Truthout Stories Sun, 03 May 2015 04:50:54 -0400 en-gb Plant Flares Could Pump Out More Pollution Than Previously Thought

A new method of estimating air pollution from flares at refineries and chemical plants, released under court order by the US Environmental Protection Agency this week, could mean that earlier tallies substantially undercounted the tons of chemicals pumped into communities.

Flares are used to burn off gas, a process that releases some volatile organic compounds - VOCs, which can harm health and contribute to lung-damaging smog. The Environmental Integrity Project, an environmental law group that sued to press the EPA to reconsider its emissions figures, said the new calculations suggest that factory flares likely belch four times more VOCs than previously thought.

The EPA did not release an analysis of how the new guideline changes the pollution picture. Officials there cautioned that previous national tallies included numbers from firms that used their own estimation methods, not just those that used the EPA calculation. But the new guideline is about four times higher than the old one, the agency confirmed - and because the old method also counted some non-VOC substances, the real gap is even larger.

Environmental advocates say they hope the change will yield information that more accurately reflects what's going into the air. Many companies estimate their emissions rather than measuring them directly, the Environmental Integrity Project said.

The group said it calculated that the annual health costs imposed by refinery flare emissions alone likely tops $120 million in medical bills and other expenses - most of which comes from additional pollutants that had not been previously accounted for.

"By recognizing that there are much higher emissions and health impacts from flares, I think there will be much more priority put to finding ways to reduce these emissions," said Sparsh Khandeshi, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project.

The group's lawsuit - on behalf of several Texas and Louisiana organizations - prompted a court-ordered deadline of April 20 for the EPA to reconsider its decades-old emission guidelines. The updated figures, issued late that evening, suggest that flares from US refineries alone are likely sending about 50,000 tons of VOCs into the air each year, rather than the approximately 13,000 tons the EPA calculated last year, the Environmental Integrity Project said in an analysis released Tuesday.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents the chemical industry, declined to comment on the new guidelines or their implications. The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, another trade group, did not respond to requests for comment.

Advocacy groups involved in the lawsuit over the calculations hope the end result will be reduced emissions. Companies could recycle more gas, putting it to use instead of flaring it, they say.

"Members of industry have a saying: 'What gets measured gets improved,'" Adrian Shelley, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, said in a statement. "Only by accurately measuring emissions can we reduce pollution and protect public health."

The Center for Public Integrity in recent years has extensively investigated air pollution, finding hot spots across the country and smog in unexpected places.

Flares aren't limited to chemical plants and refineries. They're also used at oil and gas drilling sites across the country. But the EPA said in a statement that its new guidelines shouldn't be applied to production sites because those flares can differ from ones used by manufacturing plants - and because emission-control requirements are looser for some production sites than for refining and chemical manufacturing facilities.

Juan Parras, director of the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, one of the nonprofit organizations included in the EPA lawsuit, said the ideal would be zero emissions - for companies to capture all their waste.

Until that's possible, he wants to see reductions. The health of people living in nearby communities depends on it, Parras said.

"We have never said that to change a process or a system of operation is not costly - certainly, it's costly," he said in an interview. "But we also believe they make enough profits and enough money to fix up what they're building, and they can build it a better way." 

News Fri, 01 May 2015 11:43:31 -0400
Rwanda: How to Deal With a Million Genocide Suspects

Twenty-one years ago - on April 7, 1994 - the genocide that would kill up to one million people in Rwanda began. Another million individuals would be implicated as perpetrators, leaving Rwandans and many others to ask: how does a country begin to bring so many suspects to justice?

In 2002, the Rwandan government created the gacaca - or "grass" in the country's official language of Kinyarwanda - court system to tackle this enormous problem. Based on a traditional form of community dispute resolution, the gacaca courts functioned for ten years - until 2012.

Despite receiving much international attention at their outset, little is known about what the courts actually accomplished. This is surprising. For the past three years, I have been analyzing court data and conducting research in Rwanda to better understand this unique legal system whose punishments for the "genocidaires" (or those involved in the genocide) would likely be seen as light in many other countries.

Creating the Courts

In the aftermath of the genocide, Rwanda's basic infrastructure and legal institutions were in shambles.

Trust in public institutions was low. This was hardly surprising, as government institutions had been involved in the planning and execution of the genocide.

The United Nations was quick to create the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1994 to "prosecute persons responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of Rwanda and neighbouring States, between 1 January 1994 and 31 December 1994."

But, the ICTR could only handle a fraction of the perpetrators (to date 93 people have been indicted by the ICTR), leaving Rwanda's legal system overwhelmed by the vast number of citizens suspected of committing genocidal crimes.

Time was of the essence. Rwanda's prisons were well over their capacity. It was clear that it would take decades to try all of the cases.

It was in these circumstances that Rwanda's new political elite launched the gacaca courts as an ambitious transitional justice project to address crimes of genocide.

In 2002, the pilot phase of the project began. Following tradition, community members elected panels of judges to preside over trials within their communities. All adult Rwandans were expected to participate. Unlike the traditional gacaca courts, however, there was strong involvement from the state.

A 30,000 Foot View

After the pilot phase, the gacaca courts began operating in communities throughout Rwanda. Weekly trials were held in public meeting spaces - typically open fields, local stadiums, or empty market places. Ordinary Rwandans participated as judges, witnesses or spectators.

In total, an estimated one million people were tried within the gacaca courts. Each defendant could face multiple trials for 1) planning, inciting, or supervising the genocide; 2) killing or committing other acts of physical violence; or 3) committing crimes against property, such as looting or theft.

When the courts closed in June 2012, nearly two million trials had taken place. The majority of trials (86%) ended in a guilty verdict, though appeals were also possible.

People convicted of crimes against property were typically ordered to pay the victim (or their family) restitution for the damage. Others reached a court-approved settlement with the victims of their crimes. This often involved work for victims and communities, such as building houses and schools.

Those convicted of more serious crimes faced prison terms ranging from a few months to life - the harshest penalty since the death penalty was abolished in 1998.

The average prison sentence was 19 years, though there were also various mechanisms to reduce sentences, due in large part to prison overcrowding.

For example, almost one-third of those given prison sentences were allowed to spend half of their sentence performing community service, such as constructing roads, building schools and homes, and planting gardens - sentences that likely sound very light for convicted genocidaires. A few even received amnesty if they confessed their crimes, a move which some suggest was linked to issues of prison overcrowding.

Gacaca Today

As Rwandans reflected on the gacaca courts in interviews with me, many expressed positive views of how the courts operated. Others pointed to shortcomings, suggesting that the courts are an example of victors' justice and lamenting that many judges who were initially elected were later accused of participating in the violence themselves.

