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"Social Protections that De-Commodify the Earth, Labor, Money"

by Ruth Caplan

Published in A World That Works: Building Blocks for a Just and Sustainable Society
Apex Press, June 1997, Editor Trent Schroyer


A World That Works: Building Blocks for a Just and Sustainable Society, Apex Press, June 1997, Editor Trent Schroyer

Chapter Three: "Social Protections that De-Commodify the Earth, Labor, Money," by Ruth Caplan (Version submitted for publication )

Roughly a trillion dollars are exchanged daily in a speculative frenzy which has little to do with the production of goods and services. The stock market beckons all comers with the promise of income without work. Robots are programmed to replace workers on the assembly line. The end of work is proclaimed.

Yet children are starving, bridges are crumbling, unemployed inner city youth are dying from drug wars fought over sales territories, and a general malaise descends on working families who once could look forward to secure jobs.

The global economy, rife with such internal contradictions, is presented by political leaders and their economic mentors as the inevitable culmination of economic progress. Free trade agreements such as NAFTA and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade or GATT are considered to be prerequisites to such progress. Reformers argue that if we just get rid of sweatshops and stop advertising cigarettes to children, we will be able to continue on the global road to progress.

By contrast, the General Agreement on a New Economy, GANE not GATT, is premised on the idea that people have the right to ask about the purpose of the economy and to imagine together how an economy could be structured to meet the needs of families and communities. It has evolved as a result of the ideas and feedback from people across the country. It will continue to evolve, weaving together the vibrant colors and wonderful textures of people's experiences and insights, into a new vision for our economy.

GANE begins with three fundamental values: environmental sustainability, equity and meaningful work. Each value causes fundamental questions to be raised about the economy. For instance, if environmental sustainability includes the goal of goods being durable, reusable, repairable, and ultimately recyclable, then how will the unneeded manufacturing jobs be replaced? If some communities have more resources than others, will only the rich become sustainable? When investment decisions are based on achieving the highest rate of return, how can the needed resources be directed toward meaningful work in our communities?

Several true stories have helped to shape GANE. The first goes back to the Great Society program under President Lyndon Johnson which created neighborhood health centers. One center was located in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, a very poor region where the cotton sharecropping jobs had been lost due to introduction of the four-row cotton picker. Dr. Jack Geiger of Tufts University and his team began their work by holding meetings throughout the area to learn about local health needs. As a result of these meetings, when the clinic pharmacy opened it dispensed food in response to local needs. When challenged by Washington bureaucrats who thought pharmacies should just dispense drugs, Geiger responded, "The last time we looked in the book, the specific therapy for malnutrition was food." To the credit of Washington's much maligned bureaucrats, that's just what the Delta Health Center continued to dispense.

Then the sharecroppers got organized, pooled their meager resources and, with financial assistance from Washington, obtained land. Within nine months they had more than enough food to feed everyone in the region. Local sustainability in a very poor region was made possible by federal funds provided in response to local initiative and need.

This story informed the drafting of the Health Service Act in the late 1970s by Leonard Rodberg working with health advocacy organizations. The act, introduced each session by Rep. Ron Dellums, envisions the provision of community-based health services through a bottom-up process of community federalism where regional and federal functions are rooted in the level below. The concept of community federalism, applied more broadly to sustainability, has now become a core part of GANE's conceptualization of how to build a locally rooted, sustainable economy.

GANE also builds on the Chattanooga experience in the early 1980s. At that time Chattanooga was the most polluted city in the nation and the polluting industries had departed, leaving high levels of unemployment and despair in their wake. When a few citizens refused to give up hope and formed Chattanooga Venture, they initiated a visioning process that drew people together across race and class to talk about what kind of future they wanted for their city. This resulted in Chattanooga mobilizing on many fronts--building a fresh water aquarium with local venture capital, starting a battered women's shelter with volunteer labor, and rehabilitating housing in an historic African-American neighborhood which had been threatened by expansion of a major hospital. The transformative nature of the visioning experience is reflected in the fact that the local banks, which had been redlining, joined with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in financing the housing rehabilitation. Again, a local/federal partnership was formed to respond to local initiative and need.

Together these stories point to a new paradigm for the economy that is resonant with Karl Polanyi's concept of embedding the economy in the society.

