Mary Mellor’s “Debt or Democracy”: Why Not Quantitative Easing for People?

Although it is widely assumed that governments are the source of all new money – through “printing it” – the so-called private sector is the source of most new money put into circulation.  In one of the most successful enclosures of the commons in our time, commercial finance institutions have captured the power to create most new money through their discretionary lending.  This power has become so normalized and pervasive that hardly anyone acknowledges the startling fact that commercial lending accounts for more than 95% of “new money” created.  Government has in effect surrendered its enormous power to use its money-creating authority for the public good.

Perhaps the leading champion for reforming the current money system is Mary Mellor, emeritus professor at Northumbria University in the UK and author of the recently published, eye-opening book Debt or Democracy:  Public Money for Sustainability and Social Justice (Pluto Press, 2015, distributed in the US by University of Chicago Press Books). 

Mellor recently published an oped piece in The Independent, the British newspaper, that summarizes some of the key themes in her book. Her essay focuses on the “myth of handbag economics” – the idea that government budgets are comparable to household budgets.  This distorts our understanding of how the money supply works, says Mellor, and inexorably leads governments to adopt fiscal austerity policies. 

The critical political question that is rarely asked, said Mellor at a policy workshop last September, is: Who controls the creation and circulation of money?

She notes that the government, as the sovereign, has the authority to issue new money – an ancient authority known as seignorage.  But in practice, governments have surrendered this authority to the commercial banking sector, whose lending creates nearly all of the money in circulation as debt. 

Banks create money out of thin air by issuing new loans.  They need not have those specific sums of money on hand, in a vault. They need have only a small fraction of reserves of the total sum lent, as required by “reserve banking” standards. In this way, bank lending quite literally introduces new supplies of money into the economy based on strictly private, commercial standards – i.e., banks' assessments of borrowers’ ability to repay the debt with interest.

Mellor believes that we need to recover the power of public currency to meet public needs.   By “public currency,” she means “the generally recognized and authorized public currency created through a public money circuit that originates in central banks and government spending.”  Privately created currency is money designated as public currency that is issued through the banking sector as loans.  It is the fact that bankers are creating the public currency when they make loans that makes the state liable to honor that money when banks go into crisis.

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The AP and Nazi Germany

Harriet Scharnberg, German historian and Ph.D. student at the Institute of History of the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg made waves yesterday with the release, in the journal Studies in Contemporary History, of her paper, Das A und P der Propaganda: Associated Press und die nationalsozialistische Bildpublizistik.

The paper finds that, prior to the expulsion of all foreign media in 1941, the AP collaborated with Nazi Germany; signing the Schriftleitergesetz (editor’s law) which forbid the employment of “non-Aryans” and effectively ceded editorial control to the German propaganda ministry.

These are claims which the AP vehemently denies:

AP rejects the suggestion that it collaborated with the Nazi regime at any time. Rather, the AP was subjected to pressure from the Nazi regime from the period of Hitler’s coming to power in 1933 until the AP’s expulsion from Germany in 1941. AP staff resisted the pressure while doing its best to gather accurate, vital and objective news for the world in a dark and dangerous time.

AP news reporting in the 1930s helped to warn the world of the Nazi menace. AP’s Berlin bureau chief, Louis P. Lochner, won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for his dispatches from Berlin about the Nazi regime. Earlier, Lochner also resisted anti-Semitic pressure to fire AP’s Jewish employees and when that failed he arranged for them to become employed by AP outside of Germany, likely saving their lives.

Lochner himself was interned in Germany for five months after the United States entered the war and was later released in a prisoner exchange.

Regardless which finding present a more accurate historical truth, I find this controversy quite fascinating.

According to the Guardian, the AP was the only was the only western news agency able to stay open in Hitler’s Germany, while other outlets were kicked out for refusal to comply with Nazi regulations.

This exclusivity lends credence to the claim they the news agency did, in some way, collaborate – since it seems improbably that the Nazis would have allowed them to continue without some measure of compliance. It also suggests a shameful reason for this compliance: choosing to stay, even under disagreeable terms, was a smart business decision.

But it also highlights the interesting challenge faced by foreign correspondents covering repressive regimes.

For German news media, it was a zero-sum game: either comply with the Schriftleitergesetz or face charges of treason – a charge that would likely have serious repercussions for one’s family as well.

