Sunday, December 19, 2010

For Firebaggers, When the Unicorn is Enough


One day, making tracks
In the prairie of Prax,
Came a North-Going Zax
And a South-Going Zax.
And it happened that both of them came to a place
Where they bumped.
There they stood.
Foot to foot.
Face to face.
"Look here, now!" the North-Going Zax said,
"I say! You are blocking my path.
You are right in my way.
I'm a North-Going Zax and I always go north.
Get out of my way, now, and let me go forth!"
"Who's in whose way?" snapped the South-Going Zax.
"I always go south, making south-going tracks.
So you're in MY way!
And I ask you to move And let me go south in my south-going groove."
Then the North-Going Zax puffed his chest up with pride.
"I never," he said, "take a step to one side.
And I'll prove to you that I won't change my ways
If I have to keep standing here fifty-nine days!"
"And I'll prove to YOU," yelled the South-Going Zax,
"That I can stand here in the prairie of Prax
For fifty-nine years!
For I live by a rule
That I learned as a boy back in South-Going School.
Never budge! That's my rule.
Never budge in the least!
Not an inch to the west!
Not an inch to the east!
I'll stay here, not budging!
I can and I will If it makes you and me and the whole world stand still!"

Well... Of course the world didn't stand still.
The world grew.
In a couple of years, the new highway came through
And they built it right over those two stubborn Zax
And left them there, standing un-budged in their tracks.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Fork in the Road

Flint, MI is a town of about 39 square miles, much of which is abandoned. In some suburban neighborhoods, one or two residents remain, surrounded by houses going to seed, harboring rats and criminals. The federal government's plan is to build new pocket communities around the best and most populated housing stock, in some cases moving people from isolated run down areas to where they can become part of a tighter, newer community. The rest of the structures will be razed and the land returned to nature.

Flint is particularly hard hit, but there are many towns across America that have suffered shrinkage. Flint is considered an experiment. If successful, other towns will be tackled this way.

If I'm a greedy corporate executive from a multi-industry conglomerate (let's say GE), what do I hear in this news story? Opportunity.

Federal government, I would say, show me one of these towns. Don't spend your resources destroying salvageable housing stock. Give us the whole town and let us reanimate it. It will be a grand experiment in total privatization. We will run the schools, utilities, parks, all the things that used to be public.

We will also employ people and give them a reason to live here and money to spend here. Our diverse line of businesses and the businesses that spring up to serve our employees will give whole families employment opportunities. Welcome back to the middle class. It will be in our corporate interest to keep this American town and its citizens thriving because its $gain is our $gain.

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

How does this play out? If you know the story of company towns of a hundred years ago, you have some idea. It's not just Jack Welch Community Park, though it's that, too.

All the businesses in an isolated company town enter the town and continue to exist there at the pleasure of the dominant employer/landowner and probably pay a fee to GE. This is not like taxes paid to a local government. A government is us, it exists to benefit everyone. GE does not.

GE directly determines your rent and cost of utilities and strongly influences your other costs. In old company towns, the company didn't allow any other businesses in, but today's model will have chain stores just like other towns. To pay fees to GE, stores raise their prices. As in the original company towns, average residents find that their money doesn't go very far. You may even go into debt just to keep up. Did you know that one of GE's most profitable companies has been the one offering credit?

The town is so isolated that it is impractical to rely on other towns for daily needs. Gas is expensive, too; many will give up their cars since they have short commutes, further restricting their options.

Homeownership is not an option since GE owns all the land. GE will build barracks for the minimum wage workers who serve the town executives.

School curriculum, local news, and TV service will all have an undercurrent supporting consumerism and corporatism.....oh, wait. Well, there's always the free and neutral internet.

GE will offer college scholarships to the brightest kids in return for a promise to work for GE after graduation. Few others will be able to afford college.

You will be required to have medical checkups as a condition of employment. This is perfectly legal. Basic medical services will be offered by company doctors, and there are no secrets. Failing health will be a reason for dismissal.

There will be no mayor, town council, or civic betterment groups. There will be only customer service. And a long wait. Unless you are an executive, your creature comforts are not a high priority. Be glad you have a job.

Nobody in this town sues GE or its top executives. No lawyer for miles would take the case. You've heard the expression "the company owns the law in this town." In this town, the company IS the local law.

Discharge from GE, whether by firing or retiring, means you are expected to leave town and everyone you know. Or if you run a supporting business, GE may evict you from your business premises. You will have no home equity, maybe no car. If you are lucky, you won't be in debt to GE, but you likely won't have a lot of savings.

You are an itinerant worker. You are like a knight or craftsman offering services to whichever feudal lord will have you. You don't have many choices in your life.

To recap:
GE offers to reclaim a dying town, takes over ownership of all the land at no cost, offers bare services to people who live there, runs the town to benefit itself, and takes no responsibility for people once they no longer work there.

Still sound good?

Now imagine a different scenario. I'm one in a network of rich community-minded philanthropists. Maybe I'm George Soros. Maybe I'm one of these people. What do I hear in the story of Flint? Opportunity.

