A bigger choir – a countervailing force


One thing Penny U1 made clear to me is that many of us want to be active in new ways, or, if we’re already active, we’re ready now to step up our game, to build toward something bigger. It’s also clear that there is not just one way, not just one cause to fight for. Many spheres of action emerged from our first post-election Penny U conversation and were discussed at the second. There is so much to do. It’s easy to feel numb or even helpless when the need for action comes from so many directions.

In his Penny U kick-off talk, Congressman Jim McDermott suggested that J.R.R. Tolkien’s words might be helpful:

It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.”

Even with this, though, finding a specific focus for our own energy can be difficult, and it can be further complicated when, at the same time, we long for a cohesive movement. In fact, building such a movement was one of the topics raised at Penny U. Don’t we need to begin developing a unified voice? How would we even do that?

For me, “unified” too often means singular, expressed as a desire for the kind of impact that can come from a powerful single voice. But I’m not convinced that a single voice is what we need. A better image is of many voices together, a choir or a chorus. Which reminds me that for years I’ve been bothered when I hear the disparaging critique of the phrase, “You’re just speaking to the choir!” In fact, that mindset should change. Instead, we should work to expand the choir, bring in new members, welcome different voices, combine choirs, allow for differences. Dissonance is part of powerful music.

Can’t we instead create a choir that incorporates the strength of our differences as well as what we share? I like a term I heard first from Robert Reich, who used it when he spoke at Town Hall in late 2015. We must create, he said, a “countervailing force.”

A countervailing force. Before I learned the history of its use, the term conjured up something bigger than a single voice and much more powerful. A “force” can have many attributes, with eddies and surges like a raging river or a giant surging wave. If I had the graphic skills of some of my friends, I’d create a fearsome wave, perhaps like the Great Wave of Hokusai2, and it would be made up of many choirs, both secular and sacred, of people young and old, urban and rural, and of many races. For now, you’ll just have to imagine it. This is the force to strive for.

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To provide a bit of history, “countervailing force” appears primarily in discussions of the political economy. “The Concept of Countervailing Power” is, for instance, the subtitle of a 1952 book by economist John Kenneth Galbraith.3  Two quotes from Robert Reich, in a book he dedicated to Galbraith’s memory,4 show something of the way it’s used:

Between the 1930s and late 1970s, centers of countervailing power enabled America’s middle and lower-middle classes to exert their own influence – labor unions, small businesses, small investors, and political parties anchored at the local and state levels. This countervailing force has withered in more recent decades.”

And . . .

The only way to reverse course is for the vast majority who now lack influence over the rules of the game to become organized and unified, in order to re-establish the countervailing power that was the key to widespread prosperity five decades ago.”

I also like the way philosopher/activist Cornel West used it:

“The only countervailing force against organized money at the top is organized people at the bottom.”

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I woke up after the second post-election Penny U wondering whether it could contribute to strengthening a countervailing force. This force will necessarily consist of many separate efforts. At the same time, as we all find specific places to direct our energy, it will be important to be aware of each other, to understand how big our choir really is, to learn from each other, and to be connected on occasion . . . agreeing and disagreeing, benefiting from what my friend Peter Pennekamp has called “the dynamics of difference” – that is, working constructively across differences to find new solutions and new power. Perhaps Penny U can be this kind of forum.

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Photo notes

The banner image of waves comes from How-to-Geek <howtogeek.com>, “Ocean Waves Wallpaper Collection.”

Choir images here are details from images found online. I’m grateful to all the photographers.

References

1  This use of “Penny U” refers to two post-election conversations at Town Hall Seattle. Reports on both are posted on this site here, here, and here. A description of Penny U and its basic assumptions can be found here.

2  “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai, color woodblock, 1830–1833. Many impressions have been made of this print. This print is in the Library of Congress. The image of it here is from Wikipedia.

3  John Kenneth Galbraith, American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power, 1952.

4  Robert B. Reich, Saving Capitalism for the Many, Not the Few, Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.


“So many ideas, so much to do! What next?”

So many ideas, so much to do

Building community in our new political reality

A post-election Penny U update

As it did for many people, the 2016 election sent me on a search to figure out how my life would change, or, more accurately, how I would adapt my life in response to new realities. What can I do?

Immediately after the election, I was grateful to have already planned a post-election Penny U conversation at Town Hall. Pulling the event together gave me a place to direct my energy and a way to feel that my action might be useful to others. It filled a void and gave me a sense of purpose. The large turnout that evening prompted my co-organizer, Edward Wolcher, and me to schedule a follow-up discussion two and a half weeks later.

We organized the second post-election Penny U around the main themes that emerged from the first one, and we also offered participants the chance to add topics not already on our list. Slightly over 100 people attended. We began, as Penny U’s do, with a short introduction giving some background, presenting the topics, and describing specifics of the process this time, which went like this: Topics were assigned to tables around the room. After the opening, everyone headed to the table topic of their choice. If groups got bigger than about 5-6, we encouraged breaking them up into smaller groups at one of the extra tables scattered around. We also asked someone at each table to take notes.

Topics focused on what we, individually and together, can do:

  • Hold the media accountable / understand the news we consume (2 groups)
  • Protect individual & civil rights / fight racism, sexism, homophobia (3 groups)
  • Build understanding & develop conversation with the “other side” (2 groups)
  • Review, revise, change the U.S. voting & election process
  • Communicate with current legislative bodies (1 group + an advance email)
  • Organize to change public policy from outside the current party structure
  • Educate ourselves / improve our education system
  • Hold face-to-face conversations within & between specific actions
  • Help coordinate many different efforts and a more cohesive movement
  • Resist cultural normalization of the way language has changed (added)

As after the November Penny U, we collected a substantial pile of notes. I continue to be impressed by how carefully and clearly most of the notes are prepared. In both Penny U sessions, my own were definitely the messiest notes and the hardest to decipher. This time, rather than try to summarize the wide range of topics and conversations, I’ve simply transcribed the notes “as is,” with a few minor adjustments for clarity.

You can find the complete set here. Because of its length you might want to just zero in on the topics that interest you the most.

So, what do we do next?

After I’d sent the notes to participants and now that I’ve posted them here, I’m thrown back to the question I faced immediately after the election, the one postponed by my focus on organizing the two Penny U’s. In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Paul Krugman expressed a dilemma that feels real to my experience:

Personally, I’m still figuring out how to keep my anger simmering — letting it boil over won’t do any good, but it shouldn’t be allowed to cool. This election was an outrage, and we should never forget it.”      —  Paul Krugman1  

Opportunities to engage, to protest, express our anger and dissent, resist policy changes, and change our own behavior pour in every day, through email, the news, personal conversations and observations. In fact, so many come that they often feel overwhelming. Given that none of us can do everything, even though that’s my initial instinct, I ask myself again, “What can I best offer given who I am? What’s my piece of the puzzle?”

