The Alternative w/ Nick Romeo

Scott Ferguson and Billy Saas speak with New Yorker writer Nick Romeo about his exciting new book, The Alternative: How to Build a Just Economyreleased in January 2024 with Public Affairs. Romeo’s The Alternative rebukes Margaret Thatcher’s infamous axiom that “there is no alternative” to neoliberal capitalism. In doing so, the book inventories the most promising experiments in radical economic democracy underway across the world today. Such experiments include, but are not limited to: a publicly-owned and -run gig work platform in Long Beach, California; a True Price system in Amsterdam; a public budgeting project in Cascais, Portugal; and a public Job Guarantee in Gramatneusiedl, Austria. (See our previous episode on the Austrian Job Guarantee for a deeper dive into that topic.) Taken together, these and other initiatives profiled in the book “share a vision of the economy as a place of moral action and accountability,” as Romeo puts it, while modeling the kind of radical political economic imagination that is so utterly and urgently needed to meet our dire ecological moment. For Romeo, then, it remains insufficient to simply deny Thatcher’s quip that there is no alternative. The crucial task is to actively imagine and create the alternative.

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

Scott Ferguson:  Nick Romeo, welcome to Money on the Left.

Nick Romeo:  Thanks for having me.

Scott Ferguson:  So we’ve asked you to join us today because you have a new book that’s just out with Public Affairs Books called The Alternative: How to Build a Just Economy. We want to get into the book, but maybe to kick off our conversation, you can tell our listeners a little bit about your professional background, and how you came to become the reporter of political economy at The New Yorker Magazine.

Nick Romeo:  Sure, yeah, I like that description. I’m not sure the magazine would endorse it, but I will. Two levels at which I could answer that. The first is just the last few years I have been covering a kind of political economy beat for The New Yorker. I was in Europe for a lot of that time, which was helpful in finding interesting economic paradigms and models that are a little outside of the status quo. A second level is zooming back a bit more in time. Some of my graduate work in academia was in ancient philosophy, which might seem very different, but my way into economics, the thing that actually let me get excited about it was recognizing it as a branch of political philosophy. Not only is the word from ancient Greek, but really for a lot of the tradition of economics, the subject itself was thought of as political economy. As that title suggests, there are these inescapable normative and ethical dimensions to it. I think if you push on economic premises, pretty quickly you get to really rich philosophical questions about what is a good life? What is a fair society? And these are just eternally interesting.

Billy Saas:  So who are you guys in terms of ancient philosophy?

Nick Romeo:  Well, Aristotle, I think, is actually incredibly insightful as an economist, and I’m interestingly not alone in that view. The economist Sam Bowles ends a book on game theory with the observation that a lot of these insights that have come out of the field in the last 10 years are sort of rediscoveries of Aristotle and that Aristotle in a lot of ways is still more subtle than contemporary economists. So I think a lot of the brighter economics people today are cognizant of that intellectual heritage.

Scott Ferguson:  I think most of the book, most of the chapters are exploring various kinds of alternative programs, ways of not just conceiving of political economy, but practicing it and structures and organizations and designs. We want to get into those details, but maybe we can begin the way you begin the book, which is kind of reframing for a more popular audience, reframing what the proper questions and problems of economics are. I was wondering if you could give our listeners a little taste of how you set up the book and how you frame it.

Nick Romeo:  Absolutely, yeah. So the first chapter of the book is about the struggle for the Econ 101 curriculum that is currently raging in academia. That led me to get into some of the history of the field and how it’s been conceived and organized in the last few centuries. One sort of simple way is to think about a famous quote from John Maynard Keynes, who once remarked that the master Economist has four elements: he or she must be mathematician, philosopher, statesman and historian to some degree. So a critique of how economics has kind of emerged in academic contexts in the last 50 years would be that it really shears off three of those four elements and has a highly mathematized form, especially as you get more into graduate level work. It’s very, very interested in formal modeling and quantification. I think Keynes is right, though, that these other elements are essential to the discipline. There are people who share this view still today. Ha Joon Chang, who I quote in the book was an economist at Cambridge for many decades. He, within the last decade, remarked that economics is just one long political argument. The feminist economist Julie Nelson, is also pretty sympathetic to this framing of the field. So you might wonder what’s at stake here, right? It’s a fair question when academics are debating about the contents of a curricula you might think, does this actually matter? In the first chapter, I also get into some of the political stakes for how economics is taught. Paul Samuelson wrote one of the best selling Econ textbooks of the 20th century. He also famously said, “I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws, if I get to write it’s economics textbooks.” So, he got his wish. His book helped introduce Keynes to America. There’s something profoundly creepy about that remark. I think it’s very kind of anti-democratic, he’s cognizant of his role as a shaper of cultural common sense. He can sort of constrain or expand political imagination at will. Delegating that to an economist, or to anyone, even if you’re sort of sympathetic to their politics, there’s a kind of principled objection to doing that, right? I mean, we should be a little more explicit in our premises and assumptions. So another way to think about the stakes of economics education, and why does it matter what’s in econ 101, is that we don’t want just one person or even a set of people presenting what are moral and political assumptions under the rubric of natural science. A final strand that I think is relevant, and that I tried to trace, at least at some level, in the first chapter of the book, is this maneuver that analogizes the economy to a physical sphere with discoverable, immutable laws, akin to laws of physics or chemistry. This dates all the way back to the dawn of the field in the modern period. So there’s a quote I have in the book from David Ricardo, he’s critiquing poverty relief in the early 1800s, in England, and he invokes the law of gravitation. He says, “these poverty relief efforts are going to produce more misery and suffering, and this is as certain as the law of gravitation.” Fast forward a century, early 20th century, or it might be late 19th, turn of 19th to 20th century, William Graham Sumner, very influential American intellectual, uses the same metaphor in somewhat different contexts. He’s talking about increasing corporate concentration of power. He says this is just as inevitable as gravitation, it’s sort of a law of the universe, right? So the progressive agenda around antitrust, and dismantling monopolies, this is as naive and misguided as literally opposing the law of gravitation. Fast forward another 100 years. Today, this tradition is alive and well. One example is, there was a graph in Science, I think, in 2014, showing wealth inequality. People who describe themselves as econo-physicists commented that the slope of this graph, which was an exponential curve, was an inevitable feature, sort of akin to other slopes that you can find throughout nature, whether it’s the distribution of sizes of ant colonies, population clusters of microbes, et cetera. All of these sorts of patterns in nature were mapped on to wealth inequality to, once again, justify the status quo and frame any opposition to it as similarly misguided to opposing a law of nature. So you can see how fighting about Econ 101, while it might seem academic, the stakes are quite high. This does shape and constrain political imagination. The goal of Chapter One was to raise these issues and also highlight the work of people who are trying to expand the way the discipline is taught.

