Wednesday, September 2, 2009

All Power to the People: Changing the Economic Power Structure

“When I gave bread to the poor they called me a saint; but when I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a Communist.” Archbishop Dom Helder Camara

Currently in the US the top 20% of the population own 80% of the wealth and the bottom 80% own 20% of the wealth. This begs the question what the hell they are doing with all that excess wealth while the rest of us are struggling to survive? Some of them are giving to pretty good causes. Bill Gates, the wealthiest man in the world, is donating money to help eradicate infectious disease in Africa. I am all for helping out Africa, but I question whether or not Bill Gates, a privileged white man from the USA, is the best person to be deciding the fate of Africa. And this is not wealth redistribution, it is funding specific charitable organizations handpicked by the Gates Foundation. Charity can have harmful unintended consequences: conservation programs that displace indigenous people, careless technology introduction that destroys cultures, energy projects that end up benefiting the rich and further impoverishing the poor, industrial agriculture programs that lead peasant farmers away from traditional sustainable agriculture, and creating economic dependency on unreliable foreign money. Additionally, there are often malevolent intentions for these projects as well, such as creating profit for corporations involved in the implementation of these projects instead of employing and empowering local people to run the projects. Then they may make the local people indebted to these corporations and banks for projects that marginally benefit them if at all.

Nonprofit organizations in the US are not immune to these kinds of problems though they may be more subtle. After working for over 12 years in the nonprofit world, I came to realize that funding through foundations, corporations or philanthropic individuals comes with many strings attached. The strings are there before you even solicit funding. The work of the organization, especially whether or not it challenges the economic status quo, will highly influence whether or not the organization is fundable. You may even choose not to do work that is probably not fundable- it is scratched off the drawing board from the get go. Then when you go to apply for funding, you moderate your request so as not to sound too challenging or radical and to some degree you have to stick to that in the implementation of your project or else you won’t get funded again. Or maybe you will lose your tax exempt status. This is why it is notoriously hard to get funding for projects that challenging the economic power structure. Why would a foundation or philanthropist fund work that challenges the source of their wealth and power? Do socialist-leaning organizations or grassroots alternative economic projects get funded as easily as pro-capitalist projects? This is not just my take, I have heard this over and over again from all kinds of nonprofit professionals.

So here we are decades post civil rights, women’s and the environmental movements’ beginnings. What’s changed? The Earth is being destroyed faster than ever, women and people of color still make a fraction on the dollar for the same work and same experience background, the rich are wealthier and the poor are poorer. Wars are raging on all over the world, often fighting over resources.

We have green businesses and worker cooperatives, but they are forced to compete with corporations that unethically exploit human and natural resources- sweatshops and polluting factories- hoping that consumers will want to and be able to spend their increasingly dwindling income on their more conscientious product. And there is only so much money to go around especially in times of recession. Nonprofits pit against each other for crumbs to stay alive and work at least as much on propping up their image as in doing the actual work, because in the world of funding as in the business world, image counts a lot.

So how do we change the system so that we are not always begging for crumbs from people who have no real connection to our problems and may not really want to solve those problems anyway? Let’s start with redistribution of wealth. Land and labor are the bases of wealth so let’s reclaim our land and our labor. How do we do that? We take back our land by eminent domain, occupation, taxation, and legal redistribution. Then we turn it over to the people to collectively run it based on good principles of earth stewardship and equality. We start urban farms that create healthy food for those that need it most. We tax commercial value of land and put the revenues into community land trusts. We abolish future absentee landownership (land as profit rather than land as place to live), which make real estate unaffordable to the people who actually live in the area. We turn land and buildings over to the people living and working in them to be owned and run collectively through community land trusts, which take land off the market to some extent. Occupation of land or eminent domain is often morally justified in that the people who owned the land for the most part did not earn it through hard work and their ownership does not benefit the people. It is hard to start and maintain a community project, an organic farm or a worker cooperative when you are facing outrageous land values that make rent challenging and ownership nearly impossible.

How do we take back our labor, our time? We start worker cooperatives that enable people to allow people to determine how they work together and what they do with their time and to keep their wealth in the community. We start community currencies to enable people and business to not have to wait until money flows their way or to wait for enough of it to be available in general. The people know what needs to be done, they just don’t have the money to do it, because the funding isn’t there, there aren’t enough US dollars floating around, and credit is only available to the well established. People are chained to their 9 to 5+ jobs that transfer their labor profit to someone else, often a corporation outside their community. Without these jobs, they would not survive, unless there were other sources of money and sustenance. If communities created their own money, they could lend them to community projects, cooperative business startups, and individuals to be self-employed. In general there would be three times the wealth in the community to fund local employment and community projects as wealth wouldn’t be leaking from the community into the pockets of corporate CEOs and shareholders. This would also increase local government budgets through a bigger tax base in order to fund projects for the common good. Small businesses wouldn’t have to wait for a bank to lend them credit at interest rates that they can’t repay. They would lend their credit to each other through mutual credit like the WIR Bank in Switzerland does. Community currencies make money available for projects, organizations and businesses that would be hard to get scarce US dollars for.

We should ban corporations and chain stores from participating in the local economy in areas where local business could provide needed community services and goods. If those businesses don’t already exist, then we need to support job training for community needs and funding for import replacement businesses. To redistribute wealth within businesses there should not only be a minimum living wage (or a basic guaranteed income for all), but a maximum wage as well. The ratio, according to Aristotle should be no more than 1:5. When some people are making much more that others, not only are the poor bringing in less money, but their relative purchasing power goes down and they also are spending any extra cash on paying back credit cards and loans rather than high return investments. The poor lose power in government to get the things they do need as they are pitted against corporations that give money to political campaigns. Corporations fight to pay less taxes and get more money for infrastructure that benefits their business more than the public good.

What are local governments spending their budgets on? Even when they are trying to do something as honorable as shifting their energy supply towards renewable energy, do they train and employ poor local folks to do the work or do they contract with outside corporations? When they are deciding whether to fund public transportation or roads, which do they prioritize? Public transportation benefits poor people most and roads benefit business most so we end up spending most our money on road infrastructure. I believe if the people of these municipalities were to be involved in budgeting and project implementation, budgeting priorities would look very different. And those funded projects would create more long term benefits for the community with greater benefits shifted to the poor. This is called participatory budgeting. It separates the financial interests that buy government officials from decision-making about where funding should go.

Even before some of these structural changes are in place, we can decide to focus our energy on just making the alternatives happen even without funding. Instead of taking that trip to Hawaii with your family, help reclaim a lot for community food production, volunteer to put solar panels and energy efficiency devices in poor folks homes, or volunteer at a community clinic. Invest the money that you do have in community projects instead of mutual funds. Share with your neighbors tools, housing, transportation. We already have a lot of untapped power. Let's start using it for good.

I believe that if we stop spending so much time on begging for crumbs from foundations, corporations and corrupt government, we will create more lasting, effective and dramatic changes to the economic power structure. We need to focus our energy on taking our power back rather than appealing to those that already have power. The Zapatistas are doing it, why can't we?

1 comment:

  1. "the top 20% of the population own 80% of the wealth and the bottom 80% own 20% of the wealth."

    Jct: What to expect when to those who have abundance will more be given and from those who have no abundance, even what they have will be take away; all due to bankster's usury.