Thursday, December 10, 2009

Creating Rough Social Equity

After a brief hiatus, which involved much travel on our part, we’re back for some end-of-the-year postings, which may help you start thinking about some new year resolutions! And now, from Kim Klein…

As I mentioned in my last post, there are a few concepts about the commons which seem to really grab people and one of them is the observation that in order to have a healthy commons, a society must have at least “rough social equity”, a phrase I borrowed from David Bollier. The distance between the richest people and the poorest cannot be vast. Access to health care cannot exist easily for some, with difficulty for others and not at all for millions of others. Parks must be an element of every neighborhood, not just wealthier ones. And so on.

The concept of “rough social equity” is a form of a commons lens which may help propose solutions to some of our nation’s largest problems. Here are just two examples:

The war in Viet Nam ended in large part because the American people (and people around the world) got sick of it, protested in huge gatherings, and toppled elected officials who were in favor of that war. Our current war is equally unpopular but much less protested and the difference is obvious: we don’t have a draft. We don’t have rough social equity. Those going off to fight join of “their own free will” because they see a chance to get an education, a job, possibly a pension. The price may be your legs, your sight, or your life, but people weigh their options and decide to go. A draft would have no exceptions. Everyone, man or woman, 18-25, would have to do some kind of national service. Conscientious objectors could work in hospitals and those who think war is sometimes necessary, but don’t believe in this war, could build bridges or repair roads at home. But everyone would have to serve: rich or poor, in college or not, friends of senators or friends of bus drivers. Rep. Charles Rangel of New York has maintained this position for years, and more recently Bill Moyers called for compulsory service. The minute there would be a draft, thousands of parents who lament the fate of the sons and daughters killed in the war, but do nothing beyond that, would hit the streets. Brothers, sisters, cousins, friends would be demonstrating, writing to congress, writing to the president and this war would end quickly. Would permanent compulsory service lead to world peace? No. But ending this war would be a step in the right direction.

Here is another example:

There is no rough social equity when people feel so small and unimportant that it is not even worth voting, or that their government is so inept or corrupt that voting is meaningless. In Australia, voting is mandatory. You are fined if you don’t show up to vote. To be sure, you can go in the voting machine and just stand there, and no one knows absolutely whether you VOTED or not, but you have to show up and sign in.

In California, people of color are the majority of the population, but older white people are the majority of the voters. Politicians aim their message at who votes. Laws and policies of these politicians tend to favor those who vote. But imagine what would happen when a politician would have to aim his or her message at every adult.

Rough social equity. Not perfect, but much better than what we have now.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rough Social Equity

We left the beautiful Blue Mountain Center on Thursday and three of us drove to the Albany Airport for our flights back to California. As we set in the terminal, we learned of the horrific shooting at Ft. Hood.

Since then, this event has dominated the news. Ft. Hood is the largest army base in the world, and the main place where troops are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The alleged gunman, Maj. Nidal Hasan, is a psychiatrist. Much has been made of the fact that Maj. Hasan is a Muslim. Many Muslim organizations have condemned the killing and many elected officials as well as military brass have been very clear that any backlash against Muslims will not be tolerated and is not acceptable. They have to speak out because immediately the media speculated as to whether Hasan is a terrorist, and various right wing commentators made much of Maj. Hasan’s religious identity.

When Bernie Madoff made off with $50 billion, several elderly Jewish friends of mine said, “Oh, this is bad for the Jews.” I wondered what they were talking about, but then saw news reports and heard people on the street say things like, “He screwed his own people” and “Jews will cheat their grandmother for enough money.”

When the killings at Virginia Tech happened, a great deal was made of the fact the killer was a Korean immigrant, and both Korean and immigrant organizations had to condemn the killings. Everyone had to listen to speculation about the relationship of being this kind of killer to being an immigrant and/or to being Korean.

I was struck (not for the first time) how privileged I am to be a Methodist, not because I think Methodism is superior to any other religious affiliation, but because whenever there is a horrific crime, I never think, “I hope it wasn’t a Methodist.” Reporters, as they give the name and background of the person, never say, “He was raised a Methodist” or “He was becoming an increasingly radical Methodist with ties to Methodist groups around the world.”

What does this story have to do with the commons? I pondered that on the way home. We know that to have a healthy commons, a society must have “rough social equity.” The gaps between rich and poor cannot be too extreme; the treatment of one kind of people cannot be completely different than the treatment of another kind. The living conditions, education, access to nature and so on cannot be completely different from one part of a community (or a nation) to another.

Rough social equity requires that people accused of crimes be treated equally. We routinely say what religious faith or race or age is in describing them, or we routinely don’t. But we don’t say someone is African American if we don’t also note when someone is Irish American and we don’t say someone is a Catholic unless we also say that someone else is a Quaker. Of course, in this “war on terror” we are trained to focus on Maj. Hasan’s faith as a possible explanation of his crime, but not on the much more logical explanation that something was very wrong in the military he served and perhaps it was his faith that kept him from snapping sooner.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Day Two at Blue Mountain Center

Day two at Blue Mountain Center dawned bright, clear and bacon free! We opened with a discussion about how health care can be viewed through the lens of the Commons. Messaging research has shown us that most Americans think about health care from a consumer perspective. We spent the morning exploring the challenges of breaking free of the dominant frame.

Following this we jumped into a report from Detroit which focused on healthy communities, and expanded on the conversation from the morning, which led to the connection that the health of a community is much more than just health care. Detroiters are crossing boundaries by using the Commons to connect across issue areas. As private ownership is on the rise, groups are coming together to lay claim to what is commonly held or should be.

We ended the day with an update on the progress of the Common Security Club process one year out from its launch. More than 100 small groups have participated in the process and we had the opportunity to experience parts of the curriculum and discuss its future implications.

We head home tomorrow and will update you on what we’ve learned in the coming weeks.

Highlights from participants include:

Kim Klein: When reflecting on the games we played I was reminded how important it is to question the rules and the authority associated with who sets the rules and why we follow them. Questioning our assumptions is an important part of promoting a commons based framework.

Stephanie Roth: During the health care discussion, it was pointed out that the health of the community is more than just health care—clean air, clean water, jobs, access to healthy food and transportation—all of these things contribute to the overall health of the community.

Robby Rodriguez: Hearing Lottie talk about the digital justice work in Detroit and its relation to the commons highlighted for me the right to communicate as a fundamental piece of a healthy community.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Day One at Blue Mountain Center

We started the morning with a delicious breakfast (fantastic bacon and the oatmeal was ‘da bomb’) and then Kim started us off with a description of the Building Movement Project’s work on the Commons. The theme was time, and how time to think must be reclaimed. It’s equal for all of us, but our leisure time has been under attack since the 1920s. The United States is second only to Korea in number of hours worked, so how then can we find the time to envision creative solutions to our current problems.

After the morning discussion with Kim, the team from OnTheCommons (OTC) discussed the work they’ve been doing over the last few years. They talked about how the work has shifted from understanding and defining the Commons, towards lifting up and creating transformational systems change. They also shared some great historical examples of commons-based thinking gaining prominence in the U.S – from the agrarian progressive movement of the early 1900s to the co-ops and communes of the 1960s.

We ended the day with a presentation on the budget and tax crisis in California, and how it’s really an issue of the Commons. A group of activists and legislators has formed a network in the state to engage nonprofits in a conversation about the broken tax structure in the state. The presenters tested out some exercises that they plan to introduce as part of a curriculum on talking about taxes.

Highlights from the participants include:

Lottie Spady (EMEAC): It struck me when Kim shared a quote from Dorothy Day’s mentor, “There is a need to create a society in which it is not that hard to be good,” so that we don’t need to be altruistic, beg, borrow, or steal.

Caroline McAndrews (Building Movement Project): People mentioned several times that we are in a pivotal moment in history and what we do now will determine the trajectory over the next decade. Kim mentioned a similar moment in the late 20’s when developed nations had the capacity to meet the world’s needs and could have chosen to share those skills with the world, but instead chose to create a culture of waste. That was a really powerful image for me.

