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Michael Peck's blog

In Search of Better Pogo Angels

Pogo’s prophetic and pathetic observation holds: “we have met the enemy and he is us.” Today’s polarized and polarizing United States, under siege from itself, is proving too internally cowed, under-imagined and social media pigeonholed to buck predictable spheres of influence. More than just another rare bipartisan opportunity, getting worker ownership equations right could heal the breach between mutually-assured destructing left and right populism by empowering and freeing workers to think, act, provide, invest and vote for themselves.

Placing a concerted worker ownership cultural thumb on the scales of competitiveness, innovation, solidarity and resiliency can beat back stubborn inequalities of wealth aggregation, mobility, opportunity and crippling public and private sector dependencies. This is not a wish list. Metrics and living parables expanding throughout the United States tell a healing story begging for enabling national leadership (varied examples include: Cincinnati, Dayton, New York City’s Bronx & Brooklyn boroughs, Denver, Austin, Seattle, Jackson, rural Appalachia and coastal Maine).

Sadly, not enough elected Republicans or Democrats are fully comfortable promoting working class ownership even though employee ownership policies traditionally benefitted from origins within both political parties. With the quest for ownership as the original aspirational American system condition (land, home and now workplace), current legislative policy efforts enhance existing employee stock grants and earn-out programs and open opportunity doors to the nation’s embryonic but growing union and worker cooperative movement. Still in the cold light of scale, proliferating worker ownership and workplace democratic practices and possibilities, apart from occasional enlightened individual congressional member outreach, do not receive serious single political partywide or bipartisan support.

Previous posts allude to how ownership public policy needs to upgrade its act before engaging full bore under the bright klieg lights of nationwide scaling (see: Healing America’s Regressive Gene; The Bipartisan Future of Work; Ownership for All; Employee Ownership Needs Worker Owners). Individual workplace and community ownership – like every other foundational American impulse – desperately needs a vocabulary and vision overhaul based on proven experiences that sustain from an organic and fully inclusive ecosystem perspective. Ownership tools cannot themselves become vehicles to proliferate more gated privilege communities but instead must serve as the ubiquitous “lamp beside the golden door” for everyone regardless of race, color, creed, economic class, geography or immigrant status.

Bipartisan political support for nationwide community college worker ownership featuring “hands-on” and “learning by doing” curriculum with the potential of 50 million job-seeking, rising working class enrollees is a good place to start.  After two years of preparation, the 1worker1vote.org movement is launching a soft prototype this October as a measured step in this direction. Federal, state and local ownership policy convening is another imperative to grasp the widening differences between America’s worker and employee ownership populations (increasingly diverging as the “gig” economy consumes more of the country’s workforce) to better grow both.

The often heard, privilege-laden “excuse” as to why workers should not own a percentage or even an equity majority of the enterprises in which they work is based on a false premise that it’s detrimental and risky for workers to hold “all of their eggs in one basket.” Janis Joplin’s and Kris Kristofferson’s refrain that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” still holds true 48 years later. Redlined, embedded inequalities in America means over one-third of the country’s working class does not have access even to metaphorically owning either workplace “eggs” or a basket to put them in.

Fortunately, the follow-up question of which comes first, the ownership egg or the ownership basket, is becoming increasingly irrelevant given new socioeconomic model successes combining values, productivity, profitability and competitiveness (more examples: Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Oakland, Richmond, Rochester, Madison and Cleveland). Highly referenced experiences such as Mondragon’s 60 years of industrial worker cooperative history cannot be exported wholesale but are being reimagined eclectically throughout the United States. Like Pandora’s box, Mondragon may not be fully applicable to all the great shambles of unraveling America’s work culture decay, but it does offer prototypes, templates, lessons learned, structural mechanisms, useful stories and most important: some hope.

