Economist Benjamin Wilson joins Money on the Left to discuss heterodox approaches to place, participation, and the politics of university finance. Associate professor of economics at SUNY Cortland, Wilson received his interdisciplinary Ph.D. from University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC), where he took courses with some of the leading lights of heterodox economic theory, including Stephanie Kelton, Mathew Forstater, and Fred Lee. In both his research and his pedagogy, Ben combines his commitment to local democratic participation with a deep, MMT-driven understanding of social provisioning to create some of the most compelling community currency projects ongoing today. We talk at length with Ben about the intellectual, historical, and practical frameworks for these projects, which intervene in spaces ranging from the college classroom to the state and regional levels. We also talk with Ben about our collectively authored #Unis4All project, which derives from many of the principles of Wilson’s previous work to argue that college and university systems ought to leverage their considerable provisioning capacities in order to reject austerity and provide for the health and welfare of all in their communities. You can read more about this proposal on Monthly Review Online and at Public Seminar.
Check out some of Wilson’s important papers:
“An Interdisciplinary Narrative: Oncology, Capital & Solidarity,” American Review of Political Economy, 2018.
“A Dirigisme Approach to a Monetary Policy Jobs Guarantee and the Green New Deal,” Available at SSRN, 2019.
“Housing, Health & History: Interdisciplinary Spatial Analysis in Pursuit of Equity for Future Generations,” Intergenerational Responsibility in the 21st Century, 2018.
Theme music by Hillbilly Motobike.
The following was transcribed by Richard Farrell and has been lightly edited for clarity.
William Saas: Ben Wilson, welcome to Money on the Left.
Benjamin Wilson: It’s a great pleasure to be here with you guys.
William Saas: I want to start by asking you to tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be the researcher you are today?
Benjamin Wilson: You bet. I’m glad to share. I’ve been thinking a little bit about it lately, especially with the crisis unfolding. During the aftermath of the last crisis, I was in retail banking, if you can believe that. And at that time, I was doing a fair amount of work with a group that was in the Community Reinvestment Act. I had been fortunate enough to start to find my way out of the retail banking office and get out into the community. And I was teaching financial literacy classes in a bunch of neighborhoods in the Kansas City area that had been particularly hard hit, not just by the crisis, but by decades of disinvestment. And so, this was great on a number of levels. I was getting to speak Spanish again, which I had done as an undergraduate and a little bit in graduate school. And I was teaching again, which was really exciting and fulfilling. And I was getting to know a bunch of people in Kansas City from a bunch of different activist organizations, primarily around housing and the arts, but also a group of people that were starting a bunch of urban gardens and local food systems work.
During this time, it was a really conflicting job because I really enjoyed this aspect, which was not what I was being paid for. And then the actual retail banking work was stressful because people were really struggling and it became painfully obvious. The retail banking sector isn’t really analyzed enough in the economics literature as really a regressive tax structure. I think James Baldwin said it best when he said it’s really expensive to be poor. The banking system really does do that. Rich people don’t have to pay for their checking accounts and they don’t have to buy checks. They get all these sorts of perks and freedoms to use the monetary system and payment system where poor people don’t. So, there’s a lot of conflict going on for me at this time in terms of what I was doing for money and what I was doing through the bank in these community groups and teaching these classes.
My brilliant and beautiful wife and partner recognized that. She said, “You are a very different person when you come home these days. I can tell when you’ve taught. I can tell when you’ve been out in the community and you’ve been doing these things. There’s a glimmer in your eye that I haven’t really seen since you were in graduate school all those years ago and I think you should go back and get your PhD. You should make this neighborhood community development and teaching a reality.” This was super exciting, but at the same time terrifying because, as much as I loved teaching and economics and thinking about development and all those things, the math as I moved into the PhD program was daunting and extraordinarily challenging. I mean, literally, my micro-macro economics professor had worked for NASA. He got bored with rocket science and went into monetary theory. That sort of thing makes economics really attractive. You really feel like you’re doing hard science and that it works very well. But at the same time, there’s all of these contradictions.
In one of my classes, they teach you all of these different models. And after the first couple of models, they just start saying, “And assuming the standard assumptions,” and you don’t even question them anymore. Kind of exasperated and tired of doing constrained optimization, I asked, “Are there any models where we’re not maximizing or universally maximizing agents because, frankly, I don’t feel like a maximizer very often.” I got some chuckles in the class and the professor turned to me and he was like, “Well, yeah, we get that, Mr. Wilson. So, in the constrained optimization problem…” At the same time, it just seemed like there are a lot of barriers. We’re just coming out of the crisis and we’re in our first home that we’ve ever owned, and we’ve got a baby on the way. And so, we’re talking through this and Sara goes, “Well, why don’t you look at UMKC? They’re here in town and maybe their economics program is a little bit different. Who knows, they might not even have a PhD program, but go ahead and check that out.”