The next steps for Penny U are still unclear. The focus that Edward and I gave the two post-election conversations responded to the circumstances of the moment. How could it now respond most effectively to current or future circumstances?

For guidance, I’ve paid close attention to responses we’ve received after the second Penny U. A friend, Warren Wilkins, wrote, thanking us for the platform “provided for those of us who were floundering around in our several states of incredulity/depression/etc. I suspect we’ll all head off on our own trajectories now.” But, he added, “I would guess your platform has shortened the launch window for many. It certainly did for me.” This reinforced my sense that Penny U isn’t itself a natural action-oriented organizing body, but might be a place where someone could find a specific way to engage their energy and their skills.

Mary Holscher, another participant, made this point even more clearly. She wrote:

I was in group 3, ‘Protect individual & civil rights / fight racism, sexism, homophobia.’ I came away from the afternoon feeling disturbed and agitated – so many ideas, so much to do, what next???  I found the conversation quite fragmented and not that enjoyable. I came out of it, though, knowing I didn’t want to just stay in my Phinney Ridge neighborhood, which is mostly progressive but also mostly white and middle class.

“That night (evidently as I slept) something seemed to have resolved itself, and I woke up with a clear sense of priorities and direction, clearly inspired by the comments in our group on working with immigrants and Muslims, on being proactive, rather than simply reactive; on assessing one’s own strengths. I chose to sign up as a volunteer for Young Women Empowered (Y-We),2 which I’d been considering in the very back of my mind for a few months but hadn’t taken any action on. A big reservation I’d had was that it was at El Centro de la Raza, which seemed too far away. Knowing that I need to get out of my mostly white neighborhood spurred me to action.

“Even though I found the afternoon quite agitating and wasn’t sure if it was helpful, I do think it spurred me to both clarity and action about my own direction. So thank you! Even if I never come to another Penny University, I’m very glad I came to this one.”

Mary’s story was satisfying for an organizer who badly wanted the conversations to be useful. But her message also guides and inspires me as I wrestle with this part of my original what-can-I-do? question:  How can Penny U best serve as a forum in the future?

A initial thought follows in the next post, “A bigger choir, a countervailing force.” Your suggestions, comments, and stories are welcome!

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1 Paul Krugman, “The Tainted Election,” The New York Times, op-ed, December 12, 2016.

2 Mary Holscher also wrote:   “What draws me to Y-We is that it is multi-generational, multi-racial, focused on young women’s empowerment, and has a joyful spirit (a joyful spirit turns out to be imperative for me right now).” And she shared a few excerpts from the organization’s website: youngwomenempowered.org:

“Y-We empowers young women from diverse backgrounds to step up as leaders in their schools, communities and the world. We do this through intergenerational mentorship, intercultural collaboration, and creative programs that equip girls with the confidence, resiliency, and leadership skills needed to achieve their goals and improve their communities.”

“We serve young women ages 13-18. Our youth and mentors come from of a wide range of backgrounds representing diversity in family, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, politics, and education. Currently, 70% of our youth are first generation immigrants to the US and 80% of the youth and 50% of the adults are women of color.”


Moving Forward: Post-election Penny U, report

Penny U:  A report on the last one and prep for the next one

The next Penny U – December 4, 2016

When it was clear that interest was high in the Penny U a week after the election, we scheduled another to follow up on what happened there and to give people who couldn’t join us the first time an opportunity to join the conversation. Our focus will be to build on what we learned and to find practical steps our community can take to organize around the issues that surfaced. (A summary of the notes participants took follows below, but if you’re impatient, you can also download it here.)

Penny U:  Building Community in Our New Reality
2:00 p.m. Sunday, December 4
Town Hall Seattle, downstairs

The last Penny U – November 15, 2016

We need to connect. We need to talk together.
        —  a Penny U participant

Co-organizer Edward Wolcher and I have been hosting Penny U at Town Hall since fall 2014, and we’ve generally had 20-30 people show up for the conversations. They’ve been terrific, and people left energized. But, Town Hall sold over 250 tickets for the Penny U on November 15 when the topic was, “Post-election: What’s next?” And this was the first time we even charged. Our retiring U.S. Congressman Jim McDermott was definitely a powerful draw. He helped set the stage with a few remarks during the introductory part of the program and received a standing ovation for his long service.

Among other things, Jim told us that we all have to speak out, and we have to organize. “If we don’t speak up for other people and take on these issues, the hate will continue to seep into our society.”

He went on to say:

We all want a nice quiet life; we don’t want to get involved in all this. But, folks, there’s no way out of this, you don’t have a choice. The fact that you came out tonight means that you can be a choir that goes out and tells the rest of the city. We have to come together as a community around the issue of the common good. What’s good for Jim McDermott and his family has got to be good for everybody else in this whole city, and in this whole state, and this whole country. But it has to start somewhere and it can start with something like this Town Hall. We each have a responsibility to do our part. 250 people are a lot of people to be out there, churning and stirring people up. As Benjamin Franklin said, “If we don’t stick together, we will hang separately.”

He also quoted Frodo from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: “All we have to do is to decide what to do with the time that is given to us.”

While many came specifically to hear Jim speak, at least 200 people stayed for the conversations that followed. After Jim left to catch a red-eye back to the other Washington (something he hadn’t done for years, but did to be with us), we all moved downstairs from the Great Hall and began talking together around small tables or in small circles of chairs in all parts of the lobby.

From the Great Hall stage Edward and I had posed two questions to prompt conversation:

  • Was this election a symptom of something fundamentally broken in U.S. politics, in our economy, in our basic social structures?
  • Now that the election is over: what should concerned, engaged citizens do?

Most conversations were among four to six people, a few tables held more. As part of his opening remarks, Edward encouraged everyone to sit with people they didn’t know. From a quick glance around the lobby, I noticed that couples I knew had indeed split up and sat at different tables. Generations mixed. One person in each group volunteered to take notes.

The energy around the tables was palpable, and many people told me afterward how grateful they were to have had this chance to talk. One man said, “This isn’t what I expected, but sign me up.” Scattered through the notes, I found comments like, “It’s time to stand up and engage physically.” Or, “This is new to me, I want to be helping more.” “Complacency must end!” “We need to re-energize; it’s time to become an activist again.” “We can’t get used to this!” The chance to connect, face-to-face, mattered.

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Summary report

We collected over 30 sets of notes. In addition to being surprised at how legible and long most of them were, I was struck by the fact that, with a few exceptions, the focus was on the second question, not the first – on what we should do.

