is coming tomorrow. A right to work is arriving. Let’s all start celebrating joyously that utopia is tomorrow.” Nevertheless, we think there’s a difference between standing by principles, and of critically evaluating the world with those normative claims on the table and in mind, and being put into the conversation as the values that were weighing this reality against, that I think we see in Woolf and I also think that we see in your project.

Elizabeth Anker:  Just to echo your observations about how the insistence on a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism is the only way to go, it also blinds us to some of these more complicated histories that exist within a particular intellectual formation. My most recent version of that is four years ago, I started teaching 1L contract law. Which is great fun, but had you talked to me before then, or talked to any of my colleagues in the humanities, they would say: contracts are tools of oppression, they’re individualistic, they’re at the root of capitalism. And so I’m teaching contract law and discover within that history that, lo and behold, there have been all of these very progressive reforms, many of the efforts to codify and systematize contract law, were informed by people influenced by German socialism. So, lo and behold, the sort of real story of the evolution of contract law, especially in the early 20th century, is so much more complicated and nuanced and deeply collectivist, and in a spirit we would actually want to get behind. There’s a way in which this either or thinking leads to these blinkered responses that actually shut down or blind us to avenues for instituting change. I tend to be a bit more willing to accept incrementalist arguments for change, too. But, you know, you don’t want to tell anyone that.

Scott Ferguson:  Well, I think here we’re but we’re open to increments, and we’re open to leaps and everything in between, I guess that’s what I would say.

Elizabeth Anker:  I love your account of capitalism. And yeah, I tend less to run in, I tend to do less of the economic stuff and I’m less steeped in Marxist theory and those debates, just because they sometimes tend to be more, I want to say, inside baseball, but you know that. I don’t know about baseball. But yeah, we need to be coming up with viable approaches and strategies and solutions that don’t depend on the end of capitalism, or what have you.

Billy Saas:  There’s one particular source that I think often gets read by our interlocutors as support for that idea that a job guarantee couldn’t happen under capitalism, because capitalism is a piece by Michał Kalecki, called the political aspects of unemployment, where he argues, basically outlines here are the reasons that capitalists will object to a full employment economy. Here are the reasons that they’re going to do this. And he gives three, the specifics don’t matter so much. They take that as supporting evidence that it will not work. I sort of understand it, anyway, as yeah, these are things to watch out for as you build.

Scott Ferguson:  This is why we fight!

Billy Saas:  Right. This is why you fight and show up and like to propose and repeatedly iterate and build upon experiments and positive affirmative projects. And so I think the language that you’ve provided in the book is really, really awesome. I mean, the language, the argumentation. What are you doing next? You mentioned a next project, are you developing in that project, some of the integrative criticism methodology or what can you tell us?

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, I’m still a little bit in between projects, but the one thing I’ve just started avidly working on is precisely to think about the propensity of some of these standard moves and standard left argumentative strategies, and frankly, ideological positions and critiques to be appropriated. So I’m increasingly haunted by how some of that reasoning is getting hijacked by more right wing jurisprudence, and in the court system. Just to give a few examples, one of the things I track in my book is just how hardwired a skepticism of law is among the left. Well, that kind of legal skepticism was a Breitbart platform. And so, skepticism about incrementalist visions of law is becoming rampant among the New Right. I’m very interested in how certain critiques of liberalism, for instance, that we’ve long thought of as kind of the bread and butter of more left progressive theory are being irrigated among the left. I’m sorry, among the right, increasingly on the right in the judiciary, kind of an anti liberalism. And this isn’t just in fringe circles. Like Adrian Vermeule, I don’t know if that’s a name that rings a bell, has this blog called The Post-Liberal Order, and about a year ago published this book called Common Good Constitutionalism, which basically does Carl Schmitt in order to argue for a return of vitalism to politics by way of a strong leader. So it’s this weird apologetics for Trump. He teaches at Harvard Law School, this book is getting taken seriously by all sorts of academics. It is leading to positioning on the right as a result. If we had a half hour, I would catalog the number of sort of staples of theory that are alive and well and flourishing in the right, and I’m simply focusing on legal stuff as a discrete point of entry. I’m trying to sort of prove the extent to which both our ideological positions and our critiques and our methodological tactics are all being actively hijacked. And a lot of these really recent, really controversial Supreme Court cases. It’s precisely in that light, I’d finished the book well before the Dobbs decision was handed down, but that, for me, exemplifies the ways in which a whole series of classically leftist moves are being deployed to justify overturning the right to abortion. But there’s a way in which that decision also gives me new fuel for thinking about the value of integrity as something we need to theorize in affirmative terms because when all of these kinds of modes of critique are being deployed against us, we the critics, how do we react to them? I’m not sure that throwing more indeterminacy into the mix is the answer when somebody like Alito, Samuel Alito says, well, all legal rules are constructs. We don’t respond to that by evoking a constructivist thesis of truth, right? We need to have something that we can independently build or take as a foundation. And I think integrity is one of those values that we maybe need to be adapting, endorsing, not without cognizance of the many dangers that would come with integrity. I mean, integrity carries with it all sorts of problematic associations. I can enumerate, but nevertheless thinking about the integrity of women’s decision making, women’s bodily integrity, all of this stuff might be a helpful counterpoint to such a ruling.

Scott Ferguson:  I was just kind of free associating. I was thinking about, if you thought about these spectacular melodramatic performances, crying, breaking down on the witness stand before a panel like Kyle Rittenhouse or Brett Kavanaugh. The way that there’s a kind of performance of trauma and victimhood on the right that may or may not be playing into the legibility that trauma studies has brought to bear. Not to blame trauma studies for those manipulations, but I’m curious if you’ve thought about that?

Elizabeth Anker:  Oh, yeah, absolutely. I actually have one of my graduate students, Christina Fogarasi, has this brilliant analysis of how the efforts to invalidate the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford in Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, actively enlisted the conventions of trauma theory but turned them on their head as this pretty savvy tactic for discrediting her testimony, and undermining her authority as a witness. So trauma theory, itself, is a sword that can be weaponized to poke holes or discount particular manifestations of trauma. Her argument is, that’s exactly what happened. I think that would have to go hand in hand with the performance of the traumatized male victim, which just goes to show that all of these bequests of theory have been so valuable, but they’ve been too often presumed to equal a left progressive politics. And these are all examples of how that’s just not true. They don’t necessarily feed into a particular political position or agenda.

Billy Saas:  So not discrediting trauma theory but more crediting or identifying the cynicism, opportunism, appropriation of trauma theory’s strongest aspects by some of its worst opponents.

Elizabeth Anker:  Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Scott Ferguson:  Well this has been a great discussion. Thank you so much, Elizabeth Anker for joining us on Money On The Left.

Elizabeth Anker:  Thank you again for having me. This has been so rewarding. I’ve learned new things about my book, because of so many of your really brilliant interventions and spins on its argument. So I am hugely grateful for the chance to talk to the two of you

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

Stayed on Freedom w/ Dan Berger

Money on the Left presents a public conversation with Dan Berger about his important new book, Stayed on Freedom: The Long History of Black Power through One Family’s Journey (Basic Books, 2023). 

