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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Black Proprietorship and Crises of Value

Shirley E. Thompson –

9780674970953By shedding historical light on the development and practices of black banking, Mehrsa Baradaran’s excellent and thought-provoking The Color of Money demystifies some fundamental free market myths and strongly cautions against the widespread faith, among policymakers and activists alike, in banking as a means of overcoming long-entrenched and worsening racial disparities in wealth. In this response, I suggest that the history of black banking, even for its many failures, holds a unique perspective on property and its contradictions of value. It also contains a deep lesson about how economic strategies generate and are reinforced by affective practices—and how racist economic laws rested on public feelings of their own. The personal and the structural are closely interlinked.

From the debacle of the Freedmen’s Bank, to the rise of black-owned banks under Jim Crow, to the promotion of “empowerment zones” in more recent times, economically isolated black communities have consistently been urged to engage in “capitalism without capital.” Because black banks were cordoned off from their mainstream peer institutions, Baradaran shows, they could not effectively tap into the money multiplier effect, the means by which a bank stood on the good credit, financial security, and proprietor status of its patrons and generated value by lending its deposits through the system more broadly. Because black people did not own large stores of property, any wealth accumulated by black banks swiftly left black control as it sought greater prospects elsewhere: “once in the banking system,” Baradaran writes, “money flows towards more money.”

It is difficult to overstate the policy implications of Baradaran’s work. The story she tells of the institutional segregation and siphoning off of black wealth disarms the widely held premise that black poverty derives from some sort of cultural deficiency or a lack of personal financial literacy. By exposing the lure of “for-us, by-us” banking and “community empowerment” as “a decoy,” “an empty promise,” and a faulty basis for banking legislation and activism, she paves the way for a bolder vision and more creative experimentation in attempting to remedy a seemingly intractable racial inequality. Indeed, proposals such Darrick Hamilton’s and William A. Darity Jr.’s endorsement of “baby bonds” and Baradaran’s own call for the return of postal banking flow from such an understanding of the structural impact of racism on US political economy.

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Symposium: The Color of Money & Racial Capitalism

Mehrsa Baradaran –

9780674970953When I started research on the project that became The Color of Money, I wanted to write a book about racial disparities in access to credit. When I started digging into the history, I started to realize that there was a much bigger story here, one that undermined one of the most basic neoliberal myths about the free market. This history of black banks and the economy of segregation reveals how inextricably financial markets are tied to racial exploitation, and how the dominant economy can continue to extract from racially subordinated groups through “color-blind” market mechanisms.

I hope that the upcoming symposium on The Color of Money will help connect the historical work to contemporary law, building on LPE’s commitment to understanding and reversing the many structures of racial capitalism.

In particular, I try to debunk three market myths in the book:

  1. That money, markets, and trade exist outside the realm of political power
  2. That inequality is a natural byproduct of market forces rather than being created by the state
  3. And that people left outside of the structures of power can overcome their exclusion through local institutions or self-help

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The Mythical Community Bank

Mehrsa Baradaran — 

It’s not particularly surprising that ten years after the financial crisis, the Senate is poised to pass a deregulatory banking bill. In the world of banking regulation, memories are remarkably short. In fact, armies of lobbyists have been slowly chipping away at Dodd- Frank since its passage. But there is something sinister in the way Democrat and Republican supporters of this bill characterize what they are doing: supporting community banks so that they can serve their communities. They conjure images of George Bailey banks across the country, just waiting to be free of onerous and expensive government regulation in order to help disadvantaged and undeserved communities.

“Main Street businesses and lenders tell me that they need some regulatory relief if we want jobs in rural America,” Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana said during a hearing to vet the bill in November. “These folks are not wearing slick suits in downtown New York or Boston. They are farmers, they are small business owners, they are first-time homebuyers.”

But what is it that these “Main Street lenders,” fighting the Henry Potters of the world, want? The bill would exclude from Federal Reserve risk oversight banks with assets between $50 to $250 billion. There is a glaringly obvious problem with this: banks with those kinds of assets are hardly small community banks. In fact, the bill is a Trojan horse, using community banks as cover to deregulate some pretty large regional banks. Many banks that fell into trouble during the last financial crisis are within the proposed size range. This simply isn’t about harmless small banks that are just trying to help the downtrodden mom and pop store or the marginalized borrower seeking a mortgage so she can live the American dream. It’s just another sop to the big banks.

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