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conversationThe Conversation US arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse – and recognition of the vital role that academic experts can play in the public arena.

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How DC Mayor Bowser used graffiti to protect public space

 

Rebekah Modrak, University of Michigan

When President Donald Trump sent heavily armed federal law enforcement officers and unidentified officers in riot gear into Washington, D.C. during the height of protests recently, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser responded by painting “BLACK LIVES MATTER” directly on the street leading to the White House.

While many spoke of it as a daring political act, for artists like me, it was also an act of urban intervention, an artistic act intended to transform an existing structure or institution, that reclaimed public space back for the public. And she accomplished this with little physical matter at all.

Her action – expressing dissent by marking an oppressive environment – references graffiti, which has been called the “language of the ignored.”

Art scholars note that most types of graffiti are meant to claim or reclaim territory by those who are systematically excluded. “Writers” often work quickly and at night, when they are less likely to be seen and arrested for painting on others’ property without consent.

Bowser’s action would likely be considered vandalism if not for the fact that it was carried out by the city’s Department of Public Works, using city funds. She wielded municipal services as artistic tools to condemn another state-sanctioned action, the violence perpetrated against Black people.

Muriel Bowser attended a press conference about COVID-19. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Dissent by night

With a few thin layers of paint, the city now loudly and clearly proclaims to assembling protesters, the public and Trump’s official helicopter lifting off from the White House that BLACK LIVES MATTER, presenting that message in the voice of civil authority: “safety color” yellow.

Bowser is the public face of the work. Acting Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio said, in an email to me that explained how the work evolved, that Bowser was inspired to “make a statement at the site where peaceful protestors were attacked to create a photo op on Monday, June 1, 2020.” The “photo op” was the destination of Trump’s walk from the White House, across Lafayette Square, to a nearby church damaged during protests, where he was photographed holding up a Bible.

The idea took form during a brainstorming session with eight artists, Falciccio said, brought together by the Department of Public Works on Thursday, June 4, and who were assigned the job of creating a design to assure protesters of their safety.

The artists and DPW staff began measuring and sketching the letters under cover of darkness at 3 a.m., using the night as a constructive opportunity at a time when cities normally view darkness with anxiety and, in recent weeks, have imposed curfews.

The words BLACK LIVES MATTER emerged from this nocturnal culture. The text was only partially expressed in the early morning light at 6:30 a.m. when onlookers came upon the sketched outlines – the “bubble letters” of graffiti terminology – and pitched in to complete the letters.

Bowser was inspired to do something after Trump’s photo op at St. John’s Church. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP

Bowser boxes with shadows

Ownership of this collective and democratic work is credited to Bowser, an African American woman and an elected official whom President Trump belittled as “incompetent” on Twitter after she criticized his choice to occupy D.C. streets with federal guards.

Finding herself metaphorically in a spot between armed agents and barbs launched in the Twittersphere, Bowser seems to have answered cultural critic Mark Dery’s question “How to box with shadows” by adopting the tactics of culture jamming, a range of creative practices that include hacking and altering the messages of advertising or urban signs to expose or subvert their meaning.

Like a seasoned culture jammer, Bowser challenged the system by liberating the space from domination. She turned the streets into a canvas.

Bowser situated the phrase BLACK LIVES MATTER as an arrow pointing to Lafayette Square, the one-time marketplace for hundreds of enslaved Black people. The square was the backdrop for Trump’s Bible-brandishing performance and the tableau where Attorney General William Barr directed that law enforcement clear out peaceful protesters to set the stage for Trump’s poorly conceived expedition, which they did with rubber bullets and tear gas.

Symbolic pavement

In graffiti, the location you choose to mark is as important as the content and style of writing. In “Spot Theory,” graffiti writers Jeff Ferrell and Robert Weide point out that the ability to select culturally significant sites and to insert language with precision is an esteemed skill set among street artists.