I can still see the webpage in my head, a picture of Abba Lerner and Bob Brazelton and I had to read it two or three times. I think I was like, “What the heck is heterodox economics?” This is amazing! I think that this is really something that could be really spectacular. And I kept digging into it and saw that they had this Center for Economic Information that was run by Peter Eaton and Doug Bowles. They were working with a lot of the community groups that I was already familiar with from the bank. So, I went in and talked to Peter who was the director of the PhD program and sat in on a Fred Lee micro class and a Jim Sturgeon institutional economics class and was like, “Man, this is a great fit.” I then applied and started classes that following Fall. We had a new baby and all the graduate classes were at night, so I watched Ned during the day and Sara took the lead and worked during that time and then I went and did my studies and classes at night and the rest is history. So, it’s really an amazing stroke of good fortune and support from Sara that I ended up at UMKC. It’s such a robust and outstanding political economy program–it was just a perfect fit. And it was right under my nose the whole time.
Scott Ferguson: So, for those listeners who aren’t aware exactly about what UMKC economics all means, could you just flesh out a little bit more what that program is like? What kinds of assumptions does it have compared to other more conventional programs?
Benjamin Wilson: Yeah, well, it’s completely different from the orthodox training that I was talking about before. Economics has increasingly become this really constrained and mathematized model-based sort of investigation of how the economy works. And in order to do that, you make all sorts of assumptions about the components of the model, most notably, a universal agent, or that we’re all behaving identically in our rational optimizing decisions. And this allows you to make some really big claims at a macroeconomic level. This became popular in the 1970s, really with Milton Friedman, and then his student, Robert Lucas, in making the argument that we need to move to really strong micro foundations to understand macroeconomic activity.
At UMKC, there’s much more of a broad theoretical spectrum for thinking about how the economy works that goes back to the original writings of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Karl Polanyi, Thorstein Veblen, and all sorts of other ways of thinking about the economy, not from an individualistic perspective, but from all sorts of different levels–the way I frame it is “levels of aggregation.” It entails thinking about it from a geographic sort of perspective, instead of one where, for example, the economy has experienced a great deal of unemployment lately, we’re almost at 40 million unemployed Americans, and that’s a scary and terrible number but to really understand that number, you’ve got to drill down to lower levels of aggregation. One level of aggregation down from the national level would be, for example, the state level. Which states are being hit the hardest? And if you kept specifying and drilling down on that question, you would arrive at different neighborhoods and communities that are getting hit by unemployment much harder than others.
UMKC really gives you the freedom to think about and to theorize why those differences exist, to put it into historical and spatial context, and to play with different models. I think one of the things that people assume when you talk about heterodox economics is that it’s just about theory and history and things like this and there’s no models, but Marx’s circuit of money capital is an explicit model of capitalist production that I’ve found is extremely useful, especially from a spatial and data analysis perspective. I ended up writing my dissertation by attempting to identify the locations of the different stages of the circuit–so the initial purchase of commodities, where the production of those commodities are converted into a different commodity, and then the final sale. So, there are all sorts of different ways you can think about how society produces and reproduces itself and all sorts of ways of thinking about money in particular. When I got to UMKC, this was before a bunch of people ended up leaving, but Stephanie Kelton was there, Randy Ray was there–both big leaders in the Modern Monetary Theory field. John Henry, the economic historian was there and just such a great influence on thinking about how the evolution of economic ideas translates not only to the academy, but to policy making, and all these different things.
And, of course, the late Fred Lee was still there. I’m super fortunate to have taken classes with him. Coming out of the crisis, the Occupy movement was still really going on and Kansas City has one of the Federal Reserve Banks in it. There was a big Occupy movement in, I think, it was my first semester there. We went to the rally and we were walking up, Sara, myself, and we were pushing the baby stroller and Fred Lee was up there. It was an awesome setup because there was a big art display of these empty shipping containers that was a critique of international free trade and all this right in front of the Federal Reserve Bank. That’s where everybody was camping for Occupy. And Fred was up there in one of his union sweatshirts, and he began his speech with his arms raised shouting, “I am an agitator!” I turned to Sara and was like, “He’s got that right. Because he was a really tough teacher. He wasn’t afraid to let you know when you weren’t working hard enough and where you really needed to step your game up. He had just given back some writing and let the entire class know that we were not living up to his standards. Fred was an amazing character and has made a permanent impact on the way that I think about economics as a social provisioning process and all sorts of things.
So, yeah, economics at UMKC, I can’t say enough great things about it and my advisor Matt Forstater. Thinking about political economy and Black political economy, thinking about different ways of organizing production systems and co-ops, and being introduced to alternative currency systems–it’s just a place of tremendous amount of academic freedom and creativity in a place where it’s non-rivalrous. Everybody, from the faculty to the students, we’re all just curious and all bouncing ideas and working together. It’s a really magical time in my academic career for sure.
Scott Ferguson: Can I ask a follow up? With your experience, your knowledge, and your know-how as a bank employee, did that create cognitive dissonance for you when you were suddenly finding yourself in the midst of a heterodox economics program, which is also known as being one of the epicenters of Modern Monetary Theory, or did that prime you in a way to be open to these heterodox ideas?
Benjamin Wilson: I think the banking made me open but the mainstream training that I had had before gave me a lot of pause. Frankly, I was a little bit terrified about the prospects of getting a job and all those sorts of things when it first began. But it didn’t take long. Evidence and reality overcome this sort of model-based notion of how the world works pretty quickly. It didn’t take long for me to really start to buy in. And I think it was really helpful and healthy to go in skeptical and have the strong orthodox training, whereas for a lot of the students there, they were coming from programs knowing what heterodox economics were was and had chosen UMKC in a much more explicit way than I had–for MMT and the institutionalists that were there and things like this.
