News Brief: The Transactional Dog-Whistle Politics of the Term “Taxpayer”

Citations Needed | March 3, 2021 | Transcript

ABC News interviews Steve Ellis, the Vice President of right-wing group Taxpayers for Common Sense.


Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I’m Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of our work through with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated, we are 100 percent listener funded and we do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled episodes when there’s just something that is on our minds and we really just want to get it off our chest. And the thing that we have been seeing, maybe not now more than ever, because this is a trope that has been going on for decades, let alone centuries, but the idea of “taxpayer money” and the “taxpayer’s burden,” what is being done at the “taxpayer’s expense,” we hear this all the time in our media, and also, of course, political rhetoric and we thought we would just take the time to unpack it a bit.

Adam: Yeah. This is something that’s been gnawing at us for some time. Since we started this show we’ve mentioned it a couple times, the idea of “taxpayer” as a smarmy watchword for a specific contingent of people and I know I’ve always wanted to try to get around to doing something on this and I’m glad we finally did and I’m excited to discuss the problems with the word “taxpayer” and the kind of broader problems with US media, pundits and politicians treating citizens or people or human beings as having a transactional or a quid pro quo relationship or an investment ROI relationship with their government. I think there’s a lot of interesting threads here to pull on and I’m excited to talk about it. Yeah.

Nima: So without further ado, we will now speak with Raúl Carrillo, Deputy Director of the Law and Political Economy Project, an Associate Research Scholar at Yale Law School, and also Chair of the Modern Money Network. Previously, Raúl served as special counsel to the enforcement director at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Raúl Carrillo. Raúl, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Raúl Carrillo: Really happy to be here. Thank you all for the invitation.

Adam: Yeah, I’m very excited to get into this. As I mentioned offline, when we were researching this particular topic, we came across a lot of your work and realized that it was more than just the word taxpayer that was the issue as a kind of right-wing watchword, but it had deeper philosophical implications with how the media and pundits and academia discusses the average person’s relationship with the government or view the government and government funding. So, I want to begin by examining this term “taxpayer” as this distinct category, we call on the show, we call it smarm, it’s sort of peak smarm. Whenever a politician says “taxpayer,” you can just sort of feel the mugging to the camera. I want to begin by talking about this term in broad terms, and how it smuggles in a very bleak and transactional view of the average person’s relationship with their government.

Raúl Carrillo

Raúl Carrillo: Yeah, it’s an excellent question and I think it’s important to recognize, first of all, that the term can be invoked in different social contexts or political contexts to mean different things, and claiming some kind of justice as a taxpayer means a certain thing, if, for instance, all the poor folks in society pay, you know, egregiously more taxes relative to rich folks and it’s not a complex economy, than when we have a sophisticated financial entity like the modern US government, which operates an entire economy, much more so than the free-market folks, who are the people who are most likely to invoke the concept of taxpayer money or identity or citizenship, are prone to admit, and really talking about taxpayer in our contemporary US context, I think, invokes very much a contractual relationship, you could say, but not in the sort of social contract, like tradition of justice, that people tend to think it’s more of a corporatized relationship, right? And the idea, under neoliberalism for sure, in the United States, but with, as always, white supremacist and settler-colonial roots, is that the more that you pay in taxes ostensibly, they don’t care what the actual mechanics say, of course.

Adam: Right.

Raúl Carrillo: But if you are seen as a taxpayer or part of the taxpaying class, more importantly, then you get more of a say over what goes down and that sort of idea is present, in other times and places, but I think it’s particularly pernicious in our modern-day context and as you all know, it’s poisoning both parties to be honest.

Adam: Yeah, because in our research, when we were looking at the origins of the term, because it’s been around for a while, it’s been around for hundreds of years, but one of the things that we looked at, especially in the early 19th century, even late 18th-century articles that invoked the term “taxpayer,” they quite literally mean taxpayer — “one who pays taxes” — which in that context was landowning white men and it was not even this kind of faux-populist or smarmy term, it was literally the people whose opinions matter, the constituency that mattered, people that funded the government, people who owned land, and were wealthy. The assumption was that the government works for those who fund it, which, you know, to this day, despite its faux-populist qualities, this is effectively what it means. It’s always been rooted in this idea that the corporation or the wealthy person, or whoever is effectively a majority shareholder in the business of government and is expected to have a certain ROI.

Raúl Carrillo: Yeah, the history of who is or who was legally and socially recognized as a taxpayer, that’s not something that we can divorce from this discussion, right? The sort of organizations that I work with make that point on a broader level, that are very categorizations of components of the economy and players in the economy are necessarily racialized and gendered and classified through this history of violence in the United States.