Berger’s Stayed on Freedom tells a new history of Black Liberation through the intertwined narratives of two grassroots organizers. The Black Power movement, often associated with its iconic spokesmen, derived much of its energy from the work of people whose stories have never been told. Stayed On Freedom brings into focus two unheralded Black Power activists who dedicated their lives to the fight for freedom. Zoharah Simmons and Michael Simmons fell in love while organizing tenants and workers in the South. Their commitment to each other and to social change took them on a decades-long journey that traversed first the country and then the world. In centering their lives, Berger shows how Black Power united the local and the global across organizations and generations. Based on hundreds of hours of interviews, Stayed On Freedom is a moving and intimate portrait of two people trying to make a life while working to make a better world.  

This public dialog took place on February 24, 2023 at the University of South Florida. It was graciously moderated by Tangela Serls (Professor of Instruction in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies and Special Advisor to the USF College of Arts and Sciences Dean on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) and K. Stephen Prince (Professor in the USF History Department).

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

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com


The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Steve Prince:  Well, Dan, thank you so much for joining us. This is wonderful, and I really appreciate the opportunity to do this as a discussion, as opposed to simply a book talk would be wonderful. But hopefully bringing it to a more discussion-based format will be really productive. It is a truly wonderful book. I will echo what Scott said: absolutely beautifully written, engaging all the way through, and powerful and so, so important. So I guess we’ll start with a couple of softballs, and then we’ll save the hard stuff for later. You open the book with a couple passages about the way that you first became engaged with Michael and Zoharah Simmons, so I hope you could start with that. Just how did this book come to be? Who are Michael and Zoharah Simmons? How did you become engaged with them? And why did you decide to tell their story?

Dan Berger:  Yeah, thank you for that, and thank you all for coming. Thanks to everyone who helped organize this. Thanks, also, everyone who organized and participated in the protests yesterday, which I was with you in spirit. I’m very excited to be here even though I was promised it would not be this hot. In a lot of ways, this book began 23 years ago when I started at the University of Florida, the same year that Zoharah Simmons started there. When I started there as a student, the same year that Zoharah Simmons started there as a professor. She had gone back to school late in life to finish first her undergrad, and then ended up getting a PhD. And she was invited to speak to a history class I was in about her experience in the civil rights movement. I was 18, I guess, at the time, and I was just a young activist, trying to figure out some things about the world. I was just really blown away by her presentation about her experiences. She talked about growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, raised by her grandmother, who had been raised by her grandmother who had been an enslaved person. And I’ll just say that I was very close to my grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor. So I think I recognize something about that kind of connection to a traumatic history that inspired activism in the younger generation really spoke to me in a particular kind of way. She talks about employment in the civil rights movement, where she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and then also played a key role in SNCC’s turn to Black Power and the rise of Black Power out of the civil rights movement. That was really interesting to me, because at the time, people didn’t really talk a lot about Black Power. It wasn’t in a lot of certainly the kind of mainstream history that I had encountered in high school. So I wanted to learn more about it, and it inspired me on a personal level but it also inspired me intellectually. I went to the library to check out a lot of books, and everything I could to read on, on civil rights and Black Power, and was really struck at the time by how different her experience was from what I was reading in the scholarship and in the literature. Even though we know a lot more about Black Power, we know a lot more about civil rights and the connection between them now than we did then, that experience really stuck with me. After I graduated, I moved to Philadelphia, I met her ex-husband, Michael Simmons, and it was the same thing all over again. They were always kind of on my shoulder, or in the back of my mind as I read other people’s work, and they talked about, “no one in the movement did this” or “everyone in the movement did this” and I would always be like “no one did that?” Because Zoharah did that thing.” Or “everyone did that? Well, Michael did something else.” Just to give two examples, and then I’ll stop for this question. Both Michael and Zoharah were part of something called the Atlanta Project of SNCC, which was the first time that SNCC had an urban project. Most of SNCC’s work was in rural places throughout the South. Most of the literature on the Atlanta Project to this day, in fact, says that this was a group of northerners who had no basis in SNCC who tried to take over the organization. And Zoharah from Memphis was the co-director of the project and became the co-director after three years in the organization and had no desire to be the leader and was never trying to take over SNCC…etc, etc. Alright, so there was already something that was off to me. Likewise, I’ve written a lot and studied a lot of the 60’s era, broadly, and a lot of the work on the anti-war movement of that era sees it as synonymous with the white left. But Michael is someone who spent two and a half years in prison for refusing induction into the military during the Vietnam War and was organizing for Black draft resistance. So there are just all of these ways that their stories expand the scope of that time period, but also of the Black Power movement beyond that time period that I think really kept me honest, as a scholar, reading other people’s work and writing my own. After a while, I asked them if they wanted to collaborate on this book because it seemed like something that could make a difference more broadly.

Tangela Serls:  I love that. And I want to just reiterate what Steve and Scott both said: beautiful work. I felt, at the end, that I knew Michael and Zoharah personally. It was that compelling. Thank you for your work.

Dan Berger:  Thank you.

Tangela Serls:  To that point, the notion of family is a powerful thing throughout the world. So obviously Michael and Zoharah are family, literally, metaphorically. We recently listened to a podcast where the three of you did, and I was struck to learn about the conflict that happened with Zoharah leaving to go to Spelman and her grandmother warning her not to get involved with all of the protests and all of that. And when she finally split and decided not to return, it was a big falling out and all of that. So when she went to join SNCC in Mississippi, straw Lynn (spell check) told her after he sent the money and it got intercepted that “we’re your family now”, because her family had told her not to return. Especially her grandmother was really upset. There really seems to be different conceptions of family throughout the novel. There’s familial love and familial betrayal. And I know that just the idea of family, in general, can sometimes be contested. Family is not always a safe space for folks, so I get that. I’m just wondering if you could speak a little bit more about the meaning of family and all that senses as it relates in general and more specifically, as it relates to Stayed On Freedom?

Dan Berger: Yeah, it’s a great question, and I will try to be concise. I think there’s a lot there to talk about. It was important for me to call this — the subtitle says, “it’s one family’s journey” — I think there’s a lot about the journey there. There’s a lot of travel that happens, criss-crossing the country, and then criss-crossing the world. But it’s also that it’s family, and in the way that you articulated in the question. Part of it, for me, is that sense that family brings together a lot of contentious, contradictory dynamics, right? Where there’s a lot of love, but also, it’s a cliche, but about the basis of Freudian psychology. The wounds between parents and children. This is a biography as well as a movement history, but there’s always pieces of the author in any story. So I thought a lot about the struggles that I’ve had with my own family, and my own activism. When Zoharah talked about choosing the movement over her family’s wishes and some of those breaks that happen there was more intense than anything that I have experienced, and she sacrificed way more and put herself in the line of danger far more than I ever have, and probably ever could. But that sense of a break, and a kind of coming into one’s own required in that moment, or demonstrated in that moment felt familiar to me. And I think that’s something that a lot of people have to go through, whether it’s about their politics or their identity with a fundamental clash that happens with family. So the movement does become family in both the kind of chosen family and the biological family. There’s a lot of pain and even betrayal that happens in this story. Zoharah recounts an experience in the training for Freedom Summer being almost sexually assaulted by someone who was a prominent activist within SNCC. When she tried to report it, other members of SNCC were like, “We don’t have time to deal with this. We’re going to Mississippi. Why don’t you just go along with it?” I mean a very deep betrayal. And also she went to Mississippi and got swept up in the urgency and didn’t even have time to process that betrayal at that moment. Then, later in the book and later in their lives, Michael and Zoharah have a child who was sexually abused by Michael’s stepfather. When Aisha, their daughter, told them about this, they couldn’t handle it. In much the same way that people in SNCC couldn’t handle it when Zoharah raised that; that family could be a site of pain and family could be a site of violence. Those book-end the book, these are echoes of that betrayal in these different forms of family. I think we’re getting to the idea of why the book is called Stayed On Freedom, right? Their consciousness had to be expanded. That was Zoharah’s first sense of realizing that the movement was not only a safe space, but also potentially a site of danger. And it was not until many years after their daughter confronted them that they really reckoned with the fact that they themselves could be silent accomplices, or accomplices through silence, to the ways that biological families could be sites of violence, as well. That’s something Aisha has written a lot about this, and this is a big thing for her own activism. It’s been really amazing to learn from. I think that family is never a kind of static thing. It requires this work, it requires a constant struggle or constant engagement. It’s a learning process for me in writing the book, and I think they learned a lot as we wrote about it as we were going through these histories. There were lots of ups and downs in the seven years of working on this book that they would talk about in our interviews.

