Public Banking Tops Baltimore Mayoral Candidate's Groundbreaking Platform

A Baltimore mayoral candidate may have the most on-point application of public banking we've seen in the whole economic democracy movement.

Joshua-Harris.jpgThere's a special place in my heart for Baltimore, where I've visited many times, and where some of my closest friends live. And several weeks ago I had the chance to interview Joshua Harris, a mayoral candidate who, ever since winning the first straw poll in the race, has had the city's ossified Democratic Party on the run. Shortly after our interview, Harris and colleagues put forward an agenda for city revitalization that includes public banking.

Harris's policy platform for Baltimore, "Banking for a Baltimore Undivided: Confronting Race and Class to Increase Opportunity and Equity for People and Neighborhoods," includes public banking, property tax reduction, and community benefit agreements. 

My administration will rely upon participatory governance where residents make decisions on community investment, development, education and safety. Rather than massive tax breaks and crony capitalism for out-of-town corporations that take Baltimore’s wealth out of the city, we seek to empower locally-owned businesses that invest in our city, provide living wage jobs and build community wealth. Instead of relying upon the same Wall Street banks that have practiced redlining and refused to provide financing for mortgages or small businesses in black neighborhoods, we will move the economic power to a public Baltimore City Bank that will serve the public interest and provide capital to local community banks and credit unions. The people of Baltimore will set the mission of the bank and make decisions about its spending priorities right here in our city – not in New York skyscrapers.

In this video interview, Harris gives an incredibly detailed, and incredibly contextual description of what a public bank can do for the people of Baltimore--those who may experience economic insecurity, who have struggled against the structural poverty, racism, and even the prison-industrial complex that has alienated the lives of tens of millions of Americans.

. . . public banking, essentially, takes the concept of traditional banks and brings it into the government sector. We want to, of course, keep the efficiency and the customer service base and have it run by professionals. But knowing that banks get wealthy off of your money and my money from being there, they take it and they make investments. Our city has a $3 billion operating budget. We currently have $90 million sitting in our rainy day fund that's in a bank that is using it to make investments. Imagine if Baltimore City owned and controlled that bank, and was reaping the benefits of those investments . . . if we had it all in a bank that was only controlled by Baltimore City, we could leverage that to generate more wealth, which in turn would provide opportunities for . . . micro business loans at a small interest rate [businesses] more likely to hire an individual who may have a criminal background . . . someone who's from the community, knowing that Baltimore City is a place where we had previous administrations that locked up more than 100,000 African-American men in four years who are now looking for work . . . we want to use this bank, and all of the interest that we are able to collect and revenue we are able to generate we want to put towards housing development, restoring the 40,000-plus vacants that we have in our city, then that's what the citizens decide and that's what we'll put that money to use for.

This is the Bank of North Dakota model coming to life, but in the context and history and spirit Baltimore. It underscores that the benefits of a public bank, while sometimes different in shape, are universal in terms of basic promise.

And of course there will be naysayers repeating big banks' talking points, but their arguments are both ill-informed and, in the face of what private banks have done to Baltimore, actually pretty damn distasteful. After all, Wall Street has robbed, extracted, overcharged, and red-lined the people of Baltimore. Private financiers' serial dishonesty has torn thousands of B'more homeowners from their homes and made businesses board up.

Harris could be on to something big here. His campaign would probably appreciate any support they could get, including spreading the word by sharing this post. The important thing here is the recognition of how economic insecurity and alienation--from lack of investment to housing, from bank corruption to worker disenfranchisement--create a material backdrop for racism and poverty, and how a public bank directly addresses this backdrop, removing a root cause of material alienation in the city. It may be the most on-point revolutionary application of public banking we've seen in the public banking movement.

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