Following is a report on what happened. There is no way to adequately summarize all the observations, insights, and ideas that were captured in over 60 pages of hand-written notes. What’s below feels like a shorthand outline that only skims the surface. In most cases, comments are direct quotes from the notes.  If you’d rather read the summary as a Word file, you can download it here.

In part because the upcoming Penny U focuses on practical steps we can take, the summary sticks primarily to the question of what we should do. Our aim is that the summary will provide a useful beginning point for the small groups that will form on Sunday. Comments have been grouped in two ways: specific areas of focus for our action and the kinds of actions we can take regardless of the specific focus. None of them are insignificant, they all matter. It’s also important to understand that no single one of us can cover all the bases. Many comments in the notes echoed this one: “Pick one issue and do it really hard.” Or, as Barbara Kingsolver said,

Trump changed everything. Now everything counts.*


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Penny U summary: table conversations
What should a concerned citizen do?

AREAS OF FOCUS / SPHERES OF ACTION

Hold the media accountable / understand the news we consume

  • Use difference sources of news, “choose your news”
  • Get outside own technological bubble; read The Big Sort, learn how much we’re “sorted”
  • Figure out how to fight inaccurate/false information, fight fake news
  • Identify biases in news sources
  • Learn how money and advertising control the news
  • Support nonprofit journalism, support free media, subscribe to a paper
  • Don’t let media “normalize” Trump, it’s unacceptable
  • Learn what’s going on internationally
  • Be aware of how social media filters the news
  • Get after media to broadcast positive messages & education
  • How can we change the national conversation?

Protect individual and civil rights/fight racism, sexism, LGBTQ bashing, and more

  • Help people feel safe
  • Stand up for/with people of color, LGBTQ
  • How do we address prejudice & hatred? How do we respond to bullies?
  • Protest against policies that promote hate & violate rights
  • Fight white supremacy
  • Address anti-choice movement
  • Daily acts of kindness to people who look different from you.
  • How do we have meaningful conversation about race with all sides heard & respected?
  • Can we use our privilege to give others a place at the table?
  • Share truths & articles on racism
  • Intentionally engage diverse people
  • Provide sponsorship & funding to immigrants
  • Fight misogyny, classism
  • Create a venue for people’s anger
  • Speak up whenever there’s a hate crime
  • Speak up if someone is being harassed

Build understanding & develop conversation with the “other side”

  • Build relationships with people, not just around politics
  • Bridge gap between eastern and western Washington, reach out, ask their views
  • Speak about our values, find empathy
  • Read books written for “the other side.” Connect with family/fiscal conservatives. How?
  • How can we engage people who voted for Trump? Read The Art of the Deal
  • Don’t demonize Trump supporters, target his team/administration.
  • Make ourselves open to the “other side,” allow ourselves to be uncomfortable
  • Can we have non-emotional conversations, with people holding opposite opinions?
  • Listen deeply, not to advance own agenda but to understand
  • What are culturally relevant ways to approach them?
  • Hold as many of these conversations face-to-face as possible
  • Understand the role of economics, and the needs of the economically disenfranchised; since the 1980s there has been mass impoverishment
  • Listen to other viewpoints, have conversations with people you wouldn’t usually speak to
  • Onus is on us to start the conversation. Listen to labor
  • Learn source of the fear that defined this election, learn about their pain, anger, mistrust
  • Ask “why?” We need to have these discussions.
  • Understand the “enemy” – the fear, disenfranchisement, longing for the way things were.
  • Understand the root causes of fear. Share your fear for what may happen.
  • Volunteering time can often further understanding better than direct, abrupt conversation
  • Connect across all lines, identify common ground, get out of our bubble. How?
  • Work against class divisions
  • Get a pen pal in a red state, tell your story

Review, revise, change the U.S. voting & election process

  • Work to change the electoral college system. It is a big part of the problem.
  • Change the electoral college process at a state level
  • Why don’t more people vote? Work to get more people to vote next time. Recruit youth
  • Fight gerrymandering. The 2018 election is crucial for redistricting.
  • The National Popular Vote needs to pass
  • Increase understanding of our political & electoral process–example, ex-cons can vote
  • Hold forums for candidates to express views
  • Advocate for rank voting
  • Fight Citizens United
  • Ask, are we still a democracy? Audit our system.
  • Set term limits
  • Fight for voters’ rights

Bolster the Democratic Party and communicate with current legislative bodies

  • Support & communicate with our own officials, representatives
  • Become active in the local Democratic Party to refocus on labor rights, access to education, economic opportunity, tax fairness; attend district meetings
  • Reshape the Democratic Party, co-opt the party’s need to rebrand itself
  • Crowdsource the research that politicians need.
  • We need a dynamic “change” candidate
  • Advocate for legislation to reduce economic inequality & to improve access to education
  • Write your member of congress, personally
  • Talk to state legislators, call and write. Do we want them to stalemate on specific issues?
  • Run for office
  • Support Democrats’ efforts to raise minimum wage
  • Work on the NEXT election in two years.
  • We need to transform Congress

Organize to change public policy from outside the current party structure

  • Traditional political action alone is not sufficient.
  • Two-party system is tribal. It doesn’t facilitate coalition-building
  • The two-party system silences anyone not part of the system
  • Why do we have essentially only two parties? Consider third parties.

Educate ourselves/improve our education system

  • Understand U.S. politics first
  • Engage young people in high school
  • “Democracy is only as good as an educated citizenry”
  • Broaden our historical narrative
  • Increase education on policy and politics
  • Learn how to politely debate around difficult conversations
  • Also educate elders and parents
  • Make presentations at schools, and provide resources to teachers
  • Teach children about tolerance, to be tolerant
  • Bring back civics as a required course

Be part of actions around specific issues. Many causes are interconnected.

  • Protect the environment, address climate change
  • Environmental degradation is an assault on human rights
  • Immigration
  • Abortion rights

Hold face-to-face conversations within & between specific efforts

  • Talk with each other. “If we can’t talk to each other, nothing can get accomplished”
  • Stoke the fire with like-minded individuals. Host political meet-ups, Swedish “study circle.” Include young children. Bring dialogue back to America.
  • Help “move fear into political courage”
  • Get “offline” conversations going, create safe spaces for dissent
  • Engage in nuanced conversations
  • Have facilitated conversations with people on the other side of the aisle
  • Our fundamental values & institutions will decay if we can’t have discourse

Help coordinate many different efforts and a more cohesive movement

  • Develop overall coordination of many different efforts
  • Expand the choir, bring more people to activism, we need action on multiple fronts
  • “Politicize” liberals rather than convert Trump supporters
  • Figure out how to have a more cohesive movement
  • How do we make this movement “smarter”? and more disciplined
  • How do we engage as many people as possible & still maintain cohesion?
  • What are the big ideas that could be shared?
  • We haven’t developed a message. We need to be consistent. Focus & sharpen?
  • Learn basic strategies of movement building
  • Name the commonalities; tension among us is not pathological
  • Could this be a time of optimism?
  • How can a progressive umbrella be inclusive going forward?
  • We need goals & vision, we need more critical thinking and respectful deliberation
  • Keep attending events like this, keep hosting them, bring young people to them
  • Create a digest or resource for “what to do”
  • We should learn how the 30-year-long, right-wing, conservative movement got strong; it was a long-term, disciplined, multi-pronged strategy.
  • Expect this to be a 15-year fight
  • Engage in Transformational Activism”
  • Rebuild the public sector / civil society / sense of the common good.

