Tuesday, July 27, 2010

USSF 2010: Campaign Against Violence – The League of Young Voters

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.

One of our partners in organizing the session was Campaign Against Violence, which is the local Wisconsin League of Young Voters. They joined the process because they have begun to use a commons framework to tie their different projects and organizing campaigns together. They call this approach Love Peace & Green, which recognizes that “there are many components that contribute toward inner-city violence. [They] are focused on solving the problem from a wholistic approach.”

This approach includes:
  • Developing leaders and spaces to discuss and address community issues,
  • Promoting non-violence and tools to directly address violence in their community, and
  • Focusing on the environment in order to ensure that future generations and residents will have a healthy and sustainable place to live.
For more information on their program, campaigns, and approaches, please visit their website.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Kindly change

I am on vacation in one of my favorite spots: Cherry Grove, Fire Island. Fire Island is a long and narrow (100 miles long and one mile wide at its widest point) strip of land off of Long Island, with a number of distinct communities dotted up and down the island. On most of the island (and all of the island that I have ever seen), no cars are allowed, and houses, shops and so on are connected by a series of board walks or sometimes sidewalks. The communities are accessed by a very efficient ferry system. We come to Cherry Grove, an old artist’s community now largely catering to the LGBTQ community (although all kinds of people can be found here.)

Today my partner, Stephanie, and I took a long walk down the island, coming at one point to a community called Point O Woods. A sign on the boardwalk leading from the beach into the community said, “Private Community. Kindly do not enter.” However there was no guard or gate, so, taking advantage of our race and age (middle aged white women), we flouted the sign and wandered in. No one really glanced at us, and I did not feel conspicuous or even unwelcome. The people we saw were all white, largely fit and nicely dressed in tennis whites or other white outfits. Later we learned that in order to even rent there you have to be recommended by two other people who already live there.

It is a gateless gated community.

A commons society is easily defined (among other definitions) as one in which it is easy to be good (Peter Maurin). It is easy to be good in this community, if you belong there. Bicycles sit unlocked, and lots of beach equipment is left outside, easy to gather up and take to the beach (which, like all beaches, is open to the entire public.) Clearly if we were young and/or people of color, our time in Point O Woods might not have been so pleasant, and these types of communities always seem to be wanting to keep out people poorer and darker than the current residents. But would we have been so offended by this sign if we had come upon a community that was mixed race, mixed class, with lots of people with disabilities, and other signs of diversity? And de facto, such a community would not have a discreet sign saying, “Kindly do not enter.”

“Kindly” seems a funny word to use—are we being asked to be kind, and not enter? Are they being kind by advising us not to enter? “Kind” and “do not enter” seem somewhat self-canceling yet are yoked together at the entrance to this private community that has a public Post Office, church, community center, fire department and other amenities paid for by taxes collected from a wider group than just these residents.

In some ways it doesn’t matter that a small community on a small (and rapidly disappearing) island is exclusive. But the principal here can rapidly devolve to the Arizona law which basically says “Kindly do not enter unless you are born in the United States, preferably to people born here, preferably to people who came here from England or Europe.”

I would like to put up my own sign: “Kindly do the work that is required to let go of your racism and classism, and I will do the same.” Then we can really discuss what we need to do to create communities in which it is easy for everyone to be good.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Economic Cynicism and the Possibility of Another Economics

Nancy Folbre, a feminist economist, writes regularly for the New York Times’ Economix Blog, and her latest article asks “Is Another Economics Possible?”

The title’s play on the Social Forum’s slogan is fitting because, whereas social justice organizers hopefully assert that another world is possible, Prof. Folbre describes the ways that “conventional economics” undermine the imagining of the possibility of another world; turning assertion into question.

As Prof. Folbre puts it, the economics we’re taught in school reinforce “cynical views of human nature” and discourage “efforts to develop cooperative enterprises.” This link-rich article goes on to give an over-view of some of the new research and experiments in a more just and cooperative (and commons-based) economics.

