Medium Femme – 4 – Food Publics (with Max Sussman)

Hosts Charlotte Tavan (@moltopopulare) and Naty T. Smith (@orangeasm) talk food with chef Max Sussman (@maxsussman) in episode 4 of Medium Femme, from the Money on the Left Editorial Collective (@moneyontheleft).

The discussion touches on the political openings and challenges in the pandemic food industry, ranging from labor to small business politics to  federal aid to restaurants and the public, mutual aid, the GND and more. Hosts and guest explore food as narrative in cookbooks, literature and film and TV, touching on the politics of liberal food. Examination of internationalism in food culture, history of migrant food riots and food for refugees. And finally, pizza!

Follow Max on Instagram at @pizzareplicator and @thesussmans.

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Superstructure 31 – Non Eugenic Media Practice (ft. Beatrice Adler-Bolton)

Beatrice Adler-Bolton (@realLandsEnd) of the Death Panel podcast joins cohosts Will Beaman (@agoingaccount), Natalie Smith (@orangeasm) & Maxximilian Seijo (@MaxSeijo) to discuss a recent article about pandemic politics published by Adler-Bolton and her cohost Artie Vierkant in The New Inquiry. Titled “The Beyblade Strategy” or: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Focused Protection,” the essay uncovers eugenic ideas and assumptions embedded in mainstream liberal responses to COVID-19. Fleshing out Adler-Bolton and Vierkant’s claims, this episode advances a non eugenic media practice that stakes a claim for the social rights of the medically vulnerable in the name of fully inclusive public provisioning. 

Read “The Beyblade Strategy” or: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Focused Protection” here:

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

Euphoria: A Textural Analysis

Modern Movie Theory (MMT) continues with cohosts Will Beaman and Maxximilian Seijo offering a sustained reading of the HBO series Euphoria, situating its congregational themes within wider histories of subversive queer media and scholarship.

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“Amore Mio Aiutami (Main Theme)” by Piero Piccioni from the EUPHORIA Season 2 Episode 7 Soundtrack

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

Adorno, Lazarsfeld and the Birth of Public Broadcasting with Josh Shepperd

Josh Shepperd joins Money on the Left to discuss the research and activism that hastened the rise of public media in the United States. Assistant Professor of media studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Shepperd shows how public-interest broadcasting platforms like NPR and PBS exist in the U.S. today in large part as a consequence of hard-fought battles by committed scholars and advocates throughout the inter- and post-war periods. In particular, Shepperd traces the untold aftermath of the Communications Act of 1934 which, in addition to creating the Federal Communications Commission, gave overwhelming legal support to private for-profit networks, while stripping radio licenses from public and educational broadcasters committed to serving the common good. 

Deepening this narrative, Shepperd draws special attention to the Princeton Radio Research Project, spearheaded by noted sociologist and communication studies scholar Paul Lazarsfeld. Through the Project, Lazarsfeld developed influential quantitative research methods that fundamentally shaped the discipline of communication studies. Fascinatingly, however, Lazarsfeld hired then-immigré critical theorist Theodor Adorno to assist in the research program. As Shepperd tells it, Lazardfeld welcomed and even incorporated the critical theorist’s incisive contributions into the Project. Yet, Adorno ultimately repudiated the Project’s efforts to build a robust U.S. public radio system, unfortunately divorcing the developing tradition of Critical Theory from the domain of public media research and advocacy. 

Fast-forwarding to the present, we ask Shepperd about his argument that contemporary humanities research ought to be politically constructive. We then conclude by exploring his important archival work for the Radio Preservation Task Force at the Library of Congress.

See here for Shepperd’s article, “Theodor Adorno, Paul Lazarsfeld, and the Public Interest Mandate of Early Communications Research, 1935–1941,” published by the journal Communication Theory in August 2021.Visit our Patreon page here:

Music by Nahneen Kula:


The following was transcribed by Richard Farrell and has been lightly edited for clarity.

William Saas: Josh Shepperd, welcome to Money on the Left.

Josh Shepperd: Thank you for having me.

William Saas: So to kick things off, we would like to invite you to tell our listeners and us a little bit about your personal and professional background, especially as it relates to your current work on public media.

Josh Shepperd: So I’ve got a background in continental philosophy. And I never was able to shake the ideas and the different kinds of idealisms that philosophers carry into their assessments of ethics, aesthetics, and other approaches. So when it comes to research in media studies, or film and media studies, I really tend to focus on how people frame the why of what they’re doing, not just the case example that’s at hand. I tend to listen more to the precursory investment of why the phenomenon is being studied. So when it comes to public media and studying a topic like that, there are two factors. The first is that public media is a mission statement based industry. It doesn’t follow from logics of accumulation like the private and commercial industries do. It pulls from certain concepts of social amelioration about equal access to education and cultural uplift, and sometimes that’s very paternalistic or patriarchal along the way. But there’s an ideal there that they’re trying to realize through media as opposed to creating a kind of mechanism that is both profitable and can predict what content audiences won’t respond to so that they can continue to produce content, which is the basics of commercial industries.

So the second factor is, with those investments in mind, I ended up at the University of Wisconsin for grad school, and they had the National Association of Educational Broadcasters archives there, or NAEB. And NAEB built NPR and PBS. But no one had ever actually written the history, going back to the onset of educational media, that traced where non-commercial logics came from in media production, and how it went through a series of concessions and shifts and evolving concepts to reach public media between the 1920s and late 1960s. So I really just sat in the archive for a very long time in grad school, and even went back after grad school, to look at the personal letters. And the beauty of that was that educators are bureaucrats. They saved every single piece of paper. So as a historian, I had kind of the opposite problem of what other historians have where they have to travel intrepidly around the world to find that one smoking gun document. I instead had literally millions and millions of pages to work through over about 10 years leading to the book that I have coming out, hopefully next year. So yeah, there’s just been a huge amount of trying to trace the concept of why we have a non-commercial system, why people really believed in it and gave their careers to it over multiple generations, and then what the actual machinations were of building that system from scratch without advertising income, or to do it from a nonprofit perspective.

Maxximilian Seijo: So jumping into what you’ve already sort of described as the stakes and scope of your project, you’ve communicated to us and argue that political economic research should be applied in ways that not only clarify, but change institutional practices, and that for you, humanities scholarship has important roles to play in such efforts. Could you situate this claim and perhaps flesh out this argument for our audience with maybe some reference to some of the broader scope and stakes of your project that you’ve already started wading into?

Josh Shepperd: So one thing I’d like to say about political economy in particular is that the tradition of political economy of media turns out to have been a policy strategy of non-commercial media in the 1930s and 40s. It’s a methodology that was developed to solve a problem. So I’ll sketch that out a little bit and then say a couple more words about it. So essentially what happened was, and this is part of the paper I recently published on Adorno, is that the FCC and the Office of Education began to work together for the first time after the Communications Act of 1934, which as Robert McChesney has very famously written–and other colleagues, Victor Pickard, Nelson Perlman, and other scholars have addressed it–it privatized the American system, but to such an extent that it was impossible to build any non-commercial, sustainable entities within the post-1934 Communications Act environment. Okay, so usually the history ends there.

What I have found in the archives is, from 1934 to roughly at least the late 1950s, the media reform movement, as it’s been called in our field, began to organize in a decentralized, parallel way by which multiple sectors were working for the same goal, but perhaps in the ways that they deemed suitable to their specific sector. In other words, philanthropic groups started to fund research around these topics. The government began to create clearinghouses and mandate different kinds of research projects in concert with the government. Our intrepid grassroots, local broadcasters began to develop best practices that would differentiate commercial broadcasting from educational broadcasting at the time, while at the same time taking the best practices cues from commercial broadcasting for what audiences seem to like. Then, out of that, they had to make a case, the non-commercial broadcasting side, for why there should be special frequency allocations for non-commercial media when it was not profitable, when it was not well supported by universities at that point, and when it was not even clear what the effects were of education on classroom audiences, on students in classrooms listening to the radio for education.

So what happens is they end up bringing over the director of talks of the BBC, a guy named Charles Siepmann, who becomes a kind of a mentor to a generation of NAEB broadcasters. And one of those people in the process was Dallas Smythe. With a guy named Dallas Smythe, they wrote something called the “Blue Book” for the FCC in the mid 1940s. This has been published about by Victor Pickard. He has a very excellent piece. In that “Blue Book,” there’s a suggestion for the relationship between public good, even public defense, and non-commercial broadcasting that’s not in the hands of private interests. Dallas Smythe is Canadian. He went back to Canada eventually, but he helped build the very first communications program ever, which is the Illinois School with Wilbur Schramm and others. He also did a huge amount of work for the FCC and NAEB to make an argument for why media serves as a kind of a public good that requires attention to path dependencies, sociological path dependencies, and institutional and policy decision making. This is the foundation of political economic research in media studies.

So Dallas Smythe is often credited, then the Illinois School researchers that followed him, who were super excellent for many decades, and were conducting essentially a moral, sociological assessment of the effects of commercial media on broader democratic discourses, and in the process, pulling from traditions like Marxism. Political economy is usually a Marxist term, but in this case, I would say this is more of a post-Deweyian, American, and pro-capitalist, but anti-monopoly viewpoint. So we should be clear about where political economy came from, which I would say is a liberal, mildly left tradition when it began. Then, it actually moved further left and then began to disappear in our field at the same time. But the key point here is that political economic research began as an empirical solution to a policy problem to address non-commercial media allocations within the government. This engendered a series of types of reports that became a mechanism of communications research itself over time.

So in terms of the practice of political economy, when I learned this through the archives and just through the personal letters of the founders of the tradition, one thing that really struck me is that political economic research can’t merely be critical. Political economic research is not merely a critical piece that we’ve written for a metrics-based evaluative journal. It’s actually a mode of practice that attempts to adjust how institutions and policies work. One of the things that I love about non-commercial media history is that it’s one of the histories in the 20th century that did change policy. It actually changed the Communications Act and the commercial broadcasting structure into something that at least designated a role for non-commercial media. And there’s a lot to say about that. But when I enter into a political economic approach to research, I think about my public role with different policy and institutional structures beyond my assessment of what the archives tell me or something like that.

So I was very fortunate to be placed in DC for my first job at Catholic University of America back in 2013 or so. And I was invited right away, as many people in DC are who move there, to join a research project with the Library of Congress. And we realized that radio was basically not preserved whatsoever. So the Radio Preservation Task Force is the name of the project at the Library of Congress. We realized, “Okay, we have an opportunity here to actually work with the path dependency of a specific institution, and one with a huge amount of international weight.” We’ve been studying these principles, my friends and I, for all this time on the project. What could we do with this that would be a public facing political economic project with some influence of Gramsci and cultural studies–we could talk about that later–but within the logic of the institution so that it sustains itself? What we realized was that there was already a film preservation plan.

There was a recording preservation plan that was new, but that radio was probably the most untapped primary source archive maybe in the world. It had not been preserved. There was over a million hours of material. And it was a non-theatrical modality. People think of like Jack Benny for the radio. They think of the great theater of radio. I love these things, of course. But most of radio is community organizing, talk shows, sports talk, and so what you actually end up having are these primary sources of people who may not be in the paper trail describing their perspectives about events as they’re happening in real time. So we realized pretty quickly, within the first year, that what we had was a potential political economic project from memory studies, which is to diversify the archive through sound history where paper trails ended with alterity experience. But of course, to do that, you have to go through all these steps. You can’t just say, here’s an archive, let’s preserve it. There turns out to be dozens of steps, huge numbers of personalities, policies, state claims, copyright, there needs to be applications, grant writing, and then we need implementation in the classroom.

So we just started building this political economic project. We ended up with about 300 professors after the second year on the project to just account for this and it still wasn’t enough. It still has been a very difficult project to facilitate. But so, in other words, the political economic research in the archive for all those years influenced my willingness to really dive into, with an opportunity at hand, the institutional decision making processes, and see how we could interject specific kinds of moral, ethical, or structural changes to the machinations of how the institutions work. And we’re still going. I think we’re the longest lasting–I don’t want to be too bombastic about it–media research project in Library of Congress history. I can’t find an equivalent at the US National Archives. So it’s all built around the precedent that we are working together in a horizontalized way to diversify the archive through sound. So the project is really more of a media studies and political economic project that learns the institution to get something else done, which is to make our curriculum better and more diverse when it comes to studying media history. So that’s part of the political economic story here.

I have this conviction that the work that we’re doing in media studies comes from two places. The first is a mission statement that we should be invested in non-commercial media. And I’m mostly alone in the belief that that is a crucial mission statement for media studies. But the second, I think, is super fascinating, and I hope will resonate over time, which is that media studies was founded as a system building approach. We used to build things in our discipline. Our discipline came from people who built an entire alternate media system. And, at some point, we just sort of turned to critique and we stopped building things. So that’s super fascinating to me. I’d say, what we’re doing at the task force, is one tiny fraction of the division of what was accomplished in the Cold War era. But at the same time, I do think there’s something there that could be recaptured.

Scott Ferguson: That’s beautiful. It’s such a really helpful and comprehensive summary and situating of your work. I was wondering, for our next question, if we can focus a little bit and pick up something that you mentioned in your response, which is that Communications Act of 1934. You and your work show this really looms large in both the history of public media activism and in the rise of communication studies. And in your published writing so far, you’ve begun to lay out the significance of the 1934 Act in an article titled, “The Political Economic Structure of Early Media Reform Before and After the Communications Act of 1934.” Maybe you can walk us through some of the details of that Act and what it did? I mean, you’ve already kind of addressed this. But I wonder if you can say, in more particularity, why this Act is so important and what did it end up doing?

Josh Shepperd: So, I mentioned him already. There’s a really important book that I admire by Robert McChesney about the foundation of, essentially, the media system in the US. And again, it has a huge amount of attention in the early 90s for its comprehensive archival research, but also its political economic framing of where essentially we went wrong, or where the paradise was lost in the American system, and why we don’t have a BBC like system, or at least why our public system isn’t as robust as it should or could be. So this is kind of the word for the field. Like people look to this work and a few other foundational works from like Susan Douglas and Michele Hilmes, who was my mentor at Wisconsin. And these are really excellent books that are the foundation of my work. But his book ends with 1934 with the loss for educators, which is completely accurate. And politically, I agree with what he takes away from this history. But if you go one year later, the same people that are in his book begin building public broadcasting right away.

So what happens is this 1934 Act is, from what I can tell, the watershed moment, good or bad, for American media. What you have is this moment in which some of the rhetoric of Coolidge and Hoover about public interest, convenience, and necessity as the grounds for station allocation rules–so who gets to have a station and broadcast–becomes ossified into policy in 1934. That’s essentially what McChesney’s book looks at. And I agree with him completely that this notion that station ownership should be dictated on the question of interest instead of service, this is a big distinction he makes, is like this break, it’s almost like this epistemic break in what was possible during the New Deal. So all the consequent decisions that are made during the New Deal by the FCC follow from the senatorial rules that were passed that essentially equate to technical mastery and technocratic understanding of measurement of audiences and the broadcast range and all that stuff are the single grounds by which American systems can be created. This gave a huge advantage to advertising based media who could have just constant income coming in with vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley performers. And I love that stuff by the way. I love the performances on early radio.

But at the same time, it’s like, why don’t we have that other system? So what happens is the Communications Act becomes the grounds by which, I argue, future advocacy is also shaped. And one way that I do that in the article is, and I’ll just give a little spiel about it, McChesney covers two groups in his book and shows how there were two fundamental responses to an inevitable retraction of opportunity for educational media. There’s the National Committee on Education by Radio, the NCER, that was funded by something called the Payne Fund out of Ohio and was connected to the National Education Association. Then, there was the NACRE, or National Advisory Council on Radio in Education, which was really just a single person. It was a guy named Levering Tyson. And he was appointed by the Carnegie Corporation and the Office of Education commissioner pre-New Deal to investigate opportunities for different modalities of broadcasting practice to work together for a common goal of education.

