David Brancaccio (DB): The economy does not have to be this way. Come with me on a road trip across America to meet some colorful people who are figuring out ways to survive and prosper in today’s economy.
DB: It turns out, there are places right now in America where we can explore examples of the economy working in a new way. And it’s happening on Main Street, not Wall Street.
DB: So, our mission here is to fix the future.
David Korten (DK): Well you know, David, it starts with a very basic question. Do people exist to serve the economy, or should the economy exist to serve people?
DB: I set out to meet people who have found a new way to do business, a new way to think about money, a new way to share and a new way to work. Our first stop is Bellingham, Washington.
Michelle Long (ML): This is the real economy. These are...our members are manufacturers and construction workers, they are farmers, they are retailers, they want successful...they need to have profitable businesses to stay in business.
DB: Michelle is talking about more than 600 local businesses plus interested citizens knit together into an alliance called Sustainable Connections. Members are united by a single idea: what can they do that’s in their community’s long-term best interest. It’s about jobs and the environment, favoring local over distant in buying, and other transactions
ML: What we’re building is a relationship economy, the accountability that comes from a relationship with another person as opposed to a one-night-stand economy where we are...where we don’t have the accountability. If you think about it today we don’t know where our food comes from when it ends up on our plate and what kind of impact it’s had along the way; we don’t know where our waste goes when we’re done with that meal. When you put your money in a mutual fund, you don’t know the impact of that money circulating where it’s going. So we want to reconnect farmers with eaters, investors with entrepreneurs and businesses with the communities, with the ecosystems that they serve, have a relationship.
DB: Which is all well and good, but what about jobs? Well, Bellingham’s unemployment rate in recent years runs lower than statewide and national averages. David Korten is an economic analyst who has advised groups like Michelle’s on building what he calls, “local living economies”.
DK: And we need to shift that locus of power down to the community level, because the financial markets recognize only money and thereby only financial values. If you’re living in the community and you own your local businesses and you’re engaged in the local economy, you have a definite interest in the strength and health or your community. So, there’s a natural connection between how you make your financial decisions, how you operate your enterprise and the broader public interests, none of which exists when the power resides in Wall Street.
DB: Lummi Island, population under a thousand, is six minutes by ferry from Bellingham. Salmon fishing was the staple of Native Americans from this area, the Lummi. And it’s a thriving business now.
DB: You have to travel pretty far to find a fish that’s gonna taste better than this.
Riley Starks (RS): I...these are the best fish in the world. I’m...the...you can...you can’t do a better job than we do on these salmon.
DB: Riley Starks is a shareholder in this local venture called “Lummi Island Wild.” It’s one of the greenest salmon fisheries in America; using a process called “reef netting” to drop and lift nets into the current with solar-powered winches and old-fashioned human brawn.
Male: So anyway we have an array of eight solar panels here that senses the charge of...of the charged level of the battery bank that we have that runs each individual winch.
DB: I guess that means the carbon footprint’s pretty low on this operation.
RS: It’s pretty low, yeah. There’s the...the skiff rider’s all the fossil fuel that we use.
DK: I mean that’s what’s so exciting about being part of this local living economies movement. If we’re working with local uh, local workers, employing local people and thereby also uh, creating more customers for the salmon. You know I think we’re...we’re seeing a...a growth in consumer awareness that it really does make a difference where our food comes from not only in terms of the ultimate health of the food but in terms of long-term viability.
RS: People wanna know where their food comes from. They want to know as much as they can about the food that’s on their plate and the more you can...you can...you can be authentic about what you’re tell...telling about it ht...that’s...you can stand on the road and watch us fish.
DB: Some of that catch has a very local destination. Willow’s Inn, Riley’s restaurant and lodging.
A fish with a back-story that makes it valuable to consumers. But this is more than a fish tale.
DB: Sustainable businesses aim to create livelihoods, jobs. That’s clear to see, across town at a factory that builds fancy pizza ovens. Wood Stone had the chance to get parts made cheaply in far-off Asia. But the boss, Keith Carpenter, is part of Sustainable Connections, which got him thinking hard about ways to bring jobs to the place where he himself lives. His solution started, paradoxically, with robots.
Robots imported from Finland did some of the work, but 40 human beings were also needed, meaning 40 new local jobs in the middle of a recession. There’s the issue of jobs and the way people live that keep showing up here in Bellingham. I can’t leave town without one more example of economizing in the new economy.