So yeah, I think it was a healthy mixed bag. Working in the private sector for as many years as I did really prepared me for the rigors of graduate school and in a way that was tremendously helpful. I was so motivated. Having seen and started working with these community groups, I was just so excited to be hearing about ways that we could really make some significant changes to our communities and neighborhoods, and even at a huge, macroeconomic scale with Modern Monetary Theory and the jobs guarantee and all those things that I was starting to get familiarized with.
Maximilian Seijo: To dig in a bit on MMT, one of the popular misconceptions is that people think MMT opens money’s capacious public powers solely to a currency issuing nation-state, which leaves municipalities and other big public institutions to a sort of private local money recycling circuit. However, your contribution to the expansive MMT project variously challenges such notions. Can you explain to our listeners how you do this specifically through your approach to locality, space, and place, as well as why that’s so important?
Benjamin Wilson: Yeah, that very notion was something that I struggled with early on. Transitioning and working with the Center for Economic Information and continuing to work with these neighborhood community groups, going in there and talking about a Jobs Guarantee and buffer stocks wasn’t going to be a very useful way of making my services available. They didn’t want a macroeconomics lesson. So, I knew how important this was. And I knew that I definitely wanted to figure out a way to integrate this into my research, but at the same time, I was committed to understanding the economy from the ground up sort of perspective. And I could see that there were so many good ideas and so many hard working people working toward urban gardening and public art and these sorts of development projects, but they are always working on shoestring budgets. So how can I figure out a way to use the power of MMT to alleviate these budget constraints that are being really kind of unfairly saddled on people that are doing really good social and public provisioning?
What really started to click in those first couple years was the first summer I got to participate in the housing conditions survey. UMKC, for the better part of the last 20 years, has been running a really detailed housing conditions survey of the Greater Kansas City area. They look at the structure from the roof and the gutters, the fascia and the soffits, whether or not there’s cracks in the foundation and broken windows, and rating all of that on a five point scale along many different levels. They also rate the grounds that the structure was on–if there is a structure on it–if there’s none, then it’s vacant. Is it being overgrown, are there cars on cinder blocks, is there litter, is the private driveway and sidewalk deteriorating? And lastly, they rate the infrastructure around the house: the sidewalks, the curbs, the street conditions, whether or not there’s a street lamp available on the street and if it appears to be working and operational, the water runoff systems, and so on and so forth. So, as I started conducting these housing conditions surveys, it was really amazing to see the city from a new perspective.
I was basically raised in Kansas City and seeing parts of neighborhoods that I’d never been exposed to. This brought together time and space really nicely and aided thinking about the evolution in the age of different neighborhoods and why some neighborhoods were suffering from such great disinvestment versus others that were thriving and had great schools. At the same time, Kansas City was experiencing one of the largest school closures in the nation’s history, so that all of a sudden there’s all of these empty buildings in the middle of these neighborhoods. And UMKC, in partnership with the local children’s hospital, got awarded a housing and urban development grant to do an environmental study of the impact of housing conditions on pediatric chronic disease. I got to start working immediately with that group and we started to map and link pediatric chronic disease. I started with food allergies. An allergist there had asked me if I would map their patient data because they had the idea that food allergies were related to people’s access to healthy foods.
We mapped all the food allergy data, used USDA food desert data, overlaid them, and then did some spatial analysis to show that food allergies were clustering and spatially relational to these food deserts. Food access and diets looked to be a contributor to what we were observing–that is, a strong increase in food allergies in children not just in Kansas City, but nationally. I mean, if you’ve got a kid, you’re not sending them to school with a peanut butter sandwich anymore. But the asthma data, once we started mapping that, we saw that it was following the same sort of spatial patterning–clustering in the same places where the housing conditions and housing stock was deteriorating, where there was less investment and public infrastructure, where there were these closed school buildings, and at the same time, where neighborhood organizers were planting urban gardens and doing things to try to address some of their material needs.
Right about that time, Pavlina Tcherneva published a really great paper in the Review for Social Economics that looked back at some Keynesian ideas called “on the spot job creation.” And at that point, it really clicked for me, because these clusters are just big spots all over the city where there’s a massive need for meaningful and useful work. Planting an urban garden and providing somebody with the opportunity to do that not only solves food access or contributes to solving a food access problem, but also it gets people out in the community. One of the big things that we talked about in the meetings about the community gardens was the increased activity and walking and engagement of people that these gardens provided, and also a steep decline in criminal activity. Having people on the streets generally prevents bad elements from occurring. A little bit of investment in an urban garden has this really expansionary public goods outcome where we’re not only helping with an immediate need of food access, nutrition, and health, but it’s also a preventer of criminal activity and things that we’re not interested in having in our neighborhoods.
It’s also translating into more gardens being planted at neighborhood schools and getting children involved so it becomes an environmental educational process. And so, if we were going to think about a Jobs Guarantee and where these jobs should go, then GIS, mapping, and understanding the social provisioning process spatially really gives us a data driven way of saying this is where the work should go. And not only will this work do the immediate thing of creating an income for somebody, but also all of these social and environmental benefits are possible through creativity. So, when all of those things started to click, Modern Monetary Theory, spatial thinking, housing and health, and the environment all sort of coalesced together for me quite nicely. And I’ve been pushing this narrative ever since.