So what happens is, and I love this in McChesney’s book, he points to the NCER as kind of like the Bolsheviks pushing against the system, and then the NACRE as the Mensheviks passive with the system. He creates this like super lefty dynamic between the different institutions and how that kind of complacence led to the Act itself. So the fact that there was not unified resistance to the oncoming changes in policy. But if you look at the same exact people, and they all left all their papers, like thousands and thousands of pages, personal letters, not just reports, but letters about these things. I had to go work on research in Cleveland, Ohio, which is its own problem. I spent all this time in the Payne Fund papers, and the same people after the Communications Act completely changed their methodologies and their strategies for how they approach the question.

So the NCER says, “Okay, we tried to, during the hearings for the Communications Act, state a reason that there should be a certain amount of frequency set aside.” This is usually referred to as the Wagner-Hatfield Act. It’s 15% of the reallocation, and argued sometimes as much as 25%. That was denied completely; it was just rejected outright. Then, by 1935, they’re saying, “Well, why don’t we just build a non-commercial media system.” So the same people who were built as these lobbyists and resisters to the system actually become practitioners within like two years, and they built something called the Rocky Mountain Radio Counsel out, not where I am now in the Denver area, but up in Wyoming. And they call it public broadcasting. So they actually invented the term. And this had never been discovered. I discovered this by accident in these papers. This is where the term came from originally.

It’s from this guy named A.G. Crane, who became president of the University of Wyoming and who was chair of the NCER after the Communications Act. He says we can’t just allow and wait for other people to do this work for us. We have to build a decentralized system based around philanthropic funds–the Rockefeller Foundation in this case. And from there, we will do shortwave or program transcription, which is a recorded program distribution of non-commercial media to classrooms. And, you know, dang it if they didn’t get it done, at least until about 1940. Then, one of the guys they have running the project named, Robert Hudson, goes on to help build the Illinois School with Dallas Smythe and Wilbur Schramm, the first communications school, about seven years after that. So there’s a few takeaways from these pieces.

When we are faced with failure on the Left, where do strategic changes get implemented that do change path dependencies of policy and institutional decision making? It’s a highly problematic case study. We’re talking about a bunch of white guys here. And we’re talking about people at universities. There is a huge amount of privilege with these things. But it reveals something about the policy itself without assuming that it’s like the same thing as a kind of rights advocacy. It’s still like a lefty political economic advocacy to increase equal access to education, which is a pretty important thing, I think, at that time, especially. So I’m really interested in these moments in which there’s a pivot within a strategic advocacy by which the rules change internally to the discursivity of the group itself. And what different decisions are made about the practices and then what worked and what didn’t. So I go very tediously and procedurally through how that worked within that piece.

Then, the NACRE guy, Levering Tyson, ends up being placed on something called the Federal Radio Education Committee, FREC, which was founded by the FCC and Office of Education in 1936. Because, it turns out, we should be clear that the FCC was formed by the Act. It didn’t precede the Act to make these decisions. So the new FCC members were like, “Why aren’t universities and school districts able to broadcast?” So right away the FCC is like trying to help build during the New Deal some kind of educational system. So they built this committee. And the committee becomes the funding line and becomes the precedent for all of the model of non-commercial media’s underwriting. We call it underwriting instead of sponsorship. And that’s the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Commission. So yeah, the NACRE guy ends up on FREC. He becomes the chair of a committee that just wants to research what works with audiences or not in terms of broadcasts. It wasn’t actually successfully educational when it was broadcasting. Anyway, that becomes the Princeton Radio Research Project. And that is the foundation of all communication studies in the world. It’s Paul Lazarsfeld, it’s Frank Stanton from CBS, it’s Herta Herzog, who helped build survey group research and was Lazarsfeld’s wife, it’s Hadley Cantril who was a social psychologist who did propaganda for the government later. 

But what happens is, in this process, the same people that are in McChesney’s book end up building communications studies, research, or at least underwriting its origins, and building the first model for non-commercial media that’s networked, that’s not one of the commercial station forms of networking. So that’s what that piece is kind of about. It’s like we have got to keep working on these things. Where is the institutional change or development by which something becomes sustainable? This is what I think we’re missing on the Left a lot. It’s like, where is the durability of the belief? It’s always going to be in something outside of oneself. Like when we’re gone, we leave our projects, we pass away, or something like that. What is that thing that we did that survives in the practices of others? I think that that’s where institutions become both the problem and, not the solution, but at least the strategy.

William Saas: It’s such an amazing and essential history. And I think we’re all nodding our heads just going, “Yeah,” to everything that you just said about institutions and institution building and the promises and perils of doing that. And the need to look to history for some guidance. I think one of the things that, and this is not a question so much as it is a comment and a riff, but the discovery of the first use of public broadcasting and the development of a public broadcasting network, it seems to me like, “Okay, that’s great.” And we like that that institution was built, but it was because it was philanthropically funded. It was precarious from the jump, or private in a sense, from the jump. I guess what I’m trying to say is, you listen to public radio today, and it is lousy with like Kaiser Family Foundation and all these sorts of sponsorships. And you start to start to wonder, is this public broadcasting? How does it work? I don’t know, maybe this is just a throwaway, your research is cool and thought provoking comment. I don’t know if you have any thoughts on the sort of inherent problems with public broadcasting being grounded in philanthropic endeavors from the beginning?

Josh Shepperd: Yeah, I think this is one of those great Raymond Williams points about what are the limits and pressures that are exerted like hegemonically over institutional decision making and the determinants that have to be followed within like the homological structure of how discursivity works, or something like that, within cultural studies. I think this is something that’s been thought through really importantly, critically, and appropriately. So yeah, I think public media has always been a series of concessions to maintain a vision of the mission statement. So I think what you see over time is that, within our system, in a US capitalist system without a huge amount of earmarked money, there’s very sparse money compared to other public systems, you end up with the Koch brothers like underwriting NOVA. You end up with, in my experience working with public media and history stuff, a huge amount of worry about, if we do the right thing, what kind of damage will come back at us? So why don’t we occupy some kind of soft middle that sort of winks at political economic questions, but is actually more of a middle of the road centrist service.

And yeah, when you go back to the origins, and you look at the philanthropic funding as a solution, the goal was, of course, some kind of earmarked money, which has never happened, honestly, to this day in the way that it should have or could have. And then, the philanthropic system ends up exerting certain limits and pressures on the way that broadcasts would unfold. I can give you like one or two quick anecdotes. So first, with empirical research of audiences, the Rockefeller Foundation wanted proof that educational broadcasting was, in fact, educational. And this leads to decisions on the part of early experimenters about how to frame what they’re doing for income. So a certain kind of logical positivist intervention begins to occur in the framing of the institutional logics.

Now, this is true in commercial media, too, because they like to break down audiences into sub-demographics, and do predicative work about who they think will watch and when. This doesn’t seem to have been necessarily part of where non-commercial media went, because it’s supposed to serve every audience, including small audiences. So it’s a legitimate question to see like, well, where is the audience going with this? Are they listening? Are they paying attention? Do they understand? Are they actually learning? Can it be tested? And then there’s another side, which is, does everything have to be substantiated in terms of a content production within previous tropes that have worked in commercial media and could be quantified as opposed to qualified. So I think that’s one point. I agree with you, in the early parts of it, immediately, there were effects upon the approaches.

Now, I’m a very qualitative, humanistic researcher, but I’m not against my mass communications peers at all. Like there’s sometimes some strife there. There’s a lot of questions that get answered with good quantitative research. I learn a lot by reading it and stuff, too. But is that the normative investment of how to understand an audience, which is the quantification of the subject as listener? So I think that’s one thing to consider. I have never written about that. But I think about it sometimes. And yeah, is it a mode of privatization? Another comment that I think is a very good comment. Does it become a mode of privatization to have an alternative funding model that is philanthropic? One thing about a third party that is itself a nonprofit institution is that the kinds of pressures that it exerts tend to be in remittance of funds, and then future reporting, less than day to day operations. Whereas in commercial media, there’s a huge amount of influence over what can even be on screen. So it’s a softer form of power, but it does exert some power.

William Saas: Well, just as a quick follow up on that, I’m still thinking through and really energized by your provocation that the Left needs to think about taking up these building projects again and how your work has, in a fell swoop, challenged the foundational narrative in McChesney’s work, or at least extended it, and says, “Hey that’s not the end of the story.” And then, the next year you discover public broadcasting was a phrase or a term coined as a sort of compromise in response to the limits and pressures, but baked into that, it’s not what you think it is, and it never has been. So let’s think about it and what it could be, which I really appreciate.

Josh Shepperd: Yeah my investments are in the concepts more than like just following and supporting what every practice has been. And then, just also on the McChesney note, I would call it like a mild or supportive revisionism of his work, because I do agree in principle with his politics on these questions.

Maxximilian Seijo: Perhaps shifting gears a little bit and, especially, as someone who’s done some work on Siegfried Kracauer, I found your recently published article in the journal Communication Theory really interesting, particularly where you sort of hone in on a understudied chapter of the story, which is the relationship between Paul Lazarsfeld and Theodore Adorno. So for those who don’t know, for his work with the Federal Radio Education Committee, Lazarsfeld of the Princeton Radio Research Project did hire Adorno “not only to develop techniques to inform educational music study,” as you explain, “but to strategically formulate advocacy language for the media reform movement to help non-commercial media obtain frequency licenses.” What circumstances occasion this historic convergence between these two, we could say, maybe, intellectual titans of communication studies and critical theory? What have we overlooked about Lazarsfeld and Adorno’s relationship, and perhaps could you also say what lessons we can draw by reflecting critically on this moment today?

Josh Shepperd: Yeah, thank you for that. So I have a few things going on with that article, I think. One is the revisionist history. Where did communication studies come from and what are its commitments? And why does it have certain commitments? My answer to that is that it’s not just a matter of answering a question, which it does really well. It originally came from this public ameliorative mission statement. So communication studies, I would argue, is at least in part a consequence of media reform advocacy, which I think has not really been written about in the field. I think that to understand communication studies, it wasn’t just that they were able to create a more efficient model of understanding audiences, which became public policy research, which is all true. It is a functional approach to social science research. And in that functionality, it answers questions designated to it by either an institution or a social process.

Communication research is fundamentally different from the humanities in that way. Humanities tends to begin with concepts, existential experiences, storytelling, myth, there’s all kinds of ways that the humanities pull from a source if it’s problematic or not. Communication studies is a 20th century American phenomenon that attempted to answer technocratic questions within the constraints set for it by the institutions that underwrote early research. So that’s kind of what that piece is about. But what I found, of course, along the way, is that we have this discipline that doesn’t know where it came from. We’re probably the only discipline that has not traced its own history fully. And there’s really good work being done by Jeff Pooley, David Park, Peter Simonsson, who’s here at Colorado and the history of communication division at ICA, the International Communication Association. So my work stands on their shoulders. I think that because they were doing this work, I was able to begin this kind of work. So what I would say about the origins of communication studies and Adorno’s role is that Adorno is always taken for granted as someone who was brought to the United States as some kind of brilliant thinker. Of course, they wanted to bring him, but in fact, he was trying to escape Germany at the time.

He was brought here for a reason, which was that, mired within their attempts to develop reproducible models of audience analysis at the Princeton Radio Research Project in 1936 and 1937, they discovered that they had no way to translate the consequent assumed neutrality of quantitative results back into the policy language that the FCC was looking for to allocate the frequency assignments. So they said, “Well, we should bring somebody who has a different methodology,” Lazarsfeld says this in one of his letters, “that is a parallel analysis to this quantitative functional approach that we are implementing.” So Adorno gets brought to the US by really the founder of communication studies, Paul Lazarsfeld, to work on this problem of persuading the FCC to create 15%, 10%, or whatever allocations for non-commercial media. It hedged under his expertise, which is musical analysis, or analysis of musical syllabi, and these kinds of things. This has made it to Martin Jay’s work and David Jenemann’s books–these are really good books. But what everyone had seemed to have missed was the backdrop of the invitation and what that meant or what that revealed.

So what that article does, at Communication Theory, is it goes back to the start of where the mandate for the project even came from, it works into the questions they were assigned to research within it, which points to the functionalism of communications research itself. They weren’t trying to answer some major, Weberian question about how different social structures work. They were trying to answer how to get around the Communications Act and the limitations of that. Then, they begin to conduct research specifically to address the problem of educational audiences to report back to the Office of Education and the FCC. In the process, they bring on Frank Stanton. Frank Stanton becomes president of CBS not too long afterwards. He’s very young and just graduated from Ohio State in educational psychology. He and Lazarsfeld have this moment, and it’s just a remarkable, historically important moment in which they figure out how to triangulate audience responses across expanded models of demography.

So one thing they did before those two is they would get all this data and they would say, “Here are five categories. Where do you fit in these categories?” And Stanton, Lazarsfeld, along with Herta Herzog, were able to figure out that you could ask people what categories they would associate themselves with, and then create broader and broader demographic categories. And from there, they were able to triangulate that with people who would answer in similar ways across geographic spaces of separation. So in other words, that person who believes the same thing in New Jersey as they believe in Nebraska, or something like that. What they realize is that it’s not geographically defined in terms of how one understands oneself. There are actually these modalities of discursivity that people associate with culturally, which parallels critical theory in this understanding at that moment, as they’re both developing, that actually define embodiment. So, in other words, Lazarsfeld and Stanton are able to successfully triangulate responses across geographic spaces for the first time in ways that are reproducible by different researchers. If different researchers all conduct the same kind of work, they can get the same answers.

So this was the gold. This is the foundation of modern sociology in some ways, too. And they’re super excited about this. It kind of blows their mind a little bit that they discovered it themselves. So that’s where Adorno comes in, like, “Well, how do we get this back to keeping this along the social ameliorative questions?” That’s where Adorno comes in. But their work is so profoundly impactful within its first year that they basically abandon the educational question, first of all, and they go all in. Rockefeller loves it, the government loves it, the advertisers love it, the network’s love it, and the commercial networks love it. Immediately, it becomes research and development for all media and public policy. By the early 1940s, it becomes propaganda research for the OWI. It literally changes how all institutions work, like almost immediately. Adorno is brought in, he says, “You’re quantifying audiences. You’re separating the questions from the context in which they’re asked. You’re turning agents into subjects. It’s a form of subjection. And this work cannot stand in support of media reform.” So they’re like, “What are you talking about? This is like the biggest discovery of social sciences of this decade. Everyone loves it.” And he puts his foot down on this so they fire him.

So within like a year or year and a half, Adorno was famously kicked off of this project. But what I love about what he’s kicked off about, is that it’s a fundamental disagreement over what embodiment means. It’s an ethical distinction that they’re making between each other about what counts in terms of recognition. Can you be quantified into a category? Or do you need to be described thoroughly. But then, of course, the twist of that is that Adorno abandons media reform altogether. And the quantitative guys stick with it. So the irony is that the equal access to education question mobilizes the creation of an entire academic discipline in the 1930s, and then the critical theorist abandons that completely and just continues to write brilliant, critical work, in my opinion. But you have this paradox that happens at the end of that moment that I try to account for in the article, by which part of what we have is the Left’s abdication of its role within the development of an alternative model of media.

