"Justice is What Love Looks Like in Public"

Never forget that ‘justice’ is what love looks like in public.”   Cornell West

 

These are perilous times.  I, like many of you, have spent much of my life “trying to make the world a better place”, and as such, it is very hard not to feel like a complete failure (This is not a plea for sympathy or a solicitation for ego-boosting support – just a fact of life these days).  Donald Trump’s extreme narcissism, self-aggrandizement and complete disregard for the truth have not only put our nation and the world at grave risk; his unique compilation of sociopathic traits has made him almost impervious to those who would hold him to account. 

 

Of late, Trump has ramped up his very public demonization of Democrats, liberals and media figures trying to hold his feet to the fire.  Building on a narrative that has been growing within both conservative Christian circles and extreme right media and websites for some years now, he regularly attacks those who challenge him as traitors, spies, savages, anti-religious, anti-American and more.  Most recently, he charged that the impeachment inquiry is a “…coup intended to take away the power of the people, their vote, their freedoms, their Second Amendment, religion, military, border wall and their God-given rights as a citizen of the United States of America!”   

 

In other words, we Democrats – or progressives, or those fighting for social and economic justice, etc – are enemies, not just of Trump, but of America, of everyday people, including our neighbors.  All the more so for those of us who are not white.  Trump increasingly incites violence, and he may well succeed.

 

I have no brilliant ideas about what to do or how to break through such a cascade of lies and tidal wave of hatred.  But I do know this:  Our world view, our ethics and our everyday work is founded in love, and in the pursuit of a more just, fair and sustainable world, not just for our family, friends and allies, but for our neighbors near and far, including those who vilify us.  Because we know that justice is the public expression of love.

 

As we work and support efforts to hold Donald Trump and his rapacious administration to account, let’s stay focused on at least these two things:  First, the local and state elections now less than five weeks away, elections that will help determine if we begin to move our communities, state and nation towards a new economic and political path, based on love, empathy and justice.  That’s a very long-term challenge, but each election either moves us closer to or further from that goal.

Second, let’s fully use the opportunities we hold every day to work towards a better world, not just as individuals, but through collective action to make our communities better, healthier, more resilient, and yes, more loving.  We may shake our heads about the loyalty towards Trump, no matter what he does; we may be incredulous about the right wing media’s complete inversion of the truth.  But we can’t deny that millions of our fellow citizens are angry for real reasons.  The only path I see forward is a relentless commitment to empathy, truth and community.  Hang in there, friends and please redouble your work for justice.

Losing Productive Farm Land in the US

Between 1992 and 2012, over 30 million acres of productive agricultural land in the US was paved over by suburban sprawl and other so-called ‘development’.  Thirty million acres, including 11 million of prime farmland!  That extraordinary figure comes from a study done by the American Farmland Trust and is the starting point for this outstanding article by Catherine Tumber, “Land Without Bread:  The Green New Deal Forsakes America’s Countryside”

https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/09/16/land-without-bread-green-new-deal-forsakes-americas-countryside

 

As one who has been working on developing a Green New Deal in Virginia, I’m grateful for this critique and critical reminder.  I’ll only add that we’ll continue to lose productive farm, ranch and forest land at an alarming rate, so long as:

·      Farmers face extremely low prices, making farming in many places unprofitable (and selling farm land a no-brainer)

·      Corporate consolidation continues in meat production and processing, seeds and fertilizers, dairy and other farm sectors, raising farmers’ input costs while cutting the prices they receive for their products

·      We continue to avoid the historic and still-prevalent racism in agricultural lending and services which has contributed to the loss of between 80% and 90% of Black-owned farmland over the past century

·      Elected leaders and economic developers continue to look at farmland, pastures and woodlands as “undeveloped”, awaiting a strip mall, shopping complex or industrial building

·      Those of us active in the local foods movement, whether as producers or consumers, don’t also get involved in politics, policy and the public debate.

Coal miners fight for justice

Three events in the span of just over a month show just how deep and long the struggle for justice has been in the Appalachian Coalfields.  In the last week of July, I attended the 30th anniversary of the Pittston Coal strike, with hundreds of UMWA miners and a handful of politicians (including Starla Kiser, candidate for Virginia’s 4th House District) gathering at the Russell County Fairgrounds in Castlewood.  Having been very involved in the strike back in 1989 and 1990, it was great to recall that very difficult but ultimately successful strike, which won back essential pension and health care benefits the miners had been promised.

