Capturing the Battle for the Soul of Gotham City

I’ve been holding off on writing about The Dark Knight for some time. It’s impact on American culture can hardly be overstated but for a long time it just felt too close to home to tackle head on. It wasn’t until I rewatched the old Tim Burton Batman of 1989 that it started to click. Heath Ledger’s Joker, while original and alluring (most of all for succeeding in capturing that ever sought after and highly profitable “zeitgeist”) is not that difficult to understand. When compared to Jack Nickolson’s Joker of 89, our new and more nerve-touching Joker is another beast entirely – even if many of his defining scenes are ripped right out of the old. Christopher Nolan and David Goyer attempt to put their version of Batman and the Joker in a real city and act out real contemporary political issues but, in spite of its resounding success, The Dark Knight is mired in War on Terror ideology and will remain frozen in that time. Their placement of Batman in a real world Gotham only diminishes his fantastic potential of visualizing and story-fying our unconscious desires.

The joker is supposed to be a sort of reflection of Batman’s psyche. Where Batman is serious, the Joker is playful; where Batman an agent of order, the Joker chaos. Batman is not supposed to laugh, he is supposed to keep his city safe from crime and the forces of evil with a single-minded devotion. The Joker takes that attitude and flips it around to show the opposite side of human nature: the urge to indulge in our secret, immoral desires. The Joker commits murderous violence with glee where Batman pursues his capture with monk-like devotion. He takes them to the extreme just as Batman does only he relishes in the pure joy of stirring up trouble, like the young boy rebelling against his parents. The Nolan and Goyer movies do a good job of setting up this binary only to tear it down and show that the Joker has ulterior motives besides holding up a stained mirror to Batman. The only problem is that it has been done before. It’s the same the classic tale where the good guy’s motives are more pure, despite being roughed up a bit along the way. Burton’s Batman is, by contrast, basically two ego trips in a sandbox-city.

Tim Burton’s Batman is set in a Gotham that bristles with over-developed industrial capacity. Its grimy streets always appear in a never-ending forest of drab buildings that belong in a child’s imagination. The wide shots of Gotham’s streets are enhanced by a painted backdrop that suggests more buildings, more factories, more city. The set for this consciously over-stylized Batman evokes Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and the fantasy of an American city whose corruption grows apace with its heavy industry. The grand finale of this comic-opera (sorry I couldn’t help myself, it is very operatic) culminates in a battle between the Joker and Batman atop a cathedral so high that one wonders if they have actually reached the heavens to deliver their dialogue. They jostle over who created who and, in a more hyperbolic/conceptual way, who is responsible for the plague of crime afflicting their great city. The whole movie seems so fantastically over-stylized, with Danny Elfman’s score soaring high for the more poignant moments and the set design reminiscent of other cartoon-cum-reality movies of the period like Dick Tracy, that the viewer forgets what time period this is supposed to take place in. Whats more, the Joker is actually kind of funny – he makes jokes. And if you’re not laughing, Jack Nicholson is doing plenty of laughing for you (seriously, he’s like a one-man laugh-track for a sit-com).

In contrast, our new Joker is out to make a serious point about human nature. Heath Ledger doesn’t really play his Joker as a reveler in the deed. His actions are all built up through an elaborate plan that snowballs fast forward – as if there was kernel of truth in the middle and all he had to do was kick it down the hill and it would roll up bigger and faster. The kernel is supposed to be an essential quality of humanity; he didn’t cause any of the chaos, he wants you to believe, he just gave Gotham citizens a little push to realize their true nature. Heath Ledger’s Joker is a philosopher out to make a point. He’s basically Thomas Hobbes mixed with a little pop-Nietzsche (meaning a misinterpreted Nietzsche). This is what captivated so many viewers back in 2008 – the same year there was a giant financial crash and the bewildered populace was wondering, without resolution, how, why, and what just happened. Granted this coincidence was just that: a coincidence that could not have been foreseen to line up so perfectly with a superhero film. That such an admittedly good movie came out at the same time as one of the greatest American crises was unfolding is one of those once-in-a-lifetime, reality-meets-fiction, chance occurrences. And Nolan and Goyer didn’t pass up on the opportunity that had befallen them either: their next movie to come after The Dark Knight in The Dark Knight Rises seized on the previous movie’s resonance and rounded out a trilogy that was all-but a foregone conclusion. It came out just in time for the popular response to the great 2008 financial crisis to finally see its day. It was about revolution, demagoguery, and dynastic revival. And it was terrible.

This caused such a stir that some of the big guns of the left weighed in on it.  Zizek [Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Gotham City] seemed to offer an apology for Bane’s revolutionary love with Graeber [Batman and the problem of constituent power] remarking on the film’s jumbled incoherence.  I won’t go into The Dark Knight Rises but this trilogy deserves a full treatment in its political ideology, so these essays are a good start.  I’ll just say for now that the first Nolan and Goyer film in Batman Begins is one of my favorite superhero movies and things only go downhill from there.

But before I get ahead of myself, it’s important to point out how impossible these movies would have been without the resounding success of Tim Burton’s Batman. It dazzled. It’s pacing was perfect. It’s dark-gothic tone was well maintained from start to finish. It felt so removed from reality. The entire movie boils down to a battle of egos at the sky-scrapping-cathedral heights of city-power. The Joker is primarily motivated by resentment at Batman stealing his press attention. Having already consolidated power in the crime world (a feat that could have easily happened without him becoming a cartoon-character) the Joker invades Gotham’s television programs to announce that he is even more flamboyant than Batman (who only wants to remain in the shadows and scare criminals). By the end of the movie, they are left alone atop that impossibly high cathedral with the police sealed off from the entrance. In the end, it was only a duel between the lord-protector of the great city on the verge of collapse and the parading lunatic who would rule it without concern for the people’s moral constitution. The battle took place in the mind of a child but it could resonate within the mind of an aspiring civil servant grown up into a position in government bureaucracy. It’s tone and demeanor would be repeated for years to come in Batman: The Animated Series (which was excellent for X years mind you, an era-defining cartoon).

As nearly 20 years went by and a new iteration of Batman and the Joker was ripe for the telling, here comes this portrayal of the Joker that didn’t just shock his audience – he made us think. He seems to so effortlessly drag Gotham down into a spiral of violence that we forget that all of his actions are very well executed hits that progressively take him up the crime latter into boss-of-the-city status. Oh wait, Jack Nicholson’s Joker did that too… before the mid-way point of the movie. But Heath Ledger’s Joker appears on tv to issue his demands directly to Gotham’s population and spread a general affect of fear all throughout… and so did the old Joker. The only difference is that Ledger’s Joker uses his image to create a sense of panic, setting up the conditions for him to prove his point about human nature. Nicholson’s Joker only wants to be more famous than Batman, steal his love interest (though he doesn’t know it), and become new kind of deranged avant-garde artist: “I’m the world’s first fully homicidal artist.” His relationship with Batman comes closest to Lex Luthor’s with Superman: atop the city as its primary power-broker he finds this mythical challenger to his reign and subsequently makes it his personal obsession to defeat it. This is the true battle for the soul of the American city contra Ledger’s Joker’s quote in his last scene: how will the titans of this metropolis manage their city? This is one of those perennial questions that permits superheros to replay their struggles over and over again in a fantasy city, locked in a never-ending battle for good civic governance.

With Nolan and Goyer we get national and even international politics on display in this less-than fantastic Gotham City. The Joker is a terrorist blowing up hospitals and burning up giant stacks of American dollars. Batman flies to China to abduct a shady CEO setting up the movie’s global aspirations. He uses the vast technological laboratories at his disposal to create a surveillance network that can spy on every person in Gotham. He does this all under the pretense of stopping the terrorist-Joker. It seems that this version of the Joker is so dastardly that we need hand over our constitutional rights to stop him. The allusion is so obvious that we don’t need to wonder how Heath Ledger’s Joker touched that wider social nerve; the issue of terrorism and how the US military would fight it, and how many liberties we would sacrifice to fight it, was the hot button issue of the day. This Joker is supposed to justify our continued involvement military escalation, though Bruce Wayne was already demonstrating privacy-invasion behavior very early on in the movie. In an unbelievable scene at the end of the movie, the CEO of Wayne Enterprises (where all the high-tech military equipment is manufactured) Lucius Fox consents to using a near-total spying weapon to find the Joker – but only this one time (*wink). The machine is shown short-circuiting or being destroyed, as if now that the terrorist threat has been eliminated the powers granted both by and for this corporation in the military-industrial complex would disappear when the threat was apprehended. You could forgive me for noting that similar powers actually exist in the real world by a government agency at the time of this writing, as revealed by Edward Snowden, because this Batman story is supposed to exist in a mirror image to our world and not some fairy tale.

All of this lends a greater weight to the question of who or what Nolan and Goyer or Heath Ledger’s Joker is. On the IMDB websites list of top-rated movies of all time, The Dark Knight sits at an absurdly high rating of 4th. Nobody would agree that this list is definitive of any universal standard, but a widely viewed statistical agglomeration of critics and user reviews has decided that this is the 4th best movie of all-time. It wouldn’t be such a stretch to say that a great deal of people learned how to conceptualize these problems revolving around liberty, violence, and power from movies these days. This is only to remark on how fascinated a large segment of the population of America became with this character. The Joker purposefully layers his motivations throughout the movie with misdirections and visible lies that string along the viewer into anticipating the moment when his true intentions are revealed. The greatest trick that Nolan and Goyer pulled on their audience is convincing them that their Joker is some spirit of chaos and destruction. This is only the public image that he cultivates in his quest for the ultimate power of the city (both of our Jokers do this and that is fine, from this polemical character study standpoint, but it’s only a stepping-stone to a very different end). In fact, he is out to prove his theoretical point about human nature. Nicholson’s Joker only wants to replace Batman’s star. Ledger’s Joker is not the fictional embodiment of chaos that we want him to be, he doesn’t even look like he’s having fun with his rise to power. If you’re not inclined to agree with me on this point just rewatch The Dark Knight and then Burton’s Batman and answer me which Joker is basking in the pure joy of his actions and which one is methodically acting out a preconceived plan with a fair amount of scholarly detachment.

The point is that Nolan and Goyer fairly explicitly give their Joker an ultimate purpose by the films end and audiences still perceive him as a kind of mythical symbol of chaos. When the Joker predicts the boats will explode by the decisions of the citizens stuck on them and nothing happens, he looks defeated. Batman doesn’t beat him up on this rooftop of an undeveloped building (presumably, by me, having its construction halted in the wake of the financial collapse), it is the innate goodness of the citizens that demonstrate their selflessness and prove his “social experiment” (direct quote) wrong that win the day. The Joker reveals his intentions to Batman in what closely resembles a torture scene: “Their morals their “code,” it’s a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. I’ll show ya, when the chips are down, these “civilized people” they’ll eat each other. You see I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve.” In another scene, someone accuses him of being crazy and he flatly says right back to him, “No, I’m not.” It’s all right there in the film’s script and he is telling us that he is not some wild child of chaos but a man out to prove something.

This Joker wants demonstrate the virility or corruption buried within humanity if you take away all of the securities afforded by civilized city life. His stripping away of those support beams of laws and institutions is supposed prove that life is “nasty, brutish, and short” like Thomas Hobbes. The strange thing about this movie is that this logic was used to justify absolute monarchy, that people couldn’t manage their own affairs or take part in governing themselves and so needed a strong leader to unify them. The Joker uses it in the opposite direction, not to change the structure of governance or become an authority figure himself but prove a point to Batman. Presumably, and now I’m just riffing, Batman is supposed to realize that he is the right man to follow through the Joker’s revelation and seize power himself; after all, he is the most capable man in the city with his the wealth, resources, and family name to run it and as a vigilante he already answers to nobody. Does the Joker simply want Batman to be the King of Gotham?

Hold on, wait a minute, why would the Joker want Batman to be the king when he himself has been called “the crown prince of crime?” Isn’t he seeking that kind of power himself? But then, why burn up all the money? Does the Joker think that he can rule the city by blowing things up in spectacles of fear? Or maybe he only wants to rule the criminal underworld? What makes this hard to maintain is the “torture scene.” When pushed by Batman into telling him his motives, the Joker says “I don’t want to kill you! [this being one his more genuine moments of laughter in the whole film] What would I do without you!… You complete me.” So besting Batman in a fight and gaining power is not the Joker’s motivation in The Dark Knight. He only wants to make a point and to Batman primarily.

So, is this whole movie a kind of bromance between Batman and the Joker? Their scenes together are oddly intimate. Torture is very hands on and has been widely noted to end in a kind of sexual relationship as noted in the very first James Bond novel. Batman raced towards the Joker in his motorcycle with the Joker’s encouragement only to veer off at the last second, and in their last scene together the Joker is on top of Batman getting ready for the big show, only later to suggest that they share a cell together. The Joker’s end game is still just to make a theoretical point but his plan is so carefully laid out that there must be something else that begs on after he has seized power in the criminal underworld. That he would work his way so methodically into the position of power that he has only to exist as a foil just doesn’t make sense. The Joker is urging Batman to throw off the pretenses, stop worrying about killing people, and make the most of his vast powers: the Joker wants Batman to be a king.