KINDS OF ACTION regardless of the specific focus or sphere of action

Protest – In one form or another, this was mentioned a lot

  • Demonstrations, boycotts, rallies, songs
  • Piggy-back on existing forms of congregation (churches, schools, etc.)
  • Peacefully make it known that hate is not acceptable
  • Turn a march into a message
  • Show up, just show up, bring friends
  • Speak up
  • Backup protestors in simple ways (I’ll bail you out, feed your cat)
  • Boycott companies that support Trump (list by Shawn King)
  • Movements, like Occupy, need to be more organized
  • Pete Seeger

DonateCame up over and over as a response

  • “When in doubt, donate”
  • Donate to organizations and causes we believe in
  • Host events to raise money for groups that are helping people
  • Host a “booth fair” for these organizations.

VolunteerVolunteering came up repeatedly as a way to respond

  • Find one cause/fight, and put yourself behind it. (said in various ways)
  • We each need to focus on our cause.

Organize – at neighborhood level, at national level, internationally

  • Such as, in neighborhoods meet neighbors, organize block watches, coordinate donations, politicize little libraries

Take personal actionMany items under specific causes are also personal actions

  • Question your previous assumptions
  • Protect your online identity
  • Put a family member on your bank account in case you’re arrested protesting
  • Look at our own “shadow self,” “what is my inner D Trump?”
  • Take little actions, something small and doable
  • Don’t slide back into complacency
  • Become activist again
  • Fuel yourself with positive, accurate information. Confrontation is not the answer.
  • Watch your conversations online; there’s no anonymity there
  • Vote, participate
  • We can’t feel it’s so bad that we can give up.
  • Stay focused, fight personal sense of hopelessness.
  • Figure out what will sustain you in your activism

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* Barbara Kingsolver, “Donald Trump Changed Everything. Now Everything Counts,” The Guardian, November 23, 2016.

 


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Figuring it out: post-election Penny U

On Tuesday, November 15, 2016, a week after the election, Penny U (short for Penny University) hosted a community conversation at Town Hall Seattle titled, “Post-election: What’s Next?” Congressman Jim McDermott joined Edward Wolcher and me, Penny U’s co-organizers, to set the stage for a conversation that followed. Our aim was to bring people together to discuss how we, the people in our country, can move forward from the deep divisions and extreme rancor of this election and the long campaign cycle that preceded it.

We announced that, in usual Penny U fashion, we would begin with introductory comments and then pose questions to prompt discussion in small groups. Our aim was to encourage everyone who came to participate, in the belief that if we are going to figure out a future we want, it’ll take all of us.

Conversations at small tables, we said, would revolve around these questions;

  • Was the election year a symptom of something fundamentally broken in U.S. politics, in our economy, in our basic social structures?
  • Now that the election is over, what should concerned, engaged citizens and residents do?

My invitation to friends and to an email list I usually save to announce new blog additions  included the following reflections. Subsequent posts will report on what happened at Penny U.

Figuring it out

November 12, 2016

The ground shifted on election night and still seemed to be moving when I went out to walk on Wednesday morning. I saw others, alone and walking slowly, looking dazed. I imagined they were doing what I was – testing my balance, trying to understand what happened, and wanting to figure out what to do next.

By the afternoon, I noticed conversations had begun, among neighbors, in the coffee shop, in ones and twos and small groups of friends, with strangers on the sidewalk. In fact, in the past three days I’ve had more kind and open exchanges with strangers than I usually have in a month. And I’m not the only one. For Aviva, my much-loved stepdaughter, it’s the “random hugs” that stand out. For Divina who cuts my hair, it’s the warmer than usual greeting from the burley man behind the auto repair desk. I’m reminded of the “paradises built in hell,” the communities that arise in disaster, that Rebecca Solnit writes about.

While much more is part of the mix – anger, fear, anxiety, disorientation, the shock of realizing how much we don’t know or understand – the need to connect is powerful. Beyond meeting this basic need, conversations I’ve had have almost always been threaded through with a desire to figure out what to do next. What can I do? What can we do? Where do we go next?

Penny U asks, what’s next? what do you think?

Many news stories and opinions, insightful and angry perspectives, background stories, proposals and demands, accusations, and aspirations can help but also overwhelm us. (I’ve included a list of a few references and short quotes from a fairly random few that have come my way here). It can be hard to sort out what we ourselves think. Not all of us spend time on a stage, and most of us aren’t the first to jump to the mic at a post-talk Q&A. But I’m convinced we all have a lived wisdom that would be valuable if we share it. Acknowledging and engaging with our differences is valuable.

Penny U gives us each a chance to try out our ideas in small groups. We’ll ask someone at each small table to collect a few notes so some of the thoughts and ideas in these discussions can be gathered up and shared back to us later. I look forward to the task of pulling those ideas together.

Our efforts are reinforced by this thought from Henry Mintzberg, management writer and theorist:

Radical renewal will have to begin here, in communities on the ground, with groups of people who exhibit the inclination, independence, and resourcefulness to tackle difficult problems head on.


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Penny U at Town Hall

Coffeehouse token from the Beaufoy Collection at the Guildhall Museum, drawing by Gordon Ellis
Coffeehouse token from the Guildhall Museum, drawing by Gordon Ellis

Penny universities were safe havens for political discussion, exchange of ideas, and civil debate.

Since fall 2014, I’ve co-organized a series of informal conversations called Penny U. We’ve borrowed its name from 18th century London coffeehouses called “penny universities.” For the price of a penny, people got coffee, pamphlets, the latest news and gossip, and lively conversations on politics and science, literature and poetry, commerce and religion. The low cost led to a mingling of people from all walks of life. Anyone of any social class could frequent the coffeehouses, which became associated with equality and civil society. Penny universities became safe havens for political discussion, exchange of ideas, and civil debate.

Conversations bounce from point to point.