William Saas: So would it be fair to say that is the MMT influence? Are you thinking specifically like Fred Lee’s heterodox economics and Edward Soja spatial turn, or are there any other specific figures and concepts that factored into your work there?
Benjamin Wilson: Yeah, I mean Fred Lee primarily with the idea of social provisioning and grounded theory and methodology. And then what Soja and Lee both have in common is really this agency driven capacity to change environments and to make life better. That value isn’t just the process of an invisible hand waving and prices emerging. I like Soja a lot because his focus on spatial justice is an alternative way of framing the value discussion. I think this is one of the things that is really needed in a more robust way for our conversations on political economy: what is the next theory of value? I mean, it’s not an exchange theory of value. That’s not working out very well for anybody and prices don’t just emerge spontaneously through the aggregation of individual optimizing decisions. That’s not right. Fred Lee’s theories of administered prices seems pretty spot on, but who should have the right to administer those prices and how do we organize that sort of decision making process? Soja’s work in Los Angeles with organizing the bus riders union and thinking about public transportation, workers rights, and union organizing at regional levels to ensure the public provisioning of goods and services allows for some sort of equity. And the distribution of those public goods, I think, comes together really nicely. I kind of think of Soja as adding the spatial layer to Fred’s heterodox economics. And that spatial layer in combination with Fred’s social provisioning is a nice place for MMT to make the claim for credit and monetary provisioning to those spaces and the supportive public value generation and creation.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, absolutely. One of the things that I really appreciate about your work is how much you foreground participation. And I see it all over: both in your own research and in your teaching. Part of this, I know, is that you build in a kind of reflexive, meta-participatory elements into your pedagogy. And I’m wondering if you can tell our audience about how this works. Maybe you can start with the kind of basic classroom level of work that you do? And then we can build out to some of the extrapolations of that.
Benjamin Wilson: Yeah, I think that’s a nice compliment to this vague answer to value that I just opened up. At UMKC, with the idea of sovereign currency issue and tax driven money, they started something called the “Buckaroo program,” where in the classroom the faculty member would administer or spend Buckaroos into existence for students doing volunteer work in the community. At the end of the semester, you would pay back some of those Buckaroos or all of those Buckaroos to meet your tax obligation. By the time I got to UMKC, I remember Matt Forstater trying to describe it to me in his office and he had to kind of search around for a Buckaroo at that time. I didn’t really get to experience it there as a student, but at one of the first post-Keynesian conferences that I went to that they hosted, Fadhel Kaboub came back and he gave an amazing presentation on how he had taken the Buckaroo to Denison University. He had taken it to a whole other level.
One of the really brilliant things he had done is he started keeping all the data on all the service and applied learning that his students were doing in the communities and showing that every semester, every class, and every year, anybody that was participating was fully employed and there was no inflation in the Denison dollar. And at that point, I would say, “Yes, this is exactly what I want to do!” When I get my job, I’m going to implement this in my classrooms. And we’re going to start pushing this even further. Because one of the drawbacks of being in Kansas City studying MMT in the early 2010s was just how far off the radar MMT was politically. I mean, other than Stephanie Kelton’s blog, which was just starting to gather some steam and get some recognition, and Randy’s work would have been widely published and his book was well received, but even in heterodox communities, there was some resistance to modern money.
Politically, it just seemed like it was gonna be so hard to push these really great ideas and programs forward. I really saw the classroom activities and these hands-on models as a really good way of saying, “look at all this meaningful and useful work that we can do in the community”–I mean, hours of it. And the tax driven circuit here is just a small percentage of somebody’s grade, think about how we could lever this up if it was actually the US Dollar. It just seemed like a really clear way of gathering a lot of really good data about not only what kind of jobs people could do, but also giving the students the hands-on experience of thinking about why the Denison dollar, the Buckaroo, or in my classes, the Benjamin is demanded, and why they want it in the sequence of spending before tax receivability. So, on multiple levels, you get the MMT hands-on utilization of the currency system. And you can see the light bulbs kind of go off in the classroom.
I like to have a series of paydays at the end of the semester and then we have the big tax day. Everybody pays the tax and there’s a few people in the classroom that still have Benjamins because they’ve done more work than they needed to do for the tax liabilities. So, there’s an element in the thinking there about the meaning of work. People were working more than they had to because they found something that they found rewarding outside of just the monetary value or what it was that they had to do for the class. Then, there’s always a handful of people that either forgot about the assignment or weren’t interested, or couldn’t sort it out in their schedule. And so, a private market emerges from the public sector spending where trade occurs and the Benjamins settle out and everybody ends up meeting their tax obligation. So, there’s that level of understanding.
Then, it opens up questions about Buddhist economics and labor as a path toward the purification of human character. You start to think about the experience that you get in these organizations that you’re working with and questioning things. Are they producing efficiently? Are there rational agents here? It opens up questions about human nature at a big theoretical level, and then there’s this really practical experience of having to go out and find the opportunity. So, it’s kind of like modeling a job hunt. They’re working with other people and they’re solving a problem. What I’ve tried to do and have done at Cortland with my community partners here is I’ve tied the Buckaroo, or the Benjamin program, to existing grants sponsored programs. My community partners have helped me a great deal here.