It’s interesting that Prof. Folbre identifies economic cynicism -- which “treats individuals as selfish optimizers, unconcerned with the welfare of others” -- as one of the reasons alternative economic models and theories are disregarded and ignored by traditional economics. That cynicism isn’t just at the level of economic theory, but we see it in real life in the recent political posturing about unemployment benefits. Conservatives resorted to calling people “spoiled”, “hobos”, and “leeches” to justify blocking the UI extension (watch this TRMS clip for a run-down on the unbelievable insults leveled against the unemployed). The extension finally passed the senate yesterday, but the conveniently revived “deficit ploy” will certainly continue to be a core part of the conservative narrative through the elections, at which point they’ll flip-flop back to increasing deficits for the sake of tax cuts for the rich. So we know that cynical political posturing and disregard for the welfare of others extends beyond textbook economics to policymaking, having real impacts on people’s lives.

Therefore, the challenges we face to making another economics possible go far beyond economic textbooks, because economic cynicism and selfishness is real and all around us. That’s why it’s critical to have the work of progressive economists like Prof. Folbre to prove that cooperative and just economics are not just possible but happening. But the scale of the change that’s needed in terms of policy and our own mindset is so enormous that nothing short of a movement and new politics will make it possible (Gus Speth’s “Towards a New Economy and a New Politics" is essential reading on this point).

We’ve got a ways to go. Let’s hope that economic cynicism and disregard for the welfare of others doesn’t win elections in November.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Show Me the Money: Taxes and Values

I am working on a project we have named “Show Me the Money: Changing the Inequalities in California’s Broken Tax Structure.” We have created a two hour workshop with exercises and a PowerPoint that explains the fundamentals of California’s tax structure and shows how powerful the nonprofit community could be in addressing these problems, if we aggregated our power and organized ourselves.

Nationwide, the nonprofit sector is a huge economic driver. We are 10% of the workforce, and almost $1 trillion passes through the sector each year. If we were a single industry, we would be our nation’s largest industry, and if we were a single economy, we would be the world’s 7th largest economy. Yet, most of us feel powerless in the face of constant budget cuts and we don’t imagine what it would be like if our state legislators looked out their windows and said, “Oh, no, the nonprofit lobby is here!”

In our workshops we have learned that many nonprofit staff have very few opinions about taxes. We don’t hate them like the right wing and generally we don’t want to shrink government. But we don’t really know what fair and just tax policy would look like, nor have we seen the need to learn about tax policy, form opinions and seek to influence others.

“Taxes are the dues we pay for membership in a civilized society” said Roosevelt. An economist friend said he could tell almost anything he needed to know about the values of a community by just knowing their tax structure. For example, places with low corporate tax or high sales tax have little commitment to equality and think it is fine to have a lot of impoverished people in their communities. Places with high “sin” tax—that is tax on alcohol and cigarettes may have a greater commitment to public health. Taxes are a mirror of values, and right now they don’t mirror very good values. Here in California they mirror a state that is #1 in number of people in prison and #48 in quality of public schools.

But we can change this, and the first step is education. Learn about the tax structure in your community. Ask yourself how things should be paid for, and what should be available to everyone. Start with something not too emotional, such as dog parks: should they be paid for by taxes? Should they be free to anyone with a dog? How about performing arts? Playgrounds? Move on to public transportation, health care and housing. Form your own opinions and share them with others.

And finally, if you work for a nonprofit, think about how your organization depends on a certain tax structure to even exist. What do you think about that? Let me know.

For more resources, visit www.buildingmovement.org

Thursday, July 8, 2010

More Thoughts on Rough Social Equity from Kim Klein

Note: we are having some minor technical difficulties. That's why Sean is posting this article, even though it was in fact written by Kim.

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld asks in the last blog posting, “if rough social equity is essential to a healthy commons, the other side of that equity’s roughness is (presumably) some acceptable level of inequality. So how unequal should our economy be from a commons perspective?”

We often look at this question from the point of view of the top ten percent of income, or even the top two percent of wealthy people, but a fascinating new book looks at how we might get to some rough social equity by starting with the people at the bottom. As reported on Alternet in an article by Melinda Burns, a book called Just Give Money to the Poor: The Development Revolution from the Global South, shows how a number of developing countries are reducing poverty by making cash payments to the poor from their national budgets in something about as close to a guaranteed annual income as we have seen in recent times. At least 45 developing nations now provide social pensions or grants to 110 million impoverished families and the rates of poverty in many of these countries is significantly lower than before the programs began.

