We’re joined by Jennifer Mittelstadt (@MittelstadtJen), professor of history at Rutgers University, to discuss her involvement with Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education. We speak with Mittelstadt about how Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education is organizing to address the most pressing threats to US public higher education today, as well as about how her own scholarship on publicly-provisioned welfare systems in the United States shapes her political organizing and advocacy. We also consider the role of Modern Monetary Theory in the struggle to democratize university finance, including Money on the Left’s controversial proposal for a federally backed university currency called the “uni.”
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The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Billy Saas: Jennifer Mittelstadt welcome to Money On The Left.
Jennifer Mittelstadt: Well, thanks for having me. I’m glad to be here.
Billy Saas: We, I think, came in contact first through some mutual friends and by way of the Scholars For A New Deal For Higher Education, and have continued to stay in touch and keep abreast of the developments with a Scholars For A New Deal For Higher Education. Could you talk to us just a little bit? I mean, just to kick things off, give us a sense, or your sense, or your read of the lay of the land for higher education right now. And, you know, the biggest sort of obstacles, big question to start us off on this conversation that’s largely going to be about you and your work. But what’s the lay of the land right now for higher education, as you see it?
Jennifer Mittelstadt: I think, as I look at higher education now and reflect back on the last three years, that the group I’m involved with, Scholars For A New Deal For Higher Education, has been actively working on it. I think that there are a lot of developments that are even scarier than I imagined, when we began our work thinking about how to make higher education a true public good in the United States three years ago. At the same time, I think there are a few rays of hope. Overall, though, if I’m to balance those two things, I’m very worried about what’s happening in higher education right now. It seems that a lot of the indicators we might look at whether it’s funding from state legislatures, whether it’s the attempts to take over governance at institutions of higher education, public institutions of higher education, whether it’s the trends in tuition, whether it’s the perhaps faltering of the movement to really forgive student debt at a meaningful amount. Like all of those indicators, I think, are suggesting that we’re entering a period of what might be I mean enormous crisis. I hate to say things like this, because there’s been a long crisis in higher ed, but it feels almost like an ending. I feel very nervous about it. That said, the only thing to do is to get up each day and keep fighting it. So we’ve got lots of work to do, is the other way to look at it.
Billy Saas: Yeah. And it’s come to this point, and you would say you’re a co-founder, one of the founders of the Scholars For A New Deal For Higher Education. And you’ve written publicly and published about all or some of these threats over the last few years as you say it, but you’ve been an academic researcher for much longer than that. So you’ve made your career alongside this long crisis. Can you talk to us about how your professional research interests in the military and the market and the relationship between public spending and militarism and imperialism? How do you end up leading this Scholars For A New Deal For Higher Education?
Jennifer Mittelstadt: Yeah, I was trained as a historian of politics, but like very broadly defined, I think, with really strong interests in the state, political movements, political economy, and over time, I actually have varied pretty widely in my subject matter. I began by studying actually what I would think of, I guess, as the civilian welfare state. Then, I moved on to the military and thinking about the military welfare state, and then the broader questions of the political economy of the US military. And now I’m actually working on a project on US foreign policy. But I think I have the same questions of power and governance at the heart of the analysis in all of those different projects. Questions like why some people have a different relationship to the state than other people, I guess more or less, that’s at the heart of it. How some programs might be created in the welfare state, but other programs are pushed to the side. How the military evolved certain functions and programs, particularly of social welfare, even as civilian ones were fading. I guess how some people believe they can act on or with or against the state and how they do that. So I’ve had this broad focus, I guess, on state and society with a sharp analysis of the power dynamics in those for a really long time. I will say that as I started to research my subjects of the welfare state and the military, this was happening for me in the beginning in the 90s. And so I was sort of living neoliberalism, and then asking historical questions about the mid to late 20th century that couldn’t be disentangled from the actual present day dynamics that I was in. And so it sort of felt like I was starting to embark on a history of the present that I was trying to figure out these, these questions. And so, I just bumped into them over and over again, and then began to really, particularly after I was working on the history of the military, and had to face privatization really squarely, I think, and it’s a huge… Privatization has affected the American state at the national, state level and local level, profoundly, over the past 40 years or so. And having to learn it really carefully in one sector, the military, is what I ended up doing. And so that puts this question of like, what are state functions? What is the role of the private sector? What does it mean to govern a public good? What does it mean to delegate that governance at the center of that analysis? And then, I think that really what’s happened is that that has come home to roost, and the very institution in which I have done all of this work in the institution of the public university, in the United States. And it’s no secret, of course, to anybody who works in higher education that the same political and economic trends that have affected the US State have profoundly affected higher education, largely public, but also private, I think, to very significant degrees. And so it’s like, then I was not only sort of living in the same time period as neoliberalism and asking historical questions that related to the present, but I was actually living the historical experience of it in my own institution, watching the increasing devastation that’s resulted from it. And then more or less, I think, panicked. I panicked when COVID-19 happened, and I was like: now what will happen? It will only get worse. I don’t think I would have had the wherewithal, I have to say this, to call some people together, some friends and scholars, to think about what we could do for higher education. If two things weren’t also happening, and that is that if I hadn’t been a member of a really effective union at Rutgers, and I think it’s worth thinking about the importance of the labor movement, when we think about what’s happening in higher education right now and what’s happened over the years. I think we’re seeing, as you know, resurgent organizing in higher education across a variety of different job descriptions. There’s a lot of activism and militancy among graduate students, and grad workers, grad fellows, postdocs, but also I think, for contingent faculty, and we see this in strikes that have taken place over the past year and a half in higher education across the country. But my union at Rutgers, I think, is doing something with that militance and doing organizing in a new way that is, in fact, really exciting, and allows for the opportunity to imagine really different, not just outcomes for workers in higher ed, but different formations within higher education that return it to the public good. And so if I could just say, my union at Rutgers, which is Rutgers AAUP AFT, has been organizing for about the past five years on I guess what can really be described as quasi industrial lines. It’s been uniting workers from different divisions of Rutgers. So medical faculty with faculty at the University, with many different unions. I’m gonna get this wrong. It’s somewhere between 16 and 18 different unions representing Rutgers workers from staff, all the way through students, all the way up through different kinds of faculty members. It’s called the Coalition of Unions, And they have been working very hard to build solidarity among those unions and to confront the university collectively to make them consider the power of the entire group. And I think my leaders in my union are also really strategic, really politically savvy. They think of the work that they do at Rutgers as part of a much larger, national movement, not just only the work they’re doing at Rutgers. I think they have a vision of where they would like higher education to go, which is a vision of a real, public good, restored public funding, restored public governance, and protection of worker rights. And within that framework, I think, that vision allowed me to imagine what we might talk about as scholars who are playing a very different role from a labor union. We’re not a membership organization. We are trying to change the way people imagine what’s possible for higher education in this country. Imagine what’s possible for students, for families, for staff, for faculty, for communities, when they’re part of these institutions, and connected to these institutions; that they might have a democratic say in them that they might benefit from them without going into usurious debt, that we might actually, really prioritize research and teaching and focusing on our students and producing knowledge, understanding, the things that we think are important and necessary in a complicated and changing world. And I think that drawing on the vision that comes out of this particular union was a real source of inspiration for the work that we’re doing. And then I would just say, the other place that the work came from in Scholars For A New Deal For Higher Education, for me, was as a graduate mentor. I think that is very personal. When you are at a big research university, and you have a Ph. D program, and you’re taking on graduate students, these are long term commitments that you take on to students. You get to know them and their work very well. And it is heartbreaking, and a travesty to think that these students who are smarter than me, who are fantastic, are not going to have a secure place of employment going forward. And that really, I think, is devastating. It’s devastating for them, of course, even more than me, but just, it’s heartbreaking. And so that was another real source of this desperate move to see what maybe we could do as researchers, scholars, teachers, to change the discussion on higher education.