A king’s court is where a jester can find employment. His function is to tell jokes but also veiled truths covered by fancy word games. As a jester, one can slip in advice or council that serious advisers couldn’t otherwise say but as entertainment. Comedians operate in this way in our contemporary society as truth-tellers who can get away with scandalous statements under the pretense that they are telling a joke. As an aside, the actor who played Batman throughout Nolan and Goyer’s trilogy was Christian Bale, the same actor who ten years later played Dick Cheney in the 2018 Vice detailing the Vice President’s rise to un-presidented (sorry, again I couldn’t help myself) power right about the same time this movie was being made. No man has ever had as much power as Dick Cheney during his time in the presidential cabinet from roughly 2002-2008. Not any previous president, not any king, not any emperor in the history of mankind. That is a true statement; watch the movie or read a history book. America is by far the most powerful nation the earth has ever seen and Cheney could operate more effectively than single person before him. He is not a funny man.

You can see how far we have come, within one very famous fictional character, from a battle of egos in civic management to the ultimate justification for the reigns of power in a state. To add absurdity upon absurdity, I could evoke the camp Adam West Batman as a further contrast. What happened to Batman? Or is the better question, what happened to us that we would take this character for our era-defining morality plays?

At this point I want to again highlight the contrast between the two Jokers. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is fully willing and capable of running the city on his own with his gang of henchman. What’s more he invades news broadcasts at his pleasure and parades through main street at the top of a float. He tosses out money into an exuberant crowd who seem to have forgotten that he bragged about poisoning hundreds of people with his synthetic daily products. Gotham’s citizens are hopelessly corrupt already, they clamor for his money and no crowds come to oppose him. The entire movie itself demonstrates how every layer of Gotham is corrupt from the top down, with the new district attorney and police commissioner fighting a losing battle against the alliance of industrial might and organized crime. This is the proper way to conceptualize Gotham and justify the need for a civic-savior in Batman.

The Dark Knight portrays its citizens of Gotham as scared and timid. They panic at a moments’ notice and flee danger in a swarm of fear. Though totally unable to make a decision on their own or behave orderly in a crisis, at heart they are good people who don’t wish to harm each other. This is supposed to be shown in the climax of the movie when the boats don’t blow up. Easily frightened yet good-natured, not greedy and corrupt, is how Nolan and Goyer want us to see the citizens of their metropolis.

This is why I remarked above just how well depicted Tim Burton’s Gotham was back in 1989. The organization of a city, its distribution of power, the level of poverty, the amount of violence does effect the virtue of its citizens. Gotham’s landscape is so overbearing that it envelopes its people as they move about. Whether the ultimate authority of a city resides in the hands of the many, the wealthy few, or a king does effect the constitution of its people. This is what early republican radicals understood when they discovered classical literature from Rome: one cannot be free without free constitution, a citizen cannot truly have liberty if they don’t live in a free society. Batman’s gothic look, his creepy design and his use of fear are a constant reminder that the people of Gotham have been woefully corrupted by their city.

Our new Batman merely stops the Joker’s plan by letting the goodness of the people show itself to the Joker in the absence of the conditions of panic. Batman only has to stop the Joker individually and eliminate the fear that he has brought on to let the people be themselves. In contrast, when Tim Burton’s Batman kills the Joker he destroys the power structure that he has created along with him. No longer will the city be run by a hierarchical gang who rules through organized violence, or a quasi-fascist mob-rule with its irreverent art. Nolan and Goyer have Batman escalate his use of power (surveillance, over-stepping his jurisdiction, etc.) to stop the singular threat of the terrorist. This is why he becomes the Dark Knight (“the hero Gotham deserves”) but must go into hiding as a hunted outcast. He is both at the top of the city (“…a silent guardian, a watchful protector…”) and not of the city or outside of the city (“Is Wayne manor within the city-limits?” asks Harvey Dent). This is the same logic applied to a king.

The Dark Knight doesn’t rule Gotham as a king of course. This is merely what the Joker is pushing him towards. He has enough to power to watch over it from the shadows and absorb its citizen’s ire for the state of their corrupt city. That this new Batman is rightfully vilified but remains hovering over the city nonetheless indicates that we, the audience of the movie, should learn to appreciate our billionaire handlers and loosen up on all of the criticism. After all, they are keeping us safe from the terrorists and allow us to show off our good hearts on occasion. Nolan and Goyer are telling us that the citizens of Gotham (a much more realistic version of the city than any before it) should leave the question of who holds the power of the city to rich people in the shadows; they may have wealth and power far beyond yours and you can hate them all you want, they may not be telling us the truth or appear in public to state their positions or give voice to their ambitions, but they watch over your city and keep you from behaving like an unruly mob.

This last part about truth-telling is perhaps the most egregious feature of The Dark Knight. In Batman’s final lines of the film, he says “sometimes the truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more, sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” Then he runs away. The people of Gotham will now go on believing a lie and pinning all of the blame for their city’s corruption on him in order to keep moving along with their lives. This will grant the justification for Harvey Dent’s crusade against crime while nothing fundamentally changes. The police, and maybe Batman if he’s needed in covert situations, will continue rooting out crime in Gotham while the people will go on believing that Batman is one of those criminals. He is in reality immune from criticism or a challenge to his power and the masses are deceived to complete this immunity.

All of these recent quotes are pulled out of the final scene where all of the various threads of the movie are tied together and Hans Zimmer’s music thunders behind Commissioner Gordon and Batman’s speech. He rides off on his high-tech motorcycle chased by the police dogs and the curtain falls as we see the title of the movie: The Dark Knight. This scene has no doubt touched the hearts of a great many viewers and it was pulled off effectively. It can be compared with Tim Burton’s final scene of Batman as he stands on top of a building looking out at the city with his bat-signal blazing in the sky. There too a majestic score thunders behind but there is no speech from Batman. Both are excellent movie endings but when Batman killed the Joker by strapping a gargoyle to his leg he rid the city of much more than pesky terrorist with a penchant for explosives. He brought down the entire edifice of the Joker’s criminal industry, an industry that actually controls a great deal of the city’s functions. Both movies are about a battle for the soul of the great American city but it is in Tim Burton’s Batman that the soul of the city is confined to that city in all of its character defining power. Both Batman and the Joker are products of the fantasy city of Gotham, as are its citizens. When their battle for how Gotham will be governed goes national and even international, it becomes an apology for unfettered authoritarian rule based on lies.

One could reply that all of this rests within Batman as a character from the get-go. He is rich, shadowy, and mostly beats up criminals drawn to the life possibly out of necessity in a perpetually rotten city. But he is also the world’s greatest detective who moves about the criminal underworld to reach its mover’s and shakers. Every Batman is trying to clean up his city but Nolan and Goyer’s Batman and Joker seem to transcend it and follow the red herring of the innately goodness or badness of human nature. When superheros are let loose from their environment, the abstractions they deal with can become a startling rationalization for the worst kind of rule: totalitarian. This is precisely the kind of rule that the 1989 Batman was fighting in his city. We can forgive him for channeling his inner Machiavelli, breaking his code, and choosing to kill in the final act to prevent this from happening. It is in decontextualizing people’s motives and removing them from their locations that we run into shocking justifications for abuses of power.

[As an afterward, to further dispel the mystique of The Dark Knight, I highly recommend reading Jeff Loeb and Tim Sale’s Batman: The Long Halloween.  It contains many of the same themes as the first two Nolan and Goyer movies and ranks among the greatest of Batman stories.]

More on Conversations

Initiating a conversation is not always a matter of holding an idea inside of your mind and then releasing that idea into someone else’s mind for a shared time. Sometimes a conversation with its topic and type of participants is already there in the atmosphere, latent and easily brought to the forefront of our minds. It was in this second sense of conversations that I wrote an early little essay in my blog called On Conversations. The words and the ideas were already there and just waiting to be spoken. Someone or something had cracked the code of what people wanted to start talking about but couldn’t quite find the right avenue or opportunity to begin. And then all of the sudden it hits like an EMP, electrifying a crowd of people, and suddenly even timid individuals are transformed into loud-mouths.

It would be easy enough to categorize the moment of Occupy as a kind of unexpected moral bomb that went off in American culture. This would give writers, journalists, and even sympathetic inheritors an original event with which they could point to and say, “there, there is when the people spoke. They spoke with passion and ideals, they gave us the wake up call that we needed. But they were unrealistic romantics doomed to failure. Now it is time to come down from the clouds and survey the possible.” But an event like this does more than remind people to be moral or that our system is fundamentally unjust and needs to change quickly. It demonstrates in real time, with real people interacting with each other in a common and clearly delineated setting, what it looks like to relate with each other otherwise. A living example does more than a protest, no matter how large, ever could: it acts like a virus that infects everyone it touches with a sensibility towards each other that is at once utterly new and mysteriously old, ancient even.

The most noticeable thing about a large movement like this for me (because I don’t want to leave out all of the countries that went through the Arab Spring at about the same time) is the change in the way conversations were held. The rhythm and flow of words coming out of such disparate individuals, who were seemingly assembled at random, harmonized in the most peculiar way. This all took place in a relatively short amount of time. No more than 6 months. But the experience of such events (and this was echoed by numerous individuals) made time feel like it was slowing down to a crawl. The movement of bodies was ratcheted up a notch, possibilities opened up that gaped wider than anyone had seen in their whole lives. Though short in duration, it gave those who were effected by that event an opportunity to talk for a lengthy enough period of time to express themselves or their ideas fully. Due to the set time frame for giving a speech, one had just the right amount of time to have everyone else hear the gist of their idea or proposal; their speaking time was capped so that everyone else had a chance to speak for themselves and nobody went unheard. The time frame could be adjusted, if people felt marginalized then remedies could be found, but there is something fundamental about taking blocks of time and giving them to anyone who comes along.

Everyone suddenly had all of the barriers that are normally associated with casual conversation removed, only the best ideas remained convincing. It was like an extra decisive factor or form was brought on to the deliberation process. Anyone could talk and be heard. Anyone had access to the power of persuasion but none could hold the floor indefinitely. And the people that went through this experience shared it with those that hadn’t, confidently asserting themselves and spreading the word with a simple refrain, a break in everyday discourse and its news-cycle or work-week rhythms: “don’t interrupt me, I’m not finished.”

It was strange, when one person spoke everyone else shut up and listened. I don’t expect this anymore from people because it is not encouraged by the media they consume. The angry talking heads on tv are easy enough to point the finger at, not to mention polemical twitter users and their agendas, but this all distracts us from the true differences that come with conversations of the Occupy type I am trying to flesh out here and the battleground-of-ideas type. The key difference lies in the duration of time with which anyone, anyone who appeared in the flesh could speak on their own terms and then was forced to move on. It completely eliminated overbearing individuals who were able to control conversations their entire lives by interruption or steering it in the direction they preferred. This form reverberated outward and suddenly everyone had a little platform wherever they went. Dumb ideas were filtered out and a tiny meritocracy was formed where it wasn’t so much individuals or force that ruled the day but ideas. Any effective persuasion had to come from the person with the right ideas found in their speech. All others were merely disregarded.

When large groups of people assemble and deliberate, the result is often anger at some injustice done and violence against the perceived perpetrators. The danger of mobs is not something I take lightly. But when you eliminate the ability for someone or some group to act as demagogues or sorcerers and instead give each person a voice in the direction of the crowd, suddenly the will of the body of people is more fully self-represented. The chains of command are loosened, the mob begins to reason and think for itself. [David Graeber] This was no doubt an already educated crowd that had gone through the American school system and not the Parisian crowds of the 1793. But it demonstrates something that cannot be explained by ideals, no matter how important ideals are for expression: the very form of a conversation was altered. The social relations between people were given an electric shock to counter the shock doctrine so near and dear to the neoliberal imperialist playbook. Power was redistributed to the speaker and wherever they stood.

Don’t Get Schwifty, Raise Your Posterior

Of all the episodes of Rick and Morty that bend serious sci-fi to a casual comedic audience, ‘Get Schwifty’ sticks out the most. A giant head appears from the dark recesses of outer space and causes major geological disasters immediately before it issues one command to the people of earth: “SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOT.” The allusion to climate change is made immediately by a tv news reporter who is swiftly told to “not make this political.” The entire fate of the earth and its inhabitants now depends on showing the giant space heads, the Cromulons, what we got. It’s so simple and thrusts upon us so suddenly that there is no time to collectively discern how to react. The Cromulon heads are calling on us, demanding to give them what they want.

Now, turning earth into a game-show for the amusement of some cosmic being is not a new idea. South Park did it years ago. What makes this episode unique is the response from Rick and the songs he and Morty must play for the Cromulons. The reaction of their hometown in reverting to cultish religious despotism is instructive enough, but the song that eventually appeases the Cromulons is what deserves a further look. Too many have narrowed in on Rick’s first song and its coarse, jubilant celebration of sex when interpreting the message for a proper reaction to the imminent doom of climate change. ‘Get Schwift’ is after all the title of the episode and it’s the only new phrase that Rick conjures up, making it easy to meme-ify. “Don’t panic” the phrase seems to impress on us, let it all out, let out the instinctual improv skills harboring within you and dance away. Show those aliens how we party down here and good things will eventually happen that demonstrate how life on earth is worth living.

The song ‘Get Schwifty’ is not the performance that wins the day though. Rick’s quick thinking and previous knowledge of the Cromulons only buys earth more time to come up with a better performance that will later win them over. He and Morty then go into the studio to craft a song for the upcoming competition between planets for the Cromulon’s entertainment. The song they perform, after some lessons and morals are learned about working together and trusting your betters, has only two lines: “Head bent over! Raised up posterior!” This song sung with gusto, together with some inspired breakdancing from an Obama-like president, is what pleases the Cromulons – going so far as to convince the them to end the interplanetary reality tv show altogether. They found the secret formula for what the Cromulons wanted the most.

I had to give this one some thought. After much rumination, nudged along by the sheer joy of repeating the episode’s lines in my head all day long, it started to make sense. When the Cromulons speak they only use imperatives. They are all powerful beings that can whisk away earth to a planetary stage in the blink of an eye. Their commands are explicitly taken as the word of god by Rick’s fellow townspeople, going so far as to throw away the old Christian god and establish a new one based around the actual head in the sky that seems to be controlling the weather. Nuclear weapons meant to blast humans out of the cosmic musical performance are met with simple “BOOOOO NOT COOL.”

Before I go on you must watch this clip of the Cromulon’s line. There is something so delightfully hilarious about the delivery of this line that I haven’t been able to shake it from my head. It’s so quick and nonchalant but it’s spoken with such authority. It’s as if a divine voice that fills the receiver’s heart with a paralyzing terror and the utmost necessity rolls right off the tongue of a wiry preteen experimenting with language for the first time. The young upstart quick to judge is after all what will carry the future.

Once Rick and Morty and the President break out into their song we hear the two lines, “Head bent over! Raised up posterior!” The head referred to could be a way of sympathizing with the Cromulons and their lack of a body. As giant all-powerful heads in the sky, the Cromulons are looking down at earth and the other planets and simply observing for their own pleasure. Extrapolated for us humans and our ability to view all manner of cosmic scenes through satellites this could apply to us too. We look up into the sky for our source of inspiration but perhaps this is wrong. “Head bent over!” Look down! We already have the same viewpoint as the Cromulons. Instead of waffling about with our heads tilted toward the clouds and deep space, look down at the earth.

As Rick and Morty DJ for their audience they match Cromulons in their manner of speaking: they give orders just as the Cromulons do. “Head bent over! Raised up posterior!” could also be a description of their own appearance, as if Rick and Morty were showing the Cromulons ‘what they got’ by mimicking their simple language in a kind of call-and-response dialogue. “Head bent over!” would then be the response of deference to the might of the Cromulons – giving them exactly what they want: deference. But this deference comes in language that he Cormulons can understand, a simple posture for a simple command.

The Cromulons don’t give one of their farts about the devotion that the townspeople show. The entire reaction of the town is a mere sideshow to the main event that Rick and Morty and the President will put on. When they believe they have done wrong and angered the giant heads in the sky they raise their heads up and pray, even comically punishing sinners by sending them up into the sky with balloons. In total contradistinction, Rick and Morty ring out: “Head bent over!”

That brings us to the second part of their song, “Raised up posterior!” This is the exact opposite of the prayer position. Stand erect and face the task at hand. Straightening your back gives off a sign of resolve, the kind of posture that commands respect. Good posture coming from a responder creates a sense of assurance that the one being addressed is capable of meeting a challenge without wavering. In the eleventh hour a trio of humans can still get down and dance with confidence. Their song describes the proper pose for responding to such a challenge.

Casually, this straight body does not match up with a head bent over. “Head bent over! Raised up posterior!” is an awkward pose that doesn’t lend well to dance, much less dialogue. It exists within a creative tension that demonstrates deference to power beyond one’s control but resolve in the face of it.

‘Get Schwifty’ brings a few vastly important threads together into a cartoon that last less than 30 minutes. I haven’t touched on everything, including Ice-T’s intentionally tacked-on sub-plot about “caring.” What it demonstrates at its core is how game-shows and pop-music belong together with presidential politics and military strategy when facing the nearly unfathomable catastrophes of climate change. But then it goes one step further. I can’t say for sure but I feel like not enough people have picked up on the message of “Head bent over! Raised up posterior!” Bowing one’s head in the face of a power scarcely imaginable is not a sign of weakness. Knowing when to display deference can be a path towards resolution. But its important that whatever the outcome we keep a stiff posture that exudes a feeling of confidence (especially to the young) suggesting that when we hear the command “SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOT” we can answer.

Electrified Stories

Electronic images pass through the mind, a plushy chair cushions a straight back.  Simpler times are conjured up by an graphic bits of light set upon a screen.  Sitting still, the imagination soars backward and we try place ourselves in a natural setting performing essential tasks.  I fetch water in a wooden pale from my own well dug up by my great grandfather, I buy a sickle to ease the next harvest, I feed the livestock with grain stored up in the barn, I head to the pub to find my neighbors – all of whom I know, I get into a brawl with my rival and nobody is actually hurt.  I am inside of a community and feel reassured by this sense of belonging as I lay me head to rest.  Night becomes day, day night, and “harmony” is won again.

And all of the time we hear it, over and over again, the value of necessity: “you must,” the gods will it so.  The sting of morality came from tales of old, they happened some time in the great past, the infinite past of “always,” or never at all.  That sting tells you that your life is a mere story: you rise up full of passionate vigor, clamoring for a reputation, a single moment of glory to pass on into the future, but it will never live up to the ancient ancestors.  They alone hold the true glory, they set the world into motion, their deeds will be told forever.  Your story will end, it must, and necessity wears everyone down into the abyss, it must.  The choices we make and the deeds we perform leave a mark only in a fleeting story and it is only a matter of time.  The stories assert a power of their own on our wills and desires, but also bear a solemn reminder: the gods will always be better than you, they live on while you will die.  The power of the story is felt in another way.

For all of the freedom we possess and all of the control we may exert over our environment and fellow people, we will still be pulled down to the earth in the end.  Not all of the gods live in the heavens.  The stories have a mind of their own as they pass from lips to ears and fire back and forth inside of the curious youth.  They say what must be said, they answer the perennial question “why?” with “it is so,” they explain how a people is more than the sum of its individuals.

Why has it become so difficult to say “you must”?  The stories we tell each other are merely human stories.  They go no further than this character, this big name “people,” so now our destinations fit neatly into a story told by humans for humans called history.  And it is true – mostly.  People will never stop pointing to what is left out, the remainder, the excluded-from-the-whole-picture because people desire the whole beyond themselves and restating the limitations of scholarship will only compel them to look elsewhere.  The earth tells its own tales.  It speaks right along with our voices when we tell our children stories about far away lands.  But it doesn’t speak through that elementary force of electricity: that is reserved for the hidden region behind the eyes.  Electric currents run through the brain, jumping from synapse to neuron and back again.  But as our stories themselves have become electrified the human desires have gained ground, eliminated risk, conquered necessity: we are all capable of “changing history” or creating a “historic moment.”  Our stories are now true.  And so?  None of them are necessary.

Shall we rejoice in our victory over necessity?  Can we claim the future for ourselves?  It is a matter of time, always a matter of time.

Public Banking and Taxing the Wild Frontier

What the Whiskey Rebellion Can Teach Us About Using Cannabis Money for Public Banking

Something big is stirring out west. Since the California voters passed Proposition 64, cannabis use and cultivation has been made legal for all adults over 21 years old and the consequences of this law are far reaching. When we contrast the history of cannabis cultivation with the new practices resulting from Prop 64, a story emerges that is at once new and old. What is new is a centralized, regulated, and taxed cannabis industry replacing the decentralized small farmers of the past, what is old is a story of taming frontier economies with high taxation. It’s a story that is liable to provoke romantic sentiments for the plight of the small-time farmer in the face of unstoppable capitalist progress but we can do better. With the right degree of activist lobbying the cannabis industry can lead the charge in demanding a California state public bank – a bank that would solidify the populist legacy of the outlaw pioneer cannabis farmer.

Something similar was accomplished in the first years of the republic. During the so-called ‘Whiskey Rebellion’ (a term invented to discredit the uprising) farmers on what was then the wild frontier formed militias to resist the new taxation policy of Alexander Hamilton. These rowdy ‘regulators’ protested against a financier-oriented tax plan that was onerous and unfair even though it ended up financing a beneficial new institution. Their anger was justified: western farmers had been targeted by the wealthy easterners before and now further economic burden would befall them where they could afford it the least. Protesting in those days had a different meaning than it does today. We haven’t seen someone tarred-and-feathered in centuries, nor have we seen spontaneous armed uprisings in quite some time. Instead, we should look at what all of this tax revenue generated by the whiskey tax was used for and what all of this money generated by the Cannabis industry could be used for now.

Despite the absence of tax-resisting militia-men today, the similarities between the changes taking place within the cannabis industry and the Pennsylvania regulation of 1794 are striking, especially when we look into the realm of banking. Although the new cannabis tax revenue for California can’t go towards funding a public bank (the funds generated by prop 64 will go into a special fund predesignating where the money will go), the cannabis industry needs a place to safely store its profits and a public bank is the only kind of bank that can fit the bill. Marijuana is still a schedule one illegal substance at the federal level (amazingly, given its proven medicinal properties), so businesses operating in cannabis do not have access to nationally chartered banks under FDIC requirements. A huge industry generating many billions of dollars is forced to operate with duffle bags full of cash. A state owned and operated bank, on the other hand, bypasses this oddity and creates a win-win for both Californians and the cannabis industry.

Public banks have an enormous benefit for the economy within which they operate. Hamilton conceived the first Bank of the United States and the means to fund it entirely on his own. It helped stabilize the finances of the nation in its infancy after it had accumulated massive war debts both foreign and domestic. By a stroke of genius, those debts were parlayed into a system that convinced investors to do business with the unproven new nation and continue to allow the government to borrow on favorable terms. War debts became the basis of the new economy under this program of ‘Assumption’ and bondholders would continue to hold confidence in doing business with the American government. The only problem was the start-up costs came from poor frontier farmers already beset by economic suppression. It was a giant slap in the face to the people who had fought for liberty and independence, but the bank that financed it stabilized a nascent country in precarious circumstances. Today we have much more willing tax base, in spite of the many resentful cannabis farmers getting edged out by the high cost of going legit, and with the help of persistent public banking advocates a Public Bank of California that benefits the entire state is within reach.

The differences between these two events separated by over 200 years are numerous but three important elements bring them together: a profitable yet unregulated agrarian economy suddenly besieged by taxes, a maligned commodity that is much more than what it seems, and the establishment of a public bank (potentially this time). Like the cannabis farmer on the west coast, the whiskey distiller on the frontier lands of western Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Kentucky and elsewhere used distilled spirits as a cost-effective means for earning an income. Whiskey was downed by almost everyone in America and the frontier people could sell it to the easterners with a fraction of the transportation costs compared with other goods. At their high points both whiskey and weed were so valuable that they were used as money. [see Terry Bouton, ‘William Findley, David Bradford, and the Pennsylvania Regulation of 1974’ in Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation]

The burdens of taxation hit communities like these particularly hard. The whiskey rebels turned to the traditional form of protest to try and stop the tax collectors from charging distillers: armed mob threats against tax collectors, shutting down courts, and erecting liberty poles for gathering points. We’re pretty far away from seeing people using such tactics in 2018. However, a public banking movement has been boiling up for years now in both cities and states from Oakland to New Jersey. [Public Banking Movement Gains Grounds in Cities and States across the US]  If the cannabis industry can rally for a bank that would accept its money as deposits it would be a complete game-changer, offering a beacon of light to the similar public banking projects already underway in 20 other states. [How Public Banking Is Winning the West]

Populist finance has seen a resurgence since the Occupy movement put the spotlight on the greed of private banks and the vast disparity in wealth between the rich and the rest of us. [link from] While frontier regulators of the late-eighteenth century opposed all financial schemes, today progressives understand that dealing with massive wealth inequality will take drastic measures at the state and national levels. Taking on Wall Street will require more than agrarian regulators marching against the tax man or, in other words, good-old-fashioned direct action. California State Treasurer John Chiang has been conducting public hearings after the formation of the Cannabis Banking Working Group and there the public made its desire for public banking known. Instead of giving them the brush-off, Chiang responded positively and it seems the lobbying by public banking advocates has been met with some success. [Activists Urge California Public Bank not Limit to Cannabis Revenue] The issue now is whether or not the prospective new bank will be extended beyond just the cannabis industry to cover the needs of general California business.

These developments are encouraging for populist finance. In an era beset by financial parasitism and high private debt levels, public-based solutions to money and banking point the way towards prosperity and equality. What will follow is a story about two moments in American history that connects the populist practices of the whiskey-fueled past with our pot-blazing present.