In GANE the economy begins at the local level with a visioning process to establish community needs linked to an environmentally and socially sustainable future, not just individual needs so readily manipulated by the marketeers. As in Chattanooga, it is essential that this visioning process involve all segments of the community.

Once community needs have been democratically identified, there is the potential for creating work that responds to these needs and that derives its meaning within the community context. But if the work is to provide liveable incomes, there must be a way to pay the workers. A process for accumulating and employing local capital is needed. This can be internally generated from shared savings and local pension funds invested in a community bank which is available for local capital needs. It can also come from local philanthropy and venture capital being invested locally where the return is partly measured by the increased social and environmental health of the community rather than just the highest dollar return. Some of the work can be supported by local currency as is done in Ithaca, NY, with Ithaca Dollars, a form of time dollars.

But if there is to be equity in such a system, federal funds are needed to supplement available local capital. Both Mound Bayou and Chattanooga demonstrate how such funding can be part of a successful partnership. GANE generalizes this approach by assuming that federal funds will be provided to communities on a per capita basis once a democratic community visioning process has been completed and plans for implementation are in place.

This then is the essence of embedding the economy in the society at the community level; however, unless the need for larger scale investments is taken into account, most of the economy will remain unrooted in society. It is also essential that local communities' efforts to become sustainable be supported by the overall structure of the economy. This is where the concept of community federalism comes into play, pointing to the need for regional and federal functions with accountability back to the local level.

At the regional level, GANE suggests the following functions:

* Assessing regional sustainability. Equity demands that sustainable communities are not created by externalizing social and environmental costs onto other communities. A community could recycle, reuse, repair; use solar, wind and biogas; have composting toilets and bike paths -- the whole nine yards -- and be enclosed with a wall and a guard at the gate, bringing in low paid nannies, housekeepers and gardeners who live in communities that could not afford such sustainable luxuries. To avoid such scenarios, regional assessment of sustainability, mutual assistance and federal funding are needed.

* Regional economic activities. Even in an environmentally sustainable economy, there is a need for developing specialized, capital-intensive economic activities beyond the local level. One can envision regional training schools in sustainability techniques where communities can learn from each other, specialized health centers, manufacturing centers for windmills and photovoltaic cells, remanufacturing centers for appliances and computers, to name just a few possibilities.

As implied by the use of the term community federalism, GANE also envisions a federal role which could include:

* Remediation of ecological and social problems arising from past and ongoing unsustainable activities. This includes continuation and expansion of present federal environmental functions such as ensuring the clean-up of privately and publicly generated pollution and preventing ongoing pollution. It also includes setting appropriate minimum standards for protecting workers, communities and natural resources and providing appropriate assistance to those for whom the present economic system does not yet generate sufficient work at liveable wages or who are unable to work.

* Support for conversion to sustainable economic activities. This includes federal funding for community and regional functions.

* Assessment of national progress. GANE suggests an Index of Sustainable Well-being to measure progress toward sustainability, equity and full employment, with an annual report from the President to assess national progress on these dimensions.

* Corporate accountability. Transnational corporations, powered by ready access to global investment funds, can readily undermine efforts at building sustainable communities and regions. Further, all corporations should be held publicly accountable for contributing to the country's sustainable well-being. Corporate charters have the potential to be an important tool for ensuring this accountability. Charters were originally granted by states under strict control of state legislatures with limited duration and clear public purpose. Today, the public purpose of contributing to a sustainable economy should be included in all corporate charters.

Finally, GANE raises issues related to sustainable trade. No community or even region can manufacture or remanufacture what it needs or grow all its food, cotton and wool. Climate, raw resources, specialized expertise give some locations absolute advantage in production over others. How can trade be encouraged that will meet these needs as close to home as possible so that an integrated regional economy can emerge? Should communities and regions have a right to determine what goods and services they want to exchange locally thus preventing their commodification in the global marketplace? Is it possible for people to retain their own cultural and spiritual expressions without being tarnished by such commodification?

The elements of GANE described here have emerged from dialogue taking place across the country. GANE is not the answer, it is a process of exploration to find a path to a sustainable economy.


Readers can share their own ideas by visiting the GANE website at <> and sending e-mail from the site or by writing to the Economics Working Group at 3407 34th Place NW, Washington, DC 20016.

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