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Resisting Predatory Finance with Raúl Carrillo

Organizer for economic justice and scholar of law, race, and money, Raúl Carrillo, joins Money on the Left to explore the promise of the public money framework for advancing antiracist, anti-imperialist, and democratic politics across the world. We discuss how the public money or MMT perspective shapes his work as an attorney fighting against predatory finance and for an international, rights-based approach to full employment. A significant portion of the conversation is also devoted to Raúl’s ongoing critique of the “taxpayer money” trope in U.S. political culture. In both his recent article for the UCLA Criminal Law Review and a 2017 piece (coauthored with Jesse Meyerson) for Splinter, Raúl persuasively shows that the myth of “taxpayer money” is not only incorrect in operational terms, but also a significant threat to marginalized communities and a major rhetorical obstacle for progressive politics. 

Raúl Carrillo is an attorney, chair of the board of the Modern Money Network, Research Fellow with the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, and member of the advisory board at Our Money. You can read his article for the UCLA Criminal Law Review here: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/7rp8g89c. See his article on “The Dangerous Myth of Taxpayer Money” here: https://splinternews.com/the-dangerous-myth-of-taxpayer-money-1819658902

Theme music by Hillbilly Motobike.

Transcript

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

William Saas: Raúl Carrillo, welcome to Money on the Left.

Raúl Carrillo: Thanks, Billy. I’m really happy to be here–long time hype man, first time participant.

William Saas: Thank you so much. It’s a long time coming. And we’re really thrilled to have you here. As we normally do, we’d like to ask you to start by telling us a little bit about your personal, political, and professional background as they relate to your appearance on the show today.

Raúl Carrillo: Sure thing, Billy. I’m on this podcast in my capacity, as you all know, as the co-chair of the Modern Money Network, the power vacuum behind the throne so to speak. But I’m happy to walk through my journey and how I got to MMT, which is rich and a little bit unique, just like everybody else’s. That’s sort of how it happens. You don’t come into heterodox economics, much less heterodox interdisciplinary studies, without a wild ride. So I’m happy to take it from the top. I grew up in the US Mexico borderlands, southern New Mexico, west Texas, which is where my folks have been for a very long time on both sides. It is a financial as well as biophysical desert. I grew up in a lot more relative material comforts compared to my community, my family, and my friends, but that allowed me to start to gain an appreciation of the wide gaps between the level of wealth, income, and resources in our area versus others. And so, I’ve always had this economic justice bent given my own family’s history, which has always been focused on racial justice.

I grew up on the stories of the Chicano civil rights movement, the Poor People’s Campaign, alliances with Black activists in the south, as well as stories about indigenous rights. I started to study economics when I got to college in order to better understand the extraction and massive inequality that I had seen back home in the United States and during my time in Mexico and other places. For me, it’s always been about intertwined injustices. When I was studying economics in college, the bottom fell out in a way like it does with everybody else. I was an undergrad learning about why all the things I believed in weren’t technically feasible. For me, this was instruction from a lot of the folks who have written textbooks; a lot of people who had made a career out of capturing political energy, filtering it through neoclassical or orthodox economics, and constraining it. That is essentially what happened to me as an undergrad–upwardly mobile dreams of people of color are cast in a certain way and the economics that attends that is a neoliberal set of economic ideas. So when everything fell apart, I couldn’t explain to anybody back home why things happen the way they happen despite all my time with these economists. This became increasingly frustrating. And so, I turned more broadly into the social sciences and law in particular.

The first MMT thinker I ever read wasn’t Dr. Kelton or Dr. Tcherneva, even though I’m very close to both of their work at this point. It was the work of William Black, who is a law professor and white collar criminologist that wrote a book called, The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One, after the crisis. He also has an interesting life. He was an assassination target of some financers back during the savings and loans crisis. He has traveled across multiple continents. But what he did that was special to me–and he wasn’t the only one who did this but he was the first one I was introduced to–was to connect some grand theses about austerity and public finance to predation. And I’d say that this is the site of my work today. Again, after the crisis, I abandoned economics in general and then went into law. I spent some time working in California on the multi-state mortgage fraud settlement. Then, I went to law school with a financial reform and racial justice lens. I didn’t really understand money or the deeper roots of the financial system, although I very much wanted to. I was lucky enough to meet Rohan Grey in law school. He was a year ahead of me and had already formed the corpus of the Modern Money Network. Over time, we turned that into what it is today with the help of y’all and many, many other great folks.

Maxximlian Seijo: As you’re alluding to already, you clearly work across myriad areas of law and political economy, and when we were preparing for this conversation, we tried to pour through your work once again and articulate a more or less single thread that links to various projects, which you’ve done just now in one framing and fashion. In our reading, it seems that your work insists that really we can only fully detect, resist, and overcome racism across the globe in a powerful and systemic way if we adopt the public money lens, or the Modern Monetary Theory perspective, which we all variously share. Would you consider that to be a fair assessment? And perhaps could you say more about how you came to this particular conviction?

Raúl Carrillo: Absolutely. Thanks, Maxx. I think that’s a fair encapsulation of the aim of my work as a scholar, organizer, activist, and someone who’s in this space with y’all. For me, certainly my focus has been race. Again, that’s the background and the lens through which I came to this, but it’s more about predation and depression in general, and the monetary architecture that creates those dynamics and lends itself to the exploitation of people of color but also any folks who are marginalized or oppressed in myriad ways. A lot of people have done some really great work about austerity, financial regulation, and social reproduction theory, for example, Zdravka Todorova, Donatella Alessandrini, and others who have been involved in the MMT community. I came to start focusing on race again because of my background, but also because it struck me that knowledge of the monetary and financial system has been used as a cudgel against movements for racial justice, social justice movements for emancipation, and other more egalitarian aims.