By Western legal standards, the gacaca courts had serious limitations. The defendants did not have legal representation and standards of evidence were questionable. People were also given lighter sentences if they confessed, which placed a premium on confessions and may have even encouraged false ones.

Overall, the courts endeavored to strike a balance between formal and informal, community-based and state-driven, traditional and contemporary, and punitive and restorative.

As such, the system occupied a unique place not often encountered by traditional legal systems. Indeed, responses to mass atrocity have often been top-down, and hybrid community-based models are relatively new territory.

Gacaca's complexity and uniqueness inevitably had shortcomings. That said, the system's ability to prosecute a massive number of suspected perpetrators in a devastated post-genocide environment is an accomplishment in itself. In fact, other countries could perhaps learn from the goal of integrating punitive responses (like prison sentences) with more restorative ones (like community service).

The Conversation

News Fri, 01 May 2015 11:34:06 -0400
Losing Ground: A Sad Earth Day Post

As I've indicated here, here, here, here, and here, I'm not a big fan of Earth Day because I believe that every day should be Earth Day. But a recent article in Haaretz moves me to offer these thoughts on this inauspicious day.

Have you read the story in the April 19, 2015 issue of Haaretz "Geologists: Road along Dead Sea coast must be diverted toward nature reserve"? It's worth paying attention to if we aspire to work towards what theologian and historian of religion Thomas Berry referred to as the Ecozoic Era, a period in which humans and the Earth interact in a "mutually enhancing manner." That is, a period in which  all beings (human beings, non-human beings and the Earth itself) live together peacefully and in good health.

Or, we could disregard lessons such as those taught by the encroachment of sinkholes from the Dead Sea coast toward the Judean Hills and move towards what the renowned entomologist, E.O. Wilson, at first called the Eremozoic Era  and now speaks of as the Eremocene, the "Age of Loneliness." "Eremocene" - the term moves me to feel bereft.

Though I wish I felt otherwise, I believe we are on a path to the future of which Wilson warns. Expansion of sinkholes along the Dead Sea coast and proposed solutions are emblematic of the wrong approach to living with the planet and each other. Israel, a tiny country the size of New Jersey, clings aggresisvely to land that ultimately must be shared with Palestinians. And the country, apparently, is trying mightily to avoid losing ground literally in the form of sinkholes along its western edge of the Dead Sea.

Sinkholes form sometimes where rock below the land surface is easily dissolved by groundwater. The dissolution causes cavities to form beneath the land surface. The cavities grow into caverns and become so big eventually that the land surface collapses into them.  In Israel, adjacent to the Dead Sea the sinkhole problem is severe. Why?

Ample freshwater flowing south from the headwaters of the Jordan River has been reduced substantially so that the Dead Sea receives only five percent of its historic water flow. As a result,  this once massive water body is evaporating at a rapid rate of nearly three feet per year.  But Israelis and Jordanians can only blame themselves. Excessive withdrawals for unwise agricultural practices in the watershed as well as political conflict with Syria at the confluence of the Yarmouk and Jordan rivers, (not by Palestinians in the West Bank whose access to water is severely limited by Israel's Water Authority) together with diversion of water from the Dead Sea for resorts and the extraction of minerals from the briny sea to produce cosmetics and fertilizers has caused the surface of the sea to shrink by nearly 45% since the 1930s. Because the Dead Sea is drying up, decreasing levels of salt water allow fresh groundwater to well up and eat away at subsurface salt layers. Hence the sinkholes.

Last month, a substantial portion of the major north-south roadway connecting Eilat to northern Israel, collapsed between the Dead Sea and Ein Gedi, an oasis with abundant waterfalls in the desert.

The proposed solution? Build a road closer to the oasis to facilitate movement of residents and tourists in the area. Such action would displace bugs and birds, invertebrate species, not to mention the "charismatic megafauna" - ibex, hyrax, wild boars, desert cats, hyenas, jackals, and wolves - that drink from the fresh water pools in the oasis.

Why not attempt to curtail the water mismanagement? Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli Director at EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East says that restoring water flow to the Dead Sea to at least 30% of its historic amount would be a step in the right direction.

Though we may lose ground along the way, may we step off the road that leads to the Eremozoic Era and on to an awakened path that leads to the Ecozoic one.

Opinion Fri, 01 May 2015 11:29:35 -0400
A University Is Not Walmart

Imagine an institution that looks just like a university. It has a beautiful campus, a faculty with distinguished credentials, and students who pay tuition, take courses, and receive diplomas. It's just like a university... and yet something is not quite right. The students are getting high grades and piling up debt but don't seem to be learning that much. The professors feel powerless and alienated. But the administration looks at the bottom line, smiles, and says all is well.

Money is a useful way of measuring the success of a business, and universities need to balance their books. However, once universities adopt the business model, their primary mission changes from furthering knowledge and providing education to making money. This change in priorities alters both the nature and culture of the institution as well as its role in society.

This article, written mainly from a professor's point of view, discusses the kinds of changes that have taken place in academia over the last few decades (though not all can be found at every institution of higher learning). Just as physicians have been turned into health service providers working for insurance businesses, professors have been turned into educational providers working for university businesses. And just as we have confronted the problems raised by turning medical decisions into business decisions, we need to deal with the problems raised by turning educational decisions into business decisions.

An illustration of the hazards of adopting the business model can be seen in the college loan scandal a few years ago, in which colleges received kickbacks for steering students to "preferred" lenders charging higher rates, and in which some loan officers made huge profits on investments in the lender company's stock. Institutions involved in the scandal included a few of the country's leading universities, such as the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Southern California, and Columbia University, where one financial aid official made a 900 percent profit.

This scandal was portrayed in the media as one in which rapacious loan companies enticed weak loan officers, while universities, taking their cut, were willing to look the other way. Framing the issue in this way leaves the universities' business focus out of the picture. It is as if American universities are assumed to be more or less the same institutions they were 50 years ago, except that now and then they fall victim to bad influences from within and without. This is not to imply that the education/research model was without its faults. An old joke claimed that universities existed to produce research, and students were merely the funding mechanism.

The Cold War is over. Capitalism triumphed. Universities exist in a changed world where the profit motive, deregulation, competition, and globalization are ascendant; and their CEOs and boards of directors have learned their lesson. The mottos of Veritas and In Loco Parentis have been replaced by Caveat Emptor.

The problem is at its worst in for-profit colleges. They are a small, though rapidly growing, part of the higher education field and can be seen as a harbinger of things to come among the not for-profits. There have been scandals about false and misleading statements made to prospective students both about official acceptance of the colleges' degrees (e.g., to qualify for a teaching license) and about the existence of jobs following completion. There were also financial payments to employees for each student they succeeded in enrolling. The colleges' deceptive practices were captured on video in 2010, both by the "secret shopper" investigation of the Government Accountability Office and by ABC News and have been widely viewed over the Internet.

