Category Archives: New Values Economy

Foundation for the General Welfare

What counts as “work”? Or a “job”?

The usual conception of a “job” implies activities that create value for someone else – one’s employer. For doing this, one gets paid… and the employer makes profit by making sure that payment is less than the value of the work.

Many activities, though, that demand time and effort, and that do in fact create value for society, but not for an employer, are not recognized as “jobs.” As social theorist Riane Eisler has pointed out, our economic systems “fail to value and support the most essential human work: the so-called ‘women’s work’ of caring and caregiving.” This includes the work – usually full-time, if not 24/7 – of caring for oneself, one’s family, one’s community, and one’s environment.

In the present debate on healthcare, for instance, conservatives who are trying to dismantle sections of the social safety net are fond of saying that those who may lose Medicaid coverage “can always get jobs,” as White House spokescreature Kellyanne Conway recently stated.

general welfare

Well, okay then.

I propose the establishment of a quasi-governmental foundation, to be called the Foundation for the General Welfare. (As in “promote the general welfare,” one of the stated goals of the United States of America.) This foundation would be funded initially by the government and, increasingly over time, by private donations.

It would hire people, and pay them a living wage to do what they have to do.

This foundation would, for example, hire the chronically ill who do not have insurance. Their job description would be simple: to participate in treatment for their illnesses, and get better if possible. Full insurance would be among the benefits – in fact, it would be the same Federal employee package now enjoyed by our Congresscritters.

This foundation would hire single unemployed parents, especially teenage moms. Their job description: to raise their kids and take care of their households.

This foundation would hire adults who are caregivers for their parents. Their job description: keep their parents as safe, comfortable, and happy as possible.

Get the idea?

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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.

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?”

PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: COMMON BOUND

The unforeseen support generated by the Presidential candidacy of unabashed Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, which may or may not be history by the time you read these words, is but the latest in a series of body blows that have rocked our notions of Business-As-Usual in the past couple of years. (Others have been delivered by such folks as Elizabeth Warren, Thomas Piketty, and Pope Francis.) Bernie’s campaign demonstrated in no uncertain terms that there is a strong, widespread, and undeniable desire for new ways not only of doing business, but of structuring society itself.

This kind of thing happens from time to time. Some even say it’s a cycle.  In a fascinating article on the Evonomics website, Dr. Sally Goerner lays it out:

Oligarchies always collapse because they are designed to extract wealth from the lower levels of society, concentrate it at the top, and block adaptation by concentrating oligarchic power as well. Though it may take some time, extraction eventually eviscerates the productive levels of society, and the system becomes increasingly brittle. Internal pressures and the sense of betrayal grow as desperation and despair multiply everywhere except at the top, but effective reform seems impossible because the system seems thoroughly rigged.

In the final stages, a raft of upstart leaders emerge, some honest and some fascistic, all seeking to channel pent-up frustration towards their chosen ends. If we are lucky, the public will mobilize behind honest leaders and effective reforms. If we are unlucky, either the establishment will continue to ‘respond ineffectively’ until our economy collapses, or a fascist will take over and create conditions too horrific to contemplate.

So some kind of change is coming – but what, exactly, shall it be?

The term “new economy” has been a buzzword for nearly a quarter-century now – but it has come to refer to at least two very different visions. On the one hand, it simply refers to new, usually technology-driven, ways of making money, and of connecting buyers and sellers of products and services. This was its main meaning back in the 90’s, and it manifests today in Uber,  AirBnB’s, and other companies.  (See this article for a brief overview of this kind of “new economy.”) But the driving ideas, and the definitions of success, are still by and large the same, even if some of the methodologies are different. Here, we are still solidly within the realm of capitalism, the bottom line still rules, and getting a solid financial return on investment is still the main goal.

The other kind of “new economy,” though, asks different questions altogether – not just about “how” but “why.” There are a myriad of new terms, theories, and approaches being generated – some of which are explored on the website of the Next System Project, which I told you about a few months ago – but I think the key difference is one of values. This new economy, for example, is concerned less with concentration and accumulation and more with proper distribution – less with short-term gain and more with long-term sustainability – less with exploitation and dominance, and more with cooperation and inclusiveness.

