Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Commodification of Fear

Posted by Kim Klein

I was recently in another state to give a keynote address on fundraising. I had dinner with the organizers the night before. We were a group of ten women, mostly white, mostly 50 and up. Someone was talking about a recent raid on a methamphetamine lab which led someone else to talk about the rise in burglaries by meth addicts. We then talked about what could be done to address the problem of meth addiction. I was thinking we would talk in more policy terms but the conversation really focused on personal safety. In what was a great surprise to me, half of the women said they had a handgun, and two had their handgun with them in their purse! Someone asked how much these guns cost and someone else told her the cheapest place to buy them legally. One person said she did not own a gun because she didn’t think she could really use it. But she had recently contracted with a local hardware store which offers discounts to people wanting to make their homes burglar proof. They sell various kinds of locks, security cameras, motion detectors and the like and she has made her home “a fortress.” The conversation went on until someone who hadn’t spoken said, “There is a lot of money in fear.”

I thought back to this conversation after the most recent mass shooting in CT. The debate by the pro and anti-gun control forces is an important one and I am certainly completely on the side of people who want to bring back the assault weapon ban as the least we can do to begin to address gun violence. But we also have to address the marketing of fear which make many normal nonviolent people (my colleagues at this dinner) decide to own a gun.

A fundamental premise of a commons based society is that the people living in it feel physically secure: they feel safe as they go about their lives. People living in the United States don’t feel that and from our giant military budget (larger than the next 15 most militarized nations combined) to our local hardware store, we see the money to be made from exploiting that fear.

In the Christian tradition the time leading up to Christmas is called Advent, from the Latin word for arrival. We await the arrival of Jesus. Similarly, in much more ancient traditions, we await the arrival of the Winter Solstice, when the northern hemisphere begins to get more light every day. These images: the arrival of a few minutes extra daylight or the arrival of a baby are hopeful and joyful . Fear is not present. It is not a coincidence that the command which recurs most often in the Bible (from the Hebrew testament to the Christian testament) is “Do not be afraid.”

In a commons based society, this command would not be addressed to each person: “Stop feeling afraid, you wimp” but is addressed to the society as a whole, “Do not be afraid to build a society in which fear is not a commodity.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Private Ownership in a Digital Age

Posted by Caitlin Endyke

In our last post we touched on the issue of privacy and the commons- specifically, what information should and shouldn’t be publicly available, given a commons frame.  In the modern Internet age, this question of privacy is a common one.  With so much of our lives online, how do we monitor what we share with one select group of people and what we share with the rest of the world?  And who owns that information?

Our last post turned out to address a timely question, given a new development in the online privacy debate that has gained considerable traction in the news cycle today.  This morning, the popular photo-sharing app Instagram released a new set of terms and conditions that has many of its users up in arms.  Part of the new agreement, revised because Facebook recently gained ownership of the application (read this post on CNN for more background on the story), states that once the new terms go into effect on January 16th users give up all claims to ownership of the photos they post through the Instagram system, and their usernames and the content that they create can be used freely by outside advertisers.  What this appears to mean in practice is that sponsors advertising on the site can use your name and information to promote their products, and that Instagram can use your photos in whichever way they see fit, all with no compensation or even notification to the user. 

The video from the ACLU that we posted on last week joked about the possibilities of what would happen to your personal information when privacy protections are ignored. But this idea- that social media companies can essentially own your information and that which you create online- takes it a step further.  Now, with the threat of private ownership ever-expanding, it appears as though even our digital lives are at risk.  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Privacy and the Commons

One of the more interesting and at the same time, vexing, questions for people who care about the commons is the issue of privacy.  What should be public information?  What should be completely private?  What should be shared with some appropriate parties but not made widely available?  If we are to take care of each other and really live commons lives, we have to know about each other and share both our joys and burdens.  But what if what we can know about each other becomes part of the burden?  In this funny but provocative video, the ACLU mockingly explores what could happen when the right to privacy is disregarded.  We suggest watching it and then discussing the perameters of privacy in the context of a commons life.

Click here to watch the video

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Fiscal Cliff- It's the New Y2K

Posted By Kim Klein

The “fiscal cliff” has become the new background noise for all of us, but what is it?  Does it even exist?  Here is an excellent post from the folks at telling us in easy to understand language what we should be concerned about and what we should not.

5-Point Guide To The Fiscal Showdown

1. The "Fiscal Cliff" Is A Myth. As Paul Krugman put it, "The looming prospect of spending cuts and tax increases isn't a fiscal crisis. It is, instead, a political crisis brought on by the G.O.P.'s attempt to take the economy hostage."1 Republicans are manufacturing this crisis to pressure Democrats to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and accept painful cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

2. The Bush Tax Cuts Finally End December 31. If Congress does nothing, the ax will fall on all the Bush tax cuts on New Year's Eve.2 Then, on January 1, the public pressure on John Boehner and House Republicans to extend the middle-class tax cuts (already passed by the Senate and waiting to be signed by President Obama) will become irresistible.3 So the middle-class tax cut will eventually get renewed, and we'll have $823 billion more revenue from the top 2% to do great things with.4

3. The Sequester. The sequester is another political creation, forced on Democrats by Republicans in exchange for lifting the debt ceiling last year to avoid crashing our economy.5 It's a set of cuts (50% to a bloated military budget and 50% to important domestic programs) designed to make both Republicans and Democrats hate it so much that they'd never let it happen.6 And the cuts can be reversed weeks or months into 2013 without causing damage.7

4. The Big Three. Nothing happens to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits on January 1—unless Republicans force painful cuts to beneficiaries in exchange for tax increases on the wealthy, which are going to happen anyway if Congress does NOTHING.8 So, there's literally no reason benefits cuts should be part of the discussion right now.