Billy Saas:  The quote that you mentioned from Samuelson got my hackles raised a little bit because Samuelson features frequently in our spaces, and in my mind and the MMT world, specifically, because in a documentary about John Maynard Keynes in the 80s, basically, the effect of his statement was: we may not need to balance the budget talking about the federal government, like that’s not actually something that needs to happen. However, he’s saying this on tape in a documentary about Keynes: it might be important for people to believe that, right? Because if they didn’t think that there were restrictions and that we had to balance the budget then anarchistic chaos and inefficiency would prevail. That’s particularly insidious next to the quote that you have in your book, which is exactly “I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws or crafts its advanced treaties, if I can write its economics textbooks. So acknowledging in 1990 the effect of his work that has been published and revised since 1948, and then ultimately subject of some criticism, but dominant for a long time. In talking with economists who are currently practicing, whether they’re in Orthodox schools or heterodox, I think that there’s just generally a frustration with Samuelson, but I’m particularly offended by acknowledging the power of the narrative on one hand, and then on the other hand, saying: yeah, it’s necessary to have some of these fictions so that people don’t get too out of hand and start demanding nice things like social welfare benefits on a mass scale.

Nick Romeo:  Absolutely. Just to pile on to Samuelson here for a minute. Another comment that he made on national television, I think this was on 60 Minutes. He was discussing what used to be called Kelso Plans. And these were the predecessors of ESOP’s, Employee Stock Ownership Plans, which have been extraordinarily successful in sharing equity with working people across America. This is kind of our best answer to worker-owned cooperatives, like the Mondragon co-ops in Spain. So he’s on national TV, and the interviewer asks him, what are his thoughts on Kelso’s plans? He evokes Marie Antoinette, he says: “Oh, sure, it has a Marie Antoinette-ish ring to it. Let them have capital,” describing workers. So I just thought this was wildly irresponsible. He’s sort of suggesting that extending some level of worker ownership will result in the French Revolution. He also then made some comment about how it’s similar to lollipops growing on trees. So once again, this would contravene a fundamental natural law of the universe. And oh, if that argument doesn’t persuade you, it will also lead to enormous bloodshed. It’s a very irresponsible comment. Luckily, it’s been contravened by 50 years of success for ESOP’s. But you do wonder how much more widespread those could be if they were the default model for business ownership. Of course, workers have an equity stake in the businesses that they make successful. What if that was just the default as opposed to a sort of niche organizational structure? I think one can reasonably point a finger at people like Samuelson and say there’s really some blame there. They’re kind of abusing this position of expertise to advance very plutocratic agendas.

Billy Saas:  After having been accused, as you note in your book too, that in the 1940s when MIT was looking at it, they thought that it might be too communistic, too socially minded and not really.

Nick Romeo:  Isn’t that wild.

Scott Ferguson:  Meanwhile, he’s primarily responsible for shoving Keynes’s legacy back into a neoclassical IS-LM framework, right? There was another Keynesian textbook by an economist named Tarshis, that was much more faithful to what Keynes was up to, and pushing hard on neoclassical assumptions. Whereas Samuelson basically tamed the Keynesian revolution as he was perpetuating it. One of the things I really appreciated about your introductory framing was taking non-strictly economic knowledge seriously, whether that’s literature and short stories, or it’s comedy sketches from the UK. I don’t know if you want to talk to us a little bit about how some of those other ways of understanding political economy are important to you.

Nick Romeo:  Yeah, that’s a great question. I’m glad you raised that. I started the book with a short story by Leo Tolstoy, who I think is a wonderfully subtle thinker about economics, in his non-fiction, as well as his fiction. It’s interesting how even Anna Karenina, Levin is fascinated by political economy. He’s always reading the political economists that were gaining ascendance in 19th century Europe. He goes out and does farm work with his workers. These are sort of semi indentured people. He has this sort of anguish, this ethical torment about his own wealth. So Tolstoy was fascinated by economic themes and fiction and nonfiction. But I started the book with a short story called, How Much Land Does a Man Need? It’s this beautiful, concise moral fable that, I think, should be taken seriously as an investigation of a lot of economic themes. You can find in literary form antecedents for a lot of the stuff that behavioral economics folks think that they have discovered, whether that’s the sunk cost fallacy, the idea of like a hedonic treadmill. All of this is implicit in the narrative and much more beautifully rendered than in any behavioral econ study you can find. It’s a kind of pointed story because after seeking constant acquisition, the hero dies and ends up in six feet of earth in which he’s buried. So this is, in fact, the quantity of land that all of us need eventually, right? Death is this kind of final check on acquisitive frenzy. It’s also fascinating how it links up with other material in the book. I was talking with someone in upstate New York, who was the retiring CEO of an optics manufacturing firm. In his own way, he more or less paraphrased the title of the book. He had some options when he was retiring. He could have sold to a strategic buyer for a lot of money, probably hundreds of millions. Instead, he converted his business to an employee ownership trust, to secure it in perpetuity. So very pro social policies like not offshoring the company, sharing profits with workers. So in describing those choices, and why he did that, he more or less said, I’m just one person, how much money do I need? If I took the higher offer, I would spend my whole retirement just doing money management. More importantly, I would have betrayed these values that I spent decades building the business to enshrine those values. So I think it’s striking to hear a guy in upstate New York echoing Tolstoy. There’s something universal about this human intuition that it’s pretty profoundly misguided to always have that next acquisitive summit you must ascend.

Billy Saas:  It does play out, too, in pop culture and media. I keep thinking of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, right at the end. It’s just him and a little bowling alley. Oh, he’s finished, right. Yeah.

Nick Romeo:  Totally.

Scott Ferguson:  Another major critique that runs throughout many of your chapters, that we very much share with you, is a rejection of the very notion of economic externalities. The idea that somehow the only proper sphere of economic analysis, behavior, meaning is the private competitive marketplace, and any effects that seem to exceed that very narrow sphere, is external to it, and then can be understood and variously priced or accounted for or discounted for, as a so called “externality”. And this, I think, is a pretty good transition to talking about your first really substantive chapter about alternative programs, which is about the theory but also the practice of what’s called “true price”. And I’m wondering if you could tell our audience a little bit about that.