In much the same way that I imagine conversation proceeding at 17th century penny universities, at our Penny U, one statement or question can quickly trigger another, and conversations bounce from point to point. The discussions are less linear, more complex and varied, than “point-counterpoint,” oppositional debates on a public stage. Penny U proceeds more like loosely-focused, living room conversations, sometimes taking seemingly unrelated leaps. For the first year and a half, we focused on the nature of work, how it’s changing, and what it might look like in the future. As we move into the future, we’ve loosened our focus.

Our aim is to engage everyone in the room.

Our conversations have often been jumpstarted by ideas from speakers on Town Hall’s stages. Although these talks regularly inspire us, the premise of Penny U is that everyone with an interest who takes the initiative to attend has valuable knowledge and experience to share. Our aim is to engage everyone in the room. To encourage this, the set up is informal, and the main event happens around small cafe tables in groups of 4-5.

* Penny U 3-15 mark, alice + crop* Penny U 3-15 steve + cropWe begin with a topic and a bit of background, but then pose questions to prompt conversation among the small groups. Though it’s easy for the conversation to turn to big, fairly abstract ideas, we’re urged to tie big ideas to our own daily lives.

* Penny U 3-15 whole group, cropAt the end, we reconvene as a whole to share highlights from each table, and that typically leads to more questions, more conversation, and an energy that’s often hard to stop. Notes collected at each table provide a basis for a summary which is subsequently posted online.

One thing I appreciate about our Penny U conversations is the mix of people who come. Most people are meeting for the first time, and they very often end up in conversation with people from worlds quite different from their own.

* Penny U 3-15 susan, miles + crop* Penny U 3-15 buster, laura, randy cropOne evening, for example, we had employed workers, a couple of students, and several people who have retired though still working on some level. Among the kinds of work done by people in the room, there were artists and writers, an architect, geographer, engineer, barista, Lighthouse for the Blind worker, foster parent for dogs, and a retired carpenter, financial advisor, and stock broker. The status of their employment also varies – full-time, part-time, temporary, volunteer, independent contractor, and not working. Like early penny universities, we mix interests, ages, fields, incomes, and cultures for face-to-face conversation about things that matter.

Coffeehouse pennies, or ‘tokens,’ were ‘essentially democratic.’

And, about those pennies . . . here’s a quote about coffeehouse pennies from a book about London’s penny universities in the 1600s.

In the seventeenth century, the coffee-men, in common with other tradesmen, issued their own tokens or coins. They originated through the shortage of small change and were usually for a halfpenny or farthing. For the most part they were of brass, copper, or pewter, but some were of gilded leather. They bore the name and address and calling of the issuer, the nominal value of the piece, and usually some reference to his trade. They were redeemable at the face value and were acceptable at any of the shops in the immediate neighbourhood, but they rarely circulated beyond the next street. As C. G. Williamson has said: “Tokens are essentially democratic; they would never have been issued but for the indifference of the Government to a public need; in them we have a remarkable instance of a people forcing a legislature to comply with demands both reasonable and imperative. Taken as a whole series they are homely and quaint, wanting in beauty, but not without a curious domestic art of their own.”*


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* Aytoun Ellis, The Penny Universities: A history of the coffee houses, first published 1956 by Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd., London, page 36.

The first Penny U at Town Hall was in October 2014, the most recent in April 2016. Penny U is co-organized by Anne Focke, at large, and Edward Wolcher, Town Hall. I posted reports from and advance notes for the first year of Penny U conversations on a different website, pennyuni.blogspot.com.

Thanks to Jean Sherrard for Penny U photos.


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Basic income – How would it affect us as human beings?

Report from Penny U

Didn’t Penny U talk about basic income before?

Yes, indeed, this is essentially the same topic that prompted a Penny U conversation back in December 2015. [More about Penny U here.] We suspected then that there was more to say on the topic…and we were right! So, for Penny U in March 2016, we used this as our overarching question:

What would happen if everyone received a basic income, regardless of the work they do or what their financial status is?

This second Penny U on basic income was organized in partnership with Town Hall as usual, but was held in the cabaret at the Richard Hugo House – a space that’s very conducive to discussion. The specific questions for the evening included one that triggered the discussion reported below:

Would a basic income lead to fuller lives and an increase in the common good, or would it encourage people to be lazy and to work less?

A second set of notes [here] reports on other conversations that evening that took up other questions. Some got more into the nitty gritty of how it would actually work: If basic income is a good idea, should everyone get the same amount, and where would the money come from? And others ttook a big picture view and considered the whole of society: Would a basic income just be a concession to capitalism, and why are we having this discussion now?

In drafting both sets of notes, I haven’t tried to synthesize the conversations, opting instead to try to more closely reflect its spirit, offering a record that’s more like dialogue. So, as you read, imagine lively exchanges, each one a combination of four or five discrete voices at one of four tables, all talking at once. The animated conversation went on for a good two hours and sometimes headed in unexpected directions. The notes add a modest order to it all by grouping somewhat similar ideas together.

Our hope is that Penny U gives us practice listening to each other and speaking up, whether uncertain or confident, whether drawing on study and research or on our daily lives; a place where we hear our own voices and listen closely to others, even when faced with conversational styles and ideas fundamentally different from our own.

What would happen to our sense of self worth if everyone got a basic income?

“Our jobs are linked to our feelings of self worth,” one person claimed. “Our sense of purpose in life is tightly tied to the way we make a living. We become what we do.” The speaker worried that today many, maybe most, people have no habit of defining themselves. “We let our jobs do it for us.” She went on to say that it would be a huge shift in the basic framework of our lives and our understanding of who we are – psychologically, emotionally – if we didn’t have jobs to give us a purpose. As an example, she mentioned friends on social media who “don’t love their jobs,” and she’s aghast at what they do with their time off.

“Our identities very often come from our jobs; we become what we do.”

“Perhaps having basic costs covered would take the fear out of having or losing a job.” Without that fear underlying their lives, they’d be freed up to define themselves in new, more meaningful ways.

“But, if people are released from the burden of economic fear, would society’s necessary, sometimes unpleasant, work still would get done? Would people just be lazy?” On the other hand, maybe we could “run society like a household, where everyone takes turns doing the unsavory jobs.”

“I’ve been an artist/writer all my life. It would be easy for me to fill my time, I’ve had practice. But, so many people haven’t had the chance to define themselves, and it could take a long time to adjust.” How long would it take for most of us to develop a purpose-driven life? “I’m nervous about our ability to float while we make this transition. Money has been such a driver.”

“Who says not producing something has no value!”

“A basic income shouldn’t be tied to individual results. Who says not producing something has no value!” “The program wouldn’t be a failure if some people simply sit back. That will happen.” “It isn’t necessarily bad if some people don’t get engaged. That can benefit society as well.” “We have such a Calvinist approach. Society’s understanding of work and our sense of what’s valuable are huge cultural hurdles to an idea like this.”