5. We Should Be Talking About Jobs. The real crisis Americans want Congress to fix is getting people back to work. And with just a fraction of that $823 billion from the wealthiest 2%, we could create jobs for more than 20,000 veterans and pay for the 300,000 teachers and 52,000 first responders, which our communities so desperately need.9 That's not to mention jobs from investing in clean energy and our national infrastructure.

Please share this with your friends and family—and talk about it at the dinner table next week. The first step to winning this showdown is making sure we're all armed with the facts.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Win for Women on Election Day

Posted by Caitlin Endyke

It’s a week after election day, and I’m thinking a lot about how the repercussions of November 6th are going to play out across the country. However, I feel compelled to give a small shout out to my home state of New Hampshire, which elected 3 women to higher office last Tuesday, making it the first state in the nation to have an all-female federal delegation and governor.  Having worked on the campaign for one of those women, I feel especially proud of the people from my home state who came out to the polls in record numbers, both in 2008 and this year, to cast ballots for female leaders.  However, this piece from The Atlantic made me remember that it is the structure of New Hampshire state politics, perhaps even more than the views of the voters, that makes it easier for women to rise up the political ranks in the small New England state (four out of the five women who now hold all of NH’s highest offices got their political starts in either state government or community activism).  As the Atlantic notes, “it’s not an accident that come January 2013, women will be installed in New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate seats, both U.S. House seats, and the gubernatorial mansion”.  In fact, this isn’t the first gender-related milestone for NH government- in 2008 New Hampshire was the first state to have a majority-female state legislature.

There are a few factors that lead to this female-friendly government culture.  First, New Hampshire’s state legislature is the third largest in the world.  With 424 members, each representative accounts for about 3,000 residents, which means that candidates win elections not through wide-sweeping posters or television ads, but by convincing individual voters of their worth face-to-face.  Because of this, it doesn’t take much fundraising to conduct a successful bid for state office- a lot of victorious campaigns have overall budgets of less than $500.  The pay for New Hampshire’s state representatives remains what it was when it was established in the state constitution- $100 per year.  This discourages more traditional political careerists from running, and instead opens the door for women, or others with more alternative paths to political office, to step up into that role.   Community involvement on a smaller scale (PTA leadership, school board membership, etc) can easily lead to a bid for higher office, as candidates have often garnered enough name recognition through their town service to carry them through an election.   The legislature doesn’t meet year round, giving some flexibility to mothers trying to balance child rearing and political life.  All of these factors open the door for women to take a strong part in state government, and they can use that service as a springboard to the national stage should they choose to take that next step.

Granted, New Hampshire’s state government is far from perfect (the fact that even Democratic governors are still compelled to sign the no-tax Pledge comes to mind). But it’s an interesting example of how, when you keep government grounded on the community level and remove excesses like extraordinary campaign financing, you can open the door for people who may have been historically under-represented. And, in turn, you can ensure that both local and national governments become more representative of the people they serve.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day

We'd like to take today's post to remind everyone to get out to the polls today!

We hope everyone reading this who CAN vote, will, and we hope you will bring in as many friends and colleagues as you can.  And as you think about how to vote for, tune into this reprise of a great song.

Happy Voting!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Eating a Gelato at the Memorial? It Could Cost You

Posted by Caitlin Endyke

Planning an Italian vacation anytime soon? If you’re headed to the nation’s capitol and planning to take in the sights, make sure not to take any snacks with you.

Rome has recently passed a municipal ordinance that bans people from eating on or near areas of historic or artistic value.  So, if you’re headed to the Trevi Fountain and stop for some gelato at one of the many shops that outline the piazza, you could be fined up to $650 for consuming your treat too close to the storied landmark. 

City officials said the ban was intended to preserve monuments’ “proper decorum” and protect Rome’s most prized landmarks from food spills, litter, and tourists camped out for their mid-day meal.  Their reasoning stems both from an effort to maintain the beauty of these ancient structures but also to preserve everyone’s enjoyment of these destinations.  As Rome's head of tourism noted, "You wouldn’t eat a pizza and drop tomato sauce all over the steps of the White House in Washington.” And, I guess, the last thing you’d want in the middle of your token photograph of the Spanish Steps is a group of tourists munching on paninis (or the wrappers they might have left behind). 

But this story made me think about how quite a few major cities across the world are instituting rules and regulations for their public spaces (New York’s passage of a smoking ban for all public parks in 2011 comes immediately to mind), and what that means from a Commons perspective.  If a ban like the one in Rome or New York truly does serve to protect the space and ensure that most people get more enjoyment out of their experiences there, does that make up for the fact that governments are slowly but surely increasing the limits upon what we can do in those areas and how we can enjoy them?  I’m honestly not entirely sure what my conclusion is on the matter.  For example, I often take my lunch in a park close to my office, and I enjoy the fact that the park is required to remain smoke-free.  But I bet a smoker who finds the smell of my lunch upsetting feels the opposite way.  So what’s the verdict? And who gets to make the decision? If you've got an opinion on the matter feel free to leave it in the comments below!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Few Good Women

Posted by Kim Klein

More than 30 years ago, I was asked to do a training for the board of directors of a community foundation in a fairly large city in the Midwest. Community foundations, unlike private or corporate foundations, are created to serve the community but also to be representative of it. The idea is that the needs of the community are probably best known by people who live there, and so the boards of directors and other decision making bodies in the foundation look, at least demographically, like the community. In this instance, the foundation was well established but wanting to dramatically increase its grantmaking capacity. This meant the board of directors had to raise a lot more money and my job was to help them see how to do that.
I was surprised when I came into the conference room to see about 35 people who were all white, all men, and all over 50. Although I did not know the community the foundation served very well, I knew that unless I had taken a wrong turn and was actually at the Vatican, this collection of people was not demographically representative. I asked if they felt they represented their community. “OH, yes” said the board chair. I said, “Interesting community you have in that case. How do you reproduce?” This caused much coughing and snorting by the assembled group. Finally another board member said, “We have searched for women to be on this board. Good women are hard to find.”

