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Citizens Economics

Gar Alperovitz is an historian and political economist, president of the National Center for Economic and Security Alternatives, and a PFN board member. He is interviewed here by YES! editor Sarah van Gelder.

Sarah: You've done a great deal of research into the relationship of economic structures to environmental health and to the distribution of wealth. What do you think are the long-term trends in both these areas?

Gar: Throughout the 20th century, the distribution of income has gotten steadily worse. The rich are getting much richer and, for the working and middle class, the ladder is getting longer and harder to climb. The reasons are that both the American capitalist and the socialist systems systematically generate highly unequal job and income structures. Ours is now about the worst in the advanced industrial societies.

Along with unequal income and wealth comes political power sufficiently strong to block attempts to redistribute the income in any serious way. That doesn't mean nothing is being done to alleviate poverty, but these efforts serve mainly to slow down a worsening trend rather than to reverse the trend.

On the environmental side, there have been some gains in air and water pollution, in DDT and lead, but the trends have been broadly negative around the world.

Sarah: Your work has centered on forms of ownership that are neither socialist nor capitalist. What difference do these forms of ownership make in terms of equity and ecological sustainability?

Gar: In a private corporation – both the worker-owned corporation and the corporate or entrepreneurial owned – there's every incentive to cut costs because of competition. And cutting costs in many cases means polluting the environment. This is not always the case, because there are some resource-saving techniques that also save money, but very often it's cheaper to dump the pollutants into the river or into the
air.

Now if you happen to be part of a community that owns a company, you can choose within a democratic framework whether to pollute your own environment. In that case, there is no difference between who gets polluted and who does the polluting. You “internalize” that choice, as economists put it.

In businesses owned by smaller municipalities and neighborhood corporations, there is community accountability, and democratic processes take hold. When a community owns the resource and the production processes, it has to grapple with the trade-offs among multiple bottom lines. The result is a stronger democracy.

Sarah: What are the possibilities for this type of approach to really take off?

Gar: We're in an era where things are pretty much in a stalemate at the level of national politics. I've worked a great deal in the federal government, and while I believe important and useful things can be done in Washington, DC, I don't think we're going to make a change in major trends at that level.

The transition to the new century seems to me to be very much like the period at the end of the 19th century when citizens were creating different institutions, political movements, cultural activities, spiritual concerns, all of which are preconditions of a subsequent move forward.

There's also a veritable explosion of new ideas coming from intellectuals, journalists, writers, and activists about a future built on community principles. This explosion of ideas is another precondition for the next big push to occur in the new century.

Sarah: How do you see that process unfolding over the coming years?

Gar: First, it's important to understand that there's already a good deal more experimentation going on than most people are aware of. In the last 30 years, neighborhood development corporations have gone from zero to over 3,000. There are now more workers involved in some form of worker-owned enterprise than there are members of private-sector unions.

There's also experimentation with co-ops and community financing entities; the Southshore Bank in Chicago is the most well known. And there are wonderful things happening in schools, health care, environmental programs, land trusts, and the arts. Many states are also innovating.

Most people don't realize how much there is to draw on. If we were to bring together all of the positive things now going on in any one community, you would have the practical local basis of the new society.

I don't think this is all pie in the sky. It's going to be a very difficult process. But I think it's an exciting period. A friend of mine says: anybody can join a social movement once it gets going, but the interesting period is getting it going. I think there's a reasonable shot we'll come out the other end after having done the ground-breaking and foundational work, which is the most important, demanding, and interesting work at any time in a society's history.

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