It’s Just Black (Song for 9/11)

This is the day that the great towers fell
We stared in horror at a new kind of hellNow many years later, see how much has changed
The terror that entered us left us deranged
Still fighting the war that on that day began
With no end in sight – or was that the plan?

So please don’t give me your red white and blue:
It’s just black, just black
It’s just black, just black

So if you want to honor those who have died
They gave up their lives – you can give up your pride
Stop jeering, shed tears for all who are dead
Stop lusting for triumph, seek forgiveness instead
There are holes in our souls that can never be filled
However many we conquer, however many we kill

So please don’t give me your red white and blue:
It’s just black, just black
It’s just black, just black

 

(2011, 2016)

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: TWO PARTIES ARE TOO DAMN FEW

Next time you’re in your favorite local grocery store, take a little stroll down the breakfast cereal aisle. Plant yourself in front of the Cheerios section – and start counting.  How many different varieties of “toasted oat cereal” do you find? Seven? Twelve?

According to Wikipedia, there are actually SEVENTEEN – including, of course, the inevitable limited-edition “Pumpkin Spice.” (There were 7 others that have been discontinued.)

Similar scenarios play out across the store, of course, in the interest of gaining shelf space and squeezing out smaller competitors. There are at least sixteen flavors of Lay’s Potato Chips, including regional variations – not counting the “Wavy” and “Kettle Cooked” sub-brands. THIRTY-EIGHT different dental hygiene products – toothpaste, that is – sport the Crest brand, including one with the catchy title of  “CREST PRO-HEALTH ADVANCED EXTRA WHITENING POWER + FRESHNESS TOOTHPASTE.”

As Yakov Smirnoff used to say, “What a country!”

Now imagine this: what would happen if one day we suddenly found that we were restricted to only two different kinds of Cheerios? And what if those choices were not, shall we say, the most popular or palatable –  Liver’n’Onions, say, or Crunchy Kale?

Consumers would be outraged! There would be chaos, riots in the aisles, cars burning in the parking lots! General Mills’ stock price would plummet! Congressional hearings would be called!

But this is pretty much the situation that most Americans settle for, each and every general election. Two parties. Two choices. Period.

(You folks in New York State have it better than most – the “fusion voting” system used in NY and a few other states at least allows you to vote for different brands, even if sometimes it’s the same product.)

How is it that in the United States of America – bastion of free enterprise, champion of consumer choice, empire of innovation – we should find ourselves in such a limited predicament?

The historical reasons are long and complex, of course, but the short answer has to do with the way we conduct our elections. In “first past the post” or “winner-take-all” systems like ours, a two-party system becomes almost inevitable, as political groups form coalitions to gain majority advantage. (The political science folks call it “Duverger’s Law.”)

There are other reasons, too. A two-party system makes it much easier to manage the range of acceptable political discourse (the so-called “Overton Window”). Outliers, innovators, and those who question basic beliefs are easily dismissed and ridiculed. Party leaders only have to say, “Vote for us, or else – THEY win!!” to avoid any serious reexaminations of their policies, or accountability to their followers.

So how many parties should we have?

The existing Democrats have at least two factions: the centrist, technocratic “Third Way” Democrats, like Hillary and Bill Clinton, and the more left-leaning Progressives (sometimes called “Wellstone Democrats”), who rallied to the cause of Bernie Sanders. (There are also conservative “Blue Dogs,” but I think they’re almost extinct.) The present, unwieldy Republican coalition – theocratic, conservative Christians, small-government Libertarians, and the Plutocrats who represent Big Business and Wall Street finance – is about to shatter under the onslaught of Trumpism, which is itself a resurgence of “America-First” Populism. Add the Green Party – postcapitalist, ecologically minded, and community-focused – and I think there’s room for at least seven, maybe more.

I believe that a true, multiparty democracy would encourage more citizens to get involved in politics, as they would be more likely to find political homes they can believe in and support wholeheartedly. It wouldn’t be a panacea – just look at Italy, or Israel – but it would be a big improvement.