So I just can’t believe that part of the history. And I have a lot of respect for Lazarsfeld and the mass communications guys in their ability to get right to the point in research. I kind of wish that we had that additional moment in which critical theory became the early foundational form of communications research. We almost had critical theory as the founding qualitative approach of communications and media studies. But we didn’t. And who did they bring in? I mentioned him earlier: Charles Siepmann. Political economy, in its empirical approach to analysis of audiences, but from a production standpoint and an ethical standpoint, actually better matches what they’re doing with that project. So with the invention of political economy in media studies, there was actually a reaction against critical theory in the late 1930s. And in my opinion, it has done a really good job for the field of political economy. It’s not like we should have had critical theory, but we almost had critical theory. We ended up with an empirical form of critical analysis that was not quite as far left, I think, as Adorno was on these questions.

Scott Ferguson: This is just such a fascinating story that feels really revelatory. And I’m particularly preoccupied with this split. You’ve suggested that your sympathies go both ways. But there’s also kind of a tragedy at the heart of it, that the kind of really nuanced, sophisticated approach of Adorno and critical theory is cleaved from the institution building, commitment to public reform and public world building, which as you suggest, Adorno would be right on this, was quickly sold out and became an arm of propaganda in all these complicated ways.

Josh Shepperd: Like immediately.

Scott Ferguson: I guess our conceptual and political commitment in our project and on our podcast and beyond is to bring these two impulses together. That we can be really smart and nuanced critics of the system and its history as it has developed, at the same time as we can keep our commitment to imagining new positive futures that basically don’t capitulate the future to mere critique, essentially. I don’t know if you share that way of framing it or if you have your own way of framing it. Do you care to comment on that?

Josh Shepperd: One thing I like about Lazarsfeld, personally, is when you go through his letters, he was, besides being encyclopedic and really just intellectually cutting and able to fulfill the mandate that he was given by the government and Rockefeller Foundation, he really was trying to play with empirical methodology and Adorno’s ideas. Like there’s all these letters about how he was trying to implement what Adorno was telling him in spite of them arguing. And one point that I make in that piece is that, I would give it like a 5% influence on what becomes the two step flow model in understanding the context of audiences, not just response or demographic quantification of audiences. And of course, Lazarsfeld then goes on and works with Elihu Katz, who recently passed and was just a giant of our field, and Merton and others. And they do kind of begin to streamline the capacity for this method to understand context. And what this becomes is, and Dallas Smythe writes about this very famously, the prediction model within research and development. Almost the entire commercial industry is predicated on predicting behaviors that haven’t happened yet. And they do that now through micro analytics. Before that, it was niche broadcasts, and before that, it was lowest common denominator, least objectionable programming, and mass produced programming like westerns.

But they’ve always been trying to create content based upon this formulation of data that comes from Lazarsfeld to be psychic about what people’s behavior will be. It’s a behaviorist approach. And I think that’s super fascinating. To think that a little piece of it actually might come from Adorno, in that they started to pay attention to context as much as mere affiliation along the way, that’s how Lazarsfeld interpreted it. There was really no stopping that tsunami once it began because it was so effective for every media and education institution along the way. It was to be able to understand the audiences, minimize chance, and minimize gambling for the amount of money that they put into a program development. So it maximizes profit, it reaches audiences as something that they already would like and know in advance. So I’m just super fascinated by that part of this too. The ability for mass communication to do research that predicts audiences comes at least a little bit from Adorno and his forcing their hand to pay attention to context as a determining factor in decision making.

Scott Ferguson: He’s rolling in his grave.

Maxximilian Seijo: One aspect of this that fascinates me, and it relates to someone who you brought up earlier in this discussion, Victor Pickard, who we’ve interviewed on this podcast, so for listeners, you can check back to get some of this genealogy, is the question–especially as we hover within this Adorno-Lazarsfeld complicated split, but also, as you’re suggesting, influence–is the question of the public funding of media. And I think, in a more general sense, Pickard is offering a new model through his history for thinking about the way we publicly fund media structures and media infrastructures in the US and beyond. To me, what I find interesting about a part of this split, and you framed it in a lot of ways as a methodological point. And I think that’s really crucial. But I guess, because we’re Money on the Left, I wanted to just raise the question of the money that sits at the heart of these structures and how maybe Adorno would think about the determinisms of money as what we would call capital in his critical and theoretical structure versus a more public funding, we could bring up MMT here, model for thinking about building futures and institutions. To me, there seems to be a tension that perhaps rhymes with this methodological split that you’re describing on that point as well, whether it’s explicitly articulated or not. I figured I’d raise it to see if you had any thoughts about it.

Josh Shepperd: Yeah, so I like Victor’s new book. I’m not a journalism historian. I’m not a journalist. So I want to be clear that I can’t give a sufficient answer for how it shall be funded. However, at the same time, I think that this notion, and Victor calls from these similar histories in his work, that there are alternative models that we not only have imagined, but have been implemented over time, and that it does not have to be a logic of accumulation when other logics are already present and successful within modes of production and divisions labor. And that not trying them is a decision to not try them. This is actually resembling an issue of political will. It’s an ideological problem, not an institutional problem, because we have the means and we have the history. We know how it works and what doesn’t work. So when he talks about alternative modes of funding that are government-based or public sector-based and these types of things, once you end up with something like the Sam Zell model of maximizing profit and limiting journalist freedom to do investigative reporting or something, it incentivizes different things like clickbait forms of journalism, glibber forms of reproduction of the AP story over and over again. There’s all kinds of problems with the relationship between how a funding model creates or engenders consequent content.

So in that way, I completely agree with him that if we have a funding model that doesn’t interject itself into media ethics within a journalism process, then this would probably be one model that’s worth pursuing to see how it might be better or not. At the same time, I’ve worked with a lot of people in the public sector since 2015. And I want to be gentle about this, but we can’t over idealize who the people actually are in that sector. There’s a lot of parallels between the private sector and public sector in the same ways that the academy talks about itself in a meritocratic way, but in fact, is a pretty toxic and exploitative environment for a lot of people. So we have to also be careful that the concept doesn’t automatically translate into the best practices. But I say this without any knowledge of how journalism works. I’m not an employee of journalism or some kind of expert. So I want to be very careful here to not overstep in that way. But in terms of what Victor’s talking about, with having these alternatives at hand, and then choosing to not follow them, I think that’s a great contribution.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, I think there’s another part of this that Maxx is trying to get at that I don’t know if you have any comments on. There’s a commitment that is coming through Marxism and is being arguably amplified in Adorno’s work and related contributions to critical theory that numbers, that quantified abstraction, is seemingly intrinsically alienating, and violent to particularity and to material reality in its history unfolding over time. It seems like the methodological split between the communication quantifiers versus Adorno’s qualitative approach–it’s so funny, I never use this language, because I’m fully qualitative. I never say the expression “qualitative research.” But anyway, I am a qualitative researcher, who, in our theoretical commitments, while we learn so much from Adorno and critical theory, we feel strongly that the reduction of quantification or the reduction of counting or accounting to a kind of flat alienation is part of the blind spot of critical theory. And again, not to say that we endorse certain kinds of narrow and positivistic social scientific methods of quantification either. But when we’re trying to politicize money as a public good, part of that is politicizing public accounting and accountability. So I think that’s another part of this kind of methodological question that Maxx is trying to get at that maybe you can get into.

Josh Shepperd: So where are the commitments in the applications? I think one issue with public sphere theory is that it assumes a certain kind of instrumentalized behavior that didn’t take into account the actual life worlds, as Habermas says, that were at hand. So you get these correctives from Nancy Fraser and Michael Warner, and we also could reframe the public not as a mode of deliberation but as a site of violence or humiliation. This is also true for different types of publics historically. But at the same time, if we go too far away from publics, I usually think of that as concessionary politics, by which we just leave it for the Right to make all the decisions. So it’s almost like a way of saying, “Well, I don’t believe in publics, and I’m going to let the Right make all the decisions for everyone else.” The way I kind of track it with the work, and you could probably extrapolate this from what I’ve been saying, is, “Okay, we don’t need a capital P public. But we do need public services.” So instead of a capital P public, it’s a capital PS or something.

So like we should be all in on underwriting journalism, public media, public parks, public education, and public health. These are crucial instrumentalizing forces within how people understand the relations to others. And they achieve certain kinds of, honestly, just moral visions for how interaction can go, that call from everything from liberation theology to Marxism. I mean, there’s even religious dimensions to these kinds of responsibilities that we imagine. I say that as someone who’s very secular, but I’ve been around people who have quite eloquently articulated even better models of brotherhood, sisterhood, or personhood, and all these kinds of relationships when I was at Catholic University in DC. And I’m not even Catholic. But I really enjoyed listening to liberation theologists talk about what a better society would look like. Not just like, we should have it, but here’s what it takes. This kind of stuff. So yeah, I think that these are great questions, and that if we can get away from a concept of a public that frames people within the model as opposed to examining the bottom up relations of people and what they need, and then building systems around those needs, I think that that’s one good way to approach a concept of publics.

William Saas: I’m trying to think of the best way to articulate this question. I wanted to kind of return to your work with the Radio Preservation Task Force. We’re talking now on a podcast that’s being distributed through a private hosting service and people are downloading it through private infrastructures of the internet. And we’re hoping to, I think, serve a broader public educational purpose, but ultimately, we are funding this through various forms of crowdfunding and our own jobs. It’s part of my job now and I think it’s part of Scott’s, but it hasn’t always been. So thinking about podcasting as a public, a broad platform, and trying to imagine where it fits, podcasting as a medium, form, or technology, how do you understand it fitting or not within the ambit of the Radio Preservation Task Force? And also along those lines, if you are aware of any promising trajectories for public funding for things like podcasting, because it seems to me that there’s so many Left projects in podcasting, but there is a correspondingly vanishingly small, maybe non-existent exploration of how to do this other than through things like Patreon, crowdfunding, and the familiar technologies. I don’t know how to put it other than crowdfunding platforms like Patreon. So what’s the place of podcasting in the history of radio preservation and are you concerned with that? I actually read with some students last week some work from your mentor, Michele Hilmes, in the Savings New Sounds anthology about podcast preservation. But yeah, podcasting in the history of the medium, and is there any concern in the task force for that? And then, if you have any ideas or are aware of any proposals for a more public form for podcasting?

Josh Shepperd: Yeah, so podcasting in the task force. I do see podcasting as a kind of natural progression out of radio. It does have its own preservation head at the Library of Congress already just for podcasting. And as you mentioned, there’s been some work around the task force that actually came out of the task force for podcasting preservation out of University of Wisconsin, which are by Jeremy Morris and Eric Hoyt  and that came out of our first conference, which was in 2016. I feel like the thing about podcasting is that it is not appointment listening. I think that that’s really crucial these days. You can just listen whenever. You don’t have to tune in at a certain time. You can create a podcast for the smallest possible audience, which actually meets the public media mandates that goes back to the 1930s. This imagination that it doesn’t matter, you don’t need the biggest audience because you don’t have to get advertising dollars. The reason we want bigger and bigger audiences isn’t just to get bigger audiences. It’s because that’s what pays. That’s part of that model for commercial media.

Podcasting also provides an artistic space to do variations of radio flows. Radio flows are predicated on the model of interruptions. There’s a commercial in between and the entire content is built around those interruptions. Raymond Williams, who I mentioned earlier, has written about this with TV that comes out of radio. So it’s really positive in that way. And the relationship between the task force and podcasting is very positive. A lot of our colleagues kind of work on both. I have a very good friend Andrew Bottomley at SUNY Oneonta who wrote a book about podcasting that’s fabulous. The task force is mentioned in the book I just mentioned by Morris and Hoyt. And what we’re all trying to do is say, and this isn’t exactly something I work on directly, but my colleagues are working on it, “Well, what about stuff that’s happening now that hits the ephemera of the ether?” So we’re worried about where radio history went, we’re worried about what materials are available, are degrading or decaying, and what we’ll lose of historical memory. But what about stuff that’s happening now? Can we preserve it now so it doesn’t happen to that, to the podcasts. So I really love that project. It’s a NEH funded project called PodcastRE. I wrote a letter for that, for the grant when it went up.

And what they’re doing is two things. They’re creating the metadata that explains what’s on the content, which is something we don’t have for radio. And people don’t even understand how crucial that is for searchability and for funding for later. And second, they are cataloging it when they can, just the materials. And these guys are brilliant at Wisconsin, because they’re also doing preservation of journals with the Media History Digital Library there too. So they have all these different preservation of media history initiatives happening simultaneously. It’s a great service to the field. But fundamentally, podcasting is the contemporary, non-appointment remediation of radio structures. So it still carries a radio structure of interview, performance, breaks, music, and segues. It is still aesthetically radio in most ways. But it is something new at the same time. And there’s a certain amount of creativity to it that I don’t think we’ve seen since like Musique Concrète out of France with Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. You get these artists and Stockhausen who played with radio. But podcasting does it almost more pragmatically, and innovates at the same time, so there’s these aesthetic shifts and engagements while it’s still resembling something that is more accessible and fills time with listening. So yeah, I love the work that my colleagues are doing. I’m more of an early media historian, obviously, an early media preservationist, but yeah, there’s absolutely correlation.

Maxximilian Seijo: One thing I wanted to make sure we covered before we closed was your article co-authored with Shawn VanCour, “Radio Preservation and the Orphan Agenda,” where you historicize and theorize your own work with the Radio Preservation Task Force that you’ve brought up quite a bit in this interview. You make this point, and I would like you to explain this for our audience, why, essentially, on your reading, sound preservation is politically meaningful, in a sense that goes beyond mere antiquarian interest. So this interest just in the antiquity of these media forms. And could you explain what you mean by that?

Josh Shepperd: Yeah, thank you for that question. This actually gets to the heart of what it means to put humanists who are trained in philosophy, because Shawn had a philosophy background too, on a logistical project. So one thing that we think about all the time is we really should attend to the memory studies components of the task force. Our goal is to expand and diversify the historical record through sound that takes a certain number of political economic steps to get there, that humanists don’t typically understand, but we had to learn along the way. And then, what is the outcome? Okay, it’s new syllabi, a new curriculum. But then something else kind of happens there. And I pull from people like Stuart Hall on these things, or even like Alain Badiou I like a lot on these kinds of questions about how fidelity to truth procedures unfold. And by that, I mean that when new information about historical events is introduced into some kind of circulation of discursive reception, there’s a selectivity process that takes place by which a discourse will say why I like that part of the information and not that part, or I’ve been waiting for this part to consolidate this conceptual belief in why I’m affiliated with this discursivity.

And in the process, if the right kind of information is introduced in the right discursivity at the right moment, there’s a retroactive actuation of the concept of continuity about how we got to a certain place. Which is to say, when you introduce new historical events into the historical record, sometimes, and you can’t predict with who or when, it changes how memory understands what already happened, which is part of the mobilization of the Left in my opinion. Part of the mobilization of the Left isn’t just changing how things work or decrying it after it already happened, which is what happens too often, in my opinion. We’re always a step behind. It’s changing the concept of where we came from and how we got to where we are so that it meets the criteria of the ethos of the movement. So one thing that history does, when it’s done really well, and I’ll point to something that I think is excellent like the 1619 project or something, when you redefine the contours of a continuity, it is actually fodder for mobilization and for grassroots organization. So that’s why we’re really deeply invested in civil rights histories.

I’m working right now with a radio program called This Way Out. It is the longest running LGBTQ community organizing program ever. It’s been around for 30 years. They have 1800 hours of recordings, and we’re going to get that canonized at the Library of Congress. That’s one of our projects for this year with the task force, getting This Way Out into the recorded sound reading room for research as something that’s accessible there. So yeah, these kinds of histories are important because the omissions that we have in the record are also erasers of possibilities. So it is our responsibility, I think, as humanists to saturate the circulatory apparatuses of media with as much new information that overturns biases that we can. And that doesn’t just mean saying something is a bias or resisting something. It means giving voice to the different experiences that have not previously been recognized within those circulating apparatuses. So that’s kind of what we’re getting at in that article there. You might be one of the few people that pick up on that element in the article. But there is a humanistic investment in the project for us that also has to do with our political commitments.

