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Stop Trying to Find the Money—Create It

A proposal for universities and public money.
By Scott Ferguson and Benjamin Wilson

Futuristic city

Despite intensified controversy over university finance during the COVID-19 pandemic, dis­putes about budgeting and spending cuts in US higher education have remained remarkably out of touch with broader upheavals surrounding the politics of money. Breaking with long-standing prec­edents and beliefs, Congress spent unparalleled trillions on pandemic relief. The Federal Reserve (Fed) massively expanded its balance sheets to shore up systemic illiquidity and opened a host of lending facilities to backstop financial markets. In the meantime, corporate boosterism and celeb­rity endorsements catapulted unstable cryptocurrencies and nonfungible tokens (NFTs) to the center of libertine visions for a future “Web3” and “metaverse.” Conversely, intrepid legislators from city councils to Congress have proposed public options for banking and payment technologies to counteract rampant privatization and for-profit surveillance. Serving divergent and often conflicting ends, these contemporary monetary projects nevertheless share a startling premise: money is not, in essence, something lost and found; it is a system we actively create and shape.

Such is the thesis of “Modern Monetary Theory” (MMT), the heterodox school of economics that has grabbed headlines in the midst of pandemic-era monetary experimentation. For MMT, the relevant question is never, Where are we going to find the money? It is, rather, Who creates the money and for what purpose?

This emergent shift from finding to creating revives a robust history of contentious money politics in the United States. As historical sociologist Jakob Feinig explains in his new book Moral Economies of Money, a variety of American social movements have sought to reinvent the underlying infrastructures—such as fiscal and banking systems—by which money comes into being but notably spurned cries for the public redistribution of private profits. “Historically,” Feinig writes, “people did not relate to money. . . by making redistributive demands . . . Instead, they attempted to shape the very mechanisms that created the monetary medium.”

Throughout his study, Feinig calls patterns of knowledge and practice that enable people to configure and create money “moral economies of money.” Examples range from New York City’s municipal currency for provisioning public-water works in the mid-1770s to late nineteenth-century populist campaigns against austere metal-based standards (particularly the gold standard) used to prop up high-interest private lending. By contrast, Feinig uses the term monetary silencing to refer to ideologies that disable monetary agency or the power to democratically shape money creation. Silencing processes include perpetuating the fiction that money is a scarce resource like gold and not a socially constructed infrastructure. They also involve monetary privatization from corporate finance to blockchain currencies that reduce participation to ownership and predicate value on volatile markets.

Building on Feinig’s concept of moral economies of money can become the core of a movement that builds a democratic, sustainable, and well-provisioned higher education system. Such a movement finds common cause with lawmakers, unions, and activists working to forge expansive forms of public-money that serve pro-social and -environmental values. It requires circumventing the austerity mindset of state legislatures and undermining the racially charged myth of “tax-payer money,” which reinforces monetary silencing by framing public spending as zero-sum transfers of “hard-earned” wages from white middle-class workers to “undeserving” poor minorities. It necessitates not only eliminating revenue-driven budgeting tethered to endowment hedge-fund investment, public-private partnerships, and debt-inducing tuition but also resist­ing the promotion of volatile, energy-intensive, and ultimately privatizing blockchain ventures. “We can afford anything we can actually do,” insists MMT economist Stephanie Kelton, best known for her best-selling 2020 book, The Deficit Myth. The hard part is gathering community intelligence and resources in just and reparative ways.

In this spirit, we propose that universities issue their own money called “unis.” Writing in response to the fiscal crises threatening higher education at the start of the pandemic, we coined the term unis (pronounced “you-knees”) as a play on the well-known shorthand for municipal bonds, munis. The uni, we argued, would give state universities access to the Fed’s novel Municipal Liquidity Facility, opened in April 2020 to help state and local governments balance cash-flow pressures. Two-plus years later, we advance a longer-term and multifaceted program for uni finance. First, we implore Congress to amend and pass the Public Banking Act to extend money-creation powers to all nonprofit colleges and universities. Second, and in parallel, we call upon faculty, students, staff, and community partners to begin constructing a wide variety of campus currencies, in effect learning-by-doing to foster democratic participation and eco-social resilience.

Conceived as such, the uni movement joins top-down federal accommodation and protection with bottom-up collective action and experimentation. The resulting public monetary system prioritizes job secu­rity, community health, and inclusive place-making rather than ad-agency branding, entrepreneurship incubators, and iron gates.