Ellen Wu (CPEHN): I really liked the phrase “imagine and co-create.” It opened up the possibilities for the afternoon.

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld (Center for Community Change, BMP Project Team member): The charts and visualizations that OnTheCommons used to illustrate the gap between how bad things are getting highlighted the fact that time is running out to make change, but that the possibilities for transforming dominant ideologies are wide open.

We leave you with a quote Kim mentioned in her talk this morning:
“Our vocation is to be fully human. But what if we discover that our present way of life is irreconcilable with our vocation?” Paolo Freire

More tomorrow!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Away this week

This week we will be in upstate New York at Blue Mountain Center discussing "The Applied Commons: Exploring Commons-Based Solutions to Pressing Social Problems."

Our goal for the meeting is to leave with a group of tools, exercises, and discussion ideas that we can all test in our own work and communities – even those of us who are not directly working on commons issues. To this end, we’ve invited not only folks working directly on commons issues, but also practitioners, trainers, and organizers who don’t necessarily define their work as “commons” work. We hope that the combination will allow us to break through some of the barriers that have arisen using this framework, as well as develop tools that can be tested in the coming year.

We will be blogging from the meeting with updates and interesting questions that come up and look forward to sharing the results when we return.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Retirement USA

Last week, the Building Movement Project signed on as a supporter of Retirement USA, a national initiative that is working for a new retirement system that, along with Social Security, will provide universal, secure, and adequate income for future retirees. Convened by five organizations - the AFL-CIO, the Economic Policy Institute, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, the Pension Rights Center, and the Service Employees International Union - the initiative has developed 12 Principles for a New Retirement System which provide a framework for a future system in which employers, workers, and the government would share responsibility for the retirement security for all American workers.

We'd like to share them here as an example of a commons-based approach to retirement, and encourage you to find out more and support the initiative:

Principles for a New Retirement System

Universal Coverage. Every worker should be covered by a retirement plan. A new retirement system that supplements Social Security should include all workers unless they are in plans that provide equally secure and adequate benefits.

Secure Retirement. Retirement shouldn’t be a gamble. Workers should be able to count on a steady lifetime stream of retirement income to supplement Social Security.

Adequate Income. Everyone should be able to have an adequate retirement income after a lifetime of work. The average worker should have sufficient income, together with Social Security, to maintain a reasonable standard of living in retirement.


Shared Responsibility. Retirement should be the shared responsibility of employers, employees and the government.

Required Contributions. Employers and employees should be required to contribute a specified percentage of pay, and the government should subsidize the contributions of lower-income workers.

Pooled Assets. Contributions to the system should be pooled and professionally managed to minimize costs and financial risks.

Payouts Only at Retirement. No withdrawals or loans should be permitted before retirement, except for permanent disability.

Lifetime Payouts. Benefits should be paid out over the lifetime of retirees and any surviving spouses, domestic partners, and former spouses.

Portable Benefits. Benefits should be portable when workers change jobs.

Voluntary Savings. Additional voluntary contributions should be permitted, with reasonable limits for tax-favored contributions.

Efficient and Transparent Administration. The system should be administered by a governmental agency or by private, non-profit institutions that are efficient, transparent, and governed by boards of trustees that include employer, employee, and retiree representatives.

Effective Oversight. Oversight of the new system should be by a single government regulator dedicated solely to promoting retirement security.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Role of Government and Nonprofits in Culture

People who work for nonprofits in the United States often operate from a frame of scarce resources. The starting point is “There isn’t enough money to go around.” Now to be sure, this frame is not created from nothing—this is the lived experience for a lot of nonprofits. But the problem is when you start with “not enough” then you immediately have to go to arguing why one kind of nonprofit is more important than another. The questions become absurd very quickly: are hungry children more important than the symphony? Are homeless adults more important than homeless cats? Are homeless children more important than hungry adults? Recently a right wing organization in California, arguing that water ought not to be regulated, declared that California’s legislators cared more about “a fish that is smaller than the palm of your hand” than the well being of farmers. But in fact, the well being of this fish is an indicator of the health of the water and polluted water will not grow good crops.

But what happens in a country where that type of juxtaposition is not in play? According to the Christian Science Monitor, (Sept. 27, 2009), German doctors are experimenting with a new kind of preventive medicine: prescribing culture for children. (Of course, Germany has universal health care.) For example, in North Rhine-Westphalia, every child ages 7-15 who goes in for a check-up comes out with two free tickets to the theater. The program is called “Culture Shot” and encourages pediatricians “to support children’s 'physical, emotional, and intellectual health,'" says Hermann-Josef Kahl, who is spearheading the program. The program rests on a simple, (but not terribly American) insight: Culture fosters better health habits. Exposure to culture helps people want to be better educated and better educated people generally have a healthier life. (Germany has universal education also.)

So far this program is being paid for privately by the Association of Pediatricians. There are 180 Children and Youth Theaters in Germany, so there are plenty of shows for kids to go to. (Germany has a lot of government support for the arts). Stefan Fischer, head of the Dusseldorf Children and Youth Theater, calls the concept “revolutionary.” He says, “The project makes clear that culture is a basic nutrient and not a luxury.”

Instead of scarce resources, imagine nonprofits having a common belief that everyone should experience theater regardless of family or social background. And imagine a nonprofit sector that insisted that government do its job to make health care, education and culture were universally available. This imagining exercise is not just to pass the time: remember that Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Round-up & Analysis on Prof. Ostrom's Nobel Prize

By now, everyone interested in the commons has probably heard of Professor Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics.

It seems that the Nobel Committee’s decision to award the prize to Prof. Ostrom came as a shock to economists. Apparently the odds of her winning the prize were 50-against to 1; she was all the way at the bottom of a list of roughly 30 potential candidates. She was such a sleeper candidate at least in part because she’s a political scientist not an economist, as Steven Levitt pointed out in his Freakonomics blog. But it was also the focus of her work that kept her off the radar of traditional economists; a number of economist-bloggers confessed to having to look Prof. Ostrom up on wikipedia to even figure out what she works on. I shouldn’t be too hard on the economists though … I didn’t know who Prof. Ostrom was either, but am so glad that the Nobel Committee introduced her to us.

The Royal Swedish Academy wrote that Ostrom has “challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be completely privatized or regulated by central authorities.” Apparently this is a radical critique of economic orthodoxy. See, there’s this economic theory called “the tragedy of the commons” that supposes that when faced with a commonly held resource, the greed of rational actors will compel them to use up that resource. For instance, farmers with access to local grazing land have an incentive to let their cattle feed as much as possible, but if every farmer takes this maximum-feeding course there won’t be any grass left and everyone’s cattle will suffer. The traditional opposing options for dealing with this “tragedy” are either “let the best farmer win” (thereby depleting the grass) or regulate the behavior of the farmers. Obviously these extremes of unfettered consumption or rationing are straw men for either side of these debates over limited shared resources, and Prof. Ostrom’s work explains how a middle-ground of maintaining the commons actually works.

At the same time, her work straddles the “divide between libertarian and left politics in very interesting ways that challenge some of the underlying assumptions of both” – and also mean that people unfamiliar with her work (like myself) are reading into her theory what they want. For instance, a blogger for the Harvard Business School (who confessed to having to look Ostrom up) interprets Ostrom’s work as positing that “just because a market is declared to have failed, we don’t have to default reflexively to government regulation as the only solution.” That seems like a conveniently anti-government view, but I’m sure that activist-types (like myself) over-emphasize her focus on bottom-up and locally-based processes for ensuring the sustainability of our water, forests and other shared resources.

In addition to WHAT Prof. Ostrom has studied, her process is also apparently a radical departure from traditional economics. Instead of relying on the complex theoretical and statistical models that did nothing to forecast or prevent this current recession, Prof. Ostrom developed her theory based on observation of how the commons has been preserved around the world. It’s ironic that Ostrom’s fieldwork would be a radical departure for economics since the whole “tragedy of the commons” theory was actually developed by a biologist. Still the fact that Ostrom has distinguished herself by developing theory based on what is (or is not) working in the field reflects the work and orientation of the Building Movement Project (home of this website and work on the commons).

