SMARTH GROWTH SUMMIT
2 December 2016
Let’s talk about the market place.
I know: in our divided, us vs. them, i-won’t-get-mine-if-you-get-yours world, you all have already started the fissure in your minds. On the left: Jennings, you’re a liberal, stop trying to blend in with the Republicans. On the right: Jennings, what the hell do you know about the marketplace?
Well, the reality is, the world is a market economy; even the People’s Republic of China gets that. And with Fidel gone, Raul will be getting it, too. The market economy forces people to compete on ideas, on skills, on drive and, until monopolistic forces kick in, the market economy forces efficiency.
On the other hand, competition creates winners and losers. And the modern marketplace is crueler than past markets. If you lose, the storm can be perfect.
From my perspective, government needs to step in and create the shelter from the storm. But election after election demonstrates that Americans are too conservative to be willing to pay for an adequate safety net.
Then there is regulation. Even worse, government regulation. But regulation or restriction or prohibition of certain behavior doesn’t just happen. There aren’t little bureaucrats sitting in windowless offices in Washington dreaming up new restrictions on Americans’ actions, restrictions that annoy the rugged individualism to which so many Americans still adhere. Every rule that’s been written was conceived out of a climate in which somebody did something stupid. Or selfish. Or evil. The lawmakers, the rulemakers, the deciders, create restrictions that are designed to never let that irresponsible action occur again. The accumulation of these actions, while intending to protect against over-reach, become a new target of the folks who believe in the unfettered market.
It affects every aspect of our lives: personnel policies, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the products we buy, the shows we watch. And, yes, it affects how we plan the use of our land, whether our food is grown locally, how and whether our kids get an education, whether the suburbs let people who don’t look like them in.
And then we blame government for all of this, as if government has its own life, like the Blob. This is a democracy, my friends, and that creature, however ugly it sometimes is, is us.
But I would argue that the power of the marketplace is far greater than the power of government. Some of us liberals might wish otherwise and some of you conservatives might argue otherwise, but it is.
Fundamentally, the question is, can we agree on some basic truths, some basic protections, and even some basic liberties, and create a market economy that we drive as a kind, inclusive, fair market?
The truths: people who look like me have created a marketplace that works better for those who look like me than it does for others. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.
Another truth: we are better off when we think collectively than when we flail away, fighting for ourselves rather than for others.
And another: we can do better.
And yet another: when the few are able to dupe the many, the many pay a huge price – stagnant wages, failing schools, behavioral health problems, inadequate housing, no savings. The folks who build our cars, make our toasters, finance our lives can’t make any money if people can’t afford to buy those cars or toasters or get a mortgage.
Here are some other truths: we can’t have functional communities if the marketplace isn’t functional and we can’t have a functional marketplace where everyone is poor. So, let’s get over the red herring of gentrification.
And another: our safety net is a joke. But a more generous safety net must be built around the notion that, except for those with serious disabilities, we can’t help those who won’t help themselves. The safety net, then, must be oriented to incentivizing changes in behavior.
Finally, we have to stop thinking we can control the natural environment. Indeed, we are being warned that we are threatening the very existence of the species. Whatever you’re thinking: profit is more important than the survival of the species, God will provide or even that fairies will save us, we better get a grip real soon.
Let’s start here: sacrifice. It’s a lost art. It’s each of us for ourselves out there in a world that is leaving more of us behind every day.
Do we need a huge house on a big lot on a green field that requires a long commute? That’s not even a question of sacrifice – that’s just a question of taking more than you need.
When we hate paying taxes, is it because we can’t afford to pay or we don’t want to help fund other kids’ educations after someone else helped fund our kids’ education?
When I speak to groups about what’s going on in our community, someone will inevitably ask what they can do to help. They expect me to ask for money. Which I do. But then I throw the curve: “But what’s the most folks give? 5%? 10? No offense, but that isn’t going to make a ton of difference. What will really make a difference is what you plan to do with the 90% you will spend. Will you take your family to a locally-owned, preferably urban restaurant like Roar or Sette Luna or the Apollo Grill? Or will you take them to a place that calls itself the neighborhood grill but isn’t located anywhere near a neighborhood?
I’m really asking you all to look at the world through an altogether different lens. In every decision you make, don’t think about how that decision will most improve your life. Instead, ask yourself how you can best impact others’ lives by the decisions you make. Be an affirmative consumer. Look for opportunities to spend your money downtown, or support a minority- or women-owned business. Buy local –don’t send your money to the Walton family in Arkansas.
If we could make money solving problems, there wouldn’t be any problems. That’s the whole notion behind the concept of social entrepreneurship. Motivated by a desire to make a difference rather than by greed, the social entrepreneur uses her or his gifts (adult ADHD, drive, determination, arrogance, ability to pivot, creativity, or good, old-fashioned luck) to solve problems. Profit is secondary.
There are far too few social enterprises in this market. I wish we could stop having to look at what other communities are doing and start being the innovators from whom others learn.
So, if you don’t want the government to tell you how much you have to pay your workers, pay workers better wages voluntarily.
If you want to get paid more, work harder, better.
If you want your workers to work harder and better, give them a share of ownership in your company.
If you treasure open space, don’t buy a house on a half-acre lot.
If you don’t want to be fined for spoiling the environment, clean up your act.
I think most of us generally understand how to make our world a better place.
And if we disagree, let’s discuss it.
But let’s discuss it with civility. Stop the hateful words, the inference that the person with whom you are disagreeing must be less God-fearing, a communist, fascist or, worse, an immigrant. Turn off the talking heads and the radio fear mongerers.
Have you ever noticed that the farther apart we are the easier it is to hate, be rude or inconsiderate? God, do we hate those bastards on the other side of the planet! Road rage is a function of not knowing the person who just sparked your rage.
Then there is the grocery store. It’s amazing how polite people are when they’re trying to squeeze their shopping cart through the aisle, when you encounter somebody in the way and have to look them in the eye. You smile, you both defer, you exchange pleasantries. There is a metaphor in there.
So, in all we do, let’s approach the challenges that lie ahead like we’re in the grocery store. If we keep this discussion local, maybe we can put down our weapons, look each other in the eye and have a productive exchange of ideas. Hell, if Snoopy and the Red Baron could do it…I’m sorry, if the Germans and French could do it – even if for one day – surely we could do it, maybe even long enough to solve some real problems.
OK, so you ask, what do we do when everyone knows what the proper course of action is but some powerful, intransigent, absentee entity stands in the way. Like, for example, Norfolk Southern. Oops, did I say that? Norfolk Southern is single-handedly blocking what every one of us agrees would be good for this community in almost every way. Well, we do what Community Action has done many times over the years – we take them on, we fight like hell, we embarrass them, we buy stock and protest at their shareholders meetings, we find out where the CEO plays golf and take busloads of people and embarrass the hell out of them.
What’s different? Consensus. Peace, love and understanding only goes so far. Patience, my friends, has its limits. It is the luxury of the powerful, the affluent, the comfortable. Don’t ask us to be patient at the expense of those who are anything but powerful, affluent or comfortable.
We can do this. We have to do this. Far too much is at stake. We have to be more creative, more determined, more deliberate in the consensus building process.
Renew Lehigh Valley was established to bring together all stakeholders in a campaign to make our urbanized population centers vibrant, healthy marketplaces, to preserve open space and to modernize local government. These summits are designed to stimulate that process, discuss new approaches, find common ground, make our world a better place.
So, as I invite the panelists to join me on the dais, I would ask us to be thinking about how we find civility in a world that, just a few weeks ago, was turned on its head.