And there would still be plenty of Cheerios – and granola, and even Frosted Flakes – to go around.

 

SHARE THIS (2012)

(Originally published in ON TRACK: The Transition Honesdale Newsletter, Fall 2012)

It might start as simply as this: “Hey, can I borrow your rake?”

Or maybe it’s like this: “Well, it’s been a great summer, my garden grew like gangbusters – but now I’m absolutely flooded with zucchini here, would you like a few?”

At moments like these, you probably don’t find yourself thinking, “Well, what do you know, we seem to be participating in some alternative form of economic transaction!”

But these are exactly the kinds of moments that, at heart, define a different kind of economy: a “sharing economy.”  In a sharing economy, goods and services are exchanged across communities and social networks, not based on monetary exchanges, but on – something else.  This “something else” has many names – you could call it “reciprocity,” “neighborliness,” or perhaps simply “relationship.” A sharing economy, unlike a market economy, recognizes that relationships have value in and of themselves.

Here’s a real-life example: my next-door neighbor and I have an informal arrangement.  He’s got a lawn mower; I have one of those spiffy ergonomically-designed snow shovels.  So, in the summertime, he mows my front lawn when he mows his – and in the winter, I dig out his sidewalk when I dig out mine.  We don’t keep track of exactly how many times he mows my lawn, or how many snow days we have – so the exchange might not be exactly equal in any given year, but it’s worked out fine for us so far.

What is needed to create a sharing economy? What makes it run? Trust among the participants is a crucial element for a sharing economy to be successful – and so is an ethos that values “access over ownership,” and confers status based not on how much wealth an individual accumulates for themselves, but how well the individual facilitates the free flow of value amongst the members of the community.

The Transition Movement, generally speaking, does not endorse one particular economic philosophy or another. It cannot be easily pigeonholed as either “capitalist” or “socialist.” (This is just as well, since its explicit aim is to help communities hold themselves together under stress, and different economic viewpoints can be one of the most sensitive of fault lines.)

That having been said, it should be clear that Transition is not about business-as-usual, but about a search for more sustainable and resilient ways of doing things than either market forces or government regulation have been able to provide so far.

Still, we are products of a mostly capitalist system here, and so it may be no surprise to find some Transition-friendly concepts beginning to show up on the radar of the American business community. As much as I might fantasize personally about Transition leading us to some kind of  post-capitalist society, where the profit motive is not quite so almighty, the fact is that along the way some folks are going to make money from the process… and that is probably a good thing.

To see what I mean, just do a Google search on the phrase “sharing economy,” and follow the links that turn up. Articles in such magazines as Fast Company and Forbes (yes, even Forbes!) speak in glowing terms of the “expanding ‘sharing economy’ trend” and highlight fast-growing “collaborative consumption” companies such as Zipcar and Airbnb.

The term “sharing economy” is very important in Transition circles – but where most Transition folks may think of informal community-based networks of individuals helping meet one another’s needs, entrepreneurs are seeing a hard truth: such networks, in order to facilitate efficient sharing on larger scales, will require organization, maintenance, administration… and investment.

In other words, they are business opportunities, serving a growing marketplace segment.

As Sarah Horowitz has written in a 2011 article in The Atlantic,

“This new shared market economy is being driven by a quiet revolution: the millions of Americans who no longer want to prop up our faltering economy with endless and thoughtless consumption. They recognize that hyper-consumption is no longer an option, both because it’s not sustainable and because they have less money to spend. Instead, Americans are starting to spend their limited income in a responsible, thoughtful, and connected way.”

So here is one place where we can actually watch the paradigm shifting. It’s not a romantic, revolutionary change, overthrowing one economic order and replacing it wholesale with another – but a gradual shift of perspective, beginning exactly where it needs to begin. Soon, even financiers and multinational CEOs may begin to reappraise some of their most basic economic assumptions.