Realizing the Potentials of Public Money

Introduced by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan, in October 2020, the Public Banking Act (PBA) aims to create a system of pub­lic banks through the Federal Reserve. Historically speaking, the US Congress has principally allocated money-creation powers to private institutions, espe­cially banks. Legal scholars Robert Hockett and Saule Omarova call this privilege the “finance franchise.” Contrary to silencing narratives that depict banks as private intermediaries that lend out deposits at inter­est, Hockett and Omarova show that banks act as public franchisees that generate new money for private investment. As agents of Congress, such franchisees are entitled to create money on demand, in addition to offering retail services such as deposits, checking, and insurance.

What is special about the PBA is that it would broaden the finance franchise, permitting a range of public institutions to legally and securely create money as needed. According to the language of the bill, the PBA would license public banks to create money for public purposes and to set up retail outlets at US post offices. It would also provide grants for every stage of the process, including formation, chartering, and capitalization. These provisions and requirements contribute to the PBA’s broad goals: (1) to develop subfederal financial instruments that cull resources for social and environmental returns rather than profits; (2) to enlarge access for the unbanked and under­served; and (3) to build structural resilience across the financial system. In the words of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York and a cosponsor of the proposed legislation, “Public banks empower states and municipalities to establish new channels of public investment to help solve systemic crises.”

Amending the PBA to explicitly extend such pow­ers to nonprofit colleges and universities would qualify these institutions to issue their own money. Equipped with a public-banking charter, universities could bypass state legislatures and provision their communi­ties directly in response to campus and regional needs. We call this form of money the “uni” not in order to segregate it from the rest of the dollar system but rather to mark its unique institutional channels, inten­tions, and designs. If they were part of the Federal Reserve System through a public-banking charter, unis would circulate as US dollars, much like bank money does currently.

Even without such an amendment, the PBA’s specifications already render colleges and universities strong applicants for public-banking charters, incu­bator-grant formation, and capitalization assistance. For better or worse, colleges and universities act as economic anchors in regional economies, coordinat­ing manifold relationships across the grand spectrum of municipalities, states, and nonprofits at interna­tional scales. As such, they stand ready to actualize and transform such relationships and to recommit to aspirations such as fostering campus democracy and environmental sustainability. A public money-creation charter is not temporary fiscal relief or access to an emergency Federal Reserve facility. It is an opportu­nity to reconstitute colleges and universities as leading forces in transforming public investment, flipping the relationship Colena Sesanker describes in her article in this issue of Academe.

Crucially, a Fed-backed uni would enable colleges and universities to reject revenue-contingent financing. Whether in the form of rising tuitions, bond financing, public-private partnerships, corporate donations, or endowment portfolios, traditional revenue-contingent budgeting problematically makes university invest­ment narrowly dependent on private commerce and speculation. Such returns are not only conditional but also constrain potential futures to limits deter­mined by the past. Colleges and universities use the alleged restraints of revenue-contingent finance to drive down wages and make their student, staff, and faculty workforce vulnerable through labor exploita­tion and adjunctification; justify skyrocketing tuition and student indebtedness, as Elizabeth Tandy Shermer highlights in her article in this issue of Academe; and prioritize high rents and luxury-style developments that subject surrounding communities to increased gentrification, security-camera and data surveillance, and mistreatment by campus police officers.

Turning away from revenue-contingent finance would allow uni-issuing colleges and universities to embrace a more direct and capacious approach to budgeting: grants. Grants are instruments for devel­oping, enabling, and realizing eco-social obligations and values. Unlike revenue-contingent financing, grant-based budgeting would free the higher education sector to take hold of its own destiny. It would not only remove the toxic scarcity and divisiveness that plagues the current system but would also enable us to end the ills of high tuition, student indebtedness, bond-market influence, corporate sponsorship, and endowment speculation.

Though discounted in orthodox finance, grants exhibit a strong track record of innovation in fields as diverse as energy, pharmaceuticals, and theatrical pro­ductions. They prioritize the public good and services identified by communities as essential to health and well-being. Within academia, grant underwriters such as the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts maintain diverse portfolios of programs calling for projects to address social and environmental questions. Grants are contracts for the completion of measurables, and there exists a large catalog of potential projects for grantees to undertake. What are grants but promises to deliver? A grant is not “free money.” It is an alternative structure for channeling investments to areas of need identified by diverse participants.

The turn to grants changes both the participants and objectives that currently guide university finance. Take, for example, urbanist and historian Davarian Baldwin’s book In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower, which demonstrates how colleges and universi­ties use their tax-exempt status to help commercial partners acquire financing. As Baldwin discusses in an interview in this issue of Academe, such creative accounting augurs a steady stream of income for the commercial partner, justified by larger agendas—for instance, to stabilize Phoenix’s downtown neighbor­hoods or help biotech companies innovate at Yale University. Unfortunately, these practices consistently favor private balance sheets over the public good because the dollars are measured, and the public good is not. The uni would reverse this relation, making public-good production the primary destination, with the flow of funds that circulate beyond this direct investment bolstering communities rather than the balance sheets of financial institutions. By removing commercial finance and creating public channels for investment, uni financing would eliminate pressures for colleges and universities to satisfy their partners’ profit goals and would clear new avenues to carry out collective and ecological ambitions.