Nima: Yeah, I think, you know, “taxpayer” is one of those terms that evokes something very specific and on purpose, you know, and we’ve talked about others such terms on this show, like, small business owner or even homeowner or even middle Americans or those in the Heartland, right? It’s all kind of a piece and to your point Raúl, the racial, class, gendered cishet kind of signifier of these terms, is all about what it evokes in the receiver. When it’s being used in the media or in political speech there’s this idea of when the word taxpayer is used, who is that meant to evoke? And actually a piece that you wrote with Jesse Myerson back in 2017 really asks this question, specifically, picture a taxpayer. Raúl, can you tell us what you’re getting at with that and who has conjured in that term and why?

Raúl Carrillo: “Conjured” is a great word, I think to use, because it’s evocative, and it’s meant to tap into a sort of mythos, right? And it actually doesn’t matter what I think a taxpayer is, it matters that it’s a dog whistle term that Charlottesville torchbearers can use to talk to each other. It matters that it’s meant to evoke an image of a put-upon white middle-class patriarch who we have to beg for funding for anything that’s not war, death or destruction, in the favor of those same people. Taxpayer, as a term, as a legal concept, is not independent of all of this and since I wrote that article with Jesse, there’s been a lot of great scholarship and activism, that sort of problematizes this concept and I think there’s honestly been a shift, the world has changed, we went through a-whole-nother administration, as the article is indicating where taxpayers were very much considered the base of the imperial president, right? And, you know, the sort of people who identify perhaps primarily as taxpayers, above many other forms of identity, sort of followed the Pied Piper on a lot of things and we see that all the way up until January 6th of this year when some of the people who went to the Capitol were wearing shirts, indicating that they were pissed as taxpayers, it does not necessarily have to be, I don’t think a reactionary identity, but in our political context, it absolutely is and, you know, to sort of tie things a little bit together here, a lot of people have iterated this concept over the course of history, from my understanding, it’s become more apparent now, as the economy sort of continues to tank due to both endogenous and exogenous reasons, is that we should be reassessing a lot of the macroeconomic ideas and a lot of our conventional wisdom about how the economy works and when you sort of put those two pieces together, which is to say recognizing the way in which this term is chopped up and deployed in a way that is harmful to particular people and to reinforce a certain kind of society, to reproduce a certain kind of extraction, and you wed that with an idea that, wow, the economy and public finance in particular are like a hell of a lot more complicated than just taxes in and spending out and then this starts to all unravel I think fairly quickly.

Capitol rioters on January 6th, 2021. (Erin Schaff / The New York Times)

Nima: Well, yeah. You know, I mean, part of that is how this term taxpayer is so often weaponized in discourse, because it’s usually coupled with taxpayer’s expense or the taxpayer’s burden.

Raúl Carrillo: Yeah.

Nima: It’s so obvious how this is supposed to be thought about: who is owed, right?

Adam: Right and they’re the victim.

Nima: Exactly.

Adam: They’re always the victim, they’re put upon, the taxpayers burdened with taxes, and they’re having to shovel out money, you know, while their kids starve to death.

Raúl Carrillo: Absolutely and, you know, they worked very hard for that money. There’s a legal scholar, law professor at the University of Buffalo, who also runs a network I’m part of called APPEAL, Martha McCluskey, and she writes about how neoliberalism suggests that there’s this upstanding, uniform class of market participants who just played a nice little game together and won by the rules, and now they’re mad that they have to share their prize with the losers and we know that’s sort of ridiculous fantasy but the law even treats taxation in that way in some instances, and policy certainly does. So it’s really, I think, deeply embedded in, you know, the decision making apparatus in this country.

Adam: Yeah and that’s because that’s the time it’s a vote and it’s a vote when there’s big spending issues on the table and they’ll say, ‘Well, taxpayers don’t want to spend $15 million a year or so,’ you know, the NEA can pay some artists to dress up like a turnip, or what have you — this was a huge thing in the ’90s, obsessed with this idea of going after the NEA — and then it has, the implication is that, you know, homeless people, for the most part, don’t pay taxes, which they shouldn’t, they’re poor, assuming they actually do their taxes but in the popular imagination, you know, the wealthy are paying 99 percent tax rates. So, the obvious implication here is that the bottom rung of society where they don’t pay taxes, or they don’t have the capacity to pay taxes or those in prison or those who are houseless or those on the margins of society, that their voices really don’t count, and that they really shouldn’t count and that it’s those who pay the taxes, e.g. the wealthy, whose voices are the ones that should be centered. And you mention this in your work, that liberals can fall into this trap by saying, you know, ‘We shouldn’t use taxpayer money to fund this war or taxpayer money to fund a bailout to the wealthy,’ it’s this kind of hypocrisy gotcha that we talk a lot about in this show and it’s a brain worm that I don’t think will go away anytime soon and everyone thinks that they’re clever using it, sort of owning conservatives by their own logic but of course, when liberals evoke “taxpayer,” they usually mean a different constituency than the Right does. So ultimately, you’re talking past each other. I want to talk about the temptation to try to use this capitalist kind of proprietary, property-owning centered language and what are some of the pitfalls, in your view, when progressives do that, because it is something, you know, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren use “taxpayer” all the time, so I want to talk about maybe why they ought not do that.

