Envisioning a convivial post-corporate world requires a diversity of new/old concepts, policies, technologies, best practices, etc. that are imaginable or currently available for decentralized implementation.
This blog is intended to collate promising contributions to this vision from experts in many fields.
Participants are requested to classify each of their posts with one or more of the Category Labels (listed here).
December 11, 2010
By Ronnie Cummins
Organic Consumers Association, Dec 9, 2010
After his brief on-the-ground report from the Cancún climate negotiations, Cummins offers a compelling outline of the geo-agro-reforms we need to fight for now. - Ed.
On a beautiful sunny morning, marching down the Avenida Tulúm, our five thousand strong brigade of climate change activists, armed with colorful flags, hats, signs, and banners, supercharged with lively music and drummers, are making our voices heard: "Cambie el sistema, no la clima" (Change the System, not the climate), "El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido" (The people united will never be defeated) and "Obama, Obama respete Cochabamba" (Obama, Obama, respect the Cochabamba Declaration--on the Rights of Mother Earth). One of two simultaneous street demonstrations this morning, we are heading toward the Moon Palace, 15 miles away, where hundreds of heavily armed riot police are lined up behind enormous steel barricades to prevent us from getting within earshot of the Palace, the official headquarters for the United Nation's COP 16 (Congress of the Parties 16) global climate summit.
With black military helicopters (courtesy of the USA) circling overhead, our message to the "business as usual" elite in the Palace is simple: get off your bureaucratic asses and do something. Stop allowing large corporations to use our common atmosphere as an open sewer. Stop cutting down our forests, spraying poisonous pesticides, killing our oceans, and destroying our living soils. Stand aside and let the world's 1.5 billion small farmers, ranchers, and indigenous communities cool off the planet with organic soil management and sustainable grazing and forestry practices. Tax the rich, nationalize the banks, and do whatever is necessary to pay for millions of Green Jobs and public works programs to rebuild our soils and our economic infrastructure. Stop the delaying tactics. Join hands with the global grassroots to retrofit our buildings, our utilities, and our transportation sectors and move away from fossil fuels, or get the hell out of our way.
November 22, 2010
Energy cheaper than from coalPublished Robert Hargraves on July 11th, 2010
When economic well-being measured by the gross domestic product exceeds a threshold, birthrate drops sharply.
Global warming now threatens irreversible climate damage, ending glacial water flows needed to sustain food production for hundreds of millions of people, and shrinking the polar cold water regions of the ocean where algae start the ocean food chain. Atmospheric CO2 dissolving into the ocean acidifies it, killing corals and stressing ocean life. Demand for biofuels increases destruction of CO2 absorbing forests and jungles.
Burning coal for power is the largest source of atmospheric CO2, which drives global warming. Airborne coal soot causes 24,000 annual deaths in the US and 400,000 in China. We seek alternatives such as burying CO2, or substituting wind, solar, and nuclear power.
November 07, 2010
- ECB's Trichet wary of financial transaction tax (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- 60 states to lobby U.N. for currency transaction tax (reuters.com)
October 26, 2010
October 05, 2010
Ingenious tax and policy algorithms for miniaturizing, localizing and democratizing mega-corporate entities - Ed.A green tax policy for sustaining Australia, its citizens and communities
A green tax could be introduced on a voluntary basis. A lower tax rate could be made available to any investor who registered a contract to transfer ownership of their investments at the same rate that they recovered the cost of their investment from depreciation tax deductions. There would no limit on the profits obtained by investors while they got their money back.
More foreign investment could be obtained while eliminating alien ownership and control of national resources. “Boomerang ownership” would eliminate what Professor Penrose described as “unlimited, unknown and uncontrolled foreign liabilities” for the nation. Because profit-maximizing investors discount the future so much only a small preferential tax1 is required for fiduciary investors in listed corporations to approve a change in corporate constitutions to create a new class of “stakeholder” shares to acquire residual ownership of corporate investments2.
September 26, 2010
THE FULL MONTY: http://snipurl.com/16ekqe
September 23, 2010
September 20, 2010
For generations of Americans, the American dream stood for opportunity. The dream was rooted in the belief that, in a peaceful and democratic society, citizens were free to pursue their goals, and honest effort would result in a satisfactory degree of material comfort. The idealistic notion that in America one might reasonably aspire to a better life for oneself and one's family was a powerful symbol. It spoke not merely to personal aspirations but to our aim as a society as well.
Unfortunately, in recent decades the traditional American dream has been displaced by a "more is better" focus that promotes not quality of life, but rather the unbridled production and consumption of stuff. While this simplified version of the dream succeeded in boosting the US economy—now the biggest in the world in terms of material production and consumption—it has failed in more important ways. According to studies, all this material wealth isn't making us any happier than we were before the boom. Worse yet, shifting the prize from well-being to acquisition actually endangers some of the very things we cherish. The "more is better" dream is unsustainable personally, as it draws American families into a work-and-spend treadmill that depletes savings and clutters lives. It is unsustainable environmentally, as it fuels a level of resource consumption that the planet cannot keep up with. The "more is better" dream, in fact, is denying our children their fair opportunity for comfort, security and a healthy environment.
The Center for a New American Dream envisions a society that values more of what matters – not just "more." New American Dream is dedicated to helping support and nurture an American dream that revives the spirit of the traditional dream—but with a new emphasis on non-material values like financial security, fairness, community, health, time, nature, and fun. We see both a nation and a world in which a healthy global ecosystem anchors a just society offering all citizens the freedom, the resources and the personal security necessary to pursue their dreams, connect with the natural world, and enjoy a high quality of life. Some key elements of this new American dream are as follows:
A Higher Quality of Life
We envision a society in which citizens are able to meet material needs and pursue their dreams; where there is broad recognition that quality of life includes not just material wealth but also non-material values, relationships, and experiences; where there is more time for families, leisure, community service; where progress is measured not simply by changes in gross domestic product, but rather by indicators that more truly reflect improvements to quality of life, environmental sustainability, and social and economic fairness.
A Healthy Environment
We envision a society whose ecological footprint is in step with Earth's capacity, so that we are living in balance with what the natural world has to offer and we protect the resource base for future generations. Everyone should have access to clean air, clean water, healthy food, and adequate resources.
We envision a world that works for all; a world in which everyone has the opportunity to achieve a high quality of life; a world in which wealthy nations and individuals do not overconsume natural resources while the poor do without; a world in which workers at all parts of the supply chain are provided with safe working conditions and just compensation; a world where no one is denied access to basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, safety; a world where citizen influence over government policies is elevated over moneyed influence.
We envision strong, tightly woven, participatory communities; more direct relationships between local producers and consumers; livable, walkable neighborhoods connected via accessible and affordable transportation systems with natural areas, parks, and open spaces available to all.
Healthy Economy and Marketplace
We envision a vibrant economy that operates in deference to both citizen needs and ecological limits; where advertising informs rather than manipulates, overwhelms, and preys upon insecurities; where citizens can choose not to receive commercial messages and no advertising is targeted at young children; where energy production and industrial processes do not exacerbate climate change nor degrade important biological communities; where materials are continuously recycled back into the manufacturing process and nothing is wasted; where environmentally and socially preferable products are widely available and competitively priced; where consumers have easy access to information that allows them to make informed choices—information about the economic, environmental, and social impacts associated with the entire life cycle of available products.
September 18, 2010
September 10, 2010
Although Fitting and Bagnulo still had a long way to go—they hadn't found a space yet or secured financing for the venture—the Fort Greene Association decided to throw a party to welcome them to the neighborhood. More than 300 people came.
That was in mid-September. A week later, the financial crisis hit. Even before the meltdown, Bagnulo and Fitting knew that securing a bank loan for a start-up bookstore would be tough. Now it looked downright impossible.
