Tuesday, February 16, 2016

If You Don't Believe Change Is Possible - Read This

If you don't believe change is possible the story of  Playing for Change that started as simply a videographer finding street musicians in various places around the world and then connecting them is a moving antidote to that hardening of the mental arteries. 

Image result for Playing for change

This initial travel experience has now evolved into a global band with live performances and into an inspiring launch of music schools in the developing world. If the story doesn't move you, the music should.

Over the past few years I’ve been averaging about 20-30 nonfiction books a year. Not even a drop in the ocean of new books published. And those that I find particularly insightful I often mention in this blog. A small handful have been the subject of more than one posting. I doubt any of them have been on anyone’s bestseller list. In fact, they are frequently from more scholarly presses with a small audience.

Just last week I was browsing the new book shelf at my university library- they shelve perhaps 100 new titles a day and leave them up for a week. So my chances of even seeing them there is quite iffy. And I certainly don’t look at every book. I skim by call number (subject) and then by title.  The title of one paperback that caught my attention was Change Everything

It was classified in economics.  As I pulled it off the shelf and opened it, I discovered the subtitle that convinced me to give it a chance: Creating an Economy for the Common Good. Part of me was resistant to try yet one more economics book as there are now close to two dozen I have consumed in the past few years. I had never heard of the author, Christian Felber, although it became apparent from the back cover that he was a European Economist. One quote claimed Felber “is one of the most brilliant economists in Europe.”

Well I get this far with lots of books. But after reading the rest of the salutary blurbs, a few from names I knew and respected, reading the forward and his preface, I determined that this was at least worth some investment of my time. Felber, it turns out is an Austrian economist who writes in German. So the book in my hands was a translation by Susan Nurmi. Boy am I glad she agreed to do this!! The book was originally written in 2012 and released and updated in English last year.
As is my inclination, especially in fields where I have some reading experience, I like to glance at the bibliography to see whom the writer reads and cites. While there were a few economists in English I was familiar with – Herman Daly, Tim Jackson, E.F. Schumacher, Leopold Kohr, Elinor Ostrom, Thomas Picketty, Milton Friedman, the majority were from German and French authors I was unfamiliar with, a real bonus.

Now I realize it may be premature to start a review of a book if you’re only 122 pages into. There are 222 pages of text here. But I don’t want to wait. Regardless of what transpires in the last 100 pages, what Felber has done thus far is mesmerizing. Part of me wants to rush to completion, but the part calls me to slow down and savor all that he is weaving together. First of all his tone and aim are in line with the focus of my blog: Possibilitator – Extending the idea of what’s possible – a rebuttal to Margaret Thatcher’s, “There Is No Alternative”.


As he says early in his preface, “One of the main objectives of this book is to demonstrate, in concrete terms, that there are in fact alternatives to the current economic order.” (p. xiv)

But this is not simply a checklist of what we might do to create an economy for the common good, although there is plenty of specific examples already shared at this point in the book with promises of more to come.  This is a deeply reflective analysis of why we have the system we have. Felber clearly examines the supposed tenets of our  current system and then shows how they are responsible for the shortcomings we see all around us.

Felber then begins to construct an alternative set of tenets, shoring them up with evidence of a better outcome employing a systemic understanding of the interaction of the principles and practices. At the foundation is, of course, a discussion of key values. And it is here the wrestling match must begin with those who believe the system we have only needs a little tweaking to repair the damages that have resulted from its application. As Felber makes clear

     “Two crucial questions pose themselves: what does the “common good” mean and who defines it? As a guiding concept, the Economy for the Common Good has no preconceived meaning except that it signifies how important the well-being of all human beings and the natural world is… the only immanent meaning of the common good concept is that everyone’s well-being counts. Otherwise the concept constitutes nothing more than an umbrella term in the sense of a constitutional goal which sums up the key values of democratic societies. The precise meaning of its individual components can and should be determined democratically. The “common good” is neither divinely handed down nor does it derive from the grace of any emperor.”

It should be clear that Felber doesn’t see the system he envisages as some detailed system designed by experts, but rather a direction driven by local democratic process upon shared values. He has a whole chapter coming up on ‘advancing democracy’ which is central to his thesis Following that is a chapter on real world examples, and concluding on how we might ‘put it into practice’. He begins that last chapter with this quote from Buckminster Fuller:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Felber has not only given us some refreshing ideas, he and colleagues have begun to put many into practice. By the end of 2014 there were efforts afloat in numerous countries, regions and municipalities involving businesses, government, organizations and individuals to employ the ideas for an Economy for the Common Good. Anyone dissatisfied with the current state of affairs will be pleased to see that another world is possible and is being born. You might even want to join the efforts. There is no better place to begin than with this very important and inspiring book.

Perhaps the anthem for the new age is best represented in one of the Playing for Change Band's version of this song: "A Change is Gonna Come."

Monday, February 8, 2016

War - What is it Good For?

President Obama is about to release his budget for fiscal year 2017. There is every reason to believe that the amount we spend for war will dwarf every other discretionary expenditure. 

The National Priorities Project "Costs of National Security" website helps paint that picture. But numbers are cold facts that like the winter winds numb us.