We discuss all the time how the “pay for” question is used as a trump card, but it’s really used as a trump card in specific contexts. Usually, it’s to tell people of color or other people demanding rights to shut up. That’s not the case when we think about, for example, the broader security state, the military, the surveillance state, war, incarceration, deportation, etc. The right wingers demand blank checks for the security of a small group of people that they imagine are deserving of care. I know you all touch on these things in MMN-HD especially, but that is also a guiding premise of my work. Having studied how Wall Street and Silicon Valley prey on people, working in a field on how public money finances rights, social justice, socialism, or to paraphrase Dr. King, you can call it whatever you want but it’s a system within which all of God’s creatures are entitled to a certain amount of resources, you really have to confront the monetary architecture. To stop the predation, you have to have a vision of abundance that cuts at the very roots of why the predation happens in the first place. For me, MMT crystallizes that in a way that most other bodies of work and thoughts across the social sciences withhold from doing.

The way that I frame it is that it is extremely difficult to have your eyes on all the balls that are in the air right now. We can’t afford to be in silos as far as movements go. We need to be talking about the holy trinity–race, gender, and class–but also immigration, nationalism, surveillance, climate change and ecology more broadly all the time. And so, the way I try to approach talking to fellow activists, fellow organizers–especially those working towards racial justice–is to try to meet folks where they’re at and also come with an open mind as to what I might learn. I think there’s a tendency, especially among the white Left, to zoom in on the organizers or just everyday people trying to make their communities better, and think that they’re not demanding a certain thing because they don’t get it conceptually. However, I don’t think that has been the case in my experience.

I was a financial regulator after law school. Then, I was a direct services attorney for three years. I worked in an organization in New York where we had a financial justice hotline where folks who were experiencing problems with debt collectors, landlords, or credit bureaus, problems of financial nature, could pick up the phone and call and ask for help in English, Spanish, and sometimes Mandarin. What I remember is that people on the ground have an extremely sophisticated view of money. I remember that from my community, my family, and from other folks. Because that was brainwashed out of me by neoliberal economics, which forces MMT into a position where it’s explaining things that strike people as really jargony and aren’t always articulated in an inclusive register despite the great work that a lot of us have done here and despite the great work that Stephanie Kelton has done, etc.

And so, I think that poor folks across the board, they’re used to making money to pay off loans. They understand where every penny has gone. In my experience, when you talk to people about the public nature of money, even not necessarily MMT, but whether it be public banking, complementary currencies, or another kind of economic development initiative, people actually get it. It’s no more counterintuitive than the premises of Orthodox economics, which are like, assume there is an apple and two white guys on an island and they’re redistributing the apple back and forth, and there’s no society. This is not a good model for analysis in the social sciences, as we can go on and on about.

What I try to do when I engage with folks on the ground, which is maybe a little bit different from when I engage with critical race theorists who have a different jargon problem, is that I tell folks I think you know that money is a public thing, that money is a government thing, and look at how the system is jacked in all these different ways. And people get that. Academics sometimes have a little bit more trouble, partially because they’re locked into the tropes of their own interlocutors, for which I don’t blame academics of color at all. Nor am I here to say that I have all the answers. But I do think that when you massage, interrogate, or just get in conversation with a lot of things that critical race theorists say, for instance, the assumptions are there, and they just need to be teased out.

For instance, there are tons of critical tax scholars who have talked about the ways in which white taxpayers do not necessarily see taxpayers of colors as part of the same social class. And yet when it comes to the macroeconomics or political economy, we still find the tropes of taxpayer money, of the deserving benefit recipients, as Angela Harris at UC Davis says–and that’s to credit Professor Harris on bringing in MMT and interrogating it in a very constructive way compared to some other theorists. So, I think the seeds of thinking about money, more critically, are already in a lot of critical race theory. From my understanding of feminist legal theory, they’re also there as well. What needs to happen is an evolution in the bridging more so than necessarily a course correction, if that makes sense.

Scott Ferguson: I really appreciate that. I’ll say in my own experience just talking to folks in my own community, they tend to have an easier time than a lot of academics I know who I try to talk to about it. Because they can begin with like, “Oh, yeah. Money comes from the government. I guess that makes sense.”

Raúl Carrillo: Yeah, I mean property comes from the government. Whether a contract is a contract is something that comes from the government. All of these basic things that construct our society that economists want to say are brought from the market or whatever it may be, once those people take a minute, they get it. So why would money be so much different than all these other things that leftists and social movements interrogate every day?

Scott Ferguson: Absolutely.

William Saas: Let’s stick with taxpayer money for just a little bit. This is an area that you’ve consistently set your critical sights on, talking about the political and legal construction of the taxpayer as a racialized and racist identity. Recently you published about this in the UCLA Criminal Justice Law Review. Before you published something in Splinter Magazine with Jesse Myerson, called “The Dangerous Myth of Taxpayer Money,” which, by the way, I’ve found to be a very useful article to use in the classroom, so thank you for that. Could you walk us through your argument here and while we’re also on the subject of reception, maybe reflect a bit about how people intuitively understand the publicity of money? Is it the same case with the taxpayer money versus public money argument?

Raúl Carrillo: Yeah, excellent bundle of questions that I really think is particularly important and I’m happy to talk about this right now because of the moment that we’re all experiencing with the uprising and all the very courageous movements shaking what’s going on around the country. This figure, the legal and cultural figure of the taxpayer, is very central to the creation of mass incarceration, the policing system, and the general security apparatus that protects private property. This is obviously not just my insight. My friend, David Stein, the very first guest of Money on the Left, will tell you that. Virginia Eubanks, a scholar of surveillance, will tell you that as well. And many, many, many other people will. It’s no secret that in the United States taxpayer forces have often been reactionary.

I think the best encapsulation of this vision that I’ve come across thus far is the book Racial Taxation by the legal historian, Camille Walsh at the University of Washington. Dr. Walsh has done us all a great service by actually going back into court doctrine, digging into archives and letters between supreme court justices, and finding out the extent to which the figure of the taxpayer, taxpayer money, or taxpayer rights in terms of taxpayer citizenship, is central to the story of the failure of the liberal vision of integration in this country. One reason for that is in order to prevent schools from being segregated, a lot of reactionary forces just reverted to the cultural primacy in the United States of the idea of the taxpayer, of protecting taxpayer funds, and having local fiscal control over that which we consider to be critical to society or to social reproduction.

Just to give a little bit of background on Walsh’s book because my work wouldn’t exist at all without it, Jesse and I wrote this Splinter Magazine piece a year before Dr. Walsh’s book came out, but her book absolutely fundamentally changed the game. Dr. Walsh tells the story of racial liberalism of the Warren court just as much as she tells a story about taxpayer money. For Dr. Walsh, the attempt by the judiciary during the 50s and 60s to not integrate analysis of identity with analysis of economics, as you all discuss frequently, resulted in the material failure to integrate schooling and eventually led to a loss in the journey of Chicano civil rights activists, children, families, and educators in South Texas to achieve equal funding at schools. Essentially, our team in this lawsuit, which was called San Antonio vs. Rodriguez and heard in 1976, had folks who were Mexican-American in Chicano schools alleging that their fundamental constitutional right to education was being violated by local property financing, or a predatory property tax financing scheme.

To an MMTer, of course, that makes intuitive sense. Like if something is supposed to be a right, or something is supposed to be of critical importance, then why is it not supported by the power of the public purse? Essentially, they were saying, we do not have equal schooling because we do not have equal funding, and thus our rights are being violated. What happened in that case, as Dr. Walsh outlines, is extremely interesting and important. Justice Powell, who was formally the superintendent of a local school board back home, turns out is extremely interested in this case and is having back and forths with representatives, taxpayer associations, and other reactionary folks. His ruling eventually stands on the idea of taxpayer money, saying it may be true that under some state constitutions, or perhaps even under the federal constitution, there is a right to education, but that doesn’t trump taxpayer rights.

That’s not exactly the whole thing but that’s what’s important for this conversation. It’s no lie to say that the federal fundamental right to education died at the feet of the taxpayer money trope. And in our fight for new rights now, that is extremely, extremely important. I hope we can discuss that in a little bit but I would like to circle back to this UCLA article and the abolitionist moment in general. So right now, we are seeing calls to defund the police, which while it can be perceived as an abolitionist demand, is not necessarily as I understand it from folks like the organizer, Mariame Kaba. Of course, the question is, after you defund police, what do you fund? What do you invest in and at what level? And other folks are doing great, great work in this area.

My friend and fellow MMT traveler, the sociologist Tamara Nopper, wrote an interesting article in Jacobin a couple of weeks ago, talking about how the defund demand is an evolution in and of itself that should be lauded, and I absolutely agree. Back after the Rodney King beatings and what went down in LA afterwards, a lot of folks bought the idea of minority owned business development and corporate investment and it’s taken a long time to get to the defund movement. Now, the question is: what sort of funding for the nurturing world, for the actually safe world, do we want? I think that fundamentally has to be federal, as any MMTer will tell you for technical reasons. But it also has to be federal for political reasons. And in no small part, it’s to avoid this mess of the myth of taxpayer money.

So the myth of taxpayer money essentially says, whether folks want to admit it or not, the more that you pay in taxes, the more of a damn voice you have in society. There’s this liberal idea that we are all a monolithic taxpayer class and because I pay sales taxes on things, I have a lot in common with someone who pays a lot of capital gains taxes. And I just fundamentally don’t think that’s true. Dr. Walsh’s work makes it abundantly clear that that’s not true. When we think about taxpayers to be extended to social class at all, it’s extremely stratified, it’s racialized, it’s gendered, it’s sliced up, and it’s diced up. People don’t look necessarily horizontally at each other as peer taxpayers. In fact, taxpayer money–this idea that you’re entitled to more because you are a taxpayer rather than a citizen or a human or any other kind of subject–is replete within right wing movements.

It’s obviously essential to the Tea Party, but it’s also essential to the Charlottesville torch bearers and every other white supremacist force in this country. And it’s not just the United States to be clear, even though that’s where we’re situating this conversation. There’s a fiscal sociologist at the University of Alberta named Kyle Willmot, whose work I have been recently diving into, who is a scholar of indigenous taxpayer identity, but is also just investigating the global role of taxpayer associations generally. He finds that taxpayer associations serve a particular role within neoliberalism and within crafting subjectivity, in encouraging people to bound their government and see it as a resource extractor rather than a resource generator, which I think is something that’s very familiar to all of us. I should take here to note that Dr. Wilmont, like Dr. Walsh, takes care to note that taxpayer identity doesn’t necessarily have to be reactionary. It’s in some ways a mercenary concept as they say, but it has been wielded, I think, irredeemably by the right in this country. Although, I know folks have done other work about that, and I’m happy to discuss the ways in which perhaps you all see where it’s recoverable.