Nick Romeo:  Yeah, absolutely. I think at a really simple level, the intuition is well captured by a bumper sticker that I often see walking around in Berkeley, California, which says something to the effect of: “when you throw something away, what do you mean by away?” So “externality”, this term that’s kind of central to economics, presupposes some border beyond which we pay less attention to some impact of how we produce or consume or transport economic goods. So “true pricing” is an initiative sometimes it’s assimilated to a broader set of accounting practices called True Cost Accounting. True price, specifically, is in Amsterdam. It originated in the work of a nonprofit there, although it has affinities to other movements around Europe and the world. If you think about the kind of econ 101, classic example of apples, you go into a grocery store. Currently, we have very limited visibility into all sorts of information about what we consume. To stick with the Apple example: maybe you know that it’s organic. This does convey actual information, there is a legally enforceable definition of that term. But even the organic label tells you nothing about its carbon footprint, where it came from. Maybe you do know that it’s local, and you can infer something about the carbon footprint. This tells you nothing still, your local organic apple, you have no information about the people who were involved in transporting and growing it. So workers conditions: did they have the right to unionize? were they paid adequately? No visibility into that. Okay, so maybe it’s a fair trade, local organic apple. It’s getting better, there are some wage floors. There’s some content to fair trade, it might not be as robust as we could hope. But you’re sort of getting the picture here that I’m painting of a very partial patchwork of labels, none of which really gives you insight into all the things one might care about. In fact, I think a lot of people do care about it. All of these labels are also subject to copycats, right? People who want to use the label, but evacuate all content and meaning. So the free rider problem, as it’s called in game theory. They want all the benefits, but none of the costs of using the label. So there are all kinds of self-certification schemes in industry. Terms like ‘sustainable’ and ‘natural’ are largely meaningless in a grocery store, and that’s challenging. True Price says, somewhat audaciously, look, what if we actually could capture all of the relevant externalities for a good. Quantify them. Reasonable people can disagree about how that works, or even some of the moral hazards that can be involved in doing that for certain kinds of infractions. Their view is that this is a second best option. In a lot of cases, it gives you some information. That’s better than the default option of no information. So if we can quantify all the relevant externalities, whether that’s something environmental or something involved in the treatment of humans throughout a supply chain, and communities, suddenly you have information that is relevant not only to consumers. You could have consumer facing applications where in a grocery store, for instance, you actually had one product with a True Price and another product with a different True Price. And you could compare the prices in this would instantly tell you the size of the externalities of the two products, that would do a few things, right? On the one hand, insofar as people are sensitive to price signals, they would consume less of the worst product, because its price would be higher. Simultaneously, this would motivate a company to change its production and transportation and supply chain issues that resulted in such a high True Price. So if they’re destroying soil quality, depleting aquifers, involved in all kinds of labor abuses, or human rights issues throughout the supply chain, all of that shows up in the true price, which can only be lowered by improving those issues. That’s only the consumer facing application of True Prices. It can and also is being used as a kind of internal auditing tool. So even if consumers are not paying that price, the European chocolate company, Tony’s Chocolonely, uses True Price analysis to try to improve their supply chains year after year. So it’s a kind of benchmarking whereby they’re trying to improve, and they now have ways to measure all of these different dimensions of the impacts of products. I think maybe the most ambitious but hopeful application of true pricing would be in policy and regulation. I mean, you could imagine, if you think about what is subsidized in the American food system, for instance. Imagine replacing that with a more rational and coherent set of taxes and subsidies that reflect the actual impacts, whether that’s showing up in medical costs, right? If people eat very unhealthy and addictive food, in some sense, the cost of that shows up in the medical system, maybe years or decades from now. Of course, there are also huge ecosystemic costs. One report I quote in the book from the Rockefeller Foundation that’s using True Price analysis essentially tripled the annual cost of the US food system. It’s actually costing about three times more to produce and consume food the way we do currently. The thing I think that is crucial to keep in mind with true pricing: there’s a temptation to think, well, this is just sort of making up numbers and then adding it to the cost of things. And how could we do that, especially with inflation running high? I think one key insight that helps me when I think about what a true price means is that the price is already going to be paid. It’s not that we’re inventing a price. That there is some sort of true price. What we’re talking about is who is going to pay them. So when we buy incredibly cheap goods that are produced by supply chains that on some level involve a lot of human suffering and misery and also environmental degradation, that cheapness is completely illusory. It’s not that by not paying it, we’re making the prices go away. We’re just making someone else pay those prices, often someone in a much more vulnerable position, maybe somewhere else in the world, maybe in our own country. There’s been a lot of terrifying reporting in the last year about the resurgence of child labor and American factories. Maybe they are people in future generations, maybe they are non-humans, maybe they are animals and ecosystems, but there is this price, we’re just not paying it. So true pricing kind of imports, I think, very reasonable moral and ethical considerations back into the economic sphere and says, Well, maybe we, broadly conceived, should be paying these prices. Not necessarily consumers, I mean, companies could pay them, governments could pay them, consumers could help. What seems least defensible, is what we’re currently doing. And that’s kind of ignoring them and having vulnerable workers and the natural world bear the brunt of our current consumption and production practices.

Scott Ferguson:  If I understand you correctly, the importance is not coming up with exact pricing, as if now we’re getting the number right. If anything, it seems more about re-injecting or newly disclosing the political rhetorical, qualitative, ethical and moral constructs that hide behind seemingly natural prices. In that way, it seems to me like this really speaks to or fits within a much longer tradition of thinking about what was called, especially in the Middle Ages, Just Price Theory, right. And I’m thinking about the writings of Thomas Aquinas and others who were not just talking about what is a fair contract between two people or two firms or something like that. But how does the whole system get organized in order to create a more just economic system?

Nick Romeo:  Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that’s like a fascinating tradition, the Just Price theorizing from Aquinas onward. But no, I think that’s right. There’s something very interesting, psychologically, that happens when you use quantification as a tool. There is this illusion of utter precision, where there’s a sense that, okay, we’ve got this exact price. Here’s what it’s worth, to, let’s say, degrade the aquifer beneath the land that grows the grain that feeds the cow, etc, etc. It is a useful tool, but I think it’s important to see it as a heuristic, right? It’s a first approximation, it is based on assumptions. And yet, it’s not invented, right? You can look at studies that say, well, here’s how long it would take to restore soil quality. Even with the treatment of workers, here’s what a reasonable living wage would be, so you’re under paying workers by this amount. That figure is not arbitrary. But it is debatable, right. It’s not a finding of natural science. It’s a construct that is still very useful. I mean, I think a lot of the subtler economic thinkers are completely on board with that. But there is often this slippage where just by virtue of quantification, people sometimes have the sense that we’ve given a completely exacting and exhaustive account of value. So I agree with how you put it, basically. Yeah.

Billy Saas:  It seems too that the True Price system, to a certain extent, in the Amsterdam example, and in your book it exists in that country. It exists more generally, and I think this is where the MMT framework can come in handy, in places like the United States where we have sin taxes in states. And we have tax schedules that are organized and arranged federally where, in a very real way, the state is determining the price of doing certain activities. It is harnessing its ability in the case of the federal government to create and regulate the money system. So I’m thinking about disincentivizing it by making it prohibitively expensive, for example, to buy cigarettes. To do things that will, and there are some calculations that are done to that effect. I guess I’d be interested in exploring the differences between what’s exciting about the True Price system and what already exists in terms of a tax system, that is, primarily, it seems about incentivizing certain labor and disincentivizing labor and consumption in other directions.

