Strategies & Resources

Moving from vision to action

One of the articles in Economics In An Intellegent Universe (IC#2)
Originally published in Spring 1983 on page 52
Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute

Where do we go from here? What can we do, as individuals and in groups, to be building and living the economic life of a humane sustainable culture? The times are fortunately quite rich with opportunities. What follows is a small sampling.

Analyzing your personal situation The ideas in the previous articles can be applied to improving your own personal economic system. "Improving" requires changing something. This change may be in the area of tools, skills, scheduling, or some combination, but somehow or another, you need to "invest", at least some attention, if you are going to improve your personal economy. The challenge, then, is to decide which of the many investments you could make are likely to be really worthwhile in terms of improving your quality of life.

The previous material suggests a number of guidelines for approaching this choice. First, you need to consider all of your productive activity, non-cash (e.g household) as well as cash, all on an equal footing. Second, you need to consider time as a special separate resource. Third, you need to consider costs as well as benefits, look for optimum balances, and expect that any investment will run into diminishing returns when pushed beyond its optimal scale.

The following technique illustrates how all this can be applied. To find out where you are, make out two itemized budgets, one for income and expenses in both cash and non-monetized goods and services, and the other of how you spend your time. After you have these laid out, go down each list putting a plus or minus next to each item you would like to change. Next make a chart with all the items you have marked listed down one side, and make four columns across the top. Label these columns "needs", "tools", "skills" and "attitudes".

Go down the "needs" column, and next to each item, list all the personal needs – from survival to creativity – being served by that item. Notice the different ways you are serving the same needs and try to think of other activities or expenditures not on your chart that could also serve those needs. Add them to the chart. Next go down the "tools" column, and by each item, list all the tools you don’t have that could help you be more efficient with that item. Do the same thing with the "skills" and "attitudes" columns. Allow yourself to come up with unusual solutions. If the change of one item seems to obviously require a particular input, such as a new tool, be sure to come up with alternative solutions based on the other types of inputs. When you are done, you will have a brainstorm chart filled with aspects of your life you would like to change and ways you could change them.

The next step is to consider costs and benefits. Go over each potential investment (tool, skill or attitude), and see as best you can what it will do and what it will cost. Be sure to include the cost in time as well as money, and the cost in use and maintenance as well as purchase. Out of this should emerge a few highly promising potential investments. Choose one or two, and acquire them. After integrating them into your life, go back to your chart, update it, and identify some new "investment" to make. The effect of this technique is to encourage you to keep evolving your own economy based on a wholistic view of your life.

Changing business patterns As both Robert Schwartz and Wayne Roberts indicated (see page 41), conditions are very ripe for major changes in the structure of American business. Changes are occurring and would probably be occurring even faster if more people were aware of the possibilities. You can help spread the word. Information on current trends can be gleaned from business publications like Business Week, INC. Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal. The Tarrytown Group (P.O. Box 222, Tarrytown, N.Y. 10591) is organizing some of the most successful new corporations into what they are calling the "Tarrytown 100". They should be a good source for information on innovative business structures.

As for information on the Mondragón Cooperatives, the best source in the U.S. is probably the Industrial Cooperative Association (249 Elm Street, Somerville, MA 02144 or 617/628-7330). ICA is an active consulting group working to help people set up Mondragón type cooperatives.

There is also an hour long BBC documentary, The Mondragón Experiment, that I have seen and highly recommend. It is available from California Newsreel, 630 Natoma St., San Francisco, CA 94103 or 415/621-6196. Rental price is $75.

Another way to help these changes along is through legislative changes. At this point, Massachusetts is the only state that gives legal recognition to the Mondragón pattern. Most states have laws governing normal corporations and various kinds of cooperatives, but the Mondragón model is unique enough that it doesn’t fit any of the slots. Now that Massachusetts has taken the lead (with help from ICA), it should be relatively easy to get other states to follow. Information on the Massachusetts law is available from ICA.

Changing investment patterns Redirecting the flow of capital is another important step we can take to reshape our economic life. If you are interested in socially conscious investing, you might be interested in the newsletter, Good Money, published by The Center for Economic Revitalization, Box 363, Worcester, VT 05682 (12 pages, bi-monthly, $36/yr or $12/yr for those with annual incomes below $13,000). Their focus is on combining sound investment with positive social change.

