Sunday, March 30, 2014

Something Happening Here

So goes the start of a well known Buffalo Springfield song at the height of the Vietnam War. I had started another blog earlier today and let it settle before going back to edit. Looks like it will have to set a little longer as I read or viewed several powerful presentations today that I want to share. Two were received via email posts, two from websites I visit from time to time. The confluence was sufficient to interrupt the direction of the other blog. I hope you will find them worth your time

In the first one we have a speech delivered on the Senate floor this week by Senator Bernie Sanders, the longest serving independent member of Congress. Perhaps a testament of his intellect, personality, and effectiveness as seen by his constituents from Vermont was the fact that he took 71% of the vote in 2012. This 22 minutes of oratory is worth the sound and sight of Sanders as he paints a clear picture of the current and future impacts of extreme inequality.

This turns out to be a fitting introduction to a series of reports, one of which was noted Saturday in a New York Times article and covered here and a blog published today by UM professor Juan Cole at his Informed Comment website. Essentially how that growing concentration of wealth is undermining our democracy.

Then there is the often cited (sarcasm) Lancet/Oslo Commission's Political Origins of Health Inequality report from February. This report was referenced in a scathing editorial this week in the prestigious British Medical Journal a few excerpts follow:

     ...And this week a report from the World Meteorological Office (WMO) confirmed that extreme weather events are accelerating. WMO secretary general Michel Jarraud said, “There is no standstill in global warming . . . The laws of physics are non-negotiable.”6
     This is an emergency. Immediate and transformative action is needed at every level: individual, local, and national; personal, political, and financial. Countries must set aside differences and work together as a global community for the common good, and in a way that is equitable and sensitive to particular challenges of the poorest countries and most vulnerable communities.

      What we all do matters, not least in how it influences others. Those who profess to care for the health of people perhaps have the greatest responsibility to act. And there are signs of action being taken. Within the health system, organisations and health facilities are reducing their carbon footprint. Barts Health NHS Trust has, for example, reduced its energy bill by 43% since 2009. The president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, himself a public health physician, has called for divestment from fossil fuels and investment in green energy.7 We should all respond.

If this wasn't enough to light my fire (it was probably was) an email link from a colleague to a recent (March 2014) TED talk by Charmian Gooch,
co-founder of Global Witness and a winner of 2014 TEDx Prize.

UPDATE [3-31-14] Senator Carl Levin hailed the TEDx prize of $1 million to Global Witness to fight for transparency in business ownership. See the reference to legislation he and Senator Grassley have introduced here.

Taken together they paint a stunning portrait of a society on the edge. What will it take in our culture to move the energy and drive that is absorb by NCAA basketball tournaments and direct it towards building a  more just, prosperous and sustainable society? The bread and circuses we're continually pumped with is the perfect distraction from noting the emperor has no clothes.

If we don't shake off  this drug-like induced stupor soon, we will lose what little democracy we have. Miguel Cabrera is a heck of a ball player, but $284 million!!!!!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Seminal Idea

While slowly recovering from a concussion late last fall my reading and writing has slowed to a trickle until recently. To be able to read or listen and comprehend the ideas expressed seems almost like a luxury now, one that I have taken for granted for most of my life. Perhaps as a result of this recent loss, I am all the more thirsty to read, learn, and explore what might be possible. Beware the floodgates may open soon.

I have recently completed the 35 page Regenerative Capitalism working draft that the Capital Institute's John Fullerton has made available on the web.


Fullerton is a finance leader, former managing director at JP Morgan, and some of the excerpted pieces from his evolving synthesis below will give a hint of the flavor of his analysis and his proposed remedies.

 I heard him speak a couple of years back and have been impressed with both his insight and his belief that we can create better options, rather than simply bemoan our current malaise.

 His thinking and writing is at once, deep, trans formative, coherent, and inspiring. Excerpts do not do justice to the WHOLE. If you really want to get a shorthand and insightful critique of our economic system and a possible prescription for a better world, please read the WHOLE paper.

       We are in trouble because modern economic theory and the practice of finance remain dangerously grounded in a mechanistic worldview, in direct conflict with this emerging and more accurate ecological worldview. Optimizing near term“shareholder value” at the level of the firm, as if it exists separate from the greater whole of society, and separate from the even greater whole of the Earth and its biochemical processes that provide the local and global life-supporting ecosystem functions upon which the firm and its employees and customers depend, is flawed reductionist thinking. Yet this is precisely how modern finance-driven capitalism operates, posing a clear and present danger to life on Earth...
...we state our belief that the reckless,reductionist objective of Financial Capitalism, exclusively focused on optimizing short-term returns to financial capital, is guaranteed to lead us to collapse – ecological, social, and ultimately financial as well...

.... When it comes to sustainability, our leading business schools are primarily engaged in furthering the technology-enabled resource productivity “opportunity,” just as they earlier focused on the labor productivity “opportunity.”...

...Regenerative enterprises and and projects invariably arise out of the failure of diverse constituencies to solve intractable societal problems because they have been working in isolation, and often at cross purposes. Out of sheer desperation, they decide, tentatively, to lower the barriers of mistrust and work more collaboratively. Not surprisingly, these unlikely collaborations transform what appears to b, from a reductionist viewpoint, problems without solutions, into projects of boundless possibility - the edge effect at work.[emphasis added]
...This new era will be characterized by broader  and more holistic value creation and rich collaborations between public and private sectors, not just private financial wealth accumulation.