Scott Ferguson: So maybe we can pivot here, to hear the story of how the organization came into being. Who called who first? Where did the name come from? What actions did you pursue at first and that kind of thing?
Jennifer Mittelstadt: Well, so it started with me panicking. And I was panicking because I was the Director of Graduate Studies. And I was watching my own university struggle with the adjustment that occurred in March of 2020, to this pandemic world. And I had a lot of hope that the university would do right by the graduate program and the graduate students. And I also had a lot of hope that maybe the federal government and the state government would do right by the university. And by early April, or mid April, I guess it was, it looked like it might not go that way. And it looked like in fact, the university was not going to collect the statistics on the number of people who had had their field work, or their research in archives cut short, and we’re clearly going to need extra funding. The state legislature made it clear that it was cutting the budget, not increasing the budget. And it wasn’t until June that the federal government actually agreed to think about giving any funding to higher education. So I just contacted a few of my friends who, like me, were really trained in the history of the state and the welfare state. And we’d work together over the years, particularly on issues of social welfare, coming together in different formations at different times around mostly trying to advocate for programs for low income Americans and for women. And I said, Do you want to start a change.org petition that just asks Congress to give funding to higher education like they give to the airlines. We’re a much bigger industry than the airlines, actually, higher education. We do very important work and so they agreed right away. There was a collection of about six of us. And that was the start of it. And then once we got a massive number of people signing on to it, we started to think bigger, like, what could we do with some of this energy? And then we moved to professional organizations in higher ed and asked groups. In my field in history, that would be the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association. For people who worked in musicology, it was the National Association for Musicology, etc, and asked them, would you sign a letter in support of this? And in the course of doing that, we moved to the national AAUP and AF T. And that’s where we started to talk to them about whether or not a bigger program oriented around advocating for a new funding model for higher education could actually take place during this time of crisis. And I have to say, as historians, most of us in the group, because that’s who I knew, were historians. I guess we honestly looked back to history a little bit to try to imagine what was possible. And we landed on the New Deal, which is not a perfect historical model. But in the crisis of the 30s. I think a lot of people asked not only what had caused the crash of 1929, but more importantly, what was the depression telling them about the broader failures of economic and social systems. Why they needed to be totally overhauled in order to give people new and better security in their lives. And it wasn’t perfect, as I said, it had a lack of commitment to gender and racial equity that actually we find ourselves dealing with today, this legacy. But I think, actually, we thought that both its successes and its failures prompted us to ask, at this historic moment in this crisis, could we do better? And so we started to think of it as actually a True New Deal for higher education. And then just worked in an ad hoc, manic fashion, talking to anyone we could talk to, having meetings whenever we could, trying to pull people on board, and producing the series of partnerships. So we did end up partnering for about a year and a half with the AAUP and the AFT. And they took on a campaign for a year that was aimed at trying to get the Biden administration and Congress to consider in that period, would they provide massive support for higher education, with strings attached that protected labor, that sent money towards research and teaching, that considered lowering drastically the cost of tuition, and considered the matter of student debt and debt forgiveness. That didn’t pan out, as we all know. At the same time, we worked with the Roosevelt Institute to write a white paper on this subject. And then we began talking with labor unions. And I think also because of the really good connections that we had with with Rutgers, and being here in the Northeast, where there are a lot of active unions like PSC CUNY for it, which is the City University of New York union and the big SUNY unions, which is State University of New York. We worked with them to think about even alternative formations in higher education labor. We had a big plenary session where the idea for Higher Education Labor United was born. And Higher Education Labor United, for people who don’t know, is like a cross-union organization that brings together people in different higher education unions across the country who really want to pursue what I would call the closest model that exists right now: College For All. Their vision of protecting labor and higher education has to be embedded within College For All. So actually, then, we all pushed not only for the Biden administration to do more with things like the infrastructure bill Build Back Better, for example, but to support the Bernie Sanders and Pramila Jayapal College For All bill, again, which was reintroduced. And that was not successful either. So I think a lot of us who were involved in that mobilization in 2021 are now going back regrouping and seeing where do we go forward? I think Higher Education Labor United is really drawing in more and more people working at the local, state and national level to try to build support for this broader vision. We are doing our part, we’re writing op eds, we started a newsletter. We have toolkits that people can use to bring these questions, the fundamental questions about what is the crisis in higher ed, the fundamental questions of governance and academic freedom in higher ed, the fundamental questions of College For All and supporting a truly public good: we’ve created these toolkits that people can use if they want to bring it to one of their national conferences, if they want to bring it to their faculty senate, if they want to basically do an educational process in whatever organizations they’re in to raise awareness about it. So we’re working on a number of different fronts to change the horizon on what’s imaginable, I think, in higher education, along with a collective of allied groups who come from different spaces, to see what we can do and how we can sort of keep planning and strategizing for what’s coming down the road.
Billy Saas: So glad you have mentioned twice now that those initial moments early in the COVID pandemic. I remember them very vividly, it was such an intense time. And I think I wonder if we have higher ed workers to reckon with at that moment. Or even culturally, broadly, I’ve thought this a lot and just in general terms, it’s like, oh, that happened. Yeah, we’re moved on now. Like, COVID is definitely not over. But do you sense that moment, that energy that accumulated in March, April, May, June, July, around higher education, or I mean, we at Money on the Left, were very busy with the Uni currency project. And that was that moment. There were just a lot of ideas and energy flowing. Do you see that still today? Is that continuous? Has it diminished as it naturally would?