DB: Architect Peter Frazier is part of a new movement to live well in a small space. It’s called the Tiny House movement and he brings the idea to his workplace.
DB: What do you like now with the smaller space, you think that it makes you somehow feel better to have the smaller space?
Peter Frazier (PF): It’s just the right space for me because I built it to work in my life.
DB: There’s lots of examples of tiny houses, even on wheels!
Female: So it runs on a...it’s a 60/40 mix of biodiesel and regular diesel.
DB: And even tinier houses. Whoa! Check it out! What is he pulling? Well look you needed a little place for your head. I gotta say this looks disturbingly like a CAT scan machine.
PC: So it’s a bed, kitchen, it folds up into a chair and a little table comes down. There we go, there goes the toilet. This is the comfy position.
DB: Can I try it?
PC: Yeah, go ahead.
DB: Yeah it’s comfy. It certainly gives you a fine view. You have a little bit of solar power. Now for many of you this is the nightmare of where our sustainable economy will be headed. You’ll be living in a tube on a street corner in downtown Bellingham. But the point of a small dwelling like this is to ask a very interesting question. The question is, how much do we really need to live? How much do we really need for shelter? How much do we really need in terms of stuff? If I had been an eighth of an inch taller [chuckles] I wouldn’t have made it in here. Of course I’m gonna need to get a sustainable chiropractor to sort out my back [chuckles] after that experience.
Dan Pike (DP): The business community has come to understand that you can’t talk about doing business without understanding how that impacts society, how it impacts the community, both environmentally and socially. And I think Bellingham’s a place that does get that.
DB: High minded for sure. But can this local, sustainable concept survive in a tough business environment?
DB: Anything connected to manufacturing, it’s a pretty competitive business.
DB: Are you able to pay a living wage? Are you able to offer benefits for people who work here?
Keith Carpenter (KC): If there’s one thing that I think we’re most proud, of what’s done, that 90 people show up here every day and are able to make a living and they’re buying houses. And they’re sending their kids to college and they’re having...creating new families. It’s worth all the work. We wanna go home at night and feel good about what we did.
DB: You could get a Lamborghini out of this if you changed your view. I mean there’s certainly stuff you could buy.
KC: I’d probably get too many tickets if I ...
DB: All right. Well I like your, I...but you have a sense that you don’t have to keep accumulating?
KC: No. Nope. Less is more in a lot of ways and uh we have all we need and Wood Stone has the potential to uh bring a very comfortable life to hundreds of people.
DB: Where are the jobs we need going to come from? Corporate profits have been running strong but many big companies are not using money to do much hiring. Call it a jobless recovery. So while bonuses are back for Wall Street titans, many regular people are pounding the pavement, looking for work. Just about everyone knows someone who is out of a job.
But there’s a fascinating movement underway in communities across America. Local, green, and sustainable is the stuff of farmer’s markets. People increasingly want to see sustainable ways of doing business in their communities, too. And businesses that try to do right by their communities, and the earth, can already be found on a Main Street near you. They’re not just creating local jobs, they’re also plugging into energy sources that pollute less. Local banks are reinvesting deposits and profits in local businesses. It’s healthy for the banks, but it also helps keep money circulating in the community and ever-larger co-operative firms are being tested, where people can earn decent wages and can build long-term equity in their firms as part-owners of the business. And these wages can be pumped back into the community...which in turn creates more jobs.
Our voyage of discovery continues on the hunt across America for hotbeds of local, sustainable employment.
DB: Next stop: Cleveland, Ohio. There are some big worker-owned cooperatives here designed to transform an entire community.
Medrick Addison (MA): This is where we’re goin’ in in the back. This is where the dirty linen comes in this from all our customers. This is where it all starts at.
MA: That’s my man Cortez, good guy. Been knowin’ Cortez for a long time. Uh that’s my man Isaac. Good guy, dependable. Being an owner you do pretty much whatever is required, whatever and I mean whatever. So you know a lot of times I do a lot of things that you know the average person would be like, you’re a manager? You know so. I have no problem with it though. Whatever...whatever we have to do to make this company successful I’m up for doin’ it. You know so.
DB: My parents used to belong to like a cheese co-op you know back in the day and they contributed some of their hours and they got cheap cheese at the end. Co-ops have been around but what you’re doing is structurally quite different. It’s really what? Industrial size?
