I just finished Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein and I feel like I've been recommending it (and emailing the .mobi file) to everyone I talk to. It was really eye-opening for me to think about the basis for money, and how the design of our currency system, in itself, could be such an important factor in why our society has such a conflict between what is good and what is profitable. Eisenstein argues very persuasively for exploring alternate currencies and systems of exchange that do not incentivize hoarding of capital in the same way that our existing fiat monetary systems do. Just read this book. I'd love to talk with you about it.
The book is available for purchase here. It can be downloaded for free, and then you can make a contribution to Eisenstein once you have read it based on how helpful/interesting/good you find the book. Eisenstein encourages sharing of the book, seeing the book as a gift, and your contribution as a return gift.
One note: I did find Eisenstein's style to be a bit overwritten, and it took some getting used to. It takes him about 10% of the book to really get started, and then he makes his central point about 40% of the way through the book. Once you start, keep going! You won't regret it.
When I woke up this morning and heard that police had cleared Zuccotti Park late last night under the orders of Mayor Mike Bloomberg, I was immediately struck by the irony of the fact that the sole decision to evict people who are protesting economic inequality in NYC rests with the 30th wealthiest person in the world, who paid $102 Million to be elected to a third term in 2009 (a cost of $183 a vote!) after fighting to have the term limits law changed so he could run again. Now, I actually like Mike Bloomberg. I've voted for him. I think he's something of a benevolent dictator for New York City, and I believe he authentically cares about this city, and about doing the right thing for the people of New York.
But the fact that he's in office at all highlights the very issue which it seems to me is at the heart of the Occupation movement. And it isn't easy to get to the heart of it all, because there are so many issues heaped on top of it. We've got economic inequality, social issues, the failure of capitalism, the deregulation of the financial system, the recent economic collapse, the bailout of the banks, and everything else. But all these issues are, I think, united very simply in one core problem:
Money buys political power, and our country is now effectively run by the wealthy, who exert tremendous influence over our government to make sure that policies that benefit their wealth are enacted, and that policies that do not benefit their wealth are blocked.
The ways that money buys political power and influences government decision-making are many, some direct and some indirect, some legal and some illegal. Of course there's graft and corruption, but there's also the spin of the media, political donations (it takes a lot of money to get elected), paid lobbyists, the power of political appointments, the promise of future rewards after serving in office, and a host of other subtle and overt ways that money influences decision-making.
This problem is not just a problem for the left or the right. It's a problem that threatens our entire system. We have become a plutocracy in which those with the most money have the most influence. Without wealth, we have very little voice... all that we can do to influence government decision-making is to vote, or to protest, or to write a letter. But those with money can hire lobbyists, make large political donations, influence coverage in our media, hire a "consultant" (say, a former influential elected official) to make a few phone calls, promise someone a reward in the future, or make an out-and-out bribe.
This is not about "capitalism" or "socialism." The ideological divide between these two idealized economic models frames a lot of the neverending debate between the left and the right about specific policies. But we don't have a capitalist society or a socialist one. We have a combination, and we choose when to adopt socialist principles or capitalist principles in our government. Capitalism works well for some things (incentivizing growth), and socialism works well for other things (military, major infrastructure, etc.). Some things work well when the government does them, and some things do not. Some things work well when businesses do them, and other things do not. We can debate when government or business is better equipped to handle one thing or another, but any dogmatic position that says "business is always good (or bad)" or "government is always good (or bad)" denies history and reality.
If the wealthy are effectively controlling the decisions that our government makes on our behalf, they will make decisions about when to apply socialist principles and when to apply capitalist principles so as to maintain and increase their wealth. So we have socialized military, police, roads, and socialized risk for "too big to fail" financial institutions. But we continue to apply capitalist principles to health care (health insurance and hospitals) for most Americans, even as our costs continue to skyrocket, and the quality of our service continues to decline. And we apply capitalist principles to job creation, even though the "trickle down" from the wealthy "job creators" doesn't seem to result in very many new jobs, because the wealthy are generally hanging on to their money, rather than hiring new workers.