The GAO looked at for-profit colleges in six states and the District of Columbia. It reported that "Undercover tests at 15 for-profit colleges found that 4 colleges encouraged fraudulent practices and that all 15 made deceptive or otherwise questionable statements to GAO's undercover applicants." These abuses were investigated, but it appears that there was an abdication of enforcement responsibility by various governmental and accreditation agencies, including the Department of Education, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. In response to the scandal, some changes have taken place at these agencies.

A report by The Education Trust, Sub-Prime Opportunity: The Unfulfilled Promise of For-Profit Colleges and Universities, concluded that "Students borrow heavily, resulting in heavy debt burden and high loan defaults, which indicates that few end up with a marketable degree or credential." In addition, graduation rates are low. For example, at the University of Phoenix, just 9 percent of first time full-time students graduate within six years.

Luring poor people into inappropriate higher education programs with borrowed money they cannot afford is in many ways a smaller version of the housing loan debacle. Many students never complete programs of dubious quality, or fail to get promised jobs even if they do; and they wind up with loan obligations that worsen their already precarious economic state.

An illustration of the extent to which questionable business practices penetrated for-profit higher education (in this case to their detriment) can be found in the case of Johnette McConnell Early, a researcher who got top executives in charge of 20 homeless shelters and service agencies to sign a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, complaining that "for-profit trade schools and career colleges are systematically preying upon our clients." It turned out that Ms. Early was working for a financial firm that stood to profit by betting that stock prices of educational companies would fall after the government cracked down on their predatory practices.

For-profit companies involved in higher education have fought proposed regulations with similar unsavory tactics - for example, by pressuring their employees to lobby against the regulations. In one instance, a public relations firm was hired to "astroturf" - i.e., to create what appeared to be a grass roots campaign by working with employees to devise individualized letters of protest to the Department of Education. (In addition to using these tactics within their colleges and universities, for-profit higher education companies have escalated their expenditures on political lobbying. A Huffington Post analysis of lobbying data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics concluded that these grew from $3.3 million in 2009 to more than $8.1 million in 2010. A Huffington Post analysis of campaign finance records from the Sunlight Foundation also showed that industry PACs and executives increased their spending from $1.1 million in the 2008 election cycle to over $2 million in the 2010 election cycle.)

Higher education involves openness, sharing, debating ideas, and the free exchange of information. Do we really want a future in which economic competition leads universities to engage in tactics like these? What's next - corporate spying?

There are nearly 3,000 for-profit universities, of which the University of Phoenix is the best known. (At its peak, its enrollment was nearly 600,000, though a combination of factors has reduced that number substantially.) Typically, there are no tenured faculty positions, nor are there any full-time professors. There may not even be any classrooms - most or all courses may be taught online. Professors are paid low wages by the course, with no health insurance, retirement funds, or other fringe benefits. University "brick-and-mortar buildings," as they are referred to (in contrast to the less expensive locations in cyberspace) need not contain any classrooms. Instead, they are the home of administrators who oversee the educational business: marketing, getting loans for students, collecting tuition, and so forth.

With the proliferation of the business model in not-for-profit universities, they are becoming increasingly like their for-profit competition. Over time, the proportion of administrators has been increasing while the proportion of full-time professors has been decreasing in favor of less expensive adjunct faculty who are paid by the course for teaching in classrooms or online. One study by the Goldwater Institute concluded that "Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent. Inflation-adjusted spending on administration per student increased by 61 percent during the same period, while instructional spending per student rose 39 percent."

Adjunct professors suffer working conditions comparable to those at for-profit universities (low pay, no fringe benefits). It is easy to see that, in many cases, the quality of teaching offered by adjunct faculty who have less preparation time, and graduate teaching assistants who have less knowledge and experience, may not be up to the standard of full-time faculty. As the trends continue, and as the pressure of competition from for-profit universities increases, not for-profit universities can be expected to become increasingly similar to them.

Missouri State and Florida Atlantic Universities experimented with outsourcing the teaching of an online course. While the administrations involved presented the move as a cooperative venture, or partnership, with a nonprofit organization, professors were troubled that the process evades faculty procedures for curricular review. There is concern that the next step could be outsourcing the teaching of specific courses to for-profit universities.

Although administrators economize on the cost of instruction, they willingly pay for new logos, branding and advertising campaigns. They support market research, into which new programs will sell and how much tuition should be charged in order to attract new customers.

In many ways, the modern American university is not unlike a shopping mall - a welcoming ambience, especially for students who grew up in the suburbs. Many university presidents now refer to students, without irony, as "customers," and work to keep them happy and in a spending mood by fostering on campus the bland cheerful atmosphere found in shopping malls.

When students arrive on campus, already saddled with debt arranged by college loan officers, they are enticed by a variety of credit card offers. Many universities provide students with a credit card containing the university logo and designed for use on campus (and most likely off campus). While other cards might offer more reasonable terms, they would not provide the university a percentage of all purchases. If, after graduation, the student is unable to pay off the credit card debt, that is not the university's problem. (Over time there have been investigations into and some changes in colleges’ credit card practices.) 

In a similar way, the university doesn't lend the student money - it gets its tuition up front. If the student defaults on a college loan, that is someone else's problem.

In addition to traditional sources of income for universities - rent for dorm rooms and meals at the student cafeteria - there are other places to get a cut of money spent - from food courts and snack bars to vending machines to Xerox machines in the library. At many universities, the bookstore pays for the privilege of selling books to its captive population. It also sells clothes, sports equipment, and other items with the university logo from which the university gets both a direct profit and a percentage from the credit card company. There are also special features used as recruiting tools to attract students (e.g., "free" laptops for freshmen), the costs of which are hidden in the tuition bill.

The scheduling of courses may be adapted to the differing segments of the market: Monday-Wednesday and Tuesday-Thursday classes are for the full-time students, so they can have a three day weekend, and evening and weekend courses are for the part-timers. This is a win-win-win policy. The university makes more money, the students are happy, and some professors have a two-day-a-week teaching schedule. The scheduling of courses is also arranged to make it possible for some students to have only morning classes, so that they can work a 40 hour week in the afternoons and evenings to pay for tuition. (Naturally, students who have a full schedule of classes and a full-time job have little time left for homework. The result is pressure on professors to cover less material, or to dumb down content, to accommodate their customers’ schedules.)

Students in a given class may pay differing amounts for the course - just as passengers on a plane pay differing amounts for their seats. This occurs because market forces determine what tuition the traffic will bear for different programs - so that, for example, doctoral students may pay more per credit than master's students, or students from one department or program may pay more than those from another.

Unpaid internships have also become a source of income for universities. They receive payments from students in exchange for course credit, and may even sell course credits to placement agencies who get paid by companies in exchange for students' free labor.

