Thursday, December 30, 2010

Happy New Year!

This is the last blog post of this year and this decade.  This next decade could either be our best one or it could be our last one.  We hope and work for the former, and to do that, we all must feel excited and rested on January 1, 2011. 
In truth, this date is only one among many that mark a New Year.  The Chinese New Year, in February, will usher in the Year of the Rabbit.  The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is celebrated in September.
The notion of celebrating the New Year is the oldest known holiday in history and was started by the Babylonians some 4000 years ago.  Their new year began with the first new moon after the Spring Equinox.  Spring is a much more logical time for a new year than January, but the Romans moved New Year’s to Jan 1 in order to synchronize their calendar with the sun. 
The idea of ending one year and starting another is a good one, in my mind.  I love New Year’s resolutions and always make about ten of them.  Over the 40 years I have been doing that, I have a pretty good sense of what kinds of promises to myself I can keep (read one novel  a week, for example) and which are probably not going to happen (the perennial “lose 20 pounds” ).  I find that the most productive resolutions are very specific and positive.  “Be nicer” doesn’t work, but “Perform one gracious action every day” does, particularly when I also make myself write down what I did every day, and catch up if I miss a day or two.  According to, the Babylonians also started the idea of New Year’s resolutions and their most common resolution was to return borrowed farm equipment. 
Whatever you resolve, please have a great New Year.  I look forward to blogging with you in 2011. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Commons in the Snow

As a Midwesterner living in New York City, blizzards are nothing new for me. But this snowstorm that hit the Northeast has been impressive. In a 24-hour period the city got nearly 20 inches of snow – that’s almost an inch an hour. Back in Wisconsin and Minnesota, cities have the infrastructure to deal with that amount of snow, but here in New York City the storm has taken its toll.

New Yorkers are frustrated with the city’s inability to clear the streets; leaving many without critical services (like ambulances, police and firetrucks needed for emergencies).

It’s times like this when people remember how important investments in our Commons are. In times of emergency we realize that our roads, public transit and emergency services really are critical to our collective well-being; but all of these systems suffer when the tax-cutting ideology takes over. It’s no surprise then that the city’s response to the blizzard has been worse than in past years because of cuts to the city’s Sanitation department.

Still, even in the midst of a lot of rumbling and discontent about the city’s ability to respond to the snowstorm, there have been many stories and images of regular New Yorkers helping each other out. And it’s refreshing when the heroes are the men and women doing the back-breaking work to keep the city safe and streets clear.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Herod's Order

We are almost at Christmas Eve, the night Jesus was born, according to Christian tradition. I feel I am living in a parallel universe this week, trying to stay true to what Christmas is supposed to be about, but amazed by the actions of the House and Senate.  Many might have thought Congress had reached its nadir with the tax vote, which my colleague, Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, has described very well in Tuesday’s blog post

But this week managed to be even weirder.  We started with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” which now allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military without having to hide their sexual orientation. This repeal came after almost 17 years of fighting, and is being hailed as a major civil rights victory.  So now gays and lesbians can fight and be killed in bloody, pointless and largely illegal wars around the world!  Yeah, I guess.  One reason given as to why DADT had to be repealed is that not enough people are joining the military. 

We went on to the defeat of the DREAM Act, which would have given provisional legal status to some 65,000 young adults who came to the United States as children and who have little relationship to the country where they were born.  These young people could have earned citizenship after completing a number of requirements, including a minimum five-year residency and either service in the military or two years of college.

I know that progressive and complete immigration reform is a big stretch, but I seriously thought no one could really oppose the DREAM Act.  Story after story appeared in all forms of media about students brought here when they were 6 weeks old, three years old, six years old; who went to grade school and high school and now want to go to college – law abiding residents of our country, living in law abiding families who work hard and simply want to improve themselves and fully participate in their community.  Only someone without any heartstrings at all could resist this. 

In the end, our side was five votes short of the 60 needed to “invoke cloture” which would end the debate and allow the vote to go forward.  The final vote was 55-41. The DREAM Act died in a procedural battle.   The blockage of this bill almost entirely affects people of color who cannot vote. 

And finally, as the last vote of the House of Representatives this year, the 9/11 First Responder bill passed which gives free medical care and compensation to people who were at Ground Zero Sept 11, 2001. Again, unbelievably to me, this bill was controversial, and people have been fighting for it for several years.  In fact, this morning there was some doubt about whether it would pass, although in the end it passed 260-60.  This bill affects a small number of people, and even though First Responders have a hero-like status, that has not been enough to get the bill passed sooner, helping people sooner, including many who have already died. 

Jesus’ birth is surrounded by stories and myths, most of which are charming with lots of shepherds and angels, but one of which is horrible and only appears in the Gospel of Matthew.   The three Wise Men visited Herod who was the King of Israel, to ask him if he knew where “the newborn ruler of the Jews” might be.  They had been following a star which they believed would lead them to this child.  Herod knew nothing of this, and asked them to let him know if they found this child.  The three Wise Men found the baby Jesus, but, having been warned in a dream not to tell Herod anything, returned to their own country by a different route than they had come.  Herod was furious with them and felt his own power very threatened so he ordered all baby boys under the age of two to be killed.  Mary and Joseph, with the infant Jesus, fled to Egypt, where they lived until Herod died and they could safely return.

Most people are appalled by the story of Herod’s order.  The existentialist Albert Camus says this story is the main reason he became an atheist.  How could anyone believe in a God who would let a slaughter of these innocents happen?  Better to believe there is no God than a God like that. 

My question in light of the motives for passing or not passing these various bills (and the time it took to do so) is not whether God exists.  My question is can we face that Herod still exists?  And will we, like the Three Wise Men, simply slip away to our own place, or will we stand and fight the good fight?  There is no empirical evidence that any of this story ever happened, but that is not the point.  We are asked every day to choose whose path we will follow.  The Winter Solstice suggests following the light and as Christmas approaches those of us who celebrate that holiday should ponder how we can do that in 2011.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My Holiday Wish: A Cooperative (not corporate) Economy

Although the recession officially ended a year and a half ago, this is still a very difficult holiday season for millions of us. Job losses left 8 million people looking for work at some point over the past three years; and even those who held on to their jobs lost their savings due to declining home values and retirement accounts. But we keep hearing news about the record-breaking profits that businesses and banks are raking in, and it’s never been clearer how far we are from a cooperative economy.

Last month, the Commerce Department reported that American businesses earned profits at an annual rate of $1.659 trillion in the third quarter; the highest figure recorded since the government began keeping track over 60 years ago. Then last week, the President met with 20 executives from corporate America to appeal to them to “get some of the cash off the sidelines;” a more politically correct way of asking corporations to share the wealth and cooperate in extending the economic recovery they’re experiencing to those of us on the ground. A couple of days later, Congress passed a tax deal that cost more than the 2009 stimulus, undercut the future funding of Social Security by “temporarily” cutting the payroll tax that goes to the Social Security trust fund, and also extended the Bush tax cuts for the rich. Those last two provisions make up almost 30% of the total package (see the chart from CBPP) and reject the commons vision that we can care for people and the economy better together.

In the midst of all of this public debate over the economy, and how/whether/what to contribute to it, public opinion has been consistently confused and confusing. The tax cut deal may have sparked a revolt by some members of the President’s party, but a Washington Post poll found that the compromise was supported by a majority of Americans. Taking a closer look at the poll results though, we learn: that the only provision in the deal with strong support was the extension of unemployment benefits; that slim majorities want to reduce the deficit now (not after the economy improves) and support the estate tax cut provision (though it’s doubtful they understood that the estate tax cut will benefit less than 1% of the estates in America), and; that a plurality think the tax deal won't make a difference in the national economy. Yesterday, a poll found that 68% of voters believe that when a corporation has a tremendous amount of cash on hand that it’s primary objective should be to create jobs; but 50% opposed having the government require such an investment in job creation by corporations. If we take these polls at face value; Americans want those who are suffering with the real economic depression that continues in our communities to get extended unemployment benefits, but still want ultra-rich heirs and heiresses to inherit more un-earned wealth, and (as we're told over and over) want to reduce the deficit in some mystical way. And Americans want corporations to do the right thing by creating jobs; but don’t want the government to ensure they do.