 

A couple of weeks before the Castlewood gathering, several busloads of miners traveled to DC to make the case for restoring funding to the Black Lung Trust Fund, funding which dropped by more than half at the end of 2018, due to the inaction of Congress.  Bethel Brock, a Wise County miner and a leader in the black lung fight, told me of about the frustration they all felt when Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell spent less than a minute with the coalfields contingent, abruptly leaving the meeting after assuring them they’d be taken care of.  With the Trust Fund dwindling every day, this assurance seemed hollow.

 

And in Harlan County, Kentucky, miners for Black Jewell took to the railroad tracks at the end of July, blocking a coal train and insisting that they won’t move until bounced paychecks and back pay are taken care of.  This all started when Black Jewell declared bankruptcy and let go 1700 miners – from Kentucky and southwest Virginia – in the middle of a shift, without warning. 

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/19/us/kentucky-coal-miners.html

 

I recall a very similar thing in the mid 1990’s when the Louisiana Pacific Plant in Dungannon closed with no notice, sending workers home who had just arrived for the morning shift.  And much more recently, Bristol Compressors suddenly closed its doors in the summer of 2018, leaving several hundred workers without a job, while reneging on severance pay.  These kinds of calamities are all too common, not just in our region but across the US.  They won’t stop happening until we level the playing field for workers, reduce the obstacles to forming a union, and begin enforcing anti-trust laws and other measures to reverse the concentration of corporate power in our nation.

Guns, Violence and Us

The US Constitution and the Bill of Rights lay out fundamental rights guaranteed to all people in our nation, from free speech and the free exercise of religious beliefs to freedom to assemble and the right to bear arms.  None of these rights, however, are absolute or unconditional.  They can’t be, because any one right must be tempered or constrained by the boundaries other rights create.  The right to assemble does not mean that five hundred people can gather on your front lawn, because it’s your property and you get to choose who comes and goes.  The right to free speech does not include shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, causing a stampede, or knowingly making false accusations against another person publicly.  The freedom of religion does not enable Muslims in Dearborn to mandate fasting for the community until sundown, or Pentecostals in Tennessee to write the dress codes for girls attending public schools.

 

Rights come with responsibilities, one of which is to understand and respect the necessary limits imposed by other rights.

 

And yes, this applies to the Second Amendment.  Or at least it is supposed to.  Increasingly it’s clear that for many people, the Second Amendment trumps all others, becoming an absolute and unconditional right; one that can’t be limited in any way.  Putting aside the very important question of whether or not the framers intended it to be an individual right – it speaks of a “well regulated militia” after all – gun ownership is now, for many on the political right, the very essence of freedom.  But that’s a relatively recent development.

 

As Steven Rosenfeld points out in “The NRA Once Supported Gun Control” https://www.salon.com/2013/01/14/the_nra_once_supported_gun_control/, for most of the organization’s nearly 140 year history, sensible gun control legislation was not only tolerated, but encouraged by the National Rifle Association.  This included help in crafting and passing both state and federal gun control laws, from FDR’s time through the early 1970s. 

 

Things changed with new NRA leadership beginning in 1976, when it began to make the case that the Second Amendment was an absolute right and therefore, any efforts to limit guns, gun sales, gun capacity or gun ownership were unconstitutional.  Before too long we arrived at where we are today, with guns as symbols of freedom, as an essential bulwark against government tyranny.  Where any and every firearm limit – armor-piercing bullets, short waiting periods, bump stocks and assault-style weapons, ‘Red flag’ laws to remove guns from an abuser -  every single one is fought as an existential battle.

 

Something else happened from the late seventies to the present day:  An extreme right wing emerged in our politics and culture, distorting history, rewriting the role of citizens, deifying the market, attacking immigrants, the poor, African Americans and many other ‘others’, and taking the long-standing American belief in individualism to its logical, and utterly anti-social conclusion.  This is how we got to Stand Your Ground laws; to protecting domestic abusers; to a white nationalist, neo-Nazi movement that is both growing and increasingly lethal; to on-line embrace of the darkest and most cynical conspiracy theories; to real world taunting, harassing and threatening of the victims of gun violence, including many of the parents of the Newtown kids; to the absurd argument that only good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns.