William Saas: That’s an excellent place to leave it, I think. Josh Shepperd, thank you so much for joining us on Money on the Left.

Josh Shepperd: Thank you for having me.

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

The Unfathomable Cruelty of Biden’s Latest Afghanistan Executive Order

By Mitch Green

Originally published to Substack

Biden has decided to steal raid $7 billion of Da Afghanistan Bank reserves currently frozen by US financial institutions. The motivation for this guileless heist is two fold:

  1. Set aside $3.5 billion for humanitarian aid in Afghanistan
  2. Make available $3.5 billion for claimants in ongoing 9/11 survivor’s lawsuits

The grotesqueness of this Executive Order has layers that I’d like to unpack. I’m tempted to use the Matryoshka Doll as a metaphor here, but the layers of horror are not cleanly nested so much as they are woven in and out of the policy situation. Let’s examine some of them in turn.

Horror #1: Raiding Da Afghanistan Bank’s reserves undermines the entire Afghan economy

Despite the title, Executive Order on Protecting Certain Property of Da Afghanistan Bank for the Benefit of the People of Afghanistan, dispossessing the central bank of these reserves is a direct threat to Afghan welfare. As Dr. Shah Mohammad Mehrabi, economist and former central banker for Afghanistan explains, freezing these reserves has undermined the payments system in Afghanistan as well as the very ability for the central bank to fulfill its institutional obligations of providing liquidity and price stability.

Effects of Freezing Foreign Exchange Reserves

Billington: The main subject that you have been dealing with, as have we, is that the U.S. Federal Reserve and several European banks have $9.5 billion in reserves which belong to the Afghan Central Bank. This money does not belong to the banks that are holding it, but it’s being frozen for political reasons and disagreements with the new government in Kabul, which makes it essentially a form of illegal economic warfare. Could you describe the impact of this on the people of Afghanistan and what actions you have taken to attempt to free these funds?
Dr. Mehrabi: Here is an important point about freezing Afghan foreign exchange reserves. It has contributed to economic instability which I predicted back in September. I predicted a number of things would occur, and they have all come into being, because now there is data to substantiate what I had already predicted in September. At that time, I predicted the currency would depreciate—it has depreciated by more than 14% since August. I also predicted that food prices would increase to double digits—and double digit has occurred. The Price of wheat has gone up by more than 20%, flour has gone up by over 30%, cooking oil has gone up by 60%, and gasoline has gone up by 74%. 
In the banking sector, I also said at that time that it needs liquidity, and to bring liquidity, it is very important that the reserves must be released, I said, to stabilize prices and to prevent a further collapse of the afghani, which is the national currency. 
The 14% currency depreciation hits mostly consumer purchasing power. It puts people in a position where they cannot buy the basic necessities of life. Also, the asset prices of all these goods have gone up.
 Also, I said that imports would decline, and that has occurred. There was a reduction in demand for these imported goods, and consumption has declined significantly because people have no access to their own money in the bank. On the top of that, they don’t have jobs. Many lost their jobs; they did not earn any income and then higher prices further suppressed the demand for buying goods and services.
So that’s what you see: hunger and starvation has come into being.

I have emphasized key parts of the transcript above to drive home the effects of removing significant sums of reserves from the central bank’s toolkit. This interview was recorded last December, before Biden decided to loot these funds, thereby permanently removing them from play. So, it follows that the conditions will only deteriorate further. Hunger and starvation has come into being, but not spontaneously. No, this was caused by the policy of freezing those assets and the new move threatens to turn the screws further.

Whither the women and children?

Last summer when the withdrawal was underway, most narratives went something like this: “Sure, the war was long and costly, but we told the woman and children of Afghanistan we had their backs. Now we’re leaving them to die.” The implication was that to withdraw was to abandon them, and so if we want to honor that promise we need to stay in perpetuity. In one sense, there’s some truth to this: the withdrawal did leave a gaping whole of demand in the economy and the desire to kneecap the central bank was not on the table while present in occupation. This fact reveals an aspect of this horror: the threat of permanent occupation as the only means by which vulnerable Afghans, of which woman and children serve as an evocative proxy, can have a meaningful chance at life. Not life and liberty. Just life, partly.

Now, rather than take measures to aid in the viability of the Afghan economy to function, the Biden Administration is decided to harm it further. Again, here is Dr. Mehrabi capturing this hypocrisy.

“We talk about the issue of women and so on—women and children are the first people suffering from this. They are not able to buy goods and services. On the one hand, if we argue, that we want to provide humanitarian aid, but we are going to choke off the economy as well—those are two opposite arguments. The arguments do not really make sense. On the one hand, you say, I want to help with humanitarian aid, but I’m going to choke off the economy so that the ordinary Afghans will not be able to have access to food and basic necessities.”

This hypocrisy should be brought to the fore in any serious policy discussion on Afghan welfare. Modern human practices no longer recommend holding a dog’s snout in their own excrement to show them how they’ve misbehaved, but the jury is still out on how to train The Blob. NB: Dogs are lovable and incapable of cold malice.

But, the Executive Order aims to use half of the loot for humanitarian aid for the benefit of the people. It says so right in the name!

This would be funny were it not so disastrous and misguided. You cannot address the immiseration of Afghans resulting from, in part, the temporary restraint of its central bank, by hobbling it to do a one-shot aid package. This is absurd and anyone advising the President on the economic soundness of this concept should be stripped of their credentials and floated out to sea. $3.5 billion is a tiny number for an aid package appropriate for the need. And anyway, what is of crucial importance is the swift return of the central bank’s ability to manage its banking system, exchange rate and afghani liquidity. That’s the plumbing, folks. Imagine ripping the plumbing out of a thirsty person’s house, then handing them a length of the resultant copper scrap and saying, “Drink up! There’s some water left in this pipe. And you’re welcome ;)” That’s what this is like. Or if you prefer less hyperbole, here again is Dr. Mehrabi:

Belsky: […] The World Bank, as you know, is now planning to restore about $230 million in aid. But even this small amount, they’re saying, has to go through UNICEF and the World Health Organization instead of going through the Afghan banking system. What is your view of this?
Dr. Mehrabi: I don’t know where UNICEF is going to use it, for what purposes. I said that before. Or WHO, and even the World Food Program. If they are for the purpose of purchasing grains and other basic necessities, that is good. But humanitarian aid is not a solution to rekindling the activities of the economy. Humanitarian aid, as I have said all along, while it is necessary, it’s a stop gap measure, it’s not a complete measure to get the economy overall to move to a point where they could get an increase in aggregate demand, which is very essential if the economy is going to function and generate enough revenue for daily economic activity.

Horror #2: Robbing Afghans to compensate 9/11 Survivor Claimants with suits outstanding

I’m not a legal expert and will not opine on the standing or other circumstances of the 9/11 Survivors lawsuits. And this one might make a lot people very angry with me. But, I will say that it’s grotesque political theater to seize reserves of a central bank in one country to use as a basis for paying people in another country under the pretense of compensating them for damages caused by individuals from a third country. Even if you could establish a direct connection to some Afghans for that crime, it would not follow that you should punish an entire society of people who have no causal relationship to the event as a mechanism for making financial restitution to a restricted class of beneficiaries in another society. I leave the legality of the whole proposition to the lawyers, which seems to this lay person rather dubious.

And you don’t need to pilfer the central bank reserves of Afghanistan to make 9/11 Survivors whole! A fact that brings me to the last horror I’d like address.

Horror #3: We see once again the deleterious effects of treating money as a quantum of value that needs to be shuffled around

I know what you’re thinking. And you’re right. I did put MMT into this reaction piece. Here’s why: this Executive Order, top to bottom and side to side, represents the sound money scarcity logics that prevail consensus policy views. It’s right there in the notion that you can seize some treasure to move from the plumbing of the Afghanistan banking system to the “humanitarian aid” sector of the Afghanistan economy. Elsewhere, you have the notion that you can seize some of the treasure and push it across the playing board to third parties who are hoping for payments to originate from the legal – economic apparatus of the US system. And yet you still see it in the foolish notion that you can do any part of this in such a way that sanitizes the operations from hitting Taliban balance sheets. Only a sound finance mind can dream up such a fantasy.

It’s the opposite case that draws this last horror out. The idea that economic endeavors may proceed on their own terms (by envisioning the outcome you want and then legislating for the funds to finance it), in non zero sum fashion, illustrates the needless cruelty, waste and punitive character of this Executive Order. It is volitional to destroy the Afghan financial system. It is volitional to starve Afghans so that you may clear a path for resolution for the 9/11 Survivors. It is grotesque and horrific and will be Biden’s legacy.

Read more from Mitch Green’s Substack

Capitalism Does Not Exist

Maxximilian Seijo and Scott Ferguson join Naty Smith to flesh out a controversial proposition: capitalism does not exist. First broached by Scott in a short piece for Arcade and in the conclusion to his 2018 book, the claim is meant to de-naturalize the underlying logics and casual structures that mediate modern money economies and to resist defeatist leftist analyses that concede the horizon of possibilities to an austere and contradictory profit motive. 

Ballerinas on the Dole with Colleen Hooper

In this episode, we talk with Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen), assistant professor of dance at Point Park University. Colleen researches the history of public funding for arts programs in the United States from the New Deal through the post War era. Her 2017 article in the Dance Research Journal, titled “Ballerinas on the Dole: Dance and the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA), 1974-1982,” is the subject of most of our conversation.

Link to our Patreon:

Conversation originally published on October 8th, 2018.


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

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Yes, like, there is money to employ artists and to do all these things. But there’s also this pull towards just completely zeroing out this type of thinking. So, I guess I’m just, you know, mentioning that to say I think in this moment of political turmoil it’s important for those of us who care about arts funding to think about how to frame that when so much of our social programming is being threatened.

Billy Saas: You are listening to Money On The Left, the official podcast of the Modern Money Network Humanities Division, or MMN HD. In this episode, we talk with Colleen Hooper, Assistant Professor of Dance at Point Park University. In addition to her choreography and performance work, Colleen researches the history of public funding for arts programs in the United States across both the New Deal and Post-World War II eras. Her 2017 article in the Dance research journal titled “Ballerinas on the Dole: Dance and the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA), 1974-1982,” is a particularly riveting read, and the subject of most of our conversation today. In “Ballerinas on the Dole”, Colleen tracks the development and demise of CETA as a vital funding resource for US dance companies, several of which make a compelling case for understanding dance as a public service. Colleen clarifies in her article, and throughout our conversation, just how vital it is to consider systems and democratic oversight alongside proposals for public employment programs. But slightly differently, the CETA case is emblematic of a somewhat deeper truth. Democratic experimentation is messy, and vital work. Thank you to Colleen for joining us, and thank you to Alex Williams for producing this episode, and to Hillbilly Motobike. Thanks for the theme tune. Colleen Hooper, thank you so much for joining us on Money on the Left.

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Thank you so much for having me, I’m excited to be here.

Billy Saas: Well, let’s just start off with asking you to give us a sketch of your background experience as a scholar, performer and teacher.

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Sure. So I studied dance and English in undergraduate, and I went to George Washington University and really became interested in dance and politics around that time being in Washington, DC. Then I lived in New York for seven years, and I pursued choreography, performance, teaching, arts administration: I really went at Dance from a lot of different perspectives. And I became interested in dance and community settings at that time as well, because I had the opportunity to perform in site-specific performances and to see a lot of really innovative work that was happening in the city at that time. And then I went to Philadelphia in 2008, and I got my MFA and PhD in Dance at Temple University. And that was another whole experience in terms of thinking about how my aesthetic ideas and my performances and my choreography could intersect with my scholarship. And government. Public funding has always been a big interest of mine. And so studying CETA, the CETA Dance program, was a way to bring together questions that I had about the way funding is structured in this country for the arts, and also to zoom in on this place in time that was really hard for me to imagine that it had existed. So that’s kind of how I got to this point, and now I teach at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. And I teach a combination of Dance History classes, Dance improvisation, and choreography.

Scott Ferguson: So if we could go back a little bit, you talked about how in your experience you found yourself interested not just in dance performance and dance form and research but also public administration and policy and public funding. Could you talk a little bit more about what exactly brought you to that topic? Because it seems to me, and correct me if I’m wrong, that that isn’t the go to topic for, I don’t know, Dance scholarship. That we often think of the arts as belonging to the private sphere.

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Right. Well, I think being in Washington DC as a college student influenced me a lot, because I was able to see and understand aspects of government from being in that situation. And it made me curious about how that tied to the broader dance field. And then in New York, I worked at a nonprofit organization called Brooklyn Arts Exchange,  and I did press in marketing for them. And it helped me understand how a mix of both public and private funding came together to support an organization with a specific mission. And I think that I’ve just always been curious about how things work. Like, how does one become a choreographer and maintain a company? Or how does one create an organization with a specific mission focused on the arts? And how does one sustain that? And so I would always be asking those types of questions. And I’d always be curious about tracing the money, basically. And thinking about, you know, where does the money come from? And how does this sustain itself? And what role, if any, does the government have in it? And how much of it is a private endeavor? So I guess, yeah, I’ve always been fascinated by what undergirds these artistic and cultural projects and question the idea of how does that relate to ideas of the public and public service, and what our government can provide and what our government does provide. Or what our government chooses not to be involved in.

Maxx Seijo: So kind of, to those ends, could you trace for our listeners, a kind of brief history of public art provisioning in the United States and highlight where the government has been involved and really taking responsibility for the field of artistic endeavor?

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Sure. So during the Great Depression, in 1933, was the first time that the government created something that would aid US citizens. So the unemployment rate at that time was about 25%. And the government created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration during that year. And it was the first nationwide welfare and government work program. It was part of FDR’s New Deal legislation, and Congress passed a broader welfare program in 1935. And this 1935 program included aid for theater workers, artists, musicians and writers. And the whole aim of it was to hire unemployed professionals in their given fields, but artists were specifically categorized as workers for the first time in 1935. And I think something that’s important to mention is that it was this idea of including the arts as part of a democratic culture, and that the arts could be integral to democracy. And that artists were cultural workers who actually contributed to society at large. Despite many accomplishments, the Federal Theater Project and the Federal Dance Theater were shut down due to controversies about the productions, its professional quality, and also some of the political affiliations of its performers, because a lot of them were involved in leftist causes. And that became very controversial kind of near the end of the WPA programs. And basically, Martin dies and J. Parnell Thomas began hearings in August of 1938, for the House Un-American Activities Committee to determine if members of the Federal Theater Project engaged in communist activities. And while the Director of the Federal Theater Project thoroughly defended her program, it was shut down in 1939. So that was the beginning of the funding for the arts from the government. And then a lot of it does continue kind of in this vein connected to communism. There were a lot of US diplomacy initiatives surrounding communism in the late 1940s and early 1950s, which were led by President Dwight Eisenhower, and he established the President’s Emergency Fund for International Affairs in 1954. The purpose of this fund was to increase international appreciation of US culture by exporting it abroad. So in terms of dance, which is my field, the Soviet Union was really known for its dance culture at this time. The Moiseyev of Dance Company had a popular tour of the US in 1958, and the Bolshoi Ballet toward the US in 1959, followed by the Kirov Ballet in 1961. And so this kind of created a sense that the US needed to put some of its own culture forward in order to show what we had to offer. So after a lot of debate about what dance companies should represent the US, the American Ballet Theatre, toured the Soviet Union in 1960. And the New York City Ballet followed in 1962. So this idea that the artist from the United States could show that they were offering a counterpoint to the Soviet Union culture. And it was a way for the United States to show that we had more to offer than consumerism and capitalism that we also had an important culture. And then the next thing that happened with arts funding was the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965. And this organization sought to support artists financially, so they would be able to pursue aesthetic goals outside of the capitalist marketplace. And for dance, this was a really prolific period, because from 1965 to 1975, the number of dance companies in the United States more than quadrupled. So this was kind of considered a dance boom during this time period. So that brings us up to the 70s. And the National Endowment for the Arts was still being funded at very high levels during that time.