Steve Prince: Thank you. You have this wonderful line in the introduction of the book that Michael and Zohara Simmons “seemed representative of the rich messiness of social movements in the modern United States,” and you’ve touched on some of the places that we find the Simmons through their journey. They start with SNCC organizing in the rural south. They take us through the transition to Black Power and an awakening of a Black Power consciousness. But over the course of the book, they’re also involved in union organizing, and anti-war activism, prison activism, and anti apartheid activism. They’re involved for a long period with the Friends. It is just such a remarkable journey that they take us through. And, as you say, “representative of the rich messiness of social movements in the history of the United States.” These movements that we tend to isolate and segregate are all there. These two lives connect them all together. So I was hoping you could speak a little bit about this, this breadth of their political imagination through their careers as activists, and what’s the significance of that broad vision of justice and activism?

Dan Berger:  Yeah, thanks for that. I think that so often, we talk about the 60s, when we talked about these time periods that freeze people in time, that freeze our sense of history in time. Or we talk about particular organizations, but obviously, time goes on. So the 60s become the 70s. Started in the 50s. So we have these lapses of time, but we also have these changes in organization, so very few of the frontline organizations of the 60s, survived the time period. SNCC started in ’60, and ended by ’68. The Panthers started in ’66 and technically lasted until ’82, but really they’re an Oakland organization after 1972. So the organizations that really dominate a lot of our historical consciousness and popular consciousness don’t actually have that long a life in the grand scheme of things. Certainly there’s a lot to be learned from focused organizational studies, and I drew on a lot of those works. There’s a lot to be learned by focus studies of particular places. A lot of the civil rights history has been moved to these local studies of how civil rights play out in one particular county or one particular town, and that’s fantastic work. I wanted to do something different, not as a disavowal of that work, but as an expansion of that work because people don’t necessarily stay in that one town their whole life. And people learn new things from their experiences. I think we get a richer, but also a truer picture of what life on the left looks like, what a political life looks like when we follow people rather than following organizations. Obviously, this is a biography; the biography genre, by definition, is following people. But I think that gives us a sense of how that experience in SNCC led people to ask me questions, and what happens when you leave, or in their case, get fired from an organization? I think there’s a lot of just downright heroism, bravery and courage — inescapable in the civil rights and Black Power movement. And it’s people: there’s pettiness, there’s ego, there’s fights that happen. And if I know organizations that I’ve been a part of have fallen apart over that stuff, why wouldn’t I expect that people 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, didn’t also have falling out over that stuff? So I think, for me, it became– I mean, you’re always an evangelist for your own method, at some level, at least when the book was new — but for me, it became, the clearest way to understand not only their lives, of course, but to understand the impact of that movement. The impact of that work is to see that move from SNCC, to the National Council of Negro Women to the Nation of Islam to the American Friends Service Committee to the National Black Independent Political Party, to the Philadelphia Worker Organizing Committee, and others that I’m skipping over. There’s a wide range of groups that express a vast spectrum of ideological positions that operate in a wide range of geographies, and yet, the same people move through them. Right. It connects, in some ways, to your earlier question about family. There’s a quote from Michael in the book, “it’s not this or that, it’s this and that” and that it’s everything. I really think, to me, that just knowing that has expanded my sense of the left or radical possibility to understand that people might have their own ideological proclivities and might find themselves working in organizations that don’t share all of them, but that they do some good work with them, and that they can change and push those organizations in the process. So to me, I think that the AFSC, American Friends Service Committee, was fundamentally changed by Black Power activists including Michael and Zoharah, but others as well, in ways that I think we would miss just by doing a history of AFSC. I think we get that sense of how people persist in that sense of change over time.

Tangela Serls:  I want to tie what you said earlier, Dan, about family requiring work, family sometimes being the site of pain or betrayal, and this notion of what Michael said in terms of it being “this and that”, because that was one of my favorite quotes too, to a question that we had about hope. After you answered the earlier question about family, it’s easy to just think about it like it’s pretty depressing. To that point, in explaining the decision to write the book, you describe a longing to tell a hopeful story after some of your earlier work which focused on incarceration and prison activism. We think you’ve achieved this with both Michael and Zoharah Simmons, and the book is resolutely hopeful, but yet there’s still a lot of darkness and tragedy and violence. So why is it still a hopeful story? And what is the power of hope in this work?

Dan Berger:  Yeah, Thanks. I’m glad that you picked up on that line because I meant that line in a couple of different ways. Partly, I meant it as a pure narrative description. I finished Captive Nation, which Scott kindly mentioned in the introduction, and it’s a book about the role that incarcerated people played in the civil rights and Black Power movements in the 60s and 70s, focused mostly in California. The 60s and 70s is the run up to and the beginning of what we now call mass incarceration. Most of the people I write about in that book died painful deaths, sometimes an internecine conflict, sometimes murdered by the state. Many of those who survived that were interviewed are wonderful, committed people, but deeply traumatized by the things that they witnessed and the tortures that they experienced. It was hard to write that book. It took a toll on me emotionally to do those interviews, to sit with people. I’m the better person for it, so I don’t mean it in that sense. But I wanted to do a book that I thought would be more hopeful, right? Because that’s a book that ends not only with this death and torture and violence, but also that ends with mass incarceration. Here we have this profound movement inside of prisons in this country that was so powerful and such a challenge to the established order that prison systems remade themselves to be more austere and punitive to prevent them from happening. It was grim, friends. So when I was thinking about what I wanted to do next, I thought: let me turn to this idea that I’ve had for a long time, that I think would be a hopeful story, because it’s about that continuation. And I was also a new parent at the time when I reached out to them and really thinking about, which touches on another answer to your question Steve, as well, I was thinking about how we played different roles in the different phases and stages of our life. I was living in a new city that I was still getting used to, and now I had this newborn. I couldn’t be at the meetings, and be at the protests and things the way that I once had been. I loved being a parent of a newborn. Being a parent is the best thing I’ve ever done, and it’s changed how I do things in the world. So I wanted to figure some things out about that. I had a lot of hope in that way. But I also mean that line as a bit of self criticism because, I thought, I’m just gonna tell this hopeful story about ongoing continuing activism, and I didn’t quite appreciate the level that, of course, that’s a story of pain and trauma and betrayal. There are some unique and particular ones, because these are specific people. But that, too, is a story of a life of organizing. So I think that line, for me, was also an honest estimation of that process of how I came to the book and the emotional state of coming to the book. But I also mean it in a way that I hope readers will come away thinking, as you did, that it’s not just a hopeful story, right? There’s a lot of difficulties here as well. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of people in my narrow sense of the world who I would consider famous. I mean famous in the “on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list” sort of famous. Some of them I’ve gotten to know well enough that I can see the obvious point of any famous person, which is that they’re just people. That, to me, was the takeaway that we can have, as Martin Luther King talked about in a very different context, we can’t have a foolish hope. We can’t have a magical hope that things will just work out because we’re on the right side of history. Or, we’ve made good choices and so everything will be fine. We certainly see that in a myriad of ways right now in the world we live in. So, to me, it was a reconsideration of a kind of naive sense of hope. I hope, I want, I think that the book is better and more hopeful for that. Because we walk through the real difficulties of life or the real difficulties of this kind of long haul commitment and the sacrifices that accompany that in a way that allows us to reckon with those tensions and contradictions and difficulties without glossing over them.

Steve Prince:  Great, thank you. I think we should talk about Black Power. One of the beautiful things about the book is that it is a narrative. It’s a story of a pair of lives, for the most part, but it does make a series of important historical and historiographical interventions, at the same time. I really do admire the way that you thread those in a way that is seamless and organic, but still clear and effective. I think one of the more significant historical claims that you do make regards to the nature of Black Power, in that it is a much broader program. I think you’re basing it in the Atlanta movement on the Black Consciousness paper as a formative moment in the theorisation of Black Power. Can you briefly discuss what Black Power means? Perhaps meant in the mid 60s and then perhaps what it means later for the people who were involved in it, and maybe what the story of Michael and Zoharah Simmons does to our textbook classroom vision of Black Power, where it’s Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panthers, full stop. So speak to the ways that your story hopefully challenges and expands what Black Power means.

Dan Berger:  Yeah, thanks. I would love to. A bit of context that, as I said, the Atlanta project of SNCC, was SNCC’s first time organizing in an urban context. And part of that was an effort to elect Julian Bond, who was SNCC’s communication secretary to the state legislature in Georgia. That happened in 1965. SNCC had long been debating whether to take a position on the US war in Vietnam. And again, if you look at a lot of us are anti war. What is presented as this anti war movement as those “campus anti-war movement,” i.e. what exists at mostly white universities, ’65 means there’s been a demonstration, a big and important demonstration, but there’s not much that has happened thus far. In the fall of 1965, practically on my birthday, before I was born, but the day was when I wouldn’t be born. Years later, Michael and Zoharah met at a SNCC meeting in Atlanta, where Zoharah was advocating very forcefully that SNCC needed to take a position on the Vietnam War. But not just on the Vietnam War. SNC needed to take a position on US imperialism. The US had recently invaded the Dominican Republic, US support for the apartheid regime in South Africa was an increasing topic of conversation. SNCC had always been slyly internationalist which is to say it was very focused on the US, but with a global context. John Lewis at the March on Washington said, “One man, one vote is the rallying cry in Africa. It needs to be ours as well.” There are these ways that SNCC was very indebted to and fired by global currents, particularly in Africa, and Southern Africa. After Mississippi Freedom Summer, a delegation of SNCC people went to Africa and came back and these were moments of exchange. By ’65, people like Zoharah were really adamant that this is a global context and that a critique of the US role in the world was important. Zoharah talks about this monster we live in, and those are archival records of the meeting. So SNCC drafts a statement that doesn’t go anywhere. It sits in the office, and then on January 3, about a month later, a Navy veteran and SNCC member named Sammy Young was shot and killed while trying to use a “white bathroom” in Tuskegee, Alabama. SNCC organized protests about it, but also released this statement. It’s a very powerful statement that you can find on the SNCC digital gateway. It’s still well worth reading. Julian Bond is asked about the statement, and he says he agrees with it. So the state legislature refuses to let him take the seat that he had been elected to. So that’s the origin of the Atlanta project that Julian Bond had to be reelected to a seat that he had won, but was not allowed to take because of SNCC’s anti-war sentiment. Bond’s campaign was abolishing the death penalty, raising the minimum wage to what would be set over $17 in contemporary amounts, pro-unions taking on the right-to-work laws. So it wasn’t exactly internationalist, but it was a very radical campaign. But the fact that it was SNCC’s opposition to the war in Vietnam that prevented him from taking his seat made it already very internationalist. So the Atlanta Project was organizing domestic workers, tenants in Atlanta, but it was also doing anti-draft organizing. One of the favorite parts to write and research was this big protest at the induction center, and this cat and mouse game that Michael did to try and avoid induction into the military. But I say all of this to say that the context of Black Power was very immediate, but also very global from the outside. I think that’s one thing that we often miss with a perspective that says, “oh, Black Power was Stokely Carmichael in Greenwood, Mississippi saying, we have to start saying Black Power” or the Panthers in an armed patrol of the police sort of way. All of those things happened, and are obviously significant, but we miss that sense of the world that I think was at the heart of Black Power. The other thing that is really significant, and is there in the Atlanta Project’s paper and thinking from the outset, is that Black Power was a coalitional politics. So Black Power was a recognition that we needed broad constituencies who oppose racism and white supremacy. SNCC had always been a Black-led organization, but during Freedom Summer, a lot of white volunteers came in, and a number of them wanted to stay and wanted to organize in the organization. SNCC’s constituency was always Black communities. It was rural Black communities, starting to be urban Black communities. So if Black organizers were organizing Black communities and the white organizers were organizing black communities, no one was going to where racism lived to build anti-racist constituencies there. So the idea, there’s a great passage from the Black Consciousness paper where everyone talks about Uncle Tom and no one talks about Simon Legree. No one talks about the white character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. If we want to end racism, we can’t just organize black people. That was this argument from the Atlanta Project; that we needed broad coalitions who opposed racism and white supremacy. I think Zoharah, in particular, still talks about that. That was part of what inspired me when I first heard her speak was saying we needed white people to be anti-racist, and that meant we needed them to bring other people along with that. That made a lot of sense to me at the time, and I think still does. In the book, I talk about Black Power as both a movement and a paradigm, and I think the movement largely didn’t disappear, but certainly faded by the mid 70s. But I think the paradigm is one that in many ways still carries them to this day. As some of the movement work died down in the way that they haven’t been doing it, they became more international in their outlook. Zoharah travels to Vietnam, and Cambodia, and China, and the Middle East, lives in Jordan for two years doing her research, but also other things. Michael ends up living in Budapest for many years after doing all this work in Central and Eastern Europe and in southern Africa as well. They expanded their sense of the world. I think we can trace that to that meeting where they first met and Zoharah was saying we have to talk about the global arrangement of power and how it can be different. I think it was really important for them to learn from the rest of the world. It wasn’t just charity, but it was a sense that things aren’t great in the US, and maybe people in other parts of the world have some things figured out that we can learn from here, as well. I think that sense of solidarity and coalition that was at the heart of Black Power from the beginning, has guided them throughout their careers as activists.

Tangela Serls:  Thank you for that. I’m going to connect two of our questions, and then connect it back to something you said, because even with that question about Black Power, I was surprised to learn about the call for the coalitional-based politics and, more explicitly, the call for white communities to do inter-communal consciousness raising. A simple question would be, does that inter-communal consciousness raising, does that demonstrate a Black Power paradigm?

Steve Prince:  Thank you.