And to where the right to assemble is undermined by the fear of mass shootings.


 We urgently need to pass universal background checks, a national red flag law, and limits on gun size and magazine capacity.  All of those things will save lives, with minimal inconvenience for gun owners like myself.  But we also need a ‘political revolution’, to quote Bernie Sanders, one that begins the long and difficult challenge of reinvigorating our economies and communities, of restoring citizenship, and perhaps for the first time, building a society based on empathy and love.  It’s an absurd proposition, given both our history and the present moment.  But what other options do we have?

Can We Shop Our Way to a Better World?

Over the years, I’ve noticed two distinct groups of people among my friends and allies:  “Activists”, people who strive to change policy, who organize campaigns and protests, who get involved in elections; and “localists”, folks who focus on what they do in their own households and communities, often including efforts to build better local economies and food systems.   One of the things that differentiates these groups is the question of how we shop and how we eat.  Localists tend to see that as a very important issue, both morally and practically.  Activists tend to downplay the significance of shopping choices in building a better world, or just as often, simply don’t think about it.

 

I know many folks who defy these categories, people who are both politically engaged yet very conscious of what they do in their local economies and how their shopping impacts the world.  And I love you guys!  But unfortunately, you’re the exception to the rule.  In my experience, most localists avoid (or even abhor) politics and social change work, while most activists minimize or ignore the importance of our shopping habits.

 

Briefly then, here are five things I hope you’ll consider:

 

1.     Localism works, helping to support and build better food systems and more diverse local economies.  But it’s not enough, as we surely can see from our present state of politics and public discourse.  It hasn’t “added up” to a more just and democratic world.

2.     Activism, for social change, for justice and workers, for the environment is critically important, now more than ever.  But…

3.     While activism tends to happen in spurts, in campaigns, we eat – and for most of us, shop – every day.  We participate in the marketplace almost constantly and most of what we earn pays for the goods and services other people/companies produce.

4.     How we participate in the marketplace, what, where and how we shop is about more than just fulfilling needs or meeting preferences.  It is our investment.  When we buy from Amazon, we are investing in one of the largest, most powerful and dominant corporations on the planet.  Only slightly less so for Walmart, Tyson, CVS and others.

5.     If we want our localism to add up to a better world, we need to get engaged in the social and political world, to move our elected representatives and policies to support the healthier, more resilient communities we’re working to build.  If we want our activism to have impact, we need our shopping habits to embody and support the policies we’d like to see.  It’s utterly counterproductive to protest Monsanto and call for challenging monopoly power in the US while buying from – investing in - Amazon or the corporate food system we so dislike.

 

Changing habits isn’t easy, and there’s no doubt that shopping locally, responsibly is both more challenging and more expensive in many of our communities.  But for a lot of us, local farmers markets are a great place to start.  And don’t just go there for a couple of items.  Go there to shop, to buy as many of your groceries as you can.  And while you’re in town, visit and support other local businesses.  Let’s invest much more in our neighbors, much less in corporate giants.

The Three Epic Lies that Put Corporate Giants on Top

There’s little doubt that the biggest corporations are on the top, with extraordinary economic and political power in the United States.  Levels of corporate concentration in everything from the meat industry to the media are at unprecedented levels; corporate CEOs routinely make two hundred, three hundred times more than their rank and file employees; and the political clout they wield through lobbyists and political donations ensures, as Marten Gilens has shown, that their priorities carry far more weight with elected officials than what the majority of American citizens desire.

Though many people aren’t happy about the current level of corporate dominance, we tend to see it as just a side effect of a global economy that rewards the most innovative and efficient businesses.  But it is much more than that.  

 

The truth is that Three Epic Lies, concocted at different times over the past century and a half, have paved the way for this corporate aristocracy we are now living with.  In different ways, they’ve been codified in law or risen to become the conventional wisdom, dominating how institutions, academics, politicians and the courts view the limits and responsibilities of corporations in our nation.

 

Three huge, Epic Lies, each one of profound importance; taken together they’ve made corporate control of our economy and politics almost inevitable.  So, let’s take a look, starting with a Supreme Court Clerk more than a hundred years ago.