Legalization Is Pushing Small Cannabis Farmers Out, So Lets Make the Pot Profits Work for Everyone

A large chunk of hippy counterculture took a turn toward a rural agrarian lifestyle in the 1970’s in a movement called ‘back-to-the-land’ and subsequently discovered a path to riches. Marijuana is illegal under federal law so smoking it became a mark of the renegade subculture — growing and selling it even more so. Growing cannabis was a way for the people of this movement who sought to reconnect with nature and disconnect from mainstream American society to support themselves. What began as a practice for supplementing an alternative lifestyle up in the secluded mountains of northern California blossomed into one of the most lucrative industries on the west coast today, with much of the cannabis heading east to find markets in the rest of the country. Within a single generation, the hippy subculture turned from gleefully impoverished idealists seeking self-sustenance to rich independent farmers when the full financial potential of this crop was inevitably realized.

Money was never the objective when hippies started cultivating cannabis in the mountains, but by the time President Reagan declared a war on drugs small-time farmers were making millions. It was a curious transformation riddled with irony: a people trying to escape individualistic materialism and found a communal ethic out in the woods suddenly found an easy path to riches. Just how much money changed the culture is debatable. What is undeniable though is that the marijuana that was grown in Northern California found its way into a vast unregulated market worth billions of dollars. It would only take a few decades for politicians to start eye-balling that black market money, especially with the negative perceptions of smoking marijuana cooling off nationwide.

As of January 1st, 2018, the law approved by a simple majority of all Californian voters are in effect, attempting to bring cannabis cultivators back into the fold of the taxable California State economy. No longer will the industry operate in a strictly core-periphery dynamic: the secluded hills and favorable climate where cannabis is grown are now heavily targeted by entrepreneurs. The old-school cannabis farmer lived in a community that developed a sense of freedom and independence while simultaneously feeling besieged by the federal government. Paranoia was a shared sentiment that reinforced defiant hippy beliefs about authoritative American culture and produced an ethic of mutual aid. High profits, a protected geography dubbed the “Redwood Curtain,” and a healthy degree of solidarity among cannabis farmers allowed for a mutated form of hippy counterculture to persist. But once the word got out around the mid-nineties more people started flowing into Humboldt, Mendocino and surrounding counties in what became known as the “Green Rush” (because cannabis is the new gold). The profit margin was just too darn high to keep people from jumping on the bandwagon that hippies inadvertently created and sustained.

It’s a story that has been told before and people started to notice the continuity of the back-to-the-land hippies with the American culture they initially broke off from. This perceived connection brought local author Ray Raphael into the study of the revolutionary America with his popular history books. [Ray Raphael] Having written books on nature, northern Californian geography and marijuana farmers in Cash Crop: An American Dream, he then went on to become a decorated heterodox historian of the revolutionary period with an eye towards everyday people and their struggles. Near the end of Cash Crop, Raphael writes, “As a rags-to-riches story, the marijuana boom goes straight to the heart of American mythology.”

“A heightened sense of individualism — that definitive ideal of Americanism, the theoretical hub of our social philosophy — is central to the ideology of marijuana growers. The flamboyant and free-spirited “do-your-own-thing” of the original back-to-the-land movement has evolved quite effortlessly into more traditional manifestations of American individualism: an obsession with private property and a conservative reaction against governmental intrusions into private affairs.” (p.160)

It’s as if hippies tried to escape America in their communes only to find more America. Instead of a utopia of liberation they found the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer, an independent and self-sustaining landowner in a vibrant community. After the communes disintegrated, the spirit of communitarian values persisted and even thrived thanks to influx of bags full of greenback dollars. But were the new riches creating greater resiliency or altering the culture to one of materialistic wealth accumulation?

In a particularly ominous passage Raphael writes,

“From a democratic point of view, perhaps the biggest failure of the traditional capitalist system is its tendency for consolidation. Small businesses continually go under, either driven out or swallowed up by their larger competition. Even in agriculture, the family farm is no longer a viable unit; high-tech agribusiness drives prices down to where small, labor-intensive farmers can no longer compete. Apparently, consolidation is an inevitable feature of capitalism — except in the case of marijuana farming. In the marijuana industry there are structural forces which counteract the natural tendency toward centralization. The combination of illegality and geographic isolation provide built-in guarantees against consolidation. The larger the operation, the higher the risk — so there’s a strong incentive to stay small and decentralized.” (p.171)

With the protective barrier to consolidation and bigness gone, replaced by legal farms able to withstand the very high start-up costs, the pioneers of cannabis farmers face an uncertain future. The high taxes, lawyer and filing fees, new labeling requirements, and more have prevented most farmers from becoming legal compliant. As of March 2018, over 99% of cannabis farmers have not gotten through the onerous licensing process. [Report: 99% of Cannabis Growers Are Still Unlicensed] Especially onerous is the excise tax — just like Alexander Hamilton leveled on the whiskey distillers. The cannabis excise tax comes in at a whopping 15%, with multiple sales taxes accompanying it along the supply chain until retail. This has caused the price of legal cannabis to jump about 50% at the same time as the price of illegal cannabis sold on the street plummets. So many people began growing this plant during the green rush that it resulted in a glut in the market supply, without adequate means for those new farmers to go legal. After prop 64 took effect, people who once could live off of their marijuana crop now find themselves in dire straights.

At the time of writing this piece, politicians are signaling that they will attempt to lower the excise tax in a bid to draw more cannabis farmers into the fold. [California considers cut in marijuana taxes in bid to lure legal users] Such would be an act of mercy and justice for the pioneers of an industry that will net the state billions in additional tax revenue. In a contentious hearing at the board of supervisors meeting in Humboldt country (ground zero for early cannabis farming), citizens poured into the halls to plead for lower taxes and the end of corporate loopholes that favor the wealthy. [Frustration and Fear: Local Cannabis Farmers Ask for Help, Claim Measure S Could Put Them Out of Business and Deprive County of Their Tax Revenue] It’s still unclear whether the barriers to entry will remain so high, but people are pushing back and want to be a part of the legal economy. The demand is now for an easier way to join the state regulated economy rather than escape it. The pot growing community has come a long way since the idealistic days of nonconformity.

The desire for access into the regulated market is mainly to prevent the consolidation of industry that Ray Raphael wrote about in Cash Crop. People had always known that legalization would encourage big agribusiness to move into their backyard; without proper permits, law enforcement would end up taking down the smaller business instead of targeting the large ones like it did in the past. Legalization mixed with high taxes has meant that the scale of cannabis farms is getting bigger, a reversal of the tacit agreement between the community and federal drug enforcement that kept operations small. It is the fear of monopoly capitalism that supersedes fear of big government for the people out west — it is the Left Coast after all. The only game left in town is tweaking the rulers so that the law promotes a decentralized industry instead of one dominated by a few players. If we believe with Raphael that capitalism inevitably consolidates into monopoly power, then fair laws that protect small farmers are the only check cannabis farmers have left.

With the law kept as is, small farmers will likely be phased out of the market. Bigger farms tend to yield more product with fewer costs in what economists call “economies of scale” or, in other words, capitalist consolidation. Perhaps the back-to-the-landers are facing a reckoning for failing to curtail gangs from extracting as much black market profits from the region or for looking the other way when signs of environmental damage were all too apparent. [Outlaw Weed Comes into the Light] But there are forces at play that dwarf the collective power of this little haven that hippies found in Northern California. The next step for counterculture on the west coast will be to engage with those greater forces and follow the money instead of stash it.

If cannabis farmers (whoever ends up with the legal profits in the industry) could pool their money together into a bank that the entire state of California has access to as deposits for loans, a great victory would be achieved. A public bank would be the saving grace of the hippies and cement their legacy as a true force against American mainstream capitalism. This would complete the journey of the back-to-the-landers after their escape from American culture. They could take their place alongside the populist farmer movements like the NonPartisan League that willed the Bank of North Dakota into existence. [How the Nation’s Only State-Owned Bank Became the Envy of Wall Street]

The best part is, one doesn’t even have to be a cannabis farmer nor ever have been in the cannabis industry. All we have to do is educate people on the benefits of public banking and for those people to lobby California politicians. [Public Banking Institute] The crucial factor on this issue is linking cannabis profits with accessible deposits for the rest of California. [A Public Bank for Pot Entrepreneurs? How About the Rest of Us?] Such would be practical way to bring economic justice to everyone in the state (and galvanize a nationwide movement) instead of just those under the majestic Redwoods.

Much More than a Whiskey Bottle

The cannabis farmers who found the road to economic self-reliance in the redwood forests of northern California suddenly find the road closed. As the pioneers of the most lucrative industry in California and the first to take the risk nationwide, they are now being cast aside by entrepreneurs with plenty of start-up capital. Multilayered taxes, including a big excise, now threaten the small farmer haven that once was the emerald triangle. [East Bay Express: Nipped in the Bud]

When the back-to-the-land hippies fled a stultifying mainstream American culture, they discovered an older America: the Jeffersonian vision of the self-reliant yeoman farmer. They will likely share the fate of that vision however, trampled upon by industrial and efficient Hamiltonian businessman. Battles for a sustainable use of land and resources, as well as an equitable share in the industry, can and should be fought for. But the biggest battle will be fought over which version of the Hamiltonian vision will be instated in the aftermath. With the new tax and regulation of this massively lucrative industry will come the opportunity to revisit the better side of Hamilton’s legacy: his championing of public-oriented financing in the form of the first Bank of the United States.

Before we get to the first public bank in America, it’s worthwhile to explain the economic situation facing the frontier farmers of that time. Their plight at the hands of Hamilton mirrors the plight of the small cannabis farmer when you substitute weed for whiskey.

The aftermath of the revolutionary war saw a period of radical economic transformation, to say nothing of the unprecedented political innovations. Soon after the revolutionary war and the signing of constitution, congress approved of Alexander Hamilton’s funding scheme to assume all of the debts that the states had incurred and centralize them in the new United States government. This would result in a huge windfall for the bondholders of American war debt: over time they would received both the accrued interests and the principle of these bonds at face-value. Taking on this debt would be the engine that propelled the first Bank of the United States into working order and, in turn, set the country off on the right footing with respect to the rest of the world.

All seems well on the face of it, after all, ordinary farmer-soldiers bought paper war bonds too. But the economic conditions in the west were vastly different than those in the wealthier east. The long time that had elapsed since the issuance of the bonds rendered them useless to farmers in need of metal coins or specie to conduct trade. Years had gone by where nobody could be sure that these bonds would be paid back and people needed hard money to go about their lives. Most of the revolutionary war bonds ended up in the hands of the eastern merchants who could afford to hold onto them during the long wait before redemption. The lack of acceptable currency in the west convinced greedy speculators to scour the western lands and swoop them up on the cheap. Western farmers needed acceptable cash immediately and were desperate to sell these bonds and chits. This drove down the prices of to a fraction of their original worth. But when Hamilton’s financial plan was passed, the bonds suddenly gained their full value back and wealthy easterners reaped a huge windfall. Financiers of the east had swindled the frontiersmen of the west less than ten years after they had fought and defeated the British Empire.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The greatest change took place when the new invention of paper currency, called colonial scrip, was taken away after the establishment of Constitution in Congress. No longer could states issue their own currency and make it easier for average person to conduct business. Paper money was the brainchild of Benjamin Franklin and a huge hit with the poor western farmers that lacked specie. It was a totally new brand of finance that facilitated inclusive economic activity, one of the most revolutionary of innovations in a time of so much revolutionary activity. The only problem was that it created currency value inflation due the ease of printing more whenever the occasion arose. The real conflict came, however, from the depreciation of the bonds that wealthy merchants held. Increasing the money supply by printing of more paper money meant that the return on the bonds came back with weaker money than it was lent with. Creditors took a reduced return on their investment but everyone else (the vast majority of Americans) benefited from the ease of doing business. The more money available, the more poor farmers could conduct trade. It was a clear class conflict between debtors and creditors: creditors hated the uncertainty of price fluctuations and taking a bath on war bonds, debtors wanted more money in the economy at large and therefore more economic equality.

Populist finance in America has a long history that rarely makes its way into mainstream canon. A number of authors have written on the subject and deserve praise for their efforts. So much of the historical activity of a people that claims such a democratic heritage was directed at wealthy financiers who got rich at the expense of the vast majority. These democratic actors had potent critiques, alternative ideas that could work, and sound minds for political economy. They simply lost the important battles of history and history, as we all should know, is written by the victors. As William Hogeland put it (the first author who opened my eyes to the history of missed opportunities for American democratic finance in Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation): “It’s Hamilton’s America… we all just live in it.”