But that’s pretty much where I’m at at this point. The UCLA article, which is really more of a short reflection piece, complicates the taxpayer identity within the movement to end monetary sanctions. What I’d be welcoming or open to doing here is having a more integrated and more detailed conversation about the role of taxpayer identity and whether it’s recoverable or not. Maxx, I know you have thoughts on that and I’m sure that other people have thoughts on that, but I don’t want to push it too hard.

Maxximilian Seijo: No, that’s cool. I think Billy has also done some thinking about this. So I can defer to Billy first if he’d like.

William Saas: I think this is more about your work but I really appreciate you opening up space for it. Maybe one of the things I was trying to get to in a roundabout way was talking about reception. I think that’s one of my ways of thinking about whether or not it’s recoverable. It strikes me that even though it is, and I agree with you, probably irredeemable, the taxpayer identity that looms large in all the ways that you’ve identified is also super firmly ingrained and even mobilized by people with good intentions frequently. I know currently we’re talking about cutting university budgets and things like that and the taxpayer trope is showing up. I wonder if you might offer some advice for somebody who is concerned about that long insidious history that you’ve outlined for us, and that Dr. Walsh outlines well in her book, how to, with compassion and respect, offer an alternative? I guess maybe the answer is in the question there, but how do you present this to people humbly and how is it received?

Raúl Carrillo: Sure. This is a great set of questions, Billy. I do spend a good deal of time sort of just shouting to stop saying taxpayer money and say public money instead.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, so do we.

Raúl Carrillo: Haha, as many of us do. But I think that there’s not a monolithic answer. It is different strokes for different folks. The first question you have to ask is: what are folks using the trope to try to achieve? To give a basic example of one end of the spectrum, if folks are arguing for racial or gender equity literally as taxpayers, like as they’re filing their tax returns, for instance, then that’s not necessarily a frame within which to inject this whole argument. It’s not gonna be as successful. But of course if we’re talking at the federal level, then it’s a lot easier. I think folks are starting to understand that all the money that the Fed is lending out is not taxpayer money. How could it be taxpayer money? We’re all broke right now so how does that make sense? Also, and this weaves into the pertinent questions regarding the UCLA article and the protest, what happens when people feel a sense of injustice as taxpayers, especially at the local level? Lots of folks have argued against incarceration, against utility gouging, against all sorts of things as taxpayers, and they are clearly not right wingers. I have some thoughts as to why this is strategically still unhelpful for us, but I want to pause here because I think that you’ve identified an essential question for this project and for all of us. Given that we pretty strongly think what we think and believe what we believe–and other folks do as well–how do we form a bridge here for people who are very interested in economic justice and social justice?

Maxximilian Seijo: I really like this conversation because it’s an open one that still necessarily insists on some hard values. We’re explicitly thinking critically about the historical and contextual framings that are within this concept of the taxpayer identity that you so well draw together out of some important scholarship. I’ve thought about this in the past and what strikes me is as interesting about the question of public money versus taxpayer money, is that it seems to be about framing, ultimately, because if you’re thinking with public money, there are, of course, operations of taxation inside of the public money framework, inside the fiscal-tax circuit, and many different ways of thinking about that. But it also seems what’s crucially important for synthesizing what has been said already is how one rhetorically frames one’s claim to being accounted for by governance, or another version of some democratic claim on fiscal authority? The taxpayer identity is a problem because it refracts an exclusive vision rather than an inclusive one, which is what the public money vision conversely offers. And so, it’s not that taxpayers aren’t inside a public money framework. It’s precisely that in foregrounding what taxation actually is, what it actually does, the taxpayer is resituated within an inclusive structure of claims on democratic governance and accountability. It seems like that’s what’s at stake in these questions, and I’d be curious to hear your reflection on it.

Raúl Carrillo: Damn homie, I agree with all of that. The problem is that, right now, taxpayer money is the encompassing frame. It’s the bounding frame. And there are claims for equity and justice or revolution that could be made by taxpayers within a public money frame. For me, the more immediate question is, what do we do given how not only exclusive the concept has become in the United States, but how stratified it is? It’s not just that taxpayers, and people who primarily identify as taxpayers, don’t see black and brown taxpayers as taxpayers in the same way that they are. It’s also because of what a progressive taxation structure is, because people pay different amounts of taxes and are in different tax brackets which also quantifies the concept. I would also say it corporatizes the concept. In other words, you become more like a shareholder and less like a rights holder, if that makes sense? Your claim isn’t as a political subject; your claim is as a fiscal contributor. And it’s not an economic contributor in general, to go back to your previous point, much less a social contributor or just a general contributor to the public. It’s about how much dough did you cough up for the taxman when it came around, because that’s the only kind of public finance we understand.

It’s so twisted in the United States that we call all sorts of monetary sanctions that aren’t taxes, but should be thought of as taxes, as not taxes. Fines and fees, court restitution, student loan debt, and all of these sorts of sanctions that are levied on various people throughout the economy aren’t even encompassed within the taxpayer money framework. And that becomes especially problematic when we’re talking about somewhere like Ferguson, Missouri, which is an open air debtors prison, because the local taxpayers association has destroyed the municipalities ability to raise property taxes. In fact, now they run on fine and fee money. The concept is exclusive, as you were saying in the contemporary American context, but it’s also stratified. It sets people at each other’s throats in a way that it doesn’t have to. Even if you just want to highlight everyone as a member of the economy as well as a society, there are many other categories that we can use to describe people. Public money, I think, is one of the broader ones.