Ted Howard (TH): That’s exactly right. There...you know um as Americans we tend to think of a co-op as often a food co-op. That’s a thing we’re familiar with. It smells like patchouli and it’s kind of hippie. In fact over 120 million Americans belong to different kinds of co-ops. There are producer co-ops, there are consumer co-ops and then there’s another type called worker co-ops and that’s what we’re...
DB: And this is what you’re doing?
TH: ...that’s exactly right.
DB: Is there a chance that this is bigger than the three co-ops that you’re working on?
TH: First of all ... three co-ops employing 150, 200 people does not get at the heart of the problem. You have to reach a certain scale so the challenge is can we create a network of 75, 100 companies each of which are employing 50, 60, 70 people? Many cities have populations of people locked in the inner city who are locked in generational poverty, you know generation after generation. They simply can’t get out.
DB: The strategy here is to find a way to tap in to the big budgets of some of the major institutions in the city.
TH: The big three anchors in Cleveland, the clinic, university hospitals and Case Western, together purchase over $3 billion of goods and services. And very little of that currently is, is sourced locally. They’re the legacy of the manufacturing strength of Cleveland a few decades ago or 50 years ago. And they’re the kind of businesses, that don’t get up and move.
DB: The Coops are pressing these institutions to shift business towards them so the money turns in to local, inner city jobs.
TH: It’s, um, extremely heartening to see how these large institutions, which aren’t going anywhere have come to the realization that their fate is bound up in the fate of the community. That they’re not islands unto themselves. That if they’re going to grow and succeed in their own business model, the community needs to succeed as well. So they’ve been extremely forthcoming and, uh, supportive of this strategy.
DB: And what’s happening in Cleveland does not stay in Cleveland. It’s part of a national co-op movement. I stop in at a co-op conference here in Berkeley, California, where a couple of familiar guys take the podium.
MA: My name is Medrick Addison. I’m the Operations Manager of Evergreen Cooperative Laundry ... I have felt like a...a rock star. People wanted to take pictures with me. I’m like wow guys, girls, it’s just like wow they really want to talk to me but you know and all I do is spoke from the heart you know. I just told ‘em what we do and what we tryin’ to do.
Jeanette Monsalve (JM): Thank you so much.
Raquel Rodriguez (RR): Thanks again.
MA: All right ... This is my neighborhood, this is where I grew up at. This is where I grew up at. This is the building’ I grew up at. This is one of the neighborhoods that was really hit hard by the foreclosures and what not. You know you kinda feel cast aside, thrown away in a sense you know? And to have some positive like the Evergreen Initiative come about. It was like a God-send you know? It was you know it was just what the neighborhood needed you know. We can’t help everybody but we helping’ somebody you know?
DB: The laundry coop is the greenest commercial laundry in the state of Ohio and has figured out ways to cut way back on water use. But the big bet here is on jobs.
MA: The bet is you know um when Evergreen got started like uh we’re gonna fail because of who they hire you know and our bet is we’re gonna succeed because of who we hire you know? When you hire people that’s...this is their last chance of being you know having a productive future or really doing something for their children or their self, those people their backs are to the wall. So they know hey I can’t mess this up you know? And that’s what we betting on, you know, that’s what we’re betting on.
DB: What do you make of this model of worker ownership in...in...in...using a co-op?
DK: You know I think worker ownership is the wave of the future, various forms of co-ops which is about democratizing ownership and rooting it in community in ways that can also scale because you can do larger scale enterprises that require more capital but also still maintain the roots in the community.
DB: I get a chance to spend some time with some wonderful women from Austin, TX. Their new co-op is just getting off the ground. The four worker-owners are calling their business Yo Mamas Catering.
JM: I wanted to be a part Yo Mama’s because I’ve worked 9 to 5 jobs, and I’ve had my two kids and found that I just don’t um fulfill all their needs, but I have goals of something bigger for them.
DB: Yeah it’s perfect. Doesn’t need a thing.
Sylvia Barrios (SB): It’s perfect yeah?
SB: You’re from New Jersey, right?
DB: It’s true. My standards have been debased by my East Coast palate.
DB: The Yo Mamas are a group of women who are tired of low-wage jobs that were getting them and their families nowhere. Now they’re taking matters into their own hands.
RR: For me it’s like a dream like you know sustain ourselves, all this sustainability and you know good times and working with your friends you know.
JM: Yeah. I think we’re having a good time too. It’s not like...
DB: It looks like you are.
JM: ...it’s hard work but it’s also fun so. Yeah.
RR: When I was approached to be a part, again, of this larger movement, to work with Jeanette and Sylvia, I almost broke down in tears. This was like what I wanted as long as I can remember. I just feel like I’m part of this larger, social movement of people starting their own businesses that are local and considerate of, you know, the triple-bottom line, you know. You know, the business and the community and themselves and their workers.
DB: The Yo Mamas have been taking a class in Austin that teaches the ins and outs of this form of enterprise.
Carlos Perez de Alejo (CPD): CBI stands for the Cooperative Business Institute and it’s a 16-week long program in worker coop development. And it basically runs the gamut the basics of what is a worker cooperative, to the more technical side of things as far as to what it takes to own and manage your own worker-owned business.
CPD: Tonight we’re excited to share with all of y’all our first graduating class. And in fact um if you could help me welcome all the mamas up to the stage to join us.
DB: You think Yo Mama’s has a chance?
CAR: I do, definitely. (Inside) Let’s hear it one more time for everybody.
DB: The four worker owners may be laboring out of their own kitchens now, but the hope for the future is something bigger, maybe a commercial kitchen with a lot of customers.
JM: Going to the bank, we were hoping to find out about opening an account for our business. In hopes to um connect with a non-profit bank who gives back to the community.
Taylor: Have you done a business plan yet?
Taylor: Because it sounds like that’s what you’re actually putting together.
JM: That’s one of the things that we’re working on. Um that and...
RR: Well first...
JM: ...a feasibility study
RR: Yeah we’re doin’ a feasibility study.
JM: ...that’s what we’re actually in the middle of right now but I guess all of that’s gonna go towards the business plan.
RR: I envision that one day I’m walking up to a space and I’m going to unlock the door and I walk into our cooperative. We start our day and I see my friends that are my co-workers. We get to decide what’s on the menu, what the special is. Kids are welcome and that I can make my mom and my dad smile.
DB: I’m here in Austin, Texas. What about where I’m staying, how I’m getting around, where I eat? And as we look for a better economic future, here’s a question, maybe there are hints about the future, in the decisions that we make today. So, we’re going to think about how we can minimize the impact we’re actually having on the here and now.
DB: Hey, how are ya? This is my first time. How does it work? A buck?
Jessica Holmes (JH): We like to say we’re sort of the green K-Mart or the green Home Depot or that sort of thing. So, for example, people get really excited when we say we have organic t-shirts made in Texas. Even the cotton is grown organically here in Texas.
DB: One of the issues of course is sometimes not buying something is the most sustainable course. But if I actually do need a shirt, seems legit. I’m not positive... that’s my look.
JH: You’ve probably seen the t-shirts and bumper stickers that say “keep Austin weird.” That was sort of the original idea, um, behind, you know, keeping it local.
DB: When it gets to be nationwide or global it tends to be, what, a little more homogenous or something?
JH: More of the money stays here in our city. So that’s really what it’s all about. Rather than going to somebody who isn’t involved at all in this city. It stays here.
DB: Alright, we have a blazing hot day going on here in Austin. First of all we can get some lemonade from a locally owned trailer here in downtown Austin, But then we’ve got to get to a cooler place. So we’re going to do that with the Car2Go. The City of Austin partnered with the car company, Daimler, to spread lots of midget cars around for shared, short term use. Combine that with a good public transport system and presto – people don’t need to buy their own cars.
DB: Tripod’s not coming either. Anybody would like a tripod? If we’re trying to save energy here, why don’t we knock out the air conditioning. For a minute there I was starting to feel virtuous. We’ve got the Car2Go, it’s sustainable. And now as we try to get over to the cooling waters of Barton Springs in Austin, I’m feeling a little less virtuous. We’re now just part of the traffic problem on a hot summer day.
Man: Ice cold bottled water. $1.
DB: If we calculate economic growth the traditional way I should be going to the shopping mall, buying something, making the economy quote unquote “grow”. Coming to a natural wonder like Barton Springs and just paying the $3 entry fee. Not buying anything else, but just sort of celebrating nature, cooling off, enjoying the day, that’s not helping the economy. It’s too bad that economic measures don’t count for something like this. And the fact is, maybe they should.
DB: We have a problem. The way America measures prosperity right now, we tend to focus on one thing. And that’s the dollar value of the goods and services we produce. Known as GDP or gross domestic product, it’s the leading measure today of our economy and our prosperity. But some top economists, including two Nobel Prize winners, say that has gotta change. They say our well- being goes far beyond dollars only.
Let me take a trip to the grocery store to show you why. I’ll grab my bike and get going. At the store, I pick up some locally grown apples. All that cycling has me thirsty ... so I take a sip from the water bottle I filled up at home. Now, how beneficial has this trip of mine been for our economy? Let’s take a look. My travel to the grocery store was free because I used my bike. At the store, I spent two dollars on those locally grown apples. That water I drank was from my tap at home. The cost is negligible for the small amount So this trip to the store has added a total of $2 to our economy.
Now, let’s take that trip to the grocery store again. But this time, I’ll take my car and burn some gas. At the store I pick up some kiwis, imported all the way from New Zealand and get some bottled water. So how much has this trip to the grocery store helped the economy? Well, I spent, say a buck on gas. My kiwis cost $2, and so did the drink I bought at the store. So this trip to the store has added a total of five dollars to the economy. The way we measure things now, my car trip to the grocery store is much better for the economy than my frugal bike trip. But that ignores additional costs we seldom think about. When I took my fossil fuel burning car to the store, I added pollutants to the atmosphere. Those kiwis shipped all the way from New Zealand? Shipping means more pollutants. And what happened to the drink I bought at the drive thru? More garbage from the bottle, more pollution from its transportation.
And we haven’t even considered the sinister side of GDP. GDP would love to see my car spin out of control and hit a tree ... that would require an ambulance, a hospital visit, and car repairs ... all of which mean more money in GDP’s pocket.
By comparison my bike trip to the store was a good healthy workout and since I didn’t have to cruise around looking for parking when I got home, it left me with some extra time with my cat, Otis. So, now when we compare the two trips to the grocery store and we look just beyond the dollar sign, a different picture emerges.
This isn’t to say that the goods and services should be totally ignored. They’re crucial, but a better measure of how well we are doing might also consider things such as whether an activity harmed or benefited the environment, and how it affected the quality of our health and our communities. So to Fix the Future we may have fix what we measure, our indicators....so we can see if our economy is leading us where we want to go.
DB: My hunt for a better economy now parachutes me into, ready for this? Fargo. It’s a lot prettier in person than in the movie of the same name. The economy’s prettier, too. Unemployment in North Dakota was running at 3.7 percent, the lowest in these United States. Part of it is an oil boom to the west of the state and farmers have had a fine growing season. But I hear one reason for North Dakota’s financial success is its banks, which did not—like so many others- lose their collective minds during the last boom.
DB: Randy and Michelle Thompson are serious corn and soybean farmers. Today it’s a house call not from a doctor...but from a mild-mannered banker representing an odd, fascinating bank called Bremer.
DB: You know your customers.
Ron Mueller (RM): Well, in this particular area, um, it is a true relationship. And we know them, we, we go out and see them. We view their crops, look at their equipment. Um, on the business side we get to know their business very well.
DB: Banks are often nice to you in flush times. The real test comes during hard times like the summer of 2007 when hail tore through the Thompson’s fields.
Michelle Thompson (MT): We lost everything but two quarters.
Randy Thompson (RT): The, uh...
MT: Everybody around here.
RT: You can see a, a satellite picture of North Dakota, you can see the hailstorm right, right on the track that it took. And it came right down the middle of our farm. So it got pretty much everything.
DB: During the crisis, Ron the banker, didn’t hide under his desk and pretend to be out to lunch. He himself comes from a farming family, and within hours he was out at the Thompsons to reassure them.
MT: It will be all right, you know. It’s the way farming is. And because we’ve been farming long, long enough we knew that. But it still takes a while for it to sink in. There’s always next year.
RT: Yeah, that’s right.
RM: You go through adverse conditions and that’s when I think a bank is a bank is when they’re there to help people through that situation. Because they’ll bounce back. It, it’s one year and it’s very difficult. But, uh, uh, the Thompsons are here for the long run.
RT: Oh I can’t imagine working with a national bank. I don’t see how...there’s no way we could operate with one. It just, uh, they’d just be too out of touch to understand what’s going on.
VO: Local banking, local businesses, local jobs. What role does that leave for Wall Street in this effort to build a new economy?
DB: We’ve been through a really bad stretch and many of the assumptions that went into the way that financial markets worked in recent years have been shown to be flawed. But you still have faith that with changes it could be optimized?
Matthew Bishop (MB): Yeah I think the worst thing we could do would be to actually throw out capitalism and I think what we...the second worst thing we could do would be to actually fail to reform it. You know I think had it been run in the interest of long-term progress, long-term wealth creation, many of these problems like funding all sorts of mortgages that shouldn’t have been funded, those problems wouldn’t have occurred. And so the question, the challenge we face is how do we re-orientate capitalism and the financial markets to make them more long-term focused, not let’s put it back in a box.
DB: The subprime crisis, the foreclosure crisis is just about everywhere in the country. How has Bremer done during this crisis? This has brought down other banks.
RM: I think Bremer’s done well. I mean, um, they’ve been around for many years. Uh, they’re committed to these communities. They’re committed to making healthy communities.
DB: It’s by design. Bremer is a for-profit bank that tries to keep capital here in the region, first by lending locally. But there’s more: 92 percent of the bank is owned by Bremer’s own charity—which in turn gives the profits back to the community as grants. Here in Bremer’s Casselton branch, the profits fund a program to lend a hand to older residents.
Female: So, do you have something, an appointment coming up that you’re going to need transportation for?
DB: And there’s still more. While the charity owns most of the bank, the rest is owned by the bank’s own employees.
DB: You could probably find some depositors at Bremer from your Casselton branch and we could drive them up the road, you could point to these storage tanks for corn. And saying actually in a weird way it’s your money that partly made that possible.
RM: That’s exactly how it works. You know basically banking is somewhat as easy as buying and selling funds and so our depositors, which are local, we take that money and reinvest it right back in the form of loans.
DB: We just have a few minutes. You and I have to fix capitalism.
MB: I mean capitalism has driven progress and particularly financial markets have driven progress and wealth creation over the centuries. So, the problem we’re addressing is short-termism, and it’s really short-termism in the use of the savings of ordinary Americans. We’re going to address how we change our investment institutions so that they actually do properly work in our long-term interests. And I think if they did that, we would start to see the investment in jobs, the investment in communities.
DB: Four hours east of Fargo, there’s word of a slice of this mid-western banking story that I’m told I don’t want to miss. On my new economy odyssey I’ve been trying greener transportation.
DB: 3:10 a.m. in the morning. This is the way to take public transit, between Fargo and St. Paul Minnesota. One train every 24 hours ... wow, check this out.
DB: Here’s one emerging economic trend. The idea that you don’t just buy stuff, you actually buy experiences. We could have come from Fargo to St. Paul Minnesota by car on the interstate highway. It would not have been memorable.
DB: Some argue a better economy is a fair economy. Take a look at this: The fair in Minnesota is one of the very biggest state fairs in the country. And guess who’s here? Bremer Bank is the one bank with a full branch they set up just for this annual gathering. There are hundreds of Bremer customers scattered throughout the fair, including this one, an innovative cancer charity. What makes Bremer different from many other community banks that also work to keep money circulating within their regions is scale. 100 branches across three states ain’t cattle feed.
DB: Look at that guy asleep by the cow.
DB: Bremer’s innovative banking helps along the economy here, but is helping people out measured only in dollars and cents?
DB: Three of us please, does that work out?
DB: An increasingly popular alternative measure for measuring whether or not the economy is helping more and more people, why not measure happiness? A happiness indicator. On a day like today at the Minnesota State Fair you’ve got to believe the happiness indicator is going up within the fairgrounds. But what about nationwide? What do the figures tell us about happiness around the United States of America? How are you doing, you happy?
Male: I’m happy. We’re at the fair!
DK: It’s truly amazing, the changes we have to make if we’re going to have a human future are exactly the same changes we need to make to create the world that most people have dreamed of for millennia, which is an economy which brings prosperity to everyone. An economy that supports strong families, strong communities in a healthy, natural environment. And that’s exactly what’s being created in these local economies and it is the key. Not only to our survival, but also to our, quite literally, our physical mental health and happiness.
DB: And how do we make this happen across the US? For starters local businesses getting credit from bankers who know them; the model for Bremer and many other community banks.
DB: The good news is there are a bunch of good ideas about creating jobs out there coming right from our local communities, happening right now. But can these local, bottom-up solutions really change the architecture of our big, cranky economy? Or do the big financial institutions just swat them out of the way? That could put us back in the boom-and-bust roller coaster, hanging on for dear life.
Turns out there’s a clue right here in my cell phone. Your cell phone is a great example of something small and simple being scaled up into something remarkably powerful.When a buddy calls me, he’s first connected to a cell phone tower in Maplewood, NJ. Now, each cell phone tower is pretty weak at transmitting signals. In fact a typical suburban one might have a range of just a few miles. So, on their own, these cell phone towers can’t achieve much beyond the local phone call. But today there are tens of thousands of these little towers all over the country -- some disguised as lovely fake plastic trees. And when each of these small, local spheres of mobile phone signals doing its job, communicating with other towers, sharing and spreading information. Suddenly the network becomes very powerful. It’s the same with our economy.
Well-intentioned folks in our local communities may achieve just a bit on their own. But if their projects can spread through mutual awareness and connecting from one local project to another, then together they can grow into a powerful movement.
DB: The last stop on my road trip brings me back home to the place where I grew up--the state of Maine. Trust me, it’s not all fancy coastline and lobster. But an economic innovation is being tested here Portland that I want to know more about. It involves a bank but not the kind with money. It’s a time bank known as Hour Exchange Portland, where people swap services and build community. I start by making a deposit, an hour of my own skills as a handyman.
Rob Ellis (RE): We’re doing some basic weatherization down here. You can see all these cobwebs. Cobwebs are a great way to see that there is some major air flow going on down here, because that’s how the food comes in down here in the basement. If it’s bugs...
DB: So if this is well sealed and well insulated, the spiders wouldn’t waste their time.
DB: So we’re on this quest to fix the economy of the future.
RE: Fix the economy.
DB: Not just dig ourselves out of the hole.
RE: Alright. Alright.
DB: But maybe do better.
DB: Maybe make the economy serve more people.
DB: You think there are ways we can do better on the economy?
RE: Yeah, certainly. I think one of the problems, or I guess kind of taking a step back, one of the problems would be putting people to work. I think that’s a big problem with the economy and what’s going on. With alternative currency, with time banking, what that is, is that is putting people out, coming out here to do this type of work, help a neighbor, meet...it’s a whole networking of it. Um, but it’s not using cash.
DB: I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV.
DB: Portland Hour Exchange was started by a real Maine doctor, Richard Rockefeller. He’s from that Rockefeller family noted for its success in the traditional dollar economy. And yet he believed that fixing his community in Portland would make more than dollars.
Richard Rockefeller (RR): In time banking, a member provides a service to another member and it’s a lot like volunteering, but in return, they earn one time dollar, which is not a piece of paper. People write it down, but eventually they enter it into a computer program and the time dollar they earn, they can then spend on the service of another member who’s in the whole time banking system.
DB: And the time dollar is an hour?
RR: A time dollar is an hour. So an hour earns you a time dollar, no matter what the service, so that right away is a radical departure from the formal economy where different services are worth different things depending on scarcity and supply and demand. In this case, in a community, everybody’s time is equal, so economists, for that reason often find this completely foolhardy and incomprehensible and fortunately so does the IRS because that is considered a noncommercial transaction and therefore nontaxable.
DB: Jennifer Lunden is the nice lady with that basement that needed weatherizing.
Jennifer Lunden (JL): This is what I love about the hour exchange. Um, first of all you get to do things that you really love to do. In my case what I’m doing now a lot more is I’m a therapist, and, um, it’s a way that I’m able to offer therapy to people who’s, um, insurance has run out or who are uninsured.
DB: You bump into a lot of those people?
JL: Well, it seems like it happens, it happens more often than I would like.
JL: I have an option they can, they can join the time banks. And earn time credits and pay me with that. And for me that works out great because my doctor takes time credit from me.
DB: That’s incredible.
JL: And he’s an exceptionally good doctor. He’s the doctor I’d want to see if I had money to pay or if I, if he took my insurance. He’s the doctor that I would see.
DB: Are you connecting with other people, you meeting other people through this?
