Christine Desan –
Mehrsa 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.