 

In 1881, Leland Stanford was ticked off.  California had just passed a tax on property owned by railroad lines and Stanford wasn’t going to let his company, Southern Pacific Railway, pay any more than they had to without a fight.  So, he pushed the claim that the new tax was discriminatory because his giant corporation was protected by the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, enacted in 1868 to establish the personhood of African Americans.  This case came to be known as Santa Clara County v Southern Pacific Rail Line (UCLA law professor Adam Winkler details this history in a March 5th, 2018 piece in The Atlantic).

 

Stanford had friends in high places, including Supreme Court Justice Stephen J Field.  In the Santa Clara decision, notes from the Justices’ deliberations show that the high court declined to rule whether or not corporations should be granted ‘personhood’, enraging Justice Field.  But no matter.  The Court Clerk, JC Bancroft Davis – himself a former Rail Line company president! – wrote in his summary that the Court had decided that “corporations are persons… within the 14th Amendment.”  They’d done no such thing, but this was how the decision was characterized.  By the court clerk.

 

A few years later in a separate case, Justice Field stated that corporations are persons, saying that “It was so held in Santa Clara v Southern Pacific Rail Line”.  The Court’s clerk had said this, not the Justices; Field knew it, but he ‘cited’ the decision regardless.  And courts have been doing so ever since then, building on the logic of “corporate personhood” all the way to the culminating case of Citizens United in 2010.  A wealth of legal precedent at the highest level, all founded on a lie.  That’s the first Big Lie.

 

About four decades later, the second Big Lie was born, arising out of the Michigan Supreme Court’s settling of a dispute between Henry Ford and the Dodge brothers. The latter were shareholders in Ford Motor Company.  When they decided to start their own car company, Ford attempted to withhold paying their dividends, as he didn’t want to help capitalize a competitor.  Ford Motor Company, which was not publicly traded at that time, argued that they needed the money to lower prices to consumers and pay better wages to their employees (In truth, they had plenty of money for both).

 

The Michigan Supreme Court sided with Horace and John Dodge, ordering Ford to pay the dividends owed.  The court’s official opinion – the “holding” – was quite limited in scope.  But in a tangential comment they opined that “…a business corporation is organized and carried on primarily for the profit of the stockholders.  The powers of the directors are to be employed for that end.”  Tangential observations such as this – mere dicta, they’re called – are neither a necessary part of the court’s ruling, nor are they legal precedent, as Lynn Stout makes clear in her remarkable book, The Shareholder Value Myth.  They are musings, a sidebar.  Nowadays we might call it a rant.

 

But guess what?  That’s exactly what this sidebar observation from 100 years ago has become:  The foundation for the widely held view that publicly owned corporations have the legal duty to maximize returns to shareholders, trumping all other considerations, from employee well-being to environmental stewardship.  In fact as Stout observes, “There is no solid legal support for the claim that directors and executives in US public corporations have an enforceable legal duty to maximize shareholder wealth.  The idea is fable.”  And it’s the second Big Lie.

 

Giving corporations the rights of people has helped corrupt our politics, making a mockery of “one person, one vote” and enabling similar legal absurdities, such as equating unlimited expenditure of money with unlimited free speech.  Insisting that corporations are legally bound to maximize profits – short term profits, no less – above all else has further concentrated wealth and power among a tiny group of investors and CEOs.  And it has helped create an economy of collateral damage, to people, communities and the land.

 

But wait, there’s more.  One more Big Lie that has greased the skids for corporate dominance of our economy and politics.  This one started in the 1960’s, coming to fruition in the 1980’s, the result of the relentless drive of Supreme Court wannabe, Robert Bork.  This third Big Lie has pulled the rug out from under anti-trust laws and their enforcement, enabling seemingly endless merger mania and corporate concentration in nearly every sector of our economy.

 

The Sherman Act of 1890 was the first significant piece of federal legislation to tackle monopolies.  Named for Senator John Sherman, the law sought to stem the growing power of Standard Oil Company and other huge “trusts” of that era.  It took some time before the federal government began to implement the law, but by the early years of the 20th Century, enforcement led to the break-up of behemoths like Standard Oil, and the preclusion of corporate concentration through mergers and buyouts.  This was the norm for the ensuing 70 years, where a consensus held that monopolies were bad for the economy and dangerous for our democracy.