When Can We Start?

To secure the powers of college and university money creation, faculty, staff, community partners, unions, and students can take immediate action by advocating vociferously for the passage and amendment of the Public Banking Act. A customary path to collective transformation, public advocacy can include wag­ing campaigns on campus and throughout the media; shaping union agendas and negotiation strategies; forging alliances with influential figures in and beyond academia; reaching out to legislative leaders; coordi­nating campaigns to write letters to representatives in Congress, statehouses, and municipal governments; staging high-visibility protests that respond to injus­tices stemming from budget cuts, department closures, adjunctification, and privatization. Pursued together, such strategies would go far toward cultivating new moral economies of money, counteracting monetary silencing in higher education from the bottom up.

Concurrent with demands for federal action, we can start organizing a uni system today by creat­ing local campus currencies. A grassroots strategy, campus currencies permit university communities to develop moral economies of money by amplifying the service and applied learning pedagogies that already exist across our institutions. Many campuses are sup­ported by civic engagement institutes, centers for rural and urban studies, and other institutional resources, featuring extensive networks of diverse actors in pursuit of the common good. Celebrated for profes­sional skill development in environments that direct critical thinking and problem solving toward pressing systemic issues, service learning also illuminates the gaping cracks in our financial system that consistently leave the same populations vulnerable to crisis and disinvestment. Campus-currency pilot programs can further facilitate such community projects.

Campus-currency pilots may commence in the classroom, where faculty members and students can model on a microscale the most direct form of public-money creation there is: congressional appropriation and taxation. As MMT economists have shown, when Congress authorizes spending, it does not recycle tax dollars or borrow from bond investors, despite popular rhetoric suggesting otherwise. Rather, con­gressional spending perpetuates a circular process of tax-induced production, which begins with public-money creation that makes money broadly available and ends with tax redemption that ensures money’s wide receivability. “To get the population to do . . . work,” Stephanie Kelton explains, “the government imposes taxes, fees, fines, or other obligations. The tax is there to create a demand for the government’s cur­rency. Before anyone can pay the tax, someone has to do the work to earn the currency.”

In the context of a class assignment, an instructor can replicate the same circular mechanism, tailoring a uni monetary system to disciplinary, pedagogical, and community aims. Implemented at institutions as diverse as the University of Missouri–Kansas City, Denison University, and Bard College, classroom currencies clarify precisely who creates the money and for what reasons. To initiate a currency assignment, the instruc­tor institutes a tax obligation, which every student must pay in class-issued notes by the close of the semester. Such notes are, in turn, redeemable for assignment points, the course grade, and, in the end, student credit hours. Throughout the semester, the uni-issuing instructor outlines the currency assignment’s learning experience as well as the broader public purposes it is designed to serve. The power of taxation, students quickly learn, is not wielded as a funding mechanism. It is the source of demand for a monetary instrument, which activates meaningful social labor. No one in the class could pay the uni tax if the instructor did not spend it into existence in the first place. With this, students not only come to appreciate money’s basic structures and potential but also see through the men­dacity of taxpayer-funding narratives and the polarizing politics they regularly naturalize.

Consider the growing uni experiments currently underway in Political Economy and Social Thought and Urban Economics courses at SUNY Cortland. Started as an open program for students to pursue volunteer opportunities, the “Cortland uni” now uses class currencies to orchestrate student efforts for the Cortland Food Project (CFP). The CFP’s collabora­tive mission promotes a healthy population, social equity, economic revitalization, and environmental stewardship. The Cortland uni fulfills this mission by allocating low-carbon-impact, knowledge-driven tasks to student participants. Tasks include distributing farmers-market–consumer surveys; executing “walk audits” to study the accessibility, safety, and aesthet­ics of local walkways; and collecting school-kitchen capacity data for a farm-to-institution initiative. Such activities involve a series of student-learning opportu­nities: hands-on community engagement; interaction with current sponsored programs of the US Depart­ment of Agriculture, New York State, and private foundations; data management and analysis experi­ence, including mapping techniques and visual tools such as word clouds and charts; and reportage and reflection assignments. All the while, students become participant-observers within an emergent monetary economy motivated by values other than profits.

