The American Monetary Institute (AMI) is a not-for-profit organization devoted to the independent study of monetary history, theory, and reform. Founded in 1996 by the late Stephen Zarlenga, author of The Lost Science of Money (2002), AMI celebrated its 25th anniversary by hosting its 17th Annual Monetary Reform Conference on November 5-7, 2021, via Zoom.
From Friday evening through Sunday, over 70 people and 31 presenters interested in monetary reform from across the US and globally participated in the conference. Since the Alliance For Just Money (AFJM) grew out of and with the encouragement of AMI in 2018, numerous members and subscribers of AFJM attended the conference, some presenting at or helping to conduct it. Singer-songwriter, architect, and AFJM president Howard Switzer graced each day with Just Money music, and participants shared informal social time at the end of each day. A conference statement calling attention to the connection between the monetary system and climate change, and the need to correct the former if we hope to address the latter, was drafted, signed, and sent to parties at the simultaneously occurring COP26 gathering in Glasgow, England.
While it is impossible to do justice to the rich array of contents presented, what follows are some of my highlights. Fellow attendees are invited to comment below to add their takeaways from AMI 2021. Full conference details and proceedings are available online, with the recordings highly recommended for all who could not attend or who, like me, need to hear this material more than once to grasp it:
- Presentation titles
- Presenters’ bios
- Recordings of each session on AMI’s YouTube channel
- AMI Conference Statement to COP26
The number of well-known academic economists and monetary theorists presenting was higher than ever this year. Joining independent analytical economist Steve Keen and emeritus sociologist of economy and ecology Joseph Huber, both longtime presenters at AMI, newcomers included the keynote Laurence Kotlikoff of Boston University, former (2006-12) Governor of the central Bank of Spain Miguel Ángel Fernández Ordóñez, Finnish labor economist Patrizio Lainà, Swiss macroeconomist Sergio Rossi, and US economic historian Ronnie Phillips.
Other academy-based scholars presenting for the first time at AMI included political scientist Mark Cassell, Danish monetary philosopher Ole Bjerg, historian of US capitalism Jeffrey Sklansky, and co-authors anthropologist Richard Robbins and political economist Tim DiMuzio. The increasing number of economists and academics outside of economics who are focusing on money itself signifies the importance of Stephen Zarlenga’s work on the lost science of money, current system flaws and their correction, and the power relations involved.
One topic quite a few presenters addressed is central bank digital currency (CBDC), which as Ordóñez pointed out, is finally being worked on by central bankers due to (1) systemic flaws inherent in our existing bankmoney system that they’ve heretofore accommodated, and (2) competition from wholly private cryptocurrencies, including those pegged to national currencies and referred to as “stablecoins.”
As Huber presaged in his 2017 memorial for Zarlenga, while our “desired final outcome, i.e. a monetary tide change that replaces private monies with sovereign money, cannot be taken for granted” in a shift to CBDC, “these are the current real-world developments, and…we do better by being in on them rather than staying offside.” Slide #19 of Huber’s presentation at AMI 2021 (minute 21:30) gives an important list of 10 CBDC design principles that are preferable from a perspective of monetary sovereignty.
We in AFJM understand what is at stake in the CBDC design work going on, and I agree we need to study, understand, and then educate others on and argue for the design principles that will achieve sovereign digital currency (SDC) that serves the public good and mediates our commerce commensurably, first nationally and then internationally. To be achievable through CBDC, I think its principles must include (though may not be limited to):
- direct access to a nation’s or monetary union’s CBDC by all its citizens, documented residents and immigrants, and public and private entities legally operating therein;
- no restrictions on quantities of CBDC (other than maintaining the purchasing power over time of all units in circulation);
- anytime full convertibility between bankmoney and CBDC, then gradually reducing and ultimately removing state warranties for bankmoney, and avoiding such guarantees on surrogates;
- no interest on new CBDC issuance;
- genuine debt-free seigniorage as a—or the—channel of CBDC issuance, which means CBs must be wholly public and owned by the people whose name that CB and CBDC bear, whose commerce the latter circulates, and whose public good they both exist to serve.