Dan Berger:  I think that was certainly a part of it. I think consciousness raising is always a part of an organizing process. But I think they really took questions of power seriously. So they’re doing consciousness raising with the tenants in Atlanta. Michael and Zoharah both speak much more powerfully about this than I could, but Michael always says: if I think something can be changed, I should be able to get somebody else to think something can be changed. Part of their work was just getting people who had been beaten down and oppressed just by conditions of life, to feel like they could do something different about it. That’s consciousness raising, but that’s the step toward them doing something about it. Rather than just feeling like oh, maybe this isn’t my fault. Maybe this is part of something bigger. I think that absolutely they would see that anti racist consciousness works in non black communities, and particularly white communities, as a part of that. But fundamentally it’s about policy, it’s about power, it’s about transforming the institutions and structures. The consciousness raising is a necessary step in that process.

Tangela Serls:  Thank you for that clarification, that makes a lot of sense. The other question I wanted to ask, which goes back to one of Steve’s earlier questions about activism, he talked about how very few organizations have a long life with how they die out. So when thinking about the struggle for rights and freedom, the book explains how some of the organizations and movements Michael and Zoharah were part of broke down because they weren’t necessarily rooted in a collective understanding or acknowledgement of struggle. Folks allowed ideological differences to prevent them from moving forward. You kind of talked about that on one of your other podcasts. One of the questions that I wanted to ask: as an historian, can you comment on the ways in which struggle and ideology are compatible and sometimes incompatible, as you seen it, like when you were working on the project?

Dan Berger:  Yeah, that’s a great question. So I think that ideology is important, but I don’t think it’s as important as many leftists think. Amílcar Cabral, the great leader of the independence movement in Guinea-Bissau, and he said it better than I am about to, but something like: people don’t fight because of the ideas in their head, they fight for freedom, land bread, right? They fight for the sort of things in the world that will make their lives better. I think sometimes, again, he said it better you should read his version. But I think the point is that it’s cartoonishly easy. It’s a cliche to think that social change pivots on the point of ideology. This is the Monty Python Judean People’s Front versus the People’s Front of Judea. That these organizations are just constantly split, and that’s all they can do. I think ideology is important to the extent that it gives you a sense of the vision of the world that you’re working towards, and where you’re trying to go. I think ideology, what your values are, and what you’re not willing to compromise on, those are really important things in the world. They’re important ways of being able to locate yourself and locate your sense of proximity to power and your sense of proximity to other people of the organization. But I think many people err in thinking that if you just have the right ideological positions, then you win, and therefore think that the goal is to get everyone to have the right ideological position. What you’re talking about, the parts of the book where things break down, is where that starts to happen. Michael was a part of a communist organization in the 70s. I mentioned earlier, the Philadelphia Worker Organizing Committee that was steering this effort to build a new Communist Party in the United States, across a few different organizations, and they call their effort the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center. I know what you’re thinking with that name, how could it not take off and succeed? But it failed! And I think, obviously I’m joking about it, but it’s clear that it failed, right? I mean, there are some reasons that you read about in the book. But I think that sense of “okay, we just need to get the right ideology, and then we’ll win.” I think for me, this gets back to what you’re talking about earlier about the role of the power of biography or just thinking through people that people are messy and complicated, and I think electoral politics brings us out so clearly. That people who follow politics very seriously, that have an ideology think, “well, how can this union member vote for Trump?” Lots of people don’t have a developed ideology. They respond to people who they think are fun, or funny or interesting, or whatever the case may be. Obviously, I’m not saying that Trump’s base is union members or something. Far from it, but the point is that ideology only goes so far in actually explaining the political affiliations that people have. And I think a lot of things fail and where I become deterministic, perhaps. But Michael was a part of this communist effort I mentioned, Zoharah was part of a Black nationalist effort around the same time. That was very different, in some ways, ideologically. The particulars of their ideologies were different. But it was similarly ideological, if that makes sense. Their orientation was about: okay, everyone needs to be on the same page as an ideology. They were trying to organize through ideology. And they both failed at the same time. To me, that’s part of their story of why I wanted the book to happen. Because usually a history of Black nationalism and a history of Black Marxism and Black communism, they live in different projects, or at least different chapters. But usually in different books. These are different trajectories, or different tendencies, they are not in conversation. The fact that here you have this divorced couple who are very close to each other to talk politics with each other all the time who were doing really different efforts, but they’re both trying to build these ideological parties. They both fail around the same time. To me why I said this is where I get deterministic is my take away from that is that the early 1980s was an awful time. I think that’s true, separate from the book. Politically, to be on the left trying to organize in the early 80s, there’s lots of reasons why it was a terrible time. It was a terrible time. The idea that getting people to have the correct ideology will be the way out of a terrible time, I think, is mistaken. How you make people’s lives better in a terrible time, I think, is a more generative starting point. I think the ideology can actually come from that rather than leading with ideology, as I think happened in those cases.

Steve Prince:  I think this really is a book about the latter half of the 20th century. It’s not just a book about these two figures, or at least the left and latter half of the 20th century. But I think, really, it’s a book about the modern United States, and its broader context, actually. You manage to weave so much into the story, and part of it is you do have these characters who were really everywhere. For those of you who haven’t read the book, there’s this remarkable succession of individuals who just appear. She sang with Isaac Hayes in her choir, and she stumbled into the church, which is Ralph David Abernathy’s. The guy at dinner is Malcolm X. It’s like, come on. A part of it is just their lives: it’s true. But you also managed to weave in events that they didn’t necessarily attend. Neither of them were at the March on Washington in 1963, but you’re able to write about it. You alluded to Reagan, he’s in this book as well. How did you manage to craft the narrative being true to their own life story, but also connecting it to these larger trends and events and what was your thought process there?

Dan Berger:  It’s funny that you say that. Michael often jokes that he is the Forrest Gump of Black liberation. Many times I mentioned somebody and he’s like “oh, yeah, I went to Cuba with that person.” And there’s something at some level, that’s just profoundly unfair about it. Like, come on. For me, some of it was like, well this is how life works. Right? I mentioned this earlier book that I wrote about as an organizing Captive Nation, and that book focuses a lot on George Jackson, too. How many people here have heard of George Jackson? So, about half of you. How many have heard of Sundiata Tate? Nobody, right? George Jackson was, as he himself would say, part of a cohort, part of a generation of people. How many of you have heard of WL Nolen? George Jackson was mentored by WL Nolen. He would say Nolen was his teacher. The reason we know George Jackson, and we don’t know who WL Nolen is, is that George Jackson was a writer. People recognize that he was a writer and published his writings. Often people who are writers in prison we’ve never heard of. But he was a writer whose stuff was published. That allowed him to get our attention and our focus, but the coin lands the other way, and we know WL Nolen, and we’ve never heard of George Jackson. There’s a dimension of that that I think is true here as well. Zoharah’s RA in her dorm was Alice Walker. Well, maybe if Zoharah was a writer, she’d have a Nobel Prize talking about her RA. So some of it is just luck of the draw. We pass through people who become famous. Like, when she met Alice Walker, she was her RA. She wasn’t Alice Walker. Sometimes we meet the Malcolm X example. Michael was very young, but his brothers were significantly older who were early recruits to the Nation of Islam. He tells us in the book, his conversation with Malcolm X, when he was seven or eight years old, was not about Black nationalism. This conversation was: why don’t you eat pork? Like, that was the craziest thing you could imagine. Right? I think there’s just something deeply human about all of this. And I think that, to me, was the most important thing. I wanted a human book on the left. I wanted a sense of just what it means to be a person. I think what it means to be a person, particularly a Black person who came of age in the time that they came of age is that of course, you saw the pictures of Emmett Till’s murdered body in Jet Magazine. Of course, you watched or listened to the March on Washington, even if you weren’t there. Of course, you were outraged and furious and scared when Ronald Reagan was elected. I think, for me, a lot of the guide was needing to contextualize these lives and make sense of these lives. Also, just thinking, to bring it to my own life at some level that was a little bit of a guide was just thinking if I would write something about my coming of age, I remember when Bush was elected. I remember the walkouts that happened when he was reelected. Yes, I went to class, but I also went to the protest. Those sorts of things are like, trying to choose between them: do I go to this protest? Do I go to this class? I just think that’s part of what it means to be human in a time to be paying attention and things are scary or outrageous or exhilarating or exciting. Some of it came from oral histories from things that they remembered, like being there when this happened. Michael talked about being in Philadelphia when the Three Mile Island nuclear explosion happened. He was just leaving a visit to Russia when the Chernobyl nuclear explosion happened. He just casually mentioned that Forrest Gump of the left commented that he may be the only person who was within 100 miles of both nuclear meltdowns. It was like, okay, that’s going in the book. Obviously. But then things like Reagan, or whatever, that was just such a profound reorientation of American politics and such a profound moment of what you can hope for is possible, as someone who had been a committed organizer for close to two decades at that point. I think it was, for me, clearly a part of their lives, but also just a benchmark to help the reader place what’s happening in the larger arc. It totally works the way you do it. It feels organic. It never feels like you’re forcing the history on the reader. Because I think you’re right, it comes from their experiences, and that’s the focus. Very effective.  Yeah. Thank you.