There are many examples in the book, but here are just three: Brazil provides pensions and grants to 74 million poor people, or 39 percent of its population at a cost of $31 billion, or about 1.5 percent of Brazil's gross domestic product. Eligibility for the family grant is linked to the minimum wage, and the poorest receive $31 monthly. As a result, Brazil has seen its poverty rate drop from 28 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2008.

South Africa allocates $9 billion, or 3.5 percent of its GDP, to provide a pension to 85 percent of its older people, plus a $27 monthly cash benefit to 55 percent of its children. Pensioner households, many of them covering three generations, have more working people than households without a pension. A grandmother with a pension can take care of a grandchild while the mother looks for work.

Mexico spends $4 billion, or .3% of GDP, and provides about $38 month to 22% of the population. Part of the money is for children who stay in school: the longer they stay, the more money they get. Families receiving these benefits eat more fruit, vegetables and meat, and get sick less often.

No one could argue that these countries, or any of the other surveyed, are free of problems or even free of poverty, but they are making faster and deeper inroads than billions of dollars of foreign aid have been able to accomplish over several decades.

The authors of Just Give Money, Joseph Hanlon, Armando Barrientos and David Hulme, are British scholars with vast expertise in international aid and poverty reduction. The authors argue that cash transfers solve big problems caused by poverty. Cash transfers 1) enable families to eat better, 2) send their children to school and 3) put a little money into their farms and small businesses. It is an old idea that has fallen out of favor. During the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth (1572) lawmakers introduced the compulsory "poor tax" to provide peasants with cash and a "parish loaf." The world's first-ever public relief system did more than feed the poor: it helped fuel economic growth because peasants could risk leaving the land to look for work in town. (By the 1800’s the law was rescinded and poor people locked up in parish workhouses.)

Just Give Money does not ask or answer the question we opened with, but it provides a starting place. A society characterized by rough social equity would have guaranteed annual incomes, so no one could fall below a certain standard of living. This standard would have to include housing, food, education and health care. To help pay for this guaranteed annual income, perhaps there would be a maximum wage: you could earn as much as you want, but at a certain point you would hit a tax rate of 100%. I would argue that the richest person should not earn more than ten times the poorest person, but I think good arguments can be made for a wider distribution. However no one can argue that the current gap, which has owners earning 490 times as much as their workers is good for anyone. Capital gains would be taxed at least as high and possibly higher than income so that people who earn money by working would not have less at the end of the day than those who derive the money from investments.

What all this talk of rough social equity implies is that we must move away from money being the main incentive and reward for work, and individual accomplishment our main motivation. In the end economic equity would require not so much an economic change as a major cultural shift from our “I have to look after myself and my family” to the affirmation of the late Senator Paul Wellstone, “We all do better when we all do better.” Now the question is, “What would it take to make that shift?”

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

From the Commons High of 4th of July to How ROUGH Social Equity Should Be?

Fourth of July is a day when the commons is actually felt, not just theorized in the abstract. From community parades and concerts of patriotic music, to neighborhood barbeques and kids enjoying impromptu pools and sprinklers, we share our public spaces in a way that is rare. And unlike other holidays, there isn’t much of a consumerist element to the day (aside from good food and drinks). It is fitting (yet ironic) that we celebrate our nation’s independence in the commons. But now that the glow of the fireworks has faded into that faint odor of chemical smoke, it’s back to a different (but more routine) form of independence – the rugged independence of our ‘you’re-on-your-own’ economy.

For many of us, the end of the holiday weekend marked a return to the daily grind of work. But for at least 15 million people, they’re dealing with grinding unemployment. And for more than 2 million of those who are officially ‘unemployed’, they went into this Independence Day weighed down by the knowledge that they were losing their unemployment insurance.

The fact that many millions of people are struggling economically illustrates how weak our commons has become. As we’ve discussed before, rough social equity is essential to having the chance of a healthy commons. But the struggles of the millions of unemployed and discouraged workers (who don’t count in the official unemployment count anymore because they’ve given up on applying for jobs that aren’t out there) are not just due to the current recession; it’s a feature of our economic system.

At the end of June, the U.S. Census Bureau ended its period of public comment on developing a supplemental poverty measure (download the Federal Register announcement here). People from all ends of the political spectrum agree that a new poverty measure is needed. The official poverty measure was developed in the 1960s, based on the food costs of families, which are now a much smaller portion of a family budget compared to rent, transportation and healthcare. So there’s no doubt that the poverty rate needs updating, but if we’re going to take the commons seriously, we should be exploring relative measures instead of just establishing the bare minimum.