By making a point of the asphalt’s surface, Bowser’s artwork highlights the street as a site of domination, rebellion and politics: the pavement on which George Floyd’s face was pinned for 8 minutes and 46 seconds by former officer Derek Chauvin; the site of hundreds of thousands of global footsteps marching in solidarity; the turf on which more and more people take a knee to call for an end to racism and police brutality. The yellow street visibly vibrates now.

Bowser’s action is an appeal to reinterpret seemingly utilitarian structures in ways that protect democratic spaces. In a cycle reminiscent of the “call, response, release” championed by author and poet Estella Conwill Májozo, Bowser is “called” by her experiences, and responds creatively. In the “release,” Bowser turns the power of engagement over to the public, entrusting them with future actions.

The day after Bowser caused anti-racist words to be painted on the streets of our nation’s capital, a group of activists showed up with paint and buckets. Commandeering Bowser’s municipal language of “safety color” yellow, they added: DEFUND THE POLICE.

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Rebekah Modrak, Professor, University of Michigan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How the Federal Reserve literally makes money

The Fed is ‘making’ a lot of money. Alex Wong/Getty Images

William J. Luther, Florida Atlantic University

The Federal Reserve has vowed to provide up to US$2.3 trillion in lending to support households, employers, financial markets and state and local governments struggling as a result of the coronavirus and corresponding stay-at-home orders.

Let that number sink in: $2,300,000,000,000.

I have a Ph.D. in economics, direct the Sound Money Project at the American Institute for Economic Research and write regularly on Federal Reserve policy. And, yet, it is difficult for me to wrap my head around a number that large. If you were to stack 2.3 trillion $1 bills, it would reach over halfway to the Moon.

Put simply, it is a lot of money. Where does it all come from?

Unlike the trillions of dollars the Treasury is spending to save the economy by bailing out companies or beefing up unemployment checks, very little of the Fed’s money actually comes from taxpayers or sales of government bonds. Most of it, in fact, emerges right out of thin air. And that has costs.

Printing green

It is common to hear people say the Fed prints money.

That’s not technically correct. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, an agency of the U.S. Treasury, does the printing. The Fed, for its part, purchases cash from the bureau at cost and then puts it in circulation.

Although you may have heard some economists talk about the Fed figuratively dropping cash from helicopters, its method of distribution isn’t quite as colorful. Instead, it gives banks cash in exchange for old, worn-out notes or digital balances held by the banks at the Fed. In this way, the Fed can help banks accommodate changes in demand for banknotes, like those in advance of major holidays or after natural disasters.

These exchanges are dollar-for-dollar swaps. The Fed does not typically increase the monetary base – the total amount of currency in circulation and reserves held by banks at the central bank – when it distributes new banknotes.

Magicking green

To put more money into circulation, the Fed typically purchases financial assets – in much the same way that it plans to spend that $2.3 trillion.

To understand how, one must first recognize that the Fed is a bankers’ bank. That is, banks hold deposits at the Fed much like you or I might hold deposits in a checking account at Chase or Bank of America. That means when the Fed purchases a government bond from a bank or makes a loan to a bank, it does not have to – and usually doesn’t – pay with cash. Instead, the Fed just credits the selling or borrowing bank’s account.

The Fed does not print money to buy assets because it does not have to. It can create money with a mere keystroke.

So as the Fed buys Treasuries, mortgage-backed securities, corporate debt and other assets over the coming weeks and months, money will rarely change hands. It will just move from one account to another.

Costs of magical money

While the Fed can create money out of thin air, that does not mean it does so without cost. Indeed, there are two potential costs of creating money that one should keep in mind.

The first results from inflation, which denotes a general increase in prices and, correspondingly, a fall in the purchasing power of money. Money is a highly liquid – easily exchangeable – asset we use to make purchases. When the Fed creates more money than we want to hold on to, we exchange the excess money for less liquid assets, including goods and services. Prices are driven up in the process. When the Fed does this routinely, expected inflation gets built into long-term contracts, like mortgages and employment agreements. Businesses incur costs from having to change prices more frequently, while consumers have to make more frequent trips to the bank or ATM.