Steve Prince:  Can we take one more question and then open it up?

Tangela Serls:  I think I’m gonna ask my question about Alice Walker. Okay, so when thinking about the introduction, which is titled “A Love Supreme”, after John Coltrane’s album, and your line, that “freedom is a love story.” I kept thinking of one of Alice Walker’s definitions of Womanism, which is: a Womanist is one who loves music, loves dance, loves the moon, loves the spirit, loves love, and food and roundness, the struggle, loves the folk in herself, regardless. So my question is, did an understanding of Womanism factor into your assertion in any way? And additionally, when writing the book, did you struggle to reconcile the fact that love was going to be one of the foremost themes with the fact that you were writing a historical project?

Dan Berger:  Yeah, that’s great. My initial proposal had no introduction. So that chapter “A Love Supreme”, which I’m very proud of and I’m glad is in the book, was not part of the book. My editor said that I needed an introduction to explain, there’s a preface that talks about how I know Michael and Zoharah, and these were some of the serendipitous connections, which are deeper than I mentioned today, but you’ll see in the book. So I had that, but my Editor said I needed something to frame the big picture of it in a more explicit way. I was thinking about different things, but it just struck me that it’s a love story. Clearly there’s this love between two people who do have a lifelong love for each other, even if their romantic relationship only lasted a few years. But it was less, for me, about the love between them as individuals, though that’s obviously important. But that sense of how they keep going. Ultimately, I came to realize that it’s a choice to keep going. I’ve met lots of people, I’m sure at various moments in my life, I would have said of my own self like, “well, this is who I am. Of course, I’m going to do this. Of course, I’m going to be on the picket line. Of course, whatever, that’s just who I am.” I don’t want to deny that self-description of anybody, but just hearing Zoharah stayed in Mississippi for 18 months after Freedom Summer and had no plans to leave but left because she had several run-ins where she was almost killed by the Klan, and she was incarcerated by the police after demonstration and these were very torturous conditions. She was just starting to have a breakdown, and comrades and SNCC said “you have to leave because you’re not well there. You need a reprieve.” And she could have left the movement. She left Mississippi, but she continued to organize. I’ve interviewed several people for this book, but for other projects as well, who have been part of some of these far left organizations, and some of this ideological stuff we’re talking about earlier, who said that was the last organized left effort I was ever a part of. These are progressive people in how they try to live their lives, but they’re no longer involved in anything. I think we always make choices. We always are deciding to choose to do things or not to do things. So I was trying to think through the best ways to understand that choice of how they kept going, and how they kept going, and the ways that they kept going. It’s just so clear from the two of them. I know you were saying you really met them in the book, and I’m glad to hear that because you do feel in talking to them and hopefully in reading about them that they have different personalities, of course, but they both just have this deep love of humanity, this deep love for social change. I don’t know how else to put it, they just love being in the struggle. Michael had this quote, “I just love being a pain in somebody’s ass.” As a youngest child myself, I relate to that as a little brother sort of response. But I also think it’s just true, right? There’s a lot of joy and playfulness in that idea that I love being a pain in somebody’s ass. So to me it was oh, of course, this is a love story. Once it struck me, it was like, well this is what it had been all along. Even though I didn’t plan it, it was like oh, of course this is what it is. You read that beautiful quote from Alice Walker. I was very inspired by bell hooks, who obviously wrote several books about love and talked about that a lot. But it’s really a constant theme throughout Black political thought that you see these ideas of love being central, but also being centrally embedded in questions of struggle, and questions of a transformation.

Scott Ferguson:  So Tangela had this little slip that I think was really productive. She called your book a novel. Because it kind of is a novel. I think that’s a wonderful way of describing it. It’s rich, it’s love. It’s got all kinds of continuities and threads and divergences and you can just gobble it up, and there’s an all at once-ness about it. I guess this is a craft and method-y type of question. I’ve interviewed some folks, but I’ve never had to do the work of interviewing subjects who are also your friends and your mentors over a long period of time, and taking what is probably a fragmentary, iterative process, and turning it into this. And I’ll put another thing out there, which is: we forget so much. So what I’m wondering is, what was that process like? What was their recall? Was it like, “Oh, I barely remember that day.” I guess I’m just kind of curious.

Dan Berger:  Yeah, so they’re very different in that regard. Michael has an impeccable memory, and will tell you, “it was Thursday at 3:30, and he had a blue pork pie hat.” And that may or may not be true. I’m not saying that in any malicious way, but just that memories are always fungible. But he is so precise, so precise, in a way that is believable. Zoharah falls over herself with apologies that she doesn’t remember anything. And that’s also not true, but she doesn’t have to recall. She recalls feelings, she recalls the emotions, the connection. But she doesn’t recall the order, the timing, that kind of thing. It’s obviously based on a lot of oral histories, but I did a lot of archival work, as well. It was that the archives are very much in conversation with the interviews. I really wanted to use the interviews to capture that sense of the things that only they could know, the things that only they could tell me of what it felt to be incarcerated at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds. I can find the date of when you were arrested, but I don’t know what it felt like to be there. I’ve tried to put them in conversation that way. I thought of people like you, like friends who work in the 19th century or earlier time period, because I would be in the archives, and I could text them like, “Oh, look at what I found.” Like, I remember being in the AFSC archive when I found the press release for when Zoharah got hired, because she couldn’t remember the exact time. So it’s like, “oh, looks like you got hired on this date.” This was right when David Blight’s book about Frederick Douglass came out. He did alright for himself with that book, he didn’t need the help. I think it was definitely very iterative, definitely very conversational. I think there’s a lot of times that I was worried that this book was impossible to manage these multiple, two very deeply braided storylines, but still different storylines, and the amount of archives, and so on. But mostly it was a gift to be able to work on something about people, but also with people. I really think of my scholarly method as relational. All the work that I’ve done, some of it like this still comes from pre existing relationships, but I also meet new people in the process of doing it, including this book. Certainly we’ve become much closer than we were when I started it. I just think the relational dimension of research, anthropologists talk about it a lot, historians don’t really consider it. They just don’t discuss it very much. So that relational dimension is really important to me. Depending on how much you want to go into this, I certainly was both reading a lot of novels, but also listening to novelists talk about their craft. Toni Morrison would talk a lot about how Black life is universal, and to push against this idea that Black authors needed to explain Blackness to non-Black audiences. She was like “fuck that” Black life is universal, like everything about the world is contained in Blackness and Black relationships. I really felt that deeply and I wanted to do a book of that. I think that there’s no way to talk about the left or peace or justice or anything like that that is not rooted in Black Power, specifically, a Black politics more generally. The last thing I’ll say about novels and craft is that I have friends who are fiction writers who will talk about, “I didn’t want to write it this way, but the characters took me there.” As a historian of the left, I often feel like I didn’t want to go there, but that’s where the characters went. So I do think there is something to the craft of writing that I feel very excited about, passionate about, and interested in that I think can translate across genres in ways that I was trying to do this book and was a big appeal to me about doing this book.