Jennifer Mittelstadt: A really good question, I think, I think it’s taking new forms is I think what’s happening. I mean, one can’t operate at a level of panic and manic organizing, at the same level, for a continuous period. If you look at the history of social movements, there are these peak moments where everyone can come together and put in what you might think of as a double time, you know, they can put in double time, double resources. But it’s unsustainable for a long period of time. So then you sort of see periods of consolidation of the knowledge and gains that have been made. A repositioning, a gathering of energy and deciding, again, what your strategy is, and the tactics that go with that strategy for a new period. And that’s if you’re lucky, right? Because sometimes these things are so exhausting for the people who are involved that it’s very hard to sustain, period, right. So I think a lot of people are who’ve I’ve worked with here, so both in the scholars group, and in some of the other formations, were able to make real gains in getting the messaging out, or in organizing in the labor movement and enforcing contracts in the labor movement, or in really putting a new possibility, like forgiveness of student debt on the table. And then there’s this pushback, and then you stop and you think, Okay, what do I do with the gains that were made? Because those were real. And how do I continue to fight the barriers that are coming up? And I mean, I can really only speak for myself and our group. And in some ways, I think our group is better organized, with a clearer understanding of what we might think of as we’ve done a full power analysis of the lay of the land, I guess, in higher education is what I would, I would say. We’ve learned a lot in the past three years about what we can do, where our relative strengths are, where our weaknesses are, where someone else is better suited to do the work. We’ve learned a lot about strategic possibilities of partnerships. We’ve started to learn more. I mean, you think that people who study politics and the state would be savvier about governance and trying to influence elected officials, but we’re, I think we’re still maybe I don’t want to say we’re naive. I would just say it’s a more complicated terrain than we would have known. So we’re learning a lot of that, and are really committed to keep going. I mean, I have to tell you with all of the sadness, and I guess, pessimism that accompanies doing this work, I feel like the only way you can go to bed at night and get up in the morning, is if you try to do something about it. And so I wouldn’t say so much that I have optimism as I just feel like a necessity to keep trying, to keep throwing things at it. And I think that’s the way a lot of people in our group feel. What we’ve learned is, it can get worse. So even stopping it from getting worse is important. And so the things that we can do, to mobilize and throw obstacles in the way of worse, are worthwhile, as well. So, you know, that’s my take on it. It’s interesting, I wonder if you talk to somebody in labor, they might feel a little more excited, because of the particular gains, sort of, in particular realms in that sector. But what’s so complicated is that they’re occurring on almost separate tracks. So like, here in the Northeast, and in California, I think labor unions are making big gains in places where labor unions have sway in state politics, and with people who are in politics of the state who have national ambitions and who have declared themselves on the side of labor, and some gains have been made. I see what’s happening in Florida, for example, or in North Carolina, for example. It just looks like not only can labor not make any gains, but the legislature is on fire in their attacks on higher education. That looks like it’s growing stronger, those attacks. They are more emboldened in what they’re doing. And that’s, you know, half the country, more than half the country. Those are essential institutions in the states where they operate, employing hundreds of 1000s of people overall, educating millions of students, and that I find sort of terrifying. So like in certain parts of the higher education world, I think there are these reasons for hope. And then there are other reasons I think, for I mean, maybe not despair, but terror?
Scott Ferguson: Absolutely terror. I mean, I can speak to the Florida situation a little bit since that’s where I live and work. And hope and terror comes from strange, strange sources. So the faculty senate at my university really was a sleepy body for a long time, but I think it really stepped up when it came to the financial politics of the university around COVID austerity in ways that were really helpful and impressive. Obviously, the moves of this hard right Governor and legislature are terrifying. And then what’s so interesting is that just in the last couple of weeks since at least the recording of this who knows what’s going to happen by the time this comes out, but they are so out over their skis with radical right wing authoritarian, if not fascist legislation, that they are testing the bounds of administrative workability. So they want to make all of these drastic changes. They want to abolish DEI funding and discourse. They want to abolish, not just Critical Race Theory, but Critical Theory and anything that can be associated with it. They’ve wanted to dissolve women and gender studies programs, Africana Studies programs. And just in the last couple of weeks, the reconciling of the two bills in the House and the Senate have led to people in the legislature realizing that the Florida US state education system is going to lose its accreditation. And they actually can’t do this even if they want to. Obviously, they’ve taken over New College, which is a public small liberal arts college, which is a bastion of left wing and LGBTQ+ culture. And that remains terrifying there. They’ve denied tenure to a handful of hardworking scholars. So it’s an ongoing situation. But I will say I breathe a sigh of relief, whenever it was a week or two ago, when I learned that, actually, these bills going through the legislature were being really, really rolled back or tempered down from what their original plans were. But I guess I remain rattled, terrified, and I know that they think they have a mandate, and they’re going to keep going and going and going.
Jennifer Mittelstadt: I think we’re seeing that in other places. I mean, that’s just what happened a couple of days ago, in North Carolina. There’s been a progressive attack there as well, but the breadth of the budget cuts, and the breadth of the takeover of academic governance, decisions about hiring, firing, tenure, you know, promotion, things like that is now becoming clear. And, of course, the things are tied, right? So I mean, the right is really emboldened by these portrayals of people in higher education and pedagogy curricula, right, that it’s radical, and that it’s, you know, filled with ideas that they find terrifying regarding sexual and gender rights and understandings about racism and inequality. And those serve as a cudgel, really, to attack higher education that makes possible the actual administrative and budgetary gutting of it at the same time. The two are not disconnected, they’re of a piece, and if you look at the longer history, of course, the right has been railing against higher education for a very long time. It just so happens, I’m in the archives on a project now on the right and US foreign policy. And although I’m mostly looking at foreign policy, every folder I look in, in the correspondence has something about the corruption, subversion and perfidy of professors in higher education, whether it’s in the 50s, 60s, or 70s. It really took form, I think, in the 1980s, with David Horowitz and some others who were really going after Women’s Studies programs, and African American Studies programs, and I think, in some ways, never went away. It became a hallmark of thinking on the right, that universities were these hopelessly left as places where people on the right were discriminated against. But as other things were, I think, vivified by the election of Trump and the transformation of the Republican Party in that period, so too was this long term argument reignited. And now it’s on steroids, I think. And it’s no coincidence, though, that the other thing that has been happening over that period, and more so in Republican dominated states than democratic ones, is the diminution of funding, the cutting of state funding for higher education. So where the states spend far less in general, per student proportionally than they spent 30 years ago, and the portion of the state budget that goes to higher education is much lower. There are some complicated reasons for that. There are a lot of health care costs that states didn’t have before that they have now. But mostly, it’s been a decision to defund and privatize, to some degree, well, to a significant degree, public higher education. And those two things I think, are now both reignited with this idea that there is a budget crisis because of COVID. Right, that there’s an overall lack of funding in the United States now. That we all have to return to austerity, whether it’s a national government, the state government, or individual institutions. It coincides with the ramping up of the attack that is ideological in nature, on higher education and its self reinforcing. Your point though, about whether they sort of — what was that phrase you used? They’ve gotten out in front of their skis?
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, out over their skies.
