Benjamin C. Wilson, Taylor Reid, and Max Sussman join the podcast to discuss their forthcoming co-written essay, “Food, Money, and Democracy: Cultivating Collective Provisioning for Resilient and Equitable Communities of Work.” Inaugurating our new journal, Money on the Left: History, Theory, Practice, the article politicizes what Sanjukta Paul and Nathan Tankus term “coordination rights” across monetary and production sectors and focuses on the coordination of food systems, in particular. Coordination rights are fundamental to the process of building resilient communities, our guests argue, determining whether social provisioning systems are “collective” or “concentrated.”
In our conversation, Wilson, Reid, and Sussman consider several promising cases of collective provisioning, which prioritize democratic participation and ecosocial stewardship over the austerity and profit-maximization associated with concentrated industry. Such examples include La Via Campesina movement for Food Sovereignty, the Black Cooperative Movement in the U.S., and restaurant reactions to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lamenting the failures of such models when faced with systemic illiquidity, our co-authors also importantly extend collective coordination principles to monetary systems, exploring small and medium-scale monetary experiments that use food systems as a way to build community capacity.
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Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com
The following was transcribed by Mercedes Ohlen and has been lightly edited for clarity.
William Saas: Max, Ben, and Taylor, welcome to Money on the Left.
Max Sussman: Thank you.
Ben Wilson: Great to be here.
William Saas: We’ve invited you all on the show this month for a very special reason. You three have collaborated on the very first– the inaugural– peer reviewed article to be published in Money on the Left, the journal, and the title of that article is “Food, Money and Democracy: Cultivating Collective Provisioning for Resilient and Equitable Communities of Work”. So first of all, thank you all so much for this really great article. And congrats! This was an anonymous peer review process. There’s probably nothing wrong with saying that the anonymous reviewers were very impressed with the piece and I think the editorial team was as well.
We can’t wait for listeners to read your piece. While we don’t want to spoil it exactly, we do want to give a sense of what’s coming. And I don’t know if there are– and maybe listeners or anyone else on the call can correct me– existing journals that do this sort of thing. So we’re experimenting, and we’re glad that you’re experimenting with us. But to kick things off, would each of you mind telling us just a bit about yourselves; your professional and personal backgrounds in ways that may be relevant to the stuff that we’re discussing via your article?
Ben Wilson: Oh, maybe I’ll go first.
William Saas: We know you. Then you’re the easy one. You’ve been on twice, right?
Ben Wilson: So yeah, this is my second appearance on Money on the Left. So I’m really excited about that. I am an economics professor. Currently at SUNY Cortland in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. I study food systems and monetary systems and I’m always looking for ways that I can teach students doing– creating learning by doing opportunities supplied and service learning and things of this nature.
This paper is kind of the confluence of all the things that I really enjoy– about the academy, about teaching, about learning, and about trying to make the world a better place through public provisioning and education, etc. So maybe I’ll pass it on to Max next.
Max Sussman: Well, let’s see where to start. I’ve been a chef my whole life. And that is primarily what I’m doing here. I started cooking when I was in college, I was studying American Studies at the University of Michigan. And I got into cooking, because I really enjoyed it and as a job in college to make some money, and I basically just never really stopped. I worked in Ann Arbor, Michigan for a good seven years or so and then moved to New York and cooked there. I’ve always been interested in food and everything that goes into it.
When you’re a chef, you pay attention to where your ingredients are coming from and you pay attention to the farms that grew them, the seas that produce the fish that you’re eating, and the people that grow the food– I should say, not all chefs do that, but they probably should. These things were always super important to me. As I started to kind of go further in the career, I ended up working with a group of like minded chefs in New York, and helped found a group called FIG, which stands for “food issues group”. Catchy name.
And we formed this group as a sort of education and action group for chefs and restaurant professionals who were interested in some of these social justice issues, environmental issues, workers rights issues that aren’t commonly considered part of the food media landscape. That was a big part of what I’ve done and then I moved back to Michigan just before the pandemic. Then I left being in a day to day restaurant environment.
I started basically working for myself in that environment. I made pizza as a pizza pop up, took my pizza operation, my mobile pizza operation around to different bars and coffee shops in Ann Arbor. And I’m also currently working as a private chef for a family. I also own a fast casual restaurant with my brother in New York City where he is the managing partner. So he’s there on a day to day basis and I’m still a partner. So there’s kind of a lot of– that’s kind of a little flash background of my professional career. I think it was probably two years ago, I don’t know exactly the date, but it was around two years ago, where I actually heard Ben on Money on the Left talking about the Uni proposal.
And as well as talking about food systems and food justice, and how to tie all these issues together. And I just kind of stumbled upon MMT in that moment and heard the podcast and I reached out and we started the conversation that kind of led to– I think led to us all being here today. So roundabout answer to that question. Told us not to be brief. So there you go.
William Saas: Don’t be afraid. Yeah. Also your mic sounds amazing. What are you rolling with there?
Max Sussman: It’s an Audio Technica mic. I’ll send you the link after if you want. I’m glad I got it in the right spot, too. So that’s good.
Taylor Reid: Hey, I’m Taylor Reid. I’m an associate professor of Applied Food Studies at the Culinary Institute of America. And I always have to tell people that even though I work at the Culinary Institute of America, I am not a chef. I teach farming and food systems, farm to table. I teach a lot about the connections between the restaurant and the rest of the world. I teach topics like climate change, food waste, and my research interests I think, my background are pretty eclectic. I’ve studied beginning farmers and organic farming standards. I’ve also done some work on farming and foraging and food insecurity in the zombie genre. More recently, I’ve been pretty interested, since coming to the Culinary Institute four years ago, I’ve been really interested in thinking about what chefs do and why they do the things that they do.
And we can talk about this in a little bit, one of my initial interests that we were originally going to study was chef’s motivations for including foraged foods on their menus. I’m really interested in foraging. I love that there’s this new kind of resurgence of interest in foraging. I think that there are a lot of interesting economic questions around that too. Because while it’s simultaneously this free re-democratization of the food procurement process it also, within the restaurant world can have an element of elitism and tends to be the purview of some of the higher end restaurants that you might pay $400 a plate to eat at.
