Why It Matters Who Owns Local Businesses

Does it matter who owns our local businesses? According to the economics texts the answer is “No.” The only question is “consumer value” which is to say, how much we get for our money. We are one-dimensional creatures; our psyches are essentially those of wall-eyed bass with better math skills.

So ownership is not relevant. Business is essentially none of our business. So long as Wal-Mart offers the cheapest prices, we should welcome it to town. Ditto Barnes and Noble, Starbucks, and Dominos Pizza. They provide the most stuff for the least price (Starbucks excluded there) so what’s our beef?


How Credit Cards Cut the Invisible Thread

It is not common to associate commercial credit with such things as community and trust, but that is a symptom of how credit cards have sucked this function into the abstracted realm of corporate finance. The criticism of these cards usually goes another route – namely to the way they have lowered the resistance to buying and led to the massive build-up of shopper debt.

This is beyond question. When you have to take actual money out of your pocket you think twice about a purchase.  Credit cards are like plastic alcohol.  They loosen you up, make things seem almost free, especially (and perversely) when you are strapped for cash.  But credit cards carry another malignancy that is noted less often.   This is the way they sever an invisible thread that once helped hold communities together, and degrade mutual obligation in the financial realm.


Recycle Circus: The Commerce of a Community

What is it about other peoples’ junk? Last Sunday was Recycle Circus, the day in our town when people clean out their sheds and garages and bring the stuff down to the community center, which is called the Dance Palace.  Volunteers unload the pick-ups and spread the items out on the street.  People have a ball sifting through the old plumbing fixtures, exercise equipment and lengths of gutter.

Some do get a little grabby.  They hover near the trucks as they are unloaded, ready to pounce on cabinet or desk.  It made me think just a little of the wealthy matrons from the suburbs who would throng the entrance of the original Filenes Basement in Boston, and descend like vultures upon the sale bins when the doors opened. But that wasn’t the dominant note.  Recycle Circus isn’t just about stuff, or even mainly. It’s a community event, a kind of festival, when you just enjoy being out with others with the winter finally gone.


City Repair: Social Permaculture in Portland

The drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to Portland Oregon, up Highway 5, passes through a splendid natural landscape and a diminished human one. There are islands of local particularity, yes. But along the highway one encounters an endless succession of Best Westerns, Taco Bells — you know the list. You drive six hundred miles and stay in the same place. After all those billions spent to defeat the Soviet Union, we have embraced its numbing uniformity, only with a higher entertainment quotient and a better paint job.

Then there’s Portland, which is trying to resist this commercial Sovietization and the social pathologies that go with it, Downtown the city has created Pioneer Square, which set a new standard for urban commons, and a host of kindred spaces. In the neighborhoods, meanwhile, there is the City Repair project, which is resurrecting a commons consciousness block by block. “Turning spaces into places,” is how the people there put it.


Rural Post Offices and the Hidden Productivity of Common Space

One of the great allies of the canny dictator is the human tendency to forget. Bring about a new normal with sufficient skill, and people gradually forget that things ever were any different. The corporate economy makes use of this fact of human nature as well. When it seizes upon a life process and turns it into a commodity – that is, when it sucks out the the natural or social content and leaves the dead husk of stuff — we soon lose track of that as well.

Tomatoes used to taste better? People hung out with neighbors on side porches and front stoops? You could take the kids to a ball game without being barraged by electronic ads? When was that? We are left with vague yearnings, hungers that do not have names, and so are easily re-channeled back into the commodity culture, which depends on chronic appetite for its “growth”. There must be something we can buy to make us feel better. Our kids have not a clue that anything else ever existed.


Blue Commoners, and Abstractions in the Red Zone

The Red States/Blue State trope lost ground last week, at last. It never was what it seemed to begin with. As numerous writers have pointed out, the electoral divide is less between states than between urban, suburban and rural areas within states. California’s Central Valley is Red, while the coast is Blue.  Much as with the concept of race, there is as much diversity within the so-called Red states, as between them.

That leaves the big misconception about the Blue areas themselves – namely that they are hip urban enclaves inhabited by “cultural creatives” in the smug and self-congratulatory parlance of the demographic trade. Those Red people with their rec room projects! We have Thai food and couture.  In this version Blue is a kind of cultural emanation that floats through the urban ether, imparting an affinity for gay marriage and welfare and a snooty aversion to churches and guns.


A Civic Economy

There was a coffee shop near my apartment on the West Side of Manhattan that served as a refuge for the troubled souls in the neighborhood. Older men sat for hours mumbling into their coffee. The owner, a kind Greek lady, would greet them when they arrived and wish them well when they departed. The waitresses were spunky pencil-behind-the-ear types who kept up a good-natured banter. It might have been the only warm human contact these men experienced in the course of their bleak days.

Late in the afternoon, I’d see some of these same men a few blocks up 8th Avenue, nursing more coffee in a McDonalds and looking forlorn in the plastic, bolted-down seats. Kids would tease them; the manager would wipe their tables in an attempt to shoo them away. In the family business they had been part of a community; here they were impediments to a target return per square foot.


The Basic Function of Money

The basic function of money is to bring needs and resources together. But the conventional money system is failing miserably in this regard. Vast human resources sit idle, while vast needs go unmet – often in the same neighborhoods, even the same block.

This has large implications for the debate over social services, health care included. Perhaps the question isn’t just the government versus the market, spending more versus spending less. Perhaps we have to start asking questions about the kind of money we use. Lawmakers in Washington are busy trying to construct legislative contraptions to make the market – i.e. greed – result in better care. But just maybe, a new kind of money could give rise to a new kind of market, with care built in.