Headlines from Business Insider (top) and Newsweek (bottom) in 2020.

Raúl Carrillo: Right. Yeah, for sure. It’s a trap in several different ways. What’s helpful here is to think about sort of the liberal impulse or the impulse that honestly many people who don’t even necessarily identify as liberal or the part of the Democratic Party to point out taxation hypocrisy is an incomplete, but somewhat helpful, I think concept. So you’re looking at it from one axis in the liberal imagination, right? And you’re looking at all these other people who are taxpayers and you’re imagining that, together, you’re in this sort of cooperative venture to fund society together, right? And Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, it’s the price we pay for a civilized society and I think a lot of liberals and especially white liberals really think that. I know that I, and a lot of people that I grew up with, look around and say, ‘What civilized society?’ And so there is, I think, an ignoring of the vertical axis, the fact that this is an extractive project for many people, especially on the peripheries of society and we see that especially actually, when we brought in the horizontal lens a little bit more, so to speak, and start to think of all the things that act like taxes, but aren’t classified as taxes and some, you know, liberal scholars, I think, do a good job with this when they say, they point to fines and fees in say, Ferguson, Missouri, as essentially racial taxation, that is not treated as such, but that needs to be, I think, tied to a critique that sees a broader, more oppressive and extractive system that plays upon these categories and the stratification and in doing so also suggests that the funds that money, that the finance is something that is in the hands of the public, and the government does kind of it at our collective sigh and that the government is not in fact in charge of the entire money and banking system, which means that capitalists are in control of it in our present day and age.

Nima: Yeah, I think, with that is the idea that you know, another term like the economy, right? Quote-unquote, “the economy,” is a thing and is a thing maybe divorced of even human agency, right? It exists and then everyone operates within it.

Raúl Carrillo: Right.

Nima: As opposed to being a constructed thing that actually has power structures built into it. As someone who has worked in this space from the legal side, from the Consumer Financial Protection side and now certainly from the academic side, can you kind of dissect some of how those terms are working? I know, we’ve been talking about taxpayer, but how they then fit with these ideas of the economy or other similarly almost right-wing ideas that are just thrown out as givens, like the debt and deficit that no one cares about until Democrats are in office and now it’s a big deal again.

Raúl Carrillo: Right. So, you know, the broader set of organizations that I work with, perhaps predominantly the Law and Political Economy Project, but also groups like APPEAL and ClassCrits, in this sort of growing and budding ecosystem on the legal left, our whole thing is that the economy is, of course, constituted by law and politics and these are not separate from the economy at the end of the day and that under neoliberalism, especially, again, I think, as you were indicating, a lot of terms are naturalized and, you know, suggested to be universal rather than context specific, or, you know, subtle dog whistle or not so subtle dog whistle depending on who you are, a lot of people who don’t read Splinter magazine, know who folks are talking about on the news when they say they don’t want to use taxpayer money for XYZ, right? People live with this reality all the time and the further out you go, of course, into the social peripheries away from property, to your point earlier, the further away you get from taxpayer concern and that’s not to say that struggles for justice in the activist space, for instance, that use the rhetoric of taxpayer money are doing it wrong, there are specific instances where I think this is helpful in, for instance, we can talk about the folks doing it to talk about general environmental justice issues in Flint, Michigan, who are claiming some rights as taxpayers, there’s extreme value to that, I think. It gets more complicated, again, in different and political legal contexts and especially when, again, when you zoom out to the US economy, which is something that is so much bigger than public finance. The activist space is sort of like I think there’s this push, and then there’s this impulse to demand justice, as taxpayers, especially in contexts where taxes are sort of at issue in general and that makes a lot of sense from an equity-based approach but even then, that can be folding into a frame that is fundamentally right-wing or helps the right-wing, for instance, you know, as part of the public banking campaign in New York City for a long time and we don’t take taxpayer funds because we don’t want, you know, real estate thinking that they’re paying for the public bank, and again, that term has different resonances with different people in different contexts and I think, in the United States, some of it is a bit, it’s generational, and it’s a response to neoliberalism, and again, trying to play the rights game, as you were saying. But it’s helpful, I think, to think about Bernie, as you said, if you don’t mind, it was, I think, a big theme during the campaign. Some people including Sam Adler-Bell, I think, some of the journalists have noted that the only substantive criticism that Sanders’ campaign faced concerned tax increases on middle- and working-class people and Elizabeth Warren, Senator Warren, hammered him on that right before Super Tuesday, right? And of course, we can’t say that that tipped things for Bernie, there is obviously a lot more gaming going on and sort of different arrangements, and this is just my personal view.