Susan Williams at Seven Valleys Health Coalition, in particular, in sharing the development of these grant writing processes, and then when the award is made, I share the grant with my students and we go through what the objectives and goals of the grants are. Then, we formulate projects around those goals and objectives to help our community partners reach them with things like survey data analysis, market analysis, a little bit of data crunching here and there of those survey processes. By helping them execute these grants, they’re more likely to get the next one. So, we created this spiraling feedback mechanism where my students are really making a meaningful and useful contribution to the expansion of the food system and trying to solve food insecurity issues here in the Finger Lakes region.
Specifically, I think grants have really helped me think about value creation outside of simply profit objectives. The scientific process of building an experiment and getting grant funding to test hypotheses, especially those that are improving sustainability issues and food production, are measurables. We set goals, we set targets, and we think about what it is that the deliverable will be. And then we know when we’ve executed if we’ve reached that or not. Those are really valuable contributions not only to knowledge but also to the community. Because now there’s more food in circulation. There’s less food waste that is going into landfills and more of it that is going into composting sites. There’s less need for pesticides and fertilizers, so we’re hoping to kind of contribute to the cleaning up of the water systems.
There is all sorts of really interesting environmental and social data beginning to emerge around these contributions of the Benjamin, which started with like an $8 investment for some fancy business card paper and some cartridges. Now, we’re cranking out 600 to 800 hours of social enterprise work each year, delivering objectives and goals and federally sponsored research grants. And it’s translating into real investment. Hopefully, we’re really close to a year round farmers market and community kitchen here. Yeah, it’s been a super rewarding and interesting process for sure.
Maximilian Seijo: In that vein, in the summers you’ve expanded this currency assignment for your classes, taking students to the Adirondacks to reckon with these complex questions about social provisioning and ecology. We’re wondering if you could reflect a little bit about how that experience has changed your thinking and perhaps some of the specifics of the ways students have interacted with that sort of regional approach?
Benjamin Wilson: Yeah, actually I’m supposed to be in South America right now. I’ve been sharing the Adirondack program with faculty in the area, and I’ve teamed up with a really brilliant guy at Tompkins Cortland Community College, Dr. Kelly Wessell, who’s an environmental scientist there. He’s been running this study abroad program in Colombia that investigates the Amazon River Basin and the Andes Mountains. This year, we were supposed to spend some time in Medellín as really an international compliment to the work that we’re doing in the Adirondacks, which is grounded in a National Science Foundation grant called Common Problem Pedagogy that was an award for our Dean Mattingly here at Cortland.
So, we’ve been going up to the Adirondacks, myself, a GIS professor, Christopher Badurek, and a history professor, Scott Moranda. And we all teach our own independent courses about the Adirondacks. Scott has a history of tourism class. Chris’s class is about more technical GIS and data analysis. We fly some drones there and collect some original data, and then look at other national or state level collections of data of the park and region. And then mine is a political economy of the Adirondacks class where we talk about the history and development of the park, and the natural resource wealth that it possesses and how that’s influenced the development of New York state. People don’t realize that the Adirondack Park is larger than, I believe, seven US states. It’s a massive geographic area with only 150,000 year round residents. It’s this really fascinating place for thinking about the relationship between human production and reproduction and the ability of the environment to produce and reproduce itself. We think a lot about Marx’s idea of metabolism, in which working with the environment transforms you as you are transforming the environment functions as a way of framing a value and production concept.
For a long time, there’s been this Darwinian idea of struggle for life where the early settlers in the Adirondacks really struggled for life and the ability to reproduce themselves because it was such a harsh place to live. But then they began to overcome some of those and the struggle became less and they started to create struggles for the environment. They started cutting down timber and burning down massive amounts of the forest because of trains coming through and sparks flying. So, the struggle went the other way. And they had to react in a very ecologically sound way. New York state wrote a clause in their constitution called the Forever Wild clause. This was roughly 1880 and it remains probably one of the most stringent environmental laws in US history. But the watershed of the Adirondacks is essentially all the water from New York City that travels down the Hudson. So, the deforestation problem was poisoning all of that water, making it impossible to drink, and really putting at risk the entire ecosystem in New York state in those decades.
We’ve been going up there and building relationships with year round residents, thinking about what are the common problems that we can approach from these different disciplinary perspectives and how SUNY Cortland and its position up at the Raquette Lake facilities can contribute to ameliorating and making the struggle for life a little less harsh up there. And certainly, a Jobs Guarantee and ecological production systems would be a really meaningful contribution to that space. I’m very sad that the Colombia trip was canceled. But I think that it will be equally thrilling to kind of have the opportunity to go down there and experience the Amazon, which I kind of picture as being in the infancy stages of the Adirondacks at that turn of the century when the first people started doing artwork and landscapes and encouraging people to go out there and experience the wild and rustication, and the health benefits of getting out into nature.