So I’m still really interested in that question. But we kind of drifted toward COVID. Because I guess when we first got together, we were going to ask that question and then this pandemic hit and it just didn’t seem appropriate anymore. It seemed there was another much bigger question that was a lot more pressing because not only was the pandemic the dominant piece of the news cycle at that time, but we were all seeing what it was doing to the restaurant industry, and calling up chefs and talking to them about something other than COVID, it just didn’t seem right. It didn’t feel right at the time.
Scott Ferguson: So maybe this is actually a good moment to pivot to our second question, which is, I think some of you have already started to answer, but essentially, how exactly did you all come together? What shape or shapes has this collaboration taken? What do you guys talk about? What do you guys think about together and how are you learning from one another? Just tell us about this kind of process and how it’s unfolded.
Ben Wilson: Taylor and I have known each other for quite a while now. I think I met Taylor early in my family’s relocation to Ithaca. Through our children’s friends and friends’ networks and birthday parties and those sorts of things. I was immediately drawn to Taylor and his work because it dovetails with so many of the questions that I’m asking them politically, economy and you know, the foraging question in particular. So, to give a sense of where the conversation’s going, Taylor just assisted me in the delivery of my Political Economy of the Adirondacks class up at Raquette Lake, where we hiked this peninsula that was originally owned by the Durant family, which is the Intercontinental railroad robber baron family, massive Gilded Age wealth.
And this property kind of represents this weird space where they were using local materials and labor and work that kind of on the surface might look like an ecological decision, but it was really just this colossal amount of wealth and power that allowed them to mobilize all those resources. But today, now, the property is a teaching resource. It’s a property of SUNY Cortland, it’s a National Historic Site. So on that site, we were trying to transform it from its Gilded Age exploitation origins to this teaching space, where we’re exploring the possible measurements of carbon sequestration on the property, and we’re exploring what types of food are maybe able to be forged or grown on the property based on soil contents, lake, and all the environment around it.
And it was really interesting to see my students wrestle with the eating of a dandelion on the property. Not only the lack of bitterness in their regular diets, but this idea that food isn’t just coming from the kitchen or the grocery store. These other places, and how we define food culturally, was a really interesting thing to watch them wrestle with in real time. So yeah, I think the forging question will be an interesting one as we move forward in terms of anarchy and exploitation, and all these different ways that we might feel to process it. And on the other side, Max introduced himself to me via– I think it was you, Scott, who introduced us over DM or something along those lines through the Twitter verse. And Max, and I started talking and reading an awesome essay that he wrote about third spaces.
Scott Ferguson: And what are the third spaces?
Ben Wilson: Max, do you want to?
Max Sussman: Yes, I definitely– I think I just sent you a DM somewhere and said, “Hey, you have no idea who I am. Would you want to talk about stuff?”
Scott Ferguson: That’s often how it goes.
Max Sussman: Yeah. So thanks for not thinking that that was too weird, I guess.
Scott Ferguson: My pleasure, and thank you.
Max Sussman: But let’s see. So I was thinking a lot about restaurants, having spent probably 20 years of my working life in them a lot and thinking about some of the– what are some of the wonderful things about them and what are some of the things that we could probably stand to improve on them. I think one thing that struck me in the early parts of the pandemic was in a lot of other areas, a lot of the changes that happened in the restaurant world were underway beforehand and then were somewhat accelerated by what happened during the Coronavirus pandemic in the early part. And so, we were thinking about what is the social role that restaurants play in communities? And what are some of the essential– how are restaurants part of the essential fabric of communities and in the way that people use them as gathering spaces?
And the idea of food as being this natural way that people are connected to each other, and to the land, and to big, broader parts of society without even realizing it. And so, in that moment, when restaurants were facing this huge challenge of being cut off from their customer base and separated from the people that support them, at the same time you have people cut off from each other and unable to connect, you know, be near each other physically. And so we were thinking about what is something that a restaurant could be imagined as in the future? Or in that moment, without some of those pre-existing ways of people connecting to restaurants? So you know, how can a restaurant support people in the community without having a dining room? How can customers or people connect to each other without having that space to go to? And that’s some of the ideas we’re playing around with, as this project developed.
Scott Ferguson: And so what is the definition of a third space? Why is it third, rather than second or seventh?
Max Sussman: So there’s the idea that it’s a space outside of work and home, that can serve as a gathering place, and where these spontaneous interactions can occur between people. So the third place could be a restaurant, a cafe, it could be a park. Any sort of community, you know, other community space. But we have, in this day and age, there’s not very many spaces that are totally de-commercialized, where you can just sit and get together with people.
And so restaurants and especially cafes that are a little bit less of the fine dining type place, it’s a place you go to get food, but you could eat food at home, right? You could always just eat food by yourself somewhere. So I guess the idea behind the third place is that beyond just providing sustenance to people in the form of food that you eat, it also provides a really important social role to communities for people to be able to gather with each other around food.
Scott Ferguson: Beautiful. Taylor, do you want to talk about maybe more specifically how this particular project that became the article that’s forthcoming with the Money on the Left journal came about? How did you pivot from foraging to what you’re up to here?
Taylor Reid: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it really started with Max’s essay. And we originally met to talk about foraging. And then as we were looking at that essay, one of the things that came up for us was that I was at the time, I was just for a class project, I was trying to figure out how to teach online. I had a capstone project class, and I had my students interviewing chefs and restaurant owners about their experience with the pandemic. That’s what seemed appropriate at the time. And we really started to develop this incredible dataset of these in depth interviews. And a lot of the things that Max was talking about in his essay were things that were coming out through this data.
So I honestly don’t remember how it happened. But it transitioned into the process of all of us going through these interviews and trying to figure out what was there and how it linked with our ideas about the importance of the restaurant industry, and what was lost. When people couldn’t meet that way and we were seeing all of this– people were predicting that emerging from the pandemic, it was just going to be ghost kitchens. What ended up really happening through the process of us looking at this is that it really became apparent that restaurants are really important for other things besides just providing people with delicious food.
A lot of that came out in the interviews as well as we started looking through the interviews. And then all of this other other stuff started to emerge too, like the way that despite– I mean restaurants pre pandemic, it was clear to everybody in the restaurant industry that restaurants were– there were so many restaurants and they were so competitive in a way that often they’re on the same street in the same building. They’re competing for customers on a daily basis. And there’s a lot of failure in the restaurant industry. And one of the things that we saw from the data is that you would expect, when an industry is hit hard like that, from the classical model of thinking about business competition, that they would become more competitive and cutthroat. But what we saw was exactly the opposite.
