Public Banking and Taxing the Wild Frontier: Part Two

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.

For the next installment, I’ll give a brief history of the controversy over the whisky tax in the 1790’s before moving on to public banking.

Public Banking and Taxing the Wild Frontier: Intro

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 occupy.com] 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.

The Dude and the New Left in the Post-Cold War Era

It would be hard to overstate the impact that the Coen brother’s 1998 movie The Big Lebowski has had on contemporary pop culture. Social gatherings often fall into competitions for who can quote more lines from memory, cosplay for the movie’s characters is frequent, and twenty years after its release one can still find late-night screenings at the cinema packed with viewers. The fan base for The Big Lebowski has shown remarkable endurance and this may or may not be because of the points I will make in the following exposition, but shot throughout the film are references to the predicaments facing leftists in the post-Cold War period. Though the film is a patchwork of styles, genres, and character types often labeled ‘postmodern’ for being such a hodge-podge, but there are clues running through the story that allow for the viewer to put together an over-arching message – like a puzzle. With the shear amount of interest in and admiration for this movie, a large chunk of the population has a chance to learn about the perils of leftists political activity and the difficulty in maintaining it.

Continue reading “The Dude and the New Left in the Post-Cold War Era”