I see kind of the infancy stages of ecological development and tourism on the Amazon and up in the Andes compared to some of the experiences of American wilderness tourism. Growing up in Kansas City and traveling across the great state of Colorado–I spent a great deal of time in the Rockies–these spaces have just become huge commercial tourism spots. You’re basically just going to a different suburbia, but up in the mountains now. And so, there’s that tension and that loss, and with that, massive suburbanization of the wilderness. There’s greater possibilities of invasive species, such as the death of millions of trees from a Japanese beetle a couple of years ago. The utilization of the water systems to grow a lot of golf courses is also transforming it in different ways. And wildfires and forest fires, the same sorts of things that we’re seeing in California, are occurring in the Rockies as well. The balance between human health and environmental health and what it is that we’re trying to produce and why we’re producing it are all things that I think these vacation natural environments really provide an opportunity for thinking really carefully about those things and assigning different modes of value production.
William Saas: Pulling out for a slightly broader view, you’re working with Rohan Grey and Robert Hockett, who were guests on the show before, developing a digital University-based currency that’s key to green provisioning and local food systems, which is in line with a lot of your previous work. Since that work, us four have started to work together on a related project. I was wondering if, by way of getting us to a conversation about the “Unis,” you could kind of walk us through the structure and goals of the project that you have going with Rohan and Robert?
Benjamin Wilson: Yeah, I mean, talk about another lightning bolt strike of good fortune and luck. It was early here and all of a sudden, I started seeing this guy Robert Hockett posting about things like the finance franchise and these modern money spaces, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh, he’s at Cornell.” It turns out that we actually both went to the same high school in Kansas City, Shawnee Mission East, and he spent time at the University of Kansas, as I did. So it’s just an amazingly small world. Not long after that, there was news that Rohan was coming here, which was really exciting. I had met him at a MMT conference years ago and was just blown away by this Columbia law student who was single handedly moving mountains for modern money and bringing it into this legal discourse, which I think has been so important in raising its visibility. When you add up Robert and Saule’s writings and Christine Desan’s work at Harvard, this has really become exciting.
Anyway, I brought Robert and Rohan in on a National Science Foundation grant that I was working on to couple natural and human systems. I mean, even at that level, the idea that we have to re-couple natural and human systems, I think, is problematic. But I felt like the work that we were doing in the food systems and the development of this currency system locally was a mechanism for doing that by connecting effort and work and socioeconomic production to the ecology to grow a meaningful and useful food system function. So yeah, I started working with them and thinking about what would it take to allow the currency system that I’ve created to expand and be receivable in the community. And so, I’ve been thinking about it in terms of Bob and Saule’s finance franchise model and what a public franchise would look like and how we might be able to circulate funds in these sorts of ways and how that might look.
The next level of that and one of the things that Rohan has been instrumental in creating, is this idea would spread a lot faster if it was digital. Because people are becoming more and more comfortable using their phone to make purchases, and we have a bunch of different cards in our wallets that we can swipe. If we can create a digital ledger in which it’s circulating and it’s providing discounts locally, and if we can begin to allow it to circulate in the local community, then we can gather them much more data. It considers thinking about impact factors, the movement of the currency, and where the balance sheet impact is taking place. And I think this is a really good time for this.
The spirit behind Bitcoin, I think, is terribly misguided. The idea that they need to disrupt the existing monetary hierarchy and this idea that we can create a decentralized cryptocurrency that mirrors the barter story of neoclassical economics–I don’t know how you can get more evidence that that story doesn’t exist–but it’s done a great deal in terms of inciting the public imagination about what money is, how it works, how it gets distributed, and what we should be doing to get money. I mean, should we be solving complex algorithms and burning lots of coal in order to achieve Bitcoin or can we simply and easily facilitate the transition of these as if we’re diversifying our food system and reducing carbon impact and all these sorts of things?
I’ve been moving toward this idea of using these digital currency systems as kind of the Benjamin on steroids in terms of data collection and expansion into the broader community to allow people to see what a Green New Deal might look like in their community. These are the jobs. This is the outcome. These are the things that are made available when we start to reimagine how money and finance works, not only at a national level, but also locally in our communities as well.
Scott Ferguson: The Benjamins classroom project demonstrates one pretty easy, straightforward, principle in Modern Monetary Theory of what you’ve called “tax driven money.” It presupposes that money starts with an obligation that’s been levied onto a community, and in this case, the classroom. That obligation is you have to complete assignments to get a grade at the end of the semester. Then you use that loop of the obligation to incentivize meaningful social production. What happens to that story when you start scaling it up to the whole university and the community and the food system around the university?
Benjamin Wilson: The word that they use in finance is that it “amplifies” it. I mean, there is just so much more institutional backing, power, and connections. One of the ways that I’ve hoped that it would work as we’ve been developing this is that the technology would be kind of like a toolkit that universities and classrooms could use and package, and that different communities could use it for what their local ecological and social issues are. Not every community has a food access problem and not every community has the same sort of farming capacity that we have around us. It might be a problem of public transportation, it might be a crime issue, or it might be a need for the cultivation of public art and the provisioning of better housing conditions. Whatever your local historical and cultural context is, use this tool and this mechanism to start generating productive capacity and effort. And do so with the idea that we’re promising to continue to provide educational opportunities and that the impact of this is going to create other private sector social provisioning–I don’t even like dividing it up into public or private. But when people are doing things and have income and they’re producing stuff, it stabilizes things for everyone. There’s so much less risk. What better way to stabilize things than to ensure strong public provisioning of education, health care, and environmental services.