“We need to change our mindset about leisure. Leisure is meaningful. Education could help us. Its purpose can be directed to developing skills for a vocation or it can be directed to the liberal arts. College should be free.” “A college for all one’s life.” “Has social security created a lazy generation of seniors?”

“Young people will find their self-actualization outside their jobs.” – Andy Stern

In a 2014 discussion of similar themes, former SEIU President Andy Stern told a Town Hall audience, “My 3-5 year-old niece and nephew won’t think about work the way we do.” Referring to his own generation, he went on to say, “We often found our social environments through our work, our jobs. Young people won’t, and many have already made that shift.” They find what he called “their self-actualization” outside their jobs.

Would people still fight for supremacy, still strive to get the most or the best?

“People will always seek the advantage, everyone wants to optimize. Trying to convince others to our way is an universal aspect of human nature.”

“But, is this just an institutional overlay? It isn’t true everywhere. If this impulse is allowed free reign, we’ll lose our democracy. Fighting for supremacy is a way of moving forward in a patriarchy, characterized by an attitude of ‘you’re with us or against us’.”

“Can we shift to seeing ourselves as part of a collective whole?”

“How can we develop a spirit of cooperation, can we see ourselves as individuals who are part of a collective whole? How do we encourage a culture of generosity?” “The commons gives us a different mode. It is an ancient system that still continues in many ways and in many places around the world. The commons is not, as a famous essay, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ by Garret Hardin, suggests, an unregulated resource to be taken advantage of by everyone. It is a resource, used by many and managed by the community that uses it, and this community of users establishes rules, values, and protocols for its use.”

“I’m feeling optimistic. Surprising, radical transformations are more possible now.”

“Younger people are less sympathetic with radical competitiveness. They feel they’ve been given a ‘bait and switch’ deal, for example, big college debt for jobs that are disappearing. It’s why they’re in love with Bernie Sanders.” “I’m feeling optimistic.”

[This conversation continues. See additional notes, here.]


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Basic income – How would it work and why are we talking about it now?

Report from Penny U, part 2

Basic income – from details to the big picture

If basic income is a good idea, where would the money come from? And what drives the need for more equitable income?

This is the second set of notes from a Penny U conversation in March 2016. An introduction to the topic overall and the first set of discussion notes is here. Those notes discussed ways a basic income might affect or be affected by who we are as human beings . . . for instance, would it affect our sense of self worth?

These notes cover groups who instead focused on specifics such as, if basic income is a good idea, where would the money come from and should everyone get the same amount? Others took up a big picture view that considered society as a whole: are proposals for a basic income just attempts to mitigate capitalism, and why are we having this discussion now?

How would a basic income work?

Can we find the funds? Should everyone get the same amount, or should there be prerequisites for getting the money??

One group was quite optimistic about funding. “We could go back to a truly graduated income tax and levy a large tax on high levels of income or capital gains. We could institute Thomas Piketty’s global wealth tax. We could use the War Tax. We could democratize the workplace by creating more co-ops.”

“The amount of a universal basic income would not be enough to live on, so we’d need a hybrid approach.”

“In Brazil a basic income for families comes with incentives or requirements for doing certain socially positive things, like ensuring that children attend school and be vaccinated.”

“A German experiment with basic income requires an assessment of kids at a certain age, which raises a potential pitfall of people getting pigeonholed into a predetermined role or job when they’re young.”

“The question of prerequisites points to a distinction between the term ‘universal basic income,’ which means unconditional income with the same amount given to all, and the term ‘minimum basic income,’ which asks for proof that you need it.”

“Does universal basic income conflict with the goal of racial and gender equity, since women and people of color historically start with fewer assets? Should they get more?”

“Perhaps we could pay wages for housework as an alternative to giving basic income.”

“A danger is that universal basic income sounds new and exciting compared with the tired old social welfare language. A libertarian view would replace all social welfare programs with a basic income. Leave the choice of what to spend money on to the individual. Appeal to ‘American individualism’, and to our ‘freedom as a consumer’.”

“What we really need is a universal basic income with social welfare underneath, not instead of – a hybrid approach.”

More and more questions

“Would drug and alcohol addiction be more likely with an unconditional basic income, or would people be freed from stress, making it less likely they’d need such substances?”

“Would a basic income allow people to remain on or reclaim rural areas?”

“How big an impact would it have on a global economy? Should it be implemented on a global or a regional scale?”

“Is basic income an authentic solution for communities in distress? What would it mean for communities of color? Would it exacerbate gentrification?” “How universal is this idea? Is it just a white-guy dream of exploring the universe in a post-capitalist world?”

It has to be a dream on top of a broader social movement.

“Basic income isn’t really a political program with a coherent organizing concept that people can come together around. It has to be a dream on top of a broader social movement.”

“It would be exciting if basic income could it be used as a basis to begin building a local economy, to develop a cooperative way to aggregate the funds. We could grow the community by spending locally, and we’d feel connected to our neighbors.” “Working cooperatively confronts the myth of individual achievement.” “This would be easiest if the payments came in lump annual sums rather than smaller monthly payments. We’d need cooperative banks.”

“It all comes down to organizing.”

How would any of this actually get implemented? “It all comes down to organizing.”

The big picture: considering capitalism and the whole society

“Questions about a basic income can’t be asked without considering the whole of society, its conditions, and what really counts. It depends on effects we can’t predict.” “It’s designed for a Keynesian economy that doesn’t exist.”

Is a universal basic income radical enough?

“Discussing a universal basic income raises the question of what capitalism means. And, would universal basic income just be a mitigation?” “Like many other proposals, providing a basic income is a concession to capitalism. A market place would need to exist on top of it, along with continuing differences in wealth.”

“This country’s obsession with individualism is based on a flawed understanding of the history of our economic reality. Resource exploitation and slavery established the basis of our economy and gave us a wildly unrealistic sense of the power of individual efforts.”

We don’t have successful examples. Right now, a basic income would be a pure experimentt, like the Soviet Union’s experiment of taking a feudal Russia directly to communism.

“Perhaps trying to implement a basic income in a society with such a well-established social economy as the U.S. is a bad place to start. Some other kind of base might have to be established first. We just don’t have successful examples.”

“We’ve ceded public responsibility to the private sector, basically selling off the public. And this has been going on since the ‘80s. Would a basic income, paid for by eliminating social welfare/safety net programs, open up the possibility to finish the job quickly? to just drown the baby ­– that is, government, maybe even democracy?”

Why are we having this discussion now? What drives the need for equitable income?

Two common responses provided a kind of backdrop: 1) the rise of automation that is destroying people’s jobs and 2) the increasing income gap. These two background causes seemed to be accepted by everyone, but conversations went from there.