There were at least four specific instances where restaurant owners were intentionally collaborating, sharing recipes, getting together to talk about business strategies, thinking about ways to overcome the challenges of the pandemic, and sharing information, collaborating with growers. Supporting growers and customers too. It just became a much more collaborative and cooperative space, the restaurant industry, at least from what we were seeing in this data than it was before it had this huge shock. And that really led to a lot of Ben’s thinking about cooperative provisioning. Maybe Ben, you can talk a little bit about how the theory developed from those conversations.
Ben Wilson: Sure. I mean reading those long form interviews was really powerful. Because so much of our lives were really kind of following the same pattern. So we were all trying to solve problems, and re-figure out our lives on getting our kids to school, and the dining room, and all these really strange things that occurred and worrying about restaurants and our communities, and what the future was going to look like. But we’re really started to stand out to me, right, because the restaurant, specifically the neoclassical or orthodox economics is kind of always used as this perfect example of the competitive firm.
It became pretty obvious to me that it doesn’t really work that way. And it always bugged me in neoclassical economics textbooks, when they make the jump from the consumer that is an independent decision making entity, that as long as it’s doing it rationally, and then the aggregation of all those optimal decisions, least optimal outcomes. But if they made this jump to the firm– the firm is this coordinator of resources and that most of the textbooks will use that word, is the coordinator of labor and capital without really talking about what is doing that coordination. And I’ve heard Sanjukta Paul on your guys’ show and delved into her “Antitrust as Allocator of Coordination Rights”, along with the co-authored piece of Nathan Tankus on “The Firm Exemption and the Hierarchy of Finance in the Gig Economy”.
And I really felt like this was something that was gluing all this stuff together for us that restaurants were seeking to coordinate, but they didn’t really have the rights to do so in ways that other organizations might. And the same sort of pattern, I think, was also emerging in my studies of Black cooperative movements in the United States where they were organizing these collaborative, cooperative structures for both consumption. So they began with large buying practices of grains and dairy and things of this nature to drive down costs and allow them to feed more people that emerged into more finished goods production and things like this that allow for them to coordinate on much larger scales.
What neoclassical economics does in obscuring this and just defining the firm as a coordinator is that it doesn’t allow us to really think about law and institutions and decision making practices and how we arrive at those sorts of decisions and those practices. And I felt like this pattern is not only part of the firm structure and its problematic nature. But you know, it’s very much plagues the way we talk about money as well. Right? So where does money come from? Who gets to make decisions about when it’s created and for what purposes? Even in Modern Monetary Theory, the use of the terminology, “the monopoly producer”, I think, is problematic and part of this obscuring of the coordination that’s required from money to get where it’s supposed to go. And that was the other really big pattern that we saw in the restaurant data was that, no matter how big the relief package was, it wasn’t designed to help the small independent producer.
And so the restaurant owners kept talking about how they don’t– how they’re not heard, they’re not seen, the government doesn’t understand them. So this fit really nicely into this bigger question that I’ve always been interested in since my time at UMKC and studying Modern Monetary Theory, and the jobs guarantee is maybe coordination rights, when we start to break this down, can really contribute in the way that we understand something like the jobs guarantee in a more tangible way.
You know, Randy Ray and others have written about social enterprises as being the vehicle for creating the jobs in that space. But what exactly are those jobs? And what’s the connection between the federal government and social enterprise that allows those funds to flow in such a way? I’ve always thought that there’s a gap– there was something missing and the coordination rights kind of create that legal infrastructure for starting to think about the connection between money resources and real resources, and how we define those things and how greatly they would change if credit provisioning was done in order to facilitate coordinated production for collective provisioning rather than the concentrated provision that we talked about in the paper.
William Saas: So let’s roll with that. What possibilities become possible in that context?
Ben Wilson: So I think– Max, do you want to talk about your friend’s restaurant group in Ann Arbor? I think that’s kind of a nice vision to get that conversation started.
Max Sussman: So in Ann Arbor, there’s a very well known and beloved group of restaurants called Zingerman’s. So it’s founded over 25 years ago, started as a small deli. And then they realized that they could– that they wanted to make better bread than they were getting. So they started a bakery, and then they decided they wanted to source better dairy than they could find. So they started a creamery. And then they wanted to open another restaurant, and they started roasting coffee. And now there are multiple businesses that are all supporting each other. They’re all each other’s customers, and they are– they raise the profile of each other and support each other.
They can get a lot more done as a bigger institution than as any of them could get done as an independent restaurant on their own. And when I say get a lot done, I mean they have purchasing power, so they can support smaller local, more sustainable farms in more significant ways than a small independent restaurant could. They can support initiatives, like providing workers health care more in a greater way than the small independent restaurant could. So it’s a really interesting model for them to have pursued. In addition to all that, they’ve basically expanded horizontally, I guess, and created this self-sustaining network of businesses. So the bakery, it sells bread to the restaurants.
So now the restaurants don’t buy bread from another bakery, they buy from their own bakery, and they can also participate in conversations about quality control, and sourcing, and all the workers talk to each other as well. So there’s just a lot that can become possible through getting organized in that fashion. That I think is– there’s a lot to look to for them to aspire to certainly from the perspective of restaurant owners, and I think from the perspective of workers as well as the perspective of the producers.
Taylor Reid: Yeah, well, I was just going to add, this is something that’s come up in our conversations, because I have a background in ecology. And I think in academics in general, we tend to emphasize competition over cooperation. And there was a study that came out a few years ago looking at the number of papers in ecology that are emphasizing competitive relationships over cooperative relationships and it’s astounding the difference. But in nature, cooperative relationships are actually more important.
The more diverse an ecosystem is, the more total productivity there is because its cooperation and actually is the dominant mode of interaction. And I think that we see the same thing in economics, we see the same thing in the restaurant industry, even when there isn’t the intentional setup cooperation like Max is talking about Zingerman’s. There’s cooperation that happens all the time. That’s really important. And we don’t recognize that when we study these things, we’re always just talking about competition. I’m not sure why that is. But maybe that’s another paper for some point.