As Tim Wu describes in The Curse of Bigness, Bork set out to re-write history, beginning with his 1966 article, “Legislative Intent and the Policy of the Sherman Act”. In this piece, and his arguments over the next two decades, Bork declared that the original intent of the Sherman Act was simply to protect “consumer welfare” and nothing more.  In other words, mergers could be stopped only when it was determined that prices to consumers would likely rise.  Bork made the case that this is what Senator Sherman and Congress had intended.  But as Wu makes clear, nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, Sherman had spoken of the “inequality of condition, of wealth, and opportunity” that arose from monopolies, stating further they created “a kingly prerogative, inconsistent with our form of government”. 

Undaunted by history and truth, Bork pushed on, moving his simplistic argument from the margins of the debate to the Supreme Court, which cited Bork in a 1979 decision declaring that “consumer welfare” was to be the standard by which corporate concentration should be judged.  Over time, this new – and false – understanding of Congress’ original intent became the accepted measure by which mergers and monopolies would be judged. Stop them if they will likely raise prices, otherwise there’s nothing the government can do.   The third, very Big Lie had prevailed.

The corporate takeover of the US economy and, to a large degree, American politics was not inevitable.  Neither was the notion that corporations, which are granted a public charter, after all, are legally obligated to maximize shareholder wealth, subordinating any and all responsibility to the public.  We are where we are, rather, because of Three Big Lies that have enabled the extreme concentration of economic and political power that is our status quo.  Let’s name those lies – that corporations are people, that their sole purpose is to enrich their shareholders, and that we can’t stop them from getting bigger unless they’ll raise prices – for what they are: false, absurd and un-American. Let’s unravel the misleading claims that gave rise to them, and then let’s fight like hell to take them down and begin to restore our economy and our democracy.

 

 

 

 

Krugman's Rural Despair Misses the Mark

I have a great deal of respect for Paul Krugman, but his March 18th New York Times piece, “Getting Real About Rural America” badly missed the mark. Like fellow Times analyst, Eduardo Porter, Krugman begins with the premise that “nobody knows how to fix rural America.”  In point of fact, a consensus has begun to emerge about a range of strategies that work in rural communities, based on economic revitalization success stories from the Midwest to Central Appalachia, where I live.  And we don’t just know what works; it’s also increasingly clear what doesn’t, including specific policies and strategies that are crushing the people and the economies of the countryside.  Here then are four challenges to Mr Krugman and the many other analysts wondering aloud what the heck is wrong with us folks in the boonies.

First, while the economic and social problems of rural America are indeed real, they’ve become the default narrative for city-dwelling commentators and experts, overshadowing tangible progress and effective solutions.  In Appalachia for instance, the poverty rate has been cut in half since the launch of Great Society programs in the early 1960’s, and the number of “distressed” counties has dropped from 295 to about 90 (Appalachian Regional Commission).  This improvement, even as three out of every four coal jobs have been lost.  Nationwide, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service, rural unemployment rates dropped from 10.3% in 2010 to 4.4% in 2017, during which time 650,000 net new jobs were created.  And while too many young people continue to leave, 2017 actually saw a net increase in population for rural counties.  Broadly speaking then, things are getting better across many parts of rural America, albeit much too slowly and sporadically. 

Second, things are getting better in large part because, well, some people do know how to fix things in rural areas.  Like Brandon Dennison in southern West Virginia, whose Coalfield Development Corporation is successfully putting miners and others back to work with comprehensive, hands-on training in solar installation, deconstruction and sustainable farming. Or Bren Smith, whose ecologically restorative vertical ocean farming system is being adopted by fisherman along the east coast.  Or the folks at We Own It, whose work to reform and open up the leadership of Rural Electric Cooperatives has begun to redeploy some of the $3 trillion in assets REC’s hold to better serve their members and communities. Or the innovators at Windustry, who for more than a decade have been helping farmers, public schools and rural communities increase their stake in community wind power, part of the larger wind industry on course to pay nearly a billion dollars annually to rural landowners by 2030 (Presidential Climate Action Program).   

Brandon, Bren and hundreds of others like them, are catalyzing new and better approaches to local economic development in rural communities across the US, usually with meager outside investment from the public or private sector.  Jobs are being created.  Local wealth is being developed.  Ecosystems are being reimagined as community assets, rather than a source from which to extract and export wealth.