William Saas: A critical difference between public money and taxpayer money that I’ve thought about is that the taxpayer identity is something that individuals can latch on to and identify as and then identify themselves as part of a collective and join a taxpayer association, for example, whereas public money is a bit more abstract, and like you say, there are a lot of different categories that we can identify. But there also doesn’t seem to be something that has such a strong rhetorical cachet as “taxpayer” that’s readily available. And maybe that’s an important part of that bridge work you were gesturing towards before.

Raúl Carrillo: Yeah, I think that’s another excellent point. Perhaps we still are on a quest for embeddedness and we’ll find other terms that create individual connection as well as making the points that we make–that money is public at the end of the day in terms of its origin, in terms of its generation, in terms of the source of the enforcement and patrolling of its use that occurs throughout the society, the legal system, and that scaffold. I like public money because for the same reasons, I like public schools still, for instance. But it does not accomplish that yet, or perhaps isn’t capable of accomplishing that connection yet. No term is perfect.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, I think one other great term other than public money is the framing that Delman Coates is running with, which is “Our Money.” Another way of putting it is this is collective money. This relationship already belongs to us. But yeah, we need to be turning it in other kinds of directions

Raúl Carrillo: Yeah, “Our Money” establishes a social claim while avoiding the abstract term public. And I just said public schools, I like public schools, but a lot of people don’t like their public schools. A lot of people don’t like their public assistance, a lot of people don’t like public public X, public Y, or public Z. So yeah, I’m very here for “Our Money” as a board member and frequent collaborator with Dr. Coates.

Scott Ferguson: Thanks, maybe we can shift gears here. One of the things that you’ve influenced me a lot on is the important but also tricky question about a “politics of rights.” And so, I was wondering if you could lay out why a “politics of rights” really matters? How do you conceive of rights? What’s a bad way to conceive of rights? And what’s the necessary way to fight for certain rights?

Raúl Carrillo: Thank you, Scott. So this is the conversation that is going to make everyone hate me. I swear my whole vibe is synthesizing different intellectual traditions and trying to get them to talk to each other, but this is one area in which I think building a bridge, for instance, between the legal Left and Left economists requires a lot of folks to give up their premises. I know that’s a bold claim but I’m here to back it up and have some scholarship coming out about this in the fall.

So if you were to ask the most lefty lawyers right now whether we should be fighting for rights, I think that a great deal of them would say: “Screw rights, what have rights ever gotten us, rights are abstract and indeterminant.”

Maximilian Seijo: They’re Superstructure.

Raúl Carrillo: Haha, they’re slippery; too slippery to fight for. They’re liberal proceduralist stuff. They’re utterly epiphenomenal. I heard about that on another podcast; everyone listen to Superstructure with Maxx and Will Beaman. Anyways, so a lot of the legal left, and about 60% of those people live in Brooklyn, will tell you that. And I don’t mean that in a good way. It’s not a care-based Marxist approach to the law. It’s one that is predominantly held by white folks. The back and forth within the left legal academy about rights is often really split along racialized lines, as well as gendered lines, to say nothing of comparative constitutional law debates, etc. I’m trying not to be too crass about it, but I see this dynamic reproduced amongst lawyers my age. Just to give some brief background, in the 80s, professor Mark Tushnet, whose work I love, wrote an essay called “The Critique of Rights,” which pretty much outlines what I just said–rights are too slippery, too shallow, and too vague to actually achieve. And it was pretty compelling. I have felt persuaded by that argument at times. This argument was replicated in terms of its ethos with respect to property and contracts throughout this school of thought.

And then what happened is a legal scholar by the name of Patricia Williams, who is a critical race theorist as well as someone who engages in a wide variety of spheres, wrote a book called The Alchemy of Race and Rights. To paraphrase another critical feminist legal scholar, Robin West, I believe she characterized it as unwittingly eviscerating Tushnet’s essay. What Professor Williams said is, yes, rights can be all of those things, but rights are the only thing that has ever achieved a damn thing for marginalized and oppressed people in this country. And that wasn’t to say that there isn’t a generative force or power within, for instance, striking or any other sort of real political activity, but that the rights were also a necessary component of achieving any modicum of justice, much less equality for especially folks of color. That is the perspective that I have pretty much adopted. I think that there are good points made within this debate over the last few decades, on all sides that are really, really important and outstanding, but one thing that this whole sphere of discourse suffers from is an utter reliance on the premises of orthodox economics and also the trope of taxpayer money.

Scott Ferguson: So can you talk about some of your work on specific rights, like rights around our collective work on the job guarantee or a right to a job?

Raúl Carrillo: Absolutely. Most of my work on this has been presentations and other things, but this fall some of this stuff is going to start to see the light of day. For instance, there’s an essay coming out in a book called, Tipping Points in International Law, about the state of international labor law and labor generally. What I try to accomplish in this essay, drawing on the work of some of the people that I’ve just discussed as well as various other legal scholars and economists in the broader MMT and critical money world, is to say that, one, the job guarantee should be pushed through international law, which is messy, difficult and aspirational. But also international labor law, and specifically human rights law, is totally underpinned by a vision of austerity. One sort of expects that is this point now given that the Bretton Woods institutions are thoroughly neoliberalized, but a lot of the covenants in the international human rights law, for instance, are basically trying NAIRU or even something akin to NAWRU, the non-accelerating wage rate of unemployment, which they use in Europe because they don’t like to hide the ball.