Entrepreneurial business organizations exploring “best practice” policies such as the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) through its “Ownership4All” and “High Road Workplace” campaigns are showing how successful private sector way-showers combine varying degrees of worker and employee ownership and high impact internal participation in management. America’s leading companies are increasingly vocal about “adapting to meet new social and political expectations” (e.g. “The Moral Voice of Corporate America” and “In New Political Status Quo, Big Business Bucks the Right.”) Jumping out in front and turning this promising trend into a compelling policy parade holds nothing but upside for corporate social responsibility enthusiasts, impact-seeking foundations, grassroot movements, enlightened boardrooms, political parties focusing on winning, shareholder democracy advocates and community activists.

The better angels of our unalienable rights nature have taken a very long lunch break and it’s time for them to get back to saving workplace souls. Kickstarting this process means becoming serious about bipartisan worker ownership policies and practices. Worker ownership metrics show higher productivity, resiliency, solidarity and local community reinvestment trends that can heal the country’s most broken places. Bipartisan worker ownership therapy with its inherent equity and participation ethos is poised to prevent further domestic cultural cardiac arrest resulting from an impoverished values diet, inadequate exercise in basic civics and a failure to reconnect with America’s aspirational history. Literally and figuratively, the worker ownership elephant and donkey own the opportunity economy room.

Michael A. Peck is a co-founder and executive director of www.1worker1vote.org, an ASBC member and a founding institution of platformcoop.net. He’s served as Mondragon’s North America delegate since 1999.

Healing America’s Regressive Gene

Mortality is universal and bipartisan: black lives do matter and lower economic class, middle-aged white lives with a high school diploma or less are driving actuarial chart curves downward by dying off more quickly than they should. Causes are also bipartisan: disintegrating family cohesion, worsening job prospects in a rapidly decaying, inequality-driven culture that commoditizes the people who work, and inferior access to healthcare for the downtrodden including whites plagued by obesity, heart disease, diabetes and opiate addiction. Twenty-first century American exceptionalism and manifest destiny are marked by “deaths of despair” based on socioeconomic class with a sobering nationwide uptick in substance abuse-related deaths and suicides.

The recent Brookings Papers on Economic Activity identify an unequal and unfairly, “creatively destroyed” working class labor market as the overriding root cause for metastasizing cultural decline among America’s disadvantaged rural and urban populations. Declining individual, community and regional healthcare childhood coverage produces “income despair” after-effects impacting “marriage, child-rearing, and religion” free falling within an economic vacuum (Why the white middle class is dying faster, explained in 6 charts – Vox; White Working-Class Death Rate to Be Elevated for a Generation – Bloomberg).

America’s healthcare “regressive gene” comes in numerous mutant flavors such as generational and state coverage divides; conservative prioritizing of a freedom to choose philosophy over progressive, real-time, federally-backed minimum coverage guaranties for individuals and geographies too poor to pay upfront or even down the road; and healthcare offerings dependent on local, state and county politics of the moment. Many conservative voters with economic means do not believe in subsidizing healthcare coverage for those with less or hold that healthcare choice must be a state rather than federal decision.

As a result, states as diverse as Ohio, Tennessee and Mississippi serve as “voluntary regressive policy laboratories” for how legislative changes to healthcare delivery, availability and affordability facilitate the picking of recipient winners and losers with actuarial table curves performing as expected relative to economic class and geography. The freshly-concocted U.S. House of Representatives “replace and repeal” legislative failure proves the difficulty of separating political ideology from the facts and fiction of local and socially uneven healthcare coverage for the foreseeable future (Inside the GOP’s Health Care Debacle – Politico; A political scientist explains the real reason Obamacare repeal is so hard – Vox).

Many Red State politicians realized that the U.S. House of Representatives healthcare plan put forward by the Republican majority “risked havoc for their poorest constituents” starting by threatening the potential loss of basic medical insurance for more than 24 million working poor and elderly Americans (Trump Budget Cuts Put Struggling Americans on Edge). Pouring salt onto wounds, the bill that was withdrawn would have channeled savings into large tax cuts for the affluent (How Republicans’ new health plan would affect American incomes – The Economist). Even Tea Party Republicans want more federal spending on better healthcare coverage.

