For would-be U.S. lawmaker Jonathan Herzog, financial exclusion isn’t just a talking point, it’s lived experience.
When launching his congressional run, he said, Herzog went to Bank of America and Citibank and tried to open a campaign checking account but was denied. Herzog saw it as an example of the ways centralized institutions can hold power over people, even someone like him who is privileged.
That’s in part why he’s stumping for open, permissionless financial systems as part of his campaign.
“There’s acute urgency to ensure that bitcoin and cryptocurrency have mass adoption and have a regulatory framework that enables their innovation in New York and in the United States,” Herzog said.
An alum of the Andrew Yang presidential campaign and a legal advocate, Herzog is running for Congress in New York’s 10th District, which encompasses the West Side of Manhattan and South Brooklyn. It’s a long shot, with the 25-year-old currently trailing in polls against incumbent Jerry Nadler, who has occupied the seat for 28 years, for the Democratic nomination. The primary is scheduled for June 23.
For a politician, Herzog appears to know quite a bit about bitcoin, even casually dropping a reference to the cryptocurrency’s recent, once-in-four-years halving event in an interview this week.
Herzog spoke to CoinDesk by phone from his campaign’s de facto headquarters near Battery Park Square in lower Manhattan. Looking out his window at the rebuilt One World Trade Center (also known as the Freedom Tower), he explained why he thinks about bitcoin through a civil rights framework and why he sees a pressing need for a universal basic income (UBI), a signature issue for Herzog’s former boss Yang.
And despite his party alignment, he minced no words about the impact of the state’s BitLicense, written by a fellow Democrat, former Department of Financial Services superintendent Benjamin Lawsky, in the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
So you were working on the Yang campaign, and now you’re running for office yourself. Tell me more about that trajectory.
I’m running for congress in the New York 10th District and I am a civil rights organizer and legal advocate. I’ve spent my time really invested in movements that are combating dark money and politics, combating poverty and hate and most recently joining the founding team that built Andrew Yang’s 2020 presidential campaign. I joined as the sixth hire, helped get Yang on Joe Rogan, helped him qualify for the [Democratic National Committee] debates, and really bring this then-unknown entrepreneur to become the internet candidate, the crypto candidate and a top contender for the nomination.
The urgency of the issues at the time was immense. Andrew was calling out the fact that we were going through the fourth industrial revolution and that we had automated away millions of the most common jobs. He was fighting for a set of solutions like a universal basic income, data dignity, including a data bill of rights and data property rights, and public financing of elections. I said, “Holy shit, we have to do all we can to make sure this guy is our next president.” And right now we’re in the midst of this global pandemic where more than 100,000 Americans have died and one in five of those are New Yorkers. More than 40 million people are unemployed and 40% of those jobs are not going to return. I’m running because we need to wake up and we need new representatives who have 21st century solutions to these 21st century crises. And we don’t have the time to delay.
What do you think about the viability of UBI, particularly after COVID-19? Should some form of a digital dollar be pursued to give us the infrastructure to help distribute money to American’s quickly in a crisis?
Yes, and yes, in short. But in long form, what’s most stark to me is that even though it might seem in this moment that a universal basic income or recurring direct cash relief, at least during the pandemic, seems an inevitable thing that we have to do, the reality is there is nothing inevitable about it. We’ve entered a new Great Depression. We can’t allow tens of millions to fall by the wayside, especially with what’s happening around police brutality and riots. There’s this saying that it’s only in times of crisis where ideas that seem politically impossible, can become inevitable. But only if they’ve been brought to the fore in that moment in time, and that to me was why the work on the campaign in particular, and building this movement was so critical.
If you look at it now, from members of the Trump administration to Republican congresspeople, from the far left to the far right, there is a sense that direct cash relief has to be part of the solution. But Congress has been on recess and when they returned to session, the two bills passed by the House only included a tiny fraction of the multi-trillion dollar bailout as in a single cash payment to people. Some people have to wait months for the processing to go through the pipes of the federal government and to get a paper check mailed to them, if it even reaches them. This crisis has only underpinned and accelerated the urgency and need of universal basic income, but also the need for the internet of money, for a decentralized, blockchain-enabled, Bitcoin/crypto solution.
Look at the history of governments and societies amid depressions and the historic devaluation of currencies. In some cases, authoritarian regimes place restrictions on capital flows and enable repression. There’s acute urgency to ensure that Bitcoin and cryptocurrency have mass adoption and have a regulatory framework that enables their innovation in New York and in the United States. If you look at where the halving block was mined, it was mined in China. We need to have the computing resources and the federal investment to ensure that we can compete at the scale and scope in this kind of fundamental arms race.
What sort of regulations or guidelines would you try to reform in a meaningful way when it comes to having a more tolerant framework for cryptocurrencies?
One example is Wyoming, which has the nation’s most supportive crypto framework. The partnerships that led to that is exactly the kind we need at the federal level. Because this hodgepodge of regulations right now is the Wild West and it’s unsustainable. What it results in is innovation and investment happening offshore and unregulated. I think bringing Caitlin Long, Jack Dorsey and those who’ve been in the trenches to the table is needed at a federal level. Look at the BitLicense example here in New York. We essentially ensured that crypto innovation would flee from the world’s financial capital, which is so backwards. And we’re talking about a city and district where one in six people before COVID-19 lived in poverty and couldn’t meet their basic needs, even though median income is over $90,000, and the most common profession is working in financial services.
Bitcoin is part and parcel of civil rights fights to bank the unbanked and to offer a real decentralized alternative to the fact that even before COVID-19 nearly half of all Americans couldn’t afford an unexpected $500 bill. The federal government has yet to even define a taxonomy of how Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies should be regulated. And that incoherence certainly does not help with innovation and investment in an extremely important and increasingly necessary domain.
How viable is blockchain and the systems that it enables such as cryptocurrencies as a pillar of a candidate’s platform more generally?
It’s not only viable, it’s going to become increasingly essential. Frankly, I’m a fairly new entrant into the crypto space. In the context of running in the 10th district, it can be an asset. If you look at the numbers in the 10th district there are tens of thousands of people here who are either directly involved or interested in cryptocurrency. And certainly there are the political buzzwords and one liners that can be used to denigrate it, but that’s why I think speaking about cryptocurrency and bitcoin through the lens of what the Upper West Side community talks about, which is civil rights, is important. I view cryptocurrency as part of the vanguard of this era’s civil rights and civil liberties. I think not only is it something that is politically viable but increasingly so as more and more people get exposed to the power and importance of cryptocurrency they’ll see it’s a necessary part of any political platform.
Could you explain that framing of cryptocurrencies within a civil rights context further?
Absolutely. So one example is the 10th district has the largest LGBTQ population in the country. I was learning about the LGBT token cryptocurrency as an example of decentralized identity verification, particularly in countries where homosexuality and gender variance is criminalized. What their LGBT wallet offers is an alternative to sidestep the repressive criminalization in the still 70 UN member states that criminalize being gay. And those punishments can range from capital punishment to fines, to jail time and life imprisonment.
And fundamental access to capital is the civil rights fight of this era. Before Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, he was fighting for a guaranteed minimum income, not for some, but for all. And what the LGBT Foundation, for example has done is put HIV self-tests on the blockchain. One of the main healthcare issues is people not even knowing their status, with 2 million people each year becoming infected. Blockchain-integrated HIV testing can enable traceability, transparency, and scalability. This is just one example of how communities that have been marginalized and disenfranchised, even right here in New York City, can move forward. That is part of how we bridge the crypto community with the sort of establishment voter who may have a particular preconceived notion of what cryptocurrencies mean.