September 05, 2010
September 04, 2010
Comprehensive Monetary and Economic Reforms now included in the US Green Party PlatformThe US Green party's economic analysis and policy planks have been growing more radical and sophisticated in recent years and now offer a credible and inspiring template for socio-economic transformation and a far more convivial world. Relevant highlights of their 2010 platform are included below. (My favorite is "Democratic Conversion of Big Business: Mandatory break-up and conversion to democratic worker, consumer, and/or public ownership on a human scale of the largest 500 US industrial and commercial corporations!) See full platform here.
- Eliminate Corporate Personhood: Legislation or constitutional amendment to end the legal fiction of corporate personhood.
- End Corporate Limited Liability: Make corporate shareholders bear the same liabilities as other property owners.
- Federal Chartering of Interstate Corporations
- Periodic Review of Corporate Charters: A public corporate charter review process for each corporation above $20 million in assets every 20 years to see if it is serving the public interest according to social and ecological as well as financial criteria.
September 01, 2010
August 30, 2010
Will Raap understands that the creating of a new economy is a complex endeavor. "Green" products manufactured with care for the environment are an important element of the new economy story -- but only a part. Sharing profits with those who labored to make the products is another part of the rebalancing of our economic system to one that is fair and sustainable. And then with the financial capacity that the new wealth creates, investing in the restoration of ecological capital in the region, planning and acting for future generations.
In 1983 Will Raap founded Gardener's Supply Company (http://www.gardeners.com) in Burlington, Vermont with a vision to create a business where people, planet, and profits are equally important. At the same time he was providing tools so that people could raise their own food and enjoy doing it at the same time.
In December of 2009, Gardener's Supply became 100 percent employee-owned. Raap began selling shares to employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Program in 1987, allowing all employees to earn stock and participate in company profits.Selling Gardener's Supply to the employees kept the business in Vermont, and gave employees the opportunity to become owners of an enterprise they helped build, something Raap felt was critical when he started the company.
August 19, 2010
August 16, 2010
- Aquaponics a Sustainable Food Alternative (greenbuildingelements.com)
- The Rise of Urban Aquaponics: Farm Fresh Fish in Wisconsin (Video) (singularityhub.com)
BBC documentary on alternatives to present global farming and the incipient food crisis, filmed in the UK. Featuring Martin Crawford (Agroforestry Research Trust), Fordhall Farm, Richard Heinberg and others. Topics covered are the influence of oil on the food production, peak-oil, food security, carbon emissions, sustainability and permaculture.
This is Part I of five 10-min Youtube clips - continue from here.
August 11, 2010
August 06, 2010
- Allan Savory gifts us holistic management with animals (permaculturesendaverde.blogspot.com)
- Whole, whole on the range (doorsofperception.com)
- Method That Turns Wastelands Green Wins 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge (fastcompany.com)
- Holistic Management and Allan Savory Win the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Award for Turning Deserts into Thriving Grasslands and Combating Climate Change. (prweb.com)
July 29, 2010
July 06, 2010
The cancellation of taxes on labor and basic consumption, the creation of a 2% worldwide tax on property ownership (except basic habitation for the poor), and the implementation of a global 0.5% flat tax on all financial transactions with a total prohibition of speculation on food products.
Until the beginning of the 19th century, taxes were largely used as a means of reducing inequalities, and fell mainly on property ownership.
Neoliberal policies of the 20th century slowly shifted the tax burden away from the rich to the poor by taxing labor and consumption—making the poor responsible for financing our economic system while giving the rich most of the benefit. And we all know what became of trickle-down theory.
Taxes must be shifted away from basic necessities and consumption, and back to profit-making operations, and the ownership of natural resources and other industrial properties. A tax must also be levied on financial transactions.
For more information on these issues:
here (The Yes Men's World Economic Forum spoof site).
July 05, 2010
What Is Common Good Bank™?Common Good Bank™ is designed to be the basis for a new economic system -- a democratic, community-based system that can spread quickly to give everyone a home, healthy food, and satisfying work. Common Good Bank will be different from ordinary banks in two ways: who benefits (everyone) and who gets a say in how the money is used (everyone). This is not just another bank with a social mission. This is
a social mission with a bank!
- All profits go to schools and other nonprofits.
- Depositors decide what the bank should invest in.
- Free local credit card processing for local businesses.
- Micro-loans for new businesses and community projects.
- A full range of secure, FDIC-insured banking services.
- Committed to sustainability and economic justice.
July 03, 2010
July 01, 2010
June 29, 2010
May 25, 2010
By Rochelle Gurstein, Guernica
To read more stories like this, visit Guernica Magazine.
When the Ford Motor Company opened in 1903, “jack-of-all trades” mechanics were needed to build the first cars. This kind of labor still belonged to the craft tradition—“worthy work” that required skill, knowledge, and experience obtained through years of apprenticeship. The work was varied and interesting and carried with it, as William Morris once put it, “the hope of pleasure in our daily creative skill.” In the face of growing demand for the Model T, however, the knowledge and experience of mechanics were found to be expendable. To increase productivity, Ford’s managers broke up the craft of building cars into its constituent parts; highly skilled mechanics found themselves turned into mere assemblers, reduced to performing an ever more limited set of tasks.
By 1910, these once-independent craftsmen refused to accept what they experienced as the mind-numbing and degrading division of their labor and began to walk off the job. During the next few years, Ford took even more extreme measures to step up production, instituting the endless-chain conveyor system; car assemblies now moved past fixed stations where men carried out ever more simple, repetitive operations. Again, these men registered their revulsion at this systematic destruction of their knowledge and skill by walking off the job, this time in droves. “It was apparent,” writes Keith Sward in his The Legend of Henry Ford, “that the Ford Motor Co. had reached the point of owning a great factory without having enough workers to keep it humming.” For the year 1913 alone, the employee turnover rate reached 380 percent. “So great was labor’s distaste for the new machine system,” Sward reports, “that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963.”
This crisis only intensified when the Industrial Workers of the World began a unionization drive of Ford workers during the summer of that same year. To put down both threats, Ford introduced his much-trumpeted five dollars a day. Harry Braverman, in his groundbreaking Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (1974), questions whether even this pay rate, which was almost double that of Ford’s competitors, would have kept the men on the job had there been any other viable options for skilled mechanics. But there were not; by this time, competing manufacturers, in an effort to keep pace with Ford’s increased output, had also forced the assembly line on their skilled mechanics, thus wiping out all alternative modes of work in the burgeoning car industry. Ford’s workers had no choice but to stay put and their union representatives began their long fight for concessions from management.
In his State of the Union speech, President Obama announced with some urgency that, “jobs must be our number one focus in 2010.” But as I have been reading about how to create jobs for the fifteen million men and women who are currently without work, I have been struck by how much space is devoted to breast-beating about declining standards of living and fear-mongering predictions that America will be a “second-rate” power by the end of the decade, and how little is given to any serious consideration about what kinds of work people will be doing.
The near collapse of the auto industry and the way it was averted, in large part, by unionized workers accepting deep cuts in their ranks, hours, wages, and benefits, herald the end of the kind of blue-collar occupations that afforded generations of working people secure, comfortable lives.
It is an historical irony that in last two years’ public discussions about bailing out Detroit, what was once perceived as the death of dignified labor was portrayed by Republican lawmakers and reactionary journalists as a kind of overpaid, over-compensated worker’s paradise. This characterization of the reasonable wages, paid vacations and sick days, health insurance, and retirement packages that labor unions gained in exchange for workers relinquishing the skills required to build cars reveals a distressing loss of historical memory. What is more, this talk of pampered workers is an outrageous libel on the uneasy bargain to which middle-class workers—both blue and white-collar alike—eventually submitted, trading meaningful work for the promise of better working conditions, a higher standard of living, and increased leisure time.
For decades now, manufacturers have demonstrated their contempt for this trade-off. Claiming competitive threats from “the global market,” more and more manufacturers and associated industries have moved their factories outside the United States to take advantage of poor people who have no choice but to accept meager wages. As for the few remaining manufacturers that have kept their factories in the U.S., most notably, the automobile industry, last spring we heard their obscenely rich executives explain to Congress that the main reason their companies were failing was the extreme financial burden of their workers’ benefits.