The sustainable, resilient economic system that eventually emerges, I think, will retain some features of existing economies, though it will be based on fundamentally different values. Don’t worry, we will still need accountants, marketers, managers… and yes, even lawyers. But we and future generations will someday be able to look back, and regard today’s economic institutions with the kind of bemused bafflement we reserve today for, say, feudalism, or the age of the Robber Barons.

RESOURCES

A growing number of websites have sprung up to facilitate and discuss the development of the sharing economy.

All I Got Left (Is Rock ‘n’ Roll)

A young man’s life
His very soul
Is sex and drugs and rock and roll
So now I’m headed down the hole
And all I got left is the Rock’n’Roll…

[1st CHORUS]
Rock and Roll (“It’s a long way…”)
Rock and Roll (“So you wanna be…”)
Rock and Roll (“Been a long time…”)
All I’ve got left is the Rock’n’Roll

The drugs wear off
Sex is done too soon
But there’s always the Dark Side of the Moon
I’ll let those tunes come fill my head
Till I am finally gratefully dead

[break: medley of immortal riffs]

[2nd CHORUS]
Rock and Roll (“Give me some old time…”)
Rock and Roll (“We built this city…”)
Rock and Roll (“Put another dime…”)*
All I’ve got left is the Rock’n’Roll

[second verse reprise]
[1st Chorus reprise]

*NOTE: other lyric snippets can be plugged in to the choruses, as long as the song has something to do with rock’n’roll

 

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: ONCE IN A LIFETIME

“And you may ask yourself –
Well, how did I get here?”

— David Byrne/Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime”

Maybe you don’t know who Grover Norquist is – but some call him “the most powerful Republican” or even “the most powerful man in America.”  He’s an anti-tax activist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, and the guy behind the “No New Taxes” pledge that practically every Republican candidate for elected office must swear to, an oath only slightly less weighty than that of a Greek god swearing upon the River Styx.

(Side note: Grover and I were in the same undergraduate class at Harvard College, but I never met him in person. We ran in different circles. I was into theater; he hung out with The Guys Who Were Obviously Destined to Rule the World.)

Anyway: Grover said something really interesting back in 2012, something which I think might help explain the Donald Trump phenomenon. Here’s the quote:

“We are not auditioning for Fearless Leader. We don’t need a President to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. … We just need a President to sign this stuff. We don’t need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate. … Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States.”  (Source: Daily Kos, http://bit.ly/2aT5pSY )

So a few weeks ago, I sent a tweet to Grover: “@GroverNorquist So, have you actually seen @realDonaldTrump wield a pen? Are his digits acceptably functional?”

And here is Grover’s verbatim response: “@smendler Right number of digits. Some say they are small, but that is okay.”

Now I’m not going to say that Grover’s statement explicitly confirmed my suspicions; you can judge that for yourself. But I submit that Donald Trump is exactly the kind of candidate Grover and his compadres had in mind – someone with no policy ideas of his own, but who’d be perfectly willing to sign whatever the (GOP-dominated) Congress might send his way.

“But wait!” you might say. “What about all that panic, all that ‘Never Trump’ stuff? What about all that opposition from the ‘GOP Establishment’ before the convention?”

Here is becomes useful to know that Donald Trump has some experience with the world of professional wrestling.  In that world, there is the concept of “putting someone over” – that is, making the audience sympathetic and supportive towards a certain wrestler (sometimes called the ”face” or “babyface”). Traditionally, this has done by the wrestler’s opponents in the ring (the “heels”) making them look good – but in recent years, some of the major wrestling promotions have used a different approach, designing storylines where the opponent is not another wrestler, but the “management” itself.

I would suggest that by seeming to “resist” or be “panicked” by Trump’s rise, the “Establishment” sought to create an image of Trump as an “anti-elitist,’ a “maverick” who would “shake things up in Washington” – when of course, he’s nothing of the kind.