These sorts of contradictions about what and how we should expect our economy’s winners to contribute to the real economy that affects people on the ground reflects a faith in the beneficence of corporations and the wealthy. And while this is a season of faith and hope; these myths about the good intentions of the wealthy, corporate wise men ignore the fact that they are sitting on cash reserves and tax cuts in order to enrich their own coffers, not to get Main Street out of this depression. They haven’t been offering us any gifts of gold (or even incense and myrrh) for decades, and neither ‘charm offensives’ by the President or favorable public opinion are sufficient to get them to invest in an economic recovery that extends to those of us in the bottom 80% of the income spectrum (last year the richest 20% earned over half of all income in the U.S.). If we want a better economy we will need corporations and the rich to contribute, just as we’ve contributed to their bottom lines with our spending this holiday season.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

In sickness...

For the last several days I have been dealing with a terrible cold.  I grew up in a combined Christian Science/Methodist home where illness was regarded as being mostly or all in your mind and a sign of weakness. The school regarded illness with great suspicion and tried to insure that no one missed school without a valid written excuse signed by a parent or doctor.  As an adult I often think people are malingering when they say they are ill (“the old ‘I have whooping cough’ excuse”) and I always think that I should be able to maintain my schedule just by force of willpower. I feel embarrassed when I get sick.  “I caught a cold” sounds in my mind like, “I am a failure and have no will power.”  In other words, I am not good at being ill.  I ignore all the signs that I am getting ill, I do my best to keep doing my work even when I am ill, and I certainly don’t tell people I am ill unless I have to. 

Why is that?  I can blame it on my childhood (and do, to some extent), but I also know that I have sometimes said I was ill to get out of an engagement or to avoid a deadline, and I know that I have suspected others of doing the same.   I try not to tell an outright lie, but say something like this:  “Hi, Person I Don’t Actually Care About, this is Kim.  I am sorry to cancel our lunch date but I think I might be coming down with something.”  ‘Think’, ‘might’ and ‘something’ mean that if, God forbid, I run into this person the next day I can say, “Whatever it was, I think it passed, thank goodness.”  When people call me to say they can’t meet a deadline or can’t come to a meeting because they are ill, my first instinct is not always sympathy. 

Mostly I am guilty of pushing myself even when I was ill.  Many years ago I managed to go from bronchitis to pneumonia by refusing to cancel anything.  Then I was sick for weeks instead of just days.  I told a friend that I had been punished by getting pneumonia.  “No” she rightly observed.  “Pneumonia was a warning that you need to take better care of yourself.” 

This week I have had to admit to having a cold.  I lost my voice, so could not conduct a training that had been scheduled for months.  I was too exhausted to finish a project I had promised, and I kept myself and my partner awake a good part of several nights coughing.

In a commons based society, we would still get colds.  Colds cannot really be blamed on capitalism.  But if I were to model the way a person living in a commons based society would relate to illness, I would live my life differently, as follows:
  1. I would not overschedule
  2. I would get plenty of sleep
  3. When I got sick, I would tell people right away, and I wouldn’t be embarrassed to be sick
  4. I would never say I was sick when I was not
  5. I would never suspect people of not being sick when they say they were
  6. I would encourage people to take time off, by setting an example
Since this is the end of the year, these five things sound like good New Year’s Resolutions. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons

We’d like to announce the publication of a new book by our friend over at!

All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, edited by veteran journalist Jay Walljasper together with the movement strategy center On The Commons, is the indispensable introduction to this new world of positive social action. Showcasing first-person stories, cartoons, real-world examples, photographs, lists and action items as well as thoughtful analysis, it brings to life the promise of the commons as a new social, political and community tool.

Download a sample chapter
Learn more about the book

In a time when the economy is shaky, politics are volatile and people are wondering about their futures, this book offers a genuine measure of hope that people like us can make a difference around the world.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Secrets, Lies, Leaks and Cover-ups

Many years ago, a friend of mine told me that a very close mutual friend was having an affair.  Our mutual friend had told her, but sworn her to secrecy.  Our friend’s wife was also a friend, although less close, and their relationship had seemed solid and happy.  My friend was so shocked she had to tell someone who knew them both.   She swore me to secrecy.   I, in turn, told a therapist . I felt she was safe, being bound by professional ethics to confidentiality, and, in any case, didn’t know any of these   people.   The therapist told me two things about secrets:
  1. The difference between something secret and something public is that the public finds out the information all at once whereas a secret is leaked one person at a time until most everyone knows, although the information has now been filtered and is probably quite changed from the original secret.
  2. A person or a family is only as sick as the secrets they keep. 
This week’s news has been dominated by the continuing release of 250,000 diplomatic cables through Wikileaks.  Many have debated whether Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is a criminal, a publishing hero,  a terrorist,  a defender of free speech,  or any number of other labels.  

As Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer aptly notes,
The official outrage is as synthetic as it is predictable, and what drives it is not fear for the lives of American diplomats and spies but concern for their careers. But how did a big, grown-up government like that of the United States blunder into the error of making all this ‘secret’ material so easily available?  It made the elementary mistake of thinking that electronic communications could really be kept secret, even when widely disseminated, if you just surround them with a sufficiently impressive clutter of passwords, security clearances and encryption. Any historian could have told them they were wrong. If it's written down, then it will come out sooner or later. In this case, it was sooner.
Dyer goes on to point out that the General Accounting Office in 1993 reported that 3 million people had the security clearance needed to get into the Siprnet (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network).  Probably twice as many have that clearance today.  All it takes is one of those people to send the data to WikiLeaks, and the whole system is compromised.

I juxtapose the WikiLeaks story with two others:  Valerie Plame and Elizabeth Edwards, to try to see what a commons perspective might be on secrets, lies, leaks and cover-ups.   Valerie Plame was a CIA agent who had infiltrated an extensive network of weapons dealers who were operating illegally.  Her cover was blown by a leak by someone high in the Bush Administration to columnist Robert Novak.  Elizabeth Edwards, who died earlier this week, is best known for how she dealt with the cancer that ultimately killed her, and for how she dealt with the revelation of the infidelity of her husband, John Edwards and the elaborate cover-up he designed to keep that information from her.   

My reaction to each of these stories was very different:  I admit to having mixed feelings about WikiLeaks, thinking that diplomats probably do need some assurance that some things they say or offer are not always made public,  but still rooting for Assange and eagerly reading everything that is being revealed.  

On the other hand, I was completely outraged by Plame’s treatment, particularly when that was largely a punishment of her husband who himself was revealing secrets and lies of the Bush Administration.  Yet, in other time and place, I suppose it would be possible that Plame’s cover would be blown by WikiLeaks.

And I was sickened and saddened by John Edwards, who I liked a lot and I felt was one of the few politicians who truly spoke up for poor people.  I also liked his wife a great deal:  she was down to earth and she was a crusader for good in her own right.  Her last six years were dominated by cancer and by increasing revelations of not only her husband’s affair but his elaborate cover-up, including the child he fathered by Rielle Hunter and even his plans for marrying her once Elizabeth was dead.

These stories are very different, but in every case that which was secret is now public. So my therapist was right on the first count:  there are no real secrets—ultimately the truth, or some version of it, comes out.

But on the second count, that families are only a sick as the secrets they keep:  is this true of countries as well? 

In a commons-based society, the number of secrets would be drastically reduced.  Imperialism, genocide, greed and their siblings rely on deeds formed in back rooms and carried out in private with some “messaging” to assuage the public.  A worldview based on rough social equity, with policies and laws in place to insure it, relies on a lot of information being public and able to be understood and debated by as many people as possible.

But would there be any secrets?  Of course:  what we are getting someone for their birthday, the surprise party we plan to honor a long time employee, the neighborhood block club announcing to our most senior and disabled member that we will be painting her house and cleaning up her yard, something she has wanted for a long time but not been able to afford:  secrets that make everyone happy.   

In other words, in a commons society, secrets would give us joy, and the greatest joy would come from revealing them.