Nima: It was the apps. Wasn’t it the apps?

Adam: Yeah, I mean, I think that was being, he was being forthcoming about his worldview, which is similar to that of kind of northern European social democracy, where you have modest tax increases on the middle class and then you get things like free healthcare, and you end up saving more in the long run, but the extra breath that it takes just to finish that sentence is way too long, way, way, way too long for cable news. So it’s just, I mean, I could do a whole thing, you know, on this on this middle class tax earners, Bernie Bros, Bernie Sanders, I mean, Jake Tapper, and the debates would constantly mug to the camera and talk about middle class tax increases, and it’s like, okay, well, then I guess we’re not even going to have that conversation and Bernie sort of tried to jump on that and say, ‘Well, you know, they’re gonna pay $10,000 less a year in healthcare net, because they’re paying modestly more in taxes,’ but you think about how much money is spent on healthcare, you’re saving, you’re saving money, but that’s just not going to happen in a debate, no one really wants to hear that nuance. It’s just middle class, middle class, middle class, taxpayer, taxpayer, middle class, taxpayer, taxpayer, middle class, middle class, middle class, middle class, taxpayer, taxpayer, taxpayer, taxpayer, middle class, middle class, it’s all anyone fucking hears.

Raúl Carrillo: Precisely, and this means a particular person, right? And because it means a particular kind of person that means everybody changes their attitude to it, because it’s talking about, you know, a socially dominant group so, of course, communities of color, and many other marginalized folks get skeptical when they know that this group of people is going to balk at the price tag of something, right? And they’re not wrong to be skeptical of this happening. There’s a legal historian, Camille Walsh, at the University of Washington, Bothell, who wrote an excellent book about a year after that Splinter article came out called Racial Taxation, where she talks about how during the push for a fundamental federal right to education, which was led by Chicano students in the 1970s, the court decided that they would not grant the right ostensibly because it would impinge upon implicit and unspecified rights of white taxpayers. Tt sounded in the theme of local fiscal control and even though taxpayers were not parties in the lawsuit, and there was nobody there arguing on behalf of the taxpayers, the justices took it upon themselves to protect this sort of gated interest and Lewis Powell, who wrote the very famous Powell Memo, about corporatizing America further from the bench, was the author of this majority opinion, the case of San Antonio v. Rodriguez and he draws upon his history as a local school board superintendent in the South, in the segregated South, so when you look, the beelines are sort of there.

Nima: Yeah. I want to kind of get back to something you mentioned earlier, about fines and fees, and how something you’ve written actually more recently than the excellent Splinter piece with Jesse, in the UCLA Criminal Justice Law Review and in this piece, you talk about cops as collectors in many municipalities, and certainly the Ferguson report notes this. Can you talk about what you mean by that and how taxes, as we think of them, like, ‘Oh, right, you know, death and taxes,’ blah, blah, but that there are these other ways of taxation, and how it relates to, you know, in terms of racialized taxation, also something you describe as slow violence, can you kind of unpack some of that for us?

Raúl Carrillo: So, I think a good way to think about the fines and fees space, which helps us think about taxation and its political role and function, especially in the neoliberal project, is to start from the perspective that you raised earlier, which is reassessing what people mean when they say the economy, right? And so, again, neoliberals, and their various apologists, will insist that the economy has features that are natural that are, in fact, very social, and even if they do reflect some things in the material world, like, for instance, the scarcity of oil, like we build a lot of legal political and economic contraptions on top of them. And another thing that neoliberals do, though, is that they tend to conflate the economy with the market and a lot of the, I think, really excellent legal literature, especially coming out of the groups that we might refer to as OutCrits, or critical legal theorists, who began to focus not just so much on generalized notions of class and power in some of the earlier parts of the Critical Legal Studies project, but brought in race and gender and empire and different forms of identity and ecology, and things into the mix, and something that they insist upon, and that is, I think, really critical is recognizing that there is an entire part of the economic machine that neoliberals do not talk about, they put it in a different realm, and that is, you know, the punitive apparatus which is obviously, you know, the military industrial complex, but also its connection with the prison industrial complex and with policing and border security and detention and everything else, right? And this is a whole economy that is huge and that is planned and that we act like it is not and, you know, when people talk about public finance, obviously, Pentagon funding is treated differently than anything else, but then on the local level, also, we see certain parts of the budget made off limits, or certain modes of collection of taxation put aside in order to engage the punitive apparatus in the economic extraction or in the financial extraction. So municipal fines and fees, and we’re talking about tickets for walking while being black, we’re talking about tickets for being out at night while being trans, we’re talking about all the ticky-tacky bullshit that piles up on people, especially in certain communities, and who fit a certain profile. All of these things are not considered to be taxes, and we don’t consider them in the calculation of taxpayer justice and there are many other extractive processes in the economy that we don’t consider taxes. What does it mean, when the New York City government allows real estate to hike up prices and extract more rent, how functionally and socially is that different than a tax? So you have all these, you know, again, this entire almost taxation apparatus that is off balance sheet, so to speak, and off grid, but people in there are, of course, not taxpayers, they are immigrant parasites, they are the welfare queens, as Reagan said, you know, this is a dynamic that’s reproduced in society as long as we hold on to this conception of taxpayer identity and to the point where we’re already, to be honest, screwing over future generations, you know, in the context of surveillance and punishment and control. Khiara Bridges, who is a critical race theorist, says that black welfare queens are considered to be bearing an embryonic criminal class who’s going to go, be out there and need to have fees and fines extracted from them as well to keep them in line and then, of course, on the bigger plane, if we continue to insist that taxpayer funding is necessary to achieve for instance, the Green New Deal, we box ourselves into appeasing this particular set of, again, white patriarchs in the suburbs. So that’s a real rollicking, I think, trip from micro to macro, but I’m just trying to demonstrate, again, how pernicious and pervasive this sort of poison in my opinion is.

Adam: Yeah, it seems like the thing we’re talking around here is modern monetary theory, and basically tabling the political question of raising taxes on a population of deeply propagandized, foaming, white people with a mortgage who think that raising the sales tax by, you know, two and a half cents to pay for the puppy orphanage is infringing on their god given liberty. This middle class taxation is indeed a precursor to some kind of atheist Soros-Islamo-QAnon takeover of their lives, and that maybe instead of working and wasting the next 50 years of our goddamn lives, trying to win these people over, we reframe the question not as one of increasing taxes, but increasing public spending, without litigating MMT on this show, which we’ve promoted, I don’t think we’re an orthodox MMT show because I do think there are some questions involved in it, but I want to table that, and I want to talk a bit about the broader ideological question at work here because again, I think we’ve been talking around it, and I want to talk about it, and what the political strategy to maybe work around white reaction, if that’s even possible, and if you think that strategy is wise, and maybe we’re getting a little too prescriptive here and veering from media criticism, but I’m curious what you think about kind of tabling the tax issue because it is so loaded?

Raúl Carrillo: Yeah and I don’t think we have to litigate MMT — please, God, no — on here to discuss this question. I do think it brings some unique insights into the conversation, but really, there is a whole set of critical theories of money budding in the social sciences and looking at money as a legal technology, as a social tool, not just for inclusion and exclusion, which is of course, the liberal tendency, but again, domination, servitude, extraction, reproduction, conforming a certain kind of society into a certain model and yeah, I think really, really helpful. But the economic part is certainly key and I think where the macroeconomic part and the part about monetary design, because it’s still at root, I would argue a legal question, law is upstream of money is upstream of banking is upstream of finance is critical to how our broader economy works, just to highlight one channel, but what expansive or capacious and critical theories of money that approach it as a legal tool and as something that, you know, technically speaking, the government can’t run out of, just as it can’t run out of property, or contract or tort or crime, because these are legal categories that it manufacturers. I think that you begin to understand that in the words of Christine Desan, who teaches a critical constitutional theory of money course at Harvard Law, that our monetary design sets us at each other’s throats, and you know, the way that fiscal federalism works all the power is really in the federal government and that’s been the case since the failure of reconstruction, at least, and states do not have that many powers. Many of them are, as you know, commandeered by reactionaries in any case, who are really, really, really excited to put more fiscal handcuffs on themselves until we hit something like the pandemic.

Adam: That’s actually one of the things I wanted to ask you about actually is this to me is a really key issue, which is the parlor game of states crying poverty, which to some extent is objectively true, they can’t print money, there are states and cities are crying poverty, and then you say, well, the federal government can just, you know, write a check to Detroit, or Michigan, or Chicago, or Illinois, but there’s this moment about seven years ago when Detroit was selling off its art out of its art museum, during the last recession, and, you know, having to sort of tighten their belts, and there was this whole austerity rhetoric around it and I remember thinking how utterly absurd it is that we let it get to that point. I think it was something like $550 billion in the Pentagon budget that year, of course, we had all the bank bailouts in 2008, 2009 and I’m just thinking, why not just have the federal government write them a check? Detroit is part of the United States, they are a constituent part of the United States, why would you not just give them money, we obviously have the money, we invented money out of thin air just a couple years ago but when it comes to states and cities, that’s sort of not in the cards and it’s going to treat it as this natural law that says Detroit can’t get money from the federal government, which again, you know, it’s sort of like the race to the bottom with labor where it’s a system we kind of just make up where states compete to lower wages and give tax credits to film companies and of course, certain corporations and Tesla, that’s all just sort of a scam in that when Detroit starves or the states run out of money and have to cut all these programs cut, you know, Medicaid, welfare, we’re all staunch Federalists, but then when a hurricane hits Miami or Texas, suddenly we can just write a check from the federal government. It seems like a bit of a cup and ball game and there’s no real sort of organic logic to when the federal government can spend money and when it can’t.