Third, as bottom up strategies emerge and mature across rural America, they frequently must confront a lack of sustained investment along with contemptibly bad federal policies that restrain or undermine them.  The sense one gets from reading Krugman’s piece is that, like the former East Germany, extraordinary sums of money have been spent in rural communities with little to show in return.  The reality however is very different.  An analysis by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation revealed that between 1994 and 2001, the feds actually spent between two and five times more, per person, on community and economic development in urban versus rural areas, a disparity that has changed little to the present day.  And it’s no better in private philanthropy, where a 2011 Economic Research Service report showed that rural communities garnered less than six percent of foundation grants, even though one fifth of the population lives there.  Bottom line: There are plenty of effective initiatives in rural communities, but a paucity of capital to support them.

It’s not just a lack of direct investment in rural areas.  Even more destructive are long standing trends in federal policy that promote wealth extraction, economic concentration and undermining of the local economic base.  In an outstanding article in Washington Monthly, Claire Kelloway describes how extreme levels of market consolidation have resulted from the lack of anti-trust enforcement and the weakening of laws to combat monopolies.  This of course is an enormous problem for the country as a whole, but in rural regions, it is destroying farmers and sucking the life out of small towns. As Kelloway points out, “Farmers are caught between monopolized sellers and buyers.  They must pay ever higher prices to the giants who dominate the market for the supplies they need, like seed and fertilizer.  At the same time, they must accept ever lower prices from the giant agribusiness that buy the stuff they sell, like crops and livestock.” 

When three companies control well over half of the global seed market, and four enormous packers account for 85% of the meat that comes to US markets (USDA), farmers are like serfs, with falling incomes and astronomical debts.  And it isn’t just food monopolies.  Thousands of community banks – the engine of lending in rural communities – have closed or been bought up by regional megabanks, further eroding the base of local capital.  The obeisance of elected officials and the courts to monopolists, the enormous subsidies expended to lure huge, cash-rich corporations to small towns, and the accelerating privatization of public spaces, lands and functions ensure that building strong, self-reliant rural economies is a rare and heroic task.

My fourth and last challenge is simply this: That Mr Krugman broaden his sources and stop relying on assessments from people who neither live in nor understand rural America.  Talk to the folks at the Center for Rural Affairs or the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, or the practitioners at Coastal Enterprises, the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development or the Federation of Rural Cooperatives.  Or me.  What you’ll quickly learn is that rural America is neither a monolith nor a region ‘left behind’ by the dynamic folks in the big cities.  Rather, it’s the place from where most of the food, fiber and energy upon which we all depend originates.  And it is home to hundreds of innovators, problem solvers and entrepreneurs who do know how to make things better.  They just need real investment, and an end to wealth extraction facilitated by federal policy and an endless stream of bad advice.


Read it here on the Stansbury Forum.

The Green New Deal – A Compelling Idea that Challenges Both Parties

For the past two months, I’ve been one of several people across the state working to flesh out what a Green New Deal might look like in the Commonwealth.  By early April, we should be ready to begin sharing our vision and ideas for a GND, and soliciting your thoughts, hopes and concerns.  I’ll talk more about this in our March newsletter, but If you think there might be interest in your community, please let me know.

Whether at the state or national level, a Green New Deal could take a number of different forms, with various policies and strategies for implementation.  Whatever those come to be, one element is essential:  It must be ambitious, both in scope and urgency.  Why?  First, because the economic model we’ve used for the past 40 years isn’t working for the majority of Americans, even more so for young people, rural communities and people of color.  Our low unemployment rates mask a whole range of very serious problems, from low and still-stagnant wages, to extraordinarily high student debt, from staggering levels of inequality to infrastructure decay and deficits (especially in rural places).  We should, and we can build an economy that works for everyday people.  That shouldn’t be a radical idea.

Of equal urgency is the rapidly growing problem of climate change, increasingly impacting coastal cities, fisherman, farmers, and vulnerable communities across Virginia and the nation. From the International Panel on Climate Change to our own federal agencies, the most knowledgeable scientists are sounding the alarm bells.  More accurately, they’ve been sounding the alarm bells, for a good twenty years.  The ‘worst case’ models they’ve been putting forward are looking increasingly likely.  So, it’s essential that we start taking  truly serious action, both to reduce the rate of change and to prepare for it.

A Green New Deal is not the only thing we could do to address emissions and climate change.  And it’s not the only strategy for creating better jobs, more widely shared prosperity and a people-centered economy.  But it is the only approach I know of that does both.   For 40 years, most Americans have been losing ground economically, even as the economy has grown six times faster than our population.  During that same period, this same trickle-down economy has dramatically increased our carbon emissions and launched us on the road to severe changes in the climate and our environment.  If a GND offers a roadmap for a better economy and a restored, sustainable ecosystem, what the heck is wrong with that?

Well, no surprise here, but there’s plenty of resistance from many of our political ‘leaders’.  It’s by far the strongest on the Republican side, where everyone from Donald Trump on down is trashing a GND as “big government”, even “socialism”.  Our own 9th District Congressman has stated his complete opposition to the idea for those reasons and, it appears, because he thinks everything is going just fine as is.  In his recent newsletter, he focused on one GND goal - getting millions of residential and commercial buildings weatherized and retrofitted for improved energy efficiency.  Mind you, McKinsey and Company estimated that this would save American homeowners at least $50 billion annually; for the economy as a whole, it would save $1 trillion by 2030.  Yet Mr Griffith focused not the billions of dollars we could save and the tons of emissions we would prevent, but on fear that a commitment to making most of our buildings more energy efficient would be draconian government intrusion.  His preferred path, like nearly all of his party colleagues, is more of the same – tax cuts for the wealthy, environmental deregulation, and complete reliance on the market to figure it out.

There is strong and growing support for a GND among Democrats, but not without many naysayers.  Too many Democrats are casting the Green New Deal as ‘unrealistic’, ‘too expensive’ or ‘pie in the sky’.  Why would Democrats resist an economic strategy likely to foster better jobs, address injustice and fight climate change?  In my assessment, it is the culture of incrementalism that has overtaken the Democratic establishmentThomas Frank’s book, Listen Liberal makes a compelling case that the Democratic Party, particularly since the Clinton years, has increasingly become the party of intellectual elites, of political insiders and of technocrats.  That is to say, people who embrace incremental change rather than transformative action.  That’s part of why we got Dodd Frank – and in a few short years, a return of megabanks behaving recklessly - rather than a renewed Glass-Steagall Act and limits on bank size.  Many of these same Democrats are also resisting Medicare for all.  And now, the Green New Deal.

As a pragmatist myself, I appreciate others who work for real, concrete change, and who recognize that we can’t always get what we want (apologies to Mick Jagger).  Nevertheless, very large, entrenched problems that have been going on for decades, call out for ambitious, creative solutions.  For far-reaching yet practical strategies that make a big difference.  I believe that the Green New Deal offers that potential, and I sure don’t believe that cautious incrementalism will win public support or address the enormous economic and ecological challenges we face.

 

 

Flaccavento for Congress, Post-Election Meeting: Summary of Brainstorming on Next Steps

During a meeting on December 3rd, the group of approximately 50 people brainstormed a range of possible ‘next steps’ and other actions that might be undertaken, following the campaign.  That list is attached as part of a meeting summary.  The list below includes those same ideas, organized into five groupings.

 

Local Actions

  • Update VAN - Voter Activation Network – list to improve accuracy (One county core group intends to do this by mailing notes to all strong and leaning Dems, and independents)

  • Flacc Volunteer Core Group members join and strengthen local Democratic Committees (DCs)

  • Local DCs do tangible work in community (food drives, etc) to help improve reputation of Dems

  • Make local DCs more inclusive, diverse through outreach/engagement with African Americans, millennials and others

    • Consider using the Dialog on Race as a model for this

    • Reach out across ‘Red-Blue divide’ as well, using Dialog on Race approach

  • Surface, support candidates for local offices

  • Local core groups contact Virginia Organizing to look at forming new local chapters of VO

Regional Actions

  • Undertake ‘deep canvassing’ in different parts of the region, that is, canvassing to build trust, to listen to people’s concerns and potentially to educate folks on specific issues or campaigns, rather than based on VAN and a specific candidate

    • This might include a focused effort in the coalfield counties, as the power of coal companies continues to wane

  • Create a ‘Resource directory’ on line that includes groups/resources/events/information at both local and regional level (Could include national groups as well)

  • Develop and implement a ‘multi-media’ approach to help educate and engage folks in the region, especially Republicans and people not currently engaged