Maxx Seijo: So I’d like to kind of latch on to something you talked about, in the ways in which public funding kind of during the Roosevelt era was predominantly democratic enterprise. And you seem to imply perhaps, that this had to do with kind of the American anti-fascist project of the late 30s and 40s, and I was wondering if you could expand on that, and perhaps illuminate the ways in which we did fund art in the name of American anti-fascism?

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Hmm, I think that’s a great question. One thing that’s interesting about the 1930s, and the Works Progress Administration, funding of the arts, is that it revealed some really inherent tensions, which I think continue to be present in government arts funding. And that is the tension between artistic freedom of expression, and being part of any type of pro-government project. And those things are just continually at odds within any government funded artistic project. And we found that in the 1930s, because they put forth this idea that there was a populist intention for the WPA arts programs, and that it wasn’t about artists being solitary geniuses, but about a general movement. And this is a historian, Francis O’Connor. He says, it’s a “sound general movement, which maintains art as a vital functioning part of any cultural scheme,” and I think that that’s really interesting, because it’s a great possibility for art, but then at the same time, it’s very limiting. So basically, if you’re not part of this sound general movement that is supporting a specific idea of democracy and is anti-fascist by nature, then we don’t really have space for you within this movement. But at the same time, the government was very cautious to get into overtly censoring the content of these arts projects. So it’s a very challenging equation, because the government did have certain expectations about what the content of the artwork would be, and how it would support certain democratic principles, but at the same time, they knew that by being overt about those intentions, that that would basically stifle any sense have creativity from the people they were employing. So it just creates a very interesting tension. And I think one of the ways I summed it up best is with the reception of government funds comes the assumption of public benefit. So there’s this idea that the public should benefit when any person is receiving government funding for the arts. But then how you decide whether or not the public is benefiting, I think, becomes a really interesting question.

Scott Ferguson: So can you clarify, perhaps in contrast to a private patronage system that we associate with the arts before this period that you’re outlining, and happening at the same time, how does private patronage for the arts and in private commercial art, perhaps, articulate these tensions in other ways?

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): I would say that private patronage of the arts allows for private citizens to pursue aesthetic directions that they find to be valuable in some way.

Scott Ferguson: As long as somebody is paying for it, though.

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): As long as somebody is paying for it, right? Or as long as there’s some money coming in from somewhere to provide, you know, the basic necessities. So it isn’t tied to a larger project of government, necessarily, but it’s tied to a foundation that has certain goals or a philanthropist who has a certain set of interests. It’s not tied to a government project, which I think is the major difference. And yeah, I mean, I think the assumption of public benefit that you see connected to government funded arts projects, is one of the most interesting questions because it’s something that’s challenging to define, like, who decides if it’s benefiting the public and what public is it benefiting?

Billy Saas: So we’ve talked a bit about the Works Progress program. Another government program that develops later in your timeline is the Comprehensive Employment Training Act, or CETA. And you’ve written and researched a lot about this, could you tell us a little bit about what CETA is, where it came from, and how it’s organized?

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Sure. So CETA was an Employment Training Act that was passed in 1973. And it was during President Richard Nixon’s administration. And during this time, the unemployment rate had increased from 5% to 9%. From 1974 to 1975, both Democrats and Republicans agreed that there had to be some type of federal action to ease unemployment because that jump was so great. And Gerald Ford significantly expanded CETA and then Jimmy Carter actually encouraged states to employ artists and other cultural workers through CETA from 1977 to 1980. So it was really, by the time it got going, it was like a six year period that provided a tremendous amount of employment in the United States. The cultural workers that I focus on, were approximately 22,000 of the workers. And it’s not necessarily the largest portion, it’s like 3% of the large number of people who were actually employed through CETA, but it made a really large difference in terms of those fields, in terms of the cultural fields.

Scott Ferguson: So at the same time as CETA is being created, funded, implemented, debated, you have a larger conversation going on. And a larger fight going on about the politics of full employment that get concentrated around the Humphrey-Hawkins bill in the 1970s. And I was curious if you could talk about the relationship between CETA and Humphrey-Hawkins, and Humphrey-Hawkins, of course, didn’t stabilize it. It was, you know, constantly being re-articulated and frankly gutted again and again. But what were some of the bigger goals that were being pushed for in terms of public employment, versus CETA, which, to me, reads as a tremendous compromise? 

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Mm hmm. Well, I can’t say too much like I would need to look a little more in depth in terms of the exact relationship between CETA and Humphrey-Hawkins. So that’s something I would love to come back to more in depth. But I can tell you a lot about the way CETA was constructed, and how it was structured and how that bared on the way that it was actually enacted, and how it came to its demise. So Nixon designed CETA as a decentralized program with limited federal oversight. And it was something that actually replaced over a dozen programs that were previously part of the Manpower Development and Training Act, and also the Office of Economic Opportunity. So Nixon cut back on all of these Labor Department programs, and the federal government did not oversee the CETA mandates. Initially, CETA was supposed to have extensive federal oversight, but basically that federal budget allocation was eliminated when it became enacted. It became a very open program: local officials were really able to do what they wanted with the CETA funding that they received. And it had very lenient standards for employment. Local officials liked this because they were able to do what they wanted with the money. But there were some real structural issues in terms of accountability and being able to speak to how the program was becoming effective because there wasn’t any oversight. So the Department of Labor really only had basic information about the CETA projects after their completion. Like they knew what category they went into, but they weren’t able to really evaluate what they were doing. The federal government offered technical assistance, but no meaningful supervision. So with CETA, we had a combination of decentralization: so the money went out to prime sponsors all over the country, over 450 of them, there was a lack of accountability. And because of the leniency of the program, there was a lot of political favoritism. And it led to CETA spending controversies. So the way in which it was constructed, I would say, was basically constructed to fail. And there’s just a quotation I’d like to share, which is historian Bruce Schulman, explained that Nixon, “did not attack liberal programs or agencies and the political networks that undergirded them. Rather, he subtly, cunningly undermined them. Nixon wanted to destroy the liberal establishment by stripping it of his bases of support, and its sources of funds.” So I just think that’s an important way to look at it, because I think that’s exactly what he did with CETA. He set up the structure in such a way that it couldn’t become a sustainable, successful program for full employment.

Billy Saas: Seems like a really good opportunity to kind of, you know, learn from how a public program rolls out, but then also a good reminder to be, you know, mindful of who’s proposing it, and to what ends, was there any indication at the time? I mean, I know that the historian, looking back, says this is what was happening, but was there resistance at the time and people looking at what Nixon was doing and saying “look, we see what you’re doing here?”

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Yes, there definitely was. In terms of the entrance standards for CETA, Democrats wanted strict standards to make sure that people who were poor benefited the most. But Republicans fought for more lenient standards. And in the end, that was part of the compromise is that the standards were quite lenient, and the money could be made available to people who had in some cases only been unemployed for a matter of weeks. So that was part of the compromise. But you definitely saw the Democrats wanting to be stricter in terms of who received the funding and Republicans wanting it to be a more open process where each of the prime sponsors would have the maximum amount of flexibility in terms of how they allocated the money.

Maxx Seijo: Given this sort of compromise between Democrats and the Republicans, it’s worth asking explicitly, I think what perhaps is implied here is, so what was the role in CETA for arts, if there was any?

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): There was not any intended role for the arts in CETA. That was not part of the program. So that’s a big difference between the CETA program and the 1930s WPA arts programs, wherein the arts were part of it, and it was, you know, from the beginning, there was an infrastructure to support the 1930s programs. So art was not intended to be part of CETA at all. And basically, the way that it happened is that local administrators were able to categorize artists and performers among workers, and to say that they should also be receiving benefits because they were also people who are contributing to our country. And they did this by framing the arts as public service. The person who created the first proposal for the arts in CETA was John Kreidler, and he did this in San Francisco. And he had a really unusual background because he had worked at the Office of Management and Budget in the United States Capitol. So he had knowledge about CETA prior to it becoming law from his time there. But he had also studied the WPA during graduate school. So he knew a lot about the arts programs during the 1930s. So he took his technical knowledge, his ability to work with census figures and understand the Office of Management and Budgets reports, and he combined it with his knowledge of the WPA. And he was the one that really brought this idea of artists in CETA, and had it pass in San Francisco. That was the first program. And then it kind of spread all across the country. From his first proposal in 1974 through 1980, it went from a proposal for 24 artists, to employing 10s of 1000s of artists.

Scott Ferguson: Can you give us an idea about the range of different arts that were practiced under CETA, and then maybe we can use this as a transition to focusing on dance, which is your specific area of expertise and an interest?

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Sure, well, the range of artists that were supported during CETA is quite broad, and honestly, it’s difficult to even grasp. There are some reports that talk about the different types of arts that took place in all the different states. But there is no one archive that really shows the full breadth of the CETA program because of its decentralized structure. That being said, My research has focused primarily on the New York City CETA arts project, because there is an archive for that, and I was able to survey the entire archive, and it was also the largest arts program in the country. I’ve also written about CETA arts programs in Philadelphia, and I’ve interviewed people from CETA arts programs across the country. But the way in which these programs were not organized makes it impossible to actually understand the breadth of what took place. That being said, there were visual artists, theater artists, dance artists, puppetry, oral history. And among the generation who was employed in the CETA arts projects, it’s literally a continually unfolding story about different institutions that exist to this day that were given a start or given some type of monetary or administrative support from CETA. So it’s something that it’s quite exciting, but it’s also something that’s quite overwhelming in the sense that it just branches out in all these different directions, and it’s actually impossible to know everything that took place during that time.

Maxx Seijo: So throughout your work, you focus on the history of Dance during these programs. And I was wondering if you could kind of give an overview for our listeners, what Dance looked like under CETA, and specifically, how Dance was shaped by CETA, and how the dance aesthetics were shaped by public funding?

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Right? That’s a great question. Two of the most important trends at that time, in both the Dance field and also in the arts, in general, were culturally diverse arts programming, and also expanding regional arts centers. So it was a time that many arts organizations that are well established today were founded during the 60s and 70s. And it was creating a much broader sense of what art could be. And I think that’s also the case in terms of Dance. Like beginning in the 1960s, African Americans, Latinas, and women were gaining more mainstream attention for their cultural contributions. And so this was also part of the Black Arts Movement, which is mostly defined as the decade from 1964 to 1974. And, basically, this time period was a time for art really broadening and reaching into areas that had not been necessarily considered a place for art in the past. Prior to this time period, it was more about taking art that was created in major metropolitan centers, and exporting it in some ways to regional places. But with Dance, and with the visual arts, this was a time of kind of broad democratization of the arts. In terms of Dance, I mean, I would say, I could speak best on the New York City CETA arts program. And it was very much tied to what was going on and experimental dance during that time in New York City and people who are receiving funding. So they were people who were considered to be important in terms of their aesthetic contribution, but the dancers were also evaluated in terms of what type of public service contribution they could give. And people were assigned, depending on what their skills were like, they may be assigned to do a performance outdoors at Union Square, or they might be assigned to do a performance with children in a school, or they might be assigned to teach dance to children at a school, working with people who are handicapped. So there was really a broad range of what the dancers did. But the thing that the New York City dance program had in common is that these dancers were considered to have very aesthetically innovative approaches to Dance. And they also had the skills to perform Dance as public service in some capacity.

Maxx Seijo: So interesting, because that, you know, reminds me of what we were talking about earlier with the tension that you say is at the heart of public funding of arts programs. And it seems like in this case, the public funding actually kind of made dance aesthetics and arts generally kind of more capacious than perhaps it was before. And I’m wondering if you think that runs, in contrast to perhaps the quote that you mentioned from the historian before, who argued that public funding was perhaps binding of creativity?

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Hmm. Yeah, I mean, I think that CETA definitely did help people reimagine what the arts could be. I also think that, as I argue in the article that we referenced, that the program tended to benefit the artists more so than the public, and that it’s really tricky to figure out what type of arts benefit the people who are receiving it without asking them. You know, like it was really set up in a way where it says: okay, well, this panel of experts has decided that these artists are meritorious in some way. So we’ve selected to support them. And now we’re going to have them go out and perform and give service to the public to places that don’t necessarily have access to the arts. Right away, we have an issue, because people do have artistic practices in their own communities. So it’s becoming this sense of cultural export that was not necessarily valuing the artistic expressions that were already taking place in communities. And I think that’s one of the aspects of CETA that failed in terms of public service. But I do agree with your statement that it did broaden the definition of what Dance could be. And as I stated in my article, Martha Bowers talked about how performing a dance in a men’s prison made her realize, oh, this type of dance, I don’t think this type of dance belongs in this setting. And there are reasons for it. And it made her really question what type of dance she was doing, and why she was doing it and for whom she was doing it. So I think that by placing artists in places that they would not have normally performed outside of the proscenium stage, CETA did really create a lot of growth for the artists themselves. And I guess I just keep coming back to this question of, it’s hard to say, what benefits the public because there is no one monolithic public. And we can’t necessarily ask the people who were on the other end of these programs, you know, that’s not necessarily an option at this point in history. So I guess I’ll say I do think that CETA expanded the notion of what Dance can be, and it also exposed some of the limitations of exporting a cultural form to different places in the assumption that it offers public benefit.

Scott Ferguson: There’s also the question of what counts as success and what counts as public benefit?

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Right. 

Scott Ferguson: Because even failure, or contradiction or tension, or bringing the arts, whether they were comfortably in a kind of New York, hip experimental scene, and then brought into a public prison context. And the sort of problems and tensions that unfolded, one could make the argument, as I think you in a certain way do in your article, that there’s something at least minimally, socially and politically and aesthetically interesting about that, if not beneficial, from what it teaches us. 

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Hmm, I definitely agree. And I think that there’s a lot to be learned from that process. But it always makes me want to go back to those initial questions we discussed at the beginning of the podcast, where we think about, where’s the money coming from? Who’s receiving the money? And what is the money supporting? What is the money valuing? And so I guess my question with it is, what types of art are receiving money and being valued as contributions to society? And what types of art are being seen as amateur or folk art or less important in some way? And that’s something that I keep returning to because I also talked about an article that Janice Ross wrote where she discussed how now there still is a good amount of dance in prisons, but it’s often the prisoners themselves who are participating in the process. It’s not about them, necessarily being audience members who are receiving cultural edification, but they’re actual participants within the process. And that’s the trend that’s been more prevalent currently in that type of situation. But I do think that there is value to what happened during CETA, and I just think it’s important to think about who is receiving the support from the government and who is viewed as needing edification.

Scott Ferguson: Absolutely.

Billy Saas: This is bringing to mind something at a talk that was given at the Money on the Left conference in April, a conversation between performance artists, Harriet Gillies and Rohan Grey, and I recall correctly, Harriet was suggesting that one of the advantages of like a public arts program would be to help educate and develop aesthetic sensibilities in audiences in terms of, you know, educating folks on how to receive and appreciate and engage with art. I wonder if there were any kind of conversations or ideas around that circling CETA?