Scott Ferguson: From here I’d really like to have you guys elaborate your critique that frames your paper. I think you’re doing a lot of positive work and work with counter examples that I want us to get into. But you also level a pretty strong critique at, I guess we could say, dominant models– the firm model and the firm exemption, which Ben has already kind of spoken to, but maybe we can say a little bit more about that. And then what Ben brought up and what you call in the paper, a concentrated provisioning system.
So I think I get the sense that you’re calling out entities in the world, that actually are concentrated systems. Concentrated provisioning systems. But then you’re also critiquing the models by which we understand them. So what’s going on with these two terms, and maybe you can give us a little taste of some of the industries or histories that you critique in your paper.
Ben Wilson: So I think I’ll start. I’ll give the basic idea behind it. And then I think I’ll pass it off to Taylor to talk a little bit about industrial agriculture, because he really captures the dangers and the problems that are created when we concentrate provisioning, specifically in our food production system. But the neoclassical story that I was critiquing before, it wasn’t always that they just assumed that this coordination would occur. One of the more seminal articles by Coase in 1937, “The Nature of the Firm” asked a very specific question: why do firms exist?
Because it is an ontological inconsistency to go from the individual to this, the thing that they just call “the firm”. And he comes up with this interesting definition that the firm may consist of a system of relationships, which comes into existence when the direction of resources is dependent on an entrepreneur. So he goes through all of this jujitsu to arrive at the fact that we have to have firms because we have this entrepreneur and the entrepreneur, we need to give them the freedom or the authority to direct resources in efficient and productive ways. And it’s interesting in that piece, he references somebody named Batt, B-A-T-T, who doesn’t use the word entrepreneur, but he uses the word “master”. So it’s a master-servant relationship.
And the master determines what the work is that the servant is to be doing. And when the servant is to be working, and for how long, and for how hard and all these sorts of things, which, you know, the lineage of this is a quick jump to slavery, and white supremacy, and patriarchy and all the things that are really pretty disgusting about the idea that the firm just spontaneously emerges out of nowhere. So we’re not really thinking about the firm as this hierarchical structure, then that allows them to produce and reproduce themselves as hierarchical structures over and over again, and the decision making process becomes increasingly anti-democratic.
And Alfred Marshall and classical political economy really wrestled with this and argued that this is dangerous, right? Because there is the possibility that we would have bad masters that aren’t treating their workers very fairly. And if the workers aren’t afforded collective bargaining rights in their own right, then the exploitation is just going to continue to be exacerbated. And I think industrial agriculture really epitomizes this both in the way that the transformation of the farm has occurred over the 20th century.
The directives of production on the farm, and then the corresponding community and the way that the community engages with farming, based on this concentrated provisioning system. The use of larger and larger scale production systems. And also has really taken nature out of the conversation as something that we should be reciprocating our relationship with in order to cultivate healthy diversity and all of these sorts of things that, like the worker, it is really left out of the conversation, the decision in meaningful ways. So that’s really where the hierarchy and concentration comes in. If we’re prioritizing an entrepreneur, then we’re disenfranchising those that are going into the production process and part of these communities of work.
Taylor Reid: There’s lots of things to talk about with industrial agriculture. But one of the things that we look at in the paper, there’s, I think, this myth that– farms are getting bigger and bigger. That’s clear. That’s happening. And you can see the graph over the last 100 years– cycle kind of accelerated in the 1980s. The myth is really that they’re getting bigger because they’re getting more efficient. It’s the idea that farms, bigger farms are more efficient. One of the things that we talk about in the paper is this research that’s been done by agricultural economists showing that once– when there’s consolidation in the industry, it forces farmers to get bigger.
And so they’ve developed this measure that shows that basically, once the four largest firms have at least 40% of the market, they’re basically able to set price. And so concentration in the meatpacking industry is way above that, I think it catalysts like in the 80%, or something like that, and import gets in the 60s. And chicken, it’s up there as well. And so what’s happening is that, when the firms are able to set price, they’re always going to push price down, because then they’re able to sell more. So farmers that– and I’m making these numbers up– maybe they were making $1,000 per beef cattle before and now they’re making $100, they’re forced to get bigger, there’s no other choice in order to make the same amount of money that they that they had been making before from a smaller number of cattle. And so there’s this that we’ve been told is that farms are getting bigger, in order to increase efficiency, but they’re really getting bigger in order to maintain their meager profitability.
And that’s just one of the things that we talk about in the paper. I think the bigger idea goes back to the complexity that we were talking about before. Farms have been increasingly forced to specialize, there’s no way to be– it’s hard to be a huge farm. Equipment is so expensive, and so specialized, and do a lot of different things. And I think that we see the breakdown of cooperation within rural cultures, when the farms get so big, that basically towns can’t exist anymore.
You can’t have a school district within the county because all of the landowners have thousands and thousands of acres. And there are lots of pieces to it like that. The less the less cooperation that there is, the more dysfunctional the biological system is, and the more dysfunctional the social systems are.
Scott Ferguson: Max, what’s your experience in the industry? And can you can you flesh out some of that?
Max Sussman: Yeah. And I just wanted to go off of that, and say that we’re accustomed to thinking of consolidation as being something that inherently causes a lot of these problems. But if you go back and look at the restaurant industry, it’s definitely an industry that’s by and large, pretty unconsolidated. It’s a collection of many, many, many independently organized entities. And so then you realize that, well, that doesn’t necessarily inherently solve any problems, either. Because regardless of the size of the organization, there’s all these problems that are being caused to the environment and bad working conditions, and et cetera, et cetera.
So I think that thinking about the coordination rights framework is so important, because it doesn’t necessarily refer strictly to things like size as the determining factor as to what things are going to be. It allows you to really think about things more qualitatively. Going back to I think, the question you asked before about what does this allow us to envision? What new possibilities does this allow us to envision is rather than, say, a relief package that’s based on a certain dollar amount, we could imagine a relief package that has the creation of new institutions that would help us create food based solutions to climate change.
There’s any number of ways to [approach] the climate crisis. You know, there’s so many ways that we can imagine working together to solve those problems. It’s hard in a lot of ways, because restaurants are generally so discreet, they’re oftentimes separate. Maybe you have a couple of chef friends that you know or you’re a big chain. And that’s a whole other type of relationship there. But I think by and large, when people interact with food, it’s at the end of the supply chain.