The AP, from what I can tell, seems to have skirted some middle ground.

By their account, the AP did work with a “photo agency subsidiary of AP Britain” which, in 1935 “became subject to the Nazi press-control law but continued to gather photo images inside Germany and later inside countries occupied by Germany.”

While images from this subsidiary were supplied to U.S. newspapers, “those that came from Nazi government, government-controlled or government–censored sources were labeled as such in their captions or photo credits sent to U.S. members and other customers of the AP, who used their own editorial judgment about whether to publish the images.”

The line between collaboration and providing critical information seems awfully fuzzy here.

Critics would claim that the AP was simply looking out for it’s own bottom-line, sacrificing editorial integrity for an economic advantage. The AP, however, seems to argue that it was a difficult time and they did what they had to do to provide the best coverage they could – they did not collaborate, but they played by the rules just enough to maintain the accesses needed to share an important story with the world.


an article in The Conversation

(Albany, NY) In lieu of blog post here, I have an article in The Conversation today entitled “The Waning Influence of American Political Parties.” An excerpt:

According to the General Social Survey, fewer than one in 10 young adults actively participated in a party in 2004, and that proportion fell to one in 40 by 2014.

We can debate whether it would be desirable, constitutional or even possible to restore the parties’ importance, but as long as they don’t do much for young people, young people will naturally learn to ignore them.

This is a moment to express my enthusiasm for The Conversation. It’s a rapidly growing news site that has established portals in several countries. The tagline “academic rigor, journalistic flair” summarizes its ambition: to publish scholarly articles that are edited and curated by professional journalists so that they are accessible, brief, and timely. The Conversation responds to two huge problems. On one hand, a third fewer people are employed as reporters compared to ten years ago. With traditional reporting in crisis, there is much less careful, fact-based journalism, and fewer professionals are involved in identifying interesting research and bringing it to public attention. On the other hand, academia produces a vast amount of valuable information and insight, but academics are not trained, supported, or rewarded for bringing their work to the public. The Conversation fills the gap.

See also: reform the university to meet the public’s knowledge needs in an age of information overload (a video); Five Strategies to Revive Civic Communication; and how a university “covers” the world.

Upcoming NIFI Online Forums on Economy & Health Care

As the team at the National Issues Forums Institute – an NCDD member organization – prepare to share the results of the national deliberative conversations they’ve had on the economy and fixing health care with DC policymakers, they are extending a few more final opportunities to have your input included. If you have yet to participate, we encourage you to register for one NIFI’s next Common Ground for Action forums. To register, check out the NIFI post below or find the original here.

Six More Opportunities to Participate in Online Forums In the Next 2 Weeks

NIF logoAs many of you know, each year Kettering reports insights from a particular NIF issue or two to policymakers in Washington DC at an event called A Public Voice. NIF is still convening forums on both of this year’s reporting topics, Making Ends Meet and Health Care Costs.

If you or someone you know would like to participate, but can’t make it to an in-person NIF forum, there are still 6 online Common Ground for Action forums happening in the next two weeks, all of which will be included in the reporting for A Public Voice.

To participate in a forum, all you need to do is RSVP at one of the links below! And even if you can’t make one of these forums, please help us create a diverse national conversation by sharing this post with your networks!

  • Tuesday, March 29     10-12 PM ET                COMPLETED
  • Thursday, March 31     6:30-8:30 PM ET       REGISTER
  • Tuesday, April 5     1-3 PM ET                         REGISTER
  • Thursday, April 7     10-12 AM ET                   REGISTER
  • Thursday, April 7     6:30-8:30 PM ET           REGISTER
  • Friday, April 8     1-3 PM ET                            REGISTER

You can find the original version of this NIFI post at

does focusing philosophy on how to live broaden or narrow it?

Pierre Hadot (1922-2010) built a quietly devoted following and influenced many others indirectly, via Michel Foucault. A classicist, Hadot interpreted the Hellenistic philosophical schools (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, and Neoplatonism) as communities of people devoted to improving themselves by employing a range of mental techniques. Argumentation was just one of their exercises, along with meditation, introspection, confession, renunciation and so on. These schools were similar to classical Indian and Chinese movements, but unlike (say) Kantianism or British empiricism, which are mainly structures of arguments.

Hadot thought that the Hellenistic tradition of “philosophy as a way of life” still echoed in the work of certain post-medieval thinkers: Montaigne, Spinoza, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, among others. But it had become marginal by the 20th century, because philosophy had turned into an academic discipline, dispassionate and purely intellectual.

Hadot blamed that situation on Christianity, which–he argued–had divided the heritage of Hellenistic thought into two distinct parts. The arts of the self (meditation, confession, and the like) had been assigned to the monasteries, while abstract argumentation went to the universities. Hadot had first trained as a priest and was a learned student of early Christianity, but perhaps he had the critical bias of an ex-believer. None of Hadot’s major positive examples were Christian thinkers.

In any case, Hadot suggested a choice. “Philosophy” can mean argumentation united with mental discipline to produce communities devoted to moral improvement; or it can mean the dispassionate and often individual pursuit of truth. One can see these alternatives oscillate over time. The grand theoretical edifices of Plato and Aristotle give way to the Hellenistic Schools and their focus on self-improvement. Medieval scholasticism yields to humanistic writers like Montaigne and Erasmus, who are more concerned with particular inner lives. German idealism fades in favor of Nietzsche, Emerson, and other practitioners of philosophy as a way of life.

That is a provocative framework, but not the only available one. In The Rise of Western Christendom, Peter Brown describes how a generation of great converts to Christianity–Jerome, Augustine, and their contemporaries–debated the relevance of classical thought and “often took up extreme poses against the pagan classics.” But

such a narrowing down of culture (drastic as it was) [was not] an altogether unique event in the long history of the ancient world. It did not necessarily betray a moment of irreparable breakdown. Rather, the history of Greek and Roman civilization had always been marked by a characteristic pendulum swing. Moments of exuberant creativity were repeatedly followed by long periods of retrenchment. And this pendulum swing was marked by constant alternation between periods of creativity in literature and in speculative philosophy followed by long periods of single-minded preoccupation with ethical problems. How educated persons should groom themselves; how they should conquer their weaknesses; how they should overcome pain and console themselves in moments of grief; how they should stand in relation to their fellows and to the gods: these were issues pursued  by ancient philosophers, for centuries on end, with remarkable singlemindedness. [A footnote to Hadot follows a paragraph later.]

In Brown’s framework, moments when abstract thinkers predominate–like 5th century Athens and perhaps Vedic India, 12th century Paris, or 18th century Germany–are exuberantly creative and expansive, but they are followed “by long periods of retrenchment” in which the focus narrows to how to live, including such trivial matters as “how educated persons should groom themselves.” In Hadot’s framework, periods of disconnected, abstract, “academic” thought alternate with times when rigorous argument unites with spiritual practices to produce people who can live “in the service of the human community.”

They could both the right, because intellectual history is vast and complicated. I am left with a sense that there are two risks for any kind of thinking that we call “philosophy.” It can degenerate into mental hygiene, focused on how to live everyday life to the exclusion of challenging questions about nature and reality. Or it can turn strictly theoretical, disconnected from questions about how to live (or–worse–influenced by unexamined assumptions about the good life).

See also on philosophy as a way of lifemy notes on Pierre Hadot; and Hannah Arendt and philosophy as a way of life

Education, Democracy, and The Establishment

Last week, drawing on the work of Walter Lippmann, I raised several concerns about the about inclusion of popular voice in democracy.

In some ways, these concerns seem at odds – what is democracy if not the free governing of the people by the people? To reduce the voice of ‘the people’ in any political system is to draw it away from democracy and, perhaps more critically, to violate democratic ideals.

It cannot be denied that there is a tension here. A tension between the noble goal of empowerment of every day citizens and the truly hard work of governing itself.

What good is allowing the people to govern if ‘the people’ are not truly fit to govern?

At its core, this debate boils down to one of education versus problem solving. Myles Horton, educator, organizer, and long time director of the Highlander Folk School, spoke about this debate through the lens of organizing:

If the purpose is to solve the problem, there are a lot of ways to solve the problem that are so much simpler than going through all this educational process…But if education is to be part of the process, then you may not actually get that problem solved, but you’ve educated a lot of people. You have to make that choice.

If you’re a community organizer whose goal is to solve a problem in the community, you may need ‘the people’ in the sense that you need the strength of their support; you need the power that comes from numbers. Any good community organizer would also want the identification of the problem and definition of a solution to come from the community; but this is still a somewhat shallow form of engagement.