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Definitely, there definitely were. And it was this idea that the arts were usually reserved for certain class of people, and that now we’re bringing the arts to everyone. And there were some aspects of that that were really quite moving, like looking through the archives and seeing pictures drawn by children who enjoyed the dance performances that took place at their schools or reading letters from seniors who had the opportunity to take a pottery class and really enjoyed it. So there were these really interesting glimpses of the type of impact that this program made. And it also provided a seed for many organizations that continued after CETA ended. So you know, local arts organizations really got their start with that CETA of money, and then they were able to find support and other places after the program ended. So there are definitely a lot of things that happened during CETA that have continued to contribute a lot to communities all over the country. And this idea of art appreciation, aesthetic appreciation, it also, I think, sometimes can lean into bringing dominant Western ideals about aesthetics, to people who have other ideals and other aesthetics. And I think that that’s something that I want to always be careful about, and also be very inquisitive about because I think that from our 2018 point of view, we understand that bringing dominant Western artistic esthetics into communities that don’t currently value them is really problematic.

Scott Ferguson: Absolutely. And I was wondering if you could take a more detailed and deeper dive, as you do in your article into an example of this kind of imposition, right? And the limits of public arts funding that you had referenced earlier, maybe perhaps in relationship to prison performances?

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Yeah, so in my article, I talked about a number of performers who performed at the Arthur Kill Correctional Institution on Staten Island. And basically, that certain performances seemed really well received and exciting, according to both the dancers, and according to the prison newsletter, which I was able to view in the archives, and they talked about how wonderful the Rachel Lampard and dancers company was and how much they related to it. And then they brought another dance group in a few months later, and the reaction was more mixed. And it was just such an interesting practice, because I was able to speak to a number of people who performed in the prison and get their perspectives, I was not able to speak to any of the audience members who watched, but I was able to piece together a sense of what could be known and what could be unknown, in terms of a public performance in that type of setting. And the thing that was fascinating to me is that, you know, 40 years after this performance took place, several of the dancers I spoke to brought it up as something that really impacted them because it was so different than what they were accustomed to in a Western theatrical stage presentation. They received so much feedback from the audience, and a tap dancing group, which was comprised of Jane Goldberg, and Charles “Cookie” Cook was really well received. Whereas, a dance that was performed by Mitchell Rose and Martha Bowers had a more mixed reception, we’ll say, and that was like a moment for Martha because they were performing something that was kind of dry, tongue in cheek humor relationship between a man and a woman. And, at one point, she does a somersault in the dance and her underwear was exposed. It was like, you know, dance underwear. So it was supposed to happen, it wasn’t a mistake, but the audience just reacted so much. And she just thought, what am I doing? Like, this is not a dance to be doing in a men’s prison. Like, they’re just seeing me as a woman who just exposed my underwear, and she just realized there was a huge disconnect between something that on a New York City stage in the theater district would be seen as cheeky and tongue in cheek, you know, humor, and being in a men’s prison, and that there was really a huge gap between those two spaces. And then that was something that she really considered and it influenced the direction in which she took her career. And she’s been involved in many different programs in Red Hook Brooklyn, over the past decades, first with Dance Theater, etc. And now she works with youth in the community in a lot of other ways. And it really was a career changing moment for her because I think she realized that a dance does not have any meaning that is not tied to this broader sense of place and audience.

Maxx Seijo: So fascinating. I can’t help but thinking as we’re discussing this, what’s so interesting about the way you’re posing questions, and we’re pondering the question of public funding and public value, is that the question is never, right, “Can we afford to employ artists?”, it’s just, it’s about what we want to get done with the employment that we can always already afford. And I think the way that you’re framing that and that we’re discussing is just so useful to actually get to the core of the question of public arts and how we should be appropriating money to public betterment.

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Right, I think that’s a great point, because we’re also sitting here in a moment where the past two budget years, our current President Donald Trump, proposed to completely eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. And these budgets that he’s issued are, as we know, they’re mostly political documents. But it also gives us a sense of his vision for the arts in our current moment, and his administration’s vision. And I mean, thankfully, in the 2018 budget, bipartisan support led to both the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities receiving very modest increases in funding, and they did stay open for this past year. Those increases did not keep pace with inflation. But they, you know, were small increases nonetheless. But then again, the same thing happened for the 2019 budget. He also proposed that we completely eliminate these organizations. And right now, we’re just awaiting appropriations. So I don’t think that these organizations are necessarily going to be eliminated this year. But it is two years in a row that that has been what is proposed, and that different members of Congress have stepped forward and talked about things like the veterans who are being assisted through the National Endowment for the Arts and how every single state in the Union receives benefit from these programs because they do enact a lot on the local level. They’re not just secluded in metropolitan centers, as was once the way in terms of funding. So I guess I’m just saying all that to say that, that’s the historical moment we’re living in.

Billy Saas: So one of the really great things about your research is that it helps us get a sense for how it came to be in the first place that we had just the NEA and NEH as the primary outlets for public funding of arts and humanities work in scholarship, could you tell us how it came to be that this CETA program was shut down and why it was shut down?

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): So the CETA program was the last labor program that created public service employment jobs for US citizens. And I think that’s really important to note, because even though we’ve had other types of interventions like this was full time employment, full benefits provided by the government, to citizens, because there was an acknowledgement that the economy was not creating the jobs that were needed, due to various factors. And when CETA was coming to a close, there’s a New York representative named Ted Weiss, who proposed a new program called the Federal Artist Program bill. And he basically wanted to create a public-private partnership where different types of companies either for-profit or non-profit companies would employ an artist. And at first, the government would pay the majority of the artist’s salary. And then as the years went by, the government would pay less, and the for-profit or non-profit would pay more, until it got to the point that the artist was just employed by this outside organization. Now, this bill did not come to vote. So it never came to fruition. It didn’t see the floor. But these ideas about how the arts could be leveraged in different ways became part of the National Endowment for the Arts Challenge Grant program in the 1980s. And so this was a way of the National Endowment for the Arts putting some money forward for the arts, and then whatever organization received that money would have to find matching funds elsewhere. So it was this idea of leveraging government funding to get additional funding for different programs. So I mean, the reason why CETA ended is that it was really structurally impossible to evaluate CETA’s success or failure. And Carter, actually, President Carter increased CETA’s funding in 1977. But because the administrative structure was so decentralized, they could not effectively manage this expansion. They just had so much more money to employ so many more people, but without the actual structure to do that effectively. And so by the time the federal government re-centralized the jurisdiction over CETA in 1978, the program had largely lost political support. And yeah, I think that just goes back to the structure. Like I think the way that it was structured, it was really set up to fail. And it was federally funded, but everything about it was locally conceived. So it really led to a huge variation from programs that were exemplary in every sense of the word to programs that were totally corrupt, and not making use of the money received from the government to do anything worthwhile. So there was really such a large variation.

Billy Saas: Was it the fact that it was locally conceived that was the issue? Or was it more about not developing standards, metrics, oversight ahead of time, for those localized purposes, because it strikes me as entirely possible that local communities would have a pretty good idea of what they ought to be doing. But the problem of oversight not being addressed seems to kind of be a critical ingredient and setting it up to fail. 

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): I agree. I think the oversight really was the central issue, because I think you’re right in that local communities definitely know what they need. But it depended on whomever that administrator was, and what their intentions were. Were they really going to work with the community to create a project that was valuable? Or were they going to use the money to basically employ people that would have been employed anyway to employ friends or relatives? And because of the way everything was organized, it’s really hard to know the degree to which that type of corruption took place because of the lack of oversight, but once you know some of that got into the news, it really started to create a lot of problems for CETA and people did not politically want to be attached to it anymore, because there wasn’t a way to ensure that that type of thing wasn’t happening due to the lack of oversight.

Scott Ferguson: So your research deals with the history and memory of CETA. Or maybe it’s better to put it as the lack of memory or the amnesia about CETA and the arts. You know, and I can say that as somebody who’s interested in the possibilities and complications for public employment across sectors, including the arts, I think that most Americans have this idea that the last time the federal government hired anybody to paint or perform anything was during the New Deal, and maybe during World War II. So I’m wondering, you know, what is the memory of CETA? You cite a fairly conservative economist Tyler Cowen, in your article, what does Tyler Cowen have to say about this? And why is reviving the memory of CETA Arts and Dance important for you?

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): I think it’s important because I think it was misremembered. I think that through talking to people who participated in it, I just got a totally different sense than from anything that I’ve read, which had been written previously. So there was also a book written by Steven Dubin called Bureaucratizing the Muse, which was about the Chicago CETA arts program, and he was actually a participant observer in that program. And to him, it seemed like the artists were being used as boosters for the city, and really, their talents weren’t being fully used. And that’s the only monograph that had been written about CETA arts, and it had come out during the 80s. So that was one point of view. And another was just this idea of corruption, which was documented in popular news sources like the Reader’s Digest where Bennett, Ralph Kinney Bennett talked about, you know, just anyone could say they were an artist, and this was such a misuse of federal funds. And it was a joke on the truly disadvantaged, the poor. And he does bring up an important point, because I think there were problems in terms of using CETA funding to support people who were very highly educated and were also maybe had access to capital in other ways that weren’t able to be documented on a typical income employment sheet. So those types of conversations really dominated what was going on with CETA in terms of how it was remembered. And then Cowen was very dismissive. In his book, Good and Plenty, talking about the successes of US art funding, he was very dismissive of CETA. And he said, you know, by the time CETA came around, there were better methods for identifying talented artists than there were during the 1930s. And it really didn’t make a big difference in the field. And it was basically a, you know, a total waste of money. Because by then, people were able to identify talented artists and it wasn’t as dire of a situation economically as the Great Depression. So I just felt that CETA was really written off in a lot of regards, but then my lived experience of talking to dancers and artists, from different fields just told a totally different story. And, you know, I think that that’s why I wanted to bring this to the forefront because as you gestured towards having this sense of full employment, we’re having the possibility of the government employing artists and other types of workers. has been kind of dealt with in a dismissive way in some senses, and I just feel that that’s inaccurate. I feel that the impact of CETA goes well beyond the types of scholarship written by Cowen and others. Because it was really hard to track what CETA did. And that’s kind of part of what I’m trying to recover is figuring out how CETA impacts these people? And how can we tell the story so that we can start to recast the conversation and acknowledge that this important thing happened, and see where it fits into where we’re sitting today.

Billy Saas: We’ve talked a bit throughout our conversation today about you’re talking with people who actually experienced and worked in the CETA program or audiences for CETA programs. Could you talk a little bit more about your methods in this article that you circulated “Ballerinas on the Dole”? That’s the Ralph Kinney Bennett’s kind of dismissive remark about CETA programs. But could you talk a little bit more about your methods?

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): So in terms of my methods for researching CETA, I did in depth, semi-structured interviews with a number of people, and I cast my net quite broadly in the beginning, and then obviously, I realized I had to at some point finish a project. So I had to focus then a little bit more in terms of geography and specific programs. But in terms of the interviews, I really, you know, would just talk to anyone who was artistically involved in CETA during that time period. So that meant that I talked to a lot of dancers. But I also talked to people who ran the visual arts programs in Philadelphia, I talked to a lot of administrators, which I think is not necessarily normal in terms of a Dance Studies project. But it definitely fits with my interest, because I think it’s important to understand how this program was conceived and how it was implemented, and how it fit within both the localized scene and then also this national conversation about CETA and the CETA arts programs. So I did a lot of interviewing of different artists and administrators. And then I went through the full archives at the New York City Municipal Archives, and it was like a 54 box collection that nobody had gone through prior to my dissertation research. So it was unprocessed. For those of you who may have an appreciation, what that means is basically, the papers just were, as they were donated to the municipal archives. So there’s a lot of information. But it was really a conversation between these interviews and the archives, and then obviously, a lot of secondary literature to help me try to contextualize the importance of both of those things. But yeah, those were primarily my methods. So I would say it’s like the qualitative interviewing process of the semi-structured, in depth time speaking with people in person as much as possible, but sometimes it was done over the phone. And then really, you know, diving into the archives, and using that as a way of gaining more knowledge and building upon interviews, which were talking about something that happened 40 years ago. So it was kind of a balance between those two methods.

Maxx Seijo: So before we wrap up, we wanted to ask what projects you’re currently working on whether they be scholarly or aesthetic in nature?

Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Well, I’m currently working on a book project. And I’m looking at this project of CETA, as we’ve been discussing, and I’ve expanded to also examine the WPA Works Progress Administration Federal Dance Theater, during the 1930s. So my working title is Dance From Labor to Service from 1935 to 1982. And it’s comparing dance as work in the 1930s to dance as service in the 1970s. And thinking about how dance redefines the concept of work. So I had the opportunity this summer to do research in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. So I was there for about a month in the archives and just really going into the administrative files of the Federal Dance Theater and the Federal Theater Project and also the different specific choreographers, papers, and really diving into what’s there and kind of looking at it from this other perspective. So that’s what I’m up to. So I’m doing a comparative study, and I’m kind of right in the midst of it right now. So I’m trying to make sense of all of this archival material, and looking for different ways to theoretically frame what is important about these two periods. I’m focusing on making connections between labor policy, federal arts funding and the Dance field. And aesthetically, I continue to choreograph. And I’m really focusing on the book project right now, but I’ve choreographed different pieces in the past couple of years. Focusing on ideas of outer space on ideas of humanity, kind of a little broader themes, but that’s what I’ve been working on right now.

Scott Ferguson: Well, Colleen, we wish you the best of luck. Thank you so much for joining us and definitely keep us posted on the progress of your research.Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.

Historicizing Inflation & Price Controls with Andrew Elrod

Andrew Elrod joins Money on the Left to discuss the political economy of inflation and price controls, past and present. Elrod holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara and is presently Research Specialist at United Teachers Los Angeles, a 36,000-member labor union. In our conversation, Elrod overturns one of the most common understandings of a central plot point in our collective memory of the 1970s, and which continues to shape dramatic engagement with the problem of “inflation” today: the notion that stagflation was both a consequence of factors exogenous to politics and the catalyst for austerity in the United States and across the world. In doing so, Elrod locates human agency—not autonomous “price signals” or exogenous shocks—as the most formidable instrument for dealing with post-Covid inflation.

Link to Elrod’s recent essay for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth titled ‘Austerity policies in the United States caused ‘stagflation’ in the 1970s and would do so again today’:

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Music by Nahneen Kula:


The following was transcribed by Richard Farrell and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Maxximilian Seijo: Andrew Elrod, welcome to Money on the Left.

Andrew Elrod: Hi, great to be here.

Maxximilian Seijo: So for our listeners who probably don’t know that much about you yet, could you spare a moment to talk a little bit about your personal and professional background?

Andrew Elrod: For sure. I was a teaching assistant and graduate student in the Department of History at UC Santa Barbara for six years. I just finished this summer and filed a dissertation on the history of wage and price controls in the United States from World War II to The Volcker Shock, so sort of in the middle half of the 20th century. I do some public writing related to that, but I’ve also recently taken up a position in the research department of a labor union in Los Angeles–the city where I live–so I’m kind of in a moment of transition. But I like to think there’s a thread keeping my interests between the two jobs together.

Maxximilian Seijo: Cool. For listeners who might know where I am institutionally, you’ll notice that Andrew and I did or are doing our PhDs at the same institution. So there are some heterodox spaces around, perhaps, where you don’t expect them to be. Part of the reason why we wanted to bring you on the show, and why we wanted to have this conversation via Money on the Left, is that inflation and prices are all themes and buzzwords that are really present for us today. We live in an era of 7% CPI measured inflation. We can problematize that measure if we want to, but in relation to this, you recently published a piece with Equitable Growth titled, “Austerity policies in the United States caused ‘stagflation’ in the 1970s and would do so again today.” To begin unpacking this piece, why don’t you start by discussing what the conventional wisdom for dealing with inflation, or this so-called economic problem, is today. Mainly, maybe you can touch on some themes of excess demand, or the demand driven story about inflation. What is it? Who is espousing this story and why? Why do most mainstream economists believe that to be the narrative?