Of course, that was 30 years ago. I believe we have made progress in those three decades and so I was interested in what Romney said in the debate last night. In answer to a question about equal pay for equal work, Romney told a story about when he was governor of Massachusetts he saw that his cabinet had no women, so he instructed his staff to go find some. Clearly neither he nor his staff knew any personally--no wives, girlfriends, neighbors, classmates, sisters, or friends came to mind as qualified. But fortunately his staff were able to amass “binders of women.” And from that, presumably, Romney was able to find a few good women. So we have made progress—from the foundation that couldn’t find any good women to Romney’s staff, who, when pressed, were able to assemble a binder full. Just think, at this rate where we will be 30 years from now?!

The problem is that versions of Romney’s statement are heard more often than we would like to acknowledge. I can’t tell you the number of people who call me asking if I know “a diversity candidate” for a job they have open, or the countless board meetings I have attended where people say, “We need a Latino” or “We have to get some millennials” or “Does anyone know any disabled people?” I am grateful that I travel in a world where women are common, but I think all of us need to take seriously how segregated our communities remain, particularly around race.

Racial justice is central to issues of equity, and of course, equity is the driver of a healthy commons. So as we make fun of Romney, let’s not lose sight of the ways we may search for “binders” of certain kinds of people because we don’t know them personally.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Reducing Income Inequality To Help "100%"

Posted by Caitlin Endyke

It's been almost exactly one year and one month since the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the moment when the term "income inequality" entered the national lexicon.  The time between then and now allowed academics across the country to begin to study how the extreme conditions of income inequality in this country affect us now and in the future. In the past week The New York Times has published two articles related to this idea.  

The first (and, for this history major, most enlightening) article details some historical examples of other societies who have enacted policies that promote socioeconomic inequality.  The author asserts that the United States has instituted it's own example of medieval Venice's "Libro d'Oro", or "book of gold", which officially instituted a way of ensuring that only those born into the ruling class would continue to hold that power.  Beyond the ubiquitous tax code, the article notes other socially-implemented policies in this country that affect a person's ability to move up the socioeconomic ladder.  Things like legacy admissions at top universities, poor public school performance, and moves to de-unionize certain labor sectors have all contributed to the fact that those in the lower, working, and middle class find it harder and harder to move up.  While the United States once demonstrated one of the highest rates of economic mobility, now several studies are reporting that it is harder in the US to move from the social class of your birth than it is in most European countries.  It appears that those who have gained success seek to prevent anyone else from following in their footsteps.  As the article notes, "Elites that have prospered from inclusive systems can be tempted to pull up the ladder they climbed to the top". 

But, as the other article points out, this era of income inequality is unsustainable.   This piece discusses the results of a recent economic study by the IMF that shows that reducing income inequality and promoting economic growth might be "two sides of the same coin".  Conversely, if the US doesn't enact any specific policies to reduce the rate of income inequality, economic growth for the nation as a whole will come to a standstill.  This will obviously mostly effect those of us not in that 1%- as we continue to struggle to find work and pay the bills.  But, while the economic elites will continue to hold the majority of the wealth, they will also languish in a failing economy and so will their business interests. Perhaps we will be more successful if we re-frame the argument. Because, apparently, reducing income equality won't just help the 99%, it will help us all.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Becoming a Village at High Altitude

Posted by Kim Klein

Flying Southwest Airlines is, in its own weird way, an experience of the commons at 30,000 feet. With no assigned seating, the entire plane is like benches in a long and narrow public park. You can sit where you want as long as no one is already sitting there. But unlike a park, you are forced to sit very close to total strangers—closer than most of us sit next to anyone except our lovers. And of course, it is not free, and you can’t really move around a lot.

But the commons part is not the price or the physical reality—it is the personas people take on in order to cope with flying, and the way we shed those personas and return to our true selves when the need arises. People in the “A” group get on and find a seat they like. Then they studiously avoid eye contact with anyone else hoping to keep the middle seat empty. Many people casually put their coat or briefcase on the middle seat to give the impression that someone is there. Someone seeped in zombie movies might well think she had entered a space full of them. The message from people you are going to be sitting an inch away from is “Don’t look at me. Keep your distance. Don’t say anything.”

I took a short flight to Austin a few days ago. I had noticed a soldier with his daughter in the waiting area. They were laughing and hugging. Later, when I got on, I could hear in the next row up the sound of sobbing. I looked and it was this little girl, quietly sobbing and every so often almost wailing. She was by herself. Pretty soon, seats filled up around her although the flight attendant kept her row empty. Our carefully cultivated “I can’t see anyone” looks melted. People around her tried to distract her. “You have such a pretty purse.” “Would you like some candy?” All efforts were met with louder wailing.