The other cost is a consequence of reallocating credit.

Suppose the Fed makes a loan to the “Bank of Fast and Loose Lending.” If the bank wasn’t able to secure alternative funding, this suggests that other private financial institutions deemed its lending practices too risky. In making the loan, the Fed has only created more money. It has not created more real resources that can be bought with money. And so, by giving the Bank of Fast and Loose Lending a lifeline, the Fed enables it to take scarce real resources away from other productive ventures in the economy.

The cost to society is the difference between the value of those real resources as employed by the Bank of Fast and Loose Lending and the value of those real resources as employed in the productive ventures forgone.

Uncharted waters

In recent years, the Fed has shown itself to be quite adept at keeping inflation low, even when making large-scale asset purchases.

The central bank purchased nearly $3.6 trillion worth of assets from September 2008 to January 2015, yet annual inflation averaged roughly 1.5% over the period – well below its 2% target.

I’m less sanguine about the Fed’s ability to keep the costs of reallocating credit low. Congress has traditionally limited the Fed to making loans to banks and other financial market institutions. But now it is tasking the Fed with providing direct assistance to nonbank businesses and municipalities – areas where the Fed lacks experience.

It is difficult to predict how well the Fed will manage its new lending facilities. But its limited experience making loans to small businesses – in the 1930s, for example – does little to alleviate the concerns of myself and others.

Congress gave the Fed the ability to create money from thin air. The Fed should wield this enormous power wisely.

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William J. Luther, Assistant Professor of Economics, Florida Atlantic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Uprisings after pandemics have happened before – just look at the English Peasant Revolt of 1381

In this 1470 illustration, the radical priest John Ball galvanizes the rebels. The British Library

Susan Wade, Keene State College

As a professor of medieval Europe, I’ve taught the bubonic plague, and how it contributed to the English Peasant Revolt of 1381. Now that America is experiencing widespread unrest in the midst of its own pandemic, I see some interesting similarities to the 14th-century uprising.

The death of George Floyd has sparked protests fueled by a combination of brutal policing, a pandemic that has led to the loss of millions of jobs and centuries of racial discrimination and economic inequality.

“Where people are broke, and there doesn’t appear to be any assistance, there’s no leadership, there’s no clarity about what is going to happen, this creates the conditions for anger, rage, desperation and hopelessness,” African American studies scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor told The New York Times.

Medieval England may seem far removed from modern America. And sure, American workers aren’t tied to employers by feudal bonds, which meant that peasants were forced to work for their landowners. Yet the Peasant Revolt was also a reaction brought on by centuries of oppression of society’s lowest tiers.

And like today, the majority of wealth was held by an elite class that comprised about 1% of the population. When a deadly disease started to spread, the most vulnerable and powerless were asked the pick up the most slack, while continuing to face economic hardship. The country’s leaders refused to listen.

Eventually, the peasants decided to fight back.

Clamoring for higher wages

Surviving letters and treatises express feelings of fear, grief and loss; the death tolls from the 14th-century plague were catastrophic, and it’s estimated that between one-third to one-half of the European population died during the its first outbreak.

The massive loss of life created an immense labor shortage. Records from England describe untilled fields, vacant villages and untended livestock roaming an empty countryside.

The English laborers who survived understood their newfound value and began to press for higher wages. Some peasants even began to seek more lucrative employment by leaving feudal tenancy, meaning the peasants felt free to leave the employment of their landowning overlords.

Rather than accede to the demands, King Edward III did just the opposite: In 1349, he froze wages at pre-plague levels and imprisoned any reaper, mower or other workman in service to an estate who left his employment without cause. These ordinances ensured that elite landowners would retain their wealth.

Edward III enacted successive laws intended to ensure laborers wouldn’t increase their earning power. As England weathered subsequent outbreaks of the plague, and as labor shortages continued, workers started to clamor for change.