Federal government, I would say, show us one of these towns. Don't spend your resources destroying salvageable housing stock. Give us the whole town and let us reanimate it. It will be a grand experiment in democracy. The community will run the schools, utilities, parks, libraries, city hall, and other public functions.

Democracy-minded companies will want to locate here for the quality of people it attracts and the quality of life that is possible for all employees. We will encourage and celebrate local entrepreneurship and innovation, encourage local ownership and exchanging ideas. In this community, we are all producers and all consumers. Welcome back to the middle class. It will be in our interest to keep this American town and its citizens thriving because its gain is our gain, not just in a material sense but also quality of life.

How does this play out? Quite differently. The town will be designed from the ground up to be livable, energy efficient, modern, economically integrated, and to encourage community interaction. There will be no gated communities.

Businesses in this town all agree to abide by rules of good corporate citizenship, including promoting green operation and local products. Large companies that want a subsidy to come into the town are turned away. Without big chain stores there are some inconveniences at first, but local residents step in to fill the gaps.

Utilities and other public services are priced based on cost, with extra cost charged for being inefficient and bonuses for superefficiency.

The town will use taxes to pay for operating expenses and a reserve, aka a rainy day/investment fund.

Because the town is isolated, the community will organize van pool trips to popular destinations. Riders will be charged a fee, which may be subsidized in whole or in part based on income.

A community bank will handle the gradual transfer of ownership of homes from the municipality to citizens. The profits from the sale of land will be used to modernize the town, put in parks, walking and riding paths, a community college and community hospital if new ones are needed, and anything else required. Low-cost housing will be scattered among other housing.

The community will offer college scholarships to deserving kids in return for a promise to work for the community after graduation. Everyone will be able to afford at least the community college.

Citizens will pay a flat fee for health care as part of their taxes. Doctors will work for the community hospital, and their records will be private.

There will be a mayor, town council, and school board elected from among residents, plus public police, fire, and judicial departments.

If you are unemployed and want to stay in town, you will be able to search a central community hiring board and post your resume there (if you still have a job and want to post your resume anonymously, you can do that too). In the meantime, you may choose a part-time volunteer job to get you out of the house. If you are unemployed or partially disabled, you can get a local business scholarship toward job retraining to get you into a new career. The community bank will temporarily reduce or freeze your mortgage with no penalty, and other subsidies will be available for living expenses if UI runs out.

There will be a neighborhood with a concentration of wheelchair-accessible homes, and there will be regular transportation and other services concentrated here. Anyone may live here, but preference will be given to people who will benefit most from these features.

You are a member of a community. You matter. Your community provides support for those who need it but mainly focuses on maintaining a good quality of life. This is not socialism, but if there is more government involvement than you want, don't live here. You have a choice.

To recap:
A democratic philanthropy offers to reclaim a dying town, takes over ownership of all the land at no cost, transitions it to the people who live there, uses the proceeds to build up community infrastructure, includes all kinds of people, even those not contributing economically, and supports local businesses.

This is the fork in the road, people. Which way are we going?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Why Is the GOP Acting Like Terrorists?

Part 2 in an ongoing effort to reclaim the narrative and put the GOP on the defensive.

President Obama and the Republicans in Congress just did some tough negotiating. When both sides were pushed to the wall, this is what they fought for the hardest:

Obama: extension of UI, tax cuts for poor and middle class, tax credits for job creation
Republicans: tax cuts for richest 2%, estate plan benefits for the richest 1/2 of 1% (not reducing the deficit, as they claim)

The public consistently does not want tax cuts for the rich, but the GOP clearly does not care what the public wants. Its true constituency is fatcats and no one else, and it is willing to hold every man, woman, and child in America and the financial health of America itself hostage to get even more money for fatcats. Even though they already have most of America's wealth and income, a gift from the tax code.

This is what was happening a week ago:

Dateline December 2010, America Held Hostage, Day 4

A band of 42 terrorists is shutting down the legislative branch of the federal government until taxpayers agree to pay a 700 billion dollar ransom in large, unmarked tax cuts to the few million wealthiest people in the country.

At stake include benefits to the poorest few million people-- the unemployed, children, and the elderly—and the START treaty.

Some of the millionaire beneficiaries of this ransom have made a public appeal to the terrorists to give up this dangerous game. So far the terrorists have not budged except to go out to nice meals and home to their comfortable beds while the rest of the country waits."

What more do these terrorists want? The rest of us need government to tackle START, the debt ceiling, and try to undo the damage caused by years of sending money to the rich. What more will the terrorists want for the rich in return for allowing government to function?

Here's another thought: Where did the national debt come from? Where did it go? As the national debt grew, the wealth of the richest few grew. This is not a coincidence. The GOP likes to point out the direct disbursement of tax money to the poor and middle class in the form of UI and tax benefits, but look who has the money. Pennies thrown to the bottom is chicken feed next to the enormous wealth that has shifted to the top.

The only party really serious about reducing the national debt is Democratic. History has borne this out. The GOP has just shown, once again, that its number one allegiance is to the wealthy, and the rest of us are concessions they give to get what they want for the rich.