So yeah, I’ve seen it as kind of a teaching and community impact model, but the Federal Reserve has really opened the door to something, I think, much bigger than that. With the crisis of 2008, unusual and exigent circumstances arose in the Federal Reserve Act language such that they opened a number of facilities to stabilize the balance sheets of the banking sector. This time around, the Fed has openly acknowledged that that’s not going to be enough. This is much bigger than that. It requires much more creative and broad stabilization of balance sheets. So, they’ve made available this “Municipal Liquidity Facility,” which is for states and local municipalities to take advantage of this essentially lender of last resort liquidity provisioning mechanism of the Federal Reserve Bank. I think, if we’re gonna push on that a little bit–and I don’t even think it’s that much to push on it–then this is just the first wave of community Quantitative Easing, and that we can do even more.
We can be more creative and university systems, in particular, as anchor institutions distributed all across our states and all over the country as the largest employers, as huge landowners, are too big to fail and should have access to this sort of immediate balance sheet liquidity provisioning and the ability to just sell finance moving forward with the guarantee that the Federal Reserve will always buy Munis–and what we’ve started to call “Unis”–to do those things. I think it’s an amazingly exciting opportunity to really think about what public finance can look like over the next 20, 30, 40, or 100 years. That is, really thinking about the things that we’re looking at in these grants as value producing activities because they make our communities more resilient, they make them more stable, they increase everybody’s quality of life, they allow us to feel like we’re free from disease, and that, if natural disasters that are prone to happen happen–Michigan is flooding today and there are the wildfires I mentioned earlier–then resilient and stable communities allow us to address those problems much more effectively than the balance sheet crisis marginalist approach to just getting through and just surviving.
We need to start thinking about how do we not only survive crises and these hardships, but how do we prepare for and how do we thrive coming out of them. I think that is a much more robust and healthy way of thinking about this. I don’t think that’s what Goldman Sachs is doing or what the banking sector is doing. I mean, we’re seeing that play out in the data. We’ve all seen the market having a record day as 20 million Americans file for unemployment. That is a huge break. There’s something really structurally wrong with the way that the monetary system in this country works when that is occurring. You know Jamie Dimon is not gonna let a good crisis go to waste and we are already seeing the funneling of the responses moving right to the top just as it did in 2008. And this is an opportunity, I think, to allow the balance sheets of working people on Main Streets and College Avenues to survive this and to be more resilient moving toward the next one.
Maximilian Seijo: I’m really glad you brought up Unis and I think it’s actually useful to contextualize the way that this idea came about and also how it links up to the broader lineage of your work. As the coronavirus started to become not just an economic depression but also a very specific crisis for universities, I thought about how this Muni facility was not really being thought through on the Left and how a limit with regards to the imagination of what was possible of linking up these balance sheets was playing out in a depressed and lamenting way, specifically around University financing. So, I tweeted about this and the tweet sort of caught on to the point where, Scott and Billy, we got together and then roped you in to actually start thinking about a proposal for pushing Unis in a way that you’re suggesting, to really rethink finance especially within the crisis framework. And so, it’d be interesting if we can talk more about the Uni. Of course, we’ve published our open letter in Monthly Review and Public Seminar, but I think we could dig in a little bit and I’d love to hear your articulation of the way a specific response to this Coronavirus crisis is playing out within them?
Benjamin Wilson: Yeah, I mean, I was still in retail banking when the first crisis hit. Having no understanding of what was really unfolding, the experience there was we had all of these conference calls, all of a sudden they’re cutting everybody’s wages by 10%, there’s going to be this huge contraction in the economy, and all of those doomsday things started to spread. This time around in academia, the general sentiment, and not having lived through it on the campus, has been like, “Oh my gosh, here it comes again” attitude or capitulation. In other words, there’s nothing we can do about this, here it comes, so what we’re going to fight for is if we’re going to cut, we’re going to cut on our terms, which is really so sad and not necessary, especially when you look at the response that the Federal Reserve has afforded to the financial sector.
I mean, they have not been holding back. With the MLF money, if Goldman Sachs could get that, it would all be gone already. So, that crack in the door for the public sector is something that we’ve really got to kick down at the state and city level. The amount that the MLF has made available is, by some back of the envelope calculations, the same amount of revenue shortfalls that they’re forecasting. So, at that point, there’s no reason for any cuts–standard operation continues. But that’s not enough, right? We’re going through a health pandemic and a crisis, which demands a lot more resources–resources in testing, resources in understanding public safety, resources tracking where the disease goes and being ready for the potential of a second wave, and investment and needed effort to understand and develop vaccines. And university systems and hospital systems should be playing a frontline role in that public research for both treatments and vaccination.