As advocates for commons-based thinking, I’m sure that we are going to be reading a lot of Prof. Ostrom’s body of work in the common months (at least those of us who hadn’t already); but we should also take another lesson from her and document our own examples of the commons at work.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nobel prizes for the commons

The New York Times ran a piece yesterday on Elinor Ostrom and Oliver E. Williamson, winners of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

Of particular note:
“Conservatives used the tragedy of the commons to argue for property rights, and efficiency was achieved as people were thrown off the commons,” said Joseph E. Stiglitz of Columbia University, a Nobel laureate in economics himself. “But the effects of throwing a lot of people out of their livelihood were enormous. What Ostrom has demonstrated is the existence of social control mechanisms that regulate the use of commons without having to resort to property rights.”

Ms. Ostrom’s work deals in the concept of “commons” shared by a number of people who earn their living from a common resource and have a stake, therefore, in preserving it. Her most recent research has focused on relatively small forests in undeveloped countries. Groups of people share the right to harvest lumber from a particular forest, and so they have a stake in making sure the forest survives.
Check back on Thursday for a round-up and more analysis on how people are viewing this achievement.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Poverty and the Commons

The Coalition for Human Needs issued a release (PDF) this week compiling very grim poverty statistics and showing that things are simply getting worse for our nation’s poorest residents, a number that is growing daily and as always, disproportionately affects children.

Here is some of what they had to say:
Today's Census Bureau report that the number of Americans living in poverty increased by nearly 2.6 million to 13.2 percent in 2008 is a stark reminder of the toll the recession was already taking on families even before the economic picture worsened this year.

Last year's 39.8 million poor people comprise the highest number of Americans living in poverty since 1960. …. Unemployment averaged 5.8 percent last year compared with the August rate of 9.7 percent. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that assuming an average unemployment rate of 9.3 percent for 2009, poverty would increase to 14.7 percent. Higher unemployment will hit children disproportionately hard. Their poverty is expected to rise from 19 percent in 2008 to 25 percent this year, which translates into one in four children living in poverty.

In a family of three that means trying to provide children with a roof over their heads, adequate health care and a nutritious diet on an annual income of $17,163. Still worse, the proportion of children living below half the poverty line ($8,600 for a family of three) is rising steeply, from 6.4 percent in 2000 to 8.5 percent in 2008.

As I read this, I thought that people get into poverty and stay there because of lack of health insurance, lack of decent paying jobs, poor schools, and so on—the list is long. And all these things are related to poor tax policy. But what makes poverty so grinding and grim is that things which should be free, accessible, available to all are not nearly common enough. Things like safe and beautiful public parks sprinkled throughout all neighborhoods, libraries with banks of computers, books, magazines, rooms for small children to play while their parents send out resumes, with people standing by to help you use the resources there, community gardens where people grow their own food and share with their neighbors, and so on: that list also goes on and on.

I am in Montreal right now. Here there is rule that everyone has to be within walking distance of a public pool (which costs $2 to get into) and there are pools all over the city, even though you can only swim a few months of the year. Here there are banks of bicycles, which you can rent for $5 for 24 hours. These bicycle stands are all over the city, so you can rent a bike in one place and return it in another. The bikes are very nice and well maintained. And of course I am in a province that has universal health care and universal child care. Quebec has a lot of issues, and has some poverty. It is not perfect.

But what I am struck by every time I come to Canada is that we in the United States could have all of this, and more. We are just as smart, just as creative, and in many places we have better weather! All we have to do is make “the common good” our paradigm: to maintain and expand the commons and to demand fair and just taxation.

Will we do it? Or would we rather know that every time we see a bunch of small children gathered together, 25% of them are not getting enough nutrition, their parents don’t have health insurance, and their housing is probably substandard.

Yesterday someone asked me very innocently and not rhetorically, “What will it take to change your country?” I hope one of out of four children is enough.

For more information:
Click here for key points about the grim poverty and health insurance trends (PDF)
Click here for a first fast look at the national poverty and health insurance data (PDF)
You can also find national and state poverty, health insurance, and household income data and analyses on the Coalition on Human Needs website.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ethos of Personal Responsibility the Enemy of Commons-Based Thinking?

Yesterday, Gallup released new poll results showing that majorities (61%) of Americans say that “Americans themselves – rather than the government – have the primary responsibility for ensuring that they have health insurance.” Certainly, this reflects Americans’ long-standing skepticism over the role of government, but it also reflects a decline seen in other national polls in the belief that health care should be a government responsibility.

In some other polls, the decrease in support for the view that healthcare for all should be a governmental responsibility has declined pretty dramatically in the last year. In polls by both NYT/CBS and Fox News, support for the notion that healthcare should be the government’s responsibility fell from the mid-60% range down to 51% just in the months since Obama’s inauguration. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this decline has happened while healthcare reform – and a public alternative to private health insurance – has been the subject of heated debate in Congress and angry town hall meetings.

As progressive commentators have noted, part of the argument of the opponents of healthcare reform has been that the 47 million Americans without health insurance are deadbeats and that their tax dollars shouldn’t be used to provide for something [those people] should be providing for themselves.

This kind of victim blaming is antithetical to commons-based thinking, and has real impacts on American’s views on issues. This isn’t to say that personal responsibility has no place in the commons, but that a balance of personal and collective responsibility is what’s needed.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Budget Crisis at UC Berkeley

A friend sent us an update about the teach-in at UC Berkeley, which is part of the protests surrounding the budget crisis at UC Berkeley. All framed around the importance of the public common, Ananya Roy's speech was especially poignant:

You can find more speeches at the CalCommunity channel on You Tube.

For more information on the budget situation, visit Berkeley News.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

We're #37

A friend of mine sent me this music video on youtube by musician and actor Paul Hipp. It cheekily celebrates the US position at #37 in the world in healthcare.

We’ve talked about healthcare’s role in the commons several times on this blog, but there’s nothing like you tube to illustrate shortcomings as a nation.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Who owns my seeds?

When I talk about “the commons” to people unfamiliar with the concept, I often use examples that seem very obvious to me, such as water and air. Many people are familiar with water wars and how Coca-Cola, Vivendi and other multi-nationals have bought water rights, or how towns and cities have to fight to keep their water systems publicly owned, and how many people have lost that fight. Air presents a different problem, since no one can own the air, but because of that, corporations can dump pollution into the air for free. Still it’s something that people easily grasp as part of the commons.

One example of the commons that people are often surprised is even an issue is seeds. If I buy tomato seeds and grow tomatoes, it seems obvious that if I wanted to, I could keep seeds from some of my tomatoes and plant them next year – ditto for corn, rice, wheat or whatever. In fact for most of the world’s history, this is exactly how crops were grown—seeds from one crop became the plants for next year.

Enter Monsanto to whom the right to keep my own seeds and plant them next year is not at all obvious. What is obvious to them is that they should own all seeds and that people should have to buy seeds from them every year. As of this year, here in the United States, Monsanto – through acquisitions and cut-throat business practices – has cornered 90% of the soy, 65% of the corn, and 70% of the cotton markets, and has a rapidly growing presence in the fruit and vegetable markets. Monsanto seeds are sold all over the world, but here in the United States, we theoretically have anti-trust laws to prevent this kind of thing. Further, in order to be as productive as possible, Monsanto's seeds need the toxic herbicide, Roundup, which is also owned by Monsanto. And, as the final nail in farmers’ coffins, Monsanto raised its prices 42% on its most popular genetically modified seeds, which in many areas of the country are the only ones available.

So far there has not been a peep from the Obama administration about this clear and flagrant abuse of anti-trust laws. I am sure that this is partly due to the fact that most people who are not farmers could never imagine the notion of owning seeds, let alone owning almost all of them, and so there is little outcry. David Bollier says that the preeminent task of our day is recognizing all the commons in our midst and certainly this is an excellent example.