Visitors at the Detroit Institute of Arts. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

Raúl Carrillo: Absolutely, that’s completely completely right in my opinion. This is and not to be too cavalier about it but for the last few years I’ve been focused on financial technology, specifically, in addition to these sort of taxation questions but as we increasingly go digital, et cetera, you know, a lot of old political economists have had a lot to say about all that is, you know, solid melting into air, et cetera, right? And things are going to become increasingly sort of more ridiculous and hard to connect back to, quote-unquote “the real economy.”

Adam: Right. We saw this, of course, with COVID-19, back in March, when everybody’s philosophy was ‘money machine go brrr’ for about six weeks.

Raúl Carrillo: Yep, and now they’re getting ready to reel some of that back end, but we’ll see and that’ll be drawn on, you know, the usual political lines. So, I think a really good you know, encapsulation of what happened actually sort of draws a little bit on just my perspective, you know, from the pandemic. So I grew up on the US-Mexico border, most of my family is still in El Paso, Texas. In El Paso, it’s been really, really bad, right? I want to say in November, it passed the death rates per capita that New York had, and it was getting really, really quite bad. It is an international border, you know, the virus doesn’t really recognize borders very well, which is to say at all, and they wanted to shut down and the governor and the attorney general of Texas, of course, said ‘Absolutely not like we don’t even believe that the virus is real, you will not shut down commerce, much less international commerce,’ et cetera, et cetera. Which is not really the realm because that’s the federal government but Texas, a lot of people in power in Texas, still have very neo-confederate ideas about how things should work.

Adam: Yeah, no, I’m [from] San Antonio, you don’t have to tell me.

Raúl Carrillo: Well, then you know that’s how it goes down there and what should happen in this context is that Congress should be writing a check for all of this and if we don’t have a population, we don’t have an economy like et cetera, et cetera. This is really dumb and only explainable by this terrible society we live in and by its rules. So what should happen is Congress should write that check. Failing that, what should have happened, and this was politically very much on the table and within legal purview is that the Fed should have opened up the municipal liquidity facility, to this community of color trapped in a red state, with people praying the rosary outside of 18 wheelers with bodies because the morgue was overflowed, and no one knew where their loved ones resided anymore, like this is all completely stoppable and we see that every time a crisis happens, and it may take various forms and the government may extend money to the wealthy and powerful via traditional public finance channels, they might set up an off balance sheet entity, you know, from the Fed, and they might trade certain kinds of assets, they may set up swap lines, with accounts at different central banks around the world to keep, you know, high finance stable, et cetera, et cetera.

Adam: Yeah, I think in March and April they were injecting a trillion dollars to the central banks overnight, interest-free loans, right?

Raúl Carrillo: Yeah and people will tell you that this all operates again, according to the laws of nature, it operates in many ways, it’s not a function of nature, it’s a function of an Excel spreadsheet. It’s a function of legal policy and policy decisions, which are, for the most part, governed not by the Constitution, not by regulation, not by statute, but by informal conventions and agreements between the Federal Reserve and the Treasury, about how they’re going to do certain forms of finance based on various different instruments, bonds, you know, coins, taxes, et cetera, and that policy mix, that public finance mix of instruments and spinning et cetera, has changed many times over the course of US history. And it, of course, changes every time during a crisis, but it is, of course, the money power is not wielded for folks like my family in El Paso and it’s not rooted or it’s not wielded on behalf of folks who need it, and honestly, if you know, people on the left are going to try to claim this mantle or try to claim the public purse for public power and/or for power for people who have not had it, then it has to be a grab it more than the taxpayer money trope or the idea that we should all be sacrificed accordingly and it has to be taking the machinery that constructs this giant apparatus of which taxation is only a small part.

Adam: Well, I think that’s what makes the money machine go brrr and MMT so attractive to people on the Left, because even if you have ideological objections to it, you know, the kind of one-weird-trick criticism or that it sort of offsets or puts off class conflict, I think, you know, for the longest time the Left has been the Washington generals, and the Right has been playing with a goddamn stepladder, you know, bouncing the ball at people in the audience and meanwhile the Left has been the Washington generals playing by these rules that no one else was playing by.

Nima: They’re like, ‘We brought our own trampolines and that’s why we keep winning.’

Raúl Carrillo: (Laughs.)