Finally a woman sat down next to her and asked her what was wrong. “I miss my daddy” she wailed. “How old are you?” she asked. Between sobs and hiccups, the child answered, “Five.” The man next to me said, “Five? How could someone let their kid travel alone when she is five?” Several other people nodded in agreement, showing how many of us were paying attention to this small drama. The flight attendant said, “Her father is being deployed tonight and she has to go to her mother.” We were temporarily silenced by that news, but then in some unspoken arrangement, we became a small village.
For the next 90 minutes several people took turns talking to the child. One woman held her hand much of the way. I contributed a red felt tip marker and scratch paper, and another person had a rub-on tattoo she put on the child’s arm. About 20 minutes into the flight, the little girl was smiling and talking. She said her mother was also in the service and that her parents were divorced. She said she lives with her dad most of the time, but now he has to be gone for awhile “to help another country.” None of us said aloud what I imagine many of us were thinking, “What if her dad does not return?”
I have no idea if my seatmates approve of the war or not. I don’t know how they will vote, or even if they vote. But I felt a little commons happened amongst us as we all set aside our magazines, books, I-pods and computers to comfort a little girl.

As we landed and disembarked, she had to wait for a flight attendant to walk her off the plane. We all wished her well and I think she was not the only one cheered up on that flight. I was reminded of how our instincts are to be helpful, to take care of those having a hard time taking care of themselves, and to be kind. Of course it shouldn’t take a sobbing five year old to bring that out in us, but at least it is there. I have to fly on Southwest again tomorrow. I am going to leave my Zombie persona behind and see what happens.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Spirit of the Marathon

Posted by Caitlin Endyke

I am, admittedly, a sports fanatic.  If it’s a Sunday in fall, you can guarantee I’m hunkered down in front of a television in my New England Patriots jersey ready for the game.  I have a chalkboard in my apartment on which I keep a daily countdown until the next Olympics (485 days until the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, in case you were wondering).  I plan my weeks around first pitches, face-offs, and kickoff times.  Yet more than any Super Bowl or World Series or World Cup Championship, there’s one day in sports that I think is slowly becoming my favorite- the day of the New York City Marathon.

The New York Times kicked off its “Mile by Mile” series today- one post a day for each mile of the NYC marathon, describing the route and the experience for the runners who will snake their way through every one of the city’s five boroughs 26 days from now, on November 4th.  It’s the kind of sports journalism that I love- writing that evokes feelings of what it’s like to be there, pounding the pavement with thousands of your fellow athletes in a feat of individual strength and determination.  But the series hasn’t yet touched on what I, as a spectator, love most about Marathon Sunday.

I have a friend who has run the race the past couple of years, and who will run again this November.  Each year a group of us gather on First Avenue with our posters and t-shirts to cheer her on.  We get there early to secure a spot close to the street so we’ll be able to see her as she passes.  We make friends with the people standing around us, usually folks who are waiting for their own friends or family members to run by.  And then, as the first wave of runners streams up the avenue, the cheering begins.  The streets of New York become a raucous symphony of people cheering - calling out names when runners have them written across their t-shirts, high-fiving those who come close to the spectators, giving a little extra encouragement to some who seem to be struggling as they hit the last few miles. I cheer for Bob, Mary, and George regardless of their political affiliations, their tax brackets, or whether or not they are Yankees fans.  It is one of the best examples I have seen of New Yorkers coming together to cheer on their friends and neighbors for the simple accomplishment of finishing what they started. 

We accept that finishing a marathon is an extraordinary feat, and we want everyone to succeed.  I walk away at the end of every Marathon Sunday thinking “I am proud to be a New Yorker”.  Every year it is one of those experiences that makes me feel most connected to this city, a part of the fabric that makes it an inspiring place to live.  And from what I’ve heard, cities across the country come together in much the same way when it’s their hometown’s turn to host a big race like this one.  So it always makes me think- what if every day we supported each other like we do on that day?  With less yelling and fewer high fives, sure, but with the same ideal that we want those around us to achieve their goals and reach their own personal finish lines (so long as those goals don’t come at the expense of someone else’s success).  So often, we put too much weight on competition and feel that we’ve succeeded only if someone else has failed.  But if we came together in collective support and understanding, we might be able to achieve great things.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Miracles Replace Taxes

Today’s paper, (which I read as a paper and not on-line) has this headline: “Union City School Library Rescued by Donor” (SF Chronicle 10/3/12 Section C). The article says that 4000 students at James Logan High School will have access to their library because a generous anonymous donor has given $60,000 to keep it open. Prior to this donation, the library had only been open for one period a day. The school’s ability to maintain a library had been cut when the residents of Union City failed to pass a $180/yr parcel tax. The school administrators all exclaimed, “It’s a miracle.” And “It restores my faith in humanity.

Union City, CA is a little south of Oakland. It is a middle class town of about 70,000. Like many towns in CA, it is majority people of color (43% API, 25% Latino, 7% African American and 30% white.) Median household income is $87,000, which is higher than the state as a whole ($59,000) but on par with the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area.

One could wonder about the reluctance of the home and business owning population to be willing to tax themselves less than 50 cents a day to keep their school libraries open particularly in light of the fact that the median age in Union City is 33 and 45% of households have children under 18. But of course the story is more complicated than it looks. California requires a 2/3rds majority to pass any tax increase (66%) and this ballot measure only got 62.9%! In any normal place that would have been seen as an overwhelming approval of the tax. Most sad is that less than 10,000 people voted on this initiative and so it lost by about 300 votes. Basically, about 300 people decided the fate of school libraries. A requirement of a 2/3rds “super majority” is, in fact, rule by a tiny minority—often 2-4% of voters.