Summarizing the economic grievances of western Pennsylvanians, Terry Bouton writes,

“During the 1780s state leaders had eliminated paper money, which was the primary medium of exchange, especially in the back country, where gold and silver coins were always scarce. They had killed a government loan office that had offered long-term low-cost credit to small farmers and craftsmen – and replaced it with a private bank that offered loans only to merchants and land speculators. The state government had adopted a plan to repay the Revolutionary War debt that taxed the soldiers and farmers who had fought and supplied the war effort so that wealthy men who had speculated in once-worthless war bonds and IOUs could make a financial killing. Those new taxes were often to be paid in gold and silver. All of these policies stripped the countryside of cash and left thousands of farmers unable to pay debts, mortgages, or taxes. The result was waves of sheriff’s auctions that swept the state, a floodtide of misery that, in [William] Findley’s home county, foreclosed about 40 percent of the taxable population.

At the same time that ordinary Pennsylvanians were losing cows, tools, and farmland at auction, state leaders were making it increasingly hard for them or their children to acquire new land. Officials at the land office gave preferential treatment to big speculators (including themselves). Revenue officials refused to prosecute large speculators who had not paid their taxes at the same time that they pushed to foreclose ordinary taxpayers. Judges ruled in favor of wealthy speculators over settlers in nearly every land conflict. In 1792 the state supreme court turned a clear anti-land-speculation law into a pro-speculator one. The law had put caps on the amount of land anyone could purchase to limit speculation. Defying the law’s stated objectives, however, the supreme court ruled that the limits applied only to small farmers and that wealthy speculators could buy as much land as they could afford[.]” (Bouton, ‘William Findley, David Bradford, and the Pennsylvania regulation of 1794,’ in Revolutionary Founders, p.237-8)

With the war over, it seems that the Federalist who took charge of the new government felt the poor farmers of the west were expendable. The new measures crippled the financial base of the liberty-loving rabble-rousers and bolstered the already wealthy speculators that Hamilton championed, setting a precedent that has more-or-less held up throughout American history. Populist direct action had been the bread-and-butter of the movement for independence in the colonies and the new government now regarded them and their proponents as a threat to the new order. This was all very painful for untamed patriots, with this pattern of financier-oriented policy fostering two previous militia formations before the whiskey tax, but when the excise tax came it added insult to injury. The whiskey tax struck at the livelihoods of the very people who joined Hamilton in fighting the British and creating a new republic.

What makes the whiskey tax so hurtful is not that it kept uneducated farmers in the wilderness from getting drunk, distilling and selling whiskey (often to those with the money to buy it out east) was a cost-effective strategy for earning an income through trade. After all of the financial attacks that drained the economic base of the western farmers, now their last profitable trade was being hit by an excise tax. Whiskey distilling drastically reduced the transportation costs in comparison to other goods. It allowed subsistence tenant farmers and self-sufficient landowners alike to sell a valuable product from the periphery back to core market at a reasonable profit. Hogeland explains this dynamic the best: whiskey was exceptional,

“… for being a cash crop, with eager markers both within the region that produced it far away. A gallon of good rye whiskey might sell for only twenty-five cents in the west; easy of the mountains, it could bring from fifty cents to a dollar. Hauling twenty-four bushels of milled rye over the Alleghenies took three pack animals with projected revenues of a mere six dollars; costs outran revenues. Reducing those bushels, at home or at a community still, to two eight-gallon kegs of whiskey amplified their value almost three times while reducing transport requirements to a single animal.

So with a value nearing the absolute, whiskey became currency in places where coin wasn’t seen. Always exchangeable for cash somewhere down the line, whiskey maintained good value against metal. That tended to democratize western economies… The product gave cash-starved segments of society opportunities for small-scale commercial development that might begin freeing ordinary people from debt and dependency.” (Hogeland, p.178)

So whiskey distilling kept these humble farmers economically afloat. Distilling whiskey and selling it back east, just like growing cannabis from the 1970’s to the present, kept communities moderately prosperous without going big and corporate. Their distilleries were often used communally and seasonally. The excise tax on spirits disproportionately effected those smaller distillers because the larger distillers closer to the eastern core could pay a lower tax rate by keeping the stills churning out whiskey bottles all year long. The tax was calculated with an assumption that the stills would be used year-round: impossible for seasonal independent farmers but advantageous to business-oriented distillers seeking to maximize the profits from their investment in their distillery. Large distillers could lower their prices and push out the smaller ones hit harder by the excise. This was complicated macroeconomic tinkering and Hamilton was smart enough to understand the consequences of his legislation. Frontier farmers must have seen this move as yet another targeted attack by financial aristocrats.

Resistance to the first excise taxes in Britain, as Thomas Slaughter describes early on in his The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution, was one of the quickest and angriest responses ever engendered by a government’s tax scheme. Excise taxes are also called “inland taxes” or “internal taxes” and levy a percentage of the value of a commodity at the point of production. High war costs during the English Civil War forced seventeenth century British governments to seek more revenue. “Opposition was immediate, violent, and persisted in some regions for over a century thereafter… a mob burned down the London excise house during the 1650’s.” (p.12) The core-periphery dynamic was at play here, with London and other central regions of the empire being easier to administer than the farther reaches. “Resistance was always greatest in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and the outlying rural parts of England.” (p.12) Yet, despite their unpopularity, excise taxes remained a feature of life in the empire. “Indeed, despite pockets of resistance, the excise surpassed the land tax and customs duties to become the single most lucrative source of government income between the years 1713 and 1799. For much of that period it constituted over 40 percent of all Treasury receipts”. (p.13) American farmers no doubt had a collective memory of these tax measures and did not wish to see a repeat in their new country. To add on top of the financial hardship and pro-speculator policies drying up their wealth an excise tax that disproportionately affected their most lucrative business would have seemed like a declaration of war. After all, the impulse to independence and revolution in 1776 was summed up by the slogan “no taxation without representation.” Thousands of farmers did not wish to see the same enemy that they had fought so hard against suddenly reappear under a different guise.

Somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 men descended upon Braddock’s Field near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1794 to formulate a response to the excise tax. (Slaughter, p.234) These regulators came from all over the peripheral lands in an orderly and deliberate fashion. Similar actions had occurred recently in the Newburg Crisis and Shay’s Rebellion (or the Massachusetts Regulation) and they drew from a history of populist tax and creditor resistance from the traditional Anglo-Saxon past. The Whiskey Rebellion was a series of mass actions that sprang up all across the countryside – sympathy demonstrations even took place in the big eastern cities. Debt courts were shut down, road blocks were created to stall property foreclosures, and tax collectors were tarred and feathered. (Bouton, p.241) Resistance was a widespread phenomenon that a great deal of the western culture took part in. Though mostly peaceful, tarring and feathering is no benign action – these people were serious about protecting their participation in a trade that became essential to their livelihoods.

Though mass assemblies brought some orderliness to the tax-resistors, they remained divided on how to continue in the face of the impending military campaign to round them up. Some wanted to meet Hamilton’s volunteer/mercenary militia head on or even secede from the republic and found their own nation. Others like William Findley wanted to organize the people into a new party and win seats in congress. There inability to unite, together with the presence of Hamilton’s army enforcing official national law, caused them to disintegrate. Added to this were reports coming in of the atrocities committed by liberty-loving revolutionaries in France, souring the public opinion of widespread disorder and generating well-founded anxiety. The private army raised to put down the rebellion arrested what regulators they could, sometimes indiscriminately seizing individuals at will. To his credit, president Washington pardoned every person imprisoned for their seditious activity, the damage to the movement having been done. Memories of this event and other events like it led to the political collapse of the Federalist party in just a few years. The excise tax followed them out the door when Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party repealed it.

As Hamilton’s army approached, thousands could see the writing on the wall and fled farther west into the wilderness. Resistance to rich eastern elites would thereafter be fractured or be duped into picking the wrong targets. The coalition that got Thomas Jefferson elected and shook up the electoral shape of America understandably reviled Hamilton’s bank and the means he used to establish it. As prominent figures like James Madison learned of the financial might of villainous speculators, he too turned on his Federalist ally. Madison tried to distinguish between rightful or original owners of government bonds so as not reward rich speculators, but Hamilton’s plan was complete and Madison’s plan infeasible. No records were kept for the sale of these bonds that had changed hands many times. Such was the double-edged genius of Alexander Hamilton: his mastery of finance came at the cost of alienating those around him. He could personally rout the frontiersmen and create many enemies in Washington yet still be revered for the extreme utility of his public bank.

Much to their frustration, neither Jefferson nor Madison could deny the utility of a public bank. Jefferson never understood how debt kept the money system stable and acquiesced to his Treasury secretary Albert Gallatin’s level-headed advice. The agrarian sentimentality cultivated in Virginia and reflected in much of the population of America left Jefferson unable to shape the economic future of the country he did so much to inaugurate. Madison chartered a new Bank of the United States himself to handle the debts from the War of 1812. When that bank was up for recharter, Andrew Jackson, swept into office on popular anger against the financial elite, vetoed it. It would take another 50 years or so for populist agrarian crusaders to realize that government/state owned banks were viable institutions that could protect their interests.

The scars left by rich speculators lingered on for some time after whiskey tax and subsequent repression. From then on, distrust of banks would be a feature of oppositional political thinking in America. Banks would win the future however and without a public option in the banking sector, wealthy businessmen could simply charter their own private versions. For the better part of the nineteenth century, all banks would be viewed by farmers as monstrosities that use a baffling magic trick to mess with their fortunes. But banks are not necessarily evil institutions, the measure of their social utility depend on who is in control of them. Today banks are mostly private corporations with shareholders that demand the maximization of profits as a matter of principle. It need not be this way though and, ironically, Hamilton himself illustrated the best populist alternative to the machinations of the wealthy 1% of today with the Bank of the United States.

In the period following the ratification of the federal US Constitution, the financial course for the new nation had yet to be charted. Alexander Hamilton had a dream to turn the former colonies into a modern mercantilist nation on a model he borrowed from the British and its Bank of England. His idea would succeed with flying colors, but few truly understood just what he had done to make banking so indispensable to the health of this new form of economics. It would take decades for the nation to warm up to the idea of banks as an everyday feature of American life, but by that time, private banks would dominate the landscape and the old civic-minded banks would be a distant memory.

People were highly suspicious of the purity of Hamilton and other speculator’s motives, and rightfully so. Populist anger the elite eastern “stockjobbers” was well-founded, the blanket rejection of banks and all financial schemes was, however, foolish. Banking (especially of the public variety) would prove to be so successful that its detractors would come around in the long run, but the damage would already be done by that time. The option for government involvement in banking was besieged and destroyed in the first decades of the United States, that is, until the populist farmers realized that bringing banking into the government was the best and perhaps only defense against the insatiable greed of Wall Street bankers and industrialists in the antebellum nineteenth century. In hindsight, keeping public banks around was the best way to prevent gross economic hardship, but the battle-lines were drawn differently in these very different times.

The revolts and minor uprisings that occurred in this time period were all debt related. Traditional debt relations were far more fluid and amenable to the needs of common villagers before modern economics took a hold of them. The soldiers and suppliers of the Revolutionary War had not been paid. Their expedients for trade were dashed. Their protests were quelled. Before 1787, farmers outside of the merchant city regions had the benefit of the state’s former issuance of paper money to stimulate business. They began as a war-time expedient during the seven-years-war but remained afterward to everyone’s joy. In a frontier land lacking in specie (metal coin currency), paper money was a godsend. But the new constitution forbade the states from issuing any more colonial scrip and centralized the money-making function within the new federal government. The very first articles of the US Constitution are explicitly designed to prevent states from issuing their own ‘bills of credit’ and instead enshrine the return of the economy to a hard currency basis. The framers worried about the inflation these bills created, but paper money would come to dominate the economy anyways in the form of bank notes.

If bills of credit or paper money could no longer be used by farmers, then they were stuck with hard specie scarcity. Their business was less connected to the world at large, so metal money was harder to get their hands on. On top of that, exploitation by speculators, who sensed their desperation only to capitalize on it, added to their affective loathing of all things financial coming from the coastal port cities. Upon reading accounts of the financial hardships of American farmers and poor debtors, laid out in the previous post, it’s easy to see why they would be driven to such hate. But every actor needs a circulating medium of exchange to lift their fortunes. The distrust of a banker-government partnership inculcated during this period of history went a long way towards eliminating the necessary checks against the money-creating power of private banks. The banks role in controlling the increase or decrease in the overall supply of money could only be effectively curtailed and controlled by a central governing body endowed with financial powers like that of a bank. Distrust and anger at central government and public banks actually hurt prospects for economic justice by empowering private banks to carry on this highly profitable enterprise free of restraint.

Bray Hammond sticks the point well at the beginning of his grand history of banks in Banks and Politics in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War:

“The agrarian demand for paper money and easy credit which did at last appear in the States in the latter part of the 19th century arose from tardy recognition by the agrarians that they lived in a modern economy, not in dreamland, and in order to hold their own must use credit as business men did. It arose from a slow realization that farming must be a means of making money, not of withholding oneself from the world… But in the face of business enterprise and industrialization, it became impossible for farming to remain unchanged. Stock had to be improved. Machinery had to be acquired. The elements of farm capital became diversified, the land itself ceasing to be the one ingredient of weight. Money and credit forced their way into the farmer’s reckoning.” (Hammond, p.33)

It’s at this point that a shift in emphasis must ensue. A different country than the one Jefferson envisioned was taking shape around the turn of the 18th to the 19th century and we cannot simply remain pitted against all financial concoctions wherever they crop up. The future involves banks and they need to be made to work for the people or the vast majority instead of fought at every turn. The makings of a modern economy were shaping up at this time; increased specialization in the workplace and the overriding importance of overseas trade in the international game of political economy was drowning out the small farmer’s hope for New World of freeholders. The cat was out of the bag and it was not going back in.