Adam: And, of course, the Right knows it’s bullshit, right? The Right knows they’re playing with a stepladder. So the Left is a bunch of fucking dorks playing by these austerity politics that no one else is playing by and you saw this in March, you saw this in April, where everyone magically became MMT and that six-week period was the Super Bowl for MMT because basically their entire premise of their argument was accepted by everybody, because the economy was fucking tanking, which is to say, we can print money when we need to print money, and that we did it and the economy wasn’t hurting. In fact, it was very much helped by that, because it’s all fake and I think that’s kind of the appeal of it, the appeal of MMT is that we finally get to have our own stepladder. Right?

Raúl Carrillo: Right. Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s really, that’s the big idea, right? And MMT, you know, sort of putting my Modern Money Network hat on, I think MMT is a sort of, it’s an interdisciplinary program now, but comes a lot through economic literature and macro and in the traditions that were sort of forced out by the neoliberals from the, you know, what some people consider to be the upper tiers of the academy, but what MMT does is I think, make a very strong and robust and programmatic and affirmative thesis that totally upends neoliberalism on its head. It is easier, I think, to do that in the United States than elsewhere, because we are the empire, right? And the constraints on the applications of our relatively unlimited financial powers to the real economy are much less significant and heterodox economists will point out, as well as MMT theorists, who are but one group of heterodox economists, that if you have constraints based on, say, needing to stockpile a certain foreign currency to pay for food and medicine during a pandemic, then you are under a different set of constraints, but what MMT does precisely is highlight this hierarchy, which is to say that, you know, MMT says this with conditions like monetary sovereignty as a spectrum, monetary agency is a spectrum and some of the constraints are, there legal ones that are hardwired into the way a lot of economies, especially post-colonial economies function, in the sense of again, needing to be reliant essentially on their former colonizers for a great many things. So what MMT does, I think, is a sort of version of what other people in the legal Left are doing, which is opening up this entire space of re looking at the economy when we break down some of its fundamental units, most essentially of which is money. It’s sort of the stuff, it’s the physical particles in a crude sense and it’s the analytical units in a broad sense of the whole economy and this is not to do neoclassical spin and become like physicists and make a bunch of extrapolated theses about how the economy works based just on how money works, it’s to say that money sets a frame, and a legal and political frame, within which all of this other stuff occurs and that plays upon particular social dynamics and we are dorks, honestly, for playing this game and it’s part of being caught up in neoliberalism, and I include myself here because like most people, I’ve used the rhetoric, you know, taxpayer money before, but that rhetoric is dope for the Right, because it’s very easy to stratify people in the context of scarcity.

Adam: Right, right.

Raúl Carrillo: It’s the Game of Thrones line from Little Finger, “Chaos isn’t a pit… it’s a ladder.”

Adam: Yeah.

Raúl Carrillo: And so, if you limit the number of resources people obviously fight each other harder and that’s not to say that this isn’t the root of oppression in the United States but in fact, it is co-constitutive of a lot of it. You know, we’ve talked about some of the history there was a great article a couple of weeks ago by a tax scholar, Vanessa Williamson in Slate, about how after the failure of reconstruction, former Confederates just adopted the fiscal conservative stance to get around the paper regulation saying that they had to recognize black folks as people. There’s so many instances of this, the Dawes Act, the General Allotment Act, which divided up Native American land in the United States, part of, along with property, what you received in order to make you civilized was a coin purse and this goes all the way back to that asshole, John Locke, who literally delineated the use of money as a boundary between civilization and savagery, and said that it was the lack of the use of money that entitled legally Europeans to the dominion over native lands, and to imagine that that doesn’t resonate now, like all of this stuff, is wild, because, again, so constructing, you know, back to the way that schools are funded with local property taxes, that system and deciding what that tax is and how it would apply in certain neighborhoods, that’s all planning and that’s all white supremacist planning. How we think about this is both in the hardware and in the software of this country, so to speak.

Nima: Absolutely. Before we let you go Raúl, can you tell us a little bit about what you’re up to lately in the many different chairs that you sit in, in this work, anything we should be paying attention to maybe under this new administration or possibly just because nothing really ever changes, what should we be paying attention to? What do you have going on?

Raúl Carrillo: So, just keep following the movements, honestly, I think a big task, from my individual perspective, in my profession amongst lawyers, is helping people understand the movements, know what the fuck is going on, that’s why they’re movements, right? And so the sort of people who, no offense, listen to podcasts, if they’re not in movements, should be following the cues of people and there are a lot that are doing that with respect to fiscal issues now. ACRE, the Action Center on Race and the Economy, just put out a great report on the use of police brutality bonds, for example, always follow the money, that’s seems sort of trite for me to say that on this podcast, but I think keep an eye out as to where taxpayer money language or sort of sound finance language in general is deployed in a sort of concern troll-y way by both liberals and conservatives against movements and, you know, it is the job of the media to criticize that shit and not let it slide, right? So when they say, let me give a real concrete example, the Congressional Budget Office, which is an administrative agency created by Richard Nixon, which everybody forgets now, you know, scores legislation and this isn’t to say that all movements are focused on legislation, but, for example, if it comes time to score a climate plan for its fiscal impact during the Biden administration, they’re not going to have good news for us, because they have models that turn society into tinker toys, right? And what they are also going to do is play the media and for example, share 10-year forecast figures as if they are one-year forecast figures, and everyone will retweet this, and that will be what is in all of the papers and I’ve watched this happen since 2013 in the context of the budget shutdown under Obama, and the economists and lawyers and the activists that I work with, I’ve watched this happen for, you know, even longer.