The only reason we’re even discussing this now is to prevent social upheaval.

“It comes from necessity. We need a new version of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Understanding the history of the New Deal could help it happen now.” So, how did that come about? “Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins just kept pushing him forward, and eventually he got on board.”

In his message to Congress on the State of the Union in January 1944, Roosevelt introduced what has come to be known as his “Second Bill of Rights,” or “Economic Bill of Rights.” In introducing his eight rights, he said: “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”

People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. – Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Penny U participants went on to talk about conditions today: “Both the private sector and government are worried that if jobs are eliminated, there would be overwhelming discontent.” “It’s possible that the private sector will get the incentive to establish and fund a basic income so people will have an income and be able to buy private sector products.”

“There’s momentum for this now. The left is interested and beginning to organize. The tech world is optimistic and getting into the act. Who knows? New markets might be formed. There are many unknowns.” “We need to start creating jobs in a whole different format.”

“The best and quickest way to solve all this would be by electing Trump. The youth are very anti-establishment. ‘Bern it up, or burn it down.’ Take the system and ameliorate it, or burn it down.”

We can’t just ask for this. We have to repair our democratic power first.

“There’s so much to do! Can social pressure encourage people to get involved? Lots of people have a sense of duty. Can we build on that?”


References

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights” ushistory.org/documents/economic_bill_of_rights.htm

The Roosevelt I Knew, by Frances Perkins bestpossiblelife.wordpress.com/2011/06/29/frances-perkinss-book-the-roosevelt-i-knew-reissued-as-a-penguin-classic/

 


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What if everyone, unconditionally, received a basic income?

A REPORT FROM PENNY U1

Image from website, "We Are Anonymous"
Image from website, “We Are Anonymous”

The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

–  Martin Luther King, 1967 3 

What would happen if everyone received a basic income, regardless of the work they do or their financial status? Would it be a good idea? If so, how could it become policy? How would it be funded?

About 20 people discussed this in small groups around cafe tables at Town Hall in December last year. Most, but not all, of us felt it is a good idea, though with much elaboration and many caveats and questions. Three tables of participants simultaneously discussed the ramifications of the idea based on questions posed in advance:4

  • Assuming that rules could be changed and funding found, is a guaranteed minimum income a good idea? Would people use their time well? Would it lead to fuller lives and an increase in the common good? Or would it increase laziness and freeloading?
  • If it is a good idea, how would such a mechanism be put in place? How would we build “a countervailing power,” “unrig the system,” and make rules that allow this to happen?
  • If it’s a good idea and the rules are changed, how would it be funded? A citizen’s bequest, a return on the use of personal data, eliminating the current welfare system, some other mechanism?

“A basic income would create a less competitive society and promote true democracy by giving us time to invest in it.”

The first group spent their time in a spirited discussion of the many reasons a basic income is a good idea: The policy could decrease income inequality, reduce racism, reduce stress, and improve health. A basic income would give everyone the opportunities that having more time offers, time to spend with and care for their families, to build relationships among neighbors and strengthen the social side of our lives. It would also “liberate people to discover their true professions,” would make room for creativity and provide the freedom to be authentic. It would create a less competitive society and promote true democracy by giving us time to invest in it. They didn’t address the practical side of putting such a policy in place or funding it, but they did raise few questions: Would things cost more? Would inequality just emerge in other ways? Could climate change be the catalyst to work together toward solutions like this? Who is against this and why?

Two views: “Without competition there is no freedom.” “Could we rely on cooperation instead?”

Right at the start, people at the second table discovered they were not in agreement about the value of a basic income. Beginning with the assumption that, as the first table also assumed, a basic income would reduce competition, the first speaker at this table said, “People need competition. Without competition there is no freedom. My job gives me money which gives me freedom.” Another believes that a basic income would take away an essential structure: “If I misbehave at work, they don’t pay me. That gives me structure.” Others in this conversation were supportive of the basic income idea. “What about a structure based on cooperation instead of competition? We’re so used to a competitive market it’s hard to see any other options, and other models are available.”

This beginning took the discussion in many directions, quite beyond its initial focus on a basic income to such topics as: alternate economic systems, the need to consider the common good, the availability of the commons as an alternative to marketplace commerce, Adam Smith’s belief that competition and “following your bliss” would have socially desirable results, Gates Foundation philanthropy, the government’s role, and the possibility of requiring work in exchange for basic income.

“A new type of education might be needed to help people find their true calling.”

The third table managed to cover all three questions. They reported being pretty laid back and comfortable with collective organizing and with the idea that a minimum basic income could increase people’s ability to pursue their passions and their creativity. They also thought that a basic income would make volunteer time more highly valued, reduce the status attached to wealth, and perhaps require a new type of education, one that would help people find their true calling. They wondered whether the policy would lead to inflation and how diversity would be expressed. And, quite beyond that, they wondered whether a plan like this that serves the common good could actually be put in place. The challenges include the current state of capitalism, our individualistic culture, and the fact that economic power rests with the ultra rich, lobbyists, and corporations. This economic power, they thought, might be countered by the political power of a much larger and broader base.

Where would the money come from?

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One person, critical of the basic income concept, was nonetheless eager to offer an idea that could support it: establish a government-run life insurance program where, at death, the proceeds are returned to everyone. The folks at table three came up with quite a long list of possible funding strategies: take from the war defense budget, maybe 5%; create a new national model for income taxation; close tax breaks and loopholes; institute 401Ks or socially responsible investments; tax places that aren’t taxed now, like churches and charities; eliminate the welfare system; address food security through gardens on roofs; save money by recentralizing municipalities and establishing new practices such as water systems that use gray water. They’d really like to see examples of functional economies that could support a system like this. And when each of the three groups came together toward the end, another idea was proposed: “How about a 100% estate tax for everybody?”

Clashes and new questions when we came together 

Strong but differing opinions on the effect of competition on freedom kicked off the exchange when we reconvened as a single group. For a few, freedom requires individualism and competition, which would be undermined by a basic income; and for many others, a basic income would make freedom possible – it would mean reduced competition and compulsory overwork, less stress and inequality, and time for relationships, volunteer work, and creative interests.

A few questions came up as we closed: Does anyone feel uncomfortable with the idea of people getting money without working for it? If education is available more broadly and more people choose it, the economy will grow – should it? And finally, a question about whether there is social and intellectual value to work drew a quick reply: “Yes, when the job is freely chosen.”

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1 Penny U is a conversation series on the nature of work, how it’s changing, and what it might look like in the future. Learn more here.

2  In Switzerland in fall 2013, activists dumped eight million coins outside Parliament, one for each Swiss citizen, in support of a referendum that would institute a universal basic income.

3  Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? 1967.

