Money as a Constitutional Medium

Money as a Constitutional Medium

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Christine Desan —

In 2017, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York published a comic book on the origins of money. The story, called “Once Upon a Dime,” unspools sweetly. Far far away, on the planet Novus, a community of good-willed humanoids live together, trading what they have for what they need – mustard for fish, wheels for cakes. In good time, the inconveniences of barter push them to innovate. All agree to give and take artfully carved river stones as money. That eases their trade; they can “Do It More Efficiently” (thus the “dime”) and the little community prospers. People soon warehouse their rocks with a caretaker, who begins allowing customers to transfer rocks from one account to another by check. The caretaker also advances some of the funds he has “stored here at the bank.” Inter-bank loans follow naturally, as does a run on the banks. In the end, the group establishes a central bank to monitor the other banks and lend them money during emergencies.  In short, “first money replaced barter,” then banks developed “as storehouses” and as lenders, then the group appoints a central bank to supervise the banks.

“Once Upon a Dime” does not stray from the conventional story about money. To the contrary, it reinforces the tale, teaching it at a primary level and in living color. That makes the comic all the more arresting: it makes a constitutional argument about the nature of money and its place in society even as it deflects attention by casting the medium as a mechanical fix for a private problem.

Consider, first, the way the comic locates money firmly within the sphere of individual choice as opposed to the political will: money is the product of entrepreneurial initiative (the proposal to use rocks as a medium), adopted by social acclaim (convention as opposed to public authority), and targeted at a technical problem (awkward exchange). Distribution is assumed; the river rocks somehow spread around society. Banks evolve from a storage mechanism, a phenomenon of convenience more than credit. As for credit, it simply shifts resources, rather than creating new value, a service like any other. The central bank is only ambiguously “public,” an institution that will enforce self-evident standards of practice and provide occasional rescue.

Consider, in turn, the way the narrative diverts our attention as lawyers. By locating money as an inert medium and banks as the mechanism that pools and shifts the medium, the story asserts them only and emphatically as technologies of exchange.   Public authority surfaces only as a coordinating mechanism, occasioned to resolve a predictable collision of individual demand. If money operates on earth as it operates on Novus, there is really nothing much for us to see.

That is where the story falls apart.

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The Impact and Malleability of Money Design

Christine Desan –

9780674970953Mehrsa Baradaran’s book teaches us that money has a color, an arresting proposition to fans and foes of capitalism alike.   As she points out, economic orthodoxy posits that the transactional medium is itself a formal instrument:  money expresses but does not affect the value of the substances it measures.  Critics of that orthodoxy agree even as they bemoan the results:  money denies through its very impersonality the social substrate of exchange.  Against that commonsense, Baradaran directs us to consider how the institutions of money creation in the United States – commercial banks – have systemically originated money in white hands over decades.  That is, considering money as a process – asking how value is packaged into the everyday units we call dollars and injected into circulation – reveals that we have designed a market that is racially discriminatory in its very medium.

Baradaran challenges us to recognize how much determinations about money’s design matter.  That proposition is particularly striking because they are also remarkably malleable:  altering the institutions that deliver credit in money can change the way people and groups relate to one another.  I want to underscore Baradaran’s argument about the practice of black banking by exploring an alternative vision.  Only when the monetary project of the agrarian populists failed did Americans settle on the exclusionary system that Baradaran describes.  The contrast suggests that designing money is shaping community; it can bring people together or set them at each other’s throats.

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