For more information and to send a letter to President Obama's antitrust chief Christine Varney, visit

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Commons and Community Gardening in Detroit

The Nation has a great article about the local foods movement in Detroit written by movement-legend Grace Lee Boggs. She calls this movement a “quiet revolution” and describes the ways that it’s transforming one of the nation’s most suffering cities. At the same time, this story from Detroit has much to say about the notion of the commons broadly.

Detroit has been dealt a one-two punch by decades of deindustrialization and the economic crisis of the last few years. And on top of concerns about joblessness, crumbling schools and the racism and brutality of the criminal justice system, Detroiters have to worry about food too!

Even if a family had enough money to budget for healthful foods, much of Detroit (like many other inner city neighborhoods) is a “food dessert,” with no grocery stores or fresh fruits and vegetables in sight. But instead of relying on the corner stores and bodegas that sell the pre-packaged foods (loaded with carbs and synthetic ingredients derived from our nation’s huge corn subsidies) that contribute to our comunities' obesity epidemic, activists and organizers in Detroit have been seeding community gardens throughout the city.

Community gardening is a simple intervention that addresses multiple challenges at once. As Grace Lee Boggs mentions in her article, urban farming is helping communities reclaim and repurpose vacant lots, thereby transforming urban blight into a shared resource. Detroit Summer, the program Boggs founded more than 15 years ago, also capitalizes on the potential of gardening to rebuild a sense of community, or as she puts it “respirit” Detroit.

This notion of “respiriting” seems to be the heart of what other activists and thinkers have called “the commons.” Grace Lee Boggs writes about self-reliance, reconnecting children and adults, and community, but nowhere in the article does the words “common” and “commons” appear. Of course, movements aren’t based on terms but on ideas, so it probably doesn’t matter whether the word 'commons' gets used. However, it IS critical that the many examples of ‘the commons’ are told in a way that connects them together. We need to develop and share a story of the commons that crosses lines of race and geography. And what Grace Lee Boggs and other activists in Detroit are doing is a critical chapter of that larger story of commons-building.

Friday, September 4, 2009

How far will we go to avoid taxes?

I have lived in California off and on (mostly on) since 1976. I came here attracted by what attracts everyone: the unbelievable variety of natural beauty, free thinking, lots of sunshine, fresh fruit and vegetables, and the ocean. Over the years, like all Californians, I brushed off the jokes: “all the fruits and nuts drift to California,” and the expressions, “that’s SO California” (which refers to anything new age) or “You’re not in California right now” when I would say something left of center and act like most people would agree. California has produced more than its share of characters with major impact: from Richard Nixon to Timothy Leary, Ronald Reagan to Ram Dass. Much of this is a function of size—we are the third largest landmass and, at 38 million people, we are the most populous state; bigger than many countries including Canada.

For a state with a very liberal reputation, we have voted for some of the most conservative and oppressive legislation in the country: against gay marriage, for “three strikes” which puts people in prison for life after three felonies, often against immigrants, affirmative action, and almost always, against taxes.

Our anti-tax stand now threatens everything that we hold dear as we have no money to pay for anything. All domestic violence funding—cut entirely. Cal-Works, a very successful welfare to work program—cut entirely. Guaranteed health care for uninsured children—cut. And the list goes on.

But possibly the most absurd set of cuts is of the state parks, 80% of which are to be closed. 100 public parks are to be closed to the public. And if an enterprising member of the public is found in a closed park, he or she will receive a hefty fine. Our physical commons is enclosed and we are to be fined if we enter our commons. Of course, few people will be fined since those who have the authority to fine us have lost their jobs. It is hard to believe that the cost of closing the parks (which are not fenced, and except for a few, don’t even have main gates that can be locked) and patrolling the closed parks would not be equal or greater to keeping them open and calling for the public to help take care of them. And that the damage that will result from closing the parks, and thus opening to fairly unmonitored criminal activity, increasing fire danger from unmaintained trails, and the like, will take far more money to clean up and repair. The savings will be negligible and the damage possibly permanent.

Tax cuts rarely actually save money for the public. They enclose our commons and they only allow very wealthy people and corporations to become wealthier. The sooner we understand the absurdity of saving money by cutting taxes, the sooner we can actually become the state (and eventually the nation) that people imagine: welcoming to all, with high quality schools and health care, well paying jobs, and vast protected natural beauty beckoning visitors to come and appreciate.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Financial Literacy is a Key to Reform

According to a study commissioned by the National Council on Economic Education, only 7 of the 50 United States require high school students to received financial education in the schools. This has led to an epidemic of financial illiteracy. For example, Braun Mincher, a financial literacy specialist reported these results from an online survey he administered:
  • only 50% of those surveyed knew that property tax and mortgage interest are tax deductible
  • only 33% knew that APR stands for “annual percentage rate”
  • only 32% could name the required deductions that are taken from their paycheck.
I remember spending hours learning (or trying to learn) to understand calculus or trigonometry, but I have no memory of spending five minutes learning how to shop for insurance or how to balance my checkbook or how to decide whether I could afford a vacation. Some of this may have been covered in “Home Economics” but I skipped that class as often as possible because I could not learn how to operate the sewing machine.

I bring this up because I am constantly puzzling about how to make taxes seem interesting to people and I think part of the problem is that most people understand very little about their own finances, and asking them to understand the various kinds of taxes attached to almost every financial transaction is just beyond the realm of possibility.

For example, many progressive tax reformers suggest getting rid of the mortgage interest deduction because it is wildly regressive, with far greater deductions going to high wage earners. The tax savings for households earning more than $250,000 is 10 times the tax savings for households earning between $40,000 and $75,000 a year, according to recent research by James Poterba and Todd Sinai. The deduction may encourage people to buy bigger and more expensive homes than they can afford, and it does not really help a low income person buy a home. Canada does not have a mortgage interest deduction. There are good arguments in favor of the deduction also, but all of this is moot if no one understands mortgage interest in the first place.

Ditto for the discussion about whether capital gains should be taxed less, the same as, or more than, income. Since most people don’t know how it is taxed now, (far less than income) or how it was taxed under President Eisenhower (more than income), they will not be able to join the debate.

And without robust, vibrant, knowledgeable debate about taxes and tax policy, we will stay a nation that claims to believe in equality, but in practice implements systems that on a daily basis make a minority of people richer and richer and the majority poorer and poorer. Financial literacy may be the needed first step for any real meaningful reform.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Paying for pollution

Today’s morning paper had this headline, “Fish Fail Mercury Test” with the subhead, “Toxin found in 100 percent of samples from streams across the U.S.; industrial pollution blamed.”

Basically, a federal study of mercury contamination released Wednesday described testing fish from nearly 300 streams across the country and finding mercury in EVERY SINGLE FISH of over the 1,000 fish that were examined. In what was apparently supposed to pass as the good news in this story, the Federal study also noted that ONLY 25% of fish had mercury levels exceeding what the Environmental Protection Agency says is safe for people eating “average” amounts of fish. The EPA defines average as about one fish meal every two weeks, which is far less than many people living on the east and west coast would eat, and a fraction of what many Asian Americans eat.

To me, this kind of study reinforces the fact that water must be seen as part of the commons, and our water commons has been enclosed by pollution. In order to clean up water (and air, and over a long period of time, fish), corporations must be required to pay for the total cost of all they produce, from acquisition to disposal. Waste created by production of goods (or in this case energy, as most of the mercury came from coal fired power plants) is called “externalities.” But many of us commoners believe that if industry had to take responsibility for the waste it produces, it would figure out how not to produce it. Simply trading carbon credits is not going to solve the waste problem ultimately. A high tax on waste and a high tax deduction on no-waste, and tax credits for waste reduction will cause corporations to use their research arms and their vast creativity to create clean ways to produce goods, and to recycle or re-use the by products of production.

The good news for me in this article? 100 percent. No one, no matter how rich or how protected, is safe from fish with mercury. No one can possibly eat fish from the United States that does not have at least a trace of mercury. I can only hope that this means that corporate owners, shareholders and the Congress people they support will look at their own children and want them to grow up healthy, smart and active, which is only really possible when water—a basic need—is pollution free.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

is the commons expanded by the death of newspapers?