Research grants are another (and longstanding) profit center for universities. There are two main ways the university makes money from professors' grants - overhead and payback for released time from teaching. The overhead percentage varies but is often approximately half the size of the grant, excluding certain items, such as equipment. (The university's share differs depending on many factors - whether it is a large or small institution and whether public or private, the size and research area of the grant - medicine, engineering, science, social science, or even occasionally humanities - and whether the granting source is public or private.)

Let's say a biology professor earns $100,000 a year and gets a three year research grant for $1,000,000. This is a great deal for the university - in many cases, its overhead recovery already exceeds the professor's salary. Because the professor needs time to do the research, the university permits this by reducing the professor’s course load and is reimbursed by the grant. It then hires adjuncts to teach the courses at a much lower rate than the professor's salary. This profit is added to the profit from the grant overhead.

Consider, for purposes of contrast, a philosophy professor with a salary of $60,000 who has no grants because there are no grants to be had. The philosopher may feel mistreated for earning so much less than the biologist of comparable rank and academic achievement, but that is not how the administrator sees it. "We're making money on biology but losing money on philosophy. So why do we need a philosophy department?"

There was a time when the road to a university presidency led from department chair to dean to provost en route. Many presidents, however, are not academics - they are lawyers, politicians, business people and others who, intelligent and competent as they may (or may not) be, often do not understand academic culture. They have not taken a comprehensive exam or written a doctoral dissertation, they have not taught courses and been confronted with crises in their students' lives, and they have not done research and grappled with the difficulties of funding and publication. So when they make business decisions affecting academic priorities and the culture of learning, even if they get the dollars and cents right, they may be blind to the intellectual costs to the academic enterprise.

Under the business model, the pay of university presidents has gone up dramatically (varying considerably, with many earning more than $1,000,000 and a median of over $400,000), paralleling at a lower level the rise in corporate CEO compensation. Furthermore, university presidents often supplement their income substantially by sitting on corporate boards. In addition to offering corporations their expertise and prestige, the presidents get an opportunity to observe corporate strategy up close, thereby giving them ideas they can apply at their full-time jobs. For example, Erroll B. Davis Jr., Chancellor of the University of Georgia, left BP's board five days before the Gulf of Mexico disaster. He was named as a defendant in a class-action suit because, in part, he had sat on BP’s committee on safety, ethics, and environment assurance. Similarly, Ruth Simmons, President of Brown University, earned over $320,000 in 2009 for serving on the Goldman Sachs board, where she was one of 10 people who decided on the size of executive bonuses. She left the firm following student pressure in the wake of the Wall Street economic debacle.

In addition to university presidents sitting on corporate boards, business people dominate the governing boards of universities. According to a 2010 report by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, about half of the members of both public (49 percent) and private (53 percent) universities' governing boards come from the business world. These interlocking directorates are yet another way in which corporate culture and the business model have taken over higher education.

Along with highly paid Wall Street executives, university administrations invested heavily in real estate during the housing bubble - building expensive athletic facilities, fitness centers, student centers, and resort-like dormitories with entertainment and recreational facilities. They also followed the "Yale model," investing much of their endowments in high-yielding risky assets that turned out to be part of the bursting bubble. In 2009, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were looking at losses to their endowments in the 25 to 30 percent range, and other institutions with smaller endowments faced potentially unsustainable debt burdens. The severe cutbacks necessitated by these losses fell primarily on instruction, rather than on the numbers and salaries of administrators.

A study by the American Enterprise Institute concluded that "In 1961, the average full-time student at a four-year college in the United States studied about twenty-four hours per week, while his modern counterpart puts in only fourteen hours per week." In addition, cheating and plagiarism are widespread, facilitated by modern technology - from answers on cellphones to copy-and-paste materials from Googled sources to online "research services" that provide term papers to order for a fee. Professors learn quickly that serious intellectual standards lead only to poor teaching evaluations and conflict with the administration. The penalties for cheating and plagiarism are drastic, but they involve lengthy, conflict-riven, and time-consuming procedures. If a professor brought charges for every violation, there would be no time for anything else - and besides, professors learn early that they can't count on the administration to back them up on enforcing standards. Part of the reason for administrative avoidance is the difficulty of obtaining clear and sufficient evidence ("I was not looking at his paper;" "you never told us that was plagiarism"), and part is a fear of lawsuits by students' parents. But part is that, under the business model, from the administration's point of view, cheating and plagiarism are the professors' problem - not theirs. Their job is the bottom line.

As a result, professors play a cat-and-mouse game with students, trying to minimize cheating and devise paper topics that are hard to plagiarize - for example, integrating library sources with a topic in the news. At the same time, however, professors' pragmatism leads to the watering down of courses and to grade inflation - because less homework and higher grades are presumed to lead to fewer student complaints and better teaching evaluations.

The lowering of standards is consistent with other educational trends. Comparative research shows that proportionately fewer students graduate from high school in the US than in other developed nations, that those who graduate here arrive in college less well prepared, and that we are falling behind other countries in the proportion of adults with postsecondary degrees. If student-customers arrive in college expecting to do less work, it is not surprising that businesses competing for their tuition dollars will accommodate to their expectation.

The results of these lowered standards were documented in a study by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa that evaluated college students' critical thinking, reasoning, and writing skills (Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses). The authors followed over 2,000 students in two dozen institutions of higher education, and found that "45 percent of students in our sample did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in Collegiate Learning Assessment performance during the first two years of college," and that after four years "36 percent of students did not show any significant improvement."

So this is the arrangement in the modern university run on the business model. Students pay high tuition and are vulnerable to economic exploitation by the administration. In exchange, students get to study less and learn less. Professors come to recognize that this is the way the world is; and, rather than tilt at windmills, they teach their courses and occupy themselves with other aspects of their job (research and writing) and with outside consulting.

Professors feel a mixture of frustration and anger over the decline of standards, and sadness for the students - this is their chance to develop themselves intellectually, and they don't recognize or value the opportunity they're passing up. Professors also worry about the future of the country. Our democracy needs an informed citizenry of critical thinkers to shape the country's future - but that entry doesn't appear on the balance sheet.

Opinion Fri, 01 May 2015 11:24:59 -0400
Corporations Are Bribing Bill Instead of Hillary

If you're interested in watching how money influences politics, you would be smart to not only track who Hillary accepts campaign contributions from, but just as importantly who is lining Bill's pockets as well.

In looking ahead to a likely presidency from Hillary, we can take cues from the actions of the married duo during her stint as the secretary of state. While Hillary made critical national decisions that could win or cost certain major corporations millions of dollars, Bill kept a busy schedule of delivering speeches for many of these same companies, collecting hefty speaking fees for his talks.