Nick Romeo:  Yeah, that’s a really interesting point. I think I do see where you’re going with that. I mean, one thought is the True Price, in part, is a kind of consciousness raising tool, right? So one could probably make the same case about taxes, although I don’t think they’re quite as ubiquitous as prices, especially in a consumer society. You forget about them a lot of the time, and then you grumble once a year and deal with them or something. But maybe with the exception of sales taxes, sales taxes might be an exception there. To take cigarettes, your example, it’s interesting how it can apply to so many things. Hamburgers: people have done these really striking calculations about if we paid the real cost of a hamburger with a more expansive scope, boundary, defining those costs in space and time on humans and nonhumans, very few people would eat a lot of $120 Hamburgers, right? This would just change consumer behavior. But for people who were still willing to do that sort of behavior at an exorbitantly high price, you would also then generate some surplus, some revenue that could be used to remediate those harms in theory. So I don’t know if that answers your question. But that’s a provocative one.

Billy Saas:  It does get me thinking about hamburger parties in the Hamptons, and I liked that thought. It’s kind of funny to me.

Scott Ferguson:  Maybe we should move on to the next chapter in which you take on the construction of the very idea of a living wage. This is a phrase that gets thrown out a lot. I think I often use it, especially when I’m trying to argue for and explain what a federal job guarantee or a local job guarantee might be, and what kind of social benefits it will provide. I’ll say, it provides a living wage, right. But you’ve looked into how that notion is variously constructed, and some of the problems and possibilities with it.

Nick Romeo:  Yeah, you know, I found this chapter really interesting to report and research because I think, like you, I had this view that living wages are really pretty good. They let people enjoy a reasonable and decent kind of middle class life. And my sense of what that means would include things like going out to a meal, now and then in a restaurant, saving a bit for retirement, being able to buy your kids a gift, saving a bit for a rainy day fund, cars break down, phones get dropped, stuff comes up in life. All of this intuitively seems like part of living. So if we have the term living wage, shouldn’t it enable this? So in that chapter, I look at one of the more influential living wage calculators, which is run by an economist at MIT, it’s just the MIT living wage calculator. So this is used by all sorts of businesses in wage setting, as well as by nonprofits in shaping policy guidelines. So it’s a very influential tool. Yet, the actual content of life that this tool enables it’s very meager, and it’s much less generous than the idea of a living wage even 100 years ago, as articulated by people like Teddy Roosevelt, the Labour leader Samuel Gompers, the Catholic priest John Ryan, who coined the phrase ‘living wage’ in a book. They all had a much more capacious sense of what living was that includes some of those elements I mentioned, like saving for retirement, for a rainy day, some vacation or leisure time. All of this seems like it should be part of living. So when you have a highly influential tool that receives some level of corporate support for its research, and then that same research is enabling corporations to pay very meager wages, alarm bells pretty naturally go off. The chapter is kind of trying to argue for an expansion of the concept, but we’re in a tricky terminological corner, because the living wage already exists in the public imagination and its true terms are largely defined. So for people who want to expand it, the options can feel cumbersome. You can say, we pay a “real” living wage or a “true” living wage. In the UK, this gets a little more absurd because they call what we call a minimum wage the living wage. So then their critics want the true living wage, but then they themselves have a pretty constrained definition. So now we’re several levels in and you have to have: “no the real true living wage” … At some point, you kind of throw your hands up and say we need a new term. Yet there’s something really important that that term captures, which is that there’s a moral dimension to wage setting. It’s not simply where supply and demand meet and markets clear, where the good in question is labored. No, there’s a kind of moral choice that employers are making when they’re when they’re wage setting.

Billy Saas:  Thinking about these terms back to the true price, but incorporating it here, the definition of life and living, the definition of true. These are the province of philosophers, and rhetoricians, and humanities scholars broadly, right? So it seems like your book makes a compelling argument that we need to bring philosophy back into the center of economic discussions. As we’ve been talking about these things, I completely agree. It occurs to me that when it comes to these moral questions the economists as presently trained are some of the least equipped to have them. To a certain extent an economist is someone who can get away with making broad claims without considering the moral and ethical components of those claims and impacts of those claims. They just sort of don’t have to. It’s assumed that they will not. So of these projects, you document several of them, it seems economists are maybe not the best to have these conversations, although there are exceptions, of course. Maybe Silicon Valley bros are not the best at determining how labor should be distributed and how people should be paid. This was, I think, one of the more exciting, in that it’s new, and I wasn’t aware of it, and I could see its implementation. Scott and I were talking about it before jumping on with you, it seems incredibly promising. Could you talk to us about the public management of the gig economy as it’s being piloted in a town in California?

Nick Romeo:  Yeah, absolutely. I also find this a really fascinating case study. I think it’s maybe a little bit more outside the Overton window. But that’s kind of precisely why it’s interesting. Living wages are on people’s radar, even if the term has been corrupted and co-opted. It’s sort of in the imagination already. But the idea that gig work should exist is a public manifestation, that there should basically be a public option for people who do irregular work. Now, that could be irregular work, as the gig companies are currently structured. So delivering food, driving, those kinds of part time jobs, but it could also be all kinds of other irregular work, whether that’s engineering or architectural, or legal. There’s not something limiting it to one set of occupations. The deep insight, I think, in this chapter is that the current benefits of gig work are separable from its private sector manifestation. So you can retain some of those benefits. In fact, you can increase them. Things like flexibility, an attractive range of types of work, you can retain those benefits while eliminating some of the very well documented downsides. So for instance, if you deliver or drive for some of the dominant gig work companies today, you may lose 30 to 50% of every transaction in fees that are supporting venture capitalists and distant shareholders. That’s a huge part of the economic transaction that’s flowing away from the workers. A public option could dramatically reduce that extractive component. It might be 2%-5% per transaction, enough to maintain overhead and infrastructure for the platform, but there’s no commitment to enrich shareholders. That’s not part of the structure. It operates in the public interest, by design. If you had a public option for good work, you would have much more money left on the table for those workers. This could also show up in more affordable prices for consumers, right? Again, there would be a kind of ethical calculus that would have to balance those competing demands. But increasing the size of the pie is one very attractive feature. Another thing that I think is striking here is that there are good reasons to aggregate a lot of supply and demand for work in one place. Network effects are real. Convenience goes up for both job seekers, and for the consumers of that work when a lot of people are in one place. So by siloing all of this work across dozens of competing private sector platforms, where we’re losing efficiency, interestingly. The private sector is being lauded every day in the media as this sort of generator of efficiency and ruthless productivity. In fact, it’s highly inefficient, a public option could be much more efficient in harnessing those network effects. A final thing I’ll say about that chapter is just that we’re already familiar with this model, right? Public infrastructure is cherished even today, in a kind of bipartisan sense. People liked the Post Office, right? People liked functioning roads, people like safe water. So road systems, water networks, expanding that same principle to labor markets, such that workers had safe, attractive options for jobs with benefits that could be portable, like you could enforce labor law much more readily. You could have benefits that travel with workers, their legal classification as employees, all of this would be much easier in a public sector option. A final interesting wrinkle, and then I’ll pause. But a final interesting wrinkle with this is, there’s a certain amount of latitude in implementation. There are trials happening at municipal levels in multiple cities around America. There’s also interest from larger, regional governments in multiple countries. One other wrinkle that is kind of interesting is that even if you are highly committed to the somewhat tendentious view that private markets are inherently more efficient, and you think, okay, a public option would just be mired in bureaucracy and red tape and it would function like the DMV, it would be no fun, right? No one would want to go use it. Even if you have that view, that’s actually not fatal to this model. And the reason for that is that you could have a sort of concession, whereby, in the same way that a national lottery or a National Park will have private operators functioning within a broadly public program. The operation of the platform per se, you could have a competitive bid and let a company operate it. And then so whatever sorts of benefits that are, in fact, unique to private markets, you can retain those right? If the platform is just going to be much more intuitive and well designed, the software will never glitch if a private company runs it. Okay, let’s assume that that is the case: we can still have a public option, you just have a concession whereby, you know, for a term of five years through a competitive bid, a private operator manages the platform. But the statutory function is still in the public interest, right? Profits are kept for that private operator. And the goal is the provision of work in a public utility model.

