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A Cook County Public Bank for Chicago + 130 Suburbs — best practical option for 2021?

Submitted to The Chicago Sun-Times in response to
Op-ed “Why Chicago should start public bank” (Dec. 7, 2020)

Thanks to Daniel LaSpata, Matt Martin, Robert Peters, and Ameya Pawar for a very readable, understandable, and practical description of what a public bank could do for the City of Chicago, and why public banking is a missing link in the U.S. democracy experiment. The good news is that, as LaSpata, et al., detail, there is much movement on public banking in the U.S.

Better news, for residents of the City of Chicago (as well as the rest of Cook County and Illinois) is that there is a growing Illinois movement supporting a state public bank. 

In my opinion, the best news for 2021 is the in-between position: a Cook County public bank created by the county to serve the City of Chicago + approx. 130 suburbs.

As a national activist on the intersection of food, farms, and democracy, I am an advocate for a public bank in every state and U.S. territory. As such, I believe that Chicago, Cook County, and Illinois would, in the long run, best be served by a State of Illinois public bank.

However, given the learning curve on public banking for both voters and officials (elected and staff), a Cook County bank would be a good pilot project. Moreover, the right 21st century model is still being discussed by the public banking technicians themselves—Public Banking Institute, National Public Banking Alliance, and legal experts like Sen. Elizabeth Warren.  

As a native Chicagoan, 43-year resident of Evanston, and lifelong observer of Illinois turf wars, I believe that making our current public banking goal a public bank for all of Cook County—created by, with, and for the people of Chicago and 130 suburbs—would facilitate:
—a stronger working relationship among intersectional activists in the City of Chicago and the suburbs 
—later applying our collective learning at the state level, where there is currently some confusion between “public” banks and “community” banks. 

A Cook County public bank will not eliminate all of our 21st century disparities and disfunctions. But I do believe that the process of suburban activists and Chicago activists working together on a bold but grounded project has inherent value. Learning how to leapfrog entrenched power structures can quickly address, from a new perspective of power, issues that we’ve not been able to address before:
—Cook County’s high property taxes as a core deficiency in our version of the democracy experiment
—stabilizing and scaling up our local and regional food & farm infrastructure
—increasing affordable housing at the required rate (per the Dec. 7, 2020 op-ed) in Chicago and suburbs
—stabilizing and scaling up our public transit and Complete Streets infrastructure
—basic income, perhaps in the form of “funded sovereignty”, a term coined by Native American scholar Prof. Barbara Alice Mann (U. of Toledo) to denote economic support for civic engagement

I’ve been a big advocate of public banks ever since 2011, when I began to realize that for all my 60 years (now almost 70) I had never heard of The Money Question — what serves as money, who creates new U.S. money (and controls circulation), and by what rules (who decides). According to UIC history professor Jeffrey Sklansky’s 2017 book (Sovereign of the Market) and other scholars, The Money Question was a common topic of civic discussions and election campaigns in early America.

By the end of the 1800s, it seems that “political economy” and other terms had replaced “The Money Question” as a label for this core question of a self-governing nation. Stumbling across public banking in 2011 woke me up to the money power and to the difference between public money and private money.

Other scholars and researchers (including many in Illinois and the Chicago area) have been working on other types of monetary and banking reform (sometimes for decades), including (a) enforcing parity agriculture protocols that are still on the USDA books and (b) replacing GDP (Gross Domestic Product) with a more accurate measurement of our national production.

The City of Chicago has been “home” to the annual American Monetary Institute conference for the last 16 years. AMI began its mission 30 years ago to research public sovereign money—The Money Question–at the U.S. national level. The 2020 conference was held virtually, but still organized from a suburb of Chicago (Evanston). A review of the topics suggests that the U.S. and international monetary reform movement is, in 2020, at a moment of synthesis moving into action.

A Cook County public bank would be a good place to start a broad-based, grassroots process.