Scott Ferguson: Other questions?

Crowd Question #1: Going back to the conversation that opened you up to this at UF, how much did you say “that sounds like me.” How does it fit? I was at Florida State in the 60s, and I didn’t come as an activist other than within the church. But then several things happened in a hurry. Though I was always in favor of civil rights, it was in the news, it wasn’t next to me. And I found myself asking if these issues are fundamental or human. So what’s the connection to the people in my dad’s churches? Pastoring in Powell’s Park (spell check) where there are carpenters, cabinet makers, union electricians. What’s the connection? What’s the connection related to me as a working person?

Dan Berger:  Yeah, I think a lot of studying history, generally, is trying to make sense of my own place in history, and trying to make sense of the world. I’ve had a very different life and upbringing than Michael and Zoharah, certainly temporarily, and all the things that come from being born after Jim Crow, but also being a white Jewish person who grew up in the suburbs. They were both raised Christians, Zoharah is now Muslim. Growing up in segregated environments. A lot of differences. But I do think there is something about that kind of universalism that I was talking about via Morrison, that you were mentioning about the civil rights movement, that has always spoken to me. I certainly was asking myself as I was writing this book. I’ve written stuff about people who have been part of underground movements, and engaged in revolutionary violence. And I can’t imagine myself doing that, I guess I would say. I think the choices that they make here are ones that I could see myself making, even if I haven’t been in some of those conditions that they’ve been in.

Steve Prince:  Can I actually follow up on the violence question since that was something that I was thinking about. Neither of them embrace the notion of armed self-defense really, at all. Am I right? I mean, they’re around people who are considering, right? Am I forgetting any elements?

Dan Berger:  So Zoharah starts carrying a pistol when she’s in Mississippi and is really grateful for the local people in the community who were engaged in armed self defense. So certainly in that ‘64-’65.

Steve Prince:  The landlady sitting on the front porch.

Dan Berger:  Yeah, exactly, exactly. So I think she embraced it in that sense. I was very curious that they didn’t join the Panthers. The Panthers were not a part of their purview. This is just human circumstance: they were in Atlanta, and the Panthers weren’t in Atlanta at that time. They met Eldridge Cleaver, and they thought he was a jerk. So they’re like, “we don’t want to be that guy. What else can we do?” So they knew folks from the Nation of Islam. Actually, the person who built the Atlanta chapter was the person who got Muhammad Ali into the Nation of Islam who, of course, was a childhood friend of Michael’s because that’s how these things go. So they joined the Nation of Islam. I think just that sort of serendipitous sense of it all was really part of it, for me. I think they supported armed self defense and Zoharah engaged in it in the sense that she carried a gun for some time in Mississippi, but didn’t use it. So let me be clear when I say engaged in it. But I think the bigger question of violence is, when Michael was working for the American Friends Service Committee and anti-apartheid forces in South Africa, began armed struggle, and Quakers are a pacifist religion. That was a real strong point of contention for many years. But I think it’s more abstract than armed self defense because it was about somewhere else. It was a more ideological conversation than it was about their own personal involvement.

Crowd Question #2:  First, thank you so much, everyone. This has been really insightful and wonderful. As an activist today, I learned a lot from your discussion of love and the difference between struggle and ideology. I think those are really useful concepts. I guess I’m just wondering, with movements today, we are kind of in a unique moment in which we have these mass communication devices in which we reach more people than ever, seemingly, but yet we still seem stifled by that ability. I’m just wondering if they had any insights into organizing today? Or what you learned from the process of writing this that might be helpful to younger organizers?

Dan Berger:  Yeah, thanks for that. I think that’s certainly a question that they take very seriously, as do I. I think for them, the most important thing is, there’s a sense of humility. Michael has often said he’s been on Twitter, but he doesn’t use Twitter. He’s never been on TikTok. He doesn’t have the knowledge to engage in the communication mechanisms that younger people are using. So he knows that means he’s not in a position to tell young people what to do, because he’s not conversant with the things that younger people are using. I think I appreciate that sense, right? Because as both he and Zoharah would say, there’s a lot of folks out their generation who have a hard time exiting the stage who want to always be the ones in control, or in positions of leadership. I think they both have a sense that people are involved in different ways, in different capacities. And all that is great. They’re not in a place where they are or could be the leaders that they once were. Mostly, I think they’ve shifted to a sense of how to maintain that kind of long haul perspective, to thinking about the kind of movement of movements approach that brings together multiple forms of coalition and multiple forms of solidarity. I think that tends to be more how they operate than a sense of like here’s what you should be doing in a prescriptive way. I think that one thing that I’ve been saying, I think social media, obviously, has been useful in a lot of ways. I think equally obviously, it has wrecked our brains in a lot of ways. For all the ways that it’s new, I think it still exists within a media ecosystem that should be familiar to us, which is to say that they’re privately owned corporations that people try to make use of for their own ends, and have their deep limits that always come from that. I think Twitter has been tremendously valuable in showing the limits of speaking truth to power as a position. Because I can log on to that website every day, and unfortunately I do. But I could log on to that website every day and tell the President of the United States, hypothetically the most powerful person in the world, I could tell him what he’s wrong about. I could say, and I do often say, that your border policy is racist. Whatever, I could do that. That’s true, I am literally speaking truth to power. Twitter allows me access to the president in a way that has never existed before. Previously, I would have to write a letter, make a phone call. Now I can just tell him in a sentence, and it’s absolutely meaningless. It means nothing, right? I might feel better for five seconds, but it doesn’t change anything. So I think, to me, the one thing that I learned is the difference between being right and having power. That’s the shift from civil rights as a kind of orienting point or organizing rubric to Black Power. One of the benefits of that, in my view, is that it did squarely identify questions of power as the object and focus. I think we are better when we shift from speaking truth to power to speaking power to power because when you look at pretty much any issue in the United States today, you will see a discrepancy between what public opinion wants and the policies that exist. Clearly, just the idea of getting the ideology together, or getting people to agree with us is not enough. That’s not how change happens. So I really appreciate that sense of, okay, how do we think about power, both the structures of power that already exist, and the forms and structures of power that we need to create in order to bring about the kinds of changes that we want to see.

Crowd Question #3:  Were there moments where it felt like for your oral history, that the people you’re interviewing are telling you things that you realize weren’t true or miss remembered, or did you have any challenges like that?

