The Slog Ahead for New Public Banks in California

100 years ago, socialists in North Dakota quickly created a public bank. Things will unfold more slowly in California.

by Matt Stannard
October 7, 2019

Last week I cautiously celebrated the final passage and signing of AB 857 in California allowing municipalities to apply for public banking charters. I cautioned that there were no guarantees that the California DBO would approve public banks at all and that the process would be political-but-unpoliticized: banking board or licensing commission criteria are ideologically laden and rhetorically de-politicized; in other words, these actors hide their market biases but would accuse public banking advocates of wanting to politicize banks. I had other concerns too, but since that post I’ve learned a few other details, thanks to Marc Armstrong and David Jette generously answering some questions I had.

When I asked David what charter applicants might expect from a private-biased DBO, he suggested that the most prudent initial applicants would specifically focus on fixing city debt, credit to government agencies, and possibly green energy banks.

Fiscal soundness would also be important, he said. In a deeper sense, what this means (and I don’t think anybody seriously denies this) is that the banks will be judged according to the very paradigm of fiscal scarcity that public banking advocates rebuke. Well, reformism isn’t easy. Unlike 1919 North Dakota, Californians haven’t formed an agrarian socialist party and won the governorship and legislature. I appreciate David’s candor. This will be a years-long journey, and it will be challenging to keep public demand steadily humming.

The most important accomplishment of 857 is, as Marc told me in an email, that “the taboo has been broken . . . permission has been given.” Marc told me that several NoCal cities are investigating using JPA (Joint Powers Authority) to create a bank or banks. Large cities will certainly be the first to apply for licenses. Smaller cities will follow suit if the big ones are successful.

From what everyone is telling me, I surmise it will take two years at a minimum before we see a public bank open in the best scenario, and five or more years, again best case, before we see a handful of them.

But this is in the best case scenario, where there aren’t mountains of objections and demands made by private banking interests who want to hold onto the private advantage even for those narrow functions David mentioned. On the subject of bias towards private banks, Bob Bows reminded me this morning that one strong manifestation of this–and a potential legal and policy challenge for municipalities as these banks get off the ground, is the neoliberal doctrines that form the basis of anti-competitiveness challenges under global trade agreements. Recall that the ongoing concern with TPP and other regimes was that public utilities would be attacked and potentially become tribunal targets. I put together several sources’ analysis on this question back in 2015 at the PBI blog. Imagine objections being made in the DBO application process, or after the fact via trade tribunals, that public banks will be able to perform financial services without a profit motive, thereby undermining competition in a sector–the financial sector–that trade-in-services advocates view as their market territory. The public is excluded from most of the negotiations that create these rules, negotiations that will undoubtedly be biased against public ownership as a whole and public financial ownership specifically.

A long-term strategy summit, led by the on-the-ground California public banking organizations and activists at the forefront of poor people’s, divestment, and climate justice movements–the people who made 857 happen–may well already be in the works, and certainly should be, and if that happens I would joyfully live blog it, because to overuse the already overused phrasing, the real work starts now.

I’m operations director at Solidarity House Cooperative. You can read a lot of my articles, including several individual pieces and a longer series on public banking, here at Occupy.

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