Although it plainly ventures into unethical territory, federal rules did not preclude Bill from cozying up to these corporations. Normally, politicians and their spouses can't accept money from companies that are lobbying the government, but an exception is made for payments for speaking to the companies. Given his resume, Bill can easily fetch top speaking fees without raising the kind of red flags that other political spouses would get for being in a similar position.

Make no mistake: these aren't nebulous connections that suggest a potential for wrongdoing. The International Business Times identified 13 mega-companies that paid Bill a total of $2.5 million in speaking fees while actively - and in many cases successfully - lobbying Hillary and the US State Department in the same three-month span. 

Let's look at a few specifics. Tech companies have had some of the greatest successes with the Clintons. Shortly after paying Bill $175,000 to speak, Microsoft won a $4 million contract with the US State Department. Oracle's own government contracts increased by a couple million after giving Bill a $200,000 speaking fee. Meanwhile, Dell is probably the biggest winner of all. While lobbying Hillary, Dell hired an appearance from Bill for $300,000 - not long before the State Department decided to raise its contracts with the company from $2.5 million to a startling $28 million.

Perhaps Bill's words of motivation inspired these companies to negotiate better with the State Department. Or perhaps they, like fellow companies Cisco Systems, Goldman Sachs, PhRMA and Pacific Rubiales, found that padding the Clinton bank account had some added advantages.

For what it's worth, the companies tend to excuse Bill's speaking fees as an opportunity to learn from a world leader. "As a former president, [Bill] has a unique perspective on world affairs and we were eager for him to share that perspective with our customers," said David Frink, a spokesperson for Dell. Surely, it's hard to disprove that explanation. Of course, that doesn't mean the money can't be partially intended as a bribe at the same time, which is what makes the arrangement so convenient and dangerous.

If you thought campaign donations were a corruptive force, this arrangement is actually worse. Unlike campaign donations which can't directly be used to inflate the Clintons' wealth, Bill - and his wife - can use the money he earns from giving high-priced speeches however he sees fit.

Presumably, there are a lot of corporations that are salivating at the thought of a Hillary presidency since they're hoping they're long term investments in the couple will come to pay off. That's just yet another reason why the American people need to reject the idea of a political dynasty.

News Fri, 01 May 2015 11:22:59 -0400
Big Banks Claim Reform Will Hurt the Economy. Here's Why That's BS

Anat Admati. (Photo: World Economic Forum)Anat Admati. (Photo: World Economic Forum)

Anat Admati, who teaches finance and economics at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, is co-author of The Bankers' New Clothes, a classic account of the problem of Too Big to Fail banks. On May 6th she will address the "Finance and Society" conference sponsored by the Institute for New Economic Thinking, featuring influential women who have challenged the status quo, like Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, IMF Managing Director Christine LaGarde, and Senator Elizabeth Warren. Admati will join Brooksley Born, former chair of Chair of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, to discuss how effective financial regulation can make the system work better for society. Seven years after financial hell broke loose, Admati warns that we are far from fixing a bloated and dangerous financial system - and that the system can't fix itself. Why should you care? This gigantic house of cards could fall on you.

Lynn Parramore: How would you describe the problem of Too Big to Fail banks. Whey does it matter to an ordinary person?

Anat Admati: Too Big to Fail is a license for recklessness. These institutions defy notions of fairness, accountability, and responsibility. They are the largest, most complex, and most indebted corporations in the entire economy.

We all have to be really alarmed by the fact that not only do we still have such institutions, but many of them are ever-larger and more complex and at least as dangerous, if not more so, than they were before the financial crisis.

They are too big to manage and control. They take enormous risks that endanger everybody. They benefit from the upside and expose the rest of us to the downside of their decisions. These banks are too powerful politically as well.

As they seek profits, they can make wasteful and inefficient loans that harm ordinary people, and at the same time they might refuse to make certain business loans that can help the economy. They can even break the laws and regulations without the people responsible being held accountable. Effectively we're hostages because their failure would be so harmful. They're likely to be bailed out if their risks don't turn out well.

Ordinary people continue to suffer from a recession that was greatly exacerbated or even caused by recklessness in the financial system and failed regulation. But the largest institutions, especially their leaders - even in the failed ones - have suffered the least. They're thriving again and arguably benefitting the most from efforts to stimulate the economy.

So there's something wrong with this picture. And there's also increasing recognition that bloated banks and a bloated financial system - these huge institutions-are a drag on the economy.

LP: Have we made any progress in dealing with the problem?

AA: The progress has been totally unfocused and insufficient. Dodd-Frank claims to have solved the problem and it gives plenty of tools to regulators to do what needs to be done (many of these tools they actually already had before). But this law is really complex and the implementation of it is very messy. The lobbying by the financial industry is a large part of the reason that the law has been implemented so poorly and inefficiently with so much difficulty. We are failing to take simple steps and at the same time undertaking extremely costly steps with doubtful benefits.

So we've had far from enough progress. We are told things are better but they are nowhere near what we should expect and demand. Much more can be done right now.

LP: Banks, compared to other businesses, finance an enormous portion of their assets with borrowed money, or debt - as much as 95 percent. Yet bankers often claim that this is perfectly fine, and if we make them depend less on debt they will be forced to lend less. What is your view? Would asking banks to rely more on unborrowed money, or equity, somehow hurt the economy?

AA: Sometimes when I don't have time to unpack everything I use a quote from a book called Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins by Jeff Connaughton. He relates something Paul Volcker once said to Senator Ted Kaufman: "You know, just about whatever anyone proposes, no matter what it is, the banks will come out and claim that it will restrict credit and harm the economy…It's all bullshit."

Here's one obvious reason such claims are, in Volcker's vocabulary, bullshit: Lending suffered most when banks didn't have enough equity to absorb their losses in the crisis - and then we had to bail them out. The loss they suffered on the subprime fiasco was relatively small by comparison to losses to investors when the Internet bubble burst, but there was so much debt throughout the system, and indeed in the housing markets, and so much interconnection that the entire financial system almost collapsed.  That's when lending suffered. So lending and growth suffers when the banks have too little equity, not too much.

Now, banks naturally have some debt, like deposits. But they don't feel indebted even when they rely on 95 percent debt to finance their assets. No other healthy company lives like that, and nobody, even banks, needs to live like that - that's the key. Normally, the market would not allow this to go on; those who are as heavily indebted feel the burden in many ways. The terms of the debt become too burdensome for corporations, and reflect the inefficient investment decisions made by heavily indebted companies. But banks have much nicer creditors, like depositors, and with many explicit and implicit guarantees, banks don't face trouble or harsh terms. They only have to convince the regulators to let them get away with it. And they do.