Andrew Elrod: Sure. Well, just to begin with, you opened by saying we’re in an era of 7% inflation–it’s only been a year. Between 1968 and 1979 or so, the annual inflation rate was up between 5 and 12%. That’s twelve years. And that’s remembered as a bad time in history, but we’ve yet to see exactly what’s going to happen today. We are about a year into a new inflationary environment, but whether it’s going to be an era, I think, is kind of open at the moment. But, of course, that’s why it’s in the news. Everybody’s afraid of that. So to answer your question about the conventional wisdom, so to speak, around macroeconomic management, the historical answer is that, since the Depression, but especially since World War II, global economic thought has centered around the ideas that came to be associated with John Maynard Keynes–that there is such a thing as a full employment level of spending, or a full employment level of demand, and that that demand can be manipulated by national governments. This is the set of underlying assumptions that the whole macroeconomics discipline was founded on.

Before the 30s and 40s, there was no such thing as macroeconomics. There was classical political economy. There was a neoclassical school at the end of the 19th century, but macroeconomics is really a 20th century development. And it’s related to a variety of things, including the Depression itself. The intellectual problem of how societies could pull themselves out of the Great Depression was certainly one impetus. Then, there are also developments in statistics. I think Adam Tooze is probably one of the best examples of a historian who’s shown that the concepts themselves, such as the level of demand, depend on governments setting up accounting systems to measure things ‘out there,’ like expenditures by households and firms, and integrating them into a comprehensive system of accounts that you can use as an instrument for doing things that we now call macroeconomic analysis. So the conventional wisdom is a simplified Keynesianism, or what some people might have once called, ‘bastard Keynesianism,’ which holds that raising or lowering the level of demand in a national economy depends on fiscal and monetary policy.

The division between those two things is itself, I argue, a historically specific development, particularly in the United States during the time of McCarthy. But the idea is that the level of spending, the amount of money people have to realize their wants, is something that the government can control through taxes and its own budget, or taxing and spending, which is fiscal policy. The credit system, or central bank policies–often, for much of the 20th century, regulations over how much the private member banks under the government’s central bank, or who have to borrow from the government’s central bank, regulations about what they can do, what they can lend, how much they can lend, for what purposes they can lend, that credit realm is the other traditional instrument–is monetary policy.

So today, a lot of the debate departs from the point of view that there’s too much demand, or people have too much money in their pockets and businesses are investing too much. This is a problem because prices are rising. Demand is above supply causing prices to rise. And the solution to this problem of wanting prices to stop rising is to take money out of people’s pockets to reduce demand, either through reducing spending, and you see this very heavily in an opportunistic and kind of right wing ideological way around the expanded Coronavirus emergency relief measures, like the enhanced unemployment benefits. Joe Manchin, for example, as a Democrat does this and gets in front of the Senate and says social spending is causing inflation, or giving low income, working class people money is causing them to spend more than the American economy is capable of supplying them. That’s causing prices to go up so we can’t have any more of that. And that would be a fiscal contraction.

Interestingly enough, no one is talking today about raising taxes, although that would also be a kind of orthodox fiscal contraction, or anti-inflationary, tool. But then, the other thing that’s really in the news, and in part because it doesn’t rely on Congress, is contractionary monetary policy with the intention of restricting demand. The idea there is that, if you can raise interest rates, then investors are going to, well, first of all, borrow less to make real investments. There’s going to be fewer apartment buildings going up, fewer new warehouses going up, and the cost of credit, which is a crucial component of running a business, is going to go up. So you can slow investment down that way. And the understated, or sometimes unstated, but universally acknowledged, effect of that is to increase unemployment. So part of the reason that I think that writers say there’s such a controversy right now over the idea of the Federal Reserve raising interest rates, is because the effect is going to be to throw people out of work. And there’s still a lot of people who don’t have jobs. So that’s kind of a survey of the inflation dilemma right now as I’m sure you and your listeners know.

Maxximilian Seijo: In what you’re describing, perhaps we could boil it down into a phrase of the economy ‘overheating,’ right, in that conceptual sense. I think you do a great job of looking backward towards the intellectual and conceptual dynamics that produce the composite environment for coming to that conclusion. As you say in your piece that I referenced with the last question, this conventional narrative is itself preoccupied with a subset of an era, of the time in which you describe macroeconomic economics as coming into fruition or to the fore, which is the 1970s. So as we investigate this conventional wisdom, can you tell us a little bit about what the policy debates of the 1970s were, and particularly, as they related to things like inflation or pricing? On the way, the listeners, I think, would enjoy hearing a little bit about the Marilyn Monroe lyric that references JFK’s particular pricing management schemes?

Andrew Elrod: Yeah, the 1970s are a very interesting time, and really, I think, the time when what we think of today as the popular handbook for how to handle inflation was written, because there was a big twelve year debate about what to do. Before 1979, there was a much more sophisticated understanding of what caused prices to rise, or more generally, price determination. It had grown out of the 1920s, sort of the pre-macro era, when price theory itself was not monopolized by ideologues, but instead was an open subfield where growth of the large vertically integrated manufacturing corporation, branded products, and a world in which price competition appeared increasingly to be vanishing from consumer life had to be reckoned with. So there’s this intellectual tradition that dates back to before the war, but it survives after the war. In the mainstream of economic thought, and certainly applied economic thought, where the administrators and politicians’ staff who make the laws that govern the economy and enforce them within that mainstream occupy, there was an understanding that prices in particular markets rose for particular reasons.

There was the very recent memory of World War II, and again during the Korean War, of economy-wide wage and price controls and periods of emergency when Congress granted the president the powers to impose ceilings, dollars and cents ceilings, on particular commodities. Also, surviving after the Korean War, was a knowledge of the government itself as an actor in the marketplace, a large procurer, a huge customer, and a customer whose own purchasing decisions could have an effect in shaping markets. So this is the world in which John F. Kennedy is elected, assassinated, LBJ takes over, and then the Vietnam war happens. This is the world that we think of as the 1970s beginning. So by the time you get to the middle of the 1960s, the beginning of the escalation of the US occupation of South Vietnam, and the bombings of the Vietnam War, there is a fairly elaborate and sophisticated understanding of how to manage the economy. It’s very different from today where salaried pundits will write about the importance of reducing demand and the worries of an ‘overheating’ economy. That phrase itself ‘overheating’ became popularized during the Vietnam War.

Now, just to answer your specific question about Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, and everything else, the Kennedy administration enters office during a recession. There is a long recessionary period. Technically, it’s two business cycles, from 1957 to 1961, in which the major employment centers have hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers. The auto industry in Detroit in the late 1950s was a hard place, because if you’re an auto worker, you can’t get enough work for the whole year. There was a sustained stagnation in American manufacturing at the end of the 1950s. So this is the environment in which John F. Kennedy runs his notable campaign slogan, “Get America Moving Again.” So he runs on this program of growth. We’re gonna grow the American economy, we’re going to put people to work, we’re going to build factories, we’re going to build houses, and we’re gonna build missiles–it’s a high Cold War period. But the problem with that is that, during both the World War II mobilization, the great thing that finally pulled the country out of the Depression, and during the Korean War, which was itself also a massive expansion of industrial capacity, there had been inflation.

So Kennedy comes into office with this problem of promising growth, but not wanting to cause inflation to happen. The solution that his advisors come to is what are called wage and price guidelines, which is a loose set of non-binding, voluntary guidelines for companies and workers, particularly labor unions, to use in negotiating wages and prices. For the biggest companies, they don’t have to negotiate with anyone; they just set their prices. But it was a set of guidelines for corporate managers and union leaders to consult in making the decisions that govern economic life. So the administration finds itself in a strange, hostile environment with big business, because voluntary price guidelines, as much as the administration had bent over backwards to warn everyone that they’re not going to assuage fears, that they’re not going to impose price controls–they have voluntary guidelines–as much as they do that, the organized businesses in America and the business press says this is de facto price controls. Kennedy is a crypto-communist. Only loony people would say that back then, but the reaction was very hostile.

In fact, by 1962, US steel, which had been the biggest corporation in America, made a point of publicly violating the price guidelines. The company had been meeting with the White House regularly. There had been big labor negotiations in 1961. Labor negotiations are traditionally a time for large employers to raise prices so they can have precautionary funds to pay any wage increase they’re forced to pay. Throughout this period, Roger Blough, the chairman of US Steel, had never indicated that he was going to violate the price guidelines. But in the spring of 1962, after labor negotiations were done, he came to the White House with a memo that said, “These are our new price schedules.” And it’s immediately clear what’s going on for the JFK administration. The President explodes and then there’s an emergency weekend, a three-four day emergency where the Department of Defense and the President’s advisors hold these press conferences saying this is un-American and unpatriotic.

There is a famous anecdote, which if you read any history of the Kennedy administration, this is when the President says, “My father always told me that all businessmen are sons of bitches.” That’s actually printed in Fortune or one of the business magazines. The result is that US Steel rescinds the price increase. They enforce the guidelines. It’s very difficult because they can’t just go to the court. It’s not a law. But what they do is they say they’ll issue a preferred contract, a procurement contract, for steel products at a lower price. I think Kaiser steel, the West Coast steel company, takes it and now business is going on at the lower price. And US Steel, if they don’t want to lose market share, then they’re going to have to meet that. So they rescind the price increase and that becomes a legendary moment of the early Kennedy administration. And it sets up the later 1960s in a really interesting way, where you can see why businessmen, especially anti-communist businessmen, themselves come to oppose Johnson and see the Democratic Party, which had been their instrument, as somehow betraying them. It sets up the greater rightward shift in American political culture.

But, because that was such a high profile scandal, at Kennedy’s birthday in May, they have, famously, Marilyn Monroe come out on stage and do a number in a sequined dress. And it’s very glamorous, but the lyrics to the song she sings are…

Marilyn Monroe:

Happy birthday to you,

Happy birthday to you,

Happy birthday, Mr. President,

Happy birthday to you.

Thank you, Mr. President,

For all the things you’ve done,

The battles that you’ve won,

The way you deal with US Steel,

And our problems by the ton.

We thank you so much.

Andrew Elrod: “Happy Birthday, Mr. President, for all the things you’ve done, the battles that you’ve won, the way you deal with US Steel, and our problems by the ton. We thank you so much.” What is that about? It’s about the fact that the President was willing to call one of the biggest businessmen in the country to the White House and denounce him for profiteering. And that was celebrated. Everybody remembers Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” but nobody remembers what it’s about. So that’s that anecdote.

Maxximilian Seijo: Yeah, that’s such a fascinating story. It makes me think of so many different things and how it reverberates into what we can think about as politically possible relation to pricing in general. Maybe we can come back to that, but I want to start to dig in a little bit. Coming out of that particular moment, there’s a shift in the way that pricing is dealt with. So in your piece, you argue that, throughout this history, the shift to austerity as opposed to these wage price guidelines, perhaps as a microcosm of a larger shift with more complex variables, was not only right wing or reactionary, but was actually not helpful for combating price increases. You even say that this austerity exacerbated the inflationary pressures in a complicated way with this change in price management policy. So could you explain how those dynamics work themselves out?

Andrew Elrod: Yeah, I mean, one fact that we all have to acknowledge is that there are centers of concentrated power in many markets. Not every market, but there are companies, and many writers argue all companies do this, who set their prices after making certain decisions about the preferred rate of return they want, the target profits, the expected volume of sales, all things that that may or may not happen, and that prices are then administered after the fact. So you end up selling and making as much as the market will take at whatever price you set, but you’re setting the price. That analytic distinction in business management is something that many models of price determination do not take into account. They assume that everyone is always receiving a price, that businesses will always be adjusting their prices in real time, but many large companies post their prices at the beginning of the year, and then they post them again when they change them next year. So that’s the starting point for thinking about it.

Now, what’s going on in the 1960s is an intense battle between organized labor and the core industries, including construction. Construction is a little different in that each city will have its big construction firms. One big trend in the business history of the 1970s is the growth of these national construction companies. There is a battle between organized labor, which these unions had been built up maybe a generation before in the Depression, during World War II, and had gone through maybe four or five contract cycles during the 1950s. By now they have a seasoned leadership who know what collective bargaining is and they understand what the real purchasing power of the wages they win are. You have this union leadership now confronting a corporate sector that can raise prices on its own, because of the growth financed by the Vietnam War. So you have an inflationary environment in which companies are raising prices because they can and because unions are then raising wages and forcing up costs.

This is what had been known as a wage-price spiral. In the 1940s, there was a lot of writing about how we arrest the wage-price spiral and how we interrupt the wage-price spiral. And people still use that language, but by the end of the 1960s, that’s what the guidelines were intended to do. If you say the guideline is a 3% increase, then you can’t bargain for a 7% wage increase, because that’s outside of the guidelines. Between 1960 and 1966, the biggest unions of organized labor all adhered to the guidelines out of a sort of political loyalty to the reform project of the Kennedy administration and the Great Society. There had been a sort of political coalition. But by the end of the 1960s, once you do get 3-4% inflation, the guidelines don’t work on labor, for one, and they had never really worked effectively on business, beginning in 1966-67.

So Nixon gets into office in 1969 having campaigned on repealing the guidelines. And that’s a situation where things really decisively change, because during 1969 and 1970, you take the guidelines off and the inflation that had been around 4% in 1968 goes up to 5-6% by 1970. So what we think of today as stagflation is really something that comes into consciousness, or sort of crystallizes, for journalists in 1969-1970. Now, there’s two other parts to this that you should understand, which relate to conventional macroeconomics, or fiscal monetary expansion and contraction. In 1966, once the guidelines broke down, the Johnson administration moves towards fiscal contraction. Historians don’t write about this. The characterization most people get of the Johnson administration, the Vietnam War, certainly something you would hear in an undergraduate lecture, is that, well, the problem with the inflation of the 1960s is that the Johnson administration didn’t raise taxes. That is like an historiographic truth at this point. And it’s wrong. It’s completely wrong.

In November of 1966, Congress repeals a 10% investment credit that was a de facto corporation tax increase. In 1967, things slowed down. Inflation slows down. There is a mini recession. Arthur Okun, one of the members of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, wrote a book about the Johnson period of political economy and prosperity in which he says 1967 was a “mini recession.” So in that situation, with the guidelines, maybe not everyone is following them, but you have a sort of general contraction, and then the guidelines are an instrument for the government to try to slow things down. And it was viciously fought. That’s the other thing you have to understand. 1967 is the year of the Detroit riot. 1967 is the year of the Newark riot. All of the cities which had been perpetually underfunded are now facing even tighter purse strings from Washington. So you get a precursor of what Nixon actually does in 1967 in the mini recession. But the difference is that, between 1967 and 1969, Nixon lets off the guidelines.

There was a huge explosion in 1969 of wage and price increases because businesses are confronting smaller markets. From a businessman’s perspective, well, you can recoup lost sales volume with higher prices. That makes sense. And from a union’s perspective, it’s survival, because now you’re living in inflation. So the real consumption power of organized workers is being eroded by inflation. So you have to keep money wages going up. That 1969 moment, I think, is really under-appreciated in the economic history of the period, which is usually narrated as, well, the Vietnam War spending kicked off, Johnson didn’t raise taxes, inflation began, and then it lasted until 1979. When, in fact, the story is a lot more nuanced than that. Nixon campaigns, not only on repealing the guidelines, because businessmen hate the guidelines, businessmen see it as a hidden project of price control, which, maybe it was. Nixon campaigns on repealing them as well as on shrinking government spending, or on the excesses of the welfare state, and famously, public universities, but in all sorts of other ways as well. There’s an interesting moment where you see the Republican Party business consensus actually consider expansions to a welfare state.