One design preference stated by Huber that I do not understand enough yet to advocate one way or the other between is for tokenised rather than account-based CBDC. But assuming the former refers, as Huber implies, to units that go directly from e-wallet to e-wallet in a decentral open-access blockchain network, I do not think we are producing enough renewable clean energy yet for blockchain technology to be scale-up-able. Both Steve Keen and sustainability sociologist Frans Verhagen presented on a parallel or a global currency based on universal carbon credits as a way to address climate change through our very means of exchange. If nations cannot prioritize investment in developing widespread renewable clean energy, such currency designs may help.
Some presenters were less sure about or agnostic on CBDC. Bjerg is all for sovereignty, which he believes belongs to each person by virtue of being alive, and legally through national Constitutions. But, if I understood him correctly, he doubts that monetary sovereignty can be achieved through CBDCs that derive from our existing national currencies and our current international monetary system.
Bjerg may look, therefore, for monetary sovereignty at the local level such as the initiatives that social entrepreneurs Katharina Serafimova and Arie Ben-David presented on. As Ben-David poignantly noted, “the shrouds of death have no pockets. There is nothing of material value we can take with us” (minute 17:00). But, he continued, “there is one thing we do take with us, and that is our relationships and the quality of them.” Based on that insight and their critique of the larger monetary system and the state of our economy and its impact on nature—critiques shared by many in AFJM and at AMI—Serafimova and Ben-David are looking to build an ecosystem of sovereign moneys each rooted in local communities that strive to reuse, replenish, and renew their sustenance in sustainable ways within and across sovereign communities.
Italian monetary reformer Domenico D’Amico, an accounting official at the Italian Ministry of Justice, also raised concern about about CBDCs, specifically about a global US dollar standard being recreated in CBDCs. He grounded this concern on his and a co-author’s analysis of US balance of payments over the past 75 years. Their analysis demonstrates US empire building through the international dominance of the US dollar after the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement and of US Treasury bonds and Wall Street finance after the neoliberal shift once the dollar’s ostensible gold standard was eliminated in 1971. While seeming to acknowledge that CBDCs could and should be designed as sovereign money, D’Amico’s presentation suggests (as do those of Held-Khawam and Titus) that the political likelihood of that today is weak, at least without major grassroots conscientizacao (Freire) about, and building movements for, sovereign money such as what Robbins and Jussi Ora advocate, and AFJM, other IMMR member organizations, and some League of Women Voters (as John Howell described) are doing. The Italian monetary reform group that D’Amico helped to found has a concise, compelling “Manifesto” for a new monetary order in which money is a common good. It is worth reading as it may bridge the goals of all mentioned here.
There were many other valuable presentations I’ve not mentioned—including a five-part series on parity economics and its connection to Just Money and sustainable production and exchange relations that occurred on Sunday afternoon, the first part of which I had to miss due to a prior commitment and the recordings of which were not yet available on AMI’s YouTube channel to view for this report. I suggest studying them as a set when they are available. But I want to end by commenting on one of my favorite presentations, that by Mark Cassell on the political economy of German savings banks, Sparkassen.
At first glance, this presentation may be an outlier for AMI since Sparkassen operate and are holding their own within today’s money and banking systems. But the fact that they are doing so, even during the so-called Great Recession and now in the pandemic, is what Cassell tries to explain through his mixed methods empirical study of these credit institutions whose market share the big international banks would like to gain more access to. Although I might be wrong, I think Sparkassen’s deep historical, regional, and relational rootedness as 250-year-old for-profit but not profit-maximizing independent banks with public mandates that are each major providers of banking services for individuals and small-and-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in their region and are also networked within and across states in this reunified nation make them an important case study for how all credit institutions might operate as intermediaries in a sovereign Just Money system. In any case, Cassell’s presentation and the book it is based on offer a fascinating and intimate look into this political economic force in Germany today, where SMEs, many of which are both family-owned and international in scope, are the foundation of the economy and Sparkassen are the backbone of them and their communities.
Likewise, AMI’s 17th Annual Monetary Reform Conference evinced that, now in its 25th year, AMI remains a powerful force in the movement to reshape the political economy of the US, if not elsewhere too, through sovereign money reform. As AFJM reviews and updates 2011-2012 NEED Act into the American Monetary Reform Act of 2021-2022, we are thankful for and look forward to working with AMI to foster and advance Zarlenga’s vision for economic justice and the more equitable and efficient functioning of government through sovereign money reform. Please support AMI’s and AFJM’s work with your time, effort, donations, and ideas.