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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.

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Entries tagged "economy"

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Bill Moyers Leans on IPS Work to Ask: "Who Shipwrecked Our Economy?"

February 12, 2012 ·

Bill Moyers, the journalist and political commentator who first came to prominence as LBJ's press secretary, calls out the plutocracy and recommends Too Much, an IPS newsletter.

In America’s Plutocrats Play the Political Ponies, Sam Pizzigati described how the current electoral process resembles a horse race. "Wealthy connoisseurs of political talent pick a candidate. These wealthy connoisseurs then keep that candidate racing until they lose interest," wrote Pizzigati. You can watch an excerpt from Moyers' new show here:

Bill Moyers: Who Shipwrecked Our Economy? from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.

To get the "Too Much" newsletter in your inbox every Monday, click here.

Reality TV's "Stories of Stuff"

September 8, 2011 ·

Watch out Annie Leonard and the “The Story of Stuff!” Reality TV is on the stuff beat.

If you’ve missed reality shows like Pawn Stars, Storage Wars, and American Pickers, then you’ve missed a fascinating front in the expanding “new economy.”

These reality shows are an unwitting window in to the new green economy, showing just how cool and profitable it is to reuse and repurpose old stuff. Environmentalists know that reusing creates a “closed loop” in the production process, saving all the upstream inputs and keeping things out of landfills and incinerators. (For the full explanation, watch Annie Leonard’s excellent original Story of Stuff.) 

The Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas teaches lessons on repurposing through the hit show "Pawn Stars." CC photo by Pocheco.No one on these reality shows offers platitudes to saving the earth or utters an ecological thought. But the shows offer important lessons about both the dark side of accumulation and the ingenuity of those who are repurposing stuff and earning a living while doing it. 

Unfortunately, we must start our reality TV tour with the hoarders. Hoarding: Buried Alive and Hoarders dramatize the folks who compulsively fill their homes with stuff until health and human services professionals are called in. Stuff crams these homes from floor to ceiling. These shows baldly expose a convergence of dysfunctions: addiction, debt, overconsumption, and isolation. They’re truly gut-wrenching, and the only appropriate response seems to be a quick prayer and a click of the remote. It is impossible to watch without feeling like a horrible voyeur.

But moving on from the hoarders we meet the “pickers.” On Americans Pickers, two men drive around the country in a big van and knock on doors where they see houses overflowing with stuff. They wheel and deal and ultimately cart off a few choice items from these homes, leaving the homeowner a bit richer but still, usually, drowning in stuff.

The most riveting show is Storage Wars. Here, three men plus a husband-and-wife team bid on items in “foreclosed” storage units after glimpsing the contents for only a few minutes. Why only a few minutes, you might ask? One can only assume that storage warriors prefer a bit of drama and mystery built into their business model. (NPR’s This American Life also did a story on this phenomenon a few years ago.) 

What goes largely unlamented on Storage Wars are the people losing the storage units. Who are they, and why did they stop paying the rent on the unit? Why were they storing this stuff in the first place, instead of keeping it in their homes? The  “signs of the times” are invisible but present: was it a lost job, a foreclosed home? Was it a case of over-consumption, and the stuff just wouldn’t fit?

The tragedies of the old debt-based consumption economy stare us in the face as each unit’s yawning door is pulled open. But even as we lament this, the storage warriors zip into the opening like zealous entrepreneurs. They’re full of new life for old stuff.

These programs are just the tip of the iceberg wh>en it comes to stuff-based reality TV. There’s also Pawn Stars (the most popular show, featuring the colorful owners and customers of Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas), Hardcore Pawn (about Detroit's biggest pawn shop) and Picker Sisters (Lifetime’s answer to the male American Pickers, it’s about two women who travel the country looking for things to repurpose for their funky home décor shop).

What can we make of the fact that livelihoods based on reusing and repurposing have risen to such prominence in American pop culture that they merit multiple reality TV shows?

For one thing, it’s encouraging that so many people who appear not to give a fig for the environment are on the cutting edge of reusing, recycling and repurposing. The transition to a new economy won’t get far if we can’t make our livelihoods in it. The good news is that there’s money to be made by keeping stuff out of landfills – and even money to be made by featuring this on TV!

