Monday, October 31, 2011

Peace Economics and #occupywallstreet

Everyone’s got a theory of why they believe the #occupytogether protests have sparked, and indeed now gone global.  I don’t believe we need to over-think it:  people have solid evidence that they’ve been robbed.  I thought I’d bring a bit of what we can call “peace economics” theory to the conversation to keep the conversation moving forward and hopefully focused on where to head next.  What’s most important is putting in place systems, values, laws and maybe even institutions (I suggested Warren’s Financial Consumer Protection Bureau in my last blog) that can make it likely that we won’t end up here again.  One compelling feature of the field of conflict resolution, in fact, is precisely that it is based in “systems thinking”—that is, seeing the larger picture of how cultural assumptions and values, political regimes, economic systems and historical forces all interact to produce what we actually see on the ground.  Or in Zuccotti Park. 

Peace economics, as a relatively new school of thought, is somewhat undefined and still rather invisible.  But the Occupy movement suggests it is an idea whose time has come.  Perhaps its most important insight is that markets depend on a certain level of social trust and cohesion.  This itself is not a new idea.  Remember, Adam Smith himself (terminally misused and misunderstood in my view) referred to himself not as an economist but as a moral philosopher.  So lesson one of peace economics theory:  markets depend on a basic level of social trust and cohesion.  It’s clear this has broken down in the US.  I hear it not just in the rage at Wall Street banks who broke the economy with fraudulent mortgage securities.  I hear it in the everyday suspicion that seems to float around that other people can’t be trusted to do an honest job without threat of being fired, or who seem convinced that the housing crisis was caused solely by greedy middle classers who just had to have a McMansion they couldn’t afford.  The data doesn’t support that view, as a new CBO report recently confirmed. (Think #occupy is going away?  Ask yourself when was the last time a CBO report went viral!) I hear it from too many GOP candidates who, seemingly without having grasped that we have 9% unemployment, suggest that folks who are struggling get a job. We can’t rebuild markets that work without some basic level of social trust.

Gandhi, not someone usually associated with economics, I think gives us our next couple of principles of “peace economics”.  He taught that “wealth without work” and “power without principle” would decay and ultimately destroy a society.  Regarding wealth without work, some peace economics theorists have noted, for example, how important it is to distinguish between productive and unproductive parts of the economy.  I hear echoes of this idea when people concerned about economic inequality note that the financial institutions most implicated in mortgage-securities fraud make money essentially by moving money around.  Indeed one primary concern of #occupy has been the explosion of the financial products industry without investment in sectors that would enable the real economy to grow.  Hence the disconnect between Wall St and the real economy, and hence our market recovery while we’re still struggling with 9% unemployment. 

A further principle as we move towards some sort of more formal theory of peace economics might be a serious scrutiny of a concept that has only recently been challenged:  the idea of the “economic man”.  Science and economics are increasingly showing “homo economicus” to be false, and this is peace economics theory building block number four.  Of course this is the idea, often associated with Adam Smith, that people are completely (or at least primarily) driven by self-interest and will behave rationally in pursuit of what is best for them.  Certainly people act in their own interest but to put this forward as an unproblematic, uncomplicated truth is misleading.  To act in our own interest, we need solid information.  An increasing amount of research also suggests that our cultural identity and emotions influence our decision making far more than especially those of us in the “rational” West might be comfortable admitting.  Consider for example Lakoff’s The Political Mind, which argues that we are shaped and motivated by images, framing and symbols that if not quite ‘irrational’ are certainly super-rational.  Along similar lines, Rifkin presented voluminous research in his The Empathic Civilization that the human mind is wired for empathy, connection and collaboration at least as much as it is wired for aggression.  In their (our) exemplification of solidarity and local, participatory, collaborative democratic processes, OWS demonstrates this reality (at least so far). 

A fifth, and our final, principle of any developing peace economics theory must be sustainability.  Bluntly if it were up to the whaling industry (to pick one example) there would be no whaling industry as the population of whales would be extinct.  There is a difference between what is profitable or in the economic interests of one company and what is in the interest of an industry as a whole.  This to say if economies are to be considered peaceful, they must be sustainable.  As peace economics theory continues to develop, it can usefully build on the indigenous wisdom that, “Only when the last tree has been cut down, only when the last river has been poisoned, only when the last fish has been caught;  only then will you find that money can’t be eaten”.  So-called “locavores” (those who advocate eating locally grown food) and environmentalists have been singing this song for some time.  In hyper-developed, post-industrial countries like mine, it can be amazingly easy to lose sight of how real our dependence on nature is.  When researching the indigenous land rights movement in Paraguay, as I did some food shopping at a market near the room I was renting, wandering past fruits and vegetables from the seller’s own yard and meat slaughtered only that morning, I was viscerally reminded that everything we eat comes from something plant or animal.  Such an obvious statement--only someone from the rich world would be surprised by such a reminder!  Synergy and partnership just last week between Occupy Miami and a large demonstration of environmental activists suggest this could be a useful collaboration, and further suggests that as a whole, #occupy is seeking more economic transformation than just a drop in the unemployment rate. With the world’s attention and growing momentum now, maybe OWS is becoming a movement which can push forward a global transformation towards economies that enable human security and peace. 