An organizer, working in partnership with the community they are organizing, guides the direction of action; provides professional feedback and support on what strategies and tactics are most likely to succeed. This type of organizing is more empowering than what community members might experience otherwise and can lead directly to much-needed positive outcomes in the community.

But it is not education.

Horton describes a particularly memorable scene in which, gun to his head, he refused to tell a community member what action to take. “Go ahead and shoot if you want to, but I’m not going to tell you,” he recalls.

In recollecting the moment, Horton explains his reasoning. If he had told what to do “all would be lost.”

He saw himself not as an organizer, trying to work towards a just system, but rather as an educator, developing citizens capable of building their own just systems.

From this, I find that theorists such as Lippmann are right: if we want a political system which most fairly distributes resources, which is just and thoughtful in its approach, the broad and unfiltered inclusion of the mass of public voices is not the best way to accomplish that goal.

But such a concern overlooks a critical point: is that indeed our goal?

If instead we want a political system which empowers every person to participate; which truly believes that all people – all people – have a right and responsibility to engage in public work; if we want a society that truly values the input, insights, and voice of every single member – that is a different goal to work for.

And, indeed, such an educational approach is not the best way to achieve immediate political goals.

If you want to change policy, engage the people; if you want to change systemic structures, educate the people.

Of course, all this hardly settles the debate: if no amount of education and preparation could prepare ‘the people’ to govern, such efforts would find long-term as well as short-term failure.

As a matter of practicality, one can argue this course without degrading the people too much. That is, to say that ‘the people’ are unalterably unfit for the lofty task we set them to is not intrinsically to claim that commoners are too stupid, lazy, or uncaring for this task.

The world is a complicated place. With the constant influx of information and the deep histories that have brought us to the societies we have today, no individual person could hardly be expected to have all the knowledge and expertise needed to justly rule.

Considering that this task would be deeply challenging for even an idealized world leader, whose sole task is to consider such issues and whose efforts are supported by a staff of experts – you can hardly expect an average person, whose time and worries are reasonably devoted to other matters, to be up to the task.

Arguing this path isn’t an insult to the common man; it is rather a recognition of impossible goal society’s ideals have set for them.

The challenge that I see is that we find ourselves caught between these two paths. It is a sort of pseudo-democracy, in which we comfort ourselves that we, the people, are the ones to govern, but in which we each deem the majority of our peers as unfit for the task.

In this way, we can always blame the “them”: if political engagement were only restricted to those who are correct (like us), than we could have the ideal government we long for. Such disenfranchisement would be the most efficient way to achieve our ends, but – knowing how unjust it would be if “they” were to disenfranchise “us” – we instead settle into a deep melancholia for the world.

And, if one thing is certain, such political ennui fulfills its own unfortunate goal – to maintain the status quo and cement the standing of those with the most power; effectively disenfranchising both the “us” and the “them.”


Host a 2016 Text, Talk, Act Mental Health Conversation

It’s the time of year again to get ready for Text, Talk, Act – the youth mental health conversation initiative launched in 2013 by NCDD-supported Creating Community Solutions (CCS). As most of you know, Text, Talk, Act comes around every Spring to help young people start talking about mental health issues that they or their friends may be facing and connecting them with ways to get help, and we always encourage our members to host their own conversation.

On Text Talk Act days, young people across the country will be having a nationwide conversation on mental health and how to help a friend in need through a text messaging platform. Small groups receive discussion questions to lead them through a conversation that seeks to help end the silence about mental health, and you can host one of these transformational discussions!

Anyone can register to host an event as part of the 2016 Text, Talk, Act days. This year’s dates are:

  • April 19th (with Active Minds’ Stress Less Week)
  • May 5th (with SAMHSA for National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day)
  • May 21st (with the National Hook-Up of Black Women)
  • The month of June (with 4-H chapters across the country)

We know these events are helping make a difference in the lives of young people across the country, and we want to support this innovative way to engage young people in dialogue, so we encourage our NCDD members to consider signing up to organize a Text, Talk, Act event in your community! Be sure to check out the toolkit CCS created to support event organizers.

Also, don’t forget that schools, colleges, and community organizations that participate in this spring’s conversations are eligible to win the contest for one of five $1,000 prizes!

Contact Raquel Goodrich at for additional information.

Want to know more about Text, Talk, Act? You can learn more in the video below or by visiting