It seems to me to be a really good opportunity to say, “Hey, wait, let’s not contract the economy. Let’s not lay these people off. Let’s not reduce our public sector employment.” Those are the people that are getting hurt the most by this lack of federal assistance to state and local governments. The whole idea of right and left, I think, starts to get really blurred here when we start to think about the diversification and democratization of finance down to local level university systems, where, for instance, the SUNY system is 64 campuses all across the state of New York and 90% of our population lives within 20 miles of a SUNY campus. The spatial distribution of these resources would be immediate, and that’s one of the big challenges that we’re seeing with any of the recovery efforts–that all of these resources are getting sucked up at higher levels of aggregation and they’re not filtering down to your local burger joints or even to your small local colleges, private and public. We need to think about what are the anchor institutions in our communities. What are they delivering? How do we promote the strong public provisioning of goods and services, so that we don’t experience a massive downturn and so that people are able to buy and spend and support local businesses and the things that we all think of as making America a great place to be? Nobody thinks of a Walmart and is like, “Yeah, that’s what’s awesome!” It’s much deeper than that.
I get really excited about this, and I’m so grateful to be working with you guys. I mean, it’s just been so much fun the last couple of weeks thinking about this, and to think of the Benjamin as like now being part of a Federal Reserve possibly. It’s just kind of a mind boggling thing. There’s lots of details to be worked on and hashed out, but lots of the things are already in place, institutionally and legally, as state institutions with many of them already having strong relationships with credit unions. If you read the community bank literature, in many ways, a university reads like a community bank, in terms of relationship building and investing and knowing their communities. They’re already taking in deposits from their students and allowing them to access those deposits on demand at their local restaurants and things of this nature. So it’s really not that crazy, and so much of it is already there and available. The more we organize and the more that we get our colleagues, administrators, and the ears of our state representatives to listen, I think that we can really make an amazing transformation in terms of what we think of as public finance.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, and it’s an incredible opportunity for participatory learning to spell out the way the Uni reverses or inverts the logic of money that we’ve been brainwashed to accept. The Uni is not borrowing. It’s not moving private money or tax dollars that exist somewhere else to the university to help it out during a crisis. In fact, it is bringing credit issuing authority to the university, or better as you were suggesting, it is actualizing the credit issuing authority that a university already has, and mobilizing it toward the public good.
Benjamin Wilson: Yeah, it’s just leveling it up. I mean, it’s a grant. You don’t need to pay back a grant. That’s why they work. If you believe that profits, from the Marxian framework, are driven by the exploitation of labor and planet earth, then we need to diversify our value creating system. I think that the recent concentration of wealth and power and finance and speculation and bubble creation is evidence that exploitation has its limits. We need to really open up the ideas and imagination around what it means to produce collectively again. Goodness, the idea of the rugged individual, I guess it makes some sense on an intuitive individual level like, “Yeah, I work hard and I’ve achieved these things,” but nobody does anything alone. This is something that makes that explicit.
This is about how we need to unify, we need to organize, and collectively, we can produce so much more and do so much more than we can ever do alone. Even on their own terms, the self-made billionaires–there’s only like six of them–that’s not good odds. That’s a terrible model for democracy and freedom and all of these things that we hold to be. The idea that I’ve kind of latched on to recently is that, we the people, we the people have the capacity to make promises collectively to each other to deliver public health. We never question anything when it comes to the military, right? We the people promise to keep ourselves safe and secured so here’s a trillion dollars to go do it. No, we the people want to make the promise that we are provisioning and guiding strong public education and innovation and community resilience. And we the people promise to deliver and execute a new and more robust public health system that will protect you against pandemics.
There are all these talks about like, “Well, more people die from cancer and more people die from car accidents.” Well, we should be spending more money on cancer research then. Those are numbers maybe that we don’t need to accept. The fact that so many thousands of Americans die from the flu on an annual basis, I think, is an embarrassment. That is evidence of a really failed public health system. And Coronavirus is just exacerbating those realities. And it’s also shining a light on so many of the gross inequities that are so historically latent in this country, in terms of real estate and housing and all of that really long and ugly history. David Freund’s interview, and his book Color Property, is one of the things that I think stands out really clearly here–the science of appraising real estate was specifically designed for a particular outcome that greatly enhanced the property values of white people. How is this any different? This would be a new standard of appraisal and valuation. I think that there’s a lot of different and creative ways that we can use knowledge from the past and learn from some of these failures and really do something collectively much greater and more productive.
William Saas: Very well said. I’ve had some fun as you’ve been talking imagining you giving your financial literacy lessons. What was that, 10 years ago?
Benjamin Wilson: Yeah, you just gave me chills, Billy.
William Saas: And it strikes me that that’s still your project in a large way, but it’s like a radical financial literacy that’s infused with creativity and imagination.
Benjamin Wilson: Yeah, it just never stops. And I’m still attacking banks in the process. Don’t open an account here. The credit union is a safer place. They charge smaller fees. It’s an exciting time. Ten years ago with the worries about job markets and all of those things, now Stephanie Kelton was just chief economic adviser to Bernie Sanders, Randy Ray is testifying before Congress, and the Green New Deal has been rolled out and has gotten some real political momentum. Hopefully, we can keep the pedal to the metal and really help people understand that austerity, the depression, and all of that stuff is a political choice. There’s nothing natural or inevitable about any of that.
Scott Ferguson: Great. Well, Ben Wilson, thanks so much for joining us on Money on the Left.
Benjamin Wilson: Oh, it’s my pleasure. I had a great time. Thanks so much for having me.
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: Alex Williams (audio engineering), Richard Farrell (transcription) & Meghan Saas (graphic art).