Scott Ferguson:  I’m curious if any of the people you talk to or any of your research took you to the history of workforce boards in the United States? I have an older friend in the Tampa Bay area who, for Hillsborough County, worked in public job training and placement for decades and decades, from the Great Society to the end of welfare as we know it. He saw all those changes, and they were able to do all kinds of interesting, creative activist training and placement work and they would have libraries built and then they would have the people they were working with staff those libraries once they were built. Building boardwalks along waterways and creating jobs and training people and placing people in public employment. According to his telling, I’m not some, studied historian of this history, but I know something about it. According to him, it’s the Clinton administration in the 90s that changed the legal structure of workforce boards, which basically turned the requirements for representation from public majority to private majority. So the more active, public governmental mediation of job training, and job placement that used to go on has been more and more and more privatized, and serving private interests. It seems like this model of a public option for a digital gig economy would be a way to push back against the legacy of Clintonism.

Nick Romeo:  Yeah, absolutely. I think workforce boards are probably one of the more plausible candidates for implementing this model. I know, in fact, that they are already in conversation around the country with Wingham Rowan, who is a sort of British policy entrepreneur who helped introduce this idea to the American political and economic space, he is very closely integrated to workforce boards. It makes sense intuitively, you’re already as a Workforce Board convening a lot of private sector employers getting a sense of your local labor market. So if there is a stadium in town that hires a lot of people seasonally, or maybe there is a dock where a lot of cargo is getting unloaded but they’re hiring workers sporadically. They’re already looking for reliable workers, and instead of letting all of that work go through private sector staffing agencies, which again, take very large, extractive cuts per transaction. Aggregating that through a public sector option, I think it can push back on privatization, which I don’t know the Clinton history, but I think that sounds right, broadly. Another thought is just that public entities, whether this is City Hall, public schools, parks, and open space departments, are already large employers in many states and cities around the country. There’s a lot of work that they are hiring, much of it is part time and flexible. So there’s basically a lot of low hanging fruit. I think workforce boards are natural conveners to sort of match supply and demand within a more prosocial public option framework.

Scott Ferguson:  Great, this obviously leads us to what led us to you, which is the job guarantee or jobs guarantee. The phrase is interchangeable. So you became interested in this pilot program that’s in this small town in Austria. Our listeners are pretty familiar with the job guarantee, because that plays a huge role in Modern Monetary Theory, Pavlina Tcherneva, who is an MMT Economist you cite at length in your book, in your chapter about the job guarantee.

Nick Romeo:  Yes.

Scott Ferguson:  If we just presume that our audience probably knows something about the job guarantee, what was it like experientially as a reporter to go check out what they’re doing in Austria?

Nick Romeo:  It was fascinating. This town, it’s maybe 45 minutes outside of Vienna. It’s got a really interesting history where, in the 1930s, it was decided this classic sociological study on the effects of unemployment. It was a one factory town, factory shuts down in the 1930s. Some sociologists show up from the University of Vienna, and in a very kind of journalistic, anthropological way, they just ask people questions, they spend time with them, they talk to them about how their lives are going. The results are really quite sad, but very interesting. people’s mental health kind of falls apart without work. A lot of the social fabric of the town frays. People have this sort of sense of structureless-ness to the day, they don’t really know what to do. There are quotes from original people in the study where they say things to the effect of: I just feel kind of stuck between the four walls of my room. I don’t know what to do all day. So fast forward to the present where the job guarantee is a kind of reversal of the original condition. The first sociologists are studying the effects of unemployment. Today, what happens with guaranteed employment? How does this affect people? Not just economically, but psychologically, socially as well. Chatting with folks, it was almost uncanny how some of the comments from the original study showed up in different forms. I talked to one guy who said, I have breakfast, and then it’s just like, I don’t know what to do all day. He was describing being unemployed before he joined the job guarantee. So this sense of like, looming expanses of time that are very hard to fill. There are both economists and sociologists involved in studying the current job guarantee. The plural of anecdote is not data, but they do have data. I was there getting anecdotes, and you put those two things together, it’s a pretty compelling picture of how meaningful work is and that’s an important caveat, people in the job guarantee are co-designing the work they do, they’re not just forced into any job. But meaningful work has these tremendous benefits for time structure, self esteem, and social relationships. It was a huge range of folks that were participating in the job guarantee, also. Just being there and talking with dozens of them and pretty quickly dispelled any stereotype of the typical unemployed person. It was everything from people with advanced degrees to people who hadn’t finished high school. A huge range of ethnic backgrounds, range of ages. One thing that was kind of interesting, this is a cumbersome phrase, I’m not sure I love it. But there was this sort of internalized neoliberalism in a lot of their comments where they felt like unemployed people are still sort of just like, “bad and lazy”, and “even though I’m in this job guarantee, and I’m eligible for it, because I was unemployed, I’m not like those people. I’m the exception.” You wonder sometimes just talking to folks, that feels like a pretty devastatingly harsh view that is pretty deeply internalized in a lot of people’s comments. That’s another thing that was a bit of a through line in remarks was the sense that you are a bit of a failure if you haven’t found a job, even though they sort of recognize that the private market is failing utterly. Not only is it not producing enough jobs, but it’s not satisfying a lot of basic needs. A lot of work that needs to be done, whether that’s care work, green transition work. I do lean heavily on Pavlina. She has a wonderful book on The Case for a Job Guarantee, and what it would look like at a federal level, which was really influential to how I approached that town in Austria. I think she makes very effective arguments for how it could scale and why it’s a compelling proposal. But the journalistic work was just fascinating. It’s really powerful to hear folks talk about the non-financial benefits of work.

Billy Saas:  In the introduction, you preview the book by talking about a bunch of really promising developments, policies that are being piloted and tried out and all these cities across the world. But you also say that some are not considered or discussed in your book. In certain cases, the omission of discussion of those policies or initiatives reflects a critical assessment. I couldn’t help but notice that universal basic income is not featured, although there are pilot programs for UBI across the world. I’ll just qualify and say that we’re not big UBI folks. We’re jobs guarantee folks. So I wonder if UBI might be one of those that you have a critical assessment in your back pocket and ready to talk about or not, or if there are others that you considered, but didn’t make it into the book?

Nick Romeo:  Yeah, you know, I think the big one is crypto. I don’t see that as a plausible or even legitimate intervention that can improve economic outcomes from people. It seems just like a Ponzi scheme, and the evidence for that accumulates almost weekly with new legal indictments of various companies around the world. So the other things that don’t make it into the book, I’m very sympathetic to various policies. Tax policy, for instance, I would love to have done a chapter and did get some way into reporting for a chapter on international tax evasion, tax fraud. There is not any sort of plausible role for tax evasion in a just economy. So the exclusion of that from the book was much more a matter of just practicality than principle. I would have loved to have had the bandwidth and the time to really report that out thoroughly. You won’t be surprised to hear that these are really kind of intricate, complicated cases. If you’re going to do justice to tax evasion that spans many jurisdictions and continents, and has very sophisticated accounting to conceal any wrongdoing, that would almost be a book itself. So I wasn’t able to do that. I would definitely like to explore that more. The universal basic income, I also am more sympathetic to Job Guarantees than I am to UBI, and there are a few reasons for that. That being said, I’m certainly not opposed to all of the interesting experiments. It does seem to have lots of traction, there’s a lot of good research on it. People don’t spend the money on video games or alcohol. It’s very helpful as a kind of buffer. One thing I find a little more compelling about job guarantees is just what we were describing, some of the psychological benefits that people can derive from meaningful work. The objection, often, to that comment I just made is that all of those benefits reflect a previous socialization in which we’re taught to think that work should be central to our identities, and this is the kind of capitalist socialization that we should resist. I don’t know, I mean, I don’t have a strong view on that. I can understand that critique. But I also feel like it could very easily be overstated, and that there probably is something pretty deep in human nature that responds to doing meaningful work with other humans. I guess, again, the UBI folks would try to take a generous view of what their response would be, would probably say: Well, sure, people will still do that. They’ll mount musical productions, and they’ll stage plays. Maybe they’ll even do all kinds of things that people in jobs currently do, but it won’t be within an employment framework and that’ll be better. Sure, that could be the case. The other thing I find a little more compelling about a job guarantee, though, is just that we do have so much work that has to be done, right? I mean, I’m thinking of two things in particular: care work and infrastructure slash green transition. We don’t care well for young people, or old people, or sick people in America. That’s like a huge need. When you combine that, there are a lot of people who are a latent workforce who are not working, because private sector options are atrocious, and don’t work for them. Combined care work with all of the green transition and infrastructure work that we desperately need, I see job guarantees as a tool for meeting that in a way that UBI might not be able to.

Scott Ferguson:  Yeah, and for the record, I think we are all for robust welfare benefits. We’re all for not letting people starve, and we’re all for public spending that allows for self actualization. But I think we concur with your critical comments about UBI and would just follow up and say that it’s a largely laissez faire kind of libertarian approach to problems that need, as your book points out over and over again, that needs some serious provisioning. Like some serious design and structures and possibilities, rather than just leaving people with some minimal amount of funds to experiment a little bit on their own. If there aren’t social structures to experiment within, then where are you going to do that experiment?

Nick Romeo:  Absolutely. Yeah. I think we’re on the same page there.

Scott Ferguson:  Just had to add an idea. So a job guarantee, right. So I’m thinking about an ideal world where everybody’s happy, including the UBI advocates: Jobs Guarantee and then also a publicly administered gig platform where one of the gigs is thinking about all the things you would do with your UBI. So just getting together and brainstorming…I don’t know.

Nick Romeo:  I actually think that a publicly administered option for irregular work would be a very natural mechanism for implementing a job guarantee?  I mean, that could be one among many other options on that platform. Another thing that we haven’t touched on, but I’m sure you’re aware of with job guarantees is that they exert this really positive pressure on private sector employers. So depending on your moral framework, this is good or bad, right? I mean, a lot of people would say, this is horrible, private sector folks will have to pay more, they’ll have to improve the quality of jobs, precisely because people have a compelling outside option. They know they can go find a nice, well paid and enjoyable and meaningful job through the public sector. So why would I work at a horrific private sector employee that changes my hours week to week, where I have no voice and no agency and a very low wage? Well, if those people have an outside option? Yes, they will take until private sector employers improve conditions and wages. So that upward pressure, I think, is another very compelling feature of a federal job guarantee. In some sense, this might be a faster route to a genuine living wage than living wage laws. I’m not sure I would actually defend that statement too hard. But it’s this sort of other way to get to that same goal. I think a genuine living wage legislation would be wonderful. But if we can’t get that we could also have a job guarantee that sort of functionally does the same thing.

Billy Saas:  Yeah.

Scott Ferguson:  I mean, that is an argument that we stand behind, and it’s very much part of MMT thinking. I think Pavlina would stand by it as well, which is that the way it’s often framed is that even with minimum wage laws, as long as there is structural unemployment, that the true minimum wage in a country, an economy, and the world, is $0.

Nick Romeo:  Yes.

Scott Ferguson:  It’s only through a public option and a wage and benefits floor for the entire economy that you can get to anything resembling a minimum wage, let alone a living wage.

Nick Romeo:  Absolutely, yeah.

Billy Saas:  Wonder if the gig platform and the publicly administered platform for irregular labor would also be a kind of backdoor to implementing a jobs guarantee. So right, anybody who needs a job can get one through the irregular labor, locally administered job board that just expands and it can be framed as a municipal innovation, right? You could get some seed money from some, maybe not just any venture capitalist, but a socially minded one. Have in its charter that it’s supposed to be. I’m always trying to think about ways to get it through the back door, because I don’t think the jobs guarantee, and maybe this is my last question for you about this is surely you’ve thought about the political prospects of these various initiatives, and you’re sensitive to their contexts and to what kind of conditions might need to be in place for these different things to flourish or even be considered at the local level. There needs to be certain progressive values or other politics present in order for some of these things to happen. Where do you stand in terms of your relative level of optimism and pessimism on a scale for the wider spread implementation? Do you see promising developments? Maybe this is the better way to go? Which trajectories do you find most promising of the policies and plans that you outlined in the book?

Nick Romeo:  With the caveat that it’s hard to read the crystal ball accurately, I do have some thoughts on that. And I am pretty optimistic in an American context that the municipal level could function as the proof of concept for the irregular public sector option. I love the thought of this functioning as a backdoor for a job guarantee as well. And I think actually in some of the cities that are currently thinking about it, that may be perhaps not explicitly articulated as a goal but it may be a kind of implicit strategy that exists to give people work. By aggregating a lot of demand for labor, both public sector jobs, but also private sector ones, we want to have a sufficient supply of demand for labor, such that anyone interested in finding a job within the city can do so. I think in an American context, that is going to be the route by which it scales. I’d be a little surprised if it started federally, and then flourished locally. I think if you have proof of concept at city, or maybe state levels, this could be compelling. Now, it would be wonderful to have an entire government take this on and that seems more possible around the world. You could think maybe about a New Zealand, maybe an Ireland, depending on what happens with elections. You can imagine certain governments being relatively open to some version of this. I’m sure you’re probably more familiar than me with the program in India as well, which is enormous in its scale, but somewhat limited in maybe its scope and the access to work that it provides for everyone. But I guess I am sort of optimistic. If you think back, even six or seven years, a lot of the major industrial policy, I’ll call it, that Biden has done would have seemed pretty inconceivable during the first Trump administration. You wouldn’t have thought that the CHIPS Act or the IRA would happen. That would have seemed kind of wild. So in five or six years, a lot of stuff that seems a little far fetched today could be quite plausible. You just said the first Trump administration. What did you mean by? Oh, God you’re right. I’m not feeling optimistic. Maybe we should strike that from the record. Of course, that’s a terrifying thought. But it’s not looking good.

Billy Saas:  It’s not looking good. In part because a lot of this has to do with domestic variously defined national or intra-state intra-governmental policy. I wonder if the international versions of these programs, or applications of this kind of thinking, have you come across more internationalist versions of the job guarantee or or any of these other programs that don’t seem to be so limited? Because I think one of the, or a shortcoming potentially of the job guarantee, as currently conceived, is that it does seem to be bounded. Not necessarily, not essentially. But in terms of the imagination, and the way that we talk about it, it tends to be, you said in the American context. I’m not expecting you to have the answer or even an answer, but more to highlight and open up discussion of international contexts and its foreign policy, in addition to domestic policy when it comes to these questions of like economic justice, and employment for all.

Nick Romeo:  Yeah, that’s a very interesting question that I don’t have a great answer for. I’m not aware of any international job guarantee, or even really how that would function. I mean, the one thing that I will say just from the book is that one of the models I focus on is the Mondragon cooperatives in the Basque Country in northern Spain, and they have a lot of incredible features. Yet one of the things that are consistently criticized for is that they rely on cheap labor. So not within Spain, but in places like China and Mexico. A lot of the precursor components for the industrial manufacturing that happens in Spain, a lot of this is coming from very low wage contexts where people are not unionized, they’re not paid particularly well. There are not great labor conditions. There has been some effort by Mondragon to try to extend a worker-owned cooperative model into these international contexts so that their entire supply chain would reflect the same values that they’re so, I think, rightly proud of at Mondragon in Spain. They haven’t had a lot of success, and people are kind of split on why that’s the case. If you listen to Mondragon, they’ll say, look at the local laws, labor laws, tax laws, even the ability to have a legal structure as a cooperative, this just doesn’t exist in these contexts. We can’t make everything in Spain, we have to have the competitive advantage that derives from these supply chains that originate in places like Mexico and China, or else we’ll literally go bankrupt. That’s the Mondragon story, for what it’s worth. On the other hand, there are critics, including people within Mondragon, who say we’ve got to be able to figure this out. It’s possible here, it may be harder elsewhere. There are some interesting stories about even cultural resistance among workers in Mexico, for instance, who have not heard of a worker owned co-op and are very suspicious of it, and are not particularly interested when people come and try to get them excited about transforming their company into that model. There’s a lot of pushback. That being said, Noam Chomsky is famous for criticizing Mondragon on these grounds. But even people within Mondriaan are pretty sensitive to this sort of double standard and the way workers are treated. I guess it just seems like a tricky issue that has not really been solved effectively. I’d be curious if you guys have thoughts on how to extend either job guarantee or just better wages and benefits in an international context. That seems like a tough one. The only other thought I have on that is true pricing. Right? Because that is a mechanism for saying exactly how much we are under paying people throughout a supply chain. If the European Union does pass some of this supply chain due diligence legislation, then if companies are shown to have human rights abuses in their supply chain, they’ll be sued for a lot of money. It doesn’t feel like a great solution, but it is a sort of tool, right? I mean, this could motivate improvement in working conditions along, really, the whole length of supply chains that span continents. But what do you guys think?

Billy Saas:  Just to clarify what got me on this trajectory was considering the prospects of a second Trump administration in light of the fact that currently there’s a lot of discourse around how good the economy is, and how people are ignoring that Biden has gotten us through and that his policies work. Throwing their hands up at his historically low popularity levels, while also not really having discussion about the foreign policy of the United States, and the kind of apparent and striking, stark incompatibility of a robust domestic program of public provisioning, at the same time, as one is provisioning, foreign militaries and the support of them as they conduct occupations. It seems like there’s moral inconsistency there that needs to be parsed and grappled with. I feel like it’s too easy to say, well, these are separate issues, and that we can have this conversation without having that conversation. But that is increasingly implausible, also.

Scott Ferguson:  Even some of the earlier, big Biden legislation was often packaged as good and as interesting and as neoliberal-jamming as they were. And I support them for those reasons. They were nevertheless packaged as anti-China. This zero-sum game with China and we got to put down China or we got to get ahead of China. So, yeah, there’s all kinds of dimensions to this.

Billy Saas:  I don’t think we have any answers.

Scott Ferguson:  We have no answers, just problems.

Nick Romeo:  I think it’s an important question. I don’t know how far we should go down this road, but it reminds me a bit of the green growth versus degrowth debates where the folks who lean really hard on green growth often buttress their arguments for a decoupling between economic growth and environmental impact. Those arguments are really effective to the extent that they have a very narrow scope. They don’t count emissions along the entire length of supply chains. So what looks like decoupling, if you kind of zoom out and expand the scope, which of course for ecosystems and climate is really the only reasonable approach, those arguments become much less persuasive very quickly. In a global context, we’re not doing well, environmentally. I agree that sort of partitioning that off from the economic success story is misguided. Yeah.