As we know, President Obama has been intent on saving Detroit. Last year, in his address to Congress on February 24, he announced, “We are committed to the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win. Millions of jobs depend on it; scores of communities depend on it, and I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it.” It is certainly not too much to expect that this “re-tooled, reimagined” auto industry, instead of manufacturing gigantic, polluting, profligate S.U.V.’s and light trucks, might produce fuel-efficient, “green” cars. But by what means? The old assembly line has largely been replaced by fully automated, robotic production, leaving many workers with the repetitious, one-dimensional job of tending machines. Will they continue to tend machines, but now with lower pay, fewer benefits, and less security so that, before long, their work will be indistinguishable from the dead-end, often demeaning jobs of the so-called service economy? And to what end? So that instead of drivers sitting for hours in traffic jams during their daily commutes to and from work in cars that pollute, they will now sit for hours in their plug-in, hybrid eco-cars? This is a matter of some urgency, as 90 percent of Americans drive to work and a staggering 76 percent of them drive alone.
When oil prices surged dramatically in the summer of 2008, there was much talk—especially during the presidential debates—about the need to find alternative energy sources as well as about the compromised political situation in which America found itself economically hostage to oil-producing Arab countries that are actively hostile to American interests. (A nice turn on the old saying that capitalists will buy the rope to hang themselves.) Although it is well known that Americans count for only 5 percent of the world’s population but use up over 25 percent of the world’s energy resources, the moral dimension of our gluttonous appetites rarely enters any mainstream public discussions. Paul Kennedy, in his Preparing for the Twenty-First Century, published back in 1993, gave life to these statistics: “According to one calculation, the average American baby represents twice the environmental damage of a Swedish child, three times that of an Italian, thirteen times that of a Brazilian, thirty-five times that of an Indian, and two hundred and eighty times that of a Chadian or Haitian because its level of consumption throughout its life will be so much greater.”
It is this picture that we need to keep in mind as we imagine how we are going to move out of the world—ugly and shoddy, morally and aesthetically—created by the ideology of growth without end and the unrelenting piggish desire for more things that have become hallmarks of the American way of life. We must also keep sight of the historical fact that not only did monopoly capital and the division of labor emerge together in the last decades of the nineteenth century, but so, too, did those alarming “plague clouds” and a sun that was “blanched” rather than “reddened”—those first unmistakable signs of industrial pollution that John Ruskin decried in a lecture entitled “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” (1884). To address one of these historical developments without the other two is to ensure that we will never move beyond the narrow confines of current thinking about our present moment or about what the future might look like.
In the same speech to Congress last year, President Obama made a more explicit connection between jobs and the environment than he did in his recent State of the Union speech. He rightly believes it is time to repair our disintegrating infrastructure and announced that over the next two years, the government “will save or create 3.5 million jobs. More than 90 percent of these jobs will be in the private sector, jobs rebuilding our roads and bridges, constructing wind turbines and solar panels, laying broadband, and expanding mass transit.” What is more, Obama promised that American universities will turn out “the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” by the year 2020. But what will these students study? What kinds of work will their college educations prepare them for? Here President Obama seems unable to picture a world significantly different from the economically and morally bankrupt one that we now find ourselves in: “In a global economy, where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity. It is a pre-requisite.” I am sorry to have to notice that the President’s formulation of knowledge as “the most valuable skill you can sell” belongs to the technocratic world view of the professional-managerial class—the very “experts” who, from the time of the first factory line, have been repackaging once-complex sets of skills into simple instructions that can be mastered in a few days or even a few hours of “training.”
Instead of putting forward, as so many of our elected officials, policy analysts, pundits, and journalists predictably do, a picture of our world that is essentially the same, except that it is somehow “green” and somehow peopled with college-educated or better “trained” workers, we need to focus our attention on the more pressing and more basic question of what kinds of work people should be expected to devote their lives to doing. The last time this question—the question of meaningful, satisfying, dignified labor—got a public hearing was in the nineteen sixties and seventies, with Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital being the intellectual high-water mark. What Braverman convincingly demonstrated is that there is nothing natural or inevitable about our system of labor; that it came about through conscious decisions made by industrial capitalists in the name of profit for them alone; and, so long as there were living alternatives to it, that assembly line work was forcefully resisted by skilled craftsmen who walked off the job rather than submit to work that they felt demeaned them. William Morris spoke for those men when he declared the new factory work “worthless; it is slaves’ work—mere toiling to live, that we may live to toil.”
In this context, it is worth recalling the profusion of skilled practices that once existed. In the mid-sixteenth century, a book described ninety different crafts, including jewelers, metalsmiths, goldsmiths, coiners, tapestry makers, printers, musical instrument makers, dyers, potters, tanners, weavers, carpenters, bakers, and millers. Two centuries later, Diderot’s Encyclopedia counted two hundred and fifty. By the middle of the nineteenth century, in a medium-sized town in England, over fifty crafts were still being practiced. Over the last century and a half, however, the social division of labor penetrated ever more dimensions of daily life, with the result that very few occupations requiring skill, knowledge, experience, and long apprenticeships have survived.
Thus it has become increasingly difficult to imagine how to revive what has vanished both from practice and from memory, let alone how a world might come into being where the greater number of things we use or, better yet—to suggest the enormous change in consciousness that is required—things we enjoy using in our daily life are made by people who enjoy making them. I have in mind here the kind of pleasure and pride that accomplished craftsmen at the Waterford Crystal factory in Kilbarry, Ireland, lost when their factory shut down earlier this year. Sean Egan, who worked as a crystal engraver for twenty-five years, spoke of his ten-year apprenticeship: “It’s extremely hard to learn, and machines can’t do it. It’s like playing the piano. You can learn three chords and get away with it, but if you want to learn classical piano, you have to practice all the time.”
We might also take a lesson from the movement for sustainable, organic, local farming. For decades, champions of this movement have been all but banished to the fringe of respectable discourse, but lately they have been getting a hearing, as evidenced by Michael Pollan’s lengthy “Open Letter to the Next Farmer-in-Chief” that appeared in The New York Times Magazine, in October 2008. It seems to me that a good starting point for how to bring about a similar revolution in thinking and practice when it comes to work is the principle that just as monoculture is disastrous for our health and security when it comes to food, lack of variety in work is just as disastrous for our well-being and happiness. The ideology of ceaseless economic growth, made possible by the division of labor that has filled our world with ugly things from the Styrofoam cup to smog in our skies, has always been vapid and destructive. Now, with the implosion of the global financial system, the American way of life as model for global expansion stands exposed as unsustainable as well.
Rochelle Gurstein is the author of Repeal Of Reticence. She is currently working on a book tentatively entitled Of Time and Beauty and writes a monthly column about how the world looks and feels for The New Republic Online. Her essays on aesthetic and political matters have appeared in The New Republic, Salmagundi, Raritan, and other “little magazines.”
© 2010 Guernica All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/146484/
By Mark Dowie, Guernica
To read more stories like this one, please visit Guernica.
Were I an aspiring farmer in search of fertile land to buy and plow, I would seriously consider moving to Detroit. There is open land, fertile soil, ample water, willing labor, and a desperate demand for decent food. And there is plenty of community will behind the idea of turning the capital of American industry into an agrarian paradise. In fact, of all the cities in the world, Detroit may be best positioned to become the world’s first one hundred percent food self-sufficient city.
Right now, Detroit is as close as any city in America to becoming a food desert, not just another metropolis like Chicago, Philadelphia, or Cleveland with a bunch of small- and medium-sized food deserts scattered about, but nearly a full-scale, citywide food desert. (A food desert is defined by those who study them as a locality from which healthy food is more than twice as far away as unhealthy food, or where the distance to a bag of potato chips is half the distance to a head of lettuce.) About 80 percent of the residents of Detroit buy their food at the one thousand convenience stores, party stores, liquor stores, and gas stations in the city. There is such a dire shortage of protein in the city that Glemie Dean Beasley, a seventy-year-old retired truck driver, is able to augment his Social Security by selling raccoon carcasses (twelve dollars a piece, serves a family of four) from animals he has treed and shot at undisclosed hunting grounds around the city. Pelts are ten dollars each. Pheasants are also abundant in the city and are occasionally harvested for dinner.
