Monday, December 29, 2008

Streets as Places

I was discussing the commons and the notion of a commons-based society with a friend a few days ago, and she said that Dr. Spock had articulated a commons philosophy in a dramatic episode of Star Trek, where he has to die in order to save the ship (or the planet—she couldn’t remember all the details.) I am not a “trekkie” so I cannot verify this, but she claims Dr. Spock said something like: ‘What is good for all is more important than what is good for many. What is good for many is more important than what is good for a few, and what is good for a few is more important than what is good for one.’ If he indeed said that, I agree, and even if he didn’t but someone else did, I still agree. Of course we do our best to create a society in which the good of one is not juxtaposed against the good of all, or where the “good” of one is not simply their financial enhancement at the expense of many.

Perhaps discussing Star Trek led me to think about traveling long distances and led me to propose another commons based approach to a big problem, which is transportation. I was also moved by reading about the national stimulus package, which has a lot in it about road widening and highway expansion, less about fixing roads and bridges but not much at all about public transportation or creating communities in which walking and biking are the easiest ways to get around, and, for those using a wheelchair, universal access is always the design.

For the following ideas and information, I am indebted to Gary Toth, the Director of Transportation Initiatives at the Project for Public Spaces. Gary worked for 34 years with the New Jersey Dept of Public Transportation. I encourage everyone to visit their website and sign up for their e-newsletter.

Mr. Toth proposes a very simple idea as the foundation of all transportation planning, but an idea that is the opposite of most prevailing plans: view streets as places. Current transportation planning, in contrast, does not focus at all on land use and places the highest priority on high speed travel. Ironically, this simply leads to more and more congestion. Streets take up as much as one-third of a community’s land, and yet in many places they are they are the exclusive domain of cars. He explains,
Traffic planners and public officials need to foster land use planning at the community level…This includes creating more attractive places that people will want to visit in both existing developments and new ones. A strong sense of place benefits the overall transportation system. Great Places - popular spots with a good mix of people and activities, which can be comfortably reached by foot, bike and perhaps transit as well as cars - put little strain on the transportation system. Poor land-use planning, by contrast, generates thousands of unnecessary vehicle-trips, creating dysfunctional roads, which further worsens the quality of the places.
The price of poor transportation planning can be seen beyond poor transportation and CO2 emissions that cause global warming. The National Center for Disease Control reports that 25 years ago, only two states had obesity rates above 10%, and none had rates above 15%. Today, no state has less than a 10% obesity rate and only one is below 15%. Twenty eight states are above 20%! The CDC calls this an “Inactivity Epidemic.” Certainly, this obesity cannot be blamed on bad transportation planning, but suburban lack of neighborhood stores, lack of attractive sidewalks on busy streets, and general lack of emphasis on creating walkable communities undoubtedly plays a role.

The poor state of our nation’s infrastructure and the massive and immediate need for a jobs program allow us, in fact, enjoins us, to demand a new approach to transportation and to community planning in general. This is one of the few times in our recent history where we could actually create the communities we want and that it would be economically wise to do so. We can only do this using “commons” thinking.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Commons thinking - Part 2

Continuing our search for commons based thinking to solve our current economic problems, I turn to James K. Galbraith, who is a progressive and economist, professor at UT-Austin and author of The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too. (For those recognizing his name, he is also the son of one of the world’s most famous economists, the late John Kenneth Galbraith).

In an article in Mother Jones magazine, called “Stimulus is for Suckers” he argues that the economic stimulus packages being presented to President-elect Obama are short sighted because they imagine that in a year or two the economy can be turned around. Further, he says the prevailing analysis of Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulsen that frozen credit is the problem is false.