Most consumers are not seeing all these things. So I think that’s why, for me personally, it was really incredible to be discussing these issues with Ben and Taylor, because I, my whole life, I’ve been seeing things at the end of the supply chain, being like, well, how can I impact the world in a positive way? And it’s like, well, it’s actually really important to go up the supply chain, learn about more about the institutions that exist, that are impacting things that create the conditions that you’re facing, instead of necessarily, instead of just– it’s at the end of the supply chain, you’re just kind of tinkering around at the margins, and there’s not too much you can do in terms of impacting the bigger picture of the food provisioning system.
I think that’s not to belittle any of the really incredible work that’s happening right now around workplace democratization, which is something that we’re seeing a lot of which is really, really incredible and should be celebrated.
William Saas: In the workplace democratization vis-à-vis, the need to go up the supply chain and think about coordination is interesting. In the context of a restaurant, I feel like where it seems like the default, at least in terms of stereotypes of how restaurants work is hierarchy, right? There’s a chef and there’s a vision and everyone executes on that vision. And others support that. I guess I’d just be interested– and maybe we don’t spend too much time on this– But maybe Max, your kind of observation about how a restaurant works, if there’s anything that we can abstract or or pull from that to help us understand better what– the benefits of coordination, how that might be more efficient than something like executing on a single entrepreneur, restaurant group, like Brinker International or something.
Chili’s, shout out. I was a busboy there– first job. But yeah, I mean, it seems your experience in the restaurant space as a third space, which interestingly, I think also functions importantly, as you’ve talked about it as the second, as a place where second shifts are carried out where people come and do their interpretive labor about what’s going on at home. There’s also, having worked in restaurants, the people who are there have to frequently find their own third space, right? Whether it’s the bar next door, or down the street or whatever. A lot, a lot of stuff to chew on there. But what might you be able to pull from your experience in the restaurant space to help us understand coordination rights, I think?
Max Sussman: Well, I mean, I think we could probably talk about, we could talk about restaurants for as long as you want. But I think that there are restaurants– there’s a lot of different kinds of restaurants, there’s a lot of different kinds of people that work in restaurants by a very large caveat, but I think we can see the usefulness of structure in terms of a hierarchy in a lot of restaurants. And then at the same time, the potential for that structure to become toxic, and to help facilitate exploitive relationships and create situations without any accountability whatsoever. And I think those are– that’s the flip side of the structure and of the hierarchy there.
And right now, I think that something that we talk about in the paper is how to create more positive structures and relationships that are intentional and then have that we’re trying to see positive outcomes from. And I think where a lot of that work gets sidetracked or gets taken off the path is when there’s this intense focus on profitability in the restaurant world and how that becomes the main and the only goal that a lot of the people that are involved in the decision making pursue. And they aren’t even achieving it, but they think that they think that that’s the only thing that they need to be doing and focusing on. And once those two things clash in the current system, there really isn’t much to talk about. If you have a great idea, then oh, that’s cool, but oh, it’s gonna cost too much money.
So, we explicitly talk about financing. And realize that in order to achieve some of these more positive beneficial outcomes, we need to figure out different ways of funding these projects, rather than these private investors, who are only looking for a return on their investment. And we need to figure out different ways to fund these projects and finance them, so that we can achieve more social outcomes. Otherwise, it’s just going to be, oh, you know, run this special and keep your food costs below 28%. And send the dishwasher home because it’s slow. And it’s the same old stuff that is going to be happening all the time, if all we have to go towards is some artificially constructed bottom line on the piano.
Scott Ferguson: So what’s the composition of private investment in the restaurant industry? Do you guys have that data? How often are banks investing? How often is it just individual investors? How often is it groups? If you don’t, that’s fine. We can skip this question.
Max Sussman: I don’t know the answers.
Scott Ferguson: Okay.
William Saas: And the context of the supply chain, you know, people interact with food, at the end of it. The restaurants are very close to the end of it. And that’s, I think what you’re talking about, Max. It’s natural that the squeeze of those if we had four groups that are at 40%, setting the price, like they own 40% of the farms are setting the prices that squeeze is shaping and determining what’s happening to that dishwasher at nine o’clock when it slows down. And the dining. Right, so–
Max Sussman: Yeah, and I just think that it’s such an important piece to the puzzle that I think it would be like– I think it’s such an important piece of the puzzle for people that are in restaurants to make those connections to realize what’s happening. I guess further up the supply chain is the way that I think about it, I’m sure there’s other ways to frame that. That’s impacting their ability to do the right thing. To do what they want to do is the right thing, and to make demands on those other institutions in our society that are affecting those conditions. Not just to be like, okay, well, what do we do? Do we charge a little bit more? Do we educate our customer base? Do we pivot? Do we do this through that?
It’s like, wow, there’s all this other stuff, there’s a whole– there’s bills that determine what we subsidize in the agricultural industry. There’s laws like Taylor was talking about that govern how much consolidation there is in industrial agriculture. And all those things go into how much a case of cauliflower costs and doesn’t even kind of go into all the issues around sustainability and biodiversity and climate that we’re facing now that are also super, super important.
Taylor Reid: I think one of the the other interesting things that we saw in this restaurant research is that during the pandemic, a lot of restaurants, a lot of the chefs and restaurant owners that we interviewed, use the pandemic as a moment to address some of the inequity issues, disparity in pay between front and back of house, toxic restaurant culture.
And it seemed to me from that what was limiting their ability to do that wasn’t actually margins, because if anything, they were squeezed more during the pandemic was just not having the time to think about those kinds of issues and we saw that change. You know, at a time when restaurants were really struggling, in a lot of cases.
William Saas: If you’ve got time to lean, you got time to clean, but what if everything’s already cleaned?
Ben Wilson: One of the things that we heard was that it’s really expensive to do what’s right. And it’s just really– that’s one of the questions that we’re trying to tackle is, why is it so expensive to do what’s right? And part of that Max I think hit on really well was that this narrow objective of profit maximization is just not a good way to organize your society. Not a very good way to organize your food system. Certainly when Taylor’s talking about industrial agriculture and the ability to set prices, part of the price that they’re setting is the costs that it’s going to take to change all of this, right? The cost of water that we can’t drink. The cost of soil that is not going to produce food anymore, right?
The dietary changes that this monoculture growing techniques create across our country. The pandemic really exacerbated these hotspots of food deserts and access to unhealthy foods and how these patterns overlap with bad access to public health care and limited resources and budgets in your education system and squeezing public universities in all these ways that, you know, when crisis happens, it’s the the actors that are working to solve public provisioning problems that get squeezed the first.