Jennifer Mittelstadt: Out over their skis, right. One wonders, maybe not only in terms of accreditation, but I think that people who are attacking higher education right now underestimate the degree to which actually a lot of Americans have a lot of trust in higher education. These are major employers in their towns, they’re proud of the schools that they went to. They want their kids to get an education that allows them to get a job and be, in their view, a productive member of society. It might be that the University is one of the few that supports the arts in their town, and they have a kid or a spouse who loves drama, or something like that, right? It might be the only museum within a 150 mile radius. The related spin offs that come from higher education to produce new firms doing work and the research that I don’t do, but so many colleagues do in the sciences and engineering, computer science and things like that. Yeah, keeping up the ability of your state to educate its own young people and not have a tremendous out migration of people to other states spending their tuition dollars in other places, right? I think that there’s a real possibility that I’m hoping that they will hit the limits of this, and that the people who, for very practical terms, have always relied on higher education will speak up and say: enough is enough. I mean, one of the things that I think is really interesting to think about is whether or not you will indeed see students in shorthand, what we might call red states, where more of the attacks on higher education are happening, make the decision to go to school in blue states. Now, for most kids who are going to school at a public institution, that might not be an option for them, because the in-state tuition is vital for their ability to attend a school of higher education. For those where there’s some reciprocity between states, and I know like Wisconsin and Minnesota have reciprocity. So you can use an in-state tuition voucher to go to school in Minnesota, if you live in Wisconsin. You could see the state of Wisconsin losing people to the University of Minnesota, because the state of higher education in Wisconsin is significantly poorer compared to the state of higher education in Minnesota. But I’m curious to see what are some of the outcomes of doing this? I mean, I’m not curious in a way, like, Oh, that’ll be interesting. I’m actually terrified and curious about it. Right? But I do wonder about how this is a long term trend, it’s very powerful. It’s just damaging higher education terribly right now. But your point about the overextension, your point about going too far, I think that’s real, too. And I’m hoping that the more we talk about it, the more we make our voices heard, the more we partner with communities and families and students, maybe we can get people to stop and say something about this, rather than just shake their heads at it in the paper.
Scott Ferguson: To pivot from here, I would like to hear you talk a little bit about the educational challenges when you’re writing op eds, when you’re putting together workshops, when you’re putting together resources. I know when we first joined up with you all and had a Zoom, meet and greet, some of your colleagues in the organization were stressing over and over again how surprisingly little, let’s say faculty members at the universities in our country are aware of the budgetary politics. So maybe you can speak to that.
Jennifer Mittelstadt: I can and when I when I think about this I feel like I have to be careful and diplomatic in a way because I think the lack of awareness among faculty members, particularly tenured faculty members, and maybe it particularly at institutions, which have a little bit more in the way of budgetary or political protection from attacks on higher education are unaware of it because some things haven’t changed that much in their own everyday lives. And I think it’s true for almost all of us, right? That the way that we become involved in a social movement or a political movement is when a problem comes to our door, our doorstep, and it affects us. And when it’s affecting you, and you can no longer do the things that you wish to do in the way that you wish to do them, you are forced into some action. And so that’s a shorthand to say that I think for some people, they feel that the problem hasn’t appeared on their doorstep in a form that can’t be ignored. And it, of course, is in their university, right? Any number of what we might call these bogus accounting systems that universities have adopted in order to shift the money around in ways that they want surely are affecting their lives. Any number of the privatized contracts that they’ve purchased, either for assigning rooms or class periods, poorly I might add in most cases, and they’re spending too much on them. That does affect their life. There are graduate students being unable to find jobs, those who teach at programs where they have PhD programs. That has affected their life, but maybe not dramatically. I think more and more people are now being affected dramatically. And the move by state legislatures in conservative states, affect even the flagship universities, public universities and their states. And so I think there is a growing awareness of the problems. That said, the very system that we are all operating in, in higher education, mitigates against this recognition because it has created this two tier system of, at least if we’re speaking of faculty of faculty members, where there’s actually not much interaction between tenure line faculty and non tenure line faculty and contingent faculty. And I don’t think that tenured faculty have fully appreciated the conditions under which non tenured faculty are working. And the penury and lack of dignity that is associated with that work. Not for all people who do that work. There’s some people who really just want to teach one class who are financially secure, who really enjoy it. But for a lot of other people, it’s really, incredibly difficult. And they haven’t realized that. So it is strange to take on the role of talking to your colleagues about the things that you think are really self evident, and have been happening for a long time in the very institutions where they’re working and saying, even if it’s not affecting you at this moment, it’s more than you think. It’s affecting you more than you think. And it’s affecting a lot of people around you who you’re relying on to have this university function, and we really have to do something about it. So yeah, I think it’s difficult. Another way to look at this, I will say, I use that metaphor of like a problem coming to your door, and you being unable to ignore it anymore. I think the other way that people become mobilized to act is when they can sit back and tell themselves a story, a coherent story about what they think is happening. And I think a lot of people don’t have the time to either learn about and then tell themselves the story, or they don’t even know where to go to get the full story. They’re just sort of living it bit by bit. I sort of imagine it as like, you’re driving down the road, and there’s this windshield, and one thing is coming at you after another but you haven’t risen up to, you know, 1000 feet to look and see Oh, there’s more stuff coming. And there was a lot of stuff behind me and what do I say about this perilous road I’m driving on? And I think that’s true, too. I have found that in my discussions, so one of the things that we do in Scholars For New Deal For Higher Education, is we get invited to go talk to faculty senates, or like the State Association of faculty. And it’s really interesting, there are people who feel like they’re hearing the story of the crisis in higher education for the first time, even though they say, oh, yeah, I remember that. And I saw that and I don’t like that. But it’s as though no one ever framed it as a really important historical narrative in which they were an actor, and there was sort of something happening to them, and there was something they could do about it. And, you know, I think, in large part, it could be because many of us who are in higher education are there, because we love our teaching, we love our research, we get really involved in day to day classroom issues, we get really involved in our day to day labs, we get really involved in our research, you know, moment by moment. And it’s hard to make the time to sort of come up when you’re taking all that really seriously. And we all know that that just has its own inherent challenges, to sort of look up and take on even more. So, you know, I think there are a variety of different reasons for why there isn’t just a massive outcry of the, whatever it is, over a million faculty members or something that people who work in higher education all at once. And there’s also, let’s face it, drastically different experiences. The experience of somebody who is teaching at Harvard is really different than the experience of someone who’s teaching at a community college in Louisiana, and sort of making the alliances between that we’re kidding ourselves if we think that there’s not a gap there and a difficulty. So there’s plenty of room for work, I guess that’s what I would say. There’s plenty of room for talking to people and hearing from them, and having them find a way to articulate their own stories, telling them stories about what’s happening and sort of seeing what can happen. For what it’s worth, I don’t think we, as a group of people who care about higher education, are much aided by the national media. And this, I think, is a great disappointment. I do think if there were more local news, unfortunately, journalism has been gutted by Neoliberalism over the past 40 years, as well. If there were more local news, I think really local journalism would be all over this. These are really important institutions in towns, cities and states, colleges and universities, right. But at the national level, really, the interest seems to be only about, oh, trigger warnings, excessive use of trigger warnings. Are basically college students delicate flowers who can’t hear things anymore? Is there a scandal at Harvard about somebody who was fired for saying something that was perceived to be insensitive? I mean, this seems to be the level of interest, certainly of the New York Times. But I think other national publications in the media as well. And I think they just believe, like they don’t believe issues about labor and inequality and poverty are very interesting, in general and don’t believe they’re interested in higher education either. And so it does make it very difficult to educate the broader public about what’s happening when these stories aren’t covered. I have to say as I am incredibly worried about the attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion and the intrusion into research and teaching about gender and race, all of my courses hinge on these historical subjects. They hinge on the analysis that comes out of people who take those historical subjects seriously. But at the same time, It troubles me that often those stories are reported without the discussion on the takeover of tenure, promotion, hiring, budget. Because those are really existential questions, as well, for higher education. And we could be protesting about freedom of speech. And if we don’t also bring to light and have a light on these questions of governance and budget, we’ll all just not have jobs. We won’t be able to teach period, full stop. And so I think the media is really not doing us any favors. And if I could crack the code, I mean, we’re just trying to–the scholars group–we do a lot of joint writing in the group. There’s individual writing, too, but we do a lot of joint writing. And right now, we’re trying to put out an op ed about what’s going to happen when COVID funding ends May 31. So that’s the end of COVID relief funding. Three successive laws have been passed that have put about $76B into higher education. What’s going to happen when that funding disappears? Well, it looks like state legislators and governors, even in blue states, are using that opportunity to confer with our Board of Governors to institute greater cuts. And they actually are sort of pointing at institutions of higher education and saying, Well, you got all this extra money for three years, like, now it’s time to pay the piper. Now, there’ll be budget cuts, because you spent that money. But of course, they were supposed to spend that money. That was the point, right? And they’re using this as an occasion to enact yet more of the same types of policies of poor choices in a corporate style governance, that de-emphasize research, teaching and the services that students need in favor of spending on other things. We can’t get anyone to take that op ed. We’ve gone to three different places, and they just say, that’s not really on our agenda. And you think, Okay, this is an industry that educates 19.7 million students every year. It’s in every single state, every, many different cities and towns. We thought Ed’s and meds, we were told, were supposed to be the source of economic growth in the United States, but isn’t it an interesting story that they’re being cut to the bone? So it’s difficult, it’s difficult to do the work and, and get the word out. And I really wish people who worked in the national media would understand higher education is more than an opportunity, basically, for clickbait by bringing up sensitive subjects.
Billy Saas: I’ll go ahead and bring up my own sensitive subject. You mentioned a couple of times, tenure, which also, in the last couple of years, Georgia has put tenure under threat. We just talked to Liz Anker for a previous episode, and she’s at Cornell studying paradox and looking at the importance of the logical framework of paradox and like critical theoretical work over the last, you know, 30-40 years in the humanities. I feel like tenure is one of those paradoxes where it is critical, critically important, in that it guarantees academic freedom. Guarantees are in quotation marks, right? It’s never really 100% certain, but it’s this important thing, right? We need to defend it, and we have come out and the AAUP and other organizations do a lot of work to make this case. On the other hand, to get there as a junior faculty member, which a lot of those folks who I think would like to be vibrantly participating in and spending their time in addition to teaching, in addition to research, fighting for higher education. The instruction broadly, and not everybody does this, but the mandate on the tenure track is keep your head down, do your work, spend your time wisely so you can get tenure, and you can get that prized security, and be a better advocate. But you go through that process of six, seven years, eight years of keeping your head down, and it’s hard to recalibrate. And so the paradox of tenure as a thing to be prized, but also maybe in its current structure, as it’s been developed over the century plus that it’s been around as problematic, but also, I think, as importantly, emblematic of a deeper rooted problem of faculty culpability for the situation that we find ourselves in now. I think tenure is good. In one of our Uni papers, we talk about Tenure For All. We want those basic rights and job security for everybody. Is there space in this conversation, or maybe it’s a conversation best reserved for later or for offline about not just say, Hey, this is happening. But hey, this is happening, and here’s your part in it, and here’s how here’s what we need to do differently beginning yesterday.
Jennifer Mittelstadt: Let me just give you an example. I mean, those are excellent questions, I just want to say, and I like the opportunity to think about it and to think about how it’s operating in the work right now that we’re doing and Scholars For a New Deal for Higher Education. It’s exciting, sort of think about this. Let me give you a really specific example. So I told you that we’re just trying to get this op-ed placed. So I’m co authoring it with a colleague of mine in North Carolina. And we’ve been writing together for many years, and we’re very good friends, and we hit an impasse Monday. We had the weekend to think about what we were looking at, and very understandably what she said is this op ed contains a criticism of the administrations and leadership in higher education in the use of COVID funds that I as a faculty member in North Carolina, where the state legislature is so vicious, and so heartless and loath to air, publicly in a way, right now, when mostly what I need is to attack the legislature. That is where the greatest danger is right now. I don’t disagree that people in the administration have made and continue to make terrible decisions, the austerity of 1000 cuts type decisions. But I can’t make that an equal partner in this critique that we have right now about what’s going to happen to higher education. And I, coming from New Jersey, in a state where there was more funding for higher education where I have a powerful union. And where, really, I think one of the real problems we have at Rutgers is terrible administration. Literally horrible administration. It has made budgetary decisions that are illegal, we were sanctioned for the way that the accounting department did its accounting, taking I want to say, I’m gonna get the number wrong, many, many, many, many, many millions in the 10s of millions of dollars out of the education budget, putting it in the athletic budget, and calling it revenue