Richard Nixon signs a bill creating the Congressional Budget Office, 1974. (AP)

Adam: Yeah, we mentioned this in the Pete Peterson episode, we had a really deep dive about the CBO, which is basically a conservative organization that people treat as an oracle that just kind of puts numbers out as holy script, but of course, they’re just pulling it out of their ass.

Raúl Carrillo: And all these things are invented by Congress, and people avoid the CBO, you know how they avoid the CBO? You know how people avoid PAYGO? By writing “PAYGO does not apply” in this legislation. Just ridiculous.

Adam: Oh, yeah, right.

Raúl Carrillo: To play these games or to not act like this isn’t Kabuki anymore?

Adam: Yeah, the F-75 space orphan killer is exempt but yeah.

Nima: Yeah, yeah.

Raúl Carrillo: Yeah, exactly. Yeah and they won’t even audit the development, et cetera, et cetera. But yeah, I’d keep an eye out for, as far as this conversation goes, for all the pressure points and this shit boils up, again, not when we’re talking about war, extraction, deportation, incarceration, et cetera, but when we’re talking about just trying to survive in this world, and maybe even thrive a little. So I’d just keep an eye on the fissures, you know?

Nima: Well, I think that’s a great place to leave it. Raúl Carrillo, Deputy Director of the Law and Political Economy Project, Associate Research Scholar at Yale Law School, Chair of the Modern Money Network, also a lawyer previously served as Special Counsel to the enforcement director at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Raúl, it has really been a pleasure speaking to you today on Citations Needed.

Raúl Carrillo: Likewise, thank you all for having me.


Adam: I think it’s interesting to take one word and use it as an entry point into broader discussions, especially for people in academia or an activist circles, movement circles, who are trying to sort of rewire people’s brains to not think about these things in such reductionist terms because we inherit this language, we inherit this framing that really limits the way we think about what is possible, and what’s morally sound and so this type of language shuts off people’s brains, and quite frankly, their compassion, which is what a lot of kind of economics language is designed to do. ‘We just can’t afford it, sorry,’ ‘Taxpayer’s money,’ it has a very transactional implication and I think rejecting that premise, rejecting that framing can really be liberating, it can kind of open up your mind to other possibilities that don’t view it in these ROI terms and I think that taxpayers one of those prime examples where it does so much of the thinking for you.

Nima: Because the framework of it, what it evokes is so powerful and is so embedded in this narrative that we all kind of carry with us because we are fed this idea again and again and again, that we are owed something because we pay into a system, right? As opposed to being the system ourselves, that this is about the public, not a specified class of taxpayer with all of its classist, gendered, racialized ideas and the baggage that that framework kind of carries with it so often, as we know, serves right-wing narratives, right? And so to really understand that, to see how much weight that is carrying in the use of that word in political and media speech, I think is really important and it’s that kind of thing that once you see it, you then can’t unsee it. Once you start thinking about what taxpayer is doing, the heavy lifting that that word, and what it conjures up in our public imagination purposefully so, once you realize the heavy lifting that that is doing, you realize how much is just kind of built around this artificial apparatus.

Adam: Yeah, I think it’s this broader notion of a transactional relationship that centers landed money people, instead of saying, well, not even citizen, because not everyone’s, millions of people in this country aren’t citizens, I think a good word to use would be people or humanity, or even the sense of global solidarity. So you should say this war is bad because it’s bad for people or this funding of the F-75 orphans killing space laser is bad because it’s bad for people rather than this transactional smarmy concept of a taxpayer because I think it begins to sort of lose all purchase anyway, it kind of falls on deaf ears: taxpayer. When you hear “taxpayer,” you think of some guy in suspenders doing the whole, ‘I’m just a simple country lawyer’ routine. Whereas I think when you speak about things in terms of humanity, or what’s good for people or the human condition without even talking about non human constituents, but we’ll table that for the purposes of this episode, I think it sounds more sincere and it does not traffic in this transactional right-wing framing of how government ought to work.

Nima: Indeed, that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Thank you for listening, everyone. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant Trendel Lightburn. The newsletter is by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions by Morgan McAslan. Music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.