There’s this sort of problem that MMT comes at about the public nature of money, which you’d think a lot of otherwise extremely incisive legal scholars would be aware of or dig a little, it plagues the very idea that there is a human right to work, which is something that is promoted by, of course, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as CEDAW, the new treaty on international women’s rights, and all these sorts of other canonical documents from international law. And this myth is, of course, replicated in various national constitutions and labor laws across the globe, but it’s presence in international law is truly staggering. And of course, there’s no global body to coordinate fiscal policy or anything like that. In placing membership mandates on the members of these covenants, it’s utterly, utterly orthodox, and in a way that it’s damaging to any future for these places.

Maxximilian Seijo: This totally connects up to the recent Democratic primary and some of the questions around candidates’ different plans for an internationalist vision not only for climate change mitigation with the Green New Deal, but as a new way to think about how we address things like trade or other global questions of political economy. The vision that you seem to be offering here is one that takes all of the planet into account and doesn’t then seek to fracture, like perhaps Elizabeth Warren’s plan for a Green New Deal with an American first base approach to what one could call “rights,” into a more nationalist approach to addressing these international questions. And that’s a sort of mosaic, but perhaps you could reflect upon what your vision of a more internationalist framework for rights in relationship to employment means for the Green New Deal?

Raúl Carrillo: Sure thing. Perhaps this should have been the preface before talking about this book chapter. I’m not under any illusion that liberal internationalism is going to save us. That being said, I do believe that there is a more social democratic form of international human rights that is available. That’s a bit of a contentious thing to say in the legal discourse at this point, but that’s because I’m an MMTer. I think that a lot of the reasons that rights are abstract and indeterminant, vague and slippery, are fiscal and administrative. The person I owe extreme debt to here is Phil Harvey at Rutgers University. Phil has been a scholar of, as he says, the law and economics of the right to work–I would say the law and political economy of the right to work–for about 30 years. And Phil began his journey by investigating human rights law, but also investigating the transmission of some New Deal insights into international law via the United Nations Foundation and the creation of these various covenants. Phil mapped how FDR’s “Four Freedoms” were eventually transported to Geneva and became the basis of a lot of second generation of rights that actually is enshrined in international law but that we do not have in any real way in the United States.

Phil pointed out that, amongst other problems, the issue here is that the bills, the actual legislation for direct job creation, caps things at inappropriate levels. It creates no clear maps for courts to follow when they’re trying to determine if the government should try to redress a violation of a right to work and all these sorts of other operational and administrative problems. Now, Phil’s not an MMTer. And in fact, professor Harvey and I disagree on how the job guarantee should ultimately be financed, for instance. But he did make this point that this connection between public finance and rights has to be totally revisited. My contention is that if they’re fundamental rights, then they demand blank checks in the same way that the Pentagon does with their atrocious demands without anybody batting an eye. I mean, we bat an eye over here on the left, and the liberals do too, but it never really changes. Speaker Pelosi shepherds in Trump’s military bill. And the reason for this is not just that I am an MMTer. It is that the resiliency and stability of rights enforcement depends upon full funding and service.

Dr. Harvey said the distinction between a job guarantee and direct job creation is that enforceability is the individual right. And there’s an allergy to judicial enforceability of rights on the Left, because we don’t trust the courts, and that’s understandable, but Dr. Harvey empirically showed that if you have clear tests for what’s supposed to happen, for instance, when someone can no longer work in a particular job or there’s an ecological problem within that job site, what’s supposed to happen in terms of redress, is the courts are more willing to follow these sort of rubrics. Yet, the missing piece is, again, the funding. The funding has to be open ended if it’s to be a fundamental right. And that doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to flood the job guarantee all of a sudden, because you still have to want to do that type of work with that wage level and benefits. But if people can’t gain redress if they’re kicked out of the job guarantee program or not allowed in because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever it may be, then the rights aren’t real. You need something like an MMT vision to ballast anything like a social democratic or Green New Deal vision of rights.

If you bound them to a pot of money, a trust fund, or tether it to attacks, and God forbid attacks on your enemies, then you’re gonna run out of money. Not in the grand sense, but you’re going to run out of money in the administrative sense and the program is going to fail. People are gonna hate it. If the job guarantee can’t consistently hire people to produce things in the public eye so that people are perceived as successful, then it’s not going to take off as a political enterprise. And the Green New Deal doesn’t just include the job guarantee; it also includes a housing guarantee, an education guarantee, and a healthcare guarantee. So we’ve got four rights we need to fund. I think we need to be just as voracious and as fucking loud as the right wingers when it comes to providing the resources and the structure that we need to create and reproduce anything like a just society.

Scott Ferguson: Beautifully put. And this actually recalls a slogan that I came up with last year that I actually haven’t thought about in a while which is: “Inalienable rights require inalienable money.”

Raúl Carrillo: Exactly, Scott. I think yours is better, haha.

Scott Ferguson: Yours is the explanation, mine’s just the sign you hang out front.

William Saas: We’ve talked a bit about your work across various important fields. I wanted to wind us down by letting you talk a little bit about the advocacy that you’ve been up to recently on the hill, and to include things like your critique and commentary on the Libra Facebook currency and anything else you might like to talk to talk about.