Immediate response to the pandemic from our leadership was the Federal Reserve reenacted all the same tools it used in the financial crisis to stabilize the sheets on Wall Street and then the big banks. While our leaders in Congress debated and considered and thought about all the ways in which maybe they could halt the pandemic and arrived at really some answers that weren’t really all that beneficial. So how do we diversify those decisions about who gets their balance sheet saved? And how do we continue to foster environments where the Zingerman’s group is enabled the freedom to expand on and share the knowledge that they’re gaining through their cooperative enterprise behaviors?
How it’s coordinating geography, how it’s coordinating price, how it’s coordinating where it’s getting its resources from, how much it’s investing in research and development. Right, how it’s sharing that information and teaching others, I think, is a big part of what we’re trying to figure out here is how do we help these successful coordinating systems continue to do the business of good work? In a way that doesn’t seem like it’s so expensive anymore? The folks that I work with up in the Adirondacks. I think the minimum number of jobs any one of them is holding right now is three.
Three jobs to live year round up in a place that they love and they care about plus the volunteer work. The task force work is volunteer care work where none of them are getting paid to do that. And so how do you enable that sort of effort and care for a place where there’s just no monetary device right now to stabilize that other than constantly applying for and hoping that you get grant funding. Which, you know, if you’ve written grants, you’ve been turned down for grants. It’s far from a sure thing. And it’s super competitive because of the way that we structure it right?
Money and finance that preferences profit driven activities over those that are gonna stabilize the environment, build climate resilience, educate folks, and rectify some of the ills that come from the development of an economy based on a master servant sort of relationship in our most dominant economic thinking.
Scott Ferguson: So I want to tee up a question about the Positive Alternative Financing Model Public Provisioning of Money of Liquidity model that you all are proposing. That’s really, I think, the heart of this paper. But I want to do so by maybe regrouping and flagging some really important points that have been made in the last few minutes. So one is while the various industries, the agro industry and the restaurant industry, may be driven by greed.
What I also am hearing from you all is that an equal problem, if not worse problem from your all’s perspective, is the austerity of a profit driven model. And it’s the austerity of the profit driven model that makes everything so quote unquote, “expensive in a relative sense”, that often can feel absolute. And then that austerity creates a number of what feels like forced choices down the supply chain that– while as Taylor says, none of it is absolutely determinative, because in the midst of an economic crisis, we see the restaurant industry actually making things better. Nevertheless exerts all kinds of pressures, that might feel actual but might just be ideological or emotional. And that kind of thing.
And then I guess another thing that I’m hearing you all saying is that as we think about whether we want to use the vertical metaphors or not, we can obviously use other ones as Max is saying, we think about up and down the supply chain. It’s absolutely necessary to think of not just the first kind of material producers, but to think about liquidity and to think about money at the apex of the supply chain, which doesn’t mean that it’s the only causal force, but it is certainly a major one. So I guess with all of these aspects of the problem in mind, what are you proposing would be another way forward that wasn’t profit driven, that wasn’t austerity grounded and wasn’t passing along these unhealthy forced choices and antidemocratic forced choices down the system?
Ben Wilson: So you guys want me to take this one? Well, the way I see it is we’ve got to really learn how to use money. And one of the things that we hear in the media right now, especially around the question of inflation, is that money needs to be tied to real resources. What better way to tie money to real resources then and to our food system? To start with specific spaces of production, where we can more closely link those resources to the money creation process. And so in order to help really learn how money works and operates, I think we need to enable people to set up and design and experiment their own monetary systems, especially around things like the restaurant group that Max talks about, La Via Campesina and its food sovereignty.
Efforts to explicitly declare a set of production goals and objectives that are beyond profit and really don’t even include it. Like I think the triple bottom line narrative of social enterprises is a dead end, right? You know, whenever you have this triple bottom line, where you include profit, community, and environment in a crisis, you’re always gonna have to fall back toward keeping your doors open kind of thing. And then you spend all your time trying to find the money instead of actually doing the work that you would like to be doing. So allow these folks to find community organizations. We target anchor institutions, even though they’ve kind of received a little bit of a pejorative kind of connotation and other writings.
I think universities, hospitals, hospital systems, these are big things in communities that aren’t just going to pick up and move at the drop of a hat, that have a relationship with our community that are already connected to all sorts of different production systems. That makes sense to be issuers of these sorts of credit provisioning opportunities to emphasize environmental production, emphasize mental health initiatives, education, school districts, all of these things, because they’re designed from the get go not to be profit driven, but our provisioning institutions. And so how do we begin to create goods and services outside of the profit driven motive is something that we’ve got to learn how to do.
And learn that there is another way of producing and doing things for each other that makes life easier and not so expensive. And we’ve given banks the run of this experiment for 100 years now. With the idea that we will finance it infinitum, these profit driven activities and will underwrite this activity. For anybody and everybody to the point where they’re now underwriting activities that aren’t producing anything, right? It’s the shadow banking and the invention of the secondary markets and shadow markets and all these things that aren’t really driving actual production. So maybe it’s time to start reorganizing this different way to allow folks the opportunity to produce robust, healthy food systems locally to figure out how it is they want to make sure their kids are all feeling healthy and getting the care that they need, and so on and so forth.
Scott Ferguson: So you talk about in the article, some kind of possibilities that exist in some fairly recent legislation that’s been proposed, but hasn’t been passed, per se. And then you also talk about kind of bottom up community complementary currency options. Can you potentially speak to those two models?
Ben Wilson: Yeah, so, you know, La Via Campesina, I think we start with that as our example of food system change. Because it’s international in scale. And it sets forth a goal and an agenda that is sort of macro, right, so culturally appropriate foods for everyone. And I think the Green New Deal, the Public Banking Act, the Stablecoin Act, the E-Cash Act, these really large forms of legislation, kind of give us a vision for what people want, in terms of a democratic society, a sustainable economy, these sorts of things. So the basic idea is there.
The question is, how do you enact a Green New Deal, right? What does it look like in our neighborhoods? And I think lots of people are already doing that work right. The Seven Valleys Health Coalition here in Cortland, New York is working tirelessly to solve food access issues– the Community Task Force is trying to do similar things. They just don’t have the resource connection and liquidity provisioning necessary and those acts– those bills all kind of give us the beginning pieces of that infrastructure on what it would look like in order to do that.