The scars leftover from Federalist era lingered on into the Jacksonian era of Democratic entrepreneurialism until the producing farmers figured out how debt, monetary policy, and banks effected them on the national level many decades later. The populist party sought to take over control of the money supply away from banks in the late eighteenth century with their ‘sub-treasury’ system and the non-partisan league would successfully lobby for a state-owned bank in North Dakota. But no movement in America has been able to sustain a public-oriented financial school of thought in the tumultuous times that capitalist industrialism wrought at the end of the 19th century, 20th and up until today. We have a moment right now to establish new public banks with the growing momentum of the public banking movement. It is high time that certain truths about banking become a part of common wisdom and used for the benefit of the 99% instead of the exclusive gain of the 1%.

Hamilton’s Bank of the United States was lauded by all those who understood it. It not only flipped a liability in high war debts into an asset (quite literally), it spread new money out into the economy whenever loans were dispersed. It’s bank notes functioned just like money, similar to the paper money of colonial scrip but more like state bank notes also circulating, so it increased the amount of business that could be done in two separate ways simultaneously. It offered credit for new projects in a typical lending fashion and then, as a result, bank notes could be drawn on representing the promise to repay the debt. These notes were basically paper IOU’s for the original loan/deposited coin (more on this later), but they would inevitably change hands many times in the course of business and effectively enter circulation as money. This is the what makes banks so hotly contested: they don’t just offer loans and act as special intermediaries for future business (though they do that also), they increase the amount of money in the system as a whole so long as they remain solvent (i.e. have enough hard currency to back up the notes that come back in for redemption, or withstand the depletion of specie from their vaults). That these bank notes could be used to pay federal taxes enhanced their acceptability as legitimate money.

Absent regulation, this operation is fragile and private banks are incentivized to extend credit wherever they can profit. The increase in available paper bank notes/IOU’s increases the amount of money passing from hand-to-hand in the general economy, even if you as an individual do not have an account at that bank or any bank. Those paper bank notes can always be redeemed at a local branch of the corresponding bank for hard coin in the vaults, that is, unless too many notes come in for redemption at once and the vaults are depleted.Provided the bank remains solvent, the net effect on the economy at large is immense. Having more things getting passed around as money lifts up the general economic prospects of every actor in the system, provided that the amount of notes issued are commensurate with the overall level of real economic activity. Issue too many and you get price inflation, too little and prices drop but there is less money around to get your hands on.

The national public bank of Hamilton was able to check the excessive issuance of bank notes in the way that a central bank does now. Today central banks are independent of government and merely transfer money from one bank within its system to another in the form of reserves in their central bank accounts. The first and second Bank of the United States operated slightly differently but also kept private banks and state banks that existed before them from collapsing in a heap of panic, rendering its notes useless and its contribution to the overall money supply vanishing in a flash. It made sure that the ratio of bank notes to reserves didn’t get too high and private banks couldn’t print way more notes than they could back up with coins. The first Bank of the United States, Hamilton’s bank, operated in a time when the split between public and private sectors was not so pronounced. Many believed that private investors were needed to lend credibility to the institution in the first place, the government being too young and fragile to instill any confidence. But it was a public bank that served the needs of the people at large by servicing the new and fragile government’s debt and hence its credibility as a future borrower. It increased the supply of money to stimulate industry by issuing its own US Bank Notes that had a wide circulation.

Banks whether public or private wield enormous power by controlling the size of money in the economy at any given time. This is not always well-understood by economists but when banks make loans they increase the amount of money flowing through the economy. Bank loans create more money, paying back those debts created by the loan destroys it. It’s an extraordinary tool within a modern economy and there is no reason why governments shouldn’t be involved in banking when it plays such a vital (and lucrative) role. This is what Hamilton’s bank did before private businessmen and entrepreneurs started opening up their own banks and attacking the national bank. In another one of histories ironies, it was farmer’s opposition to the Hamilton’s policies that killed the second Bank of the United States when Andrew Jackson swept into power. Little did they know that this national, central bank was the only thing preventing private banks from wildly profiting off of the economy’s need for credit, in turn playing havoc on the money supply. The full story is told in Bray Hammond’s standard financial history book in Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War.

According to Hammond, Hamilton did understand this crucial function of banking. It’s quite possible that only a handful of individuals grasped this operation and its significance and few understand it still today. The fact that banks create money, control its supply (in a more-or-less/marginal sort way of increases or decreases from day to day instead of absolutely), and perform a systemically vital function to a dynamic modern economy escapes contemporary economic textbook definitions of banks as mere “intermediaries.” If we replace the terms of 21st century economics with ones from the 18th century, we can still detail the same banking function:

“…[I]n the sentence before his explanation of specie deposits, Hamilton had made the observation that every loan which a bank makes is in the first instance a credit on its books in favor of the borrower and that, unless withdrawn in specie, it remains a liability of the bank till the loan is repaid. In these words he explained 20th century banking as will as 18th, and how bank lending creates bank deposits, with the difference that he did not call them “deposits” but reserved that term for specie transactions, distinguishing credit for specie from credit for the proceeds of loans. He did so because he observed banking in terms of the individual bank and not of many banks constituting a system. He was writing at a time when there were three banks only in America, each sole in its community. The effect each bank’s lending had on its own positions was in those circumstances direct and unobscured; its loans obviously increased what would now be called its deposits; for the checks drawn on it were not being deposited in other banks nor were the checks drawn on others being deposited in it. Each bank was a closed and separate system. Hamilton simply noted what in the then situation was plain and required no unusual discernment. The records of the Massachusetts Bank indicate how common it was at the very beginning to credit borrower’s accounts with the amounts lent them; and the known figures of deposit liabilities are plainly too large to have arisen from specie alone. Such credits seem in practice to have been included with deposits proper but in discussion to have been kept distinct. A deposit was of something tangible, whether for safekeeping or to apply on a capital subscription. The liability for amounts lent was called credit or book credit, as by Hamilton in the passage in which he described the procedure.

Though exempting specie deposits from the restriction could scarcely have given a bank any more inducement than it already had to acquire specie; it doubtless seemed logical to Hamilton that the liability arising from deposits of specie be distinguished from the liability representing the proceeds of loans and that it be excepted from limitations on an expansion that could occur only when liabilities were assumed in excess of the specie held. The issuance of notes and the crediting of customers’ accounts might and did entail the assumption of liabilities in excess of specie holdings, but not when the issuance of the credit resulted from a deposit of specie.” (Hammond, p.138-9. Emphasis mine.)

In other words, when a loan is made by a bank it doesn’t matter that there isn’t enough corresponding metal coin specie to match it one-for-one. Taking in deposits or specie to store in its vaults and making loans to those seeking credit are two separate functions of banking that work in tandem but don’t require a steadfast equivalence. When a loan is made, the amount of money requested by the borrower is written into their account, which they can then draw on regardless of how much specie that individual has deposited on their own. The only thing that matters is that people don’t rush in and grab all of the hard currency all at once in a panic. As long as the bank is believed to be trustworthy, it is. The bank can then keep on lending as much as it likes (more or less), printing more of its bank notes (no doubt to change hands many times), and profiting off of the regular interest payments coming in from the borrower. It’s this ambiguity that leads people to call banking a monster of instability playing fast and loose with our money. Within the accounting format called ‘double-entry bookkeeping’ is the ability to measurably increase the overall money supply by entering numbers on a piece of paper during the loan making process. Whether those two sides read ‘asset/liability,’ ‘credit/deposits,’ or ‘bank credit/specie capital’ is insignificant. It’s in the proportion of one to the other that the fluctuations in money supply increase or decrease, but the ratio itself was fluid in the early days of banking.

“The practice then was less conventional than now, for then, taking advantage of the fact that every item on a bank’s books has both an asset and a liability aspect, it might be called either; whereas now every item belongs rigidly on one side or the other. Thus deposits were sometimes what a bank held and sometimes what it owed; and circulation represented money lent as much as money owed. There is a modern parallel in the fact that bank credit may be measured either in assets or in liabilities, and though the statistical practice of measuring it in loans and investments is now well established, deposits are often taken informally as its measure, and the law provides for its control through the ration of reserves to deposit liabilities.” (Hammond, p. 141)

Banking reform would later come in the form of reserve ratios to restrict the amount of loans on one side of the page to the reserves on the other side. Playing with this ratio became the way to check bank’s influence on the economy at large and prevent collapse of banks who greedily issued to many notes without having enough coin to back them up. But fixing reserve ratios as a universal standard did not and does not provide an effective restraint upon the banking system in general. This method assumes, falsely, that issuance of loans comes attached to the specie in the vault when they are actually two separate functions within a bank. The ratio can go up or down and still be left in tact. What matters is that the confidence trick in the bank’s vaults is upheld and people don’t collectively make a run on the bank. As Hammond explains above, it doesn’t really matter if you focus in on the amount of deposits at the bank or the amount of book credit granted by a loan. They are two separate things that have been joined together within the marble walls and pillars of the bank so that a single thing (money) can be multiplied and dispersed where businesses wants it to go.

The Bank of the United States performed this function in a controlled, centralized manner that serviced a fledgling nation. It’s not so absurd to say that without it, the United States might have crumbled in its infancy under the surrounding colonial European powers and its own war debts. Hamilton’s Bank serviced the interest on the debt, enhanced the credibility of the United States of America abroad, stimulated business, and acted as an early-modern regulator of the banking system.

“its prominence as one of the largest corporations in America and its branches’ broad geographic position in the emerging American economy allowed it to conduct a rudimentary monetary policy. The bank’s notes, backed by substantial gold reserves, gave the country a relatively stable national currency. By managing its lending policies and the flow of funds through its accounts, the bank could — and did — alter the supply of money and credit in the economy and hence the level of interest rates charged to borrowers.

These actions, which had effects similar to today’s monetary policy, can be seen most clearly in the Bank’s interactions with state banks. In the course of business, the Bank would accumulate the notes of the state banks and hold them in its vault. When it wanted to slow the growth of money and credit, it would present the notes to banks for collection in gold or silver, thereby reducing state banks’ reserves and putting the brakes on their ability to circulate new banknotes. To speed up the growth of money and credit, the Bank would hold on to the state banks’ notes, thereby increasing state banks’ reserves and allowing those banks to issue more banknotes by making loans.

The Bank’s branches were all located in the fledgling nation’s port cities. This made it easier for the federal government to collect tax revenues, most of which came from customs duties. Locating the branches in ports also made it easier for the Bank to finance international trade and help the Treasury fund the government’s operations through sales of US government securities to foreigners. Furthermore, the Bank’s branch system gave it another advantage: it could move its notes around the country more readily than could a state bank. The Bank’s branches also helped to fund and encourage the country’s westward expansion, particularly with the establishment of a branch in New Orleans.” [Federal Reserve History Website]

So the utility of this bank is without question. More than a money-making machine for a handful of investors getting fat off collecting interest payments, it actually prevented the excesses of banks from spiraling out of control and wrecking the greater economy – as would happen many times after the two banks were killed. In its virtuous civic function, The Bank of the United States was almost an “anti-bank bank” that looked after all actors within the bounds of the nation instead of a small faction of wealthy investors. The number of those kinds of banks would multiply very soon and the network of private banks would come to dominate the American economy to this day. Had the Bank survived, industry would have progressed much more steadily and without the chaos of epidemic bank failures, greatly reducing the severity of depressions that jaded so many Americans. One can imagine the despair and resentment of a population left holding worthless pieces of paper that used to be as good as money, failing to understand what exactly had gone wrong.

It’s worth looking at how this bank was incorporated, if only to admire the grandeur of an intelligent plan conceived on paper but willed into reality. With the war debts exceeding $150 million from the federal and state treasuries combined, interest payments would need to be effected soon. Direct payment with taxes would have crippled an economy that didn’t have as much specie available to do business as is, with outlying farmers feeling this pain exceptionally. The bank would offer to the public a subscription for future stock of the bank to the limit of $8 million, with the federal treasury owning $2 million for a total of $10 million. The federal government would own one-fifth of the bank and private citizens would make up the remaining four-fifths, drawing interest from the scrips they bought. Once enough specie was collected (which it was almost immediately), the game was in play and debt servicing could commence on the basis of that hard currency.

