Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Reflecting on Haiti

For obvious reasons, the celebration and glee of Carnival was suspended in Haiti this year. It’s as if the Lenten somberness of tomorrow’s Ash Wednesday started when the earthquake took such an unbelievable toll on Haiti.

Just as religious reflection can lead people to a more commons-centered orientation, we saw people respond to the disaster in Haiti with the same outpouring of sharing and cooperation. The Commons was there in Haitians risking their health and safety to form impromptu rescue teams before relief started pouring in from across the globe. And we’ve seen the idea of a commons come to life as people do whatever they can to support the struggle to overcome scarcity and disaster in Haiti.

But even as the response to the suffering in Haiti inspires faith in the ideal of the commons, there’s been an interesting tension between the market and the commons at play here at home. As with other natural disasters, the same media that contributes to consumerism and privatization creates a sense of crisis through constant coverage of the disaster (whether the earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, or the tsunami in the Indian Ocean) that shocks the public into a commons-based response. Whether through celebrity-driven telethons or singles on iTunes benefiting relief efforts, the same architecture that normally creates private wealth is temporarily re-directed towards the common good, but this surge in commons-based thinking is fleeting.

Many have written about how a week government contributed to the extent of the earthquake’s damage,
which certainly offers some cautionary examples of weak commons. But rather than contribute to more victim-blaming rhetoric, it simply seems worth considering how a fuller embrace of commons-based thinking could not just help those affected by the current crisis, but also transform the way that Americans think about the importance of a robust commons and continued stewardship and cooperation.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Protection in the Commons

A few years ago, in the never ending search for money to pay for things, the government agency in charge of the Golden Gate Bridge (which links San Francisco to Marin County) explored letting a corporation place advertising on the bridge. Whether this would have been a billboard or banner, or something painted on the bridge itself was never known because the outcry against the idea was immediate and furious and the plan was quickly dropped. People recognized a “commons” in their midst—in this case an iconic structure—and rose to its defense. We did not want the integrity and beauty of the Bridge defaced with advertising.

However, there is a shadow side to this allegiance to the Golden Gate Bridge. As you may know, in addition to being one of the most beautiful structures in the world, the Bridge has the dubious distinction of being “the top suicide magnet on earth” according to the Contra Costa Crisis Center’s fall newsletter, “24-7”. In an article called “Secrets of the Bridge” they report that at least 1500 people have leaped to their death from this bridge. The first suicide occurred only 10 weeks after the bridge opened. The victim was a World War I veteran, and since then upwards of 200 suicides have been veterans.

For years, people have proposed various suicide barriers on the bridge, but none have ever been put in place. The objections are various: cost, controversy over whether the various proposed barriers would actually work, and not wanting the bridge’s beauty compromised. The advocates for a barrier have never been able to rally the support they need.

I admit to being one of the people who never advocated for a barrier. I have often thought that people who are going to commit suicide are going to do it and the bridge is simply a dramatic and quite successful place to do it from. However, this is apparently not true. In a study done with 515 people who were stopped from jumping off the Bridge, more than 94% were still alive 25 years later or, if dead, had not committed suicide. Other international icons that suicidal people might be drawn to, such as the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, Sydney Harbour Bridge, and St. Peter’s Basilica, all have suicide barriers.

Here, in a sense, is a conflict between the beauty of the bridge and the need to protect people who are in a desperate and vulnerable life crisis. To add a barrier, even if unsightly, is the right thing to go, the commons thing to do. What if the aforementioned advertising revenues could pay for this barrier? Still wrong to accept it, I think. Commons thinking says that the government should be able to create or find the revenue to build this barrier and that vulnerable people should not depend for help on corporate advertising. People like me need to get busy pressuring the powers-that-be (beginning with researching who they are) to fund a barrier because ultimately the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge is greatly lessened by the moniker, “Top Suicide Magnet on Earth.”