Our country has massive problems, and in this time approaching the Winter Solstice, where darkness begins to move into light, it bears pondering the role of secrets in creating and maintaining our societal sicknesses and what light do we need to shine on what?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Tax Deal vs. The Commons

Yesterday, the White House announced a deal to extend the Bush tax cuts for another two years. I’ll leave the analyses of the deal’s merits to economists like Paul Krugman and our friends at Citizens for Tax Justice. I’ll also let the pundits like Chris Cillizza dissect the compromise’s political fallout. But what interests me is the inability of our political and governmental leaders to have a conversation about the value and benefit that taxes contribute to our collective well-being.

One example of the value that tax revenue makes in the form of good government is the tax deal’s extension of unemployment insurance for another year. The UI program doesn’t just help people who are unemployed make ends meet in the midst of a recession (though that should be a worthy goal in itself); it has been shown over and over to have a stimulative effect on the economy for everyone. In fact the UI program and the expansion of tax credits aimed at moderate- to low-income people are estimated to generate more economic activity and jobs, and add less to the deficit, than extending the tax cuts for the rich. But instead of being able to see UI as taxes at work, the media has repeated the myth that asking anyone to pay more in taxes (even the super rich) would destroy the economy.

Another example of value of taxes is the high cost of states not having the revenues needed to maintain the infrastructure we all share. A study of Pennsylvania’s deteriorated roads and bridges found that the state’s transportation needs cost drivers about $8.2 billion a year in added costs for vehicle maintenance, gas, crashes and time lost in traffic jams. Without more revenue the infrastructure in our states will only get worse, and the costs of living in a crumbling commons are higher than paying a little more in taxes. But again, even though Pennsylvania’s political leaders can diagnose their transportation needs, the governor-elect, Tom Corbett, took the Americans for Tax Reform pledge to never raise taxes.

What will it take to reframe taxes as producing value?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fiscal Security?

Our friends at Citizens for Tax Justice released the following statement today. We thought we’d share it with you as our nation's leaders continue to try and reduce the deficit with seemingly little thought about the myriad effects that may have on the common good…

CTJ's Statement on the President's Fiscal Commission Plan
The deficit-reduction plan taking shape before the President’s fiscal commission is seriously unbalanced. It relies on cuts in public services for two-thirds of the deficit reduction it strives for, while relying on increased revenues for only one-third. In fact, the plan claims it would somehow “cap” federal revenue at the arbitrary level of 21 percent of the economy. As a result, the plan relies far too much on cuts in public services that will be impossible to make without adversely affecting Americans — including those with very modest incomes.

Part of the problem is the commission’s approach to closing tax loopholes. The plan makes bold proposals to close tax loopholes, but unfortunately uses most of the resulting revenue to lower tax rates! Since the goal of this commission is to reduce the budget deficit, it’s hard to fathom why lowering tax rates would be on its agenda at all.

Read the full statement here. (PDF)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Common Security Clubs

We mentioned Common Security Clubs (CSC’s) briefly when we were blogging from our convening on “Applying the Commons.” For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, CSC’s are small groups of individuals who meet together to learn, support each other, and take action to create a new economy that serves people and the planet. In the process, a common security club allows neighbors (co-workers, etc) to get to know one another, find inspiration, have fun, and strengthen community.

The number of clubs has grown quickly over the last couple of years as people struggle to find a sense of security in very uncertain times. Many have realized that security cannot be created by individuals alone, but rather by coming together and sharing what we have in common.

On Wednesday, Dec 8th at 3pm Eastern, there will be a webinar on how to start a Common Security Club, the background behind them, and a review of the curriculum

For more information on Commons Security Clubs, as well as resources and additional groups and trainings in your area, visit the CSC website.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thoughts On Thanksgiving

I start by admitting that I am not a fan of the Thanksgiving holiday. When I worked in domestic violence, it was one of the two busiest days of the year for men beating up women (the other was the Super Bowl). We always had a full house at the shelter and all lines lit up on the hotline. It is a day of gross consumption: a few people (generally again women) work very hard for many hours making a meal, and everyone, including the cooks, spend 30 minutes eating it and two hours recovering from it. Then a few people spend several hours cleaning up. Families often come together on Thanksgiving, which should be good, but people who love their families probably see them as frequently as time and money allow, and those who only see their families on Thanksgiving are often not in the “love my family” category. People have too much to drink, causing old resentments to be aired and new ones to be formed. However, one could hardly expect a holiday with such dubious (some would say imperialist and genocidal) origins to be other than what it is.

But Thanksgiving has its upsides: leftovers! And an automatic four day weekend as Thanksgiving cannot be moved to Monday.

Even though I don’t like Thanksgiving, I am a fan of holidays in general and I wish there were way more of them. They provide good practice for not working, particularly for Americans who are chronically overworked. When a society has only a few holidays, each holiday has to multi-task: get the family together, eat well, have fun, get some rest, and get caught up on all kinds of tasks that we don’t have time to do during the normal work week. It is no wonder that few holidays are really fun—they are layered with a to-do list that makes going back to work something to look forward to.

In the Middle Ages, people had about eight weeks worth of holidays in addition to Sunday. Peasant life was hard and life in general was short, (the average lifespan was 30 years), but pleasure was a value for all classes of people. In fact, Christmas, which we have narrowed down to one day, was 12 days long.

A commons society has a lot of holidays, far more than the eleven Federal holidays we observe in the USA, (many of which are not given to people who work in the private sector.) We have built into our Constitution the basis for a commons society: “the right to….the pursuit of happiness.” If we made happiness our highest value, how would we structure our society? Perhaps sometime over this weekend, between turkey and pie, phone calls to distant friends and watching the Macy’s Day parade, we should think about that.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Gated Country

The second day of our trip to Arizona was spent in Mexico at a border station.  Half of our group went to Nogales and the half I was in to Naco.  Naco is a tiny little town that is divided down the middle by “the wall”, with a fairly empty and depressed downtown on the Arizona side and a livelier but still small downtown on the Sonora side. 

We parked on the AZ side and walked over the border to a migrant station about 100 yards from the checkpoint.  The border crossing into Mexico is staffed by US immigration officials, which is odd because generally other countries staff their own borders.  The border between Arizona and Mexico is essentially occupied by the US.  The border guards were friendly and entering into Mexico was easy, as was coming back.  We showed our passport and said we were going to visit the Migrant Resource Center.  They waved us through. 

The most striking detail in this town is “the wall.”  I am not that good at estimating height, but I would say it is at least 12 feet high.  It runs the entire length of the Arizona border, as well as much of New Mexico and California, and you can see it snaking along the border in both directions. Unmanned planes, or drones, provide surveillance.  Parts of the wall are made from old runways from the first Gulf War.  Built by Marines, it is sunk into three feet of cement and cost about $1 million per mile.  On the US side, there is also a ditch right along the wall.  In many places, there is a double wall, and apparently the plan is to have a double wall along the entire border.

The wall causes all kinds of environmental problems because animals can’t migrate as they would normally do and water can’t follow its normal routes.  Flooding in border towns is now common.  Debris piles up along it, and mostly it does not really keep  migrants out of the USA, although many people sprain or break their ankles or twist their knees as they come off the wall on the US side.  In the summer the metal of the wall radiates heat and burns any sentient being that touches it. 

I found the wall far most upsetting than I thought I would.  I could imagine animals trying desperately to find a hole or break in the wall, and people climbing up one side and then shimmying down the other, tearing up their hands in the process or jumping and landing in the ditch. The desert is one of the most fragile ecosystems and the heavy equipment used to build the wall, and the All Terrain Vehicles now used to patrol cause scars and damage that will never heal.

The wife of a border patrol agent organized schoolchildren to paint flowers and pretty designs on that part of the wall that goes through Naco.  I can imagine her motives were good:  she does not want this hulking behemoth to scare children or to appear so threatening.  But as one of our hosts pointed out, you don’t want to make something like this pretty.  It is not just ugly, it is evil, and no mural of smiling children skipping through fields of flowers can change what this wall is about.

On our southern border, we are a gated country now, and we might as well put up a sign:  “Americans only. Brown people not born here are not welcome.”

Thursday, November 18, 2010

"And for what?"

Last weekend I went to Tucson, AZ with 15 members of a religious community I belong to called Loretto.  I went to see for myself the ways that undocumented people are treated in Arizona and also to participate in a protest at Ft. Huachuca, which is where “enhanced interrogation techniques” (which a layperson might be forgiven for mistaking for torture) are taught. 