for the athletic budget. That got hearings in the state legislature. So we have a terrible administration. And I felt like that’s something that I can talk about, that needs to be talked about. But I think in different places, in different settings, the question of where, how much we bring to light, elucidate and discuss critical University matters is a question of real politics that I think has to be taken seriously. I don’t fault my colleague for wanting to shift the op-ed so that readers that she felt in North Carolina and the South could sort of take clear aim at the state legislators. It’s complicated to tell the story of higher education in a way that does justice to the numerous sources that are undermining it without undermining overall support for higher education. So I mean, a way that we might put it as just if we take a look at the COVID funds, right. So if you do a deep dive into the way that the COVID funds were used, half of the COVID funds went directly to students who are in need. The other half went to institutions. The funding that went to institutions was allowed to be used for a wide variety of reasons. I think one of the things that’s most remarkable is that there’s actually been very little detailed reporting on what institutions have used that funding for. A shocking level of opacity, really I think, surrounding it. Whether it’s on purpose, or whether it’s because everybody’s moving quickly, whether it’s because the federal government hasn’t demanded the detailed accounting that one might want. I don’t actually know. And I’m not an expert in that. However, there is self reporting that they did at a very general level. And it really looks like, except for HBCUs, about only 60% of institutions used their funding to maintain critical programs and to maintain faculty and staff. So that means they’ve pocketed the money and used it for other things. They might have used it to pay down private debt, for example. They might have used it just to compensate themselves for certain losses in revenue. What they didn’t do is draw on their rainy day funds, and many big research universities, even public ones, have them, and a fraction of a percent would have allowed them to keep a lot of the programming that they wanted. Or to put the COVID funds back in the rainy day fund, but spend some of it out. I mean, there were many, many options, and that didn’t happen. And it leads us to conclude when we think about the end of COVID funding that because so many schools basically doubled down, school leadership doubled down on their ongoing long term plans to build revenue through high tuition and attracting students. Meanwhile, cutting academic teaching and research and support budgets in order to fund the bells and whistles that need to attract those students. Right? They doubled down on that during COVID, using the COVID funds. It seems like they’re going to triple down on it when the COVID funds end. That’s a complicated story to tell people who live in communities where a university operates. It’s a complicated story to tell parents who may have taken out a loan for their child to be able to get a higher education, right? It runs the risk of making people who won’t differentiate between the university and its leadership, it runs the risk of portraying the institution as sort of feckless or disorganized, or untrustworthy or something. Part of the difficulty is carving out, in these critical discussions of higher education, the nuances of the different groups that we know exist within the orbit of higher education. Thinking about who they are, how they evolved institutionally, what their particular role is, and then communicating why some of those roles are more detrimental than others. It’s really complicated. So I think tenure is one of those things, right? Talking about tenure is one of those hard nuts to crack. And it’s difficult because in fall 2021, I saw an interview with trustee McMillan Cotton. And she talked about tenure. And it was one of the best discussions I’d seen about tenure ever. And what she pointed out was that it’s really hard to defend tenure right now. Because job insecurity is endemic across every sector, not just higher education. And it looks more and more like an outlier and a period where people don’t have steady careers and steady jobs, where unions overall have declined. The whole changing nature of the economy that you all know very well, right. It’s very hard to do that. And also, when we want to defend it on the grounds of academic freedom and expression, that’s something most people in their day to day lives don’t have a lot of familiarity with, and contact with. And it doesn’t really move them, I think. And what she said, and I think this is true, is that really the only way to defend tenure is to think about it as the best expression we can imagine of what it means to have secure, stable employment. And that it should be, as you said, Billy, for all. That some version of stable, secure employment should exist in this country for people. Tenure is one expression of that. And if we let it go because it looks slightly better than the work situation in other fields, we let go like one of the bulwarks that we can have for envisioning, for protecting and I think envisioning what stable, secure employment could look like. What you’re pointing to, I think, is this paradox, because you started with the word paradox, that tenure can also function counter to the very political processes that we would like to foster and ignite. Of course. It asks faculty members to do precisely the thing that we as activists don’t want them to do, which is to put their head down to do nothing but their work to close their vision on the things that distract them from that. And if you’re one of the lucky people who basically got your hands on the golden ring as it’s evaporating, you’re loath to let go. Right? That’s real for those people to be one of the last quarter of people in the United States who have access to tenure. Right now 75% of people who work in higher education work in contingent positions. That’s not nothing. And that person may have a tremendous amount of student debt. They may have obligations for care in their community or in their family, and it makes a difference that they get this. And so to sort of admonish them that they can’t do what I, for example, did, which was keep my head down for seven years and get tenure. I wasn’t ignorant of other things. It was also another period of time long ago. But I did have that privilege to be able to do it. And it’s now that I do have a secure position that I am able to actually say really hard things about my university, about my university president, about the board, in general. I have the space to be able to do that. So yeah, I think it really is a paradox. And I don’t know if I have a solution to it. In general, I think that the –how would I put it– that the limiting and inaction that it might produce among a small number of people who are actually going through the tenure process, it’s not the most important thing that is standing in the way of success in this movement. It is one element. And so making it a target, for me, doesn’t make sense.
Scott Ferguson: Speaking of difficult nuts to crack and other metaphors like that. So we came to you because obviously, we’re we’re dedicated to Modern Monetary Theory and other theories of what’s sometimes called endogenous money creation, which sees money as a governance project, a creature of law, and essentially, as a credit relation or a credit-debt relation that does not behave like a finite thing that must be transferred from one entity to another. Evacuating the coffers of one space to fill up the coffers of the other. And we’re very dedicated to critiquing the kinds of zero-sum logics that come with Orthodox and even a lot of critical political economy. We were so grateful that our historian colleague, David Freund put us together, and that you were willing to hear us out. And I think especially when one is trying to make the case, often in places of power on the national stage, or the stage of the state or wherever, this organization of yours is working and trying to convince people. Modern Monetary Theory, and this whole other perspective, can feel, I’m sure, like a lot. Like, yes, I understand. But, people already think I’m crazy. So why would I add more crazy to my crazy, and I respect that. I respect it, and I am, again, so grateful that you’ve invited us to collaborate and to publish alongside you all. And it’s been really wonderful. And I look forward to more workshops, more collaboration, more publishing. But I’m wondering, do you have any thoughts about this? And you can be honest, I mean, I’m trying to open up the door to honesty. Yeah, so the floor is yours.