An article in The New York Review of Books takes an in depth look at the shift in power away from newspapers and towards blogs. It's a shift with very nuanced and complex connections to the Commons.

In some ways the idea of democratizing the process and opportunity for disseminating analysis, opinions, news, etc., seems right up the alley of proponents of the Commons. Knowledge has the potential to be less proprietary on the internet, to be shared more widely. Bloggers emphasize their independence from the corporate-controlled media and break or elevate news that the mainstream media missed or ignored. So there could be benefits to the Commons created by the rise of online reporting and blogging.

But it also seems that there could be costs to the Commons. Because the internet is designed to be tailored to individual tastes, online news is much more fractured. People now get very different news -- or slants on "the news" -- depending on which individual blogs and bloggers they choose to follow. So the democratized distribution of news online may not strengthen our democracy or sense of holding things in common. Instead the phenomenon of web-based news could reinforce divisions by falling into opposing camps of "polemical excesses."

As is often the case, life isn't either/or. So, the Commons is probably being strengthened and expanded while also being undermined and endangered by the demise of newspapers and traditional news media. The challenge for the ascendant online news-makers is considering how to serve the common good; not through a return to a milquetoast news media, but so that some commonalities are enhanced and cultivated not just animosities and misinformation.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

There goes the neighborhood...

My mother and a few of her neighbors spent about three years working with the Planning Board, the Historical Society and the City Council in her community to get their neighborhood declared “historic.” The homes in the neighborhood are old, most are relatively small on nice lots, and now the law says that nothing on the front of the house can be changed. This prevents what is common in other neighborhoods in this town: adding a second story or building out to the full footprint of the lot.

This effort was a huge fight. People opposed to historic designation called the group my mother spearheaded “the gang of eleven” (there were originally eleven of them), and accused them of being anti-individualist, anti-free speech, dictatorial, communist, socialist, conservative, NIMBYs, and various other self-cancelling insults. The people in favor of historic designation argued that they wanted to preserve character of the neighborhood, people were free to remodel inside their house or even add on to the back of their house, but that people pick neighborhoods to live in because the neighborhood as a whole has a personality of sorts, and that personality is apparent in the façade of the houses and needs to be preserved.

For me this struggle raised a lot of issues related to the commons. On the one hand, property that is owned by a person or a corporation is not part of the commons, and the owners do have a lot of freedom in the use of that property. Certainly the inside of any building can be decorated or maintained (within the boundaries of health and safety) any way the owner wants. Messy or neat, shag carpet or wood floors, lots of books or none—are completely the prerogative of the residents. But the minute other people can easily see someone else’s property, the lines become more blurry. In many communities, there are laws that mandate that people must maintain their yards to a minimum standard, not allowing weeds and trash to accumulate. Many towns don’t allow you to park your car on your front lawn. The lines become clearer where the private property meets public property, so for example you can’t paint the sidewalk to match your house.

But what is the obligation of current residents to honor the intent of the people who originally built the homes or to respect the residents who buy or rent in a neighborhood because they love the overall look of it? And what is the obligation of the neighbors to honor each other’s wishes to change their property to better suit their desires? These problems are best solved in the commons of conversation, with each side seeking to understand the other and perhaps offer compromises that make sure that everyone gets some of what they want.

The problem with most conversations about public and private – whether property, faith, health care, or whatever – is that there is no real conversation. There is slotting people into categories: conservative, old, young, transient, shallow, liberal, racist, patriotic and all the opposites and degrees of these. Then there is the search for appropriate insults to try to stifle dissent. To me this is most evident in the right wing media but even as I write that, I know I have fallen into the slotting trap, and perhaps people with more right wing views than mine find the liberal media intimidating or name calling.

I think the “gang of eleven” won their struggle for two reasons: 1) They did not give up. Many of the people that opposed them moved over the three years they fought for historic designation. 2) (and more important) They never responded to the name calling in kind. Privately they may have. But publicly they were always civil and cordial, and to this day remain friendly with neighbors that disagreed with them. They were also very clear that they wanted a conversation about the nature of their neighborhood and held many neighborhood gatherings to that end. I think they won a number of people over to their side by their willingness to look at all the gray areas that were involved in establishing the kind of historic designation they sought. I learned a lot watching this struggle, and I only hope I put into practice in my own public disagreements.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Wealth for the Common Good

Arul Menezes is a member of Wealth for the Common Good, a network of business leaders and high-net-worth individuals that advocate for shared prosperity. He wrote this op-ed for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with the Progressive magazine. (McClatchy-Tribune)

This op-ed that has appeared in 12 newspapers. The link above is from the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It shows that many wealthy people are aware of the role of the commons in their ability to succeed and want to so their share. Please sign on to this effort at if you are in this tax bracket ($200,000 and up) and pass this on if you know anyone who is.

Thanks--this is a critical part of changing tax policy.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Race and Class in the Commons

This week we have a guest blogger. Frances Kunreuther is the Director of the Building Movement Project, which works to strengthen U.S. nonprofits as sites of democratic practice and advance ways the nonprofit sector can build movement for progressive social change.

This is the week of the Professor Gates / Sergeant Crowley beer with the President, and there has been lots of discussion in my circles about race and class. I might not have connected this to the commons, but then I went to Amtrak to get a ticket that required me to wait in line. So there I am waiting in this line that is snaking through Penn Station, when I and those around me notice that the Acela line, the one for those who are taking the really expensive and fast train, is only a few people long. Before I know it, several people – all of them white and well-dressed – just dunk under the bars that are keeping us neat and orderly and head for the short line.

Me, I am always the moralistic one that thinks that justice will prevail. So I am astounded that they are all served and none are sent back to wait with us or called cheaters. I am just seething, especially since the woman directly in front of me is older and clearly disabled, anxiously waiting her turn. Plus, like many other in our line, she is a person of color. She frequently looks at the short line but I assume she calculates the risk of losing her spot isn’t worth it.

After I made it to the window (and suffered my own Amtrak humiliations), I told the agent helping me that I was upset by the way the two lines worked and explained what happened. She nodded knowingly and told me I should go talk with the supervisor at Customer Service. “Make sure you talk to a supervisor because there is nothing we can do,” she warned me.

I followed her instructions and talked with the supervisor. Again, I told him how upset I was and how I thought it was racist that the white people who really looked pretty much like me could be served as if they had high class tickets and the in the other line were the “have nots” who, by the way, had also paid a pretty penny for their tickets. A tall African-American man, the supervisor looked at me and said, “No, it’s about class and really there is nothing we can do. If we don’t serve them we are reprimanded.” He then gave me a number to call to make a report.

On the way back from the station, I just kept thinking about the Commons. Maybe it’s talking with Kim and Caroline here at the Building Movement Project, but I wondered if Amtrak was in the Commons, I thought about the separation between those that paid more and those that didn’t. And I noted I could accept the indignities until I realized how it wasn’t about money – it’s embarrassing but I wasn’t actually wasn’t fighting that the high-priced ticket holders had better service. What got me was the unspoken way that once again some people will just always fare (no pun intended) better than others.

So I did call the number the supervisor had given me – 1-800-872-7245, which leads to the infamous automated Julie. I waited for a reservation agent, I waited to be transferred to Customer Relations and then I had a long discussion with the woman on the phone who said she completely agreed with me but that the ticket agents are not allowed to say anything when someone goes into the wrong line because it is considered bad customer service. “Some people would say it was racist,” she told me, “but anyone going into the Acela line would be served. It just works for the people who know how to game the system.”

But I wonder on these dog-day afternoons of summer in New York City how different it would feel if we all got a fair shake. Maybe Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley are wondering the same thing.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Commons in the Health Care Debate

Although the Commons hasn’t been discussed outright in the health care debate, Commons-based thinking and values have been at the core of proposals and opinions over how to reform the health care system.

The central policy fight is over a government-backed public plan that would compete with private insurers. It may not be as perfect an example of commons-based thinking as universal/single-payer proposals, but the sort of public-private hybrid of maintaining private insurance while adding governmental insurance would represent a leap forward in making health care less of a market good and more a fundamental right that our society collectively contributes to providing for all of us.

Of course, the public plan is strongly opposed by the healthcare industry of drugmakers, hospitals and insurers who have profited from the system as it is now. The profit motive has led the industry to pour $1.4 million each day into lobbying to defeat the public option and $1.1 million into the Blue Dogs’ political action committee, since the Blue Dogs have become the crucial swing vote needed to either pass or block real reform.

Even though the media has lately hyped slipping support for health care reform, recent polls show continued support for treating health care as more of an inclusive Commons, rather than the dysfunctional and exclusive market we have now. According to a Time Magazine poll at the beginning of the week, 63% of Americans support the principle and core value of providing coverage for nearly all Americans, even if the government has to step in to help cover those who can’t afford insurance on their own. And a CBS/New York Times poll from this week also found that more than half of Americans still think that providing health insurance for the uninsured is more important than keeping health care costs down.

These finding won’t turn the policy debate around and don’t necessarily balance the somewhat discouraging trends in the polling on the issue; but the fact that Commons-based values and thinking have so much traction for average Americans is underappreciated. Advocates for a more robust Commons should be heartened by the public’s support for inclusive solutions to the health care crisis. And if the public option does make it through the legislative process, just imagine what the potential could be for generating support for other Commons-based solutions.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Common Knowledge

Recently I was in the waiting room of a busy veterinary office with four or five other people waiting for appointments. A woman came out of an appointment room with her dog. I had seen her earlier on her cell phone in the parking lot, having what appeared to be an intense conversation. The veterinarian following her out said, “You really should get these tests done immediately.” The woman said, “My husband has all these questions and I couldn’t answer them all and he started yelling at me. Would you talk with him?” The vet said she would be happy to talk with him. The woman said, “When you talk to him, he may start yelling. He had a violent childhood and he yells a lot.” At this point, I think all of us in the waiting room were eavesdropping. The veterinarian said, “I am happy to talk with him, but as soon as he starts yelling I will hang up. I don’t put up with being yelled at by anyone and neither should you.” The woman said, “Well he is not violent—he just yells.” The vet replied, “Yelling is a form of abuse and no one should put up with it.” Then the receptionist said, “There is a wonderful program here which helps women in abusive situations. I’ll give you the number.” The woman said, “Thank you”, took the number, and left.

My jaw practically dropped at this interaction and my mind went back 30 years when I worked in the very first domestic violence program in San Francisco, when conversations like this were unknown, and certainly would never have happened in the open space of a waiting room. No one even seemed embarrassed. Neither the dog owner nor the vet nor the receptionist whispered, and the woman herself seemed unconcerned or oblivious to the fact that five other people were watching this interaction.

It is now common knowledge—knowledge in the commons—that abuse is not just physical, and any kind of abuse is unacceptable. We have a strong and powerful domestic violence movement to thank for this.

Having this knowledge in the commons has led to an enormous decline in incidence of domestic violence. A recent study reported in the Washington Post notes that the number of domestic homicides fell 32 percent from 1993 to 2004, and the frequency of nonfatal violence between domestic partners dropped by more than 50 percent, from 5.8 attacks per 1,000 U.S. residents age 12 or older, to 2.6 attacks, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This mirrors a decline which started in1976. Of course, any abuse is too much abuse, but those who think change can’t happen should think again.

For me, this interaction was full of mixed feelings: I was very concerned for this woman, pleased at how firm and matter of fact the vet and the receptionist were about not putting up with yelling and who to call for help, sad that domestic violence is so common that we can talk about in front of strangers in a waiting room without feeling odd or out of place, and proud of being part of the movement that led (however indirectly) to this conversation. And I had a question: what do we need to introduce now so that in the future it will be common knowledge?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Commons Making LA Neighborhoods Safer

Last week, the NYT had a great article showing how an investment in public space is reducing gang violence and increasing the sense of community in LA’s neighborhoods.

Antigang outreach workers created the Summer Night Lights program last year. Through private donations matched by the city, the program has financed lights, sports leagues, disc jockeys and food to encourage residents to simply hang out in the parks in their own neighborhoods.

The best quote of the article comes from the minister who leads the program, Rev. Jeff Parr:
“These neighborhoods with gang problems don’t have a lot of assets. But there is a school, a park and a rec center. Those are public assets. Let’s use those to create social connections that replace gangs.”

Identifying public assets in communities that are largely portrayed in the media as lacking any public value represents a huge shift in how low-income communities of color are perceived. And it’s a necessary shift for advocates of the value of public space and commons-based thinking, because too often the only examples of the commons exist in privileged contexts. This Summer Night Lights program points to the potential of commons-based thinking to transform all communities and relationships.

It is especially inspiring that the program is welcoming known gang members as members of the community. The objective of the program could have just been to reclaim public spaces from gang violence (through heavy police presence), but instead the program is working to restore relationships between gang members and the neighborhoods they live in. By opening the program up to everyone in the community – even the so-called trouble-makers – it offers the hope of inclusion leading to peace. It also acknowledges that the lack of freedom and safety in neighborhoods has created a vicious cycle that increases both violence and gang membership.

If the park program continues and becomes a model that’s replicated in other urban neighborhoods, it could pave the way for new chances for young people. The lack of safe public spaces has had major implications for young people, from obesity to crime rates. Giving kids the chance to be outside builds connections between young people and their parents and as one youth interviewed for the article put it “you meet more friends here [than by] having nothing better to do and getting in trouble.”

We need to create more opportunities, like the Summer Night Lights Program, for young people in our communities to pursue the better thing to do.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Advertising Taking Over Transit/Commons

A few weeks ago, NYT reported that NYC’s transit authority was selling the naming rights for a Brooklyn subway station to Barclay’s Bank. This is the latest example of increasingly aggressive advertising through public transit and another assault on the commons.

As a widely shared service that New Yorkers and tourists rely on, public transit is certainly essential to a commons-based society. But in most cities, transit systems are cash-strapped and struggling to maintain services. In the midst of these financial troubles, cities have turned to generating revenues through ever more intrusive advertising schemes. The short-term income generated by the corporate re-branding of massive infrastructure systems seems like a pretty cheap sale when one considers that generations of tax-payers made the transit systems what they are today.

This trend is not new, and the opposition from advocates has been growing. In 2005, David Bollier, editor of, wrote about how advertising in the nation’s subway systems is part of a strategy of reducing a ‘lively commons to a mere market.’ The concern is not just an academic preoccupation with the “intersection between public and private space,” as the NYT article put it. People are sick of being bombarded with corporate messages in these formerly public spaces; public opinion polls find that most Americans think billboards are ugly, intrusive, and uninformative. Urban commuters aren’t just exposed to traditional printed billboards and signs anymore. Companies are now using digital ads mounted on the sides of busses and inside of subway tunnels, and wrapping stations in advertisements from a single company. For New Yorkers it’s an explosion of Times Square-style takeover of all of our subways.

Fed-up artists and activists have taken action. Public Ad Campaign posts commentary critiquing outdoor and transit advertising in New York, and tracks artists’ efforts to reclaim public spaces, whether by installing (unauthorized) art in the place of advertisements, or painting over posters and ads illegally posted across the city. Another organization, the Anti Advertising Agency, developed stencils and stickers saying “you don’t need it” for artist-activists to cover advertisements peddling consumerism.

While some may debate whether graffiti artists just add to the visual assault of advertising or help us question the marketization of our common spaces, the fact that our collective investment in transit and the commons is increasingly covered in advertising is proof of the attack on government and taxes by conservatives. Grover Nordquist’s wish to ‘shrink government down’ has gotten us to the point of government having to turn to corporate advertisers as ‘saviors.’