Friday we went to the Federal Courthouse to witness “Operation Streamline” which is a way of moving hundreds of undocumented people through the court system quickly.  About 50 men and 7 women, ages varying from 18-40, sat waiting their fate.  They were  handcuffed and these cuffs were in turn attached to a chain that went around their waist, and their feet were shackled.  A bevy of public defenders sat near them.  We were the only people in the audience.  There were also a small number of border patrol agents and two US Marshals.  The prosecuting attorney, called throughout the day, “the government” wore a light colored linen suit, but everyone else was in a dark wool suit, except the accused, who of course wore whatever they had on at the time of their arrest.  All of them had been arrested Nov 10 and their trial was Nov. 12. 

Except for the shackling, the proceedings were surprisingly humane.  The Judge seemed genuinely kind and concerned that the accused understand what they were accused of, and what their options were.  Each of the accused had a headset and everything was translated into Spanish.  The Judge explained slowly and carefully what would happen in the court room and often paused to see if there were any questions or concerns.  There were none. 

The accused were brought to the front of the courtroom in groups of seven.  They were each asked a series of questions:

“Are you a citizen of Mexico?  (or in two cases, Guatemala)”   Answer “Si”
“On or about Nov. 10, did you enter the United States at a time or a place not approved of by the US immigration service?”   Answer: “Si”
“Did anyone threaten you or promised you anything for the plea you are about to enter?”  Answer:  “No.”
They were then told what they were accused of again, (“petty offense of entering the US illegally”) and asked as a group “how do you plead?”
Answer in unison:    “Cupable”  (Guilty.) 

The Judge then handed down sentences of 30-150 days (depending on how many times they have committed this offense)  to be served in a private prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America in Florence, AZ.  They then shuffled out of the courtroom, and the next group of seven went to the front. 

Immigration is very much a commons issue.  In a “commons” world, there would either be no borders at all, or people would be welcomed at borders.  “Welcome to our country!  We hope you enjoy your visit and that you find our culture and way of life kind and friendly.  We hope you will share some of your culture with us.”  Of course in a commons world, people would only travel to other countries if they wanted to and not because they felt forced to by desperate poverty. 

How much further from a commons world we are is evidenced in the treatment of these prisoners.  Someone not knowing what the proceedings were about could well conclude that these people must be, at the very least, serial killers or war criminals.  To have hands and feet shackled for the “crime” of coming into the USA, and no other crime, is absurd.  

I was most struck again by the total commodification of everything (neo-liberalism).  These people come to the US to do work for a low wage.  This allows their employers to make more money and thus these undocumented workers are worth quite a bit.  But now, whether they work or not, they are valuable commodities because taxpayers will pay CCA (the private prison) $2,270 per month to house them.  This makes them profitable as prisoners.  Prior to the private prisons, a public defender told us, they would simply have been deported.  Now they serve time and then are deported, making each of them a profit center.  The sheer cost of arresting, prosecuting, sentencing, housing in prison and then deporting these workers, is staggering.  A public defender calculated that the Judge handed down $300,000 worth of prison time in the two hours we were in court.  That same judge will preside over another 70-100 accused in the afternoon, and does this five days a week.  Almost 1,000 undocumented people a week are sent to Florence and then deported, for a total of over $2 million of federal tax money paid per week to a private prison.   This total does not include those undocumented people who are accused of more serious crimes of drug trafficking or robbery or driving under the influence who are tried separately. 

A public defender we spoke with afterward said this entire process is a money-generating scheme and a gross injustice.  It has gotten much worse since 9/11, and will get worse if SB 1070 is found to be legal (it is currently in court).  He also noted that there are Russians, Poles, and Asians in Tucson illegally, but they are never brought in front of a judge or deported.  “The system is aimed at Mexicans and Latin Americans. No other undocumented people are dealt with this way.”    He voiced the question in all our minds, “And for what?  For what?”

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Call-in Day to Stop Cuts to Unemployment

Groups across the country are sending out announcements today asking folks to call their representatives and stop them from cutting unemployment benefits. Their message? Don’t cut benefits for the unemployed to pay for MORE tax cuts for millionaires!

In last week’s Real Change interview post, Kim Klein noted that “what we do with tax dollars is a mirror of community values.” Our friends at Citizens for Tax Justice point out that, “if Congress fails to continue the unemployment programs, 2 million people in December alone will be left with no income. In the next five months it will be almost 6 million people.” What does this say about our values as a nation when at the same time as talk of these cuts is happening, talk of extending the Bush tax cuts is going on as well?

Furthermore, EPI analysts have shown that “maintaining these extended unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed will create about 700,000 full-time equivalent jobs and save millions of people from poverty. The authors also note that because unemployment insurance benefits are quickly invested in local communities, thereby stimulating economies and creating jobs, the “sticker price” of these benefits is considerably less than advertised.” (Read more in their issue brief A Good Deal for All)

To call your representatives today, Go to or call 1-866-606-1189.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

US One of Least Taxed Countries

In this blog post, I want to share with readers the following report from Citizens for Tax Justice, which lays to rest any mythology that Americans pay a lot of taxes.  It is clear that revenue increases must be part of the solution to debt.  Decreasing debt by increasing human suffering is immoral and, more to the point, unworkable.  Cutting public service programs simply throws people who need these services onto those public agencies which cannot be cut (such as emergency rooms), strains existing public services to a breaking point, or provides a pipeline to one of America’s favorite ways of dealing with needy people: criminalizing their behavior and sending them to prison.  All of these options cost money, and so debt is deferred but not reduced.

There are dozens of fair and just revenue solutions which would decrease unemployment, reduce (and eventually end) poverty, and address health care and climate change issues.  Tax revenue is an integral component of any conversation about the common good, and that conversation will begin when Americans realize that people in other developed countries live much better and longer than we do because they pay taxes.

United States Remains One of the Least Taxed Industrial Countries (PDF)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Reimagining the common good

Several weeks ago, Kim Klein was interviewed by Timothy Harris, Executive Director of Real Change for their newsletter. I thought I’d re-post the link here today since it captures so well why this work is important to nonprofits and why fundraising for our organizations is no longer enough.
This is a democracy, and what we do with tax dollars is a mirror of community values, and right now the values say that we don’t care if a lot of people are homeless, and we don’t care that a lot of people are hungry, particularly children, which is now 20 percent of those living below poverty, and we don’t care that a handful of people have massive amounts of money while the vast majority don’t have nearly enough.
Click here to read the full interview.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Giants fever

The San Francisco Giants have won the World Series for the first time since they came to San Francisco and only the second time since 1954, when they were still the New York Giants. 

Almost everyone in the Bay Area caught “Giants fever” over the past few weeks.  People dyed their hair orange, total strangers greeted each other with “Go Giants” and conversations were struck up by BART riders, people standing in line at the bank and at the grocery check-out stand about the Giants. Schools and offices emptied out for the parade yesterday down Market St, and the day became a holiday by the sheer exuberance of the fans.

I was in a yoga class while the last game was happening.  Our class is fairly sedate. People move from pose to pose following our teacher’s instructions, which are delivered in a soft mellifluous voice.  There are no questions, and it is really not a bunch that grunts or sighs with effort, so the class is very quiet.

This class was every so often filled with the sound of shouting as the Giants scored once, then twice, then again.  Somewhere between Downward Dog and Warrior Pose, the teacher said, “I think the Giants are winning.”  We all laughed (softly) as she had read all our thoughts.  With inward cheers, we moved into Shoulder Stand. 

I am not much of a baseball fan or really much of a sports fan.  I have tried to be because I like being caught up in excitement and rooting for something or someone to win, and I like anything that cheers people up so much, and I like things that appeal to all kinds of people.  The World Cup, the Super Bowl, the Tour De France, all have these huge followings and people seem to suspend their other judgments of each other as they discuss teams and players.  I like those things, but the extent of my contribution to the conversation is usually, “How about that game?”  Then I nod sagely as if I understand all the commentary that generally follows.  God forbid I ever talk to someone more ignorant than me and have to face the question, “What game?”

Contrast Monday night’s World Series win with Tuesday night’s election results.  Where I was there was no cheering, no crowds in the streets.  There were some victories, to be sure, but overall, state by state and town by town, the country seemed to take another giant step in the wrong direction. 