I am happy for the students of James Logan High School and certainly feel grateful to this donor. But this will only take care of this year and next year the students will once again have very limited library hours.

This is a teachable moment in Union City to have conversations about how public school libraries should be funded—by miracles? Or by taxes? The reality is that most libraries, art, music, language and sports programs in public schools which are now on the chopping block all over California will not (indeed, cannot) be rescued by generous individuals.

The miracle I pray for is three-fold: 1) that California will someday return to majority vote and overturn our 2/3rds rule, 2) that people who can vote will get out and do so, and 3) that people will vote in favor of revenue.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


Posted by Kim Klein

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the most important holy day in the Jewish calendar and the end of a ten period called “the days of awe” which begin with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Yom Kippur starts with a service called Kol Nidre and that service begins with some version of this statement:

“This is the time we set aside to take an account of our souls. To what purposes have each of us devoted our lives? Are we on the road to accomplishing these purposes? Have we allowed ourselves to be distracted from the goals that each of us has set? Or has the time arrived to set new goals? All the vows and commitments that I have made, all the responsibilities and purposes that I have set for myself, may it be that they have been for the good. But during this day, I will examine them and consider their value. If they are indeed still worthy, I pledge to pursue them whole-heartedly. If any of them need to be set aside, I pledge to do so responsibly and with compassion for all whom my actions affect. ” (Rabbi David Cooper, Kehilla Synagogue, Oakland, CA)

This kind of examination recognizes that something which may have been very good for me years ago may not help me at all now. I thought, “What am I devoted to now and how has that changed in the last number of years?” It is so freeing to think that I can change course. And this freedom is extended to our community and to our entire planet. In the latter case we know we must change course as the decisions we made which brought us to this point will not serve us going forward.

One commitment I made 24 years ago remains solidly in place today. Because of the vagaries of the lunar calendar, this year Yom Kippur fell on my anniversary. My partner, Stephanie Roth, and I discussed whether we should continue to keep our commitment to be together, or set that aside. With little effort, we decided this was one commitment we should keep. Deciding to keep a commitment comes with a renewed effort to pursue it whole heartedly, and with great joy, I recommit to the love of my life, a person who has helped me in all my other commitments and helped me become a much better person all around.

I also recommitted myself, whole heartedly, to the continued exploration of what it means to live a life grounded in commons values. After the service, we walked along Lake Merritt, on the public sidewalk to the public transportation that took us home. This year I made a new promise at Yom Kippur—to use my car as little as possible. I know this will help me walk more, but will require more planning and more time. I think this is why I have not made this promise before. However, if we are to change course as a society, I have to do my little part and walking, biking, taking the bus or subway, seems a good change.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mitt Romney's 47%: A Low Estimate?

Posted by Caitlin Endyke

We all heard about it. Mitt Romney was secretly taped during a campaign event, where he said he wasn’t campaigning on behalf of the 47% of Americans who “paid no income taxes” and who are “dependent on Government”.  And we’ve seen the backlash- part of which involves pundits explaining that this percentage of the American people pay no income taxes mostly because they’ve already paid through the payroll tax system.  So we get it. Income tax or not, the vast majority of Americans pay their fair share of taxes.  But what about the logic behind the second half of that statement- that 47% of Americans are dependent on government and feel “entitled” to some sort of government assistance?  What Romney, and most of the proceeding news coverage, failed to mention was that the percentage of Americans who have benefited from a government-funded social policy is actually much larger than 47.

This article , titled “We are the 96%” and published today in the New York Times, summarizes a 2008 research survey by Cornell Survey Research Institute that found that 96 percent of Americans have taken advantage of some sort of social policy that was funded by the federal government. This is true across party lines- the percentage of Republicans and Democrats who benefitted from at least one policy was almost identical.  

Yet what differs is not actual benefit, but ideology.  The article notes, “conservatives were less likely than liberals to respond affirmatively when asked if they had ever used a ‘government social program,’ even when both subsequently acknowledged using the same number of specific policies.”

And it is this division in what each party thinks the role of government should be that causes some of the vitriolic rhetoric that courses through both Presidential campaigns. The illustration of one party of “makers” and another of “takers” is a popular one.  Yet the research shows that most Americans, regardless of political affiliation, are both.  We all pay in; we all take out.  Perhaps if we all took that fact to heart, we could begin to come together to create policies that lead to the most collective benefit. 

The article’s authors, Suzanne Mettler and John Sides, say it best [emphasis added]- “Instead of dividing us, our experiences as both makers and takers ought to bind us in a community of shared sacrifice and mutual support.”

Head here to read the full article.  

Friday, September 21, 2012

Vote With Your Mission

A big surprise for many people, and certainly for me when I first learned it, is the sheer size of the nonprofit sector. About $1.4 trillion goes through 1.9 million organizations just in the United States every year. People who work for nonprofits are about 10% of the workforce. But we are not a major factor in elections and this year, the California Association of Nonprofits (CalNonprofits) has started a program to change that.

Called “Vote with Your Mission”, the effort is to get 100% of nonprofit staff, board and volunteers to vote. We know that our sheer numbers would make a big difference in the outcome of elections.

To sign on, nonprofits must commit to doing two of the following six things:

1. Ask all staff, board members, volunteers, and constituents to vote.

2. Adopt the slogan, "Vote with Your Mission," with the tagline, "Nonprofits are led by ideals and values for changing the world. Vote with the ideals and values that lead you."

3. Provide on-site nonpartisan voter registration materials for staff, board members, volunteers, and constituents.

4. Add to the organization's list of responsibilities for its board of directors: "Voting in every election while you are on the board."