    • Set up a speakers’ bureau (possibly focused on the Rural Progressive Platform, bottom up economics, as well as other issues and ideas)

  • Develop our own alternative media, likely beginning with podcasts

  • Reach out to students and millennials, not just during campaigns

National Actions

Reach out to, advocate with the national Democratic Party to push for more understanding, involvement with rural communities

  • Revive and disseminate the Rural Progressive Platform

  • Develop a ‘Rural Progressive Think Tank’ to help lead and support the effort to strengthen progressive ideas and strategies in rural areas (possibly other goals as well)

  • Reach out to conservative think tanks in efforts to find common ground

Legislative Actions

  • Support efforts currently underway to fight gerrymandering, including:

    • Support for legislation in the VA House – HB 1641 (would allow absentee voting without voters needing to have a justification for it) and HB 1658 (would create a pilot, ‘vote by mail’ program in VA)

    • Support, involvement with One Virginia 2021 (Advocates for fair redistricting in the state)

  • Make calls for Christian Worth, the Democratic candidate running in a special election on December 18th that could bring Virginia’s House to 50:50 (contact Daniel Shearer if you’re willing to make calls – drshearer@gmail.com)

  • Support Yasmine Taeb, who is running against Dick Saslaw in the Democratic Primary for his House seat, as he is heavily supported by Dominion Power

  • For 2019, consider focusing on a few or even one House of Delegates and VA Senate seat, utilizing the races as opportunities for voter education, with strong, broad support for the candidate(s)

Issues (on which people would like to focus)

  • Public education – support, financial support and other advocacy for public schools, better teacher pay, etc, especially in rural areas

    • It was noted that Virginia Organizing is already working on this issue, locally and at the state level

  • Climate Change – we must begin to raise this critical issue with urgency

  • Find or develop better ‘frames’ through which we can discuss abortion, guns and other hot button issues

    • New frame on abortion might emphasize our commitment to children, moms, the elderly and students

Post-Election Reading List

Since my campaign ended, I’ve been catching up on my reading.  As usual, I’ve mostly chosen books that, as my son Josh once said, “add to my sense of moral outrage”.  Oh well.

Among the most eye-opening of these have been two, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power and Joan Isenberg’s White Trash:  The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.  At one level, these highly persuasive books offer fundamentally different premises about inequality and injustice in our nation.  White Trash, as you might expect, focuses on poor and working-class whites and their centuries-long disparagement, economically, politically and culturally.  Isenberg documents this systematic marginalization of folks, originally referred to as “waste people”, going all the way back to Jamestown and the earliest European settlements.  Rather than being an aberration in need of periodic correction, the author reveals how class is baked into America’s DNA, our language and our economic system, from its founding to present times.

Coates’ focus is on the foundational role that white supremacy has played in our nation’s history from the outset, and to a shamefully significant degree, still does today.  The “eight years in power” references two periods in American history when the levers of power began to open, significantly, to African Americans:  The first occurred during Reconstruction following the Civil War’s end; the second was 2008 – 2016, when Barack Obama was president.  While there have certainly been other times when civil rights and racial justice advanced in the US, these two moments stand out, both because they seemed to offer opportunities for fundamental change, and because both were greeted with enormous and violent opposition, as they unfolded and immediately after.  While the severity of the backlash to the gains black people made were far more severe following Reconstruction, Trump’s ascendency likewise has galvanized indignation at the prospect of real equality for African Americans, and unleashed a backlash against all things Obama within the right wing of the political establishment.  Through the essays in his book, Coates makes clear how integral, distinct and enduring white supremacy has been in our country. 

These two extraordinary books together raise urgent and troubling questions: Can we truly overcome systemic racism, in this country?  Can the myth of a color-blind and classless society in the United States ever come to fruition?    And can we accomplish these things not just in our words – where we still have a long way to go – but more importantly in serious, tangible economic and political gains for poor and working class folks of all colors?  I honestly don’t know.  But both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nancy Isenberg compel me to recognize how enduring injustice has been in our country, and to keep working, in my personal, economic and political life to overcome these core elements of what it means to be an American.  I’m guessing that many of the people who supported my congressional campaign, and those of you committed to building on that effort share these convictions.  Let’s keep at it, and let’s find better, more effective ways to get there.