We could also speculate that a robust secondary market means that we’re all a little less obsessed with the shiny and the new. Or, perhaps this is a  temporary blip – and most folks are secretly dying to get back into the mall.

Oh America, you have woven a truly rich story of stuff. And now as we try to back out of over-consumptive madness into something more sustainable and healthy, we need everyone on board. Advocates for the new economy have something to learn from all the pickers, storage warriors, and pawn stars leading the way, and making a buck while doing it.

Building Resilience: The New Economy in the Shell of the Old

June 13, 2011 ·

This post originally appeared on Shareable.net.

On a Thursday night around 6 p.m., people gathered for the fourth meeting of my Resilience Circle. We were in the social hall of the local Congregational Church, a big churchy room with folding tables and chairs. The meeting started with a potluck. The Clearys arrived with some pickles and olives they’d preserved themselves. In her softly unassuming way, Sarah Cleary began talking about how easy it is to can some of your own food.

Luka, the facilitator, called everyone together and kicked off the session with the exchanging of “Gifts and Needs.” Participants had written their gifts – things they could offer – on one set of note-cards and their needs on another. Luka himself started. “I can give bike tune-ups,” he said, placing a note card into the center of the circle. “And I’d love to learn how to hem my own pants.”

A few moments later, after two others also said that they’d like to learn to sew, Sharon offered to run a sewing class for the group. And moments after that, I was somehow scheduling a time for the pastor of the church to cut my hair, a skill she had learned around the edges of her divine pursuits. A dog-sitting/child-care exchange began to bud. People began brainstorming about how to find and share a 20-foot ladder. Lots of folks offered to help Sarah weed her garden in exchange for veggies. I asked her if she could help us organize a community-wide canning workshop.

Exchanges like this are popping up in Resilience Circles around the country, sometimes known as common security clubs. We like to say we’re slowly “flexing our mutual aid muscles” since they’ve gotten so badly out of shape.

I began working as the Resilience Circle Organizer about six months ago, having just ended a job in a non-profit focused on policy change. At that job, we worked ruthlessly and relentlessly for financial reform and, ultimately, saw the passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. We were in the midst of the perfect opportunity to start creating a new economy through federal policy. Wall Street had just crashed our economy. There was widespread agreement that the banking sector should be reined in. What better moment to end the practices that drove us off the economic cliff?

But as most people know, this didn’t happen. The sad truth is that the new law takes some great steps, but doesn’t get the job done. Even sadder, funding for the agencies which are supposed to police Wall Street is now at risk. This could torpedo the reforms in one of those horrible off-the-radar moves that Washington is so good at. All this to say that attempting to do policy change as an organizer or regular activist is damn hard. It’s draining. How can we keep up our energy when it seems that no matter what we do, the rules always favor the rich and powerful at the expense of the rest of us?

For me, Resilience Circle organizing has been the perfect antidote to this sense of helplessness. With or without Washington on board, I now see that small groups of people can – and are – creating a new, shareable, and sustainable economy from the ground up. And in this time of overwhelming economic uncertainty, people are exploring a new kind of security based on community ties instead of the acquisition of stuff.

In Resilience Circles, we say three things need to happen to make a transition to a new economy: we need a new story about the economy that dismantles the myth of “recovery;” we need stronger communities; and we need new “rules” – i.e. new policies befitting a democracy instead of rule by a corporate elite. To make this happen, Resilience Circles learn together, engage in mutual aid, and take social action. A (free and open source!) curriculum provides a guide for facilitators to lead groups through seven initial sessions. From there, groups pick their own projects and self-facilitate.

I now see clearly that connected communities are essential if we’re to beat the rich and powerful elite who keep the system rigged. No matter how many e-mails we send, isolated individuals calling for change can easily be ignored, whereas networked groups of committed citizens can get things done. And, community keeps us motivated and energized by showing us that we have lots to offer each other. Cheesy as it sounds, it shows us that we have lots to share, from hair cuts to veggies to a 20-foot ladder.

All of this is slowly unfolding in my Resilience Circle, and in the Circles I talk to around the country. It’s transformative, hopeful, and fun.