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Corporate "Personhood"

“Fascism should more properly be called Corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power” - Mussolini

The most recent 5-4 Supreme Court decision capped two weeks of depressing events, starting with the earthquake in Haiti, moving on to the political earthquake in Massachusetts and ending with this decision. I don’t pretend to understand all of the implications of it, or even what it overturned and what it kept in place. Most commentators seem to agree that the ruling is very problematic, but has some good elements, including a lot more transparency about who (or what) is funding whom. The decision was so complicated that the dissent alone, (by Justice John Paul Stevens), ran to 170 pages.

I am more interested in the notion of the full personhood of corporations which is a very flawed concept on the face of it. For me, with all due respect to lawyers and the law, this notion shows what a small role common sense plays in legal interpretation.

David Korten in his book, The Post-Corporate World, Life After Capitalism (pp.186) explains how bizarre this law really is:
The doctrine of corporate personhood creates an interesting legal contradiction. The corporation is owned by its shareholders and is therefore their property. If it is also a legal person, then it is a person owned by others and thus exists in a condition of slavery -- a status explicitly forbidden by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. So is a corporation a person illegally held in servitude by its shareholders? Or is it a person who enjoys the rights of personhood that take precedence over the presumed ownership rights of its shareholders? So far as I have been able to determine, this contradiction has not been directly addressed by the courts.
An ordinary person can tell the difference between a corporation and a person; yet, the majority of the Supreme Court Justices claim they cannot when it comes to First Amendment rights. But in commons thinking, rights cannot be truly enjoyed by all without at least rough social equity. There is no pretense of equality when some “people” (corporations) can speak so much more loudly than others (those of us who actually are people). Rights, without some kind of equal access to them, are meaningless. An ordinary person with a modicum of commonsense would say that, if there were any place that such a person might be heard.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Case for Financial Literacy

As I waited for a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train, a girl of about 13 sat next to me, frantically filling in a homework assignment. She would write, then erase, write on a piece of scratch paper, then erase. I noticed that her eyes had filled with tears. I tried to arrange my face into one of those “You can talk to me if you want, but I am not trying to pry” faces which apparently worked because she looked up and said, “Do you know anything about algebra?” My heart sank. Yes, I know a lot about algebra—I know how to get an “A” in every subject but a “D” in algebra. I know the feeling of just not being able to make heads or tails of these equations that were a stream of letters and numbers where X was to mean something, but what? And who cares anyway?

But I summoned my courage and my self-esteem and thought “I am 56 years old. Of course I can help this kid with her math homework.” I said, “Well, I can’t promise but maybe together we can figure it out.” We got on the train together and I spent the rest of the ride helping her. As it turned out, I could help. The problems were mostly fractions and I am good at fractions and she knew more than she realized. She got off the train beaming.

I know algebra is useful, but I was struck by how much time this young woman will spend learning algebra, then calculus and then trigonometry, and how little time she will spend learning math skills she might use every day in real life. Far better for her to have spent her time figuring out how much her ride on BART actually cost compared to what she paid, or how much tax money is spent for her to go to public school for a year compared to how much is spent to keep someone in prison, and then asking what should X (where X = dollars spent) be spent on?

Braun Mincher, author of “The Secrets of Money: A Guide for Everyone on Practical Financial Literacy” notes that a 2007 survey commissioned by the National Council on Economic Education, shows that only seven states require high school students to receive financial education. Yet almost all schools require trigonometry, which few of us ever use after graduation.

An on-line consumer survey by Mincher showed that only 50% of those who took the survey knew that property taxes and mortgage interest are tax deductible, only 32% knew what required deductions were taken from their paycheck, and only 33% knew what “annual percentage rate (APR) meant. With little or no knowledge of these simple financial facts, how will people decide about more complicated ideas, such as whether sales tax is regressive, or whether banks should be given bailout money? I hope my young friend gets an “A” in algebra but I also want to make sure she doesn’t get an “F” in financial literacy.