Building a Cooperation Nation

By Ron Rivers,

American culture is one that defines freedom as autonomy.  That is to say, the sovereignty to be self-governed and to self determine one’s path throughout life.   This central tenet of American ideology has been reinforced through our social, political, and economic arrangements solidifying the dogma of competition as the best method towards progress for centuries. Today, cultural shifts and empirical evidence is demonstrating that a competitive culture struggles to address some of society’s most pressing issues. In our efforts towards transformation we must embrace the task of developing an alternative vision of the future, one building upon cooperation and collaboration as the core beliefs that give rise to our structure.   

There is no denying that applying a competitive ideology to an economic model of production produces innovation, but the progress comes alongside the cost of hyper-concentration of wealth.  Extensive research [1] demonstrates a strong correlation between decreases in trust, mental health, educational performance, social mobility, and many other issues with wealth inequality. Drawing from the perpetuation of historical scarcity, the narrative of limited resources for unlimited needs persists despite technological advances – which if appropriately applied would render the core premise obsolete.  American autonomy and competitive culture have had their place in history, but it is apparent that they are unsustainable in their current organization.

So why is it that so many people who experience harm due to our competitive arrangements are so quick to defend them?  Because so much of our life centers around some form of economic activity, the ideologies infused into our methods permeate almost every aspect of our interactions with each other.  From our educational institutions to our cultural norms, competitive culture reinforces itself by shaping the way we approach interactions. When relationships become transactional, by default competition becomes the underlying theme of communication.  

A competitive culture breeds ideals that influence people to believe that the world is binary: for me to win, you must lose. The theory of life as a constant competition selects tidbits of history and natural observations to command authority, while at the same time ignoring that the broader picture of both negates the argument entirely. Despite its inadequacies, the idea may seem sufficient if it’s the only economic model you’re exposed to. Progressives must develop a strategy to transcend this programming, an alternative vision of the future that is different enough to be feasible but not so distant as to be dismissed as Utopian. In doing to so we recognize an often misunderstood truth, the battle of ideologies presently waging in the United States is not a battle between good and evil. Instead, it’s a battle between good and good. The question facing us now is what type of programs we can develop to foster a shared vision of the good?

Star Trek: An example of an ideal, but Utopian future given present circumstance.

Cooperative Arrangements

Infusing the value of cooperation into our arrangements begins with childhood education.  From a macro perspective, we shift the classroom environment from an individualistic authoritative model of teachers dictating facts to students with the expectation of regurgitation to a collaborative experience where learning occurs through dialogue.  Where possible, we should teach each subject from two perspectives, for example learning about the conquest of North America both from the point of view of the invading Europeans and the original Natives.

Drawing from personal experience in organizing volunteer civics courses for high school seniors, I can share that this model of transformative dialectic education is already occurring at least in some schools in New Jersey.   We began our classes with two questions; “Why don’t people vote?” and “What would take to get more people to vote?” Afterwards the discussion evolved in numerous directions, with me acting as a facilitator for discussion – entering in with new questions and facts where needed.  The two contrasting points of view allowed students to state personal understandings and challenge beliefs that did not align with theirs in a respectful moderated setting. What unfolded was a conversation where the students essentially hit on all the points that we were looking to present in the discussion through their own methods with one another.  Embedding dialect into education is vital in teaching the necessary skills needed to collaborate together in the high-tech automated workforce students will find themselves facing in the very near future.

Teachers facilitate by distinguishing fact from falsehood but in a way that never restricts, constrains, or reprimands the exploration of ideas.  Education is the cornerstone of a thriving democracy. Therefore it is a priority for Progressives to partner with educators to develop curriculums that foster a more collaborative approach to learning and interacting.  In doing so, we prepare our youth the transcend the limitations of meaningless repetitive work that automation can and will replace. In fostering their infinite imagination and creativity, we equip our youth with the necessary tools to do the tasks machines can never do.  

A second precursor to more cooperative economic arrangements is the deepening of democracy.  Compared to the many other advanced democracies, the United States operates at low energy.