Detroiters who live close enough to suburban borders to find nearby groceries carrying fresh fruit, meat, and vegetables are a small minority of the population. The health consequences of food deserts are obvious and dire. Diabetes, heart failure, hypertension, and obesity are chronic in Detroit, and life expectancy is measurably lower than in any American city.
Not so long ago, there were five produce-carrying grocery chains—Kroger, A&P, Farmer Jack, Wrigley, and Meijer—competing vigorously for the Detroit food market. Today there are none. Nor is there a single WalMart or Costco in the city. Specialty grocer Trader Joe’s just turned down an attractive offer to open an outlet in relatively safe and prosperous midtown Detroit; a rapidly declining population of chronically poor consumers is not what any retailer is after. High employee turnover, loss from theft, and cost of security are also cited by chains as reasons to leave or avoid Detroit. So it is unlikely grocers will ever return, despite the tireless flirtations of City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Michigan Food and Beverage Association. There is a fabulous once-a-week market, the largest of its kind in the country, on the east side that offers a wide array of fresh meat, eggs, fruit, and vegetables. But most people I saw there on an early April Saturday arrived in well polished SUVs from the suburbs. So despite the Eastern Market, in-city Detroiters are still left with the challenge of finding new ways to feed themselves a healthy meal.
One obvious solution is to grow their own, and the urban backyard garden boom that is sweeping the nation has caught hold in Detroit, particularly in neighborhoods recently settled by immigrants from agrarian cultures of Laos and Bangladesh, who are almost certain to become major players in an agrarian Detroit. Add to that the five hundred or so twenty-by-twenty-foot community plots and a handful of three- to ten-acre farms cultured by church and non-profit groups, and during its four-month growing season, Detroit is producing somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of its food supply inside city limits—more than most American cities, but nowhere near enough to allay the food desert problem. About 3 percent of the groceries sold at the Eastern Market are homegrown; the rest are brought into Detroit by a handful of peri-urban farmers and about one hundred and fifty freelance food dealers who buy their produce from Michigan farms between thirty and one hundred miles from the city and truck it into the market.
There are more visionaries in Detroit than in most Rust-Belt cities, and thus more visions of a community rising from the ashes of a moribund industry to become, if not an urban paradise, something close to it. The most intriguing visionaries in Detroit, at least the ones who drew me to the city, were those who imagine growing food among the ruins—chard and tomatoes on vacant lots (there are over 103,000 in the city, sixty thousand owned by the city), orchards on former school grounds, mushrooms in open basements, fish in abandoned factories, hydroponics in bankrupt department stores, livestock grazing on former golf courses, high-rise farms in old hotels, vermiculture, permaculture, hydroponics, aquaponics, waving wheat where cars were once test-driven, and winter greens sprouting inside the frames of single-story bungalows stripped of their skin and re-sided with Plexiglas—a homemade greenhouse. Those are just a few of the agricultural technologies envisioned for the urban prairie Detroit has become.
There are also proposals on the mayor’s desk to rezone vast sections A-something (“A” for agriculture), and a proposed master plan that would move the few people residing in lonely, besotted neighborhoods into Detroit’s nine loosely defined villages and turn the rest of the city into open farmland. An American Institute of Architects panel concludes that all Detroit’s residents could fit comfortably in fifty square miles of land. Much of the remaining ninety square miles could be farmed. Were that to happen, and a substantial investment was made in greenhouses, vertical farms, and aquaponic systems, Detroit could be producing protein and fibre 365 days a year and soon become the first and only city in the world to produce close to 100 percent of its food supply within its city limits. No semis hauling groceries, no out-of-town truck farmers, no food dealers. And no chain stores need move back. Everything eaten in the city could be grown in the city and distributed to locally owned and operated stores and co-ops. I met no one in Detroit who believed that was impossible, but only a few who believed it would happen. It could, but not without a lot of political and community will.
There are a few cities in the world that grow and provide about half their total food supply within their urban and peri-urban regions—Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Havana, Cuba; Hanoi, Vietnam; Dakar, Senegal; Rosario, Argentina; Cagayan de Oro in the Philippines; and, my personal favorite, Cuenca, Equador—all of which have much longer growing seasons than Detroit. However, those cities evolved that way, almost unintentionally. They are, in fact, about where Detroit was agriculturally around one hundred and fifty years ago. Half of them will almost surely drop under 50 percent sufficiency within the next two decades as industry subsumes cultivated land to build factories (à la China). Because of its unique situation, Detroit could come close to being 100 percent self-sufficient.
First, the city lies on one hundred and forty square miles of former farmland. Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco could be placed inside the borders of Detroit with room to spare, and the population is about the same as the smallest of those cities, San Francisco: eight hundred thousand. And that number is still declining from a high of two million in the mid-nineteen fifties. Demographers expect Detroit’s population to level off somewhere between five hundred thousand and six hundred thousand by 2025. Right now there is about forty square miles of unoccupied open land in the city, the area of San Francisco, and that landmass could be doubled by moving a few thousand people out of hazardous firetraps into affordable housing in the eight villages. As I drove around the city, I saw many full-sized blocks with one, two, or three houses on them, many already burned out and abandoned. The ones that weren’t would make splendid farmhouses.
As Detroit was built on rich agricultural land, the soil beneath the city is fertile and arable. Certainly some of it is contaminated with the wastes of heavy industry, but not so badly that it’s beyond remediation. In fact, phyto-remediation, using certain plants to remove toxic chemicals permanently from the soil, is already practiced in parts of the city. And some of the plants used for remediation can be readily converted to biofuels. Others can be safely fed to livestock.
Leading the way in Detroit’s soil remediation is Malik Yakini, owner of the Black Star Community Book Store and founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Yakini and his colleagues begin the remediation process by removing abandoned house foundations and toxic debris from vacated industrial sites. Often that is all that need be done to begin farming. Throw a little compost on the ground, turn it in, sow some seeds, and water it. Water in Detroit is remarkably clean and plentiful.
Although Detroiters have been growing produce in the city since its days as an eighteenth-century French trading outpost, urban farming was given a major boost in the nineteen eighties by a network of African-American elders calling themselves the “Gardening Angels.” As migrants from the rural South, where many had worked as small farmers and field hands, they brought agrarian skills to vacant lots and abandoned industrial sites of the city, and set out to reconnect their descendants, children of asphalt, to the Earth, and teach them that useful work doesn’t necessarily mean getting a job in a factory.
Thirty years later, Detroit has an eclectic mix of agricultural systems, ranging from three-foot window boxes growing a few heads of lettuce to a large-scale farm run by The Catherine Ferguson Academy, a home and school for pregnant girls that not only produces a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but also raises chickens, geese, ducks, bees, rabbits, and milk goats.
Across town, Capuchin Brother Rick Samyn manages a garden that not only provides fresh fruits and vegetables to city soup kitchens, but also education to neighborhood children. There are about eighty smaller community gardens scattered about the city, more and more of them raising farm animals alongside the veggies. At the moment, domestic livestock is forbidden in the city, as are beehives. But the ordinance against them is generally ignored and the mayor’s office assures me that repeal of the bans are imminent.
About five hundred small plots have been created by an international organization called Urban Farming, founded by acclaimed songwriter Taja Sevelle. Realizing that Detroit was the most agriculturally promising of the fourteen cities in five countries where Urban Farming now exists, Sevelle moved herself and her organization’s headquarters there last year. Her goal is to triple the amount of land under cultivation in Detroit every year. All food grown by Urban Farming is given free to the poor. According to Urban Farming’s Detroit manager, Michael Travis, that won’t change.
Larger scale, for-profit farming is also on the drawing board. Financial services entrepreneur John Hantz has asked the city to let him farm a seventy-acre parcel he owns close to the Eastern Market. If that is approved and succeeds in producing food for the market, and profit for Hantz Farms, Hantz hopes to create more large-scale commercial farms around the city. Not everyone in Detroit’s agricultural community is happy with the scale or intentions of Hantz’s vision, but it seems certain to become part of the mix. And unemployed people will be put to work.