So the abnormality of this incredible indebtedness is that they get away with it. There's nothing good about it for society. If they had more equity then they could do everything that they do better -more consistently, more reliably, in a less distorted fashion.

Today's credit market is distorted. A key reason is that bankers love the high risk and chase returns. They are less fond of some of the lending where they are needed the most - like business lending, for example. Instead, most people get many credit cards in the mail and too many people live on expensive revolving credit. Effectively, the poor may end up subsidizing the credit card of the person who pays on time and has zero interest (and we all end up paying the enormous fees merchants are charged). So we can have too much or too little lending and live through inefficient booms and busts. Part of the reason for that is that banks are continually living on the edge in a way that nobody else in the economy would, and regulations meant to correct it are insufficient and flawed in their design. 

LP: Banking has been a very profitable business. Is it profitable because the risks are born by the taxpayer? Do you think the bank bonus system is part of the problem?

AA: Yes, banking is partly profitable because of subsidies from taxpayers. There are probably other reasons, and not all of them good ones, in terms of the way competition works and other things. The bonus system encourages recklessness, and recklessness increases the value of the subsidies from taxpayers. Bankers are effectively paid to gamble.

It is profitable for the banks to become big even when this is inefficient, because they can do so with subsidized borrowing on easy terms. Guarantees, explicit and implicit, are a form of free or subsidized insurance. We don't control whether what banks do with the cheap funding benefits the economy or just bankers and some of their investors. We must reduce these large subsidies that end up rewarding recklessness and harming us. (See Admati's July 2014 testimony before Congress on bank subsidies).

LP: We often hear about financial innovations that helped bring the global economy to its knees in 2008. Back in December, Congress rolled back a key taxpayer protection concerning derivatives, which Robert Lenzner of Forbes Magazine called a "Christmas present for the banks." What do Americans need to know about derivatives? How do they affect the Too Big to Fail problem?

AA: The Christmas present was just one more small thing in a much bigger problem. The largest financial firms in America can hide an enormous amount of risk in derivatives. That's very dangerous because it makes banks more interconnected, since much of the derivatives trading happens within the financail system. It creates a house of cards - a very fragile system.

We also have bankruptcy laws in this country that perversely give unusual priority to derivatives contracts and other reckless practices. 

Derivatives exacerbate Too Big to Fail dramatically because there's so much opacity in the system. Policy-makers get scared into bailing our or guaranteeing a lot of their commitments made in those markets because they won't quite know the consequences of letting them fail. It's very intimately related to Too Big to Fail. It's as if they hold a gun to your head. You don't konw whether they have bullets so you may get scared into paying the ransom. 

LP: Is breaking up the banks is a solution?

AA: People say those words but what does it mean? How would you do it? That's the big problem. Banks are multiple times bigger than most of the corporations you think of as big. I once made a mistake rushing through a HuffPost piece in 2010 saying that Jamie Dimon wants to be as big as Walmart. Well, at the time, JP Morgan was already 10 times bigger than Walmart by assets! When it comes to the financial sector, big is really big. People don't even appreciate how big we're talking about. Nobody else gets to be as big, and in fact, In other parts of the economy, companies that get so big often break up on their own.  But that doesn't happen in banking partly because of the perverse subsidies taxpayers provide.

The most sensible approach is to force banks and other financial institutions to have more equity, which is actually going to expose their inefficiencies and bring more investor pressure for a break-up to happen naturally without us doing it actively.  Regulators can also put significantly more pressure on banks to simplify their structure and divest unnecessary lines of businesses such as commodities (energy, aluminum, etc.). The size appears unmanageable and makes regulation difficult.  

LP: What would make banking regulation more effective?

AA: First of all there could be simpler regulation in some places and some cost-ineffective things could be used a bit less. Right now, we know too little about the risk and we have too little margin for error. We must reduce the opacity and increase the safety margins dramatically. Regulators make it complicated because we are unnecessarily living at the edge of a cliff all the time. We live so dangerously! There's no need for that.  We are told that we have to live like that, but it's that's completely false. The system has to be made a lot more resilient. Then we can worry less and sleep better.

In addition to making things simpler, it's very important that we are able to see more of the risk and then to enforce much stronger and simpler rules. And, of course, regulators need to be watching where the risks are going. They should not believe that just because the risks are off the accounting balance sheets that they are gone. That was a trick to get around regulations and get around accounting rules in cases like Enron. A lot of the risks were hiding - but they can be traced. Some laws that are counterproductive and make regulation harder should also be examined, including the tax code that encourages debt over equity, and the bankruptcy law that overly protects certain financial practices.

LP: If we don't deal with the problem of Too Big to Fail, what happens?

AA: An ordinary person doesn't realize it, but the impact of this unhealthy system on them happens every day. It's doesn't feel as acute as something like leakage from a nuclear facility because harm from the financial system is a little more abstract. You only see it when it blows. But it's an unhealthy, inefficient, bloated and dangerous system. Because this system is so fragile, it can implode again, and our options next time will be dire again. We will either suffer a lot or bail out the system to suffer a little bit less.  

I recently shared with my students a quote by the Rothschild brothers of London, writing to associates in New York in 1863:  "The few who understand the system will either be so interested in its profits or be so dependent upon its favours that there will be no opposition from that class, while the great body of people, mentally incapable of comprehending the tremendous advantage that capital derives from the system, will bear its burdens without complaint, and perhaps without even suspecting that the system is inimical to their interests."

This is a great quote! We get tricked into thinking that we have a great financial system because we have our credit cards and whatnot. We don't see the enormous risks that are taken in derivatives markets and some of the other practices that can topple the entire system again and which extracts fees and bonuses. The truth is that we can have a safer system that serves the economy and society better. But getting there requires that better laws and regulations are implemented and enforced. The system will not correct itself; we must demand that policymakers do a better job for the public.

News Fri, 01 May 2015 11:06:50 -0400
Scientists Warn of Hormone Impacts From Benzene, Xylene, Other Common Solvents

Four chemicals present both inside and outside homes might disrupt our endocrine systems at levels considered safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency, according to an analysis released April 15. The chemicals are ubiquitous.

The chemicals - benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene - are ubiquitous: in the air outside and in many products inside homes and businesses. (Photo: Toxic cleaner via Shutterstock)The chemicals - benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene - are ubiquitous: in the air outside and in many products inside homes and businesses. (Photo: Toxic cleaner via Shutterstock)Four chemicals present both inside and outside homes might disrupt our endocrine systems at levels considered safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency, according to an analysis released April 15.

The chemicals - benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene - are ubiquitous: in the air outside and in many products inside homes and businesses. They have been linked to reproductive, respiratory and heart problems, as well as smaller babies. Now researchers from The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) and the University of Colorado, Boulder, say that such health impacts may be due to the chemicals' ability to interfere with people's hormones at low exposure levels.