Unequal economic classes generate unequal actuarial statistical outcomes. But still power-paradigm competing political party and corporatist, “free market” hardliners remain indifferent and dismissive by insisting on freedom of choice even when embedded, no way out poverty is the prevailing and dictating local option. America risks doubling-down on here and now “purposeful Darwinism” instead of “dreamer” aspiration, picking lifestyle and life expectancy winners and losers through regressive budget allocations and healthcare policies reactivated by wrenching and lifechanging, over-the-horizon sociopolitical ideology that drone-kills from a safe distance for those whose vote mortally affects others.

In the face of regressive inequality onslaught, sustaining and transforming domestic economic development in the United States suffers from a prolonged lack of imagination, stymied by America’s founding philosophical ravine between big government largesse and private sector self-sufficiency (either “it takes a village” or “I built it all myself”). Hard-wired to circle each other like twin boxers locked into preordained and predictable struggle arcs, the “Divine Left” and “Neo-Populist Right” put partisan points on the board by trading and absorbing knock-out blows instead of using each other’s momentum to collaborate on more inclusive and greater impact levels (No easy answers: why left-wing economics is not the answer to right-wing populism – Vox).

Out of power and thrashing about in search of an authentic working class voice, the “Divine Left” continues its policy miscues by instinctively reverting to top-down, big government solutions and redistribution fantasies. In tandem, targeted large-scale federal government downsizing for both public sector employment and budgets in pursuit of “deep state deconstruction” adversely impacts hard-to-replace rural employment positions in public sector agencies.

Blue states send much more money to the federal coffers than they receive, while the reverse is true for red states where the majority of America’s rural voters reside. Insisting on ideological purity at the expense of creating jobs or protecting existing coverage on behalf of the nation’s most economically needy and vulnerable sends an unmistakable signal to rural and economically disadvantaged voters who united in 2016 to elect the current White House occupant. Both unintended and intentional regressive consequences easily and fatally affect depressive-disorder survival for this desperate constituency.

The New York Times reports that “many of the domestic programs targeted for cuts have an outsize impact on residents of counties that voted for” the current Administration and Congress. The proposed 2018 fiscal year Federal budget defunds Planned Parenthood, community development block grants, climate science in NOAA, guts the EPA, extracts all public sector monies from the nonprofit Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) that provides grants to 1,500 local public radio and television stations nationwide, cripples Legal Aid Services, deprives rural Appalachia of household heating subsidies in winter and coalfield job diversification job training support, and denies Great Lakes restoration and economic revitalization measures.

Healthcare and economic opportunity serfdom are part of a standard malpractice portfolio that extends downward throughout the United States. For example, “Corporate-Owned Life Insurance” (COLI), referred to historically as “dead peasant insurance” that began in 19th century Russia where the feudal rich bought and sold their serfs as property, is common practice among America’s corporatist class. In a similar vein, the Roberts U.S. Supreme Court anointment of oxymoronic “corporate personhood” gives the same legal standing to companies with larger bank accounts and outreach potential as to ordinary people. A third example, labor commoditization exacerbated by cannibalizing global trade pacts and increasing robotic and artificial intelligence automatization, contributes heavily to America’s recycled but going nowhere, stagnant worker wage conditions and declining manufacturing hires.

Regressive austerity policies are conveniently preached by affluent Americans as a “do as I say, not as I do” proscription for economic recovery but on the backs of those without economic standing or political recourse. This is especially true in a Roberts U.S. Supreme Court, “Citizens United,” pay-to-play plutocracy where now, more than ever, one dollar equates to one vote favoring those with unparalleled access to greater amounts of invisibly-sourced funds with which to purchase more votes as efficiently as the policy marketplace demands.

Intended regressive consequences are never more predictable than during mounting public sector debt hysteria cycles. Pre-engineered, alarmist calls for austerity policies and fiscal safety net budget cuts following the 2008 Great Recession, rained down repeatedly and indiscriminately on America’s most vulnerable populations, undercutting hopes for full economic recovery. If markets once again begin to deteriorate, this ploy will flail those already hurting including rural white Americans who voted so dramatically in 2016 for searing sociocultural and economic change. Today’s intended “deep state” castration compounded by tomorrow’s macroeconomic austerity policies would “kick down while kissing up” while avoiding answers to the people’s prayers to reopen closed factories and mines in decimated rural Midwest towns and Appalachia.