Jennifer Mittelstadt: So David Freund and I went to graduate school together. And I was down in DC for something in I think 2008-2009. He told me he was starting on a new project. And the way David works is really exciting. I think he’s one of the most exciting historians who does 20th century US history. And what he tends to do is take on a subject matter and then question the knowledge creation that is behind that subject matter and historicize it right. So he did that with property in his first book, and now he’s doing it with money. And I’m sure he’d be the first to say, the learning curve on money was steep for him. And I remember he gave me a really early draft, I want to say somewhere around 2010-2011 that I don’t even know what it was, if it was an article or piece of a chapter or just some thoughts he had. And I remember where I was when I was reading it, which took like two and a half hours, because every sentence I had to say to myself — Okay, so he was basically explaining going back to the history of heterodox money, right? Like heterodox money theories. And then recapitulating what the orthodox view is and and what the heterodox view is, and where it made its way into certain policies in the US. And I mean, I was pausing like every sentence to sort of say: OK, now say this out loud to yourself. Now put it in your own words to see if you can understand it. And it was so hard, though, is my point. I can learn other things more easily than I learned this. What was hilarious about it is I went back to the memo I wrote, because I think I wrote him something on it. And I forgot all of it. Like, I don’t even remember it now. And so when David said to me I think you should meet these people on Monday on the Left, who are talking about this Uni considering what you’re working on now in higher education, I thought, Okay, well, I have to learn it all again. So I’m just going to just say from the outset, that I have not learned it all again, but I’m going to tell you the bit that I’ve learned, that I think is really compelling, as somebody who has studied the history of the state and Governance and politics broadly construed. I have to make an analogy, really, with the ways that the subjects that I’ve looked at, in order to understand it. And the way I understand it, and it may be imperfect, is that many government functions have been performed through delegated governance outside of the government, or inside the state by state actors. And can be considered public, in some sense, in either framework. But in fact, the balance of power shifts, the control over whatever the function is can shift if it’s delegated governance to the private sector. It depends on which institution and in the private sector that might be, but it might become associated with things that are decidedly non-public, whether it be religion, or whether it be profit making and corporations or what have you. And for me, the way I understood what David and what you all are sort of saying about money is not just this question of the finite that you pointed out, and not just understanding money as credit, but for me, what’s most compelling is understanding money and credit as public functions that have, in fact, for reasons that I don’t know, because I still don’t know the history, I’m waiting for David. Why they have been, in fact, turned over largely to the private sector and are treated in a way that does not allow them to be marshaled for public democratic governance or good. And that is what I think lies at the heart of what the problem is in higher education. It’s deciding that so much of it will not, in fact, operate as a public good or for the public good. But deciding that higher education is a site for revenue generation, or deciding that it’s a market that firms can feast on and grow their own profits on. Deciding to operate it using logics within the institution itself that come from the private sector. That is creating terrible problems of effectiveness and inequity. Basically what happened to me is, I thought hey, anyone who wants to bring some tool in this battle to reimagine higher education as a public good is an ally. And I’m going to really try to wrap my head around it, and I’m going to really try to think about it. And this is a particular value because it, like no other theory out there, I think, like no other understanding questions the total logic of finite resources, full stop. Right? That, I think, is a really powerful tool. And if what we in Scholars For a New Deal For Higher Education want to do is provide opportunities to change the horizon of what’s possible. This seems like a pretty astounding horizon. One undervalued underappreciated, and I will not lie more than one person said. Oh, they’re crazy.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, that’s learning!
Jennifer Mittelstadt: Yeah, I’m not surprised at all. We feel crazy. We feel crazy, but also we can’t unsee it.
Billy Saas: I feel perfectly sane, Scott.
Scott Ferguson: Well, my sane colleague will speak.
Billy Saas: Yeah. I think, in terms of heuristics or keywords or shortcuts to understanding MMT and how this transition that it sounds like David’s describing, for me that’s been helpful, and Scott and I have had conversations about this before, to read the ascendance and maintenance of Orthodox money theory as a fundamentally demophobic, like it’s informed by a deep fear of democracy. Yes, it positively also serves private interests and profit seeking for all the fun that that can be for people. But I do think we can point back to, there’s a great quote from Paul Samuelson that we love to talk about where Paul Samuelson wrote like the most influential economics textbooks of the 20th century. He’s on camera for a documentary about Keynes and he’s asked about the importance of the balanced budget. And he says something along the lines of, I might play the clip here for people who haven’t heard it enough, saying that it’s important that the idea we must balance the budget remain in place because if it didn’t, anarchistic, chaos and inefficiency would prevail., Those are his exact words. So you have this authoritative, probably the most widely recognized, at least in academic circles, economist saying: Yeah, it’s not true effectively, but it serves important social, cultural, political functions, and so we ought to keep it in place. And I think that that bears out when we look at, and maybe I’m not locating demophibia in critics of MMT so much as I am saying there’s a discomfort, potentially, that I think comes with it. I think, maybe full stop, unmitigated democracy isn’t the best way to go. But then that’s a conversation we can have, I think, but I do think that there is something fundamentally, there’s more faith in democracy in the heterodox money theory of MMT, than you can find in others.
Jennifer Mittelstadt: There’s more faith in public institutions, also. Like the way I read the Uni, there’s a way to read that, and wonder what it is about the leadership of public universities, that makes them actually decline to take a power that they might have. Decline to gain greater autonomy than they might otherwise have. You talk about demophobia, and I’m not sure if that’s right, but there is a fear, I think, of relinquishing the discipline and authority of the private sector and banks. And there’s a fear of moving outside of that world. I don’t think it’s only an intellectual question. I think it’s a real question of power and people and material interests. I mean, there’s absolutely no question that the people who run universities, whether they’re presidents of universities or whether they’re the boards, have real material ties to private sector firms, and banks. Some of them come from that world in order to sit on the boards. Others expect that when they finish up their positions, they will be able to take those positions. The idea of declaring themselves able to issue credit, and to take on that power and authority would make them anathema among the very institutions that they currently rely on in order to make their institutions run and that they rely on for a material and political status or legitimacy. Because when I looked at it, I said it was fantastic. I’m a desperate Provost or university president. And I need some ways to be able to keep my programs running to fund my amazing staff, you know, and faculty, to benefit people who live in my community. Let me see if I can give this a try by exercising my power to really think about credit and what it could do. And I feel okay, so that’s what we would do. Maybe, I don’t know. If I do, I’d need a consultation on that. I don’t really know how it worked or anything like that, despite having read the article multiple times. I mean, what is it? I mean, it brings you back, I think, to these questions of learning a power analysis of the situation, the disincentives that there are for people to acknowledge the multiple ways in which we all might more have have more control over the resources and functioning of the institutions we’re a part of than we think we do.
Scott Ferguson: One of the things that I often point out is that the MMT and endogenous money framework is actually far more straightforward and dare I say simple than the neoclassical framework, the Marxist framework because it simply says that money is a function of government, loosely defined. It doesn’t have to be the modern nation state of governance. And it is a legal structure that is designed and that can be allocated and designed in any number of ways. So then, you just hit the ground running from there. So you ask, well, how is my society of money designed? How is it set up? Is the power to issue money delegated, principally, to private banks and private financial institutions? Is it organized to fuel a profit motive? Or is it designed in another way, and maybe it’s a mix design, and usually it isn’t a mix design. Where things get really complicated is when you have to work through the thorny forest of the dominant ideology to pull back all of its obscuring assumptions to see what’s actually going on. Where the authority, where the power structures are, and how they’re being delegated. And to me, that’s the ultimate lesson of the Uni. Look, we are 110% behind this project, and we’ll continue to advocate for it and theorize it and write about it. We want to see it manifested in one way or another. But on the other hand, it also is a rhetorical tool, right? It’s designed to open up the question of wait, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, how are we delegating financial powers in this country, in general and then specifically around higher ed. So whether or not this leads anywhere that we’re projecting or imagining or wanting it to go is less important for us than cracking open the conversation such that we stop talking about, as we say, finding this finite money that’s circulating in private coffers, but instead going to the source and asking, how might we structure that source in a different way that’s serving people and communities and environments rather than private profit and corporate capital?