Of course during the Obama campaign and for awhile afterwards, many of us had the excitement generally reserved for sports victories.  And Giants fever will soon be replaced by other concerns or excitements.  People want to be excited and to be transported beyond ourselves.  Many of us love having an excuse to smile at strangers and to feel part of something bigger than ourselves.  Our task as commoners remains to find a way to generate and then maintain that kind of excitement for questions of the common good.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Voting: A Duty of the Commons

Election Day has taken on huge political significance this year. The balance of power between the two parties is up for grabs, and the projections have been constantly changing. Polls show that half of voters see this election as a referendum on the President’s agenda. And the rise of the right-wing Tea Party’s influence has captivated the media. So politicos have been looking forward to this day as if it’s a political Superbowl -- a partisan death-match. This may make for exciting political theater tonight as we watch the returns, but seems at odds with our progressive, commons-based values.

Sadly, our form of democracy just reflects a society based on competition, enclosure, and an overall winner-takes-all mentality. In her book, Governing a Commons from a Citizen’s Perspective, nobel-winner Elinor Ostrom wrote about how governing a common pool of resources requires a different notion of responsibility and citizenship. But we have allowed our political processes to be enclosed by corporate interests, just like the environment and so many other parts of our Commons. The Citizens United case exacerbated the long-standing problems of private money dominating elections. According to the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to government transparency, there has been more than $450 million in outside spending on this election; with nearly $200 million being spent just in the last two weeks. That level of spending by private, corporate interests is dramatically increased compared to the 2006 midterm. And we’ve seen the results of that spending when we turn on the tv for the last month.

All of the spending on political ads (especially this season’s overtly racist ones) is in a perverse way a response to the general lack of interest and involvement in our democratic processes. Voters are a rare commodity in the U.S., so candidates (and their corporate sponsors) spend as much money as possible to appeal to our basest, ADD-afflicted, sensibilities. In the 2006 midterm elections, the voter turnout rate was only 40%. Although turnout was significantly higher in 2008 for the presidential election (it usually is), we still have roughly two out of five people who are eligible to vote opting out of the democratic process.

In response to this lack of involvement in the democratic commons, many countries have established compulsory voting. In fact, roughly 10% of the world’s governments use compulsory voting. Australia established compulsory voting at the turn of the 20th Century; with the “impetus for compulsory voting at federal elections appear[ing] to have been a decline in turnout from more than 71% at the 1919 election to less than 60% at the 1922 election.” Imagine, our high-turnout mark of 60% was enough of a shock to Australians that they made voting a duty of its citizens.

I don’t know that compulsory voting would be a magic bullet, but a robust democracy needs both commons-based (public) financing for elections and for its citizens to step up to the call of duty and vote. Otherwise we’ll be stuck with the rash of outside spending that amounts to the enclosure of campaigning by rich corporations, and the hyper-partisanship due to our obsession with competition over cooperation. And what’s worth it’ll be what we deserve.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Freedom of the press and the people

A colleague of mine has passed on the following message he got from a French colleague of his concerning the strikes in France.  I use it as today’s blog post because I think it is interesting and it follows my earlier post, but also because it shows the degree to which we are not getting  the full story from our press.  And this will bring me eventually to another blog post:  the health of the commons requires a truly free, diverse and not corporate owned press for the people to hear anything like the truth.  

The author of this 'personal note' is Jean-marie Fardeau, whose day job is with Human Rights Watch. 

Dear friends and colleagues,

This is a personal message in order to share with you some information and personal thoughts about the current social situation in France. It seems that international media are looking at us again! (after the riots in Paris poor suburbs in 2005, Sarkozy's wedding with Carla in 2008 and immigration policy targeting Roma people in 2010 - among other issues!)

As you know, the social tension raised at the occasion of a pension system reform.

Everyone in France, including those striking and demonstrating, knows that we need a reform of our highly financially unbalanced pension system.

Therefore people are not protesting against A reform but against THIS reform which appears to be unfair for the most vulnerable (poor workers, women with hectic careers, workers who have physically demanding  jobs, etc.). The problem of THIS reform is the following: it does not seem to take into consideration those who are living in the low and middle-low "ranges" of the society (to avoid the word "class/classes"). For instance, the government should have included in this reform that people who started working at 18 or 19 years old (majority of the workers / nurses..) - and in particular for those having physically demanding jobs - will continue to have the right to leave at 60 .. (After 41 or 42 years of work...).

Some so-called "realistic" people say that French people should take into consideration that the life expectancy increasing, people should work longer... and therefore the symbolic "right to retire when you complete 60 years" became unbearable... But actually, the previous reform (voted in 2003 with the support of the most reformist trade union, CFDT - negotiation led on the side of the government by Mr. Fillon) established that you are entitled to your full pension only if you work 41.5 years.. Which means that, if you start working at 23 years old.. You ALREADY have to work until 64.5 to get a full pension. You are currently allowed to leave when you are 60 but with a lower pension.

The reform (and the change from 60 to 62 and 65 to 67) might have been more acceptable if the government would have taken at the same time measures going in the direction of social justice and of reducing inequalities in France. Sarkozy (he is the only one making decisions) should have abolished his less popular and most unacceptable decision taken in 2007: to limit the income tax for the richest people (ceiling at 50% of their income).

The content of the reform could be (and should be) different. But also the method used by the government has been really insulting for the trade unions. As usual, the government prepared the reform on its own, and consulted the trade unions very late in the process without any willingness to negotiate with them on the content of the draft bill. Over last spring, the trade unions (CGT and CFDT leading the trade union coalition - both being pragmatic and not leftists) tried to persuade the government that a negotiation should take place before the discussion before the Parliament. No discussion took place and the government tried to speed the discussion at the Parliament and hoped that the concessions it was prepared to do (on women's pension, for dangerous professions) will be enough to stop the protest.  But the concessions were not sufficient to persuade citizens that this reform was the only one possible (several recent polls show that 70% of the people are against this reform and supporting the strikes - see below).

And, in a typical French style (since the different governments do not know how to negotiate before a important bill is passed), the confrontation was unavoidable and the trade unions know exactly the weak points of a country like France: oil, transportation, and the greatest fear for a French government: the youth in the streets.

Many other proposals to reform the pension system have been put on the table by the opposition parties, economists, trade unions but, once again, no serious discussion was possible with the government on alternative projects.

Last not least point: the current social tension is also the result of three years of Sarkozy's regime during which we felt the tension growing growing (because of cuts in education and health systems, migration policy, increasing of security measure leading almost 1 million persons a year to police custody for minor infractions..)... and this unjust reform of the pension system became THE opportunity to oppose Sarkozy's policy.

What will happen in the next days? Nobody knows.

The goal of my message was to give you some contextual information around this important social movement. It may seem a bit "outdated" way of making reforms in an country like our but this is also the result of three years of attempts by President Sarkozy and his team to reform France in a top-down way without listening to the people and their representatives. In July 2008, our president said in one of his famous speech: "Quand il y a une grève en France, plus personne ne s'en aperçoit." ("when there is a strike in France, nobody notices it") in an attempt to delegitimize the trade unions (Thatcher's nostalgia remains high among French right-wing leaders who never succeeded to destroy the trade unions) The current movement shows that French rebel spirit remains strong.

To conclude, I would like to answer to those saying that a majority of demonstrators do not not why they are demonstrating and do not understand the complexity of the pension system...

 I personally doubt that the 3 million people demonstrating 6 times in France over the last 45 days (i.e. that means one person over twenty in the whole French population in the streets once a week !!) are ignorant and not able to understand why they are demonstrating...

And the latest polls published on Oct 21st:
  • 59% are in favour of "the continuation of the movement" (until the opening of new negotiation and the suspension of the law)
  • 71% are supportive of the demonstrations and of the strikes (against 56% early September and 64% early October)
  • 71% of the French people unable to understand why they support this social movement they consider legitimate and necessary?
Any comments welcome

All the best


Thursday, October 21, 2010

War and Peace, and Pensions

Tuesday’s San Francisco Chronicle provided an unintended commentary on two related commons issues:  the role of work as it is understood in Europe, and the degree to which military spending is the one thing that almost no one is mentioning as a major source of the worldwide economic recession. 

Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative (by French standards) President of France, is seeking to raise the retirement age to 62 from 60.  Even teenagers took part in the resulting strike, with 261 high schools blocked or disrupted Monday. (“France Protests Disrupt Schools, Transportation” SF Chronicle, 10/19/10).  Further 71% of French people sympathized with the strikers, who have brought France to almost a grinding halt with blocked highway traffic, airlines instructed to bring enough fuel into France if they plan to fly back out, and shipping ports closed.  Almost 1 million people have participated in what is now several days of strikes and protests.  Critics of Sarkozy’s plan describe it as “American style capitalism.” 

To be fair to Sarkozy, France is suffering the worst recession in 70 years and the cost of pensions given to people at 60 who may well live to be 90, is astronomical. 

However, not in the newspaper, but in any reports on military spending to be found on Wikipedia or from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) is the fact that France has the third largest defense budget in the world, behind China and of course dwarfed by the United States (which spends more than the next nine most militarized countries put together).  France has increased their military budget every year and shows no sign of slowing down.  In a cursory search of major news sources on the French protest I did not find one person quoted as suggesting a cut in military spending as a way to pay pensions. 

Pacifists and anti-war activists make the connection between war and world wide military spending, which globally tops $1.3 trillion a year.  (The USA accounts for 44% of the world’s military spending.)   Movement building and commons activists have got to start making connections between bloody and pointless wars waged around the world, ineffectual, bloated and corrupt clandestine “intelligence” efforts to prevent terrorism, suppression of dissent in the name of safety, and the global recession.  The only cuts in spending that would increase the health, safety and peacefulness of our planet are weapons and military and (with a handful of exceptions) the left is not doing nearly enough to call this out.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Finding the Commons in Rescue of Chilean Miners

Last week’s rescue of the 33 Chilean miners was a massive media sensation. It was the kind of human interest story the media loves. The public’s interest had been building steadily since the San Jose mine collapsed on August 5, so when they were finally rescued, after 69 days, everyone tuned in and cheered. Unfortunately, there are important Commons-lessons that the media industry (at least in the U.S.) obscured in their coverage.

First, the mainstream coverage of the trapped miners missed a discussion of the dangers and damage wrought by the anti-Commons ethos of profits, exploitation and indifference. Although the United States was still seeing oil seep into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon Disaster that took the lives of 11 workers (by the way, today marks the 6-month anniversary of the explosion on the BP well), there was very little scrutiny of the corporate pathologies that led to both crises. Whether drilling for oil, or drilling for copper, neither industry tends to show much regard for the environment. And both BP and the San Esteban mining company had histories of workplace safety violations, and taking advantage of lax governmental regulations. In spite of all this, the Wall Street Journal declared (without any intentional irony) that “capitalism saved the Chilean miners.” []

The second lesson that the media got wrong was the Commons-based decision of the miners to share the proceeds of their story. Rather than cover the miners’ cooperative impulse in the same feel-good vein as they covered their rescue, reporters speculated about what it would take to break up this collective. The New York Daily News gleefully reported that some of the miners “may break pact of silence, for the right price.”

The rescue of the Chilean miners has certainly been a moving story, but it could be even more impactful if the media were willing to tell a fuller story.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Transit Cuts in Chicago: Update on LVEJO

As we mentioned in an earlier post, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) was one of the partners in a People’s Movement Assembly at this year’s US Social Forum. During the gathering, they lead an exercise on taking back the public transit system in Chicago, demonstrating that public control of the system was the only way to ensure fair and equal access to jobs, food, housing, etc. The participants experienced first-hand how LVEJO works “for a real voice in building democracy, including if, how, when and where any development of [their] communities takes place, as the basis for environmental, economic and social justice.

We now see that exercise taking place on the streets of Chicago, where LVEJO, in conjunction with Chicago I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) is coming up with a solution to the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) bus cuts. LVEJO is raising money to buy buses and create a system that can pay bus drivers a living wage while still providing quality service. They are taking things into their own hands until the CTA can restore service, but as David Bollier points out in a blog post on this issue, “If the Little Village neighborhood is going to wait for the CTA to restore service, it could wait a long time.”

What would it look like if we had transit systems that were adequately funded and could apply some of the ingenuity these groups are showing? In the meantime, it’s DIY in Little Village.

For more information on LVEJO campaigns and how they link democracy with environmental and racial justice, please visit their website.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Columbus Day is Over

Across the U.S., many marked yesterday's national holiday with parades; some workers got the day off (at least some of those who haven’t already been laid off in this recession); and the banks took a break from the business of profiting from interest rates, fees and foreclosures. Among many of my facebook friends though, this day was mocked with sarcastic e-cards (below), and criticized with links to youtube videos asking us to “Reconsider Columbus Day.”

I also lament the legacy of colonization and enslavement brought about by Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic and am part of the 27% of Americans who think we shouldn’t be devoting a holiday to him. However, the analogy of “walking into someone’s house and telling them we live there now” lazily reinforces the anti-commons views that led to the bloody history begun by Columbus.

Equating the lands held in common by Native American tribes with a private home is a false equation and misrepresents many tribes’ commons approach to land. In fact, it was the commons-view of Native Americans that European conquerors saw as uncivilized because “there is no enterprise to make your home any better than that of your neighbors. There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization.”

I’m by no means defending or apologizing for the enclosure of land that had been shared and held in common by Native Americans. But interpreting that horrific history only through our current framework of theft and ownership fails to honor the wisdom of traditional, commons-based patterns of native land tenure.

Note: to read more on the history of how the U.S. government dismantled the Native American communal approach to land, read two articles that Lewis Hyde wrote for On the Commons here and here.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Pat Cody

Last week a dear friend of mine named Pat Cody died at the age of 87.  I had known her since I was 24, and she was younger than I am now when we first met.  We worked together at an organization called the Coalition for the Medical Rights of Women.  I was the first development director they had ever had, and this was my first development job.  The combination worked out very well, and Pat was a great part of the reason why. 

I have been thinking about why she was such a great person since I learned of her death.  She had many accomplishments to her name:  she and her husband, Fred, started one of the most successful independent bookstores in Berkeley called Cody’s Books, and ran that for 30 years.  Prior to owning the bookstore, they had lived in Mexico where they hung with the likes of Pablo Neruda and Diego Rivera.  They were Communist sympathizers, caught up in the suppression of dissent called the McCarthy Era.  Pat founded or helped to found a number of Berkeley institutions: the Berkeley Free Clinic, DES Action (her great passion for many years), and later Grandmothers Against the War

But what made her great was that I never learned any of the above from her.  She focused always on the future, bringing in lessons of the past without nostalgia or righteousness.  She had the mind of a steel trap and could bring to mind dates, names, and places with no effort at all.  She had learned Spanish in Mexico, but then rarely spoke it, yet when we went to the UN Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi in 1986, she easily talked with the Spanish speakers there. 

In our working relationship, she offered unconditional support, great enthusiasm, and gave me credit far past what was due to me for any success we experienced at the Coalition with fundraising. 

Pat introduced me to the idea that taxes were a good thing.  In the mid 1970’s, nonprofits could opt out of paying social security tax and I wanted us to do that, to save money. She was able to help me see that any short term gain from this move would only hurt all of us later, and that social security tax was our obligation to the entire society.  She was the first ‘commoner’ I ever knew, although she did not use that word to describer herself.

I did not see her very often in the past few years: I was too busy and I did not take into account that she would not always be around.  I missed some great opportunities and I regret that very much.  In terms of rough social equity, death is the great equalizer: it comes to us all and those that go on living are never entirely prepared for the shock of it. 

Although I was not as good a friend as I should have or could have been, I never got that message from Pat.  She was always glad to see me when she saw me, with no recriminations.

I only hope that I can offer that same unconditional loving support to the people who are younger than me that she gave me.

Pat, you live on!!!  Thanks.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Movement Moment

The Building Movement Project team just met in Oakland this past weekend. We meet in person twice a year and the meetings are always, in almost equal parts, fun, exhausting, stimulating, overwhelming, theoretical and practical. I am amazed at all we get done and daunted by what we commit ourselves to do.