Get involved – start or join a Resilience Circle in your neighborhood. Visit our website for info.

Don't Get Fooled Again: Writing Our Own Economic Future

April 25, 2011 ·

On April 1, I sat down with a group of my neighbors — members of a newly formed Common Security Club in our Boston neighborhood — to watch Inside Job, the Academy Award-winning documentary about the 2008 economic meltdown. We were going for an April Fools Day theme: “Don’t get fooled again” by the bankers and executives who caused the crash.

For a lot of us, the theme hit home: “I have a feeling they are going to fool us again,” one person said. “We have the same CEOs, the same regulators. Are we just going to go around and around, from crash to a mild recovery to the next crash?”

It’s a level of vulnerability many of us just can’t feel comfortable with. In community centers, living rooms, and churches around the country, more than forty other groups gathered to view and discuss the documentary that day, seeking to better understand why the economic crisis happened—and how to make their communities more resilient in the future.

Inside Job exposes devastating greed and incompetence at the highest levels of government and the private sector. With a relentless barrage of facts, it shows how the “smartest people in the room” created theconditions for a huge economic collapse that they had no idea how to stop—but never paid a price for the destruction they caused in the lives of millions of Americans.

After the film, my neighbors and I talked about how difficult it is to be hopeful when the same exact people who caused the crash are still running the economy. We’re also concerned that the story we tell ourselves about the economy hasn’t fundamentally changed. So many of us expect things to go back to the way they were: an economy based on cheap oil and unbridled consumption.

But many others know that’s not an option. At my club the following Sunday, we talked about whether or not we want a “recovery.” People were clear that we want more jobs, fewer foreclosures, and less debt. But: “I don’t think we can go backwards to get what we want,” said one participant, the pastor of the church. “We need to take stock of our reality now, and figure out how to make it better.”

We have been told that the experts know best, and that even though they crashed the economy, they’re still the experts. We’re told that we should be patient, not question things we don’t understand, and by all means, keep shopping. “These kinds of messages work to keep us paralyzed and isolated, and keep us from seeing other possibilities,” says Linda Schmoldt, a Common Security Circle facilitator in Portland, Oregon. “We must envision a new economy and society based on real wealth, and create a new story about what is possible.”

Still, though my club knew things needed to change, it was hard to imagine a large-scale vision of something different.

But it was easy to imagine how we could begin to change things in our own neighborhood: “What if we had a garden here at the church?” asked the pastor. “It would be something else for people to do, besides watch TV and shop. I’d need help, but we could do it. We could involve the teenagers at the community center and share all the food.” Others chimed in: “Let’s use Freecycle to find old things instead of buying new ones.” “Let’s set up a website to list recipe ideas and grocery saving tips and things we can share.”

What’s your vision for the new economy? What are you doing to turn it into a reality? There’s so much to do: you can help organize a Common Security Club for your community; get involved in a Transition Initiative; build local resilience alongside your neighbors; take steps to increase your independence from Wall Street’s phantom wealth traps by buying and investing locally.

One way to get the conversation started is with your own Inside Job screening — the movie is now available for online screening. The experts got it wrong; we can kiss their old story goodbye and start writing our own.

The Age of Vulnerability

January 10, 2011 ·

Philippine Laborers

Laborers going home from a Philippine
plantation where pineapple is grown
for export.

Photo by John Cavanagh

If you are wondering what the Wall Street crash did for U.S. credibility abroad, listen to this. In the middle of the pain and suffering of the global economic and food crises of 2009, a group of South Asian economists and policy makers met in India and mocked the United States: “You guys messed up, and you’re taking the world economy down with you. Thank God we were smart enough to ignore your advice, so our financial sector was never deregulated, and we still grow most of our own food. We keep government grain stocks to cushion price spikes, and we’re even better than China because we rely more on internal demand than exports so we’re not taking as much of a hit,” as one participant summed up the sentiment of the meeting.

Is anyone in the United States (and other, poorer nations of the world) listening? We certainly are intrigued. So, after 30 years of working on and off in the Philippines, we return to gauge the debate, among members of the nations' new government and among ordinary Filipinos. How is the government and how are Filipinos, we asked, responding to what we call the “triple crises of vulnerability”: the global economic crisis, the food crisis, and the spreading environmental crises of water, forests, fisheries, and climate?

