The Conspicuous Absence of a Popular Politics of Money, 1945-1980

Pierre-Christian Fink, Harvard University

Many sociologists, historians, and scholars in adjacent fields working on money today cast their research as an attempt to make money a topic of democratic debate. This effort is often phrased as an attempt of recovery, reaching back to previous periods that came to a close in the 1930s, when money was a central issue of U.S. politics. This paper explores why attempts to politicize money between the end of World War II and the 1970s failed even though they were led by a politician who occupied a most promising strategic position: Wright Patman, a Democrat from Texas, was chairman of the Joint Economic Committee from 1957 until 1975 and chairman of the Banking Committee in the House of Representatives from 1963 until 1975. Extant research traces Patman’s failure to his supposed attempt to be the last Progressive. His ideas, these authors claim, had changed little after the 1930s, and he appealed to interest groups like farmers and labor unions that could no longer be enrolled in the politics of money. Yet this account of an anachronistic Patman misrepresents key empirical patterns. Far from being stuck in the monetary thought of yesteryear, Patman responded to changes in the financial system. In 1966, for example, he held 15 days of hearings on a new money-market product, the negotiable certificate of deposit. Nor was Patman a lone wolf. While his old allies could no longer be mobilized, he was in contact with potential new allies, such as Ralph Nader. Using research on negative cases in policy domains as the theoretical framework, I analyze Patman’s archive and the literature on his potential allies. The resultant better understanding of why Patman’s efforts failed can inform today’s movement for a more democratic money.

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 Presented in Session 28. Money, Politics, and the State