So the Public Banking Act, in particular, I think, could be used to license things like universities and hospital systems and school districts to provision for themselves to ensure that we don’t go through this sort of austere terrible decision making crisis where we’re sending kids back into a classroom too early or we’re not supporting teachers adequately enough. Just the shortage of the provisioning of health care such as some communities are just so much harder hit by a pandemic than others, because they just don’t receive the standard of care that others do. We really don’t have to experience that sort of inequity if we are designing public provisioning of monetary systems with the idea that we don’t have to engage in that sort of behavior anymore.
Max Sussman: And I wanted to, Scott, I wanted to go back and answer a question that you asked earlier, and that might fit in at that point, but you asked how restaurants are financed? And I think it’s relevant. I think it’s a really important question. So, generally speaking, small restaurants are financed through smaller investors. They’re called friends and family for the most part. So they’re people that are connected to the people that are going to be the operators of the restaurant. And it’s through networks that already exist, which tend to favor power structures that already exist around race and class and gender and other hierarchies.
And as the restaurant itself gets bigger, then you would tend to also, comparatively, start to source your financing from bigger institutions as well. So you might then go to an investment group, or if you’re going to be a multi unit operation might be private equity that’s financing it, and then at some point, you might get a bank loan, but it’s not really a common thing, I think, probably due to the high failure rate of restaurants. It’s not really an exciting thing to give a loan for. But a lot of restaurants will have lines of credit at the bank after they’re operating.
So just to tie it all back into that, I think the one way that we can make it easier for people to do more good things with food projects, is to make it easier for them to access credit and capital to make these projects happen. And that can happen in a lot of different ways. That could happen through changing laws, that can happen through– as we know, banks are licensed agents of the government that make decisions based on certain sets of criteria. So it’s been something that people have been calling for and in the wide– in all areas, right, like, make access to credit easier for businesses, people of color run businesses, for example.
So we could also similarly call for access to credit to be made easier for restaurants that fit a set of criteria about how they treat workers and how they’re organized internally, and how they relate to their local economy and how they source their products and all that kind of stuff. And then the other thing I wanted to mention was that– so like Ben was just talking about, the interrelatedness of institutions, especially anchor institutions and the role they play in their local economies. Not just not just hiring workers, but making their own procurement decisions.
And so one thing that is important in the food, and the food world is for schools to be changing how they source their product. And they have contracts that they signed with, you know, big, often really institutional food service suppliers, that are definitely not thinking about sustainability, not thinking about workers rights, and not thinking about a lot of these issues. And so applying pressure there, which is something that, say parents could do if they have if they have kids in a school, or students could do if they’re at the school and applying pressure for these institutions to make their purchasing decisions more responsibly and to not.
So that’s something that’s always been happening, but also to apply pressure to perhaps create new institutions that are interrelated and connected and can make these decisions together and in local and regional economies can happen.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, that’s wonderful. I just want to add something that I think is, I think we’re all assuming, but no one’s actually said it aloud, which is: if we saved through the Public Banking Act, establish all kinds of different bank licenses in banking and financial institutions in the public interest that have certain kinds of criteria, and that some maybe are specially designated for regional and local restaurants, or maybe they specialize in a host of similar kinds of services like that, I mean, I’m not an expert, I’ll let the experts take it from here. But crucially, right, this access to credit, A) need not be something like a traditional loan, where precisely one has to drive the business forward through the motive of profit in order to repay the loan.
So that’s the first thing. Maybe some of it is a loan, some of it is a grant, maybe all of it is a grant, as long as your obligation is a social, qualitative and ecological obligation rather than merely a quantitative one. And then I think, secondly, thinking about the public banking system itself, as being what we might call using conventional language perpetually in deficit. Perpetually in debt to the society that it is serving. And that way you reverse the kind of drain that the private banking system creates, right? The private banking system says, “no, feed me. Feed me or we’re going to die and everyone has to feed everybody else, or else everyone’s going to perish”.
Whereas if you have a bountiful– like the Fed is right– a bountiful source that says, “no, are we meeting the eco-social goals that we’re after here?” Then you’re really putting– I love water metaphors– you’re really putting a plug on that drain.
Max Sussman: I mean, it makes me think of the line that the public deficit is the private surplus. And it’s like as Ben was saying, we need to figure out ways to use the monetary framework to do good things and to create public things that have public purpose in society, as described.
Ben Wilson: And then we need to– I love calling money an IOU, right. And I think more than just being a promise to pay, it should be a promise to do. And the more you gather folks like the Seven Valleys Health Coalition or the restauranteurs that we studied– when you are bringing together collective effort to feed your community to stabilize employment, all of that work is unpaid care, labor for your community, that you are taking on more, and you should be receiving the credit for those efforts and that work, so that it can continue and grow and expand. So what are we prepared to promise one another? How are we willing to promise each other an ecological culturally appropriate food system on a global scale? And if so, where are the resources that we need to do that?
And this is really just a change in the underwriting practices, right? Max keeps bringing up standards or criteria. We rewrote the book, all the books and created all sorts of coursework on underwriting when we changed mortgage lending laws. So that soldiers returning home from the war could buy new suburbia, tracts of land and houses, right? This is the same sort of work that needs to be done.We need to figure out how to underwrite and to provision a healthy, sustainable and culturally appropriate food system at a global scale. And that starting there is a good place to expand into other areas – a culturally appropriate and sustainable arts culture and healthcare and all the things that make life meaningful and useful and wonderful, and that tends to get crushed by other things.
I think something that really captures this was on Twitter not too long ago, there was this kerfuffle about whether or not restaurants would exist under socialism. It’s like: Where is your imagination, right? What? You know, why would people stop wanting to prepare foods and to do it in an interesting and artistic and opening and grateful way for one another? Why would that experimentation and that desire to do things for one another disappear? I think McDonald’s would disappear under this sort of public banking infrastructure, but I think we would still have wonderful arts and culture experiences in our society.
Maybe more so and more readily available, instead of having to sit by ourselves or on the couch in the dark watching Netflix. We will be out in the public space watching performances and have a much greater and larger third space for all of us to enjoy.
Scott Ferguson: Can I ask just– Taylor, how much has the work you’re doing in collaboration here informed your pedagogy?