Some broader context is helpful here: For these past 30 years, the United States (along with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization) has preached the merits of “free trade”—gearing economic activity to global corporations and markets in order to take advantage of the so-called “efficiencies” of trade and investment with other countries. From the United States to the Philippines to Mexico, governments set incentives and rules so that firms shifted from local to global markets and, in the case of the Philippines, roughly 11 million people ended up working overseas.

Over these decades in most countries, banking was deregulated so that new high-risk financial instruments reaped big gains for investors, but small businesses that once formed the backbone of most economies had trouble getting loans. Firms produced goods in global factories that exploited natural resources and workers from poorer countries like the Philippines where governments offered lax labor and environmental standards. Over this period in the Philippines, the big foreign-exchange earners became overseas workers, call centers for Western firms, electronic exports, and tourism.

In this era of what financier George Soros calls “market fundamentalism,” the rich soared to unimaginable heights (the number of billionaires in the world jumped from 111 in 1987 to 1,011 in 2010) while workers, the environment, and fairness suffered. We now know that this strategy made poorer countries extremely vulnerable to external shocks from the economies of other nations, over which they have no control.

Robin Broad and John Cavanagh

The authors debate their latest book
at World Bank Headquarters.

Photo by World Bank Staff

Indeed, economic crisis struck in late 2008, emanating from the Wall Street casino as a giant bubble in U.S. housing prices burst. Then banks and other financial markets crashed. The crisis quickly spread to Europe and to those poorer countries most tied into Western markets. Turkey and Mexico, for example, found export markets and remittances from overseas workers drying up. Many countries in Asia fared somewhat better, since they traded more with China and India—which partially insulated their economies from such shocks. About half of the Philippines’ global trade and other economic ties, for instance, are still with the United States and Europe; it thus remains vulnerable to a global economic crisis that has defied conventional predictions of recovery.

For most countries, economic crisis has been accompanied by a food crisis, as prices of rice, wheat, corn and other basics soared in 2008, fueled by both unusual weather and opportunistic speculators. This led to widespread protests and unrest in countries like the Philippines, which still imports up to 10 percent of its rice, the country's most important source of calories (it is the most import-dependent of the rice-consuming nations).

Meanwhile, the spread of global assembly lines and trade, heavily dependent on fossil fuels, deepened the climate crisis. The Philippines sits on key lists of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change, as the majority of rice and other foodstuff are grown on land that is barely above sea level.

In the middle of such global suffering and continuing vulnerability, what better time to rethink the overall economic and agricultural path? We asked this of a group of Philippine Congress members, led by Rep. Erin Tanada and Rep. Walden Bello. Coming from various political parties, most harbored hopes that global markets would simply pick up again and the Philippines could continue to live off the largess of other countries. But every Congressperson with whom we met in these hallowed halls has been spooked by the food crisis, and we found a refreshing openness to new ideas.

The good news, as we told these members of Congress, is that alternative economic models more rooted in small businesses and small farms are spreading around the world. In the United States, the local farm movement has expanded rapidly; for the first time in decades, the number of U.S. farmers has stopped shrinking. From local farmers markets to the spread of worker-owned cooperatives, creative people are building communities based on rooted economic activity, less inequality, more ecological health, and involving people more directly in the decisions that affect their lives.

We found this also in the Philippine countryside, where we spent time with dozens of farmers. We discovered a growing number who had shifted from so-called “high-yielding” varieties of rice heavily dependent on imported and toxic chemical fertilizers and pesticides to local seeds grown organically and kept healthy by a variety of homemade “concoctions” to control pests and weeds (more on this in our next blog).

Back to the India conference of 2009. The participant ended his report: The global economic crisis “is a blow, but we’ll still grow at 6 percent and we’ll catch you [in the U.S.] even sooner in the global economy than we would have otherwise. Hope you learn something from this.”


John Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Robin is a Professor of International Development atAmerican University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is on leave from directing the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books on the global economy, and are currently traveling the country and the world to write a book entitled Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability.

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