Suffocating generational debt marks another regressive hurdle for sustainable civic health in the United States to overcome. USA Today reports that, “40 million Americans owe an even more whopping $1.2 trillion in student-loan debt. The amount surpasses every other type of household debt except mortgage debt.” Economic class directly predetermines not only a meaningful life or premature death but also the ability to consume in a country where fully 70 percent of GNP is predicated on individual consumption.  “Living the dream” has become a macabre, ironic throw-away line for the already sizeable and increasing percentage of American citizens who are not economically, socially, geographically or politically “free enough” to live out their fullest, best possible lives in dignity and well-being.

Healing America’s regressive gene begins with converging trends and supportive metrics connecting how workers can re-purpose themselves into competitive and profitable stakeholder equity-owned and democratic workplace enterprises. An opportune place to start transitioning to this empowering, new work culture could come from the Administration’s announced trillion-dollar infrastructure rebuilding initiative financed through both public and private capital sources and already guided by two highly complementary (to local stakeholder ownership) core principles: “Buy American and Hire American.” But there is no regressive free lunch. Usage tolling of completed rural and Midwest industrial infrastructure projects by out-of-state capital sources could easily prove counter-productive, inspiring public backlash as construction jobs faded while unabated transfer payments through user fees continued and increased over time, morphing into the locked-in image of yet another passive income annuity benefitting financial elites.

Better ways to achieve sustaining cultural and economic repurposing and balances through technology are emerging in key manufacturing industries. For example, “Fleet Logic” automotive ecosystems are rapidly evolving in both design and practice, starting in urban settings and echoing worker ownership enterprise principles through social media-intensive, transportation sharing platforms already under development.

America’s new automotive work culture challenges will not be met by one-offs or even linear scaling but instead through designing and launching worker-owned manufacturing ecosystems that mirror how transportation will be conceived, licensed or franchised, delivered and consumed. In this scenario, lifestyles and workstyles become as interchangeable in structure as they are starting to be in practice.  In such a “back to the future” realization, automotive sector-inspired economic development fall-out re-purposes and upgrades the “Sharing Economy” version of Henry Ford’s famous insight that paying his assembly-line workers enough to buy the cars they were making dramatically increased sales.

Likewise, rising stakeholder competitive enterprises in energy efficiency, agriculture, fishing, healthcare, design, technology, and professional and technical services industry sectors already demonstrate how collective flourishing is based not only on individual self-reliance, entrepreneurial bootstrapping, but also on widespread and deepened stakeholder equity, and workplace democratic practices. Thriving diversity uplifts age, geography, economic class and racial barriers into new economic formulas that transcend yesterday’s static and compartmentalized practices. Local stakeholders get to meet exterritorial shareholders on more equal economic playing fields starting with equalizing employee, worker and cooperative ownership tax incentive policies.

This is no fantasy neo-socialism or false utopia formula but rather a less predatory and more effective approach to enlighten capitalism with metrics backing up superior resiliency performance claims. If the goal is to heal  working class economic fears and disenfranchisement than no alternative model or experience, beginning with those who have withstood the test of time, should be summarily overlooked or minimized. Critics and activists genuinely looking to reset America’s regressive gene have references and choices, and can kick the tires of in-motion, inclusive and uplifting, change-agent ecosystems focusing on worker empowerment and stakeholder ownership. For example, they can visit the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative (CUCI) and the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative (BCDI) to witness hope, insights, metrics and reusable templates in the raw. Both examples are inspired by 60 plus years of Mondragon cooperative “humanity at work” principles and practices where more than 2,000 visitors annually see for themselves. To break through conventional policy conceits limiting vision and remedies, the American Sustainable Business Council’s “Ownership4All” policy campaign is steadily building a business case outlining enhanced federal support for ubiquitous and transformational worker-stakeholder ownership starting with the reason that it works.

Michael A. Peck is a co-founder and executive director of www.1worker1vote.org, an ASBC member and a founding institution of platformcoop.net. He’s served as Mondragon’s North America delegate since 1999.

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