Scott Ferguson:  Well I don’t want to let you go without asking you to talk about one of your later chapters in which you take on these legal forms that I admit I knew nothing about. But I find them totally fascinating. It’s kind of expanding your exploration of alternative models of ownership that you discuss in the Mondragon chapter. That’s what this legal instrument called Perpetual Purpose Trusts. Do I have that right?

Nick Romeo:  Yes. That’s right.

Scott Ferguson:  So what are they? And what do they do? And why are they important?

Nick Romeo:  Yeah, so they’re sometimes also called employee ownership trust, but whatever they’re called, they are legal documents, and they are a new way of organizing ownership of companies. To back up a little bit, if you think about someone who is on the point of selling their company, maybe a retiring baby boomer, of which there is no shortage in America. There’s a lot of wealth that will be transitioning in the next decade, and it’s happening already. One thing those folks can do is simply sell to a strategic buyer or to private equity. So a competitor within their economic sector, or a bigger private equity firm, typically. Now, if you do that, it’s very likely that your business will cease to exist. The strategy of rolling up companies within a sector, this happened famously with veterinary practices in private equity. But it’s actually a pretty pervasive strategy. So jobs go away, stuff gets consolidated. Return on Investment over a pretty short term time horizon is prioritized. What’s an alternative model? Well, this is where the legal instrument of a trust becomes important because you can kind of guarantee through the trust that the business will not be sold to private equity. You can say this business will remain owned by its workers, or it will remain owned by an advisory board. But you can stipulate within the trust not only a permanent ownership structure, but also a permanent set of goals that typically do not include profit maximization. So some of the folks I’ve profiled in the book are using this to enshrine very prosocial goals: things like profit sharing with employees, things like donating a percentage of profits to an environmental non-profit, even structural things like never letting the highest to the lowest paid worker ratio exceed 10:1. Another example is prioritizing hiring people who are formerly homeless or incarcerated. There’s a bakery in Oakland, right next door to where I live that wanted to enshrine that goal, but they also needed financing. They needed money from investors. The concern was, if we take money without any kind of protection, the goal of the business is kind of expensive. It’s hard to work with folks who are formerly homeless. This costs money. If our investors want their return, and they see an opportunity to cut costs, we could lose the entire mission of the business. The trust is a way around these kinds of dilemmas. It’s a way of permanently enshrining more prosocial motivations into the DNA of the ownership of a company.

Billy Saas:  We spoke, I guess a couple years ago, with Kim Stanley Robinson about his book, the Ministry For The Future, which as I was reading your book, found a lot of parallel in terms of object. It seems like if we are to right the ship, in whatever way you choose, but especially with respect to environmental catastrophe, we need to fundamentally rethink our relationship to the economy and ask questions about what it is. So there’s optimism, I think I asked earlier about pessimism and optimism. I share I think both with you, I detect both in your answers. It depends contextually. But in terms of Kim Stanley Robinson’s work in that book, are you familiar with it?

Nick Romeo:  I am. Yeah, I’ve read that novel.

Billy Saas:  So that novel. You know, it’s about a job guarantee. He talks about Mondragon. He talks about all of these different initiatives, and it’s not one thing, it’s a basket to use a favorite metaphor for economists. It’s a basket of things.  They are all necessary in the end. One of the things that has stuck with me about and I think is relevant in our current context where we have Elon Musk owning X, formally Twitter, and the ownership of our social media platforms are so much of the information. Where we will share about this episode of this podcast and effectively help to perpetuate his ownership and wealth. That at the center of KSR’s work is an intervention into public ownership of media. And the labor that is done collectively by people who participate in it. I guess, I wonder if you have any thoughts in that direction, about the place of not just social media, but media generally, media work as a media — I don’t know if you consider yourself a media worker, as a writer who publishes in primarily online spaces now. Yes, maybe ask you by way of conclusion to sort of reflect on your position in this broader media landscape and help us to, to understand our own.

Nick Romeo:  Yeah.

Scott Ferguson:  Easy question. A little lob.

Billy Saas:  Softball.

Nick Romeo:  That’s such a great question. I’m sure we could have a whole other conversation just on that topic, much of which would need to be off the record. In part, because I’m very critical of the way the mainstream media covers economics. A lot of it is just so disappointing. It’s so limited in scope and imagination. There’s a kind of hagiography of entrepreneurs as visionaries, which is often just profoundly misguided and un-empirical. There’s this cheerleading for the Fed and markets, and the casual acceptance of very outmoded models, whether that’s through labor markets, or how inflation works, how unemployment works. I’m very critical of both right and left wing media coverage of economics. So I like your suggestion, which I’m sure Kim Stan would agree that ownership of media itself is a pretty decisive intervention. It’s not a coincidence that the current UK government is trying to kill the BBC. NPR loses public funding, it seems by the year. The one thing that gives me a little hope for the media is the nonprofit model. Places like ProPublica, but really quite a few other very, very impressive newsrooms are grant funded. You’re still in some sense relying on the goodwill of foundations, and very wealthy people, some of whom have very questionable political commitments. It’s not a perfect system, but I think any kind of protection where you have a dedicated endowment, and then you can do your own research and reporting that’s helpful. Even The New York Times takes a lot of money from the fossil fuel industry. They have this outfit called T Brand Studios, where they write ads for fossil fuel companies using The New York Times employees. So they’ll have their kind of climate coverage, and then right next door, they’re making money from T Brand Studios. The Guardian, in 2019, stopped taking money from fossil fuel companies, which is encouraging and a generation ago that same debate played out with taking out money from the tobacco industry. the majors in cigarettes. So there’s some hope. More and more people in the media are realizing that how it’s funded really has huge implications for what is covered and how it’s covered. I think the disappointment I have with mainstream coverage and economics is not unique to me. I think a lot of thoughtful people feel this kind of sense of claustrophobia when they read the coverage. So maybe they just don’t read the coverage. But that’s a problem, too. To zoom out a little bit, Paul Samuelson is not the only person sculpting cultural common sense, however influential his econ textbook is, it’s also the journalists who study that textbook and then go to write for Bloomberg or the Times, or NPR. A lot of ostensibly liberal publications are absolutely committed to very un-empirical and dogmatic economic positions that are not taken seriously by a lot of economists who would like to change how the field is taught. Maybe that brings us full circle to teaching economics, letting that shape journalism, changing the ownership and funding structure of journalism: all of these interventions are really crucial to improving what the philosopher Michael Polanyi talks about The Tacit Dimension, which is this kind of reservoir of assumptions and common sense. Brother of the famous Viennese economic historian Karl Polanyi. Very interesting family.

Billy Saas:  That was wonderful.

Nick Romeo:  Great. Great.

Billy Saas:  Nick Romeo. Thank you so much for joining us on Money on the Left. We really enjoyed it.Nick Romeo:  Thanks to you both. It was a pleasure.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Mike Lewis (transcription), & Robert Rusch (graphic art)