Dan Berger:  Most of the ones, at least the ones that I can remember, were things that were not that significant to the story. It was a question of dates, or the order of things. Michael remembered being arrested with one person in the archive, I found he was arrested with another person. And he was like, “I swear it was this person.” But also, archives are wrong, too, right? So it’s not to say that where there was a discrepancy that I always needed to choose the archive. In that specific example, I resolved it by just not mentioning the name of the person. I could just say that he was arrested with somebody else. It didn’t matter to the story whether it was this person or that person. I think most of the discrepancies were things like that, they were details that I could write around because they weren’t consequential to the story. The thing that I was most worried about where that difference would happen is their divorce or separation. A friend once beautifully put it that a breakup is when two people have different stories, and their stories don’t match anymore. And I love that idea. I was really scared of how this was going to work. Both the story of the divorce and also the story of how and when and why they didn’t respond to their daughter’s abuse. Why they didn’t when she raised it, or why it took them so long to acknowledge it. I did those interviews separately when talking about their divorce, when talking about Aisha’s abuse, and their response. In part, because their lives were separate at that point, so I wanted to talk to them in isolation. We had a lot of interviews together, and they really did jog each other’s memory in really wonderful ways. But also, it was important to have time separately to hear how they would process it separately. Some of it is luck. But I was amazed at how similar their stories were. Now, again, they had different details, but they weren’t in conflict. So Michael talked about some of the things about the divorce from his perspective. And Zoharah had different details. When we think about history as argument, they had the same argument for why it didn’t work. The different details that they offered were not contradictory. They were just perspectives. In another context for another project, I did have an oral history where I really felt like someone was trying to pull one over on me. And, ultimately, I appreciated the time that he spent with me, but I haven’t done anything with it because I just didn’t trust it enough to do anything. But that’s a totally separate project and nothing to do with one.

Scott Ferguson:  I’m wondering about Michael and Zoharah’s own reception of the book. A.) I would imagine you shared chapters along the way and maybe got notes, so I would maybe like to hear about that and B.) With the finished product and going through all the reviews and the edits. This is like a mirror or several mirrors of their lives. How are they feeling?

Dan Berger:  Yeah, so I didn’t share individual chapters along the way, but I shared the manuscript with them, I think, three different occasions. I didn’t share individual chapters in part because I was often figuring things out from one chapter to the next and everything felt tentative. We spent a lot of time, when I approached them about doing this book, just figuring out what it would mean to do this together. So let me say that. And we are sharing any royalties that come equally between the three of us. It was important that this not be an extractive project, that it would be deeply and materially collaborative, not just ideationally collaborative. In the agreement that we drew up, I think it said something that I would share with them in the actual process, but obviously I would anyway. But in the actual process of doing it, when I had a draft they were like, “Oh, you’re done? We’re just hanging out! Like, what do you mean? There’s a book here?” They were surprised when I had a draft. I gave them drafts more times than they read them. My sense of timing now is off, as well. I think I got a lot of feedback after the first one, and then definitely at the final one when it was like: here’s the last chance to change anything. I don’t think I got much in the middle reading, if I recall, but the first draft was significantly longer than this one. They definitely corrected a few things like, “well, you said this, but it meant this,” or “the way that you use this quote feels different from the rest of the passage.” We refined a few things from that point. Not many, but a few for sure. I think their biggest disappointment is that it’s not 200 pages longer. Not in an aggrandizing way, to be clear, but in a sense that there’s three paragraphs in here that was a whole chapter, right? There’s a whole really interesting, really fun thing to Zoharah’s time in New York after she got pulled out of Mississippi. She’s cursing at Ishmael Reed for dating a white woman, and just very funny and interesting things that end up on the cutting room floor. I was sad about that. There was a lot of Michael’s time in Europe that is not in the book. The book ends, for the most part, in 2003, which was only moved to Europe. So I did one interview with somebody about his work in Europe since then, but that’s work that he was really quite proud of, and was sad about not having in the book. Pre-COVID, I had planned a trip to Europe, and I wanted to do all this archival work and interviews. It just wasn’t possible. That’s their biggest complaint so far. It’s been a month. I think there’s some interest in how some other former SNCC comrades will respond to it because the way that former SNCC people talk about Black Power has changed to become more pro-Black Power, but still very anti in that project (spell check). There’s some stories in here where they don’t look good, but there’s some stories in here where some of their comrades don’t look good. So far, no one has said anything about it, of that crew. But I think that’s what we’re all curious to see.

Crowd Question #4: I really appreciate your comments on balancing hope with also dealing with pain and trauma and violence, and I just wondered if you could talk a little bit more about how delicate that balance is in that process, because I think they’re both so important and they’re so often intertwined.

Dan Berger: Yeah, I’m a big fan of Mariame Kaba who talks about hope as a discipline. I think that’s how to reconcile them or how I reconcile them because there’s so much to be despairing about in the world, and I think it is objective to despair. I think an objective appraisal of the scenario is grim, but it’s not hopeless. I think differentiating between them is critical. I remember I went to Memphis with Zoharah to see where she grew up. I went to church with her, like the second or third time I’ve been in the church my entire life, at least for a service. She was driving around the neighborhood, and she’s saying, “this was the dividing line of segregation.” Like “this was the white neighborhood, this is the black neighborhood” while we’re driving. She’s like, “Oh, this was where this white man exposed himself to me. This is where, if you came over here, the white kids would throw rocks at you as we went to the bus.”  Just walking through the petty indignities of Jim Crow, and now, it’s a totally different neighborhood. Which is not to say that it’s necessarily a better neighborhood. She was also like, “this was a thriving black business district.” And now, it’s a bunch of abandoned buildings…But I guess I’m trying to say that driving around, getting this tour from her, I was really struck by how many lives she’s lived. Here was someone who grew up and could tell me those very specific sites of Jim Crow. Now, I have to use my imagination, because we’re driving through them in the very specific context of neoliberalism of whatever you want to call it, our contemporary racial and economic order, where a formerly segregated neighborhood is now an all Black neighborhood, and a formerly mixed-class neighborhood is now a very poor neighborhood, like exclusively very poor. It was very full of people and now has lots of abandoned houses and abandoned stores. Here’s someone who lived through all of that, and who did a lot to make the good parts of that change happen, and who still works against the bad parts of that. I don’t know that I quite have the words to express it. but there is something very hopeful for me about that, that we could tour through Jim Crow in a way that I had to use my imagination on those specific sites, but that those sites are constantly changing. I think that sense of the inevitability of change is the fact that the inevitability doesn’t point in any one direction. So change is a constant, but whether that change is, broadly and simplistically speaking, good or bad is undetermined and unknowable. That’s where hope as a discipline, as a framework, meets the realities of the world for me.

Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste w/Rohan Grey (Bonus Episode)

In this bonus episode of Money on the Left, Rohan Grey joins co-hosts Scott Ferguson and Billy Saas to assess the epistemological and political implications of the Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) failure. While orthodox economics and law tell us that economic crises are essentially matters of private risk and market discipline, Rohan, Scott and Billy argue that blatant federal mediation throughout the ongoing SVB crisis exposes money’s public and contestable nature. Rather than another story of capitalist contradiction or bankers behaving badly, then, the SVB crisis opens contemporary money politics to a host of invaluable tools for a stable, just, and green transition: democratic state and municipal credit issuance; public digital banking; focused credit regulation and demand management; and full deposit insurance without arbitrary and destabilizing caps. 

For more on the significance of the unfolding crisis, see Nathan Tankus, “Every Complex Banking Issue All At Once: The Failure of Silicon Valley Bank and Five Quick Implications.”

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Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com