Raúl Carrillo: Thanks, Billy. For about 10 months now, I have been working with a consortium of labor groups, consumer advocates, financial reform advocates, antisurveillance advocates, digital rights advocates, antitrust advocates, and various other folks on a progressive left response to what’s going on in financial technology. I know y’all have had Rohan and various other techie people on here before. My role is not really as an engineer, but as an architect. I get to break shit. I get to say when things shouldn’t be allowed to exist as they’re proposed based on various bodies of financial regulation, law, privacy, etc. That’s what I’ve been up to for roughly the last year and we’ll be continuing to do for the foreseeable future. To connect it to our discussion, I’ll tell you that in my work around the hill with all these advocates, the MMT perspective has actually been essential. Because what’s happening right now in the financial technology or #FinTech sector, is what we can loosely call the automation of finance, to quote Brett Scott.

But it’s also much bigger than that. What we’re seeing is Silicon Valley starting to exercise monetary power and vie for monetary agency in a way that mostly banks have done previously. And because they’re not banks legally, they get away with a lot of shit. This is predation in the same way as Wall Street targeting certain people to bring into a shadow financial system is. But I would argue, in terms of magnitude, it is more scary because of surveillance. Because the way that the internet works is that it takes our data, or on some occasions, it creates data about us in ways that are punitive. And so, all these big tech companies are starting to move into the financial services space, and particularly into the payment space. And the reason for that is that it’s the next data frontier. Right now, Facebook knows what you like and it has the content of your communications with people who are near and dear to you in your life. It doesn’t necessarily know what you want or what you would spend money on beyond what you like and the ads you click on, etc. Despite the existence of various thin legal firewalls and a few technological firewalls, they want the payments data and your social media data and also they know more about you so they can sell you another goddamn ad, but also so that they can increase their general economic and political power.

And the worst example of this is something called the Facebook Libra project, which as I argue in something called “The Libra Black Paper” that was created with the Americans for Financial Reform in Education Fund and the Demand Progress for Education Fund, is they’re creating a combination shadow banking system and local financial surveillance tracking. The money is going to serve as the basis for broader financial infrastructure, as every MMTer knows. That’s the goal. If you want to create power, mimic the ways of the sovereign. But also the goal is to watch how you move the money. Now, banks already do this to a far greater extent than most people are aware of. But their business model is not selling that data or sharing it as Facebook will do. And so, what we’re seeing is a giant collision between Silicon Valley and Wall Street. It also includes all these ticky tacky startups, which can be predatory and dangerously exploitative in their own way. But we’re seeing Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple, not to mention a bunch of larger companies in China, who are entering the monetary realm. And in the United States it’s particularly troubling because we don’t have any fucking privacy law.

This is another instance in which folks think they have rights, but they’re like consenting in a boilerplate contract to having your face analyzed. And otherwise, you don’t get to use the service and sometimes it’s “opt out.” No one gets punished to the extent that they should. I might be exaggerating a little bit, but not too much. We’re seeing, as of now, an utterly unregulated, wild west, unnecessarily imperialist Silicon Valley start to do some of the things Wall Street did with the added layer of surveillance, which also connects to state surveillance because the NSA and other organizations, as Edward Snowden showed us, have a backdoor into Facebook’s facial recognition database of protesters, for instance, where people who aren’t following the rules about pandemic guidelines are targeted. So sorry to ruin your day but that’s what I’ve been working on.

Another thing I haven’t really touched on is the color of surveillance and fitting that within the racialized predation framework I talked about earlier. Again, the Facebook Libra project is basically a combo of financial extraction and data extraction. But it’s hard to really overstate the ambition here. When this project started, it was sort of just a middle finger to regulators and policy makers generally. And my sort of personal thesis is that Facebook was doing this because that’s just how it roles. The old slogan is “move fast, break things” regardless of whether they’re laws, apparently. 

And so, the idea is to create these coins which are called stable coins. As opposed to unstable coins like Bitcoin, they’re supposed to maintain value as a medium of payment across various jurisdictions and economies across the globe. And for now, it’s just these coins. And then Facebook gets to create a digital wallet that people use for transactions which collects its own data, etc. The whole thing is actually not technically a Facebook enterprise because they’ve taken great pains to shield themselves from liability by creating an association in Geneva, Switzerland, which is of course famous for its very strong banking laws. And it has this nonprofit techie altruistic clause, which is fundamentally neoliberal. It says we’re going to create a payment method, and eventually a whole financial infrastructure, including lending, credit scoring, and all kinds of things. It is going to bank the unbanked, not just in the United States and Europe, but across the world and perhaps especially in the global south. That was the message that came out. 

In fact, in September of 2019, the CEO Facebook’s Libra enterprise, a guy named David Marcus, boasted that “Libra is going to allow the free world of Western nations to preserve the influence that, in my opinion, is necessary to maintain a good balance in the world.” It’s not difficult to just call this an imperial grab, right? And the way they’re going about this is equivalent to monetary primitive accumulation, as Mat Forstater in the MMT world describes it. They are defining what the method of payment is. The idea is that maybe it’s not accepted as taxes right away, but it’s needed for various other services if you’re interested in quick payments or if you’re interested in digital payments at all. There’s a socio-legal necessity that’s there given a weak infrastructure in the financial sectors of some economies around the world. And so, the data grab doesn’t work unless you get the currency grab. It’s currency substitution. The idea is instead of dollar-izing these economies, you Libra-ize them, and then you can Hoover up data as well. And maybe folks don’t have IDs in a certain country. In that case, what they’ll do is allow them to use their Facebook profile and a facial, retinal, or fingerprint scan, and all kinds of other things to get into the banking system. And they have all these sort of nasty techtopian plans.

