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David's Travelogue: Austin, Texas

When my crew and I meet up in Austin we hire a car using Cars2go, a car-sharing service by Daimler (the Mercedes Benz people), featuring a fleet of Smart cars. It's a pretty slick system. You sign up and get a card; find one of their little Smart cars parked somewhere and wave the card over a device on the windshield to unlock the vehicle; grab the keys in the glove compartment; and pay by the minute. When you're done, lock up and leave the car for the next user to come along.

The tiny Smart cars are two-seaters that look like someone lopped off the posterior of a real car. We run around town for our story in this pug-like vehicle that is a relatively fuel-efficient car (it gets about 36 miles to the gallon according to the EPA) and easy to park. But it's not that big on cargo space, which is an issue more for TV crews with cameras, sound gear, and tripods, than for the person who needs it to tote some grocery bags (reusable ones, of course) back from the farmer's market. For someone who needs a car but only occasionally, Cars2go seems a cost-saving option. More to my point, fuel-efficient, shared vehicles do mean fewer cars in the aggregate, less traffic in theory, and less pollution.

Yo Mamas Catering Cooperative

"We run around town for our story in this pug-like vehicle that is relatively fuel-efficient car and easy to park, but it's not that big on cargo space."

Our first day of shooting in Austin takes us to an everyday kitchen in an everyday house. Nothing industrial about this one except the scale at which three women are producing empanadas, the south of the border delicacy -- cheese, chicken, plantain empanadas. For a family of four, they might need to make perhaps a dozen of these spicy crescents. But the goal this evening though is to make several hundred. By bedtime. I try my hand using an inverted coffee mug to stamp out a disk shape from the flattened dough. Stamp I can do. I let the experts fill, fold, and bake.

Sylvia Barrios, Kelley Coleman, Jeanette Monsalve and Raquel Rodriguez have started a business called Yo Mamas, a catering company. Three of the four are mothers; each has struggled in the present economy. The women have spent the last six weeks attending a course on how to set up and run a worker-owned cooperative. Now, Yo Mamas is up and running and the big job at hand is to cater a graduation event the following evening. So what do four women churning out empanadas have to do with the economy of the future? It turns out, Yo Mamas is part of a movement that is taking the worker-owned coop idea and doing it on an industrial scale.

At the end of an empanada-filled night, I check in to the Austin Motel, choosing a locally-owned establishment instead of a national chain (Austin folk tend to chuckle when you mention the Austin Motel. It might have something to do with the shape of the neon sign. You tell me if that design is worth a chuckle). But a key question is: what benefits, if any, accrue from nurturing local and regional business relationships as opposed to the intergalactic business ties that have marked the modern era of globalization? This is one of the questions I'm hoping to answer during this journey.

The best things in life are free

On my second day in Austin, I have a few hours of leisure built into the schedule on a hot afternoon. I head over to Austin's great natural wonder: a body of water called Barton Springs. On a day like today, a dip in the cool spring water is glorious (fully clothed: I forgot a bathing suit) and the people-watching is world-class.

But if my goal is to help the local economy, I cannot think of an activity that is more economically unhelpful. That's because to swim in Barton Springs only costs the $3 a person admission charge. That's the best I can do for Austin? Three measly U.S. dollars? In the better part of an afternoon? I should have found a much more expensive water park somewhere. Or put down a couple of Ben Franklins during a shopping spree at an Austin mall. Just about anything is better than a $3 dollar investment in the Austin economy.

There is a logical disconnect here. Jumping into Barton Springs on a 98 -degree day has enormous value to me. And Barton Springs brings enormous value to the people of Austin. It brings a kind of beach front to a town that is rather far from the sea. Yet by standard economic measures, the spring (and my dip in it) does not account for much. Standard economic analysis values transactions where dollars are attached. It does not account well (or at all, in many cases) for the value of leisure time or for the value of a natural resource.

We all know the old saying "The best things in life are free?" That says something about a problem in the way we measure the economy. Lots of important stuff that we do has little standard economic value -- from caring for an elderly relative to coaching basketball after school. Some leading economists are now arguing that the economy of future will have to measure (and value) this stuff a whole lot better.

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I'm now off to Bellingham, Washington where I'll meet some of the people and businesses who are working to nurture local, sustainable jobs.

Next: Bellingham, Washington


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David tries his hand at making empanadas at Yo Mamas Catering Co-op.
David tries his hand at making empanadas at Yo Mamas Catering Co-op.

David stayed at the locally-famous Austin Motel.
David stayed at the locally-famous Austin Motel.