5. Allow up to two hours of paid staff time to vote on Election Day. For non-voters, the time can be used to help co-workers or neighbors get to the polls, or to participate in "get-out-the-vote" activities (for any cause or candidate).

6. Post the Vote with Your Mission poster in your lobby, on your door or window, in your clinic, in your newsletter, and elsewhere, or create your own poster.

To me, there are two simple ones that don’t require any effort: #1 because how hard is it to ask people to do something, and #5, which is the law. Surprisingly, the fact that giving people time off to vote is the law has come as a big surprise to many executive directors!

As my colleague pointed out in the last blog post, Sept 25 is National Voter Registration Day. The people who have designed it are hoping it will become to September what Earth Day is to April. A good friend of mine says, “voting is the gateway drug” and I really agree with this analogy. Voting is certainly not everything and, in some ways, it isn’t even that much when measured one vote at a time. But every vote is important, and once you vote, you tend to be more involved in many other ways.

If the “47%” that Mitt Romney so easily dismisses, or even the larger 99% that he is very clearly not part of, ever want to take back our country, one of the first steps will be taking back the ballot box.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Roadblocks to the Polls

I am very pleased to introduce Caitlin Endyke, Program Assistant at the The Building Movement Project.  Caitlin has recently moved to NYC from New Hampshire and is helping me with the commons work at BMP.  She will be writing for this blog every Tuesday and she begins today.  Welcome, Caitlin! 

Last week, I cast my first official ballot in New York City.  After living here for almost a year I finally had my registration switched from my small New Hampshire hometown, and this was the first election in which I was eligible to vote here in NYC.  I knew that my experiences voting here would be different from those in my hometown. For one, I was fairly certain no one I knew personally was in the running- a big change.    What I did not anticipate was how hard it would be to actually get to the polls.

I was about as proactive about switching my registration as, I think, most people are.  A few months after moving and getting settled I printed the form and proceeded to let it sit on my desk for another few months until I finally mailed it in.  I got my approval letter in the mail a few weeks ago, and I was looking forward to the day when I would be able to cast my first official vote as a New Yorker (thinking, wrongly, that day would be November 6th).

That was until I walked into my office last Thursday and was greeted by my colleague with a surprising question. “Did you vote?”, she asked.

“…Um…vote for what?”

I consider myself fairly informed.  I work in a community where politics are regularly discussed. I chastised my friends in 2010 for not voting in the midterm elections.  I try to follow local politics.  Yet I had no idea there was an election happening that day in my city (a local primary, but still).  I was used to driving through town at home, seeing the street corners slowly fill up with lawn signs from various candidates.  Usually, I was pushed toward the polls by people I knew who were running (though who were not necessarily people I voted for).  I was not used to Election Day simply passing me by. 

That was my first obstacle.  After I found out I needed to vote, I started looking up where my designated polling place was and checked to make sure my voter registration was active.  This part was less straightforward.  As a first time voter in the state my “identity had yet to be verified” (an intimidating phrase to find next to your name).  After some Googling and visits to various voter-help sites I still had little idea what this meant.  As someone without a government issued ID that showed my NYC address (I nostalgically have been holding on to my NH license), I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to bring something else to verify who I was and where I lived.  I settled on a trip home to gather a pay stub before I headed to the polls, unsure if that would be sufficient. 

Turns out I didn’t need any of it.  I showed up, gave my name, signed next to the image of my signature from the voter registration form (a high-tech surprise), and proceeded to fill out my ballot with no problems.  Every volunteer in the room was pleasant and helpful.  My polling place, “Camp Friendship Hall”, even had that small-town school gym feel.

But what troubles me is how difficult and unclear it was for me to get to that point, especially as a person who was determined to participate.  I didn’t receive anything from the city telling me it was Election Day or informing me of what I might need to bring with me, given my slightly special circumstance.    In the wake of all the new voter ID laws (including one in my home state) that are seemingly and unfortunately sweeping the nation, I am thinking of how much harder this process would have been with stricter requirements. What happens to the people who don't have the luxury of having a pay stub or photo ID on hand?  Isn’t the ability to vote the most basic of rights in a democratic society? Figuring out who to vote for should be the hard part, the thing that requires the most time and contemplation.  Getting to the polls should be easy.  Unfortunately, some states are making a concerted effort to make sure that is not the case. 

National Voter Registration Day is September 25th.  Let’s use this opportunity to help ensure that EVERYONE has access to the ballot box this fall. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Reality TV And Public Infrastructure: A Prisoner's Dilemma

Last week I indulged myself in a habit that really has no redeeming value but at least is not fattening—I channel surfed. I came to the end of the final episode of a show called Bachelor Pad, which is apparently where all the rejects from “The Bachelor” go. I have watched “The Bachelor” which is a show about good looking people who cannot find love except in exotic locales while being filmed. Bachelor Pad is not about winning love, but about winning money.

The part I watched was fascinating. The two finalists, Holly and Michael, are on stage and they are given a challenge by the show’s host, Chris Harrison. At stake is $250,000. Each finalist is given two words: KEEP or SHARE. The rules are simple: if they both say “share” they get $125,000 each. If they both say “keep” they get nothing. If one says “keep” and the other “share” the one that says “keep” gets it all. The choice is clear: If you trust each other you will both win. But if you don’t trust the other person, you both could lose. But, if you think the other person trusts you and wants to share, you could win more money by betraying their trust.