Enough is enough

The nominal reason for the Peasant Revolt was the announcement of a third poll tax in 15 years. Because poll taxes are a flat tax levied on every individual, they affect the poor far more than the wealthy. But similar to the protests that have erupted in the wake of Floyd’s death, the Peasant Revolt was really the result of dashed expectations and class tensions that had been simmering for more than 30 years.

Things finally came to a head in June 1381, when, by medieval estimates, 30,000 rural laborers stormed into London demanding to see the king. The cohort was led by a former yeoman soldier named Wat Tyler and an itinerant, radical preacher named John Ball.

Ball was sympathetic to the Lollards, a Christian sect deemed heretical by Rome. The Lollards believed in the dissolution of the sacraments and for the Bible to be translated into English from Latin, which would make the sacred text equally accessible to everyone, diminishing the interpretive role of the clergy. Ball wanted to take things even further and apply the ideas of the Lollards to all of English society. In short, Ball called for a complete overturn of the class system. He preached that since all of humanity constituted the children of Adam and Eve, the nobility could not prove they were of higher status than the peasants who worked for them.

With the help of sympathetic laborers in London, the peasants gained entry to the city and attacked and set fire to the Palace of Savoy, which belonged to the Duke of Lancaster. Next they stormed the Tower of London, where they killed several prominent clerics, including the archbishop of Canterbury.

A bait and switch

To quell the violence, Edward’s successor, the 14-year-old Richard II, met the irate peasants just outside of London. He presented them a sealed charter declaring that all men and their heirs would be “of free condition,” which meant that the feudal bonds that held them in service to landowners would be lifted.

The Peasant Revolt was one of Richard II’s first tests. Westminster Abbey

While the rebels were initially satisfied with this charter, things didn’t end well for them. When the group met with Richard the next day, whether by mistake or intent, Wat Tyler was killed by one of Richard’s men, John Standish. The rest of the peasants dispersed or fled, depending on the report of the medieval chronicler.

For the authorities, this was their chance to pounce. They sent judges into the countryside of Kent to find, punish and, in some cases, execute those who were found guilty of leading the uprising. They apprehended John Ball and he was drawn and quartered. On Sept. 29, 1381, Richard II and Parliament declared the charter freeing the peasants of their feudal tenancy null and void. The vast wealth gap between the lowest and highest tiers of society remained.

American low-wage laborers obviously have rights and freedoms that medieval peasants lacked. However, these workers are often tied to their jobs because they cannot afford even a brief loss of income.

The meager benefits some essential workers gained during the pandemic are already being stripped away. Amazon recently ended the additional US$2 per hour in hazard pay it had been paying workers and announced plans to fire workers who don’t return to work for fear of contracting COVID-19. Meanwhile, between mid-March and mid-May, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos added $34.6 billion dollars to his wealth.

It appears that the economic disparities of 21st-century capitalism – where the richest 1% now own more than half of the world’s wealth – are beginning to resemble those of 14th-century Europe.

When income inequalities become so jarring, and when these inequalities are based in long-term oppression, perhaps the sort of unrest we’re seeing on the streets in 2020 is inevitable.

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Susan Wade, Associate Professor of History, Keene State College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

5 ways eating in a pandemic is improving your relationship with food – and why you should stick with them

In some households, children have been learning to cook and bake while parents are home during the pandemic. Catherine Delahaye via Getty Images

Stephanie Meyers, Boston University

It’s 5 p.m. on who can tell which day, and instead of rushing from work to kids’ activities, I’m unpacking a box of produce while my 7-year-old peels carrots beside me. Rather than grab what we can from the fridge on the way to soccer practice, my family is all sitting down together to a homemade vegetarian meal. On the menu tonight: cauliflower lentil tacos.

Before you get the wrong impression that everything’s going swimmingly at my house, it’s not. But as a registered dietitian and a mom, I’m noticing a few noteworthy patterns amid the pandemic, both in my own family and in what my clients report every day. Some of these food-related behavior changes have the potential to become new habits with long-term benefits. Here are five eating-related behaviors I hope endure beyond the pandemic.

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