So we have a country in which our representative democracy, under the influence of pressure from moneyed interests, effectively makes decisions for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. That is, actually, the definition of tyranny. Even though we still get to vote. Even though I can write to my senator if I want. My opinion is worth a lot less than that of Rupert Murdoch or George Soros.
If we approached decision-making at the governmental level from the perspective of "how can we make a decision that benefits the most citizens possible" we would have a very different approach to health care, financial regulation, job creation, defense, taxation, campaign finance and many other issues. But this isn't how most lawmakers approach the problems that face us. The one-person/one-vote system has far less power than the individual ambition and desire for personal benefit that wealth can bestow on our elected representatives and political appointees.
Let's look at three examples from the last few years, one from each branch of our Federal government, in which decisions very obviously placed the interests of the wealthy few over the interests of average Americans:
If we actually are a society in which everyone is equal... If we actually have a country that is (as Lincoln said at Gettysburg) "of the people, by the people, and for the people," then everyone's interests should be weighed equally in making decisions that affect us all. For many of us, I think that's the basis of our social compact, of what we agree to when we place our allegiance in America. And it is the very sense that this social compact has been violated through the pervasive influence of wealth in politics that has brought us the continuing Occupation movement. And this isn't going away until the social compact is restored, until we figure out a way to make decisions that affect us all in a way that serves the needs of the many, not just the needs of the wealthy few.
Is the era of the single, charismatic leader/visionary over?
One month ago, the Occupation of Wall Street began, and in the intervening 30 days, we've seen other occupations, demonstrations, and gatherings in over a thousand cities around the world. This movement is basically leaderless. At the very least, there is no singular charismatic figure who is orchestrating what is happening. It is happening more as a force of nature than as a force of will. It is happening because it needs to happen, because there are so many people who share a disillusionment with the way things are and disenfranchisement from the existing social and economic structure.
During this month of occupation, Steve Jobs passed away on October 5, and there has been a lot written about his genius, and also about how difficult he was to work for. But whatever you think of him, there can be little doubt that he was the singular leader of Apple that transformed the way we interact with technology several times over.
Also during this month, the Memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., was dedicated in Washington, DC, on October 16. It had been scheduled for August 28th, the 48th Anniversary of King's "I have a dream" speech, but was postponed due to Hurricane Irene. King, of course, was a charismatic leader of the Civil Rights Movement who was assassinated in 1968.
The passing of Jobs, and the memory of King, leave me wondering if something has changed in our world with regard to leadership. The fact that the Occupation movement manages to grow and spread without a singular leader makes me wonder if the era of "name above the title" "larger than life" personas like Jobs and King and so many others is simply over.
Clearly, we need leaders. And clearly, there are many leaders involved in the Occupation movement. But as soon as one singular leader emerges, as soon as one person stands up and says, "I speak for all the disaffected here," that person will very likely be immediately vilified, first by conservatives (watch how fast Fox News digs up dirt on this person), then by the mainstream media (trying to fill the 24 hours news cycle), then by elected officials, who will doubt this person's legitimacy, then by other leaders in the Occupation movement, and then by everyone else. This whole process will probably take a few days. It was shocking to watch how fast Julian Assange, the leader of Wikileaks, was discredited, brought up on charges, and silenced for the most part... all immediately following his rise to international prominence.
Why do we do this to our leaders? And what has changed to make this possible? Well, clearly, globalization, the Internet, the speed of communication, and the 24-hour news cycle enable this to happen. No sooner does a figure emerge on a national platform than we know everything there is to know about them. We've seen leaders like Eliot Spitzer, Rod Blagojevich, and many others exposed, discredited, and dismissed from public office almost instantly. When David Paterson took over for Spitzer after Spitzer's resignation, Paterson was quick to disclose publicly all of his dirty laundry: drug use, infidelity, basically everything he could think of that could be uncovered later... He just gave it all away, prior to his swearing-in, taking all the ammunition out of his enemy's hands.