It’s time to reverse course and renew the commons.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Principles on Progressive Options to Finance Health Care Reform

From our friends at Citizens for tax justice…

Majority of Americans Support Tax Increases to Pay for Health Care Reform...
Congress Feeling the Pressure to Deliver Real Health Care Reform

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found 57 percent of respondents were willing to "pay higher taxes so that all Americans have health insurance that they can't lose no matter what," compared to 37 percent who said they were not willing. This is particularly interesting because 77 percent of respondents also said that they were either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their own health care. A significant number of Americans seem ready to pay higher taxes to improve the health care system as a whole, even if they think they personally do alright in the current system.

What types of tax increases would most people prefer? A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that the sort of tax increase respondents would favor the most to finance health care reform was the most progressive option offered in the survey: raising income taxes of Americans with incomes of over $250,000 a year.

Several progressive proposals would accomplish this. One is President Obama's idea to limit itemized deductions for high-income taxpayers. Another is CTJ's proposal to expand the Medicare tax (PDF) to make it a more progressive tax that applies to investment income as well as wages.

...But Lawmakers Will Not Get the Message If We Don't Speak Up
Organizations Urged to Join Statement of Principles on Progressive Options to Finance Health Care Reform

Despite the apparent support for a progressive approach to financing health care reform, some lawmakers have told staff of CTJ and other organizations that they haven't heard enough from people who support this approach. As one Hill staffer recently put it, "You people are outgunned" by the lobbyists for business groups that oppose any tax increase that could conceivably impact the wealthy investor class.

The very first step (among many) in addressing this problem is for organizations around the country to join the statement of principles formulated by Rebuild and Renew America Now (RRAN), the coalition of advocates, religious organizations, unions and think tanks that are educating Congress about progressive ways to finance health care reform. The deadline for organizations to sign has been extended to Thursday, July 2.

Lawmakers need to see that there are several organizations in every single state that support this progressive approach. The sign-on process is being organized by the Coalition on Human Needs. Click here (PDF) to see the letter with the current list of organizations that have signed on, and click here to add your organization.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A little tax jeopardy

The TEA (Taxed Enough Already) parties on April 15, and the continued outrage of the right wing about how much we are taxed disguises some very important facts. I put a number of them together from websites, articles and the like, for a talk recently, and now just want to list a few of them in a Jeopardy format. See how many questions you can answer!

ANSWER: 39.5%, the level it was when Bill Clinton left office.

QUESTION: What does President Obama propose to raise the top marginal tax rate to?


QUESTION: What is the top marginal tax rate now?

ANSWER: 9.1%

QUESTION: How big a bite do federal income taxes take out of the average person’s income?

OK, this is my fantasy and my goal: that everybody could answer these questions quickly and easily. In fact, they could go on to say that even when you add all the other federal levies people pay in addition to income tax, such as payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, excise taxes for gasoline, alcohol, tobacco and other items, the combined federal tax rate for most people was 20.7%, which is less than one percent higher than the three decade year low of 19.8% reached in 2003.

(Sources: NYT, Congressional Budget Office, and USA Today)

The problem is not what we pay, which is far less than most other industrialized countries. There is a big problem in how we spend, with half of this money going to support bloody and pointless wars and a bloated military, and, because of said wars, another 20% of the federal budget going to debt service on the national debt. But paying too much tax? I don’t think so. How about inviting our anti-tax friends to this TEA party: Try Emulating Accuracy?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Mobilizing the Nonprofit Sector

Staff and board of nonprofit organizations carry with them an image of the nonprofit sector as small, and are often amazed to learn just how big and powerful we are (or could be, if we would mobilize our power.)

The nonprofit sector in the United States has mushroomed over the past 20 years. It is now immense. There are 1.5 million organizations incorporated under the Internal Revenue Service 501c law. The total income of the sector is about $1 trillion per year; if it were a single industry, it would be our nation’s largest. The nonprofit sector employs 10% of the workforce and is, in general, an enormous economic driver.

Other counties around the world have equally, or sometimes larger, nonprofit (or NGO) sectors. In fact, worldwide, the nonprofit sector employs 4-5% of the workforce. And, there is an almost immeasurable number of volunteers whose time augments the often low pay of the staff.

Yet, little organizing is aimed at nonprofit staff. Often staff are asked to help organize their constituents, there is some organizing efforts aimed at boards and volunteers, and all of this is valuable.

But let’s look at the numbers of people are talking about if we focus organizing efforts just on a small segment of paid staff who work for nonprofits. There are almost 140 million people in the workforce in the United States. Fourteen million of these work in nonprofits. Are all of them progressive? Certainly not, and in fact, some of them work for anti-tax, anti-commons organizations, and a much larger number work for organizations that don’t take any position on commons issues. But given how few people vote, and how many local elections that determine critical tax issues are decided by a few thousand, or sometimes even a few hundred votes, those of us dedicated to making our tax system more progressive only need to reach a few hundred thousand of these staff in order to really make a difference. This addresses the idea that there is nothing we can do to change tax policy. We only need to talk to each other and we could have a profound impact.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Death and Taxes

For the past several weeks, I have been giving talk after talk to nonprofit staff and board members about taxes: the importance of taxes, why we should care about taxes, what we should do about taxes. I could use this as an excuse for not posting to this blog more often, but in fact, the real reason I haven’t is because I get too depressed by the reaction I get to what I say. Let me step back and say that I know, from years and years of feedback, that I am a good trainer and a good speaker. So at the risk of flattering myself, I have ruled out the idea that I am boring to listen to. But the reaction I get is what I would expect if I were utterly and completely a snoozer in the speaking department: blank stares, few questions, lots of surreptitious texting and checking Blackberries. Anything but to actually think about what we can do about taxes.

In examining my talks, the evaluations after (which are always positive, in contrast to the behavior of the participants), and from feedback from trusted and honest friends, this is my explanation:

People are trained from early childhood that death and taxes are the two inevitabilities, and there is nothing that can be done about either. OR, as one friend said, “In fact, the only thing that can be profitably done is to NOT talk about them.” Further, way more people than I had any idea of, imagine that they are incapable of understanding taxes and so just tune out rather than feel stupid. Finally, most nonprofits have way more immediate pressing problems and can’t see their way clear to taking on yet another (hopeless) cause.

Paradoxically, this explanation has cheered me up. Each element of this explanation can be addressed. And must be, unless we want to live in a country where most social services are privatized and most giant corporations are owned wholly or in part by the government.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Fundraising for government?

Last week, the Ohio House of Representatives Finance & Appropriations Committee gave the Governor the “legal authority to create and run nonprofit corporations as a sub-unit of a state governmental department.” An article in the Akron Beacon Journal quotes a bill that would allow these nonprofits to be used to ''‘solicit financial contributions or in-kind contributions of goods to support the fulfillment of the duties and responsibilities’'' of state government.”

We’ve heard of bake sales to raise money for programs in public schools, which is disconcerting in itself, but nonprofits to raise money for government responsibilities? Read more about the United Way’s response (and other social service agencies) here.

Friday, February 13, 2009


As I am getting ready to fly in a small 40 passenger plane from Toronto, Ontario to Albany, NY, I am more aware that today is Friday the 13th than I normally would be. This has led me to reflect on how superstitions are part of the commons, and a part that is generally not privatized. Of course, superstitions are used for private profit, as in the number and variety of horror movies built around Friday the 13th, or the sale of lucky charms, blessed water and the like that still can be found all over the world.

The superstition around Friday 13th has its roots in ancient Christianity. Friday is the day Jesus was crucified and is commonly known as Good Friday. The term “Good Friday” is actually a variation on the original which was “God’s Friday,” much like ‘goodbye’ is a shortened version of ‘God be with you.’ Friday is also supposed to be the day Eve gave Adam the apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In theology this is referred to as “the fall” although as feminist and liberation theologians often point out, it allowed us to “fall” into adulthood and assume responsibility for our actions by having the knowledge to understand their consequences.

The superstition around the number thirteen also has roots in Christianity, since Judas Iscariot was supposedly the 13th person to sit down at the Last Supper before he betrayed Jesus to the authorities. The number of hotels and office buildings that skip the 13th floor and go from 12 to 14 speaks volumes to how this superstition is still in play. According to SNOPES, there are people who are actually very afraid of the #13, and particularly of Friday 13th. These conditions have names: triskaidekaphobia is fear the number 13, and paraskevidekatriaphobia is fear of Friday the 13th.