One of the things we came back to over and over, from different angles, is the notion that this historical moment provides those of us who work in and around the nonprofit sector some important opportunities which we could easily miss if we simply hunker down and wait for the economy to get better.

While this current recession has caused enormous suffering, it has also created the space to promote profound economic change. Every economic assumption is up for grabs right now. People are talking about banking, regulations, compensation, the role of government, the role of the corporate sector in a deep and thoughtful way, and are asking fundamental questions. We of the progressive nonprofit sector need to get out in front of this “movement moment” and provide some suggestions and even some answers to the questions people have, and we must invite people to develop their own analysis. The right wing will happily provide simple easy to understand answers, largely beginning and ending with the frame “no taxes”. We must provide a simple easy to understand beginning frame which begins and ends with ‘the common good.” Peter Maurin, the teacher of Dorothy Day who founded the Catholic Worker Movement, said that our job is “to create a society in which it is easy to be good.” There are many elements to this society, but it does presume a commitment to a rough social equity which will be achieved in part by a progressive tax system. The nonprofit sector can be instrumental in insisting on this, or we can be the primary organizational victims of not having it. It is our choice, and it must be made quickly.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Who's Responsible for Maintaining Public Space?

Recently I have been spending a lot of time on bike paths.  This past Sunday I did a two hour ride on the Ohlone Bike Path which starts in Berkeley and winds through Albany, El Cerrito and into Richmond.  As I ride along, I notice the scenery, nod to the walkers and bikers coming the other way, and think on what a wonderful part of the commons these paths are.

The bike path in Berkeley provides a glimpse of the median income level of the towns it passes through, and the willingness or ability of the residents to be engaged in maintaining their path.  In Berkeley, various parts of the path are planted with native plants, shrubs are trimmed and the path is free of trash. Some parts of the path even have beautiful murals.  As I moved further north, some parts of the path are beautifully planted, watered and well kept.  Other parts are planted with drought resistant plants, reflecting attention to the chronic water shortage that we have in California.  But some parts are overtaken with invasive fennel or other weeds, and weeds crowd into the path.  In Richmond, the path begins with a creek restoration project which is really lovely, then deteriorates into a path marked on either side by a chain link fence, one side of which is topped with barbed wire.  Richmond is, by and large, much poorer than Berkeley.     

In a “Show Me the Money” training recently, participants argued about how these paths are to be maintained.  All agreed that the government should provide land for these kind of trails and should build them.  One participant, a retired Marine who works with pre-teens who have brushes with the law, felt that the kids he works with should be employed by the county to maintain parks and outdoor areas.  They would learn discipline, they would gain skills, earn some small amount of money, and have fun being outdoors.  Another participant felt that this would mean we always have to have a supply of kids on their way to juvenile hall, and in the long term, this is not what we want.  He felt homeowners should be assessed a small amount which would be put into a pool and evenly divided over all the public outdoor areas so that each town would have nice bike paths and parks.  Another believed it would be best to keep it the way it is:  each community decides how important these areas are to them and maintain in whatever way they can. Why should people who own homes in poor communities have to spend money on bike paths?  Maybe they would prefer to put their money into street lights, or just keep what little money they have.  (He later admitted he doesn’t like to go outside.)

I found myself agreeing with everybody, which meant that I kept changing my mind as the conversation progressed.  What is the role of an individual, a neighborhood or a whole town in creating and maintaining outdoor public space?  If government agencies do all of it, does this decrease creativity?  What if one community wants a mural and the other doesn’t?  What do we do with kids who have few job prospects and go to terrible (and badly maintained) schools to encourage them not to get into the prison pipeline?  And why should people pay for something they have no intention of ever using? 

The reality is that the commons is so large and so important that is has to maintained (in some cases, restored) and upgraded in as many ways as possible.  Volunteers have an important place in taking care of public spaces.  Those same volunteers need to make sure there is enough money in the tax stream for costs that volunteers cannot incur.  And those of us who need a little help with our lives need to find the joy of helping our communities.  But above all, how we decide to keep our public spaces open and accessible to the public will require a certain equality of opportunity for involvement that is sadly missing now.  One participant ended this part of the discussion by saying, “We should be having this conversation with all the people we meet on our bike paths.”  Even our companion who doesn’t like going outside agreed.   “I’ll be having a conversation in the computer bank of the library,” he said.  “It will be almost the same in terms of content.”

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

USSF 2010: Little Village Environmental Justice Organization

As we mentioned in an earlier post, the Building Movement Project, in partnership with many groups, participated in a People’s Movement Assembly at the US Social Forum last month, which drew over 100 participants from all over the US and the world. We featured one of those groups in a post this summer.

This week, we want to highlight the work of another one of our partners in organizing the session: Little Village Environmental Justice Organization in Chicago. Little Village joined the People's Movement Assembly process to explore the links between their environmental justice work and how to build a healthier, more inclusive, and racially just democracy. They think of the environment as, “where we live, work, study, play and pray,” and they follow a mission to “work with our families, coworkers, and neighbors to improve our environment and lives in Little Village and through out Chicago through democracy in action. [They] work for a real voice in building democracy, including if, how, when and where any development of our communities takes place, as the basis for environmental, economic and social justice.”

In order to protect the environment around us, all people must first have full agency to act. At Little Village, they “live by the principle that, as working and poor people of color, we have the right to control our lives and resources.”

For more information on their campaigns and how they link democracy with environmental and racial justice, please visit their website.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Americans for Tax Reform vs. the Common Good

Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, is one of the leading anti-tax crusaders in the United States.  He is famous for saying, “I don’t hate government.  I just want to make it small enough that I could drown it in the bathtub.”  He and his followers take a “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” to every incumbent and candidate and ask them to sign it.  It says, "I ____, pledge to the taxpayers of the district of the state of _____ and all the people of this state that I shall oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes."  Here in California, all but one Republican legislator has signed this pledge. (You can see an actual copy of it on the ATR Website)  The organization also claims that it "opposes all tax increases as a matter of principle."

I found another quote from Norquist recently which really shows his true values.  In an article by William Greider called “Rolling Back the 20th Century” (The Nation, May 12, 2003),  he said that he wants to bring America back to what it was “up until Teddy Roosevelt, when the socialists took over.  The income tax, the death tax, regulation, all that.” 

He will say almost anything about anyone, such as this extraordinary analogy: “Clinton and Obama practice this politics known quaintly as the Richard Speck strategy: if you cannot take on everyone in the room at once, take them out of the room one at a time.”  (Richard Speck raped and murdered 8 nurses one night in July, 1966.  He took them out of their dorm room one at a time.)

I thought of him today when I was leading a workshop on what nonprofits need to do to address California’s broken tax structure (  Our call in these workshops is to engage in conversation, to listen to others, to show compassion and to encourage nonprofit staff to get involved in supporting any and all efforts to reform our budget and revenue structure here in California.  In some despair I wondered what kind of conversation I would have with Mr. Norquist and his followers. Fortunately I believe he does not represent the majority of Americans, but he has drawn a firm line in the sand and we must do all we can to counter his point of view by emphasizing the common good and what it will take to create a rough social equity. Taxes are not the only solution, but they are an integral part of any real and lasting change that helps everyone.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

An Un-Commons Recovery

On Monday, the announcement came out that the recession officially ended last summer. The chatter online was that the “egg-head” economists are out of touch with the economic woes of people on the ground; and setting aside the technicalities about how the National Bureau of Economic Research determines what constitutes a recession and when it comes to an end, there is wisdom in our skepticism about the recession’s “end.” There’s also a commons angle to the ‘cognitive dissonance’ created by news of economic recovery in spite of our real-life experience of job losses, foreclosures and troubles making ends meet.

The sad fact is that the recovery isn’t something that’s being held in common.

The economic growth over the last year has not only been “anemic,” it’s also been highly targeted. The rich have rebounded very quickly in this “recovery” but the rest of us are still struggling.

The number of people with more than $1 million in assets grew by more than 17% last year, thanks to the surge in the stock market; but the U.S. poverty rate rose to 14.3%. At the beginning of this year, companies had the highest share of assets in cash since the early 1960s because they were sitting on cash instead of using it to hire back workers and create new jobs. In fact, FedEx announced last week that it was planning to cut 1,700 jobs, even though its “first-quarter net income doubled”.