“Though the authorized capital of the Bank was $10,000,000, of which $2,000,000 was to be paid in specie, the Bank was permitted to organize as soon as $400,000 had been received from the subscribers. Whether much more was ever got from them on successive installments is doubtful, though the Bank subsequently accumulated a treasure much in excess of what the stockholders were supposed to pay. Payment for the government’s stock was accomplished under an authorizations in the charter that was taken over almost intact form Hamilton’s proposal and was presumably intended by him to give the appearance of a cash payment. In effect the Treasury drew for $2,000,000 on the United States commissioners engaged in selling government securities in Amsterdam, deposited the drafts with the Bank, and then drew against the deposit to pay for the stock. Technically this consummated the purchase of the stock with funds borrowed in Europe. But it was not desired to have the drafts go through and the specie shipped from Europe, because it would have had to be shipped back for other purposes. So the Treasury borrowed $2,000,000 from the Bank and used the amount to take up the drafts on the commissioners, with which the whole transaction had opened. The net effect was therefore to leave the government in possession of $2,000,000 of Bank stock and in debt to the Bank for $2,000,000, though technically the money owing to the Bank had not been used to buy the stock but to “restore” the funds in Amsterdam which had been “used” for that purpose.” (Hammond, p.123-4)

It was a kind of trick that can work with the use of a public bank and the stability of a government combined. Only enough specie needed to be acquired so that those who needed it could draw on it when they needed it. The rest of the subscribers, including the treasury, kept their accounts on the books and waited for the interest payments to come in from regular installments. The one-fifth of the bank that the government owned it didn’t actually pay for, it borrowed the money from Dutch financiers already keen on these machinations. Instead of physically transferring specie hand-to-hand, agents of the treasury gave to the Dutch paper promises to pay later. They then used this borrowed money to buy bank stock (which earns interest) and pay off the imbalances of the account as time goes on. It all works because there is enough specie to be drawn out of the bank on occasion, allowing the pretense of convertibility between metal money and paper money to persist. People trusted that there would be enough business in America for these accounts to be settled in the end because there was so much nascent potential on the American continent, the bank allowed them to push paying off debts forward into the future by playing with this divergence in forms of money. Essentially, it was a leap of faith on everyone’s part:

“The early Americans were short of capital, particularly capital in the form of gold and silver. If that dearth of gold and silver had been allowed to hold up their formation of banks, the circle would never have been broken; instead they resorted to arrangements which had the practical virtue of establishing the proper procedure in principle if not in fact. And in time, because the pretenses worked, they accumulated the gold and silver and made the principle a reality. It is a case where a pious lifting of oneself by the bootstraps is preferable to cynical realism or conscientious passivity. And for the most part a saner and more honest practice in capitalization established itself as soon as a surplus of wealth made it possible. Without the initial act of faith, so to speak, the surplus would have been slower in coming. The Americans had declared their political independence before it was a reality, not after; and what they did in the matter of financial competence was much the same.” (Hammond, p.124)

It’s the complexity of the move, the juggling of many different obligations all at once, that makes people resort to religious terminology to explain what in the world just happened before their eyes. But all parties simply had enough trust in the ability for a national government to persist in a stabilized capacity, collect enough taxes, pay investors their installments of interest, and receive the required initial subscription to kick things off. Hamilton was also an eloquent speaker and assured congress that his plan would work. He was right and he knew it.

The Bank of the United States brought together private business and public regulation together at a time when both needed each others help. The bank and public banks like it expanded the total money supply in a controlled and regulated fashion, while giving the government the means to pay off its own debts. When the treasury was forced to liquidate its bank stock, it profited for “$672,000 or 30 per cent, and the dividends it received while shareholder were $1,100,000.” (Hammond, p.207) Public banks are very profitable for the governments they represent, but they partner with the other banks and keep them from stashing these profits all to themselves. If large projects are to be effected without a public bank to borrow from, private banks pocket the interest from that demand for funds. Since banks create money, owning one means you can essentially borrow from yourself, like the confidence trick of the Bank of the United States.

The expediency of the bank can be mimicked in our own day and at the state level. Having a public bank for each state would stabilize the rest of the banks of that state by providing additional money to borrow at lower interests. Interests rates could be lowered across the board, or raised if too much business activity is causing inflation and over-extension of credit; and there lies the great hope: a regulated banking industry unbeholden to the insatiable demands of unchecked private banks. This is not a faux-public central bank like the federal reserve, but one that really works for the people by relieving the strangle hold that private banks have on the creation of money. Governments don’t have to be debtors begging for money to start their projects, slashing public worker hours and benefits, stagnating wages, and paying huge amounts of interest to private bankers when they own their own bank.

As the twenty-first century drags on, we face an uncertain road ahead. To catch a glimpse of hope we need not look that far back into history to find working models for both prosperity and sustainability. It has been encouraging to see activists working hard on forming public banks, for these banks can change the fortunes of every member of the economy in a time of vast wealth inequality. The times call for practical-minded solutions to big problems like climate change and economic stagnation. To seize the moment, we need only look to our own past for models that work.

Out west, cannabis is one of the biggest economic drivers of the region. Its coming into the fold of taxation and regulation at the state level offers a turning point that could lift up far more than just the people involved in the industry. By chartering a public bank in California, the cannabis industry can use banking services where once they could only use cash. It solves the problem of paying taxes in large suitcases full of dollar bills and a lack of small business loans for cannabis businesses with less start up capital. But the really exciting part comes with what the state can do with its own bank once that revenue is drawn in from pot funds. Financing large scale infrastructure projects that can transition the economy from one based on fossil-fuels and freeways into a renewable economy with clean energy all but requires that we utilize public banks. Nothing else can bring all of the funds together for such a massive undertaking that so many people believe must be done.

The pioneers of cannabis farming sought to escape from a society that suffocated their creativity and freedom of expression. They were so successful that others followed them out there in a curiously similar movement to other historical movements that brought people out west in droves. The California Green Rush, like the Gold Rush and the Timber Boom before it, brought billions of dollars to the further reaches of the American west in a hurried and chaotic fashion. It is likely that the Back-to-the-Land cannabis farmer will be mythologized in a similar way that the gold panning pioneer was in the nineteenth century. With the Redwood Curtain lifted and profits soaring, rugged individuals and hippy communes are sure to get the romanticized treatment of yet another distinct culture subsumed by modern business. Public banking offers a way out of this predicament. With its public financing model, we no longer have to play the game rigged by Wall St to benefit the already well-off. Hippies get to put a dent into the capitalist machine after all – just not the way they expected 50 years ago.

Small farmers and landed peasants have always born the brunt of specialized industry marching forward. It’s a fact that has torn apart people’s relationship with the earth for over 200 years now. It has also created enormous prosperity, especially at the national level. Innovations in banking, worker specialization, and increased scales of production set off irreversible processes into motion that need to be reckoned with democratically instead of with a blanket rejection. Alexander Hamilton’s vision won out but the implementation has gone way off course. If we hearken back to the eighteenth century, we can see a virtuous project too far ahead of its time to be appreciated in the Bank of the United States. The man wasn’t perfect (in fact, he was down-right elitist), but Hamilton did have the common good in mind when he conceived a national public bank in his mind and willed it into existence. With a quick crash course in public banking, one can grasp just how necessary establishing new banks are to creating an economy in which everyone wins.

Currently, cities and states must borrow money from Wall St banks to finance their projects. The payments made to municipal and state bondholders, plus interest payments made to banks from loans doubles the cost of any large project. Public worker’s hours and pensions are being slashed, facilities are downsizing and getting privatized, and the investor class is making off with the profits like bandits. Money that could be circulating within the public sector and distributed equitably is drying up. Fringe finance is replacing banks that no longer deem it profitable to do business with the poor, extracting wealth for basic services that could be done easily by the post office. The money pie is shrinking because access to credit has been consolidated by extraordinarily wealthy financiers in their private bank accounts and tax shelters. Public finance is the key to unlocking the economic potential just waiting to be let loose. [What We Could Do with a Postal Savings Bank: Infrastructure that Doesn’t Cost Tax Payers a Dime]

Public banking has a proven track record. Everywhere you look, from Germany to China to early America, linking governments to the technologies of banks is a proven winner. It is not only profitable for governments but the private individuals involved in financing and borrowing from it. The only ones who lose are the already ultra-rich 1%, the ones who want to keep their monopoly on the lending/money-creation powers of banks. With the sudden availability of funds opened up by the cannabis industry’s wave of legalization, the time is now to turn high profits into big ideas for a sustainable future. [Dave Dayen: The Ultimate Cash Crop: How a Pot Crisis Restarted a Public Banking Conversation in America]

Starting Over with The Last Jedi

Here we go again, another Star Wars movie. After the reboot of the franchise in The Force Awakens took the safe route and essentially mimicked the original Star Wars episode IV, expectations were pretty low that The Last Jedi would give this next generation something sizable to chew on. When Disney bought the rights to the Star Wars brand it was safe to assume that the same tropes and themes would resurface in shiny new graphics, that they would give enough fan service to keep up with merchandizing profits, that they would sustain continuity between the generations. The fairy tale magic that George Lucas brought to the baby boomers was such a strong force in pop culture that it was bound to make a come-back and Star Wars probably will continue build on its universe in a time when its world is so well-entrenched in the mainstream consciousness. I still remember when my parents took me to see the 1990’s remakes of the original trilogy: it was a kind of inter-generational transference of pop-culture that (most importantly) brought families out to buy movie tickets of a movie they had already seem (many times I’m sure). After that success, Lucas Arts hit the accelerator on filming the prequels and turning this legendary trilogy into a billion dollar franchise that will seemingly never go away.

But then something strange happened. The Last Jedi didn’t play it safe, it threw everything that Star Wars represented out the window, at least for most of the movie. The primary protagonist Rey’s back-story suddenly doesn’t matter. The evil villain is killed unceremoniously and his back-story is even less important. The great legend Luke Skywalker seems to have reverted to his teenage self and whines and pouts about how things could be different, only this time with a brooding sense of failure. Yoda burns books. Leia can fly through space. Much is left unexplained. And fans were pissed.

Though critics received the movie well, the fans were divided straight down the middle: you loved it or you hated it. Fanboys who invested so much of their time and energy into the Star Wars universe were devastated that someone could send such a wrecking-ball into their dreams. Much of The Last Jedi is outright ridiculous and feels almost like it was calculated to provoke outrage; after all, we live in an age of online social media fury where trolls abound under the bridges of every post and making controversial statements seems like the only way to get attention anymore. And this is what brings me to a curious thought about Star Wars and pop-culture: is this hot-mess of a movie actually brilliant for being bad? Did it torpedo itself on purpose?

Perhaps the problem with The Last Jedi is not with The Last Jedi but with Star Wars. Perhaps there was something deep within the Star Wars themes and story structure that was wrong and needed fixing. The biggest criticism of The Force Awakens was that it was basically the same movie as A New Hope. It’s easy to see why people would think that Disney took this complaint seriously and took too far a turn in the opposite direction, giving the fans something so completely different that it upset them. What Rian Johnson did with the script of the Last Jedi was fundamentally alter the logic of the Star Wars universe. It was a bold move and it opens up a crack in one of the biggest (perhaps The biggest?) fantasy worlds of the present. Judging the movie based on how far it strays from its source material and how uncharacteristic its portrayals were is only to announce that you don’t want your fantasies altered. A proper critique of The Last Jedi must ask what themes the film is trying to convey to its audience, what message is it trying to send to the children that it so acutely advertises to.

And this is the first big point about The Last Jedi, broadly speaking: it severs the ties from one Star Wars fan base (the original one) and the other (the new one). It tells the new fan base: the old heroes failed. Luke Skywalker is a cynical recluse. General Leia led her rebel army into oblivion (and that’s after allowing the fascists to rise again after winning the first great galactic war). Han Solo, well, I guess wasn’t very fit to be a father. The Last Jedi opens up the possibility that the entire Star Wars ethic that champions a rag-tag group of rebels tapping into a long lost ancient metaphysic to defeat the empire is simply and inevitably a losing option. As Kylo Ren says in a line that was repeated ad nauseum in the trailers and set the tone for the movie: “Forget the past, kill it if you have to.”** It’s all wrong. The Jedi order, the rebels fighting the empire, the entire moral code that Star Wars perpetuated so effectively throughout American culture and farther: throw it all away and start over. Though everything is put into question, The Last Jedi doesn’t actually start over. It challenges and alters the conventional Star Wars ethos but keeps some things in tact. I’ll try and suss out what it keeps and what it casts away.

Second point, the empire in its totalitarian fascist form is only a symptom of a greater systemic problem. It’s as if Rian Johnson was trying to solve a problem caused by his predecessor’s rehashing of A New Hope: the rebels allowed the First Order to rise in power after gaining control of the galaxy and nobody was willing to admit it. Something must have happened that forced the rebels to be rebels again instead of new legislators making a new and more perfect government. After all, we caught a glimpse of an intergalactic federal republic in the prequels, so why are we back to square one fighting the machine instead of running it? The Last Jedi doesn’t just hint at this defect in the The Force Awakens, it offers an explanation: a whole planet of rich weapons manufacturers in Canto Bight. Even if it is mentioned in a side-quest with only marginal consequences for the main plot, this completely changes the game in the Star Wars universe. The dynamic of totalitarian empire-builders rising to dominate the world and the rebels rising to challenge them are the inevitable and infinitely repeatable outcome of a world in which rich weapons manufacturers can profit off of both sides. The existence of a military industrial complex (neatly wrapped-up in a single planet) all but necessitates war and unending precocity for the world.

