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.