Discretionary Spending 2015

Ernie Regehr in a new book Disarming Conflict (2015, Zed Books) takes us through what armed conflict has bought us as a human family since the end of the Cold War.

Image result for disarming conflict

 Most of the wars over the past few decades have been civil wars or intrastate wars. Millions have died. Destruction of mind-boggling proportions have accrued, Refugees and internal displaced persons are at record highs. And yet we prepare for more of it. Regehr sifts through the data about what has been won. The answer is rarely anything. And yet we persist.

Chris Hedges in his first hand account of wars he covered as a war correspondent for the New York Times in his award winning yet distressing War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning lays it as bare as words without pictures possibly could.

Image result for hedges war is a forceImage result for hedges war is a force

Peter Van Buren's We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People depicts the horrid waste and madness of trying to rebuild what we just destroyed while expecting it to be better than ever. 

We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People by Peter Van Buren

Andrew Feinstein' Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade will open one's eyes to the skulduggery, corruption, and power of the world's arms merchants and why the intractability of the flow of arms is making powerful players wealthier and more powerful.

While we urgently fight the rise of gun violence in our cities, we have yet to make the connection with our own national proclivity to violence. Bernie Sanders made an insightful statement during the debate this past week about capital punishment when asked if he supported it. 

    "Of course there are barbaric acts out there, but in a world of so much violence and killing, I just don't believe that government itself should be part of the killing."

If we extend that logic to all the ways governments enable killing beyond capital punishment we might reduce the scourge of war and murder. As Regehr points out wars don't start without access to arms.In fact the research shows that there are four chief ingredients to start wars.

1)  The presence of heightened political, economic, and social grievances;
2)  Intergroup competition and conflict that reflects disunity within a society;
3)  Capacity for sustained use of force;
4)  The perceived lack of alternatives to settle grievances through nonviolent conflict resolution.

The gun lust that hearkens us all to own and brandish weapons is a key feeder of war. Not only are we a gun-happy culture, but as the largest by producer and seller of arms, we have exported the concept and thus have helped sow more wars.

To read Regehr, Hedges, Van Buren and Feinstein that becomes all the more apparent. As Regehr poignantly notes: 

     In conflicts between states or blocs of states, the greater the armaments and armaments competition, the more the focus shifts away from the political and economic substance of the conflicts to concentrate instead on the competitive accumulation of arms and fighting forces and the political distortions that accompany them. It is a process of dynamic militarization that both relies on and generates a climate of intense suspicion, distrust, hostility, and confrontation, all of which are deeply inimical to rational attention while the political conflicts that visit an interactive world. The arms race itself becomes a primary point of contention while the political issues at stake are lost first to the drum beat and then the fog of war...

... the capacity to wage conflict by military means, between and within states, continues to enjoy disproportionate attention and funding. Political and business acumen has been employed to the fullest to exploit lack of controls and the pervasive secrecy that characterizes the arms industry in order to promote universal access to the tools of war - arms and ammunition - along with maximum profit. President Eisenhower's famous warming about the military-industrial-complex is certainly no less salient today than it was when he raised it in his January 1961 farewell address. It continues to drive an insatiable appetite for military aggrandizement that can never admit to reaching a point of sufficiency. The perceived threat seems always to exceed the accumulated military might to counter it. And so, a relentless culture of vulnerability is promoted by the military-industrial-congressional-scientific-think tank complex (one could keep adding to the list of the component elements). It seeks to keep military funding on track and helps to shape the political culture and national psyche.(p.134-5)

Perhaps our poets and songwriters can put this in a perspective that journalists, scholars, and activists can't quite convey of this scourge and its causes. John Gorka's song War Makes War is perhaps a most succinct summary. But the song that inspired the title of this post, made popular by Edwin Starr in 1969, is equally poignant.


War, huh yeah
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing, oh hoh, oh
War huh yeah
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing, say it again y'all
War, huh good God
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing, listen to me

Oh, war, I despise
'Cause it means destruction of innocent lives
War means tears to thousands of mothers eyes
When their sons go off to fight and lose their lives
I said
War, huh good God y'all
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing, just say it again
War whoa Lord
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing, listen to me

War, it ain't nothin' but a heartbreak
War, friend only to the undertaker
Oh war, is an enemy to all mankind
The thought of war blows my mind
War has caused unrest within the younger generation
Induction, then destruction who wants to die
War, good God, y'all
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing, say it, say it, say it
War, uh huh, yeah, huh
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing, listen to me

War, it ain't nothin' but a heartbreaker
War, it's got one friend that's the undertaker
Oh, war has shattered many young man's dreams
Made him disabled bitter and mean
Life is much too short and precious to spend fighting wars these days
War can't give life it can only take it away, ooh
War, huh, good God y'all
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing, say it again
War, whoa, Lord
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing, listen to me

War, it ain't nothin' but a heartbreaker
War, friend only to the undertaker
Peace love and understanding tell me
Is there no place for them today
They say we must fight to keep our freedom
But Lord knows there's got to be a better way
War, huh, good God y'all
What is it good for?
You tell 'em, say it, say it, say it, say it
War, good Lord, huh
What is it good for?
Stand up and shout it, nothing
War, it ain't nothin' but a heartbreaker

Strong, Barrett / Whitfield, Norman J.
Published by
Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC