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Week of 6.15.07

Q & A: William Greider

Journalist William Greider, who appears in "The Unforeseen," talks to NOW about alternatives to urban sprawl.

NOW: In "The Unforeseen" we witness the struggle between property developers and environmentalists. How can these two groups—each wanting land for different purposes—realistically reconcile their differences?

William Greider William Greider (WG): When economists count up all the transactions that make up Gross Domestic Product, they cannot distinguish between a train wreck that destroys and a factory that produces new goods. It's all the same in the accounting. Nor can economists get to the true value of what's produced by measuring the collateral costs. A factory that dumps poison in the river and kills fish, ecosystems and maybe people is just as efficient as one that eliminates toxic pollution.

NOW: In the film you say: "They [economists] are counting any economic activity that involves money changing hands as a positive for our society. We all know in our everyday common sense lives that that can't be true." What do you mean by this?

WG: The economics of business and development as presently defined actually encourages the wasteful and destructive practices. It measures the costs and value between the buyer and seller—homeowner and builder—but ignores the future costs that society will pay. There's no price put on that. Responsible developers who plan for the future and address these issues are actually put at a disadvantage.

NOW: To understand this further, you make the point in the film that accounting itself has to change if our relationship with the land and our relationship with the future is to improve. In what way should we change the way we account for the costs of human decisions?

WG: Who speaks for the future generations in these transactions? The so-called science of economics has to be reformed profoundly to make that possible. But so must law and government. Citizens of all types, as the film demonstrates, can mobilize and force their way into the political process. Sometimes they even win. But why are citizens always cast as the underdogs? Shouldn't the political system start with certain presumptions about what matters to society and a rock-solid commitment to defend those values? I believe this is possible to achieve, though not without hard political struggles. The public's aspirations for balance and prudent decisions are strong and clear. The status quo in politics has to catch up with the people.

NOW: Do you blame property developers for wanting to buy up land, develop it, and maximize their profit? Isn't that what their profession requires?

WG: As I observe in the film, I have always liked developers as a type. They build stuff, they take risks, they are creative characters in most cases. Yes, some are "greedheads" who simply want to get rich. Others will do the right thing if the rules are clear and enforced.

NOW: What role do consumers, home buyers, play in all of this? Can we all be held responsible for wanting "too much"? People do need affordable, pleasant places to live after all.

WG: The consumers are always implicated in the destructive outcomes, whether they are buying homes or cars. But the usual business excuse—we are merely giving people what they want—is a dodge. In most cases, consumers don't have much option. They buy what they can afford and have no influence over the production methods or content of the product. There are ways, however, to give consumers more influence and to penalize them for the waste excesses. How about a tax on home builders who ignore the anti-social consequences? The cost would go into home prices and discourage the destruction.

NOW: In your book "The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to A Moral Economy," you talk about how ordinary people can change American society to achieve a more "healthy, balanced, and humane future." What are you advising?

WG: My book on reforming American business and finance is an optimistic account of how citizens of every stripe are attempting to change capitalism in promising ways. They win some, they lose some, but progress is visible. If government were more active in reform, the process would move faster. But people are not waiting on the politicians.

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