Superstitions don’t start out that way: they start out as ideas people hold to be true. People who originally believed that putting a hat on the bed could cause someone to die were probably taking precautions against the spread of disease. It is harder to find a logical root in the belief that breaking a mirror causes seven years of bad luck or that blowing out all your candles at once on your birthday cake grants you a wish, but there probably is some experience that gave rise to these beliefs. Later these truths fade into superstitions, which are sort like half beliefs. We don’t think it is true, but maybe it is, so observe the custom. Later even the custom is forgotten.

I wonder what beliefs we have now which in years to come will be seen as superstitions. Belief that the market will regulate itself is fading fast. We can only hope the superstition that a powerful nation must have a large military will fade altogether. Or perhaps even the belief that America must be a powerful nation.

In this current economic turmoil, while we still fight a war in two countries and supply arms to mercenaries all over the world, perhaps Friday the 13th is a good day, a Good Friday, to think about what we truths we actually hold to be self-evident and what truths should fade to superstition and fade away altogether.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tax Me - I'm Yours!

Dear Readers:

Because this is a blog about the commons, it doesn’t make sense for me to be the only writer so from time to time I am going to ask friends and colleagues to post something here. The following post is from a friend in Toronto, Rob Howarth. Rob wrote in response to his own government’s unwillingness to raise taxes, a familiar and depressing story for all of us in the USA. Rob is a “commoner” and our bond was forged a couple of years ago when he created a website called “I love taxes.”

People seem to have a new-found fervour for collective solutions to collective woes. They want their governments to step in and take the heat off a massive market meltdown. Stimulus now! Spend more public money, the sooner the better! The curious thing is that no one seems willing to pay for this spree. Everyone hates paying taxes, and seems to imagine they can pay less and less of them and still have public spending grow. A combination of massive spending increases and significant tax cuts are central to both the Canadian and U.S. economic stimulus packages. Surely this will go down as the biggest attempt at a free lunch ever conjured up (except perhaps the brilliance of building our societies on non-renewable fossil fuel foundations).

I have noticed that conservative watchers of these ballooning deficits are warning that deficit spending today simply means deferring our taxes ‘till tomorrow. We are setting ourselves up for massive tax increases down the road. They say this as if it is a bad thing. I say, bring ‘em on! The sooner the better.

I have wanted to pay more taxes for some time now, but the conservative winds of the last twenty years have thwarted my desires. Tax cut aficionados continue even now to tell us that money in people’s pockets is, in every instance, preferable to paying taxes. It is always preferable, but unfortunately just for solving individual needs. Once a group of individuals decide they need to do something together, like build a hospital, or school, or affordable housing, or collect the garbage – they will need to invent systems to do so. And also a way to pay for it fairly. I think we refer to these systems today as government and taxes. They are not perfect systems, and they are in constant need of reform and vigilance so that they reflect people’s collective desires, and not just the will of the powerful. But the alternative of providing all of these collective good via the private market is not looking like such a great idea these days.

So I still say, what’s so funny about peace, love and a progressive tax system? If we had been paying more taxes all along much pain could be avoided today. We might even have chosen to strengthen our healthcare, green our energy sources, invest in community infrastructure, roads, cultural, educational and other public assets on an ongoing basis – not just when the banks have to get out of the kitchen.

Instead of a free lunch, let’s follow John Lennon’s advice and “free our minds instead”. I’m starting with jettisoning the fiction that we can all take care of each other, and be taken care of, without contributing much along the way. And I’m printing up buttons that say: Tax me – I’m Yours!

Rob Howarth is the part-time coordinator of an association of thirty nonprofit agencies located in neighbourhoods across Toronto, called (fittingly enough) the Toronto Neighbourhood Centres. This involves working on shared issues of concern related to community change (e.g. the racialization and spacialization of poverty in our city), and the role of local organizations that strive to support communities through service-provision and community-building work. He started at university training as an architect, which was fun, but realized he did not warm to the professionalization of that realm. He reflects that he is often involved in creating an "architecture of dissent". He lives in Toronto.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

This Land is Your Land

On the day before the Inauguration, there was an extraordinary concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Headlined by Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce and Bono, along with 16 other artists, by all accounts it was joyous and fun, as well as uplifting. I got to hear “This Land is Your Land” with Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen in the lead, and I cried all the way through it. Seeger has an amazing presence and it seemed he was almost levitating with happiness as he sang. “This land is your land” is, in part at least, about the commons and the struggle for public land over private property. The song itself is in the public domain and we don’t have to pay royalties to sing it (yet).

The concert was free and open to the public which I thought was a lovely and amazing beginning of this new administration. I wasn’t at the concert because I was on the other side of the country, at my home in Berkeley, CA. My neighbor, who has followed my commons commentary from the beginning, came outside to tell me that she and her partner were trying to listen to the concert and kept going back and forth between CNN and MSNBC, only to be frustrated by the fact that someone was always talking with the performers in the background. Finally, Wolf Blitzer (a commentator on MSNBC) said that they were getting a lot of complaining e-mails about how they were covering the concert. He then explained that HBO had EXCLUSIVE rights to the concert and so they couldn’t broadcast it directly. My neighbor was outraged. “Don’t you think this is a commons issue?” she said. “This should have been on public television.” Indeed, I had to agree. The concert was not free to any public that could not get to it. You had to have not only cable, but the more expensive cable packages that include HBO. We shook our heads and went back inside.

Later in the day another friend came over. He said, “Did you hear the concert?”
“No, I don’t have cable” I said, half sad and half righteous.
“HBO let NPR Radio broadcast the concert,” he said. “I listened to it on my drive back from the mountains.”

So the concert was available to the public, through public radio, just not through public television or other regular television stations. This friend also follows commons issues pretty closely. I asked him if he thought it was outrageous that HBO had exclusive rights to broadcast it, and he pointed out that probably they couldn’t have had such a great line-up without HBO sponsorship fees. “Do you think the government should pay for pre-inauguration concerts?” he asked. “That seems a little too much to expect in this economy.”

Perhaps he is right. Yet I think it would be a sign of the success of this administration if someday these kind of concerts were broadcast on all public airwaves, paid for by taxes saved by not being at war.
As Guthrie wrote in the last verse of “This Land is Your Land”:
In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.
We are still wondering, but we have hope.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Monday, January 12, 2009

Change in the new year

I gave a talk last week at a meeting of about 100 development directors, and other staff and board members from a variety of San Francisco Bay Area nonprofits. The topic was “Fundraising During Economic Turmoil” and I talked about fundraising strategies for awhile, but I also used my place at the podium to talk about the commons. I said, “Our most important assets are collective and social in nature. These assets are our “commons: our natural commons such as air, water, oceans and wildlife, or our cultural commons such as libraries, parks, museums.” I quoted from Dorothy Day’s teacher, Peter Maurin, who believed that our task is to create a society in which it is not that hard to be good. And that kind of society would place a high premium on the common good.

In fact, I almost always use my keynotes and speeches to talk about the commons in one way or another and often people are interested, but the questions and answers are almost always very practical: “Should we still use direct mail?” “Has the IRA rollover provision led to an increase in giving?” “Do donors think special events are a waste of money?” I expected this to be even truer, so was greatly and pleasantly surprised when the questions were much more profound.

The first question from a long time fundraising professional was, “What can an organization do to really insure that it works for the common good?” A second question from an executive director, “Should nonprofits get together and think about how to take care of each other, so those that are doing well now help those which are having a hard time?” And yet another question, “How can we help create a just and fair tax structure so that organizations that should be funded by taxes are, and those who should be funded by private sources are not competing with social services?”

David Bollier says, “Learning to see and understand the dozens of commons in our midst is one of the preeminent challenges of our time.” Recognizing our organizations as a commons and using that recognition to build a movement for the common good could be the most important development in the nonprofit sector in many decades. If my colleagues at this talk are any indication, 2009 may be a banner year for actually making deep and lasting social change.