He says,
Banks were unable to lend, they (Bernanke and Paulson) said, because they could not get the funds. This was not true, as we discovered when Treasury gave the banks the funds, only to realize that banks had no wish to lend them out. Instead they used the money to build capital and on dividends and executive pay. (Goldman Sachs, which received $10 billion as part of the bailout, got good press when it announced its top seven execs would forgo their year-end bonuses. But a government ban on bonuses was likely coming, and by limiting the sacrifice to top managers, the company retains leeway to spend the estimated $6.9 billion set aside for bonuses on slightly lesser employees.) In any case, banks did not wish to lend, and ordinary Americans, desperately cutting costs, did not wish to borrow, and with their homes underwater many had little collateral to borrow against.
Galbraith outlines a number of solutions, all based on something that I think is an example of “commons thinking”. The premise for getting back to a healthy economy is to get money back into circulation, and Galbraith and his colleagues have done an analysis, shown in the chart below, that looks at where a dollar spent provides the most stimulus. As usual, when we look from the point of view of the common good, a dollar spent on things people need provides more stimulus than helping wealthy people keep their money. Interestingly, the most stimulus comes from spending money on food stamps and extending unemployment benefits. If you think a federal stimulus dollar should at least generate a dollar, making the current capital gains tax permanent is a real loser, followed by making the Bush income tax cuts permanent.

Bang for the Buck
What a dollar of stimulus puts back into the economy when spent on...

Illustration: Randall Enos

In his article, Galbraith lists a number of specific ideas, all of which are provocative, but one that really illustrates “commons thinking” is the following:
…we must change how we produce energy, how we consume it, and above all how much greenhouse gas we emit. That's a long-term proposition that will require research and reconstruction on a grand scale: support for universities, for national labs, for federal and state planning agencies, a new Department of Energy and Climate. It's the project around which the economy of the next generation must be designed. It's the key to future employment and future growth-and to our physical survival.
Those plans which insure the physical survival of the human race on earth certainly meets our criteria of “common good.” A federal agency focused on Energy and Climate, and massive federal funding of all that will be needed to re-tool our planet away from oil, coal and gas, is truly commons thinking. But often critics of commons-based solutions will decry that it is all well and good to propose the idealistic things, but we have to be realistic and practical. (For the record, that which promotes human survival does seem practical to me.)

Galbraith ends his essay with this paragraph, which brings together all the sectors that will be involved in making this energy shift:
Energy transformation is key for another reason. Even during this crisis, the world has supported the dollar. Why? Because no alternative safe haven exists. Despite our faults, we have a well-designed economic system, the enduring fruit of the New Deal and Great Society. Thus Uncle Sam can borrow, at very low cost, whatever he needs-a terrific advantage over the competition. But in the long run, the world will support us only if we give something back. Ushering in new technologies that the rest of the world can adopt in order to save the planet is the right sort of gift. By helping to save the physical world, we may be able to save our currency, our credit, and our economy as well.
I am going to allow myself and force myself to be a commons thinker over these holidays and see what I come up with in my much smaller world.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Commons thinking - Part 1

As the economy continues to implode and news headlines blare the numbers of people unemployed, the number of homes in foreclosure, the lines of hungry people at food pantries and the lack of shoppers at local stores, I find the numbers to be boggling. There are no numbers in the hundreds—everything is at least thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, millions and even billions. And yet each unit in these numbers is actually a person, and we cannot lose sight of the human stories in these numbers.

A situation of this magnitude requires bold and creative thinking, which is so far, in my estimation, in short supply from those who have the power to make things happen on a grand scale: government and corporations. The creativity and boldness that will actually begin to solve our economic problems needs to arise from an entirely different frame than we have used in the past. We need to use a “commons” frame to solve our problems. We often think of the commons as something that exists which we need to take care of, something fragile and easily broken. And, for large swaths of the commons, this is accurate: wilderness, oceans, and air are just three examples of the commons that are polluted, privatized and damaged right now. But the commons is also an approach to problems, and here commons thinking is proactive and cutting edge.

For your holiday thinking, in this blog post and the next one, I will give two brief ideas for how to solve some economic problems on a grand scale, using commons thinking. Commons thinking puts the common good at the center and asks how can all systems be designed or reformed to serve this good? How can all systems and structures insure that all people, (and if not all, then most) have what they need in terms of housing, health care, education, food, work, and so on?