Third point, the force is not hereditary anymore. Rey is not a super-powerful jedi-to-be because of her parents bequeathed that power to her, it was a random occurrence, a miracle. At this point, the force is dispersed and accessible to anyone. This ‘democratizes the force’ and removes any elitist presumptions about who can exercise this spiritual power. This gives the viewer the sense that they can use the force if only they got lucky, which can happen to anyone. Kylo Ren still has force powers, being the child of a family lineage with the force, but it can equally surface within a nobody. Kylo himself rebels against his parents directly when he is being trained. Again, the broader point is that the older generation does not determine the course of the next. We need not remain attached to the powers and deeds of our forebearers. Try something different kids.

Fourth point, the jedi order is a fraud that fails as spectacularly as the rebels. The ancient jedi texts that Luke keeps hidden away are unimportant. They are helpful at best, idols at worst. Luke Skywalker focuses Rey’s attention to the Jedi Order’s failures rather than their successes, as if their entire reason for existence is negated because they were undermined by one powerful Sith lord. It never is explained why this is more than a mere one-time failure of the jedi instead of something that shatters their benevolence to the universe. At any rate, Luke Skywalker has decided (with Yoda taking an even more extreme position) that every artifact, all of the training manuals, every piece of received wisdom from past jedi’s, all deserve to be destroyed forever. Rey’s fate is still of paramount importance and Yoda councils Luke to do all that he can to keep her on the light side, but, because of this one failure, all of the tools that will help Luke and future jedi train adolescent jedi-to-be are set ablaze.

With the fifth point things get weirder. After suggesting that nearly everything about Star Wars, the Jedi order, the rebel strategy, and the whole infrastructure that the good guys set up, is wrong, The Last Jedi brings it all back. The fault for the current situation of the rebels and the jedi now seems to rest entirely on Luke Skywalker’s shoulders, or, the problem is with the Jedi Order and not the force itself. Never is the idea of balance questioned, or why leaning heavily on the light side of the force creates the much revered metaphysical balance. The jedi’s failures that result from Luke are evidenced by Kylo Ren’s going toward the dark side, just like Darth Vader’s turn after being trained by a good jedi. Since the order representing the light side of the force keeps producing dark off-spring, there must be something wrong with the order of light itself. Why the blame should rest with the order of light instead of the very notion of a light and dark side of the force is a mystery. To insist that balance is good but that only light possess the good and dark the bad is contradictory: there must be some bad (roughly half) for balance in this manichean force to exist. Rey and Kylo could have together balanced the force in their relationship but instead she chose light at the crucial moment. She does this despite Luke Skywalker himself telling her that the past order of the jedi, with all of their institutional knowledge of the force holds no authority on the force. Believing the jedi know the force better than others is “vanity”: it is anti-democratic. Perhaps they are building up to a true balance of the force in the relationship that Rey and Ren will have but, at this point in the franchise reboot, Rey is still trying to keep to the light side of the force within a broken jedi system that has failed her and her generation.

Six: it was all a misunderstanding. Luke “in a moment of pure instinct” nearly tries to kill his apprentice, but it was a mistake that he realizes just before making the strike. So the divergence between Skywalker and Kylo Ren, what turned him onto the wrong path, is simply a misunderstanding. This appears to make a reunion between Kylo and the light side of the force, just like Darth Vader’s redemption at the end of Episode 6, a live option. Kylo might have stayed on the true path if not for Luke’s lapse of judgment. This leaves open the possibility that the troubles this new generation is facing are all a matter of miscommunication, a momentary fissure that can be mended if everyone simply expressed themselves properly. This is, of course, at odds with the willingness of Yoda and Luke to burn down every important jedi artifact: if everything went wrong because of a simple misunderstanding, then why is the entire edifice judged to be obsolete?

Seven: The lesson that the older generation of freedom fighters must now pass on to the younger is of failure. Teach them how to fail well and keep at it despite failure is more important than education with books or planned master-apprentice relationships. There seems to be nothing worth passing on but, again, it is still imperative that the young stay on the path of light. Teaching someone how to cope with failure and still try to succeed amidst a series of failures is suddenly the only lesson that needs to be passed on for this purpose. It all rests on the decisions of each person makes individually first, and then how whether or not they learn from those mistakes (all by themselves now), second.

Eight: the good leaders are the ones who know how to fail well. Almost every older character messes up in The Last Jedi, whether it be the dashing pilot who over-commits his fleet, Luke Skywalker who fails his apprentice, the new vice admiral Holdo who allows the rebel alliance to be ground down into almost nothing, Fin and his new friend fail to prevent the First Order from tracking the rebels. Good leaders like a redeemed Luke and Holdo sacrifice themselves for the cause of the rebellion in the end. The youth like Fin are told to go on living, carrying the torch of resistance. Martyrs are praised for their devotion to the cause, turning their failures into positive outcomes in spite of their previous mistakes. Everyone of age is wiped out by the end of the movie except for Leia, who is the odd exception. A glorious death that contributes to the cause of fighting the evil power is the way to rectify your failures. Here again, the only lesson the older generation has for the younger is to fail well. It is as if Rian Johnson became obsessed with Samuel Becket while he was writing the script.

Conclusion: If these points really are in the subtext of The Last Jedi, then it feels like what is being passed down to a new generation of Star Wars fans is how to continue failing. Once the old Star Wars characters have lived out their failures and sacrificed themselves for the hope of a better future, the next characters are faced with the burden of an absolute form of choice. Gone are the relics, books, schools, and army that would help guide the youth into an anti-imperial adulthood. At this point, Kylo Ren decided to destroy it all willfully and join the empire. This is one response to the utter failure of ones teachers. But Rian Johnson is asking us to hold onto the idea of the goodness of rebellion against domination and anti-imperialism. It is a message of holding onto hope for the future in times of near collapse. The righteousness of this decision to fight rests on no institutional authority anymore: the jedi and the first rebels only botched it after their initial success. This means that ones choice is now (theoretically) totally free.

This might seem like a fitting ending and a message of hope, but what becomes of it in the end? This movie trilogy has not reached its ending just yet, but already we get a glimpse of what results from the breakdown of institutions and the casting off of all authority. Poe Dameron decides that the chief admiral of the rebel army is deploying a losing strategy and attempts a coup. His insubordination goes unpunished and is even lauded by General Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo. This constant in-fighting is no way to run a military, in fact, it almost guarantees that army’s destruction. Either Poe is reprimanded for sedition or he succeeds in his coup, taking charge and leading the military on a new course. We cannot have it both ways. Without proper discipline to lead an army, rebels have absolutely no chance to defeat an empire. The chain of command was upheld in the previous Star Wars movies and it allowed them to defeat the empire with a carefully laid plan, but in the latest run, including Rogue One especially, insubordination is for some reason a winning trait. If this is what the take-home message of the latest iteration of Star Wars movies is, then the clearing away of all authority, all connection to the past, and any memory of the stability of the old republic is obliterated.

Perhaps the Jedi Order was elitist and futile. The prequels didn’t exactly paint their council meetings in a very democratic light and they resemble more of a revolutionary guard for the republic: a strong arm to quell any dissent within the old order. But this is might be a clue as to why the original rebels failed to prevent the return of an imperial force in the First Order: they lacked the cohesion and discipline to take power after the defeat of the empire. If the new generation of Star Wars characters are ever going to end the cycle of rising empires and rebuild the old republic, then there are some rules and procedures that they will need to establish in order to maintain their power. This cannot happen if a pattern of infighting, insubordination, and absolute anti-authoritarianism are all that an institution-less force can provide. The point of resisting empire is to succeed, not to let every newcomer to the resistance fail all by themselves and hope it will eventually all turn out better in the future.

So those are my gripes with the direction of Star Wars, a franchise I never had that much attachment to in the first place because of its simplistic ‘good vs evil’ Manichean world-view. The force that pervades all throughout the Star Wars universe has a hard and easily distinguished split cutting straight through it, making it fairy-tale simple and vaguely spiritual at once. But this latest installment has done something fresh by introducing shades of grey and suggesting that the real problem for the rebels lies elsewhere. Perhaps the jedi had the wrong idea about the force and perhaps the real enemy was hidden out of sight the whole time. The sidequest we get to Canto Bight, while not having any consequences for the main storyline, opens up the possibility that it is the rich and connected weapons manufacturers that are the root cause of all of this galactic death and totalitarianism. Rian Johnson has written in its own semi-secret military-industrial complex into the Star Wars universe and should be praised for doing so. He’s also challenged the hero-worship of the franchise, forcing the new characters to face stark choices. How far they will go with this new version of the Star Wars mythos is unclear, but the fate of their universe seems now to lie in the hands of Rey and Kylo Ren together. The Yin and Yang relationship will come to full blossom when they together decide which aspects of the old Jedi Order to keep and which to throw away.

Public Banking and Taxing the Wild Frontier: Conclusion

As the twenty-first century drags on, we face an uncertain road ahead. To catch a glimpse of hope we need not look that far back into history to find working models for both prosperity and sustainability. It has been encouraging to see activists working hard on forming public banks, for these banks can change the fortunes of every member of the economy in a time of vast wealth inequality. The times call for practical-minded solutions to big problems like climate change and economic stagnation. To seize the moment, we need only look to our own past for models that work.

Out west, cannabis is one of the biggest economic drivers of the region. Its coming into the fold of taxation and regulation at the state level offers a turning point that could lift up far more than just the people involved in the industry. By chartering a public bank in California, the cannabis industry can use banking services where once they could only use cash. It solves the problem of paying taxes in large suitcases full of dollar bills and a lack of small business loans for cannabis businesses with less start up capital. But the really exciting part comes with what the state can do with its own bank once that revenue is drawn in from pot funds. Financing large scale infrastructure projects that can transition the economy from one based on fossil-fuels and freeways into a renewable economy with clean energy all but requires that we utilize public banks. Nothing else can bring all of the funds together for such a massive undertaking that so many people believe must be done.

The pioneers of cannabis farming sought to escape from a society that suffocated their creativity and freedom of expression. They were so successful that others followed them out there in a curiously similar movement to other historical movements that brought people out west in droves. The California Green Rush, like the Gold Rush and the Timber Boom before it, brought billions of dollars to the further reaches of the American west in a hurried and chaotic fashion. It is likely that the Back-to-the-Land cannabis farmer will be mythologized in a similar way that the gold panning pioneer was in the nineteenth century. With the Redwood Curtain lifted and profits soaring, rugged individuals and hippy communes are sure to get the romanticized treatment of yet another distinct culture subsumed by modern business. Public banking offers a way out of this predicament. With its public financing model, we no longer have to play the game rigged by Wall St to benefit the already well-off. Hippies get to put a dent into the capitalist machine after all – just not the way they expected 50 years ago.

Small farmers and landed peasants have always born the brunt of specialized industry marching forward. It’s a fact that has torn apart people’s relationship with the earth for over 200 years now. It has also created enormous prosperity, especially at the national level. Innovations in banking, worker specialization, and increased scales of production set off irreversible processes into motion that need to be reckoned with democratically instead of with a blanket rejection. Alexander Hamilton’s vision won out but the implementation has gone way off course. If we hearken back to the eighteenth century, we can see a virtuous project too far ahead of its time to be appreciated in the Bank of the United States. The man wasn’t perfect (in fact, he was down-right elitist), but Hamilton did have the common good in mind when he conceived a national public bank in his mind and willed it into existence. With a quick crash course in public banking, one can grasp just how necessary establishing new banks are to creating an economy in which everyone wins.

Currently, cities and states must borrow money from Wall St banks to finance their projects. The payments made to municipal and state bondholders, plus interest payments made to banks from loans doubles the cost of any large project. Public worker’s hours and pensions are being slashed, facilities are downsizing and getting privatized, and the investor class is making off with the profits like bandits. Money that could be circulating within the public sector and distributed equitably is drying up. Fringe finance is replacing banks that no longer deem it profitable to do business with the poor, extracting wealth for basic services that could be done easily by the post office. The money pie is shrinking because access to credit has been consolidated by extraordinarily wealthy financiers in their private bank accounts and tax shelters. Public finance is the key to unlocking the economic potential just waiting to be let loose. [What We Could Do with a Postal Savings Bank: Infrastructure that Doesn’t Cost Tax Payers a Dime]

Public banking has a proven track record. Everywhere you look, from Germany to China to early America, linking governments to the technologies of banks is a proven winner. It is not only profitable for governments but the private individuals involved in financing and borrowing from it. The only ones who lose are the already ultra-rich 1%, the ones who want to keep their monopoly on the lending/money-creation powers of banks. With the sudden availability of funds opened up by the cannabis industry’s wave of legalization, the time is now to turn high profits into big ideas for a sustainable future. [Dave Dayen: The Ultimate Cash Crop: How a Pot Crisis Restarted a Public Banking Conversation in America]