Watching the Salem City Council discuss homeless solutions last Tuesday night made me feel like I was looking through a magnifying glass. The problems were real. The ideas about how to help homeless people were tiny.
Now, there's nothing wrong with small steps, like allowing a women's homeless shelter to add nine beds to their current 10 bed capacity, or considering allowing the homeless to camp in industrial parts of town.
But equally valuable, if not more so, is looking at Salem's problems through a wide-angle mental lens that sees homelessness, environmental degradation, lack of affordable housing, urban sprawl, and other issues as manifestations of a systemic societal failure.
This is the goal of a book by Russ and Dave Beaton, long-time Salem residents, that I've read the first part of. Russ brought some copies to a group that we're both members of, and I eagerly forked out $10 to get one at a bargain price (The Economics of Hope sells for $17.95 on Amazon.)
I'm liking the book a lot.
Russ is a retired emeritus professor of economics at Willamette University. Dave, his brother, has worked in both state and federal government, with a special interest in the impacts of information technology on the workplace and society.
They've written an approachable book for those of us who don't know much about economics, yet want to understand why things are so screwed up locally, nationally, and internationally.
There's a lot of moving parts to this question.
But the core thesis of The Economics of Hope is that inequality is tied tightly to climate change and other assaults on our planet's environmental well-being. And corporatism -- a mindset that elevates the values of corporations far above what is desirable -- lurks at the heart of what ails us.
Here's some passages from the book that speak to this. And it isn't just large multinational corporations that are the problem. It's also a Chamber of Commerce mentality that views money and jobs as more important than quality of life and sustainable living. (boldfacing is in original).
In summary, the reality of the [corporate] model looks very much like the medieval structure of Feudalism, except the currency of the Realm is not eternal salvation, but money -- pure and simple. The reward is not sitting at the right hand of God, but a villa in the South of France.
A spot in Heaven for repentant souls is replaced by the lure of owning a 200-foot yacht, or perhaps, to shamelessly mix metaphors, the ability to soar with the gods in the corporate jet.
...Special attention must be afforded the phrase Corporate Sponsorship. From softball teams to local symphonies, corporate sponsorship is eagerly sought. Presumably, we cannot afford such enrichment opportunities without such philanthropic largesse.
With an admitted generous dash of cynicism, it could be added: "For sure, we can't afford them, since you have already looted from the community any economic surplus that would allow us to pay for such amenities on our own. Give it back...!"
...It will be argued in response that corporate sponsorship in local communities is normally sought from local business interests, and not from national corporations. This is certainly true, and leads to an important reminder.
It is the mindset we are talking about, and not just the presence of some transnational institution itself.
Local business people -- as well they should be in many cases -- are normally seen as community leaders and benefactors. This promotes a "chamber of commerce" mentality which assumes economic prosperity to be the primary value in a community, and from which springs all other features that the community might cherish.
Once that assumption is met, diversity of interests and choices is encouraged, since business is enthroned as the dominant institution that provides all meaning in life. Corporate "sponsorship" has done its job as a small but effective down payment toward a cultural mindset.
Without further prompting, locals are playing their part, and the corporatist paradigm has won out.
Below I've taken what Russ and Dave Beaton have said above and related the "corporate mindset" and "corporate sponsorship" notions to some specific local issues. Obviously these are my notions, not theirs, but I think there's some common ground in how we see things.
-- The City Council is putting an employee-paid payroll tax on the May 2020 ballot, not an employer-paid tax. And the money, if the measure passes, isn't going to homelessness, parks, libraries, or such. It would be spent on public safety, the police and fire departments that already have by far the largest share of the City's general fund budget.
-- Urban Renewal funds in the millions of dollars are handed out freely to businesses and developers, even when there is no urban area that really needs renewing. But it took a lot of effort to pry loose $50,000 from the City of Salem to fund the beginning stage of a Climate Action Plan that is needed for the small little goal of preserving the earth for human habitation.
-- Businesses and developers in Salem wrongly cut down or wreck street trees that belong to everybody without consequences, or at least no major consequences, while ordinary citizens are held to stricter standards. There are lots of examples of this that I've written about over the years. Here's a very recent example and one from 2013.
-- Likewise, massive road projects are funded as a matter of course, since they are in tune with a chamber of commerce mentality. Meanwhile, those who advocate for making Salem a city where people can walk and bike safely and easily have to struggle to get a single Neighborhood Greenway built, whose cost is a fraction of a single road-widening.
-- When businesses complained about the homeless disrupting downtown commerce, City officials jumped into action to push a ban on homeless camping throughout Salem. However, when local experts on homelessness pointed out the obvious -- that the ban did nothing to reduce the number of homeless people, just change where they congregate -- the City Council appeared confused and unsure what to do. Once again, making money is being taken more seriously than acting humanely.
I'll give the Beatons the last word. Here's another passage from their chapter "What is Corporatism?"
Understand, in no way are we suggesting that corporatism represents some insidious, regimented, sinister force; a pernicious organization with chapters, board members, a secret handshake, and that meets monthly in some five-star hotel on the outskirts of Houston or Dubai.
What we are saying is that powerful corporations, working through their network of relationships to other institutions -- especially government and the media -- have effectively found ways to consolidate, expand, and solidify their power and influence over many important aspects of American life.
The wealthy are definitely in control. It is vital to understand the many permeating effects of this expansion of power if ways are to be found to devise a comfortable and viable local alternative.
A final all-important reminder: The tangible effects, pro and con, of corporations on our lives have been hashed and rehashed, and this will no doubt continue. That is not the main point. The main point is that it has tended to give you, the average American, a mindset compatible with (and inadvertently supportive of) Global Corporatism -- manifested even in your local actions.
Leading you through introspection to examine that mindset or world view is our main purpose in this chapter.
This is a necessary first step on the part of regular thinking citizens if we are to undertake effective local actions to make our communities more safe, sustainable, prosperous, and personally satisfying. The task will be difficult, but we see it as a fundamentally optimistic endeavor: it represents the path to the best possible future we can expect.