Davindar Kaur, Communications Officer for Share the World’s Resources, an NGO advocating for essential resources such as food, water and energy to be shared internationally, proposes this to address world hunger:
The current economic system, based on ever-increasing economic growth as the overarching solution to fighting poverty, is both ineffective and unsustainable. The key to tackling poverty and inequality must come from a change in principles and priorities from which practical steps can be taken to put long-term structures in place. One such solution would be to define and redistribute essential resources in order to immediately secure basic human needs. The universal right to a life of dignity and survival has long been enshrined in article 25 of the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights which states that "everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services."

There is no reason why 967 million people should go to bed hungry every day. The problem is not defined by a scarcity of food, but by the insufficient access to resources for millions of the world's poor who lack the necessary purchasing power to survive.

To immediately reduce inequality and end extreme poverty, a new international mechanism is required which can facilitate a greater economic sharing of essential resources. The most critical of these are land, basic agricultural produce, water, energy and essential medicines, which together need to be defined, withdrawn and protected from international markets and no longer traded by multinational corporations.

A similar initiative was supported by over 100 civil society organisations at the recent WTO talks. Bolivia, Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua presented a proposal to remove healthcare, education, water, telecommunications and energy from the WTO "on the basis that these essential public services are human rights which governments have an obligation to provide, and should not be treated as tradable commodities."

Although the UN is in need of considerable reform, it should play a lead role in redistributing essential resources. It is the only international body with the experience, expertise and financial resources to initiate and coordinate such a crucial program. A new body within the UN needs to be responsible for a short-term emergency relief program to address the urgent needs of the 50,000 people who die each day from poverty, of which 30,000 are children. Simultaneously, a long-term program could begin to coordinate securing the wider basic needs of the global public.

Campaigning for the redistribution of essential resources, rather than just more aid or fairer trade, is the first vital step to securing the basic needs of the world community.
Ms. Kaur’s proposal calls for essential resources to be in the commons and not in the market. You can read her entire article on CommonDreams.

Tomorrow, some proposals to address our domestic problems…..stay tuned.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Political History of Soil (and the soiled history of geography)

I just spent two days at Tuskegee University at a conference of a wonderful organization called The Black Belt Community Foundation. I am privileged to be working with them on their fundraising efforts. They are just four years old, committed to raising money in order to support nonprofit and community economic development in 12 counties in central Alabama. (At this exact moment I am in Montgomery, which is not in the Black Belt, but I am just hanging out here waiting for a plane.)

Coming down here to work with them has put me in touch with a field of study I only learned about a few years ago called “cultural geography.” This field has existed for some time, and my lack of awareness of it speaks to my need to get out more! I believe this field has a great deal to contribute to the commons. Here is an example of what we can learn by examining something from a cultural geography viewpoint.

Pose a question such as “why are these counties called ‘the black belt’?

The answer, supplied in this case by Allen Tullos of Emory University in an essay you can read online in the Southern Spaces journal, says, “Half of Alabama's enslaved population was concentrated within ten Black Belt counties where the exploitation of their labor made this one of the richest regions in the antebellum United States.

Tullos goes on to quote Booker T. Washington, who wrote in 1901:
I have often been asked to define the term 'Black Belt.' So far as I can learn, the term was first used to designate a part of the country which was distinguished by the colour of the soil. The part of the country possessing this thick, dark, and naturally rich soil was, of course, the part of the South where the slaves were most profitable, and consequently they were taken there in the largest numbers. Later, and especially since the war, the term seems to be used wholly in a political sense - that is, to designate the counties where the black people outnumber the white.
Christian Neal McNeil (a blogger from Portland, ME) notes that as we look at our recent presidential election, more than one hundred years later, the "black belt" still contains a high concentration of African Americans, who, as a demographic group, voted overwhelmingly in favor of Barack Obama. Below is a county by county map from the New York Times website showing the political results of this geographical and historical set of circumstances. Primarily red states with bands of blue counties.

McNeil says, “To review so far: the blue counties can be explained by the black population, whose ancestors were brought there because of white supremacy, and black soil. But how did the soil get there, and why is it in this unusual crescent-shaped band? In an essay on the area's ecology, Joe MacGown, Richard Brown, and JoVonn Hill of the Mississippi Entomological Museum write that "the entire region is underlain by Selma Chalk formed from Upper Cretaceous marine deposits. Depending on the exact consistency of the parent material, the chalk weathers into a variety of soil types which supports a mosaic of habitats ranging from prairie to forest." Here's their map of this geological formation:

To read a complete essay on this whole thing as well as to be referred to other sources, go to Christian Neal McNeil’s bog, “The Vigorous North” (and check out why he calls it that—not why you would think!)

What does this have to do with the commons? Soil, particularly topsoil, is a part of the commons. We all need that which grows in soil, and one of the more interesting movements in many cities around the world is the movement for community gardens. Take a piece of land (often a vacant lot), bring all the neighbors out, plant and harvest food, flowers, fruit, etc. Many of these community gardens are in very poor neighborhoods in cities and the garden gives a small measure of food security, and a greater measure of making a neighborhood a community. Some of the biggest fights historically and currently are over who owns, and who should own, what is under the soil. Think coal, oil, water, diamonds, gold.

History, I think everyone would agree, is part of the commons, and the history of geography contributes our discussion about who should own what. In the case of the Black Belt counties, we are reminded of a time in America when owning property also included owning people. And although slavery is illegal, we have yet to fully discuss the nature of ownership. What can be owned? By whom? There is often a stark contrast between what we agree we can own and our basic values. Racism, poverty and environmental degradation can all be linked to questions about ownership and stewardship, the fundamental questions of the commons.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Unemployment relief or tax breaks?

I read a lot, and mostly serious nonfiction…mostly. But I also read People when I am getting my hair cut or my teeth cleaned and I read Parade magazine every Sunday. This Sunday, in between reading some short items called “Personality Parade” (such as Whoopi Goldberg has a significant other but won’t say anything about this person even to Barbara Walters, or speculating as to why Tom Selleck has never made it on the Big Screen) and a longer article about Clint Eastwood who has just turned 78, I came across this very short item:

Unemployment Funds at Risk

Nineteen states—including New York, Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina—are in danger of running out of money to pay unemployment benefits. Michigan has already drained its state fund and is $340 million in debt. Unemployment benefits are paid from a tax charged to businesses. But so many people currently are unemployed that benefit payments exceed employer contributions.

During the 2001 recession, the federal government gave $8 billion to replenish state unemployment accounts nationwide. But many states use the money to lower taxes instead. Now they may have to reduce benefits, redefine who is eligible, or require that recipients do a certain number of job searches or be out of work for a set number of weeks before they get any money.

‘The financial picture is looking pretty dismal,” says Sujit CanagaRetna of the Council of State Governments. “Perhaps states will learn this time that they need to replenish funds during strong economic years to have enough cash on hand to cope with a downturn.’
(Parade, Dec 7, 2008, pg 9)

I had to read it twice. States used federal money (which comes from taxpayers) earmarked for unemployment benefits to lower taxes. And of course, lower taxes for who or what? The unemployed? Well, hardly. The poor? Not likely since really poor people may be gouged by sales tax but usually don’t pay much or any income tax. Without doing a lot of research I can’t say who received these tax benefits, but based on history I imagine it was wealthy people and corporations.

So the spokesperson for the Council of State Governments, perhaps following the adage that one should lead with a joke, notes that the financial picture is “pretty dismal,” and goes on to advise putting money away during strong economic years. But the problem is that some of these states such as Michigan and Ohio haven’t had any strong economic years in years. And the other problem is the premise that the economy must go up and down in these dramatic ways, leaving people without jobs, also often without health insurance and many in homes they can no longer afford. Why do we take this for granted?

Can we not imagine an economy built around people, not profit? Can the Council of State Governments propose solutions more creative than “save for a rainy day?” How about employing everyone who wants to be employed, which would give us an unemployment rate of about 3%? And finally, what are the consequences for using tax money for purposes other than what it was supposed to be used for? In a nonprofit, a foundation or a government grant must be used according to the grant agreement or the money must be given back. I can’t expect Parade magazine to answer all these questions, but they are certainly as interesting as wondering if Madonna and Sean Penn will ever get back together.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Papers and Public Schools

I spent some of this weekend reading the various newspapers my partner and I somehow get. We subscribe to the San Francisco Chronicle, which is not a very good paper, but is the best paper San Francisco offers, being as it the only daily and Sunday newspaper left in that city.

We get the West County Times, which, despite its names, covers the whole county we live in (Alameda), the rest of the state and, in fact, the world. We get that paper because two young men came to our house a few months ago selling subscriptions. For each subscription they sold, they got points and with enough points, our local PUBLIC high school got to fund important programs such as art, music and the library. You can’t just hand the students money for these programs. They are forbidden from accepting cash. You have to subscribe to one or more of the various newspapers who are sponsoring this fundraiser. So, to support our public schools beyond the support we provide through taxes, we signed up.

We get the New York Times Sunday edition from our neighbor. She subscribes, but never reads most of the sections and so gives those to us right away on Sunday morning. Then, when she is done with the magazine section and the front section, she brings that over, usually Sunday afternoon.

I like how we get the Chronicle and the NY Times. Supporting our local newspaper is important to me and I am sad that newspapers will soon be a thing of the past. The Christian Science Monitor, which I have subscribed to for years, will go on-line this April. Will I go on-line with it? I don’t know. I understand the financial pressure papers are under and certainly I want to save trees. But I like a newspaper. I like to sit in my backyard and read it, or take it on the subway. I like cutting articles out of it to send to my mother, who is not on-line and never will be.

Getting the NY Times from our neighbor feels like a small consistent example of being in community, which is also important to me and fortunately is not a thing of the past. In fact, with all that is going on in the economy, I think community is very much a thing of the present and the future if we are to survive at all.

I don’t like that our public school students have to hawk newspapers to insure that their public school provides a modicum of education. The young men that came to my door should be studying or playing sports or working to earn money for college or just hanging out. It is the job of grown-ups to provide them with a public school education – grown-ups who pay sufficient taxes for that which is public to truly be public. As I filled out my subscription to the West County Times, I explained my philosophy to these polite but puzzled young men. They have never known a truly public school. They told me they have raised money for their schools all their lives. I told them that wasn’t necessary and when they are adults, they have make sure public schools are paid for by taxes, levied in a fair and just way. I think my words hit some kind of cord because as they walked away, one said to the other, “Not having to do this—that would be amazing.”

Monday, December 1, 2008

Yes we are

I watched the presidential election from Montreal, with people I have been friends with for about 15 years. Ironically, these were the friends I was staying with on Sept. 11, 2001. I had intended to be in Montreal for two days and, like most people who were travelling at that time, wound up being there for a week. As we watched the returns and became more and more certain (and joyful) that Obama was winning, I couldn’t help but compare the two days and nights. Sept. 11, 2001 was also near the beginning of President Bush’s first term. Immediately civil liberties and dissent were quelled. The expression, “Truth is the first casualty of war” came true almost as the towers came down.

I didn’t believe that Obama was really going to be the next president until McCain (graciously for a change) conceded, and I found myself breathing full deep breaths. Perhaps I thought, I had not taken a full breath since Bush was selected (not elected: let’s never use that word to describe his presidential triumph.)

At the conclusion of the McCain speech, horns started honking and people were shouting in the streets. I talked to my partner in NYC and could hardly hear her for the joyful shouting and screaming. All over the world, people were ecstatic.

And it hasn’t worn off. I am now back in Oakland and at every public intersection—subway stations, sidewalks, stoplights, strangers are smiling at each other. “How are you?” “Beautiful day.” “Take care.” All small talk, nothing too intense, but it feels different. It feels like we like each other and we are happy to live together in this very diverse city. And I catch a glimpse of a “commons-based society” in which people believe in the basic goodness of each other, and in which the profound sins of racism and poverty are being forgiven even as the lessons from them are being learned so as not to be repeated. A feeling of well-being pervades the streets even as the economy tanks, which is an amazing juxtaposition.

A friend says we must turn “Yes we can” into “Yes we will.” But in many important ways we are already saying, “Yes we are.”