Taylor Reid: That’s an interesting question. I mean, wow, I’m gonna have to think about that. I think, in so many ways, I think we artificially segment economics and biology and in agriculture is one of the places where they come together. Restaurants is one of the places where they come together. I spend a lot of time talking to my students, especially my young students, about the interconnections between these things. And for example, healthy soil. Healthy soil is really important for having good tasting, nutritious food.
That’s obviously really important to a chef. It also has the added benefit of helping us to store carbon, which addresses the climate crisis. And we’ve seen from agricultural economics, that it’s also the best indicator that we can find, for the financial success of farms. There’s an almost direct correlation between the percentage of organic matter that you have in your soil, and the financial viability and resilience of the farm.
And so I’ve been thinking since having these conversations a lot more about the artificial duality that we create between the various silos in our institutions. And I think food is a perfect place to start breaking those apart and making these connections. Because there are some very obvious and intuitive connections in the food system that challenge this notion that these are all separate ideas and entities. And I think that’s something that I’ve been able to bring to my classes and bring to my students in a richer way as a result of our conversations and as a result of our collaboration.
Ben Wilson: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. You know, the siloing and academics’ work is really detrimental. And so hopefully, this paper and some of the things that we’re thinking about foods, can help us to start to break down some of those false barriers between our intellectual pursuits. And that’s, frankly, why I was so drawn and interested in submitting the paper to you guys, because I think you and the Money on the Left is really at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity.
And really creative in amazing ways. And if you scan the references here, it’s a who’s who of people that have been on this show. So, yeah, in terms of teaching people, I think as a counter example of what not to do, Bitcoin serves as a point of reference in the paper. Like, here’s a philosophy grounded and scarcity exchange that is just gross. It’s not working, it becomes a speculative asset, right? It’s burning all sorts of energy for the production of nothing– except like, Twitter followers, you know.
Scott Ferguson: That’s something!
Ben Wilson: So, we can design monetary systems and we can implement them and all sorts of scales. And so, don’t be afraid to try to set up a monetary system in your community or your classroom. And use design principles that you’ve learned about in this podcast and from people that think about money and monetary sovereignty and how it needs to be dissolved from a narrow borders sort of perspective to be more likely La Via Campesina and inclusive and beyond boundaries, sorts of ideas.
And so yeah I’m trying to teach my students by running monetary systems in my classes to promote nonprofit work, and they seem to get it. And they like the idea that money isn’t the root of all evil, but could be something more productive and as a means of connecting folks, rather than segregating them and separating their interests.
Scott Ferguson: Max, what’s it like to be an MMT Chef? In whatever resonance you hear.
Max Sussman: Weird. I mean, one thing I wanted to say quickly was how important I think it is to take the MMT insights and apply them in areas where they’re not traditionally, or rather, just where they have not necessarily been applied yet. And I really think food is super important. And I think it’s something that we have to do moving into the future. Things are gonna get not great in a lot of ways. In terms of the climate, there’s some things that are kind of, there’s changes that are going to occur that despite our best efforts will probably result in things getting tough for farmers and for our food system. Coming from the land and from the sea. And it’s going to change things a lot.
So I think that we’re going to find that communities that have taken a lot of the MMT insights and figured out how to translate them into local and regional levels, it’s going to be such an important development. And it’s not going to be all “oh, well, the federal government can do anything– can pay for anything.” Because if it doesn’t, then we still have to fix problems and take care of each other. We can’t only be just waiting for that to happen there. And food systems, they work regionally. So it’s a natural way to take a lot of this learning and figure out ways to apply it.
And I like, would again, I would echo what Ben was saying, to encourage people to try to experiment in their communities and work with each other, to build these systems that are resilient, that use money, and that take care of each other because it’s important now it’s going to only become more important, for sure.
Ben Wilson: And just to build on that for a second. One person who is not with us, but was really instrumental in the development of this paper is Jakob Feinig, who really helped with an earlier draft of the paper and his Moral Economies of Money really served as inspiration for a lot of the ideas here. And that book is full of real world examples of how we have come together as communities to create monetary systems and to change the provisioning, not just of agricultural products but build entire public waterworks systems. So definitely familiarize yourself with his work if you haven’t done so already.
Max Sussman: And I love that you brought up that Twitter moment about whether there would be restaurants in some unspecified post revolutionary future, but I really hope that we– which is a really silly premise– but I really hope that restaurants change in the future. I think that we can all together envision ways of creating social spaces that benefit communities that feed people. And that don’t replicate these harmful systems and these harmful hierarchies and these toxic work environments.
I think “culturally appropriate” is a really important phrase, and I think that a restaurant– places where you can get food in a community should serve the community and there should be a relationship there. And yeah so there’s plenty of imagining that we can all do, and if any other chefs are listening, get in touch. We can imagine together and hopefully build something.
William Saas: Any additional closing thoughts or reflections?
Taylor Reid: Yeah I mean, I really think that we’ve covered a lot of ground here and that’s been one of the really nice things about this collaboration is that because we come from different perspectives, a lot of the things that Max was saying about the restaurant industry goes for farming as well. It’s very clear that we need to change our farming system, and you know the environmental reasons are very clear and the food security reasons are very clear. The economic reasons are very clear. The crumbling of our rural communities. I don’t think that we are as explicit about that in the restaurant industry.
I think that critique has been made more powerfully about agriculture, but I think we also need to think about the connection between the two. I tell my students all the time, restaurants drive the agricultural system that we have. Because restaurants are the end users. And we’ve told farmers for the last hundred years that what’s important to us in restaurants is cheap food, and I think that we need to start changing that conversation and thinking about how to send farmers a different message. Because farmers will respond.
If what’s actually important is flavor and nutrition and a healthy environment and healthy water– sorry Scott– then farmers will respond to that. And so I think we got to keep in mind that that connection within the food system, these aren’t isolated enterprises. Food is one interconnected web of activities and people and culture.
Scott Ferguson: Well that’s a beautiful place to stop. Ben, Max, Taylor thanks so much for writing this piece. Thanks so much for joining us for this wonderful conversation.
Ben Wilson: Thank you, it’s been fun.
Taylor Reid: Thanks for having us.
Max Sussman: A great honor to be here and to be working with you all.
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: William Saas (audio editor), Mercedes Ohlen (transcription), & Meghan Saas (graphic art)