JL: This is like, um, the new kind of community. So in this country we’ve lost a lot of the sense of community and people are so focused on just surviving economically or, um, doing better than their neighbors economically, we’re so focused on stuff that we completely lost our sense of community. And Hour Exchange is a way that I have a built in community. There are about 600 members that I can go to and ask for help.
DB: Alright, economic indicators for Portland Maine, we could use unemployment, we could use bankruptcies. How about the number of hours swapped in these friendly favors that are being recorded at the Portland Hour Exchange? The number for the first seven and on-half months of this year is 6,300 of these hours. That works out to be 27 of these hours, these favors, these swaps, every day.
DB: One dividend of the time invested traveling on this economic adventure has been the chance to reflect, to put it all altogether. As the journey draws to a close, the lesson for me is that we Americans are an enterprising lot. In tough economic times folks are experimenting with new ways to create jobs from the bottom up and new ways to organize businesses. There’s a common element in all these efforts: they’re building on local relationships. A stronger economy for all us can turn on whether we can forge these person-to-person, community-based relationships into something bigger...to support livelihoods during our working years and beyond. Yes ‘beyond’ Can we also apply this new thinking to create a new direction in retiring? Living locally? investing locally?
Jane D'Arista (JDA): The pain. The pain is jobs. That’s first. Housing second. But retirement, that is another very serious pain for most people.
DB: Can the wider economy learn lessons from something like a cooperative credit union or a time bank in Portland, Maine? Or an effort in Washington State to nurture local business relationships instead of global ones?
JDA: Yes and I think it is increasingly important in terms of our savings. What we need to do also is have cooperative arrangements that have to do with 401k’s.
DB: Our retirement.
JDA: Oh our retirement because look what happened to it. Can we trust these guys?
DB: I’m so glad we’re talking because you’re saying, you want to talk about the economy of the future? You’re going to have to think about retirement. And maybe the retirement system could learn from some of these projects...
DB: ...we’ve seen around the country.
JDA: Exactly, yep. If you were to organize 401k’s at a local level and everybody was putting their money into it, that that would be another way of getting at the issue that you are approaching in this film. They will know what’s going on in their local areas. They know what the businesses are, how to invest. And it will bring people into the decision making process about their money, what they want to do with it, how they want it to be used in the larger sense.
DB: I contributed my hour to the Portland exchange. Now it’s my time to debit my account, as my Fixing the Future explorations comes to a close. What I get is a sailing lesson from Exchange member Steve Beckett, a physical therapist and a sailor.
Stephen Beckett (SB): Yeah
DB: I’ve got to say that sharing hours doesn’t feel like much of a sacrifice right now. You know I go into a nice person’s basement, I squirt in a little bit of, um, expandable insulation. I put up a little weather stripping and then I get to come out on the water with you.
DB: In a sense it’s an example that with more community doesn’t mean material sacrifices necessarily.
SB: One of the principles of service exchange is that everyone, everyone has things they can share. I think that we have been exchanging skills as long as we’ve been aware that we were even on the planet.
DB: Can you make it bigger? Can you make it wider to the point that maybe you can start to change the economy.
SB: We just have this arbitrary economic system that we all have, you know, grown up in and believe in and contribute to and work in. Uh, if it’s not working anymore, then let’s do something different. I think the seeds already are planted and sprouted and well on their way. Go, make it fast. Give it a pull on there.
DB: Like that.
SB: People are in distress all over for many, many reasons on many different fronts. People are wondering, how are we, how are we going to get by? How are we going to live? How are we going to get by when we’re 80? You know, what are we going to do for healthcare? What are we going to do for transportation? How are we going to stay warm in the winter? How are we going to meet all, all of the basic human needs that we all have.
DB: You would argue that some of the answer to that is in community.
DB: Is in hooking up people.
SB: It always has been. It always has been. Community is more like something that we’re remembering than something that we’re creating all over again. Let’s turn and go back into the wind.
DB: Let’s do that.
DB: Continue the voyage of discovery about Fixing The Future online.
Connect to NOW: Are there groups creating local, sustainable jobs where you live? Check out our interactive map to find out and add your own suggestions. Meet local pioneers who are standing up and bringing about change in their own communities. Learn what experts are saying about the big picture future of the American economy. And read David Brancaccio’s journal about the ups and downs of traveling sustainably across America for Fixing the Future. It’s all at pbs.org
DB: And that is our road trip to look at possible futures for the economy. I’m David Brancaccio. Thanks for coming along.
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