There is so much more here and Fullerton lays out a systemic analysis and plan and remedy. He defines eight elements of regenerative capitalism:

1)  Means not Ends
2)  Ethical and In Service
3)  Supremacy of Relationship
4)  Transparency
5)  True Wealth
6)  Right Scale
7)  Collaborative
8)  Resilient 

He concludes with three declarations which drive everything else:

  • An ecological worldview must replace our outdated mechanical worldview
  • The regenerative paradigm that defines life and enables it to sustain itself in dynamic steady-state in the face of its own persistent entropy production, must succeed the impossible exponential physical growth paradigm.
  • A transformation of finance, both theory and practice, is essential for this shift to take place.

Finally, he closes with an apropos quote from Buckminster Fuller that we should all hearken to:
"We are called to be the architects of the future, not its victims".

Let's begin...


Sunday, March 2, 2014

What Can We Afford?


      We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history, a time when humanity must choose its      future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.(Earth Charter, 2000)

I noted earlier this week in an article I was reading yet another telling graph of how our domestic inequality has grown.

I was reminded of this graphical depiction later in the week as my employer announced that it was giving some raises to the football coaching staff. They could afford the $1.6 million raise to the head coach as well as the additional roughly $800,000 or so they added to the wallets of the nine assistant coaches (none of whom was making less than $100,000 before this windfall). I wrote a while back about the runaway inflation and other concerns with big time sports.

On the other side of the ledger I looked to see what our lowest full-time employee earns - $10.38/hour, or $21,598/year. A living wage calculator for our area would suggest a wage for a single mom with one child would have to be $18.50/hour, but the university can't afford to pay these folks that much. If they had let the head coach scrimp by on his $2,000,000 salary, that extra $1.6 million could have brought 76 minimum wage single-mom workers up to a living wage (whoops, I forgot he received an additional $2,000,000 longevity bonus - evidently what you get if you don't get fired or flee to another job). If you add the longevity bonus and the other coaches' raises, nearly 200 single-moms could have a sense of economic security they don't at present know.

But we can't afford it. Higher education institutional practice mimics the nation at large in increasing inequality. In our citadels of higher(?) learning there appears to be a culture of entitlement. But where that term usually gets applied to those on the lower rungs of the economy with impunity, we never see the term applied to those in the top 10% or 1%. The belief pervades the institutions that the work of universities is so important and so profound as to warrant accelerating raises at the top, while those at the bottom hope for a boost near the inflation rate. I've heard the whine of too many PhD's and administrators making over $100,000 annually who feel under-compensated and violated because of it, while exhibiting not the slightest concern for those who clean their offices, prepare their food, haul away their trash, and who struggle daily on the cusp of economic insecurity.

Thus the story coming this week from St Mary's College in Maryland where they are discussing a 10 to 1 maximum salary cap. At our institution the ratio is in the neighborhood of 130 to 1. In fairness I should note that our university president has returned her raise several years running and only makes 23 times our lowest paid employee. As for what the fair ratio might be, I've written more on that possibility before. My biggest concern is that we don't even discuss the idea that there could be salaries or wealth that is too much.

Our university will defend these raises behind the myth of the marketplace that forces them to pay so much for football or basketball victories. And by their actions like these they surely place these outcomes as more valuable than providing a living wage for their lowest valued employees. But this isn't only a problem in higher education. We see astronomical salaries for professional athletes, and former politicians of all stripes leave government to lobby for whatever cause will pay them millions, see this newly released expose on the billions used to curry favor in government.

Perhaps more troublesome to me is that the recipients of this largess somehow feel entitled to it. Since they are themselves college educated as are the ones who made these decisions, it suggests to this observer that college degrees aren't necessarily the best tonic for the planet or those we share it with. The problem is that until the Occupy movement focused our attention on the realization that the 1% was running away with our resources while most struggle, the gross and growing inequality was not a visible issue at all. See for example Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz's "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%"

As many books reviewed over the past couple of years in this blog have made clear, the trajectory noted in the graph that began this blog continues unabated and it is all but ignored by higher education. Also this week the University of Minnesota  and University of Nebraska padded their own head football coaches to $2.1 million and $3 million respectively. But it isn't just university athletic salaries that seem never to be enough. Many institutions of higher education  act as though exempt from responsibility for their ecological footprints. While we rightly invest in some energy efficiency and conservation technologies, we continue to add more and more and more square footage of space that we heat and cool and light. We count as another victory any investment that offers a high rate of financial return regardless of the societal or environmental harm it creates elsewhere.

 American Decline

Winning is everything in big time NCAA football and basketball programs. The evidence in this graphic makes that evident better than any string of words I might use or even the recent examples cited above. The near absolute silence on this seems stunning to me. But then where campuses have been leaders in steering society away from injustice -- Free Speech Movement, Vietnam Anti-War Movement, Civil and Gay Rights, Apartheid Divestment, etc., it has been largely under the impetus of students - not the faculty or administration. Is the silence based on apathy, a sense of entitlement, fear of backlash, or perhaps in hopes of a trickle down theory of more coins in our own pockets someday from the same system?

The question of what we can afford on a finite planet with one earth family and one common future is arguably the most important one we face. As the 100 Nobel Laureates who signed the following Declaration in November of 2001 warned us:

      The most profound danger to world peace in the coming years will stem not from the irrational acts of states or individuals but from the legitimate demands of the world's dispossessed. Of these poor and disenfranchised, the majority live a marginal existence in equatorial climates. Global warming, not of their making but originating with the wealthy few, will affect their fragile ecologies most. Their situation will be desperate and manifestly unjust. 

The runaway wealth and inequality must stop. Who will be brave enough to challenge the powerful? Kudos to St. Mary's College for confronting the issue. But where is Thomas Paine when we need him?