There is much drama, smoke, audience reaction, drum rolls and the like, but finally the contestants come back out to reveal their decision. Holly goes first. She says she and Michael were a team, she believes they could not have won without each other and so she says, “SHARE.” Michael uses his time to excoriate everyone on the show. “I did this myself” he says at least a dozen times. “No one helped me, no one liked me. I flew under the radar and none of you thought I would ever be in this seat. I had no help.” He reveals his word, “KEEP.”

I will never know what is true about what happened on Bachelor Pad, but I do know that Michael’s sense, “I did this myself. I had no help” is way too pervasive in real life. Fast forward to yesterday when I am at a wonderful conference sponsored by CalNonprofits (the California Association of Nonprofits) where Executive Director, Jan Masaoka, is speaking. She starts with a question of the 300 people assembled: “How many of you work for a nonprofit?” 99% of hands go up. “How many of you have been helped by a nonprofit?” Only about 2/3rds of hands go up. Jan is clearly surprised and proceeds to name things brought about or run by nonprofits: libraries, PBS, the recognition of the civil rights of women and people of color, many hospitals, the fact that we are safer on the freeway because of drunk driving laws and seatbelts, that the public has access to beaches and wilderness—just to name a few things. She asks again, “How many of you have been helped by a nonprofit?” Most hands go up, but I still see a few Michaels in the crowd.

Michael, I don’t imagine you are reading my blog. But if you are, let me tell you, you did not win that money alone. You may have played brilliantly, but the game was designed by someone else, the sponsors who provided the money you won were solicited by someone else, and the television technology on which you showed the kind of person you are in front of millions of people was developed with public and private funds over many years.

There is almost nothing that any of us are able to do by ourselves. Even something as private as using a toilet is made possible by an elaborate sewer and wastewater system run by the government. That Michael thinks he won the money by himself is fine. It makes for interesting “reality” TV. But that any person who works in and around a nonprofit would think they have not been helped by an enormous infrastructure funded by taxes and donations, and run by government and community based organizations is a problem. As we go into this election season, let us remember that actually our biggest contribution is the degree to which we work together. Let’s hope the word we choose every day is “SHARE.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What's Your Common Good IQ?

We have just 55 days until Election Day. That leaves less than two months for each person to decide who should lead our country for the next four years.  There are a lot of factors to base that decision upon, as the candidates differ on almost every major platform- from plans to recover the economy to laws regarding women’s health.  But perhaps for this election cycle, we should remove ourselves from the combative campaign rhetoric and stop thinking about how we can support one particular candidate.  Instead, we should concentrate on how we can cast our votes for the Common Good.    But what does that look like? Does it mean more parks and shared public spaces, or should it concentrate on policies that promote a rough social equity?  How does the history of our country reflect this vision? Which nations’ policies most reflect a commons-based approach? Which country in particular measures its success in Gross National Happiness?  Take Compasspoint’s Common Good quiz to test your knowledge and find out more!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Let's Put Mission Before Money

A new and very important report has just been compiled by Road Map Consulting, the DataCenter and the National Organizers Alliance called, “Wages of Peace and Justice.” It is a national compensation survey of social justice organizations done in June 2012. (To download the Executive Summary or purchase the full report, go to

Most of the organizations surveyed had budgets under $1,000,000 and although organizations from 29 states participated, most the organizations were in New York or California. The median salary (meaning the same number above as below) for Executive Directors of social justice organizations was $67,000 and for development directors, $57,000. 92% offer some kind of health insurance, 82% offered dental insurance and 53%, vision. Over 1/4th of organizations also paid for alternative medicine such as chiropractic or acupuncture.

The report is interesting for many reasons: first, who is not interested in what other people earn? And second, many of the people this report surveyed are people I might know, so it is more interesting than the usual wage and benefit surveys which show that people who work in giant organizations make large salaries—a fact that is depressing and unhelpful.

But most interesting was from a commons view, a key question: “how strongly do your policies reflect your values?” Needless the say the responses to that were mixed, with 60% of organizations saying they pay a “living wage” but only 22% feeling that their salaries were “generous.” A more humble 23% want to increase salaries.

I have struggled for years to figure out how to decide what kind of incomes people in social justice work should make, including myself. Using criteria of fairness seems obvious, but fair to whom and compared to what? The median wage in the United States is $26, 364, the lowest since 1999. Median household income is $46,000.

This puts most full time social justice professionals at a wage more than twice that of the people on whose behalf they ostensibly work. On the other hand, with the education and skill level required of executive directors, even in small organizations, and the kind of jobs these same people could get at larger and more mainstream nonprofits, their wages seem a little low. When you factor in college debt that many young people are carrying, or the cost of having children, or the cost of retiring, wages tell only part of the story.

I used to have a lot of judgments about salaries and, I admit, that six figure salaries for nonprofit staff still may provoke a snide comment. But the issue from a commons lens is not what any one person makes but how can a society help the majority of people feel financially secure? In addition to all the important social justice work any of us are doing, we all have to work on a number of universal issues: health care is at the forefront; but also day care, family leave, education through college and the like. Other developed countries have this; and some countries even have some of these things enshrined into their constitutions. The first step is to stop asking, “What should I make? What do I deserve? How much do others like me make? What do I need?” and start asking, “What structures does the society have to have in place to allow all of us to pursue meaningful work?” Start with mission, rather than money. We are very creative people and I know we can figure this out.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Labor Day Reflections

My partner and I had a party for friends the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. About 50 people came and we ate, drank and laughed. I don’t usually enjoy these kinds of parties, especially when I am one of the hosts, but I really enjoyed this one. All the people who came are activists of one sort or another—some have regular “day” jobs and do their activism on the side. Others are full time paid staff at various social justice nonprofits, and still others, like me, are consultants to a wide variety of liberal and leftwing nonprofits. I know that we all follow politics very closely but at this party no one mentioned anything about the presidential election, the Republican primary, the California budget crisis—nothing. The talk was of vacations, children (there were quite a few babies at the party), how beautiful our yard is looking, how old our dog is getting, transitions from jobs to retirement or one job to another, or, in several cases, from having a job to being unemployed. Most of the conversations were lighthearted and joking and some were more serious, but they were not political. It was as if we wanted to all take one day off from event thinking about or commenting on the venom and bile that characterized the Republican convention and a day off from wondering if Obama will win or debating just how really different he is from his rivals.