So our leaders are instant targets... As soon as they emerge, they become the subject of a million Google searches, a hundred TV news stories, and a great hunger to figure out who they are, and what they have to hide. And that's scary. But maybe there's another way to look at this as a positive development... Since our leaders are no longer seen as everything, are no longer able to stand as singular representatives of all our collective hopes and dreams, it puts the responsibility more squarely on all of us, as leaders, to pull together and build the world that we would like to see.
Rapidly, the Occupy Wall Street movement has developed tools to communicate, both locally (the People's Mic) and globally (through websites and Twitter), and to make decisions (through the General Assembly and the proposed 2012 People's Congress). These tools, though in their infancy, are designed to reduce the power or authority of any one person over any other, to communicate and make decisions in as level a playing field as possible, to flatten the hierarchical structure that we all live and work in, so that every voice can be heard and that that decisions that are made can be as representative as possible of the collective will of the people.
And, if this movement can continue to pursue its highest ideals, without becoming compromised by the lure of the existing financial/governmental/media power structure, perhaps it can continue to grow without singular charismatic leaders. It can have spokespeople, of course. But as long as the movement continues to believe that every voice is as important as every other voice, maybe we won't need one singular voice to speak for us all. Maybe we can finally all speak for ourselves.
The Occupation of Wall Street is two weeks old today. Like many people I know, I’ve been watching the protest emerge and evolve through Facebook updates and Tweets and from an occasional forwarded article in the Gothamist. As I write, there are not only people encamped downtown, but similar actions cropping around around the country, and in fact, around the world.
One of the areas of confusion and criticism around the protest is that it’s not clear what the protest is about specifically... There’s not a specific call for action that we’re supposed to take. As an audience, many people would like more definition in order to better understand the protest, and to put it in a specific envelope, “Oh, they’re protesting for more taxes on the rich” or “Oh, they’re protesting for mortgage debt forgiveness” or “Oh, they’re protesting for the government to focus on creating jobs.” I’ve also read that various members of the audience would like to see a clear spokesman for this movement, some one person to step forward and become the avatar through which we can experience what is going on downtown and in other cities.
But I think it’s important to resist this desire, from the general public, to have this thing wrapped up with a bow. There is tremendous value in bringing people together simply to object to the way that things have been run, to unify not around a specific change that must be made, but in order to make a general statement that something fundamental needs to change in America, that America’s government has not been serving the needs of its people, at least not as its primary objective, for some time now. And whether people join the occupation because they are members of the long-term unemployed or because they have been significantly hurt by the recent financial crisis and recession or because of some other reason, there is still significant value in having them come together and make a statement about the injustice they feel.
This reminds me, to some extent of Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network:
"Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!... You've got to say, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Then we'll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: "I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!"
Yes, there’s change that has to be made, that many of us have been hoping for and talking about for some time. But, clearly, this change is not going to happen if we all sit at home simply writing blogs and tweeting and updating our facebook status as our primary means of dissent. Or even if we become active in the conventional political process and campaign for the lesser of two evils, or write letters to our elected representatives encouraging them to do the right thing.
First, we actually have to get mad. And then, we have to take our actual physical bodies and go out and make a stand, in the street. We have to leave cyberspace and go out into meatspace. And if it’s not specific about exactly why people are taking to the streets, if it’s just from a general shared disillusionment with the capitalist status quo, a reaction against economic inequality, a riot against the growing sense that our best days are behind us, well, that’s ok. That’s what it needed right now, before we start to move toward any specific change, we need to get people on their feet.
It’s amazing what this movement has accomplished so far, in only two weeks, and how many things have been done just right. There is no specific leader who has emerged who can be ripped to shreds by the media and cynical spectators (remember Julian Assange?). The inclusive “General Assembly” model, instead of some more formal leadership structure, means that anyone who needs to be heard, can be heard, that anyone who has something to say can say it, that anyone can be a part of what is happening. And it’s all happening, ostensibly, without any big-money interests behind it or powerful existing organizations (political parties, unions) calling the shots. So far.
And at the center of this movement are kids, young people, Millennials... the generation that grew up with computers all around them, and that we didn’t think knew how to do anything that wasn’t tied to a computer or handheld device. This is the generation that is getting people up and out in general protest at the way things have been run.
To me, the promise of this movement isn’t some minor revision to the existing legal framework (reinstating the Glass-Steagal Act, or changing the tax code) but in creating a more participatory model for government, a government that actually serves the people, and is actually accountable to the people. Some people are looking at Occupy Wall Street and advocating for a technologically fueled direct democracy. I’m not sure that would work all that well... There are two kinds of tyranny: tyranny of the few over the many (dictatorship, oligarchy, plutocracy) and tyranny of the many over the few (mob rule, total democracy, communism). Our government is designed in some ways to slow down the heat of popular sentiment, to make sure that we don’t start burning people at the stake when their positions become unpopular, to protect the individual from the state. We need to maintain those protections.
One of the reasons that we need to have a government infrastructure is also so that we can all spend our time doing things other than governing ourselves. As Oscar Wilde may or may not have said, “The trouble with Socialism is that it takes up too many evenings.” So we elect officials that take on the job of running the state so that we can work for living and have some time for leisure. Because somebody has to run things around here.
But when we elect officials, we have to believe and trust that they are going to serve our interests, that they are going to work for us. That’s the basis of the social compact between the government and the governed. And our existing government in the United States has broken the trust of many of us. There is a widespread and growing sense that those in positions of authority are far more concerned with their own individual self-interest (whether it’s re-election, lining their pockets, protecting their friends) than they are in doing what is right for the longterm health and prosperity for the majority of the people of the United States. So we’ve seen a trend, for the past 30 years or more, of a society that increasingly favors those who already have the lion’s share of the wealth, as the wealthy, quite obviously and dramatically, get richer, while those at the bottom have less and less. This is not the appropriate result of a representative democracy in which one person has one vote to elect representatives to serve their interests.
One way to look at the history of humanity on this planet is as an ongoing struggle between those who would limit participation, and those who would seek to maximize it. We are now at a moment in history in which our communications technology enables more and more of us to participate, and we need to take advantage of that to insist that our representatives take action that is in our interest.
So I think what is happening here is that more and more people are standing up and saying, “You guys are doing a really lousy job representing me. In fact, you’re letting 1% of the country walk all over the other 99%. And you know what? We want to be more involved. We don’t just want to elect you every two or four or six year and let you start running for re-election the second you get into office. We actually want a government that works for us. And, damn it, if we have to give up some evenings to get that, well, so be it.”
Inevitably, however, this movement will need to begin to advocate for specific popular policy changes. As Occupy Together grows to locations all around the country, and gathers an increasing groundswell of popular support (if that can be sustained) I’d love to see the movement try to maintain both it’s inclination for direct democracy and a desire to respect the existing framework of the Constitution and the government of the United States... by drafting and working to pass a number of amendments to the Constitution to further protect us from our government and provide for better economic equality... whether these are the “fair tax amendment,” the “campaign finance amendment,” or the “full employment amendment,” I don’t know... but it would be great to find a way to change the system directly, without necessarily becoming just another pet issue to propel another party or slate of candidates into office, and begin the cycle of inaction and disaffection all over again.
When I was at the ARC-Interiors conference in late September in Miami, speaking on "A Sense of Purpose: The New Reality for Architecture Firms and How Principals will Need to Adapt" I had lunch at the conference after I spoke at a table with a bunch of nice conference attendees and exhibitors. Before long, the conversation turned to current events, and we touched on the controversy over texting while driving.
Without really thinking, in the middle of the conversation, I interjected, "The problem isn't texting... It's driving." I went with it: "I mean, texting doesn't kill people, driving does. The problem is that we drive too much, and driving is just too easy. We need to drive less, and when we do, it needs to be more difficult."
One of the others at the table asked, "Yeah, I need somebody to pick me up at my house and drive me to work."
I threw out, "We have that already. It's called a train."
Suddenly, I realized that I was in a group of people from all around the US, none of which lived in New York or one of the few other cities in the US where you can live a full and complete life without owning a car.
"Maybe we should spend less public money on roads, and more on trains. If the roads were more dangerous, you couldn't text while driving because you'd hit a pothole. Part of the problem here is that driving is too easy because our roads are too well-maintained. People have too much free time when they drive."
The entire controversy, and this conversation, points out to me that our dependence on the automobile, and all the evils that go with it (foreign oil, pollution, suburban sprawl, shopping malls, road rage, alienation, long commutes of wasted time) is a choice, a choice we can reverse. It doesn't have to be this way. And it shouldn't be this way.
I'm reminded of the James Howard Kunstler quote, that the suburbs "represent the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." The current controversy over texting while driving should be another wake-up call. The problem isn't texting, it's driving. Driving kills. We should be driving less, and texting more. People, get on the train. Get off the road. You're wasting resources, you're wasting time, and you're running the risk of killing somebody, or yourself. Why live this way?
I remember back around 1999 or 2000, when I was walking home one night from work, and I felt like every other car I saw was a limousine filled with drunk, screaming, dot commers celebrating their IPO or their second round of venture cap financing or whatever, and I thought to myself, "Make this stop! Make this silly Fantasy Island world go away!" And it did, pretty shortly thereafter.
Through a friend in California I got invited to what I now think of as "the last party of the dot-com boom" at a rooftop penthouse in NoHo. The company that hosted it (I think it was Excite@Home) was already going under. My friend, who invited me to the party, had already been laid off. The party was her last day on the job. But, they had already paid for the party, so why the hell not? It was a hell of a party. I'm glad I saw it. It set a new standard for me of corporate parties, at least.
Anyway, why is this important now? Well, it seems like we're headed into a recession again (or we're already in one, potentially). And I can't help but think about the last time we were in this particular place on the economic curve, sliding downward, rapidly. There is certainly a sense of economic gloom in the air.
I've worked through two recessions already, and this will be my third. I first started working in architecture in 1992, when layoffs were common until 94 or so. Then, as I mentioned, there was the dot-com implosion. Now the housing bubble breaking and the credit crisis...
Just like when I thought "Make this stop!" in 1999 or 2000, I certainly had a similar feeling when I heard in late 2007 that Goldman Sachs was giving out an alltime-high $12.1 billion, or an average of $400,000 per employee, in its annual bonuses. Or when I heard in 2007 about the fact that apartments in luxury buildings in New York City are selling for more than $2,000 a square foot (sometimes MUCH more). It can't go up and up forever. What goes up has to come down, at some point.
And, though there's pain involved in a recession, there are a number of things that are good about the contraction. I have to say that I really like the return to reality, the recalibration that happens when people reevaluate their values. The value of a dollar, for example... In a booming market, a dollar is, well, just one more dollar. You need a dollar? Sure, here's a dollar. Sure, why not buy that cool new gizmo? Sure, why not buy the big car? Sure, why not get the premium gas? But when things get tighter, people think about those dollars differently. They have value. Every dollar counts. It forces people to ask the tough questions, and to engage in conversation. Do we really need that thing? Are we serious about expanding into India? Do I really need a new car?
When things are good, it's really hard to be cheap. When you're out with friends, it's really hard to be the person who doesn't want to split the check evenly. It's really hard to buy the lowest-cost choice in the category you're looking at (think car or TV or computer). But when things get tight, all those rules shift. Be as cheap as you want! Choose the answer that works for you! Pay only as much as you think is fair! Nobody can blame you for being cheap in a recession. You actually have MORE socially acceptable choices, not less.
And at work, it's actually easier to make decisions, because the final arbiter of decision-making is financial, the bottom line. This may seem limiting, but I think it's actually liberating. In a boom, who's to decide whether it makes more sense to invest in India than Russia? "Both are expanding! Invest in both!" But resources (time and money) are always in fact limited, and a recession points that out, focusing the discussion. "Look, we've only got so much money to spend here... What should we do with it?"
I suppose what I'm saying is that, while recessions create an environment of scarcity, and focus us on what we have and what we do not have, forcing us to make tough choices, I actually like tough choices, and I like the discussions and decision-making that accompany making tough choices. I think it's good for us, and I think it's good for me. But don't worry, I'm sure there will come other periods of wild economic abandon where we will again lose ourselves in orgies of consumption... and that's fun for a while, but hangovers can be fun too...