Any agro-economist will tell you that urban farming creates jobs. Even without local production, the food industry creates three dollars of job growth for every dollar spent on food—a larger multiplier effect than almost any other product or industry. Farm a city, and that figure jumps over five dollars. To a community with persistent two-digit unemployment, that number is manna. But that’s only one economic advantage of farming a city.
The average food product purchased in a U.S. chain store has traveled thirteen hundred miles, and about half of it has spoiled en route, despite the fact that it was bioengineered to withstand transport. The total mileage in a three-course American meal approaches twenty-five thousand. The food seems fresh because it has been refrigerated in transit, adding great expense and a huge carbon footprint to each item, and subtracting most of the minerals and vitamins that would still be there were the food grown close by.
I drove around the city one day with Dwight Vaughter and Gary Wozniak. A soft-spoken African American, Vaughter is CEO of SHAR, a self-help drug rehab program with about two hundred residents recovering from various addictions in an abandoned hospital. Wozniak, a bright, gregarious Polish American, who, unlike most of his fellow Poles, has stayed in Detroit, is the program’s financial director. Vaughter and Wozniak are trying to create a labor-intensive economic base for their program, with the conviction that farming and gardening are therapeutic. They have their eyes on two thousand acres in one of the worst sections of the city, not far from the Eastern Market. They estimate that there are about four thousand people still living in the area, most of them in houses that should have been condemned and razed years ago. There are also six churches in the section, offering some of the best ecclesiastical architecture in the city.
I tried to imagine what this weedy, decrepit, trash-ridden urban dead zone would look like under cultivation. First, I removed the overhead utilities and opened the sky a little. Then I tore up the useless grid of potholed streets and sidewalks and replaced them with a long winding road that would take vegetables to market and bring parishioners to church. I wrecked and removed most of the houses I saw, leaving a few that somehow held some charm and utility. Of course, I left the churches standing, as I did a solid red brick school, boarded up a decade ago when the student body dropped to a dozen or so bored and unstimulated deadbeats. It could be reopened as an urban ag-school, or SHAR’s residents could live there. I plowed and planted rows of every imaginable vegetable, created orchards and raised beds, set up beehives and built chicken coops, rabbit warrens, barns, and corrals for sheep, goats, and horses. And of course, I built sturdy hoop houses, rows of them, heated by burning methane from composting manure and ag-waste to keep frost from winter crops. The harvest was tended by former drug addicts who like so many before them found salvation in growing things that keep their brethren alive.
That afternoon I visited Grace Lee Boggs, a ninety-three-year-old Chinese-American widow who has been envisioning farms in Detroit for decades. Widow of legendary civil rights activist Jimmy Boggs, Grace preserves his legacy with the energy of ten activists. The main question on my mind as I climbed the steps to her modest east side home, now a center for community organizers, was whether or not Detroit possesses the community and political will to scale its agriculture up to 100 percent food self-sufficiency. Yes, Grace said to the former, and no to the latter. But she really didn’t believe that political will was that essential.
“The food riots erupting around the world challenge us to rethink our whole approach to food,” she said, but as communities, not as bodies politic. “Today’s hunger crisis is rooted in the industrialized food system which destroys local food production and forces nations like Kenya, which only twenty-five years ago was food self-sufficient, to import 80 percent of its food because its productive land is being used by global corporations to grow flowers and luxury foods for export.” The same thing happened to Detroit, she says, which was once before a food self-sufficient community.
I asked her whether the city government would support large-scale urban agriculture. “City government is irrelevant,” she answered. “Positive change, leaps forward in the evolution of humankind do not start with governments. They start right here in our living rooms and kitchens. We are the leaders we are looking for.”
All the decaying Rust-Belt cities in the American heartland have at one time or another imagined themselves transformed into some sort of exciting new post-industrial urban model. And some have begun the process of transformation. Now it’s Detroit’s turn, Boggs believes. It could follow the examples of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo, and become a slightly recovered metropolis, another pathetic industrial has-been still addicted to federal stimulus, marginal jobs, and the corporate food system. Or it could make a complete break and become, if not a paradise, well, at least a pretty good place to live.
Not everyone in Detroit is enthusiastic about farming. Many urbanites believe that structures of some sort or another belong on urban land. And a lot of those people just elected David Bing mayor of the city. Bing’s opponent, acting mayor Ken Cockrel, was committed to expanding urban agriculture in Detroit. Bing has not said he’s opposed to it, but his background as a successful automotive parts manufacturer will likely have him favoring a future that maintains the city’s primary nickname: Motor City.
And there remains a lasting sense of urbanity in Detroit. “This is a city, not a farm,” remarked one skeptic of urban farming. She’s right, of course. A city is more than a farm. But that’s what makes Detroit’s rural future exciting. Where else in the world can one find a one-hundred-and-forty-square-mile agricultural community with four major league sports teams, two good universities, the fifth largest art museum in the country, a world-class hospital, and headquarters of a now-global industry, that while faltering, stands ready to green their products and keep three million people in the rest of the country employed?
Despite big auto’s crash, “Detroit” is still synonymous with the industry. When people ask, “What will become of Detroit?” most of them still mean, “What will become of GM, Ford, and Chrysler?” If Detroit the city is to survive in any form, it should probably get past that question and begin searching for ways to put its most promising assets, land and people, to productive use again by becoming America’s first modern agrarian metropolis.
Contemporary Detroit gave new meaning to the word “wasteland.” It still stands as a monument to a form of land abuse that became endemic to industrial America—once-productive farmland, teeming with wildlife, was paved and poisoned for corporate imperatives. Now the city offers itself as an opportunity to restore some of its agrarian tradition, not fifty miles from downtown in the countryside where most of us believe that tradition was originally established, but a short bicycle ride away. American cities once grew much of their food within walking distance of most of their residents. In fact, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most early American cities, Detroit included, looked more like the English countryside, with a cluster of small villages interspersed with green open space. Eventually, farmers of the open space sold their land to developers and either retired or moved their farms out of cities, which were cut into grids and plastered with factories, shopping malls, and identical row houses.
Detroit now offers America a perfect place to redefine urban economics, moving away from the totally paved, heavy-industrial factory-town model to a resilient, holistic, economically diverse, self-sufficient, intensely green, rural/urban community—and in doing so become the first modern American city where agriculture, while perhaps not the largest, is the most vital industry.
Mark Dowie, a freelance journalist living in Point Reyes Station California, is author of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century (MIT 1995).
© 2010 Guernica All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/146667/
Don't Fix Wall Street, Create a New Economy
By David Korten, YES! Magazine
Financial reform is the Congressional political issue of the month. Democrats say their bill will place essential controls on Wall Street to prevent abuse and a repeat of the financial crash. Republicans say it will encourage further Wall Street risk-taking by giving the big banks a guarantee of a future taxpayer bailout if reckless decisions trigger another financial crash.
Each party would have us believe that its side has the better answer about how to prevent another financial collapse, limit future taxpayer exposure, and protect consumers from financial fraud. These are good objectives, but their focus is fixing Wall Street.
No one in official circles seems to be asking the more fundamental question: “How do we create a financial services sector that directs money where it is needed: toward creating living wage jobs that provide essential goods and services for all Americans in ways consistent with a healthy environment?” Fixing Wall Street, as we presently know it, will do little, if anything, to achieve what should be our real purpose. Since the September 2008 financial collapse, Wall Street has conclusively demonstrated that it is concerned only for its own profits and bonuses.
Thanks to the taxpayer bailout and a constant flow of nearly free credit to the big banks from the Federal Reserve, Wall Street is once again reporting record profits and bonuses. Main Street, which has received far more modest public support, has not been so quick to recover from the effects of the crisis: high unemployment, low wages, consumer debt, bankruptcies, and foreclosures. It is a stunning contrast not lost on the properly outraged American public.