The Cortland program’s recent adoption of a digital uni also points to pragmatic ways we can widen campus-currency receivability by connecting classrooms, university facilities, community partners, the business community, and even federal agencies. For example, the E-Cash Act, proposed in 2022 by Congressman Stephen Lynch, a Democrat from Mas­sachusetts, would invite colleges and universities to pilot the creation of a digital dollar issued by the US Treasury. As opposed to private blockchain tokens that rely on ledger technologies, Treasury e-cash is designed to replicate the functions of physical Federal Reserve notes or cash. For this reason, e-cash is to remain offline, peer-to-peer, and privacy-respecting, while requiring zero transaction fees. To support the E-Cash Act’s efforts to develop a digital dollar that would be inclusive and maintain the civil liberties afforded by cash, colleges and universities might utilize their extensive payment platforms and digital technol­ogy infrastructures to investigate tools, such as tokens, QR codes, or stored-value cards. In this way, the uni would move to the forefront of the digital-cash revolu­tion as a partner of the federal government, become a defender of civil liberties, and accommodate myriad possibilities for money creation.

Fortunately, forging alliances with the Treasury is not immediately necessary to realize grander experi­ments. Rather, there are local avenues for scaling up the uni project by reconfiguring our nonprofit colleges and universities’ land-grant status and correspond­ing tax exemptions in far-reaching ways. At present, colleges and universities are using the power accorded by the land-grant tax exemption for private gain. However, the uni would stand to redirect this legal power for democratic participation in the production of public wealth. Rather than negotiate behind closed bank doors, a uni system could convene public forums for colleges and universities and community members to negotiate parameters for issuance and taxation.

A substantial step forward would be for host cities and counties to help make campus unis acceptable throughout municipalities. To do so, a university could pledge to pay its host city or county a percentage of its property tax–exempt value in unis. In return, the municipality could guarantee the uni’s broad accep­tance by promising to receive it in payment of all property taxes, as well as by dispersing unis through school districts, public works, and local businesses. With this, the municipality would effectively transform the uni from a campus currency into what is com­monly defined as a “tax anticipation note” (TAN). This shift in legal designation would introduce the prospect of Fed protection in times of crisis, since TANs were explicitly included in the Municipal Liquidity Facility lending program during the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic. A municipal uni or TAN would attain a much greater degree of receiv­ability because the Fed would be poised to guarantee uni cash flow as promptly as it backstops Goldman Sachs. By connecting community organizations and encouraging not-for-profit work across university sys­tems and host municipalities, a uni project could not only construct a broad public-banking sector but also emerge as “too big to fail,” rendering central bank accommodation essential to the Fed’s congressional mandate to secure the financial system.

Here, then, we come full circle. While amending the Public Banking Act would represent a top-down approach to securing Fed membership for nonprofit col­leges and universities, campus currencies would organize toward Fed accommodation from the bottom up. The good news is that we need not and, in fact, should not choose one strategy over the other. On the one hand, there is no substitute for the federal reach of the Public Banking Act for the future of US higher education. On the other hand, assembling campus currencies would undoubtedly generate healthier moral discourses around money, at once teaching and giving voice to partici­pating students, faculty members, staff, community organizations, and elected officials. The key is to pursue both strategies at once, since public advocacy and world-building are complementary and there is no tell­ing where and when the uni will gain political traction.

Conclusion

The money question is up for grabs for the first time in nearly a century. Now, the relevant question is no longer, Who will find the money? It is, instead, Who will create it?

Unsurprisingly, corporations with vested interests in private digital monies are rapidly pushing into higher education. The Meta Corporation (formerly Facebook), for instance, is stepping up the com­pany’s long-term endeavor to surveil and sell data from global payment systems by promulgating a Web3 immersive virtual-education platform called the “metaversity.” To this end, Meta has financed a partnership between virtual reality (VR) technol­ogy company Engage XR (extended reality) and the VR education firm VictoryXR to launch ten virtual metaversities. Such metaversities have opened in both public and private institutions from South Dakota State University to the historically Black Morehouse College. Meanwhile another Web3 company, Proof of Learn, is developing what it calls a “learn-to-earn” platform for higher education, tethering online instruction to NFT credentials and cryptocurrency rewards. These ventures cite rising costs and barri­ers in traditional higher education. Yet they propose private, unaccountable, and, ultimately, monetary-silencing pedagogies as the solution.

Nothing, however, is inevitable. Newly attuned to present monetary politics, defenders of higher educa­tion have an opportunity to redress the structural default at the heart of college and university finance in service of rectifying the system’s failures and injustices. Breaking monetary silence, the uni movement revives moral possibilities that are inherent in communities, institutions, and the people who inhabit them.

Mark Zuckerberg and the metaverse are not wait­ing for permission; nor should we.

Scott Ferguson is associate professor in the Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of South Florida and editor for the Money on the Left editorial collective. His email address is [email protected]. Benjamin Wilson is associ­ate professor of economics at SUNY Cortland and a research scholar at the Global Institute for Sustainability. His email address is [email protected].

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