Interested in more?  This article on Twenty Questions for Peace Economics:  A Research Agenda from 2002 is a great start. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ten Things the Occupy Movement Can Demand

1.       Stop all “robo-signing” of home foreclosures immediately.
2.       Allow students to declare student loan bankruptcy. 
3.       Reinstate “Glass-Steagall”, which separated consumer banking from investment banking.
4.       Investigation of the major investment banks who were involved in the subprime mess.
5.       Investigation of Fanny, Freddy and the ratings agencies like S&P who gave banks AAA ratings which were false.
6.       Implementation of Elizabeth Warren’s Financial Consumer Protection Bureau. 
7.       Overturning Citizens United.  Money is not speech.  It’s one person, one vote, not one dollar, one vote.
8.       Passage of Obama’s Jobs Act and/or implementation of a WPA-inspired jobs-emergency program. The WPA was a Depression-area government employment program.
9.       Similar to #8, an immediate halt to the laying off of public sector workers, especially at the state and local level.  Consumers create jobs, and we can’t afford to keep squelching demand. 
10.   Break up the banks that are (say it with me) Too Big to Fail.  Such a move is not anti-capitalist, it’s pro-capitalist.  You can’t have capitalism without the possibility of failure for poor investment decisions. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


"The enemy of the black is not the white. The enemy of capitalist is not communist, the enemy of homosexual is not heterosexual, the enemy of Jew is not Arab, the enemy of youth is not the old, the enemy of hip is not redneck, the enemy of Chicano is not gringo and the enemy of women is not men. We all have the same enemy: The enemy is the tyranny of the dull mind. The enemy is every expert who practices technocratic manipulation, the enemy is every proponent of standardization and the enemy is every victim who is so dull and lazy and weak as to allow himself to be manipulated and standardized." ~Tom Robbins

"Those who make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities..." ~Voltaire

“If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”   ~Malcolm X

The connections between peace, critical thinking skills and a good old fashioned (young fashioned? Pretty young protestors out there) sense of civic duty have not ever been more clear to me. I wrote elsewhere once a few years ago that fascism, or totalitarianism in general if you prefer, is more of a mindset than a government. This was in the context of a discussion a few years back (Obama was not yet president) of a Florida college kid who was tazed by a campus security officer at a Kerry campaign speech. Discussion erupted about whether the kid had deserved it; apparently he’d been going on and on at the mic during the Q and A and someone even mentioned that he had spoiled Harry Potter! And there was the inevitable argument that the security guys did what they had to do. After all, how did they know he wasn’t a threat? I found myself pointing out repeatedly that that wasn’t relevant. In a democracy that’s working, of course, the burden of proof was on the law enforcement. This is because they have greater physical and legal coercive power, and people just don’t handle power well unless it’s constantly checked. That the kid was rude and arrogant was never the point, no matter how true. That he’d spoiled Harry Potter was not the point (though one does sympathize). I was stunned to find myself hearing such arguments by those who say they believe in democracy in support of law enforcement being able to inflict pain essentially to correct public manners—to teach the kid a lesson.

The over-identification with authority and with the elites, in my view, explains such reactions. It explains the need to see the kid put down or even the need to mention Potter-spoiling at all. It also helps explain how so many of our essential institutions seem to have slipped out of our control. This kind of over-identification with authority is damaging to a democracy just as surely as an Al Qaeda or corporate media ownership. Yet it’s so hard to talk about because so personal and intangible. But understanding this dynamic is essential to being a citizen in a democracy because fascism, again, is not so much a regime as a mindset. A mindset that says, “They know best”. A habit that fails to take personal responsibility for being informed and forming one’s own opinions. Our own minds are the real last line of defense against totalitarianism. This is, as others have also said, why regimes even bother targeting academics, journalists and artists.

What’s the relevance to the unrest and peaceful uprisings that we’re seeing now, especially the Occupy movement? Finally enough people across the US—across the world—have begun seeing and saying out loud that we insist on our own voices being heard and the social contract continuing to work for at least most of us. Apathy and cynicism, of course both servants of the status quo, appear to be disintegrating. This is one reason that the “agenda” media folks seem to be demanding (they are of course elites too, deeply implicated in shaping what’s worst about our current status quo) isn’t crystal clear yet though themes of economic justice, jobs, addressing corruption and peace are clearly observable. Because the reality is that a number of institutions and cultural systems (media, political, financial) are seen to have all failed us, the problem is just probably not going to fit into one white paper. Wherever this ends, it must start with citizens doing their fair share of governing if we are to remain a government BY the people. Before we can #occupywallstreet, we must #occupyourown minds.