Jennifer Mittelstadt: So when you say that it raises a question that I have for you two, and I’ve had from the start. I think, for me, the answer was very simple about why, after reading the Uni, I would want to hear more from you to bring you on board and to say, hey, you know, what can we talk about here, and that is because I want resources and I want democratic accountability in higher education, and this is one way to get it. However, there are a million other things and let’s just face it, College For All doesn’t take into account at all what you are thinking about, right? It is funded on a completely different model that we know, as is literally everything in the United States. Like all legislation. So I can see why I would just say, Hey, let a million flowers bloom, right? Like anyone who’s got an idea, let’s bring it. It seems to me, you can do two things at the same time, like we can try out Unis while we still live within a universe that still operates on a Keynesian or Neoclassical model. These two things can happen, right? But for you, I’m wondering what it’s like for you to imagine, as part of your larger project to also, I think, changing the horizon on what we can imagine about money. What it is, what it does, how it functions, what does it mean, for you all to collaborate on specific projects, where things get really down in the weeds with real people, real institutions? I mean, you are living in states where there’s real attacks on higher education, where you’re just gonna have to say, no, please don’t cut the budget. Not: actually, you can cut the budget, because I’m still going to just work on the Uni here. Right? Like, how does that feel for you all?
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, Billy do you want to take it?
Billy Saas: I’m gonna see where you go.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, I mean, the answer is complex. And it depends on what time it is. Right? Yeah, we all make strategic decisions to open our mouths and articulate certain things at different times. Okay, so one of your questions in there was about what does it mean to be thinking about — The broader project is reimagining money in its political horizon. I think the university system in the United States, but also elsewhere, but the university system in the United States is such an important case study. Not only because it’s in crisis, and we live in that crisis, and it’s a way of doing the organic intellectual work that Gramsci would appreciate. But it’s also an important case study because it develops and even problematizes some of the Modern Monetary Theory discourse. Some of the Modern Monetary Theory discourse, especially when it in its popularizing forms, will draw this very clean distinction between the state as a sovereign issuer of the currency and cast off everyone else off that sub federal government, all private entities, all nonprofits, any kind of economic organization as mere users of this currency. So the sovereign issuer can decide as sovereign when to spend, what not to spend, when to delegate currency-issuing power, or when not to delegate currency-issuing power. And everyone else is a user. And for us at Money on the Left, we’ve, for a long time been keen on complicating that, and nuancing that what to us is too severe of a binary opposition that actually is disempowering for local politics for sub federal politics. The state university systems are critically situated, I think, in the midst of this problematic as tremendously powerful public, often public, institutions that actually do have credit creation power, but instead we call it a bond issuance, and we say they produce credits for student credit hours, right? It’s already engaged, in a massive way, in credit creation, but pretends that it’s not. We all pretend that these institutions are weak and running out of money, and they’re on their heels, and whoa, what are they going to do? Well, we have to cut the budget. So I think one of the central points of significance about taking on the Uni and taking on university spending has to do with problematizing that anti democratic distinction between the issuer and the user. So that’s one thing I can say. When it comes to trying to collaborate, I mean, it also happens at different scales. So some of us, especially those of us who come out of heterodox economics and come out of the PhD Program at the University of Missouri Kansas City, they have learned and participated in and now continue to practice in their own classrooms, these very small scale community service based class currency projects that might last a semester at a time. Maybe they carry on beyond the semester, maybe they begin to grow ties with the surrounding community in a more ongoing way. And certainly, the work of our colleague Benjamin Wilson at SUNY Cortland is a premier example of that kind of work. And no one really thinks that’s crazy. That just seems like good community service learning out of a classroom. And our point is that well, yeah but what if you bring in the United States Treasury, and you scale this up to the entire University System across the country, and it would essentially be doing the same thing. But that’s when people start using words like nuts, right? Like, what are you even talking about? How could that even possibly work?
Billy Saas: On that note, the ‘nuts how could that even possibly work’, I feel like it’s been illuminating over the years to come into that and, and get it said in different ways with sort of different implicit meanings. And I think most often the implicit ‘you’re crazy’ comes from a lack of faith that it’s politically feasible, right? Not that it’s wrong, right? Or that you’re fundamentally nuts. It’s that, yeah, because of all the entanglements that exist in place, and the lack of willingness of administrators at the university level to put themselves out on the line and risk their relationships with the private sector. That’s what’s crazy about it, it’s not that the thing itself is not. I think, for me, that’s heartening, because it’s good to not feel crazy. On the classroom currency thing, too, in the class that we just ended, or are ending now. Students designed, following the models of UMKC and other places that have done the classroom currency project, which is all about teaching money. But then also, you learn that teaching money is teaching collectivity, and living in common. What is this thing for and what social purposes does it serve? Rather than do the sovereign, I’ve developed this currency, you are now going out into the community to earn it and pay a tax at the end of the semester, which is roughly what those experiences have been so far as like, okay, you’ll design your own currencies, identify a social purpose or problem around this area that we’re in, in New Orleans, that can be solved by the creation of a complementary currency. They all came up with their own ideas, some of them were really great. And it’s clear, I guess, Scott. For me, it’s clearest, and it’s sort of a localist expression, and then the politics of the thing get impossible the further and further you get out from that classroom, that’s like a controlled thing. And that’s where I think that the skepticism, the critique is often coming from not on the logical analytical level, but the, you can’t do that level.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, and we’ve worked with folks. Some Dean’s at a major university system that we will not name.
Billy Saas: We had an article spiked in the Chronicle.
Scott Ferguson: Oh, yeah. That’s something else. I guess we’re going on record saying that
Billy Saas: No, I think cut out. Between you and us.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, we finally got into the Chronicle of Higher Ed. And we wrote a piece and then they got cold feet, and they paid us not to run it. They paid us off.
Jennifer Mittelstadt: Wow. Wow.
Scott Ferguson: Talk about entrenched.
Jennifer Mittelstadt: I will just add one last thing that it sounds like the way for this to go. I mean, y’all have to build up from the bottom right, you’re just gonna have to find a university you can take over and then see.
Billy Saas: Or system! CUNY maybe.
Jennifer Mitelstadt: Exactly, and see how that goes. I just want to say it’s a really rare thing. One of the great things about Scholars For New Deal for Higher Education is meeting all the people and having fun. Honestly, one of the true gifts of having gone down this road is just meeting other super engaged people who are smart and fun and want to solve things and yeah. I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m really enjoying it. I plan to enjoy it in the future.
Scott Ferguson: Well, let’s keep working together. So thank you so much for joining us and yeah, come back. Let’s keep talking.
Jennifer Mittelstadt: Sounds good.
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: William Saas (audio editor), Mike Lewis (transcription), & Emily Reynolds of The Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art (graphic art)