Meanwhile Wall Street power brokers resist even modest financial reforms that might prevent a repeat of the collapse. After all, they have little reason to be concerned—they've rigged the system to assure that no matter how risky their actions, they will still get their bonuses and taxpayers will pick up the bill. This is a destructive system beyond repair.
Generally, Republicans believe that “too big to fail” Wall Street banks should have been left to collapse as a self-corrective act of market discipline. Democrats would rather forestall another collapse by placing appropriate restraints on Wall Street excesses. On one level, I’m sympathetic to both sides of this particular debate. Another bailout is not acceptable; banks that engage in overly risky behavior should fail; and we need strong government action to forestall a financial crash potentially far more devastating than the one that happened in September 2008.
Neither side, however, is addressing the essential need to replace the Wall Street casino with a new financial system, one designed to provide essential financial services to the Main Street economies we depend upon to meet our daily need for jobs and essential goods and services like food, shelter, water, waste disposal, education, and public safety.
Wall Street is a world of pure finance in the business of using money to make money—by whatever means—for people who have money. Any contribution to the production of real goods and services is purely an incidental byproduct.
Wall Street, in its current incarnation, has no interest in providing true financial services, except as instruments of predatory extraction. In the name of financial innovation, its institutions have perfected the arts of financial speculation, inflating asset bubbles, stripping corporate assets, predatory lending (usury), risk shifting, leveraging, and creating debt pyramids—none of which serves any beneficial public purpose. Rather than being fixed or restricted, most of Wall Street should be shut down. The institutions of a new service-oriented financial system could more efficiently and beneficially fulfill the essential financial functions that Wall Street now controls.
Such a system cannot be created simply by restoring the regulations that once kept Wall Street’s tendency toward concentration and fraud in check. The system is now corrupt beyond repair. A new system of financial services institutions designed to serve and be accountable to the people of place-based Main Street economies must be built from the bottom up.
The money system is to the modern economic system what the circulatory system is to the body. Where blood flows freely, the body’s cells flourish. Where blood flow is restricted, they become anemic and may die. Real resources follow the money, so we must design the financial system to put the money where it will produce the greatest living-wealth benefit. Complicated though the details may be, the broad outline of what this means in practical terms is simple common sense.
Wall Street thrives and Main Street struggles because Wall Street controls the money flow. If you are a vulture speculator pushing the state of California toward bankruptcy by short selling California state government bonds, the Wall Street banks are there to be sure you have access to enough cheap money to make a big killing. If you are a Main Street entrepreneur serving real needs in your local economy, you’re forced to borrow against your credit card at predatory interest rates. This is the money system that Congress is debating how best to stabilize.
A proper service-oriented financial sector will feature a decentralized system of local banks and credit unions, mostly organized as nonprofits and cooperatives, that hold local deposits, clear transactions, and provide credit to productive local businesses and home buyers at fair interest rates. In this system, state and local governments would not be facing bankruptcy, because they would capitalize and operate their own banks to issue themselves credit for beneficial public projects.
At a national level, a Federal Reserve captive to Wall Street banking interests is currently giving the largest Wall Street banks interest-free loans that they in turn loan to the federal government at 3 percent interest to cover the federal deficits created by the bailout of these same Wall Street banks. Rather than using the bailout money to provide credit to Main Street businesses, the Wall Street banks have used it to pay record executive bonuses and dividends, grow even larger through mergers and acquisitions, and bet against the bonds that governments have issued to cover costs of bank bailouts and economic stimulus. None of this serves a beneficial public purpose.
Imagine how differently the economic recovery would be playing out if the federal government had taken over failing Wall Street banks and restructured them as locally owned, independent community banks and credit unions. Imagine further that it had taken over the Federal Reserve and issued itself interest-free credit, not to fund Wall Street bank bailouts, but rather to fund adequate stimulus programs that create living wage jobs in the Main Street economy—jobs doing work that meets real needs. That money would now be flowing back into local banks as deposits and savings, which these banks would then lend back into their communities. Main Street would be thriving, and Wall Street speculators would be the ones receiving foreclosure notices and hoping their unemployment benefits don’t run out before they find a new job.
Current efforts by Washington politicians to limit the excesses of dysfunctional, predatory, and destructive Wall Street institutions may be well intentioned, but they are seriously misguided. The proper goal is not to avoid another Wall Street collapse, it is to replace Wall Street with a new money system designed to provide honest and efficient financial services to the Main Street economies that create real wealth.
David Korten is a former economist with USAID, author of "When Corporations Rule the World," and an associate of the International Forum on Globalization.
© 2010 YES! Magazine All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/146741/
Forget the High-Priced Ivy League Schools, Here's Some Better Ideas for Your Education
By Luanne Bradley
Once it was a given: Follow the Ivy League road and you will arrive at a glistening Emerald City -- a place where you can be a president, CEO, or influential economist with an improved brain, passionate heart and the courage to go after big jobs with that impressive curriculum vitae. There's no place like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Brown.
But with the recession and devaluation of the $100k degree, some are wondering if it isn't better to take an alternative path to success, one that doesn't require competing for that finance job to recoup your college investment. Those jobs usually involve serving the corporate complex to overproduce resources and aiding an economic recovery plan designed around one goal: Getting Americans to spend and consume more.
There is no argument that a college degree is still highly beneficial. A recent U.S. Census survey says the median pay for college grads is more than $20,000 higher than the earnings of those who only graduated high school. It also reports the unemployment rate for people with bachelor's degrees is almost half the rate for people without. In addition, college is a growing social and academic experience many consider to be among the greatest years of their lives.
But if earning is the goal, the outlook is upsetting. The number of unemployed college grads now stands higher than it has been in 25 years at 14 percent. According to Education in Review, those who managed to score paying jobs in 2009 earned a starting salary that was 3 percent lower than the previous year.
That's bad news when you consider that college tuition keeps rising and many students need good jobs to pay back hefty loans. In 2008, nearly 70 percent of all American high school students attended college and the cash loaned to flip the bill rose 18 percent from the previous year to $81 billion. The U.S. Department of Education reports the average tuition went up 6.5 percent in the fall of 2009. Two-thirds of all students finished college in the red with outstanding loans of which the average debt is a heavy one: $23,200.
This is probably why so many Ivy Leaguers now plan to go straight to grad school. Harvard's annual survey shows the number rose from 21 percent to 25 percent last year and continues to rise with the class of 2010. Students are eager to get started in their careers and often choose graduate programs that let them earn real life experience to check off on an application for a job.
While most job applications say the position requires a college degree, it is no longer a deal breaker because of several factors: the deepening of the recession; collapse of financial institutions that had offered great avenues to kids with impressive degrees in the past; and a renewed interest among students in health care, teaching in underprivileged sectors, the arts, and green fields of alternative energy and conservation of resources. "In a softer market, more employers are seeking applicants with valuable work experience, and that is harder to pull off when you are a full-time student in a pressure cooker environment where jumping through the hoops does nothing to prepare you for the kind of jobs our planet needs right now," observes conservationist Brad Hoyt.
Progressive green thinkers argue we should focus on water, energy and food as our main concerns, developing sustainability in these critical areas by joining research being done on how to use our resources most effectively. Creative students might seek one of these beneficial areas of growth: Organic and biodynamic farming, green social networking on the Web to increase awareness, or development of renewable, alternative energy. Other green fields include sustainable packaging, healthy and organic delivery to food deserts in big cities, green prefab housing companies, fair trade production to bolster developing economies, solar and wind energy training programs.
"You don't learn these things in most colleges, but rather how to become good consumers and get lots of money," says Hoyt. "Employers who are employing people in complex, high consumer industries need to become dinosaurs. We need to figure a way to do it peacefully and calmly, rather than in a panic once we wake up and see petroleum exports have stopped and engineered food is making us sick."
Apart from fields like law, medicine and engineering, prospective employers and job placement agencies say the best and the brightest would benefit from taking the road less traveled -- attending a reasonably priced school, perhaps a community college for two years and then transferring to a desired university, and working in your field of interest while earning that degree.