I am a big believer in conversation, and it doesn’t entirely matter to me if the conversation is serious or silly. Conversation comes from the Latin word, “conversare”—to turn, ie to turn together, to turn to one another, to face one another. Conversation establishes trust between people—if we can joke around and laugh with each other, we are better placed to discuss values or commitments.

I am ready now to engage in serious and robust conversation with all kinds of people, and in large part this is because I have been on vacation, I have rested and I feel good, and I have reaffirmed that I have a community of people who have my back and I have theirs. We ate and drank together and we remembered that we care about each other. Could there be a better use of the Labor Day holiday?

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Mutant Offspring of the PATRIOT Act

A fundamental premise of the commons is freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.  The privatization of public space includes enclosing both of those so significantly that dissent does, in fact, become outlawed. 

Unfortunately, Barack Obama is as bad as anyone on these issues, as this article from Chris Hedges details(excerpt below).

Criminalizing Dissent
By Chris Hedges

I was on the 15th floor of the Southern U.S. District Court in New York in the courtroom of Judge Katherine Forrest last Tuesday. It was the final hearing in the lawsuit I brought in January against President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. I filed the suit, along with lawyers Carl J. Mayer and Bruce I. Afran, over Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). We were late joined by six co-plaintiffs including Noam Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg.

This section of the NDAA, signed into law by Obama on Dec. 31, 2011, obliterates some of our most important constitutional protections. It authorizes the executive branch to order the military to seize U.S. citizens deemed to be terrorists or associated with terrorists. Those taken into custody by the military, which becomes under the NDAA a domestic law enforcement agency, can be denied due process and habeas corpus and held indefinitely in military facilities. Any activist or dissident, whose rights were once protected under the First Amendment, can be threatened under this law with indefinite incarceration in military prisons, including our offshore penal colonies. The very name of the law itself-the Homeland Battlefield Bill-suggests the totalitarian credo of endless war waged against enemies within "the homeland" as well as those abroad.


There is, in reality, no daylight between Mitt Romney and Obama about the inner workings of the corporate state. They each support this section within the NDAA and the widespread extinguishing of civil liberties. They each will continue to funnel hundreds of billions of wasted dollars to defense contractors, intelligence agencies and the military. They each intend to let Wall Street loot the U.S. Treasury with impunity. Neither will lift a finger to help the long-term unemployed and underemployed, those losing their homes to foreclosures or bank repossessions, those filing for bankruptcy because of medical bills or college students burdened by crippling debt.


Head here to read the full article by Chris Hedges on

Friday, August 17, 2012

Make the Common Good a Common Conversation

For almost a decade now, I have become increasingly aware of how the voters’ perceptions of taxes influences who gets elected, who in turn influence voters.  Each year of this century, the United States has moved to a more and anti-tax, anti-government stand except for taxes that pay for the military or Social Security and Medicare.  (And now, with Paul Ryan on the Republican ticket, the latter are in serious danger of both privatized and cut.) 

 For the first five years of the 21st century, I puzzled over what I could do to have any influence on a such a huge topic.  With the help of many other people, I decided on a course of action which has been very successful.   Through the Building Movement Project and CompassPoint Nonprofit Services,  two colleagues and I created “Nonprofits Talking Taxes.”  We reasoned that 1) we had access to nonprofits and 2) nonprofit staff and board are probably not completely anti-tax since our ability to exist at all depends on the tax structure,  3)  many nonprofits rely on government grants to do our work, and 4) we knew how to create fun and interesting training on a topic that many people immediately think will be boring.

 We also looked at the math of how many people vote in any given election, particularly on specific tax issues (millages, bonds, property tax increases, sales tax increases and the like) and found that the actual number was very low, often lower than the number of people who worked for nonprofits.  Clearly, nonprofit staff were voting at the same low rate as the public at large.  And why?  We believe one big reason is that we never take the time to really have a robust and civil conversation about taxes:  about what should be funded publicly and what should be funded by foundations, corporations or individuals.   About the role of government in taking care of people who can’t fully take care of themselves.  In short we don’t talk deeply and honestly about the common good.   Our tagline, “Make the Common Good a Common Conversation” reflects our point of view.

 In doing some research about how other organizations were approaching this topic, we discovered a range of excellent popular education materials and a lot of information telling nonprofit staff and board that they should vote and why, generally aimed at federal tax policy.  We decided to limit ourselves to our state, California, which also happens to be the world’s 8th largest economy. 

 Since we started the project we have reached almost 3000 people through workshops, webinars, and social media.  I have given keynotes on the topic and we are more and more stressing the need for nonprofits to take our place as stewards and promoters of the common good.  We encourage people to check out the video below giving a short demonstration of the training and to visit our website for more information.  If you live in California, you can request a training.  If you live in another state, maybe you want to do something similar and we are happy to help.