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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Labor Relationships & and the Legal Vision of 1L Contracts

Sanjukta Paul—

Contracts is more than an area of law; it is a key piece of the vision we lawyers bring to many other areas of law. The 1L Contracts course supplies a foundation-stone of the “pre-analytic vision” with which lawyers will eventually think about many other things, including labor relationships. Labor regulation as such is addressed only in the optional upper-level curriculum, and it is relatively marginalized even there. As a result, many lawyers, notably in the commercial and business sphere, will bring to their dealings with labor issues the contracts “vision.” That vision ultimately tends to erase the law’s deep involvement in constituting labor relationships. It thus tends to furnish apparent justification for the exercise of power by the already-powerful, in pursuit of private ends rather than the public interest, on the stage created and sustained by law.

The specific pre-analytic vision transmitted by the conventional Contracts curriculum is of atomistic individuals contracting at arms’ length. In this vision, any pre-contracting power differentials, including those power differentials that are created or sustained by law, are rendered invisible. In our historical imagination this vision is symbolized by ‘the Lochner Era,’ which was characterized by the frequent judicial invocation of contract principles to either invalidate or undermine democratic attempts to structure labor relations and markets more generally.

But apart from ignoring, for example, “the background distribution of property rights,” this vision also sits uneasily with the present-time legal constitution of labor relationships. Moreover, perhaps because of its foundation in the pre-analytic vision of contracts, commercial law is generally selective about when it chooses to treat labor contracts as “special” on the one hand, or as instances of a more general type on the other. Continue reading

Where Is Race in Law and Political Economy?

Angela Harris

In their first post on this blog, Amy, David, and Jed assert that “politics and the economy cannot be separated.” Nevertheless, as they also observe, the separation of the two – as, for example, in the idea that economic activity is determined by laws of supply and demand that lie outside the power of governments to influence, other than through misguided “intervention” – continues to influence law and policy. A similar separation runs through scholarship in several disciplines, including law, between the study of economics and the study of race. As the new field of “law and political economy” grows, one of its tasks must be to trouble this separation as well.

We know the separation most familiarly as the “race or class?” question (note the either/or framing). In the affirmative action debate, it manifests as this: Isn’t a poor white kid from Appalachia more deserving of the last spot in a freshman class than a black doctor’s kid? In academic discussions, here’s how it typically goes: All this stuff about race, or more broadly, all of this “identity politics,” is a distraction from the deeper and more fundamental realities of wealth and poverty, production and exchange. Sometimes race distracts because it is considered to be a matter of “culture,” which is “epiphenomenal” to material relations: It’s about exploitation, stupid! Other times, race is considered a distraction for pragmatic reasons, because its appearance is “divisive,” threatening the solidarity of labor, or the electorate, or progressive communities, or women. At still other times, especially within academia, the separation of race from economics looks something like a polite form of intellectual self-segregation: while all the black kids are sitting in the cafeteria together talking about critical race theory, the law and economics kids are at their own table, drawing supply and demand curves and talking about Pareto optimality. To each their own, and everybody’s happy.

But this story of race and racism as either irrelevant to or reducible to the story of production, exchange, and consumption is wrong. Black studies scholars have been saying so for quite some time. In 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois argued that what turned the tide of the Civil War was a mass withdrawal of slave labor, amounting to a “general strike.” In his view, the North’s victory was neither a race story nor a labor story, but a powerful demonstration of how the two were intertwined. Generations later, Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism provided a similar attempt to take race seriously within a materialist frame, arguing that the Eurocentric origins of Marxist theory left it unable to adequately account for black history.

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