Of course, the casting is altruistic because if you’ve ever been in the unfortunate spot of being next to a finance bro at a bar, you know that they know they’re jerks. But Silicon Valley people think they’re good still. They see this really as a civilizing force throughout the world. And so, it’s fundamentally an imperialist enterprise in many ways. Why in the world would anyone who cares about any sort of justice at all allow this to happen? No one asked Facebook to do this. What is it going to mean if folks like Dr. Sylla, who is fighting against the CFA Franc in Senegal, have to contend with the internet trying to beam in and take away its monetary sovereignty even after they’re successful against Macron? How is that supposed to be good for anybody for any of the things that we believe in? But yeah, Iza Kaminska at the Financial Times has called this “imperialism by stealth.” It’s just as naked when you look at the facts, but it’s coated in this California ideology gloss.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, it also reminds me, to bring this back to the Fed, that recently Jerome Powell is on record weighing the idea of public Fed banking and banking all the unbanked, which is what this California ideology in Silicon Valley is purportedly wanting to do. What is his answer? Oh, no, no, that’s a terrible idea. The private sector will hate it.

Raúl Carrillo: I’m glad you brought this up because the war on cash isn’t just the war on cash, or the gentrification of payments, as Brett Scott calls it. As our colleague Rohan Grey says, it’s a fight for the soul of the future of digital money. It’s becoming pretty clear that the monetary system is going to become increasingly digitized. Obviously, most money is digitized. Most of the layperson MMT metaphors get it that money is increasingly keyboard strokes, digital electrons, etc. But really what we mean by this is the decreasing presence of cash as a form of money and therefore of privacy in many ways. The innovative work that’s being done around money as private cash in the digital world is mostly being done by people I have a lot of respect for, but they are not interested in a public money framework. These folks are interested in private-private money; they’re not interested in private-public money. That really is what’s going on here. There’s this conversation about creating essentially digital bank currency systems, some people call it the digital dollar, that really involves the core of this debate. And I just want to make clear that I absolutely support bank accounts for all, basic financial services for all. I don’t think that’s a neoliberal idea. I think that’s necessary.

The issue, of course, is when private credit or lending becomes the purported vehicle for curing poverty. That gets predatory real, real quick. It gets extra predatory with FinTech because, again, we’re not just talking about potentially outrageous interest rates. We’re talking about the data. We’re talking about increasingly building a scored society, as Dr. Nopper and also law Professor Frank Pasquale have both written about. These apps, as Dr. Nopper says, analyze one’s digital character. They create an image of you which has been shared, probably not just within the financial world, but within a whole sphere of industries that now rely on data collection. And finance becomes another gateway by which corporate tycoons gain more and more information about people. But it’s not just the ads and the antitrust violations. It’s the insane surveillance that crosses over to state surveillance.

Because again, the government is usually just one subpoena away from getting this information. It requires these big tech companies, in something called the Upstream Program for the NSA, to release certain kinds of data that includes the contents of communications, including your texts, for instance. And this becomes especially dangerous when you consider the color of surveillance. A lot of these FinTech products are marketed specifically to communities of color and other marginalized folks because they are folks who are more likely to not have a traditional bank account or to be excluded from the “mainstream system.” And I would argue that this is predatory. And it’s not just predatory because of the financial extraction, which is bad enough, but it’s predatory because you are jeopardizing the health and safety of people of color in a white supremacist state that is running absolutely bonkers right now.

We know that these companies have to fork over data to federal law enforcement and some of them willingly fork over data to local law enforcement. That’s what Amazon Ring is–in order to protect the white suburbs, protect their property and their goddamn taxpayer money from super predators in the embryonic criminal class, as Khiara Bridges would say. You have to create more surveillance. Workers must be watched, delivery people must be watched, people who borrow money must be watched. Amazon has this camera that says what’s up to anybody who comes up, and then that goes to the cops. And so, what happens if a delivery worker is also a protester? What happens then? And even outside of the protest context, surveillance is the norm for black folks in the context of public assistance and predatory debt. And it’s the case for many, many other people, including Muslims, for instance, and anyone who’s considered to be a threat to the Trump administration. So this whole FinTech enterprise needs to be chilled. Everybody needs to cool it. I understand that lots of folks are into financial innovation, and I would welcome their skills at blockchain or whatever it may be within the public sector. Because if the goal really is to include people, MMTers know what the right organ is for that. I think in order to push back against predation, we have to empower public money for public power in myriad ways, and not just as it is a monetary enterprise narrowly, but as it is a social one broadly.

Maxximilian Seijo: That’s sort of exciting and depressing in its own way as you suggested. But I think with that, I just wanted to say what a pleasure it’s been Raúl to have you on Money on the Left finally after all of these episodes. I think this is episode 28 now. Yeah, it’s really been such a pleasure. We are really happy to keep having these conversations and keep making this show in ways that highlight the certain things that we’re all doing as well as bringing others into the fold. And this very much fits into the former of those two things. It’s been great. Thanks so much.

Raúl Carrillo: Thanks, Maxx. It was a real pleasure to finally jump on here. Hope to return fairly soon and I will be listening to every episode. Y’all keep on truckin’.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamAlex Williams (audio engineering), Richard Farrell (transcription) & Meghan Saas (graphic art).

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