That degree might come from a school with an excellent environmental sciences program -- one like the University of California at Berkeley which offers practical experience through entrepreneurial internships in the field and research opportunities.
According to Keith Gilless, dean of the College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley, his department has tripled in size since he started 26 years ago, aided greatly by green networking, which provides links to those making inroads in the fields of agriculture and forest and wildlife management.
"We set up a site this year for connecting our 1,900 environmental studies undergrads with 400 graduate students, faculty and professionals, and it has spread like wildfire," says Gilless, adding that the networking is especially beneficial at a time when the recession has caused his faculty to be reduced by half.
Even an online education can offer an affordable option for some high school grads who already have a foot in the door of the workplace.
The truth is, the planet is begging for young, passionate minds to take the helm in the new wave of industry and development, and this includes the area of health care -- the source of so much debate among our leaders.
Many of those Harvard hotshots who once sought the finance route to being a good, productive citizen, are now opting for health care with the number of grads entering the field doubling last year. Meantime, a record number, 14 percent, applied to Teach For America, a program that enlists bright young people to commit to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools in low-income communities.
You don't need a Harvard, Yale, Stanford or Princeton education to cure an ailing planet. It doesn't take $100k to figure out why McDonalds is cheap and organic is costly, that solar produces power with less impact than coal, that we don't need to risk bleeding the Gulf with spilled oil or invade countries so our cars can drink.
You need to think out of the box. In the film The Graduate, Mr. McGuire advised Ben that the one word he needed to know for his future was "plastics." Today, the word is "less." Or as conservationist Hoyt puts it: "The mad rush for more has to stop."
Luanne Bradley is the senior editor of Ecosalon.com. She is a contributor to AlterNet, the Examiner and Divine Caroline, and her eco articles have been featured at Huffington Post.
© 2010 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/146850/
The Postal Service Is Essential to Democracy -- It Should Be Re-Imagined, Not Shrunk
By John Nichols, The Nation
Posted on May 15, 2010, Printed on May 25, 2010
Domestic policy debates of late have degenerated into an absurd argument about whether government can do anything right. Even Democrats can be heard mouthing the false premise that private markets are always the answer to the nation's public problems. But government does do things right; indeed, it does something right every day on a massive scale. The oldest of America's major public services--established by decree of the Continental Congress, brought into being by Benjamin Franklin and enumerated in the first article of the Constitution as a vital tool for binding together the new Republic--carries on in the twenty-first century as an essential and possibly transformative arm of the federal government, a service that has only begun to tap this agency's potential.
This is the proper starting point for progressives to enter the great debate about the future of the US Postal Service--and enter they must if there is to be any hope for maintaining it at a time when public services are under overwhelming political and economic assault. Because of declining mail volume and Congressional reforms that transformed the Postal Service from a taxpayer-supported institution into a "revenue neutral" agency that is expected to pay for itself, the Postal Service recorded a $3.8 billion loss in 2009 and is, according to an extreme but oft-quoted estimate, on track to accumulate a $238 billion deficit by 2020. The service has also been harmed by poor political and managerial choices--not to mention accounting errors that have socked it with pension liabilities that are as unsustainable as they are unreasonable.
The Postal Service's economic turbulence has fostered the fantasy that it is no longer necessary in an age when "warp-speed Internet" is constantly juxtaposed against "snail mail." Yet the USPS is anything but "an anachronism" on "a slow march into oblivion." It is a national treasure that provides an immense and irreplaceable public service. The scope and character of that service will change in the twenty-first century--ideally to provide a broader range of information, vote-by-mail systems, community services and even banking options to hundreds of millions of Americans who continue to rely on their local post office as the nerve center of their neighborhood or small town. But before any of this can happen, we must recognize that the Postal Service can and must remain public if we are to maintain the essential infrastructures of democracy.
Americans do not often talk about the Postal Service as a crucial underpinning of the democratic infrastructure, but we should. At a time when 35 percent of all Americans and 50 percent of rural residents have no broadband Internet access at home, the Postal Service is universal. Its 596,000 career employees travel more than 4 million miles to deliver more than a half-billion pieces of mail each day. It goes to extraordinary ends to assure that no citizen or community is neglected; it contracts commercial planes to move parcels across the country in a matter of hours, yet it still sends bush planes into Idaho's River of No Return Wilderness Area and organizes mule trains to deliver mail, food and supplies to the Havasupai Indians on the floor of the Grand Canyon.
The Postal Service maintains a network of more than 35,000 retail outlets--the largest in the world, with more locations than McDonald's, Starbucks and Wal-Mart combined--which are visited by more than 7 million Americans each day. The postal workers they encounter in these offices and on their doorsteps are reflective of their communities, as the service has historically been and remains one of the surest sources of employment for African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, women and the poor. In short, the USPS forms a vital network of service, connection and community that provides the steadiest link between Americans and their government. As Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) chair Ruth Goldway puts it, the service is "part of the fabric of the nation."
Unfortunately, the Postal Service is not profitable. That's a problem because, under the absurd constraints placed on it by successive legislative "reforms," the service must be "run like a business." And the businesspeople who run the USPS these days, though they may want to save the service, are so fixated on the bottom line that they cannot see the public good. So they have proposed a process of downsizing that could lead to the dismemberment of what should be understood as a core civic institution.
If the wrecking crews are not stopped, they will tear a hole in the fabric of the nation, further isolating Americans from one another, deepening the decay of urban neighborhoods and remote villages, hiking unemployment in our hardest-pressed communities and accelerating the decline of newspapers and magazines, drying up content for the Internet and curtailing civic and political discourse. "We need the Postal Service," says Illinois Congressman Danny Davis, a member of the House subcommittee that oversees the nation's post offices. Of course the Postal Service is going to change, Davis acknowledges. But Americans should start with the understanding that the Postal Service is "indispensable"--not with a debate about how much will be cut.
Regrettably, the latter approach is the one being taken by Postmaster General John Potter and members of the Postal Board of Governors, who are floating proposals to eliminate six-day mail delivery, close thousands of post offices and cut 26,000 full-time and 13,000 part-time jobs through attrition and layoffs. Overreacting to changes in the way Americans communicate while underestimating ideas that could reposition post offices as touchstones for the information revolution and a more consumer-friendly financial-services landscape, Potter and his compatriots imagine that the only response to a rough stretch is to slash the USPS. The madness of the cuts is summed up by Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, who says, "The Postal Service cannot expect to gain more business, which it desperately needs, if it is reducing service."
Even the service's most determined defenders say that if the restructuring proposed by Potter goes through, the end result will not be the "leaner, more market responsive Postal Service" the postmaster general imagines. Rather, as American Postal Workers Union president William Burrus says, "It would be the beginning of the demise of the Postal Service."
But, of course, Americans will still need to communicate using paper and printed materials, and they will still need to ship all those parcels ordered over the Internet. The Postal Service's demise would not mean the end of those enterprises, just the end of postal workers' jobs and the service's commitment to communities that might not be the priorities of private companies like FedEx. Indeed, the downsizing of the Postal Service has often been discussed as the first step toward a huge bartering off of its responsibilities. Burrus has been saying for years that the service "has begun to travel resolutely down the road of privatization." And the Washington Post is editorializing, "Given the state of technology, privatization is probably the only long-term solution for the USPS."
Thankfully, privatization has a powerful critic. In response to a question posed in February about selling the Postal Service to the highest bidder, President Obama said that privatization is a "bad idea most of the time" because "oftentimes what you see is companies want to buy those parts of a government-run op that are profitable, and they don't want to do anything else. So, for example, the US Postal Service; everybody would love to have that high-end part of the business that FedEx and UPS are already in--business to business, you make a lot of money. But do they want to deliver that postcard to a remote area somewhere in rural America that is a money loser? Well, the US post office provides universal service. Those companies would not want to provide universal service."
Like many members of Congress, the president has sent signals suggesting a discomfort with cutting mail delivery down to five days. But he's been less engaged with the equally serious threat posed by proposals to increase stamp prices and rates for weekly newspapers and magazines, two moves that threaten to drive more paying customers away from a service that has seen annual mail deliveries drop from 208 billion pieces in 2000 to 177 billion pieces last year.