"There's evidence of connection between the low level, everyday exposures and things like asthma, reduced fetal growth," said Ashley Bolden, a research associate at TEDX and lead author of the study. "And for a lot of the health effects found, we think it's disrupted endocrine-signaling pathways involved in these outcomes."

Bolden and colleagues - including scientist, activist, author and TEDX founder Theo Colborn who passed away last December - pored over more than 40 studies on the health impacts of low exposure to the chemicals.

(Colborn also co-authored "Our Stolen Future" along with Dianne Dumanoski and Pete Myers, founder of Environmental Health News and chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences.)

They looked at exposures lower than the US Environmental Protection Agency's reference concentrations for the chemicals, which is the agency's estimated inhalation exposure level that is not likely to cause health impacts during a person's lifetime.

Many of the health problems - asthma, low birth weights, cardiovascular, disease, preterm births, abnormal sperm - can be rooted in early disruptions to the developing endocrine system, Bolden said.

The analysis doesn't prove that exposure to low levels of the chemicals disrupt hormones. However, any potential problems with developing hormone systems are cause for concern.

"Hormones are how the body communicates with itself to get work done. Interrupt that, you can expect all sorts of negative health outcomes," said Susan Nagel an associate professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women's Health School of Medicine who was not involved in the study.

Cathy Milbourn, a spokesperson for the EPA, said in an emailed response that the agency will "review the study and incorporate the findings into our work as appropriate."

The "EPA is screening thousands of chemicals for potential risk of endocrine disruption," she said. "As potential risk of endocrine disruption is identified, these chemicals are assessed further."

The four chemicals are retrieved from the wellheads during crude oil and natural gas extraction and, after refining, are used as gasoline additives and in a wide variety of consumer products such as adhesives, detergents, degreasers, dyes, pesticides, polishes and solvents.

Ethylbenzene is one of the top ten chemicals used in children's products such as toys and playground equipment, according to a 2013 EPA report. Toluene is in the top ten chemicals used in consumer products such as fuels and paints, the report found. 

All four get into indoor and outdoor air via fossil fuel burning, vehicle emissions and by volatizing from products. Bolden said studies that measure the air in and around homes and businesses find the chemicals 90 to 95 percent of the time.

Katie Brown, spokeswoman for Energy in Depth, a program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said in an email that the study suggests "products deemed safe by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission are more dangerous than oil and gas development.

"Contrary to their intentions, what this report actually shows is that people should be no more afraid of oil and gas development than products in their home," she said.

The Consumer Specialty Products Association, a trade group that represents companies that manufacturer consumer goods including cleaning products, pesticides, polishes, would not comment on the study but a spokesperson said that member groups typically don't use the chemicals mentioned.

In several of the monitoring studies Bolden and colleagues examined, levels of the chemicals were higher in indoor air than in outdoor air, suggesting that people might be exposed within their homes.

"A lot of time indoor air is poorly circulated," Bolden said.

Nagel cited a "huge need" to look at the impact of exposure to ambient levels of these chemicals. The study highlights "a whole lot we don't know" about how these compounds may impact humans, she said.

Using human tissue cells, Nagel's lab has previously shown that the chemicals can disrupt the androgen and estrogen hormones.

The authors said regulators should give air contaminants the same attention they've given greenhouse gas emissions recently.

"Tremendous efforts have led to the development of successful regulations focused on controlling greenhouse gases in an attempt to reduce global temperatures," the authors wrote in the study published April 15 in Environmental Science and Technology journal.

"Similar efforts need to be directed toward compounds that cause poor air quality both indoors and outdoors."

News Fri, 01 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Economic Update: Capitalism's Other Side

This episode provides updates on May Day, the Baltimore uprising, the Nepal earthquake and Bud Light endangering women. We also respond to questions regarding different varieties of worker co-ops. Finally, we interview Professor Yahya Madra on Turkey, Capitalism and Islam.

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News Fri, 01 May 2015 11:16:25 -0400
The Anzac Message: Put Out More Flags, or Shut Up

John Pilger cites two unrecognized Australian heroes, one a human rights activist, the other a soccer journalist who lost his job after deriding the country's military history on twitter.

24 February, 2007: Ray Jackson (center) speaks to small crowd about TJ's murder. (Photo: Mickie Quick)Ray Jackson (center) speaks to small crowd about the murder of 17-year-old Terence Hickey, February 24, 2007. (Photo: Mickie Quick)

Following a week in Australia in which the words "heroes" and "heroism" bobbed on a tsunami of raw propaganda, a tribute is due to two unrecognized heroes. The first is Ray Jackson, who died on April 23.

Ray spoke and fought for a truth the powerful and bigoted hate to hear, see or read. He said this was a land not of brave Anzac (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) "legacies," but of dirty secrets and enduring injustices that only a national cowardice could sustain. "Conformity is widely understood and obeyed in Australia," he wrote to me. "Freedom is not."

I first met Ray in 2004 during the Indigenous uprising in Redfern, Sydney, which followed the violent death of a 17-year-old, Terence Hickey. Known as "TJ," he was chased by a police car, lost control of his bike and was impaled on an iron fence. The police denied they had caused his death. Not a single Aboriginal person believed them, least of all Ray, whose campaign for justice will not go away.

A Wiradjuri man, Ray was stolen from his mother at the age of 2 and given to a white family. The experience taught him about Australian genocide. A lifelong socialist, his speciality was his unflagging investigations into police thuggery toward Aboriginal people, especially the multiple deaths in police and prison custody that routinely go unpunished. Australia incarcerates Black Australians at a higher rate than that of apartheid South Africa.

When Prime Minister John Howard decimated Indigenous institutions and funding, Ray took his files and videos to his single-bedroom flat and founded the Indigenous Social Justice Association. He fought for the memory of young Kwementaye Briscoe, left to die in a police cell in Alice Springs, and Brazilian Roberto Curti, tasered to death by police in Sydney. He was the champion of countless locked-up Iraqi, Iranian and Tamil refugees. "Never stop fighting for your freedom," he told them. Shaming official Australia, the French Government awarded him one of its highest human rights laureates.

Ray loathed warmongering and would approve of my second hero. This is Scott McIntyre, a young Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) soccer journalist who, in four now-famous tweets, set out to counter the authoritarian sludge that demands that Australians celebrate the centenary of a waste of life in the British imperial invasion of Turkey a century ago - in which Australians and New Zealanders, the "Anzacs," took part - rather than recognize unpalatable truths about the past and present.

Opportunistic politicians and journalists have turned this melancholy event into a death cult that puzzles foreigners. Federal governments have spent almost $400 million promoting it as a fake patriotism - more than Britain, France, Germany and Canada combined: countries that lost many more men in the 1914-1918 bloodfest. Today, the military and venal militarism are virtually off-limits for real public criticism.

