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 Wilstar.com, 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 OnTheCommons.org!

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)