Bringing about rough social equity poses a challenging question for us: “How unequal should our incomes be?” That question got addressed by the working-class perspectives blog this week (referencing The Spirit Level) and concludes that the optimal level of inequality is for the top tenth should get one third of all income (down from the half of all income they get now).

I wonder if commons-based thinking leads us in a different direction. Do we also reject the idea of absolute income equality? (personally, it makes me uncomfortable) And if so, do we reject the notion of equality on the basis that it would kill economic growth (particularly in light of the environmental catastrophe that our addiction to growth has created)? If rough social equity is essential to a healthy commons, the other side of that equity’s roughness is (presumably) some acceptable level of inequality. So how unequal should our economy be from a commons perspective?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Building Walls

Last weekend, as I was working in my garden, I heard sirens on my street. I got to the sidewalk in time to see a fire truck and an ambulance pull up in front of my neighbor and five paramedics race in to the house. Within another five minutes all kinds of neighbors were assembled with me watching the flashing lights and debating whether to go ask if we could be helpful or just stand there staring, or go back to doing whatever it was we had been doing. The first choice seemed both nosy and unnecessary—after all if this were an emergency a neighbor could help with, why call an ambulance? The last choice seemed heartless—a neighbor is in serious enough trouble to need paramedics, but I return to my weeding. Just standing and talking amongst ourselves seemed to give us all the most comfort and, in its own way, offered solidarity should one of the affected neighbors come out. “Here we are, your neighbors. We know you may have had a heart attack or accidently impaled yourself on a kitchen knife, but can we do anything? Bring over a casserole, perhaps?”

As it turned out, our neighbor was having a very bad reaction to some post surgery pain killers he had taken, and the reaction could have been (but was not) a blood clot or an aneurism. The paramedics left and the neighbor’s partner appeared to tell all of us that all would be well. She seemed pleased at our concern, and the rest of the afternoon various people showed up at their door with flowers from their yards, cookies they had baked or bought, and even a couple of books. (I brought cookies.)

How differently something like this turned out recently in South Carolina where paramedics failed to save the life of a man living in a gated community who had had a heart attack, because an unmanned gate with a pin code entry blocked the ambulance for three minutes. The county administrator later pointed out there were 32 unmanned gates in his district alone. This led to heated debates about the need for emergency override systems at barriers intended to keep trouble, rather than help, out. I had just read this story in an article by Rowland Atkinson called “Prisoners By Choice” documenting the enormous rise in gated communities in the USA and the UK. Atkinson says there are over 4 million US households living behind gates in the US and about 1,000 gated communities in the UK. Generally these are expensive neighborhoods, designed to keep out “crime”—anyone who is not suitable. Atkinson points out the irony that you are most in danger of being hurt or killed in your house by someone you know. In fact, last September a woman and her five children were murdered by her husband in an exclusive gated community in Florida.

The world is becoming increasingly “gated”— Belfast boasts 92 “peace walls”, to keep Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods separate; Israel continues to wall itself off from Palestine, and the US pursues walls at our border with Mexico. Our massive prison population shows our faith in putting people behind “bars”—huge walls topped with barbed wire. California has built 22 prisons in the last 23 years and soon will have the world’s fourth largest prison system (with the USA itself holding the #1 spot.)

So we put some people behind walls, we keep some people from crossing over into our lives with walls, and then some of us, not satisfied with that, choose to live behind walls. Whether they are called bars, gates, fences or walls, they all have the same effect: they keep people apart. We can’t know each other so we must make up stories about each other, and our stories are all negative: criminal, rapist, terrorist, gang member, thug, drug dealer, … Accuracy of description is immaterial, other solutions not considered. Because above all these various forms of walls are very profitable and the amount of money that goes into creating and maintaining the conditions of fear and paranoia, fed by racism and zenophobia, which lead to buying separation from “the other”, may well be the world’s largest industry.

Pondering all this as I went back to weeding, I felt a great surge of love for my neighbors, and for my street which is not walled off in any way except by a stop sign. I continue to ponder how to use the commons to counter the prisons we build for ourselves.