For this reason, I suggest a new term – the “New Values Economy” –  to describe this still-being-dreamed system, which will someday replace what we now see falling apart. And I want to invite you to join me in Buffalo the weekend of July 8-10 for a conference called “CommonBound,” sponsored by the New Economy Coalition (http://neweconomy.net), to learn more about and help to shape that coming future.

The Challenges of Inequality

(Adapted from an article in ON TRACK: Transition Honesdale Newsletter, October 2013)

Let me state this explicitly at the outset: I am by no means an egalitarian. I don’t expect, or even desire, that everyone should enjoy exactly the same kind of economic situation. I understand that society, at any level, will always have some degree of stratification. I accept that some folks – those who take on particularly great responsibilities, for example, or skilled and highly trained professionals like doctors, lawyers, and teachers – will have, and rightfully deserve, a greater level of compensation than, say, a mere first-line manager and part-time scribbler such as me.

But let’s face it: when it comes to economic inequality in the United States, things are starting to get out of hand.

I won’t go through the laundry list of statistics. It’s easy enough to find any number of sources, from the US Census Bureau to the Institute for Policy Studies to the excellent website for Robert Reich’s critically-acclaimed film “Inequality for All”, that will illustrate the extent of the problem, and how quickly it is growing. Let it suffice to say that the distribution of wealth and income in the United States is now the most imbalanced since – well, 1929.

And we all know how that turned out.

The general effects of this imbalance on our political and economic landscape are widespread and well-known. Members of the lower socioeconomic classes lose power and gain debt, and find themselves working harder while facing increasing insecurity. From the specific point of view of Transition, though, inequality poses additional challenges, particularly if we consider its effects on community cohesion, a key factor of community resilience.

The Transition philosophy takes as one of its starting points the notion that business-as-usual will not – indeed, cannot – continue much longer. At some point, we believe, the fundamental underpinnings of our society will begin to give way (whether gradually or catastrophically), to be supplanted by a different and more sustainable way of life.  In this new economy, the ethos of excess, individual accumulation, narrow self-interest, and competition will be replaced by one of lower consumption, community well-being, mutual aid, and cooperation.

But if we have a class of people accustomed to always having the “best of the best,” we have to wonder whether they will be able, not to mention willing, to make that transition gracefully.  We may see the well-to-do withdraw into their own heavily guarded and well-supplied enclaves, leaving the rest of us to squabble over their leftovers, or they may try to keep the status quo in place through increasingly coercive measures.

As wealth and power continue to concentrate at the top, the spirit of community splinters – not just between classes, but within and between different groups, as they struggle to secure their share of a dwindling supply of resources and opportunities.  Tensions between groups are likely to be manipulated to protect sheltered interests.

Even now, inequality is undermining community – right out from under our feet, in fact.  As society becomes more stratified, we see casual contact and meaningful communication between members of different classes becoming more and more uncommon.  Suspicions, resentments, and fears increase, as stereotypes and prejudices blossom.  Eventually, we might end up with something like a caste system, where social mobility is strictly regulated.

And worst of all, in my opinion, inequality undermines two of the main foundations of American society. One is the ideal of “equality before the law.”  As inequality increases, it becomes harder for poor defendants or litigants to get the legal assistance they need – and much easier for wealthy miscreants to avoid detection or punishment, particularly for financial crimes.

The other is the sense that every human life has an innate dignity and value – what some might call the notion of “equality before God.”  Studies have shown that as income disparity increases, the rich find it easier and easier to dismiss not only the complaints and sufferings of the poor, but eventually their very humanity.

But such nightmarish scenarios can be avoided.  The primary challenge is for all of us, in all sectors of the community, to see that in the long run, too much inequality harms everyone.  Then we can begin to explore how we might work together to create and sustain shared prosperity.  This process starts simply, locally, through pilot programs and economic experiments designed to embody the values of a more sustainable society.

As soon as we can, we need to begin that process, and bring our lives, our relationships, and our communities back into balance.