4 More detail on the questions posed can be found in the introduction to the Penny U session here.


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A minimum basic income?

A discussion at Penny U

7:00 pm, Friday, December 4, 2015
Town Hall Seattle, downstairs cafe

Late last year (11/30/14), a video was posted on Penny U’s blog telling of a Swiss proposal to guarantee every citizen a minimum yearly income, regardless of other wealth or employment. A similar idea came up again at the end of Robert Reich’s talk at Town Hall earlier this fall. A short piece posted here earlier, “Guaranteed Income and Unrigging the System,” highlighted this aspect of Reich’s talk.

Reich proposes it as a way to counteract the widening gap between those with extreme wealth and power and those without, a condition that threatens, he says, not only our economy but our democracy. He suggests that this minimum might be funded through a “citizen’s bequest,” that would, in his words, “distribute the gains from technological advances in such a way that nearly everyone would have the means to benefit from them.”

Variations on this idea are not new. In the final chapters of his book, Reich mentions both Thomas Paine in Agrarian Justice, 1797 and conservative economist F.A. Hayek in 1979 as precedents. The last question posed to Reich at Town Hall quoted Martin Luther King, who, in the last years of his life, advocated for a guaranteed income as the solution to poverty. But the debate is far from settled.

We will discuss aspects of this debate at Penny U beginning with these questions:

  • Assuming that rules could be changed and funding found, is a guaranteed minimum income even a good idea?

It would support the leisure and “freedom from pressing economic cares,” that economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1928 that we would achieve by 2028. It could provide a decent living for the workers with a “calling” who are now unpaid, mentioned in my essay, “Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value.” It could allow today’s overworked workers to live fuller lives. But would people use their time well or are we inherently lazy, with tendencies toward free-loading?

  • If it’s a good idea, how would such a mechanism be put in place?

Reich contends that, first, the existing system would have to be unrigged, and, to do that, a knowledgeable “countervailing power” would have to emerge among the “vast majority.” Is that possible? What would it look like? Is it beginning to exist already? How would it gain momentum?

  • If it’s a good idea and the rules could be changed, how would it be funded?

Robert Reich proposes a citizen’s bequest. Jaron Lanier has proposed that big companies using your data – Amazon, Google, Facebook, etc. – should pay a tiny royalty whenever they use it; it’s valuable data, it’s yours, and the small amounts would add up. We could learn from Alaska’s experiment with the oil dividend that it gives all its citizens. And others propose that funds for this purpose could be freed up by eliminating our whole welfare system. Which of these idea are most useful or likely? What other good ideas are out there?

On Friday, after short opening introductions and a little background, we’ll break into small groups around cafe tables for individual conversations that will allow everyone to participate.

If you’re in the area, please join us!

(And, if you can come, you can RSVP here.)


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A basic income and unrigging the system, Robert Reich, fall 2015

Robert Reich at Town Hall Seattle, October 2015

RR portrait

The very last questioner in the Q & A following Robert Reich’s talk at Town Hall Seattle this past October, challenged him with the words of Martin Luther King in a 1966 Leadership retreat, which were essentially these: “There is something wrong with capitalism. It is time for America to move toward a democratic socialism. I believe in the right of a guaranteed minimum income.”

The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.*
– Martin Luther King

In response, Reich handed the questioner a copy of his book, Saving Capitalism for the Many, Not the Few. Then he said, “The last two chapters in that book make the case for a universal basic income.” While he argued that “isms” are not helpful, he went on to say, “We need to ask the fundamental question, which is: Is this system working for all of us, giving us all a fair shot? Or is the system biased in some very important structural ways. And if it’s biased, how exactly do we unrig that system?”

Reich believes our current system is rigged. Earlier, in his more formal talk, Reich maintained that to “unrig” it, the system’s rules must change. “You can’t have a market without government,” he said, because the market needs rules. It needs rules around property, contracts, monopoly, bankruptcy, enforcement, and more. The market can’t function without these mechanisms. The rules change over time, and, right now, the rules are being changed to serve the few not the many. The changes are a major cause of inequality and of the declining income of the poor and middle-class. “Wide-spread prosperity isn’t just a moral good, it’s an economic good as well.” The low and middle-classes don’t have enough purchasing power to generate a healthy economy. And he added, “Wall Street isn’t the job generator; the middle class is.”

Other forces have picked up steam over the past 35 years and also work against a system for the many. Reich outlined some of them briefly at Town Hall and discusses them in his new book, Saving Capitalism for the Many, Not the Few: globalism and the outsourcing of labor that accompanies it for one, and labor-replacing technologies for another. But both his talk and his book focus on the increasing failure of the rules, on what in the rules needs to change, and on how the changes could be made.

The vast majority must regain influence over how the market is organized.    – Robert Reich

Over the same 35 years, large corporations and banks, along with wealthy individuals, have been able to get changes in the rules to benefit themselves. And this feeds on itself, he added. “As income and wealth have concentrated at the top, political power has moved there as well.” We need to “lift the curtain” on how the rules of the “free market” are being set and learn how government rules are allowing money to flow upward, from the bottom to the top. One of Reich’s reasons for optimism today is a belief that “if the smaller players understood this dynamic,” they could ally themselves and form a new countervailing power. “The vast majority must regain influence over how the market is organized.”

In addition to understanding how the rules are being changed, the vast majority comprising this countervailing force will need some good new ideas. His book describes a range ideas for policies that need to change, including reform of our campaign finance system to get money out of politics, ways corporations could be reinvented, and possible additions and revisions to the tax code. And he proposes what he calls a “citizen’s bequest,” a way to “redistribute the profits from [new and] marvelous labor-saving inventions so we’ll have the money to buy the free time they provide,” to quote from his blog post on Labor Day this year, “Labor Day 2028.” That is, as he envisions it, this citizen’s bequest could be a way to fund the provision of a basic minimum income.

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In the end, his final questioner at Town Hall gave Reich what he’d hoped for, “an opportunity to summarize with great exhortation.” He closed with this:

We believe in a system that works for all of us. We don’t believe in an aristocracy. We don’t believe there should be people called ‘the working poor,’ who are working full time and are still poor. We don’t believe there should be non-working rich. We don’t believe in pure equality – that’s silly – but we believe in a system where everyone has a chance, a real chance, to make it, and everyone moves upward as the economy improves. We believe there is a moral core to this system, whatever you want to call it.

And then he read the final paragraph in his book:

The vast majority of the nation’s citizens do have the power to alter the rules of the market to meet their needs. But to exercise that power, they must understand what is happening and where their interests lie, and they must join together. We have done so before. If history is any guide and common sense has any sway, we will do so again.

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*    Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967).

You can watch the video of Robert Reich’s talk at Town Hall here.


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