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. firstname.lastname@example.org 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 team: William Saas (audio editor), Mike Lewis (transcription), & Robert Rusch (graphic art)