The problem with a low energy democracy is apparent in the present moment.  Private corporations have seized control of many aspects of our legislative process through the legalized bribery of our elected officials.  Private lobbyists are first in line to have their concerns heard. Running for office beyond the community level costs a small fortune, and history shows us that entrenched party administrators pick high-level candidates with no care for the popular demand[2].   Public voting data tells that these elected candidates do not align their voting with the popular will of the people.  Progressives can solve this by focusing on increasing access and agency for citizens within the process.  

Access to reliable candidate information is a real problem.  A recent study by OurSociety found that in 77% of 2018 candidates running for local office in New Jersey had no information posted online about their campaign.  Given that the now most significant percentage of potential voters grew up using the internet, it is unacceptable not to have candidates legally required to post candidacy information online – ideally in a non-partisan, non-profit structure, free from advertiser influence.   It is going to be difficult to enhance electoral participation in communities without improving access methods.

Agency is giving citizens more purpose and control in their democratic choices.  We can accomplish increasing personal agency in numerous directions, but, foundationally, Progressives need to speed up the pace of politics.  Constitutional amendments to resolve impasse quickly could be implemented, utilizing public voting days, empowering the public to break stalemates.  Drawing from a present example, we could imagine a citizen organizing of a national vote to address the recent government shutdown, specifically a legally binding popular vote about the fate of wall funding.  No more shutdowns, no more time-wasting meetings, and photo-ops; increasing the public’s ability to use democracy to decide national matters hold every elected representative to higher accountability. Most importantly, engaging citizen participation via more popular vote structures imbues deeper meaning into participating in our democracy for every individual.

Social Solidarity Today and Tomorrow

The values we encode into our institutions are the glue that holds people in society together. Progressives understand that in saying “everything is subject to change” we do not exclude humanity.  

Central to this argument for arrangements designed to increase cooperation within society is the rejection of the present arrangements that facilitate our interactions.  Today, money is the dominant form of social connection and communication. Redistribution supported by the government funds social programs, and we exchange our labor for capital and our capital for resources or goods.  The problem is, as many of us already know and feel, money is weak social glue. The last two decades of globalized labor markets outsourcing tasks to the lowest bidder combined with decades of stagnant wage growth have illustrated just how fragile these arrangements are.  

So what is our option beyond money?  Human connection. We must structure society in a way that provides people with more interaction with others outside of their immediate social circles.  This isn’t a revolutionary idea, in many respects the social services we provide represent this collective democratic action. We want to take the best aspects of these programs and export them to other verticals of society.

The most direct route may be an establishment of the value of social service, either through voluntary or even possibly mandatory efforts.  We can imagine that every person within our society has two responsibilities – contribution to a productive direction of their choice and service to others outside of their immediate family unit.  If we can imagine an America pursuing alternatives to perpetual war we could develop a new branch of our military as a social corps, dedicated to learning the most advanced skills available at present to help address some of the society’s most pressing problems.  It could be mandatory or volunteer but both options would relocate youth to areas outside of their immediate sphere of influence to give our youth the opportunity to experience cultures, values, and problems outside of their immediate sphere of influence but under the umbrella of community support instead of national defense.  While no empirical data exists I would imagine enrollment would be significantly higher than present military numbers due to the fact that recruits would not be focused on fighting a perpetual war that began before they were born.

Time is our primary resource and central to this suggestion, and Progressives must ensure that in whichever direction we manifest this program, it does not allow money to become a substitute for time.  This means that if the program is mandatory you cannot buy or donate your way out of the service requirement. Allowing these options would reinforce class structures and the power of money in social bonds.  

Cooperative efforts increase our collective power as citizens.  The more we understand about the humanity of the other, the better equipped we are to share the reigns of power in our shared democratic destiny.   I believe that a deep sense of who we are, and more importantly who we want to be, can be found in political, social, and economic arrangements.

A cooperative structure of arrangements is a central theme of the Progressive Project.  It is a long-term project that we can create through