But it is beginning to become obvious that the GOP Establishment has overreached, as they have many time before. They have created a phenomenon that threatens to run out of their control. Or, as David Byrne might say:

“You may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself –

MY GOD, WHAT HAVE I DONE?”

 

Q&A

(My column for July 2016 – in which I give myself a softball interview…)

Q. So, Skip, how was that “CommonBound” conference you told us about last month – the one about “new economics”?

A. Awesome! Fantastic!

Q. Lots of people?

A. Yes, a thousand or so registrants, with a very substantial proportion of young adults. I talked to a staffer from the New Economy Coalition, which sponsored the conference, and she said they had not anticipated such a strong response, so they were very pleased. I met folks from all over, as far away as Malaysia and Australia. There was also a broad range of classes and occupations represented, from forward-looking venture capitalists to community activists.

Q. What was your main “takeaway”?

A. A very strong sense that now is exactly the right historical moment for this kind of exploratory thinking, that the time is ripe for change. The old models don’t work anymore – we have new circumstances and challenges that Marx and Smith and the other classical economists and theorists couldn’t possibly have foreseen.  So it was very reassuring to see that so many people have been thinking along the same lines that I have been, and coming up with similar conclusions.

Q. Any discussion of the American presidential race?

A. Not much that I heard – except to cite the situation as an illustration of the need and the desire for new alternatives. (Of course, there were plenty of t-shirts for Bernie Sanders to be seen.) In fact, now that I think about it, I saw surprisingly little focus on using government, legislation, or political policy as tools for economic change – the emphasis was definitely on grassroots, on-the-ground, practical actions, and on communities taking on more responsibility for their own well-being.

A lot of this community-based action, by the way, is taking place in rural areas. There was an entire track of workshops dedicated to “Building the New Economy in Red and Rural Communities,” and Appalachia as a region was well-represented. In one workshop, conducted by folks from the Highlander Center in Tennessee, I learned about a website called Beautiful Solutions (https://solutions.thischangeseverything.org/) that is a database of “new economy” ideas and programs, and it’s a delight to browse through.

Q. What was the best moment for you?

A. The final workshop that I attended was a conversation with David and Fran Korten. Fran is the publisher of the fabulously hope-giving magazine called YES!, and David is a best-selling author  whose latest book is called Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth. Their work is the main reason that I got interested in this subject in the first place, and it was a special treat to be able to talk with them and express my appreciation personally.

David left us with a question to contemplate, and I’ll leave it here for you to think about as well:

“What is the story that you seek to change?”

Turn Away No More

I don’t think anyone has tried a Stephen Foster/Pink Floyd Mashup before… so here goes:

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay
There are frail forms fainting at the door
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say;
Oh, hard times come again no more

On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say which we won’t understand:
“Don’t accept that what’s happening
Is just a case of others’ suffering
Or you’ll find that you’re joining in
The turning away”

‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times come again no more
Many days you have lingered
Around my cabin door
Oh hard times come again no more

It’s a sin that somehow
Light is changing to shadow
And casting its shroud over all we have known
Unaware how the ranks have grown
Driven on by a heart of stone
We could find that we’re all alone
In the dream of the proud

‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times come again no more
Many days you have lingered
Around my cabin door
Oh hard times come again no more

‘Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave
‘Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
‘Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh, hard times come again no more

On the wings of the night
As the daytime is stirring
Where the speechless unite in a silent accord
Using words you will find are strange
Mesmerized as they light the flame
Feel the new wind of change
On the wings of the night

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears
While we all sup sorrow with the poor
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh, hard times come again no more

No more turning away
From the weak and the weary
No more turning away from the coldness inside
Just a world that we all must share
It’s not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream
That hard times….
That hard times will come again no more

(Sources: “Hard Times Come Again No More” by Stephen Foster; “On the Turning Away” by Pink Floyd)