That drop in mail volume is often blamed for the Postal Service's fiscal troubles, but as economist Dean Baker notes, the service "has been scaling back its workforce more than proportionately to the decline in mail volume, increasing the productivity of its workforce. This is exactly how we would expect a private business to respond to the decrease in demand for its services." According to Baker, "The cause of the [current] shortfall has been the requirement put in place by Congress in 2006 that the Postal Service pre-fund 80 percent (up from 50 percent at present) of retiree healthcare benefits. The rule required that they reach this funding level in ten years. The Postal Service spent $12.4 billion to reach this pre-funding target over the last three years, an amount considerably larger than its $11.7 billion shortfall over this period."
In addition, argues USPS inspector general David Williams, the service was overcharged $75 billion by the government for pension liabilities when the Office of Personnel Management miscalculated its obligations. And, notes Baker, the Postal Service was "prevented by the Bush administration from applying for the employer subsidies available under Medicare Part D to businesses that provide drug coverage to retired workers." What it all adds up to, according to Williams, is a pattern of "inequitable...financial entanglements between the Postal Service and the federal government" that are "generally at the expense of the Postal Service."
With encouragement from the postmaster general, the House has taken steps to address some of these concerns, and Baker suggests that Congress should order an independent assessment of the key accounting issues. These moves, if approved by the Senate and the White House, would considerably ease the service's economic uncertainty. That does not mean, however, that postal unions and defenders of the public interest should breathe a sigh of relief. Rather, the current focus on the circumstances and prospects of the agency creates an opening for a radical rethink of those "entanglements."
Today the Postal Service exists in a netherworld where it must provide universal service--a classic public good--and at the same time break even; it must "compete" with private parcel services while providing them with platforms to expand their nonunionized and nonuniversal businesses; it must meet the demands of Congress while getting by without tax dollars.
Instead of entertaining ill-thought-out discussions about how to squeeze the Postal Service even more than it has already been squeezed, Congress needs a precise picture of what is threatened when we talk of going to five-day delivery, shuttering post offices, laying off experienced postal workers, hiking rates for newspapers and magazines (including, it should be noted, publications such as The Nation) and privatizing pieces of what is supposed to be a ubiquitous public service.
These "efficiencies" threaten more than just the Postal Service. They pose direct and indirect threats to democracy. Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley noted as much when they asked Congress and the USPS to avoid taking steps that would damage their state's mail-in balloting. "While we admire and encourage examination of avenues to modernize the postal service, the implementation of this proposal would pose a direct threat to democracy in Oregon," wrote the senators, whose concerns have been echoed by election officials from around the country, which increasingly relies on the Postal Service to carry regular and absentee ballots.
The PRC's Goldway has been at the forefront of arguments for taking state-based "Vote by Mail" experiments national. "Voters would not need to take time off from work, find transportation, find the right polling station, get babysitters or rush through reading complicated ballot initiatives," she explains. "The country's 35,000 post offices could provide information, distribute and collect voting materials and issue inexpensive residency and address identifications for voting purposes. Perhaps most important, given the concerns about voting machine security, mail ballots cannot be hacked. Tampering or interfering with mail is a federal crime, and the United States Postal Service has its own law enforcement arm, which works closely with a variety of enforcement authorities including the F.B.I. Trained election clerks can take the time to check signatures without delaying or discouraging voters. And the advantages of a paper trail outshine the glitter of black box electronic gadgetry."
That's one of many visions for giving the Postal Service new and necessary responsibilities that are in sync with its historic mission. Another would be to dramatically reduce the rates charged the weekly newspapers and journals of opinion that sustain our civic and democratic discourse in their traditional print form and online. A new Columbia Journalism Review survey of more than 600 websites of print magazines suggests that magazines that do not make a profit on the web are nonetheless providing immense amounts of web content. Roughly half the magazines surveyed provide all significant content from their print editions free on the web, although many of their websites are losing money. In other words, print publications are subsidizing the web even as they struggle to survive in an age of declining circulation rates and dipping advertising revenues.
CJR presented its survey as "the beginning of a long-overdue conversation" about the relationship of magazines to the web. That conversation, the editors suggest, should focus on the role print publications and their websites play in the "flow of information on which our democratic society is predicated." Before postal rates are raised for journals of opinion and other content-rich print publications, researchers should determine the extent to which these publications are powering serious discourse in the digital age. Logic suggests this research will conclude that reducing postal rates for small magazines and newspapers will strengthen the scope and quality of the debate, not only in print but online. This is a public service investment that would seem to make particular sense when everyone is worried about how we're going to sustain journalism during the difficult transition to the digital age; and, again, it is entirely in keeping with the mission of the Postal Service, which at its founding fostered the development of robust newspapers and journals of opinion with massive postal subsidies.
In the transition to a digital future, the Postal Service is neither at odds with nor resistant to new technologies. Indeed, just as the service was the driving force behind the expansion of a younger nation's roads, railways and air transportation systems, it is now at the forefront of developing and implementing digital advances. The Postal Service maintains the world's third-largest computing infrastructure--including more than 5,000 remote locations that receive Internet service via satellite. It operates the world's largest intranet system and is the world's leader in optical character recognition technology. Its ZIP code system serves as the structural underpinning for the nation's 911 emergency system.
Now the Postal Service should begin to consider the potential its network of physical facilities has to play in closing the digital divide. Thousands of neighborhoods and rural communities that do not have libraries or other easily accessible public facilities have post offices; shouldn't every post office have a hot spot with high-speed broadband? And shouldn't the Postal Service be reimagining itself, in the way that highly innovative postal services in other countries have, as a media and technology innovator and service provider--think digital mail, to start with. "We believe we are in the communication business, not just in the physical letter-mail business," explained Swiss Post executive vice president Frank Marthaler, in a recent interview with the magazine Monocle, which portrayed Marthaler and his colleagues as occupying "unique turf at the intersection of data networks and the old-fashioned letter routes, with the ability to carve out an unrivalled position in the digital age."
When the conversation about the Postal Service's future is turned on its head, it becomes evident that this public utility does not need to be ever on the defensive. It could remain a government-owned entity with a core public-service mission and the flexibility to achieve that mission, as has Swiss Post, which was radically restructured in order to adjust to the new communications landscape. Indeed, the post office is precisely where the federal government should be making smart infrastructure and job-creation investments, as part of a new approach that seeks to maintain a public asset and maximize its potential.
Such an approach might even renew one of the greatest of all postal services. From 1910 to 1967, the agency maintained a postal banking system that allowed citizens to open small savings accounts at local post offices. The system was so successful that after World War II, it had a balance of $3 billion--roughly $30 billion in today's dollars. Congress did away with postal banking in the late 1960s, but other countries--notably Japan--have maintained such systems. Today, Japan Post is, according to the Wall Street Journal, "the world's largest financial institution by assets, with $3.3 trillion on its balance sheet."
In the midst of the 2008 financial panic, Michael Lind, policy director of the Economic Growth Program of the New America Foundation, proposed that "a new postal savings system should be part of America's post-meltdown financial architecture." "When Congress created the postal savings system nearly a century ago, one of its goals was to encourage savings among the large number of low-income immigrants," Lind wrote. "A new system would help today's immigrants as well as the native poor. Banks are not interested in people with so little money, many of whom are preyed upon by payday lenders and credit card companies." The National League of Postmasters has started talking up the idea, and even Postmaster General Potter has hinted at openness to what Lind describes as a "simple" notion: "use the one government institution that can be found in most neighborhoods and rural areas--the post office--to encourage small savings and a habit of thrift." From that simple idea could, he suggests, come financial security for millions of Americans, an alternative to growing indebtedness of the country to foreign governments and financial institutions, and a vehicle to fund investment in public assets like sewer systems and bridges.
That's quite a payback for believing in the promise of the Postal Service. But, just as it did in Ben Franklin's day, the post office can still deliver for America in the twenty-first century.
John Nichols is The Nation's Washington correspondent.