At a more local level, the E.F. Schumacher Society has developed a program, called SHARE (Self Help Association for a Regional Economy), for helping very small businesses get capital. It addresses the common problem that it is very hard for new small business ventures to get loans of a few thousand dollars (at a reasonable interest), yet this is often what is needed to get effective local operations launched. The banks don’t want to bother with these small loans because their return is too low to justify the time required to evaluate the loan application.

SHARE deals with this problem by taking both the risk and the evaluation away from the bank, but still using the bank as a convenient bookkeeping institution. The way it has been working for the past year in western Massachusetts is as follows: With the cooperation of a local savings bank, SHARE set up a special type of 90 day passbook saving account known as a SHARE Credit Fund Account. Local people who want some of their capital to be invested in local small businesses open one of these accounts with a minimum deposit of $100, and with the understanding that the money in this account can be used as cash collateral for loans. This means that the money in these accounts is at risk should the loan default, but it also means that the depositors (who are also thereby the members of SHARE) can tell the bank who should get the loans. To evaluate potential loans, SHARE members divide up into committees (or associations) that focus on particular interest areas such as agriculture, alternative energy, cottage industry, small business, forestry, etc.. Their basic loan criteria are that the loan should go toward some productive asset (tools, knowledge, etc.) that can pay for itself and that promotes greater regional self- sufficiency, increases local employment, and/or conserves energy. In addition, only SHARE members are eligible for SHARE loans. Once the SHARE committee has approved a loan, the bank then handles all processing and collection. Depositors earn 6% and loans are generally at 10%, with the 4% going to the bank as its handling charge. For more information about this program, contact SHARE at Box 125, Great Barrington, MA 01230 or 413/528-1737.

This and related topics will be covered in an upcoming E.F. Schumacher Society seminar:

"Tools for Community Self-Reliance is the title of a seminar on community self-financing techniques sponsored by the E.F. Schumacher Society in conjunction with the Center for Neighborhood Technology of Chicago. Scheduled for June 9th – 15th in Chicago. Staff includes Shann Turnbull, Australian businessman and consultant to the World Bank; Robert Swann, author of Community Land Trusts: A Guide To A New System Of Land Tenure and articles on establishing regional currencies; and George Benello, an expert on worker managed businesses, and founding member of Arrow Design, a worker owned and managed business producing a small efficient vehicle. Topics to include: community banking, financing appropriate technology and small businesses through issuing of local currencies, and financing community land acquisition without grants. Fee on a sliding scale basis. Write or call: E.F. Schumacher Society, Box 76A, RD 3, Great Barrington, MA 01230, 413/528-1737."

I attended their previous seminar outside of Eugene, OR, in January, and found it a great help in preparing this issue.

Changing attitudes Finally, probably the most important work that each of us needs to do towards building a new economics concerns outgrowing many of the unrealistic attitudes and perspectives that conventional economic thinking promotes. I think particularly of replacing a zero sum image of the world with a positive sum image; of realizing that material goods are only one of many inputs in quality of life, and often not the limiting factor; and of realizing the importance and value of the non-cash economies. These old images are deeply embedded in our culture and language, and it will take some careful re- imaging for us to get free of them. For example, the images we associate with "rich" and "wealthy" convey the idea that it is desirable to have very great material wealth, yet experience suggests that the happiest and most creative people are often not unusually wealthy in a monetary sense. If we can better acknowledge this reality, it will allow those with large monetary wealth and those with little to work together towards positive sum solutions that improve the quality of life for all.

In a similar way, both as individuals and businesses, we often look on our cash income as our "earnings" – something that has come solely and fully through our own efforts. We conveniently ignore all the contributions by the rest of society and nature that make this income possible. To gain some perspective on this, simply compare how hard you work and what you receive with the life of a medieval peasant. We need to come to the realization that when we are working in the marketplace, we are like a cash register operator at a checkout counter – conveniently placed to take in cash, but actually representing many others. In this and many other ways, we need to do all we can to creatively re-describe our economic life so our images can better fit the reality of our intelligent universe.