But this isn’t new. Over the last two decades, the economy has been structured to benefit a few, while the rest of us tread water or go under. The New York Times created this chart that shows job growth (or losses) following the end of a recession. It’s not just a coincidence that the recessions of the 70s and early 80s were followed by major job growth, but the more recent recessions were jobless. The trickle-down economic theory of the 80s -- which justified de-regulation, attacks on unions, and tax cuts for the rich -- fundamentally re-structured our economy in a decidedly Un-Commons direction.

It's time to re-think and re-structure our economy so that the recovery doesn't continue to be privatized for a few, but can instead strengthen our Commons.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Show Me the Money: What do we know about taxes?

I am currently engaged in a wonderful project called "Show Me the Money". The purpose of the project is to engage nonprofit staff in understanding tax policy, and then hoping that they will advocate for revenue solutions to our budget crises rather than more cuts. Nonprofits that rely on government funding to provide needed services are watching their funding be reduced again and again, while both the cost of doing business and the need for their work increase. This has reached crisis proportions, with thousands of nonprofits laying off staff, cutting programs and even going out of business altogether. The bottom line is that without significant restoration of government revenue, there is not enough money to do the work that communities count on nonprofits to do.

Compounding the problem is the fact that nonprofits (with a few exceptions) have not taken any leadership in advocating for fair and just tax policies that would create a tax stream capable of maintaining a social safety net and adequate quality of life. In the vast majority of states, and certainly nationally, there is no “nonprofit lobby.” Congress people do not look at their windows and think, “Oh, no, the Nonprofit Lobby is here.”

I see social service agencies turning themselves into pretzels to meet more and more need with less funding. And the problem is that every time we try to do more work, help more people, provide more services, using the same amount or often less money, we say to the right wing, to the Grover Norquists’ of the world: “You were right. We didn’t need that much money to do our work.”

There is an appalling ignorance about issues of tax and budget structure among nonprofit staff. In my (admittedly not scientific, but still fairly large) survey of nonprofit staff, few knew how their state budget structure worked, few had opinions on things like what the estate tax should be or whether increasing sales tax on alcohol and soda is a good thing or pushes still more of a tax burden onto poor people. (This may be true in the public at large as well.) Mostly, in keeping with the overworked and beleaguered culture that prevails in nonprofits right now, staff feel there is little they can do to influence tax policy and so the effort to learn about it would not be worth it. There is a related unwillingness to stand up for ourselves and for the people we serve for fear of losing our tax status or losing further funding, or out of inability to budget the time.

The organizations that are experts on tax policy and do advocate for progressive solutions tend to do it like this, “Here are a bunch of difficult- to-understand facts (mostly numbers) and here is what you should do: use this message, advocate for this, vote for that.” The problem with giving people a lot of information and then telling them to act on that information is that no time is spent finding out what opinions or feelings people start out with. A Canadian activist once told me, “When American activists see a problem or find an injustice, you immediately say, “What shall we do? What shall we do?” And you run around DOING a lot, but much of is ineffective because you don’t stop to say, “What do I think about this? What do others think? Are my feelings and my thoughts different? Am I acting out of what I have been taught to think, or have I taken the time to create my own thinking? Who can I talk with?” Americans take great pride in saying that people have the right to their opinion, but no one is going to form an opinion if their lived experience is that no one ever asks them for their opinion.

Organized philanthropy is no help either. For example, recently there was much praise for the “Giving Pledge” led by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Certainly the Council on Foundations or Independent Sector should thank these men for being so generous, but also they need to ask a question about what kind of society lets people accumulate that much wealth in the first place? In the world of organized philanthropy, we see very little advocacy about the estate tax, and some large coalitions of nonprofits have opposed Obama’s proposal to cap deductions, even though 71% of Americans file a short form and receive no tax benefit for their giving at all. To my knowledge (and I would love to be wrong), there is no major coalition of nonprofits that has raised the question about the purpose of taxes, and has asked how it is that we have a tax system which is redistributive, but redistributes massive wealth to fewer and fewer people.

There is no easy solution to this complicated problem, but any solution must begin with educating ourselves and each other about the role of taxes in public life. Taxes are primarily a revenue tool, but they are also a mirror of community values, and we need to make the connection between taxes and the common good. A commons approach to movement building starts with a commitment to conversation, and an assertion that having a conversation is DOING something. Start with asking yourself and everyone around you, “What is your tax philosophy?” Mine is borrowed from the economist Adam Smith who said in the late 1700’s, “the goal of taxes should be to remedy inequality as much as possible.”

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rosh Hashanah, 5771: no more fears, no more scapegoats

Today is the Jewish New Year, marking the start of the “Days of Awe”, a ten day period of reflection, meditation and repentance ending with Yom Kippur. Actually, the New Year started at sundown last night, and my partner (who is Jewish) and I invited a few friends to join us for dinner. As it turned out, we were all women and, except for me, all Jews, none particularly religious or observant.

All of us are also activists, and so our talk naturally turned to the rampant Islamaphobia (as one person pointed out, “It’s so widespread we had to coin a name for it”) that is sweeping our country. From the frenzy surrounding the proposed Islamic center in downtown Manhattan to the most recent threat to burn Korans on Sept 11 by a tiny fundamentalist group of Christians (using the word loosely), Muslims have become the new target of American fears and bigotry. Last night, several people recalled their parents’ growing up, when being Jewish evoked similar sentiments. And many of us recalled our own childhood and early adulthood when whole neighborhoods were off limits for Jews. In fact, a new poll by Gallup shows that people who express contempt for Jews are 32 times more likely to be anti-Muslim.

What might a commons frame have to say about all of this? I won’t pretend to present all that a commons philosophy offers here, partly because anti-Muslim prejudice cannot be separated from racism and anti-immigration points of view, and because religion (which is only part of this equation, but one that cannot be left out) is a gray area in commons thinking, which I will discuss more in another blog post.

Because this is Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Jewish New Year, I want to raise the question of fear. A commons-based society is one in which fear is uncommon. Clearly individuals may have personal fears: spiders, needles, heights, etc. And many of us have various levels and stages of fear around big life events such as dying.

But in a commons-based society, people would not be afraid of each other, and would not need to create groups of people to vilify and fear. I am almost 57 and in my life, I have been taught to be afraid of Communists (under every bed), Catholics (the pope tells them what to do, and, under Kennedy, the Pope was running the country), Jews (controlling all the money), and then in more minor ways, hippies, drug addicts, gay people, and probably any number of other groups and subgroups. I was not taught to be afraid of Black people, mostly because I grew up in a town where there were none, not because we were so pure.

At all these stages of my life, there were people who tried to counter these fears. Some people would give the fears names that made them into moral issues: “anti-Semitism,” “homophobia”, “racism.” While these analyses were both helpful and accurate, I often found that in people who were truly fearful, this approach simply covered their fear with either guilt or defensiveness, but their fear remained intact. Others tried to counter fear with facts, which again, in the truly fearful, now added a feeling of stupidity to their fear. Possibly because I was very friendly with a number Jews and Catholics growing up, and my parents were sympathetic to Communist ideals, (not to be confused with being Communist sympathizers, which they were not), I did not share the fears of my childhood friends and was often accused of being anti-American. I also attribute some of reaction to fear mongering to my own dawning awareness of being a lesbian, and watching how much fear I could strike in someone else just by saying that. Our country practically practices a fear du jour: witchcraft, the British, the Germans, the Japanese, the Russians, creatures from outer space….the list is way too long.

Counting Islamaphobia with more education about Islam and calls for tolerance from every kind of pulpit to say nothing of enforcement of hate crime laws is critically important. But just as Islamaphobia has replaced a number of other fears, we don’t want to simply educate ourselves out of this one, only to replace it with fear of some other group of people in the next decade. We must train ourselves out of fear itself. People let go of fear when they feel heard and understood, and when their own personal experience counters the fears they have been taught. We often use the words “compassion and tolerance” as though they were interchangeable, but in fact, we need to separate them. Can we be compassionate – from the Latin, meaning to “feel with” – to people who are afraid, without tolerating behavior that is unacceptable? Compassion will not replace analysis or facts or education: it will simply form the basis from which we engage. Our commons commitment has to be “no more fears, no more scapegoats.”