But anyway, Nixon’s response when he gets into office in 1969 was to cut government spending. His advisors are Herbert Stein, whose book, The Fiscal Revolution, had just come out. He was celebrated as the preeminent expert on fiscal policy and whose own career kind of helped to crystallize the idea of such a thing as fiscal policy as a distinct area of expertise. They advise to cut government spending. So Nixon arrives in 1969. There is the tax increase leftover from the Johnson administration, which they extend. They don’t continue the kind of ambitious social policy expansions of the Johnson administration, and understandably, because that’s what we think of as modern Republican Party ideas, which are being formed at this moment. In addition to fiscal contraction, they get rid of the guidelines. Then, the result is that inflation intensifies. And inflation intensifies as unemployment starts growing. So by the summer of 1970, the unemployment rate is way up and the Republicans lose big time in the midterm elections. And that sort of sets up the avalanching spiral of corruption that is revealed in Watergate.

But it all stems from this summer and fall of 1970 moment, where the administration realizes, “Oh, if we pursue the Orthodox anti-inflation policy here of reducing government spending, raising interest rates, and maybe even raising taxes,” and often it’s like consumption taxes, like raising a sales tax on refrigerators or something, “but if we do all of that, we’re gonna lose the election. Not only are we going to lose the election, but we’re going to intensify the social conflict that has been erupting since the end of the Johnson administration.” 1970 is the sort of height of the anti-Vietnam movement. There’s the National Guard killings at Kent State and the student uprising in Santa Barbara, so there’s a real national chaos in 1970, which austerity only exacerbates. Then, the rest of the next four years you can kind of see emerge out of this problem, which the ruling class solutions are incapable of solving. So Nixon has to sort of improvise.

Maximilian Seijo: I want to hold up here because I think this is really, really important. There are a few theoretical insights that maybe can be pulled from this tale that you’ve told here, the story of this history, as it relates to economic causality. Then, I want to push slightly into The Volcker Shocks and talk about the oil supply shocks as well, because that’s a central part of the narrative. But I think for our listeners, it’s important to say here, that the wage-price spiral, which for any listeners who’ve done an undergrad in economics, such as me, you hear all about this all the time. This is the problem of the last 50 years of macro policy. And it is the problem because of the things that you laid out, Andrew. What’s interesting about your history here is that it inserts price management through guidelines and through price controls, in maybe a larger sense, causally, in a way that almost comes before the chaos of the wage-price spiral.

So the foreclosure of price management, as a policy tool, is what sets the stage for the evacuation of the essential politics, that is, the politics of this situation. So it becomes a purely economic dynamic in the wake, or in the vacuum of, that political evacuation. I wanted to say that because I think that’s a fundamentally crucial thing for us to carry to today in this conversation for talking about the inflation of our moment. And in doing so, I want to push you back into the history. People talk about The Volcker Shock all the time. And, of course, the oil supply and the OPEC embargoes are rich in our consciousness when we’re thinking about this era. What effects did these things have on this wage-price environment?

Andrew Elrod: I think the sort of philosophical distinction between economics and politics that you’re drawing our attention to here is indispensable for understanding what happens during the Nixon administration. And maybe one way of putting it is that the politics of price control had been very clear before Nixon. The federal government had imposed price controls in moments of emergency to protect working class incomes. It was the condition for the successful mobilization of World War II to keep people working in those war factories. You had to have affordable food and you had to have affordable rent. There was a dramatic expansion of rent control during World War II, and similarly, during the Korean War. It was that legacy that motivated the Kennedy experiments in voluntary price control.

But, at the same time, the Washington, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New York axis came to accept certain perspectives of, frankly, corporate managers. So you end up with a voluntary system. The politics of intervening in price decisions, what otherwise would be private price decisions out of a question of political and civil rights, were protecting working class incomes. There’s a real class politics to it. You make a good point in saying, once price controls were abandoned, politics were evacuated from economic management. But there’s a moment in the history, I would say, that we’re not acknowledging, which is the politics of the Nixon price controls, which when imposed, the Democratic Congress sort of goads Nixon into authorizing this two years in a row. 

Then, finally, Nixon does it when he sets up the Cost of Living Council, which is the supervising body under the Secretary of the Treasury for administering the wage and price controls and the mandatory legal price ceilings. He does it in a way that is much more permissive to profit increases than to wage increases. So the politics of the Nixon price controls reverse the class dynamic in the price control apparatus. It becomes an instrument of the ruling class. If you read the radical economists writing about the Nixon price controls, they’re all very explicit about this point. This is a program designed to further immiserate the working class, to pad corporate profits, and to reestablish the commanding position of American corporations in the global economy. They have a real conspiratorial critique and it’s not wrong.

But that’s the view and it’s bolstered by the record of, famously, Arnold Weber, who had been one of the members of the Pay Board. I think he was the commissioner of the Pay Board, which is the wage setting body of the price control program. He told the newspapers, “The goal here is to zap labor. That’s what we’re doing here. We have to get these organized labor unions that are fighting back against inflation across the economy. We have to zap labor.” So that’s where the politics of price control are reversed. And I truly do think that that experience for boomers taught boomers a lesson. It’s dressed up today in all of these formal economic arguments about why price controls don’t work. But I do think there’s a deeper cultural and political memory of the fact that the last time we used price controls it was to hurt the working class. It was an instrument in the class war from above.

So people don’t trust the federal government. And, of course, this is all exacerbated by the fact that during the price control regime, the community to reelect the President is taking all these illegal campaign bribes from the Fortune 500 companies and using them to break into the Democratic Party offices in Watergate and steal Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatric files, and the plethora of underhanded campaign strategies that became known as “rat fucking.” That’s happening under the price control regime. So this is setting up the popular perceptions, or whatever you want to call it, the American public’s understanding of what goes on under federal power. Your question was about the oil price shocks and The Volcker Shock later in the decade, but I think to understand what’s going on after October 1973 when the Yom Kippur War begins in Palestine and OPEC decides to quadruple the price of oil as a protest, you have to understand what happens from there forward. You have to begin to unpack all of the baggage that had been built up to that moment.

Maximilian Seijo: So this context, I think, is really important. And one of the things I took away from your piece was that the oil shocks, while, as you said, quadrupled the price of oil overnight, these underlying dynamics are often obscured in the memory by that shock of the price at the pump–that you can look up and see going up so rapidly. And not necessarily to get too lost in the weeds, but I wanted to hear you talk about that dynamic, because that’s certainly what I took away from your piece.

Andrew Elrod: This is another important point, I think, that needs to be made in economic history, or in places in economic history where real revision needs to happen. Like the 1967 mini recession that is never taught. The inflation of the Nixon administration begins before the controls. And the pressure on food prices and oil prices begins before the oil shock. This is crucial, because the history is really mistold when it’s explained as, “Oh, the American people knew how to run the American economy.” The experts were in charge, and then there was this unforeseeable, external event that really threw a wrench in the machine. But it’s not true. There had been all sorts of problems in the two years before the oil shock, which, in some ways, allowed us to better weather the oil shock. And one example of this is energy. The price of petroleum, raw crude petroleum out of the ground, and then the refinery price, the price of gasoline, those are all controlled. And that system of controls is the customer of the oil price increase that comes later. As bad as it was, the domestic price of oil didn’t quadruple in 1974. Now, there’s a lot to say about all of that.

Maxximilian Seijo: Yeah, I think we can leave the listeners a bit wanting on some of that. I think that’s a really fascinating point, and actually very much reverses the conventional wisdom that we always hear, which is, of course, like you said, that an external effect threw a wrench in our well functioning–maybe there was some pressure building up–machine.

Andrew Elrod: Before you ask again, there are two points about the pre-OPEC controlled period, I think, to flesh out the story. Raw agricultural commodities, like bushels of corn and wheat, were left outside of the Nixon controls. Since the Great Depression, one of the big things the New Deal does is it brings agriculture completely under federal management. So every year the US Department of Agriculture–really twice a year, because you have multiple planting periods–through the 50s and 60s, determined the preferred planned acreage in the allotment that each farm company–or farmer, there are still some family farms–would plant. The annual supply of raw agricultural commodities was the policy variable they were manipulating. It was a completely planned system.

And in 1972, the high period of Nixon control, even though it’s an instrument against the unions, it did stabilize the economy. Nixon wins reelection in a huge landslide in 1972. During that period, the State Department under Henry Kissinger pivots to détente with China and USSR. Part of the global strategy for people like Henry Kissinger is to restore diplomatic ties with the Soviets and China. And part of that is the grain deal. So we have these huge shipments of like 10-20% of the US agricultural output being sent abroad. As this was becoming known to the price commission, the Cost of Living Council, they became very concerned about the supply of wheat and corn in 1972.

And if you read the record, they publish books with retrospectives with the Brookings Institution, but also just in the newspaper record. They go to the White House and say, “You have to expand plantings, you have to expand supply, if you’re going to ship all of this food to other countries. You have to expand supply at home, otherwise, food prices are going to go up.” So the price of food at the processor and the retail level is controlled, but the price of raw agricultural commodities is not. And, as you know, the simplest economic model would show you the price goes up, or demand exceeds the planned supply. So I think that’s a planning error that should be acknowledged. Now, the second point is about oil.

The record of the oil industry during the Nixon administration is often used as an example of the failure of controls, because prices were controlled in August 1971. There was a freeze, and then they moved into a controls program at the end 1971 into 1972. That’s when the shortages begin. You have gas lines before OPEC. For both the economist and the businessman, his argument is that companies won’t produce at a loss if you control their prices. That it’s too close to cost. There’s no incentive to produce. Nobody’s gonna produce at a loss. That is something that happened in the petroleum industry. But today, there’s a second lesson we can learn from this, because it was seen as a huge failure to have gasoline and petroleum production decline in the 1970s. But today, that wouldn’t be seen as such a terrible thing. In fact, today, the problem of how to reduce petroleum extraction is like a huge problem. There are whole institutes devoted to this, but we have an example of when we actually did it.

Maxximilian Seijo: Credit history really can be cruel sometimes. As we’re sort of coming more to the end of this, there’s something I wanted to ask you about, which is something perhaps more present in my discipline, which is critical humanities. From the more art side and a theoretical approach, there is this narrative around the Marxist analytic of labor and capital as this historical antagonism. Normally, how the story of this era that you’re describing gets told is that this two sided antagonism is tempered through the New Deal, through the war, and then there’s the mid-century period, you could call it some sort of new social contract, where this antagonism is set aside, and we have this prosperity that’s dependent upon external accumulation. But this can’t last, right? There’s a falling rate of return on this social contract. Ultimately, steam builds up, and forgive the mixed metaphors, and the top pops off, and this antagonism comes into its natural state again as a purely economic antagonism.

What I’ve learned from you is that, there are aspects of this story that rhyme with the truth, and certainly the stakeholders, whether they’re regional or corporate, are fighting other stakeholders in what we might call the working class or the unions. This is certainly happening. There are certainly conflicts there. But to me, what your story does is it really nuances and brings this ambivalence around the politics of conflict and antagonism to the fore and perhaps shows these levers of mediation that structure these dynamics. So it’s not that, as you say, the 1970s happens, then there is a pop, and then we’re in this natural state of conflict and it spirals out of control. Those dynamics are in some sense constitutive of things that happen in the world. But there are also political decisions and intellectual debates that really structure the way these conflicts play themselves out. I guess that’s less a question and more of a statement, but I would be curious to hear what you have to say about those not absolutely distinct, but still different stories for narrating this era.

Andrew Elrod: Well, I think the notion of the era of consensus is something that has to be understood in the context of an intensely pressurized organized conflict. There’s a very important article on the 1959 steel strike. In the steel industry, the White House gets involved every time. So three historians, Gabriel Winant, Kristoffer Smemo, and Samir Sonti wrote this great article, critical historical study, about the 1959 steel strike in which they make the larger historiographic intervention that the era of consensus can only be understood as a moment of stalemate and deadlock in a highly organized conflict that had been bequeathed by the experience of the Depression and the organization of the working class that accompanied it. So, as someone who’s influenced by their work, I think the larger roadmap you laid out about interpreting the history of capitalism in the 20th century is useful, but it can be even more useful if we understand the conditions that created the so-called stability, and the political divisions that existed then, which would grow to lead to what is everywhere described as the unraveling, the shattering, or the end of the consensus. You can see it all in embryo, to mix my own metaphors, in the 1950s. You can see it there already.

As a final example of this, with the fiscal contraction that the LBJ administration pursues in 1967, the Vietnam war is going on so it’s not that total government spending is falling, but they want to take spending out of the civilian economy. This is coming at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. So the whole question of what are we going to do about the Black ghetto in the cities, that’s a situation in which you have the left wing of the Democratic Party saying openly, if you want to take money out of the economy, you have to raise taxes on wealthy people. You have to raise corporation taxes. Part of the reason that the tax increase that takes so long to come is this political division about the composition of government spending and who it’s going to go to. You have many high wage white union workers who, in this period, do turn to the right, frankly, out of the racist perception that there’s something unfair going on with the government budget. That’s a really good example of where the detailed institutional history lens helps with the broader conceptual distinction between conflict and consensus, where the organized conflict that produces so-called consensus is beginning to disorganize, and opportunities open for both the ruling class and workers, or the left and the right, or however you want to frame it, but opportunities do open in those periods as well.

Maxximilian Seijo: I think, then, for the last question I want to ask, to this consensus and to these actors who today are arguing in favor of austerity as a solution to the inflation that we’ve seen over the last year, or since the dynamics of the COVID pandemic have started playing out, what would you say to them, in short? And I can even make it a particular person. What would you say to Jason Furman who is arguing that we need a certain type of reduction of demand and that’s the solution?

Andrew Elrod: What are you doing? I can’t imagine ever having an opportunity to talk to that person, but I would say what are you doing? Why is it so important to use your professional expertise and the weight of all of your credentials in this way? Is it more about your profession? Are you truly acting as a good faith historical actor? That’s probably too provocative, I wouldn’t say that. But I think that the class politics of the government budget need to be understood as something more than an abstract full employment level of demand, and that the private sector has really failed to give Americans, people living in the United States, an adequate, basic standard. There are growing tent cities in every city. There’s a generation of people burdened with student debt. People fear the healthcare system–the place that’s supposed to keep you alive. So questions about the government budget should also be considered with this in mind. And if you’re being guided by macroeconomics, that’s a handy instrument to avoid these real questions.

Maxximilian Seijo: I appreciate both the psychoanalytically tinged answer and the straightforward, historically-minded answer. I think they’re both important and two aspects of what we’re contesting today, and where we definitely share a lot of political grounds. So I just wanted to say, Andrew, thanks so much for coming on the show. I really enjoyed this conversation and hope to talk more again soon.

Andrew Elrod: My pleasure. Let’s be in touch.

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

Superstructure 30 – Is Inflation Real? (ft. Mitch Green @drmitchpdx)

Cohosts Will Beaman, Natalie Smith and Maxximilian Seijo are joined by Mitch Green (@drmitchpdx) to discuss the problems with “inflation” as a catch-all term for price changes. A heterodox economist by training who studied with the late Fred Lee, Mitch takes a disaggregated view of prices that opens up price-setting as a publicly allocated administrative power with no necessary relationship to profits or sound finance.

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Music: “Yum” from “This Would Be Funny If It Were Happening To Anyone But Me” EP by flirting.
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