Why? Australia, a nation without enemies, is now spending $28 billion a year on the military and war and armaments to fulfill a tragic, entirely colonial and obsequious role, now as Washington's "deputy sheriff" in the Asia-Pacific.

This much we know, perhaps have always known. But watching a contemporary version of crude Edwardian jingoism consume the nation's intellect and self-respect has been salutary, especially the cover provided by those paid ostensibly to keep the record straight. Tony Abbott, zealot, oaf and one of our cruelest prime ministers, "shone" at the Gallipoli Anzac service, according to Peter Fitzsimons, whose keyboard tomes on the subject shows no sign of abating. In the Murdoch press - augmented as ever to promote war after war - Paul Kelly echoes Abbott that remembrance is not enough; that the Anzac death cult "is now the essence of being Australian" … indeed, "a quasi-religious force."

Young Scott McIntyre drove the twitter equivalent of a five-ton truck through such maudlin, cynical drivel. He tweeted the unsayable about imperial Australia, much of it the truth; and all decent journalists - or dare I say, his freedom-loving compatriots - should be standing up for him. That Malcolm Turnbull, a pretender for prime minister who made his name unctuously shouting about freedom of speech, should connive with McIntyre's employer, the state-funded TV network, SBS, (which has sacked him), is a measure of the state of public and media life in Australia.

That a journalism professor of long standing, John Henningham, can tweet weasel words that "freedom of speech meant that journalists had the right to speak without breaking the law but did not have the right to keep their job when offending others" is a glimpse of the obstacles faced by aspiring young journalists as they navigate the university mills.

Many young people reject this, of course, and maintain their sense of the bogus, and McIntyre is one of them. He offended in the highest tradition of freedom of thought and speech. Knowing the personal consequences would be serious, he displayed moral courage. When his union, the MEAA, locates its spine and its responsibility, it must demand he is given his job back. I salute him.

Opinion Fri, 01 May 2015 10:46:13 -0400
Is the Local Economy Too Local? Why Co-ops and Credit Unions Need a Broader Strategy

This is the first part in "The Checkerboard Revolution," a series of commentaries about the new economy movement. The series will investigate different strategies for the movement's growth.

This is a story about the revolutionaries next door. If you live in a place hard hit by recent economic decline, chances are you've got a few on your block. Don't worry: You're not going to catch these revolutionaries hatching a plot to topple the government or skulking around a factory to foment worker insurrection. You're more likely to find them cultivating a plot in a new community garden or transforming an abandoned plant into a worker-owned and -directed business.

In short, they're hardly Bolsheviks. But they are revolutionaries nonetheless, because at the core of their DIY innovations is the DNA of a socioeconomic system fundamentally distinct from the corporate capitalist system that dominates our world. If they succeed and their alternatives work where the old model no longer does, they'll have accomplished what the Bolsheviks so miserably failed - the creation of a democratic, equitable, and sustainable world beyond capitalism.

But to do that, these revolutionaries need more than a pioneering spirit; they need a systemic strategy. In his book What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk on the Next American Revolution, author and activist Gar Alperovitz uses the checkerboard as a metaphor for the strategic approach emerging in the work of these everyday revolutionaries. The idea is that no single revolutionary organization or blueprint will step up to change the system. Rather, transformative models will pop up piecemeal across the map, as communities band together to innovate their ways out of economic woes.

According to Alperovitz, the struggle for economic dignity has gone local by necessity as the old tools of working-class empowerment, such as labor unions, have declined, and as corporations have captured the national political parties. From Jackson, Mississippi, to Oakland, California, everyday Americans have responded by banding together to find ways to democratize and reinvest local wealth: from community foundations that finance worker-owned co-ops to investment cooperatives that buy up abandoned buildings and rent them to locally owned businesses. Values of sustainability, self-reliance, and justice also mean many of the squares on this checkerboard are green, as neighbors have banded together to build their own solar arrays and put residents back to work in the process.

If we re-imagine Alperovitz's metaphor as a living checkerboard comprised of organizational ecosystems, many more helpful insights emerge. Every good environmentalist knows that diverse ecosystems are more likely to survive a crisis than homogeneous ones. The checkerboard revolution takes advantage of a similar principle: With each of the squares on the board representing a distinct local ecosystem of post-capitalist alternatives, the strategy builds resilience into the emerging system. So even if one local system collapses, chances are others will survive to spread the seeds of change.

On the downside, the checkerboard revolution also means fragmentation. And as any good ecologist will tell you, chopped-up ecosystems have trouble keeping healthy. Just as biological species need space to grow and find the resources they need to survive, so institutional species like worker-owned cooperatives need plenty of space, capital, and social support to persist in the face of ruthless corporate competition and systemic shocks like the financial crash of 2008. At least for the time being, the lion's share of our economy's most vital resources - political, legal, and financial - are in the hands of corporate elites. And history is filled with examples of such capitalists surrounding and crushing revolutionary alternatives, as geographer David Harvey has noted.

The great challenge for checkerboard revolutionaries, then, is to find a way to preserve their rich diversity while overcoming the isolation that leaves them vulnerable.

One solution might be found in an idea ecologists have developed to address the problem of fragmentation: "ecological corridors," which connect isolated habitats and permit species to move between them. Likewise, checkerboard revolutionaries might do well to establish networks connecting islands of innovation. These networks could allow political, legal, and financial resources to get to the places that need them most and allow successful institutional species the room to scale up.

This certainly is the type of thinking behind the New Economy Coalition and the Next System Project, two initiatives Alperovitz himself has been involved with. Both have helped to establish new connections among the multitude of "new economy" experiments that dot the map.

With such organizations now on the scene, the contours of a new revolutionary movement are beginning to take form. But for the most part, those contours remain hidden to the vast majority of people, and indeed their possible future forms remain unclear even to their most visionary champions. Because of their locally focused, bottom-up philosophy, checkerboard revolutionaries have tended to avoid conceptualizing how their various experiments could coherently fit together into an alternative to the corporate capitalist system. As I will discuss in a later post, there are in fact good reasons for this. But I will also argue that overcautiousness toward systems-thinking is a problem that change-makers can and must resolve.

Many critical questions abound for the new economy movement. What common challenges do those diverse local revolutionaries face as they seek to displace the old system, and what are the innovators doing to confront them? What kinds of networks should they build to allow for the flow of resources and the migration of institutional species? What kind of macro-level political institutions or policies do they need to advocate for? Will they need an entirely new brand of economics to guide their work?

These are the types of questions this series will examine. Check this spot next week for the second installment in the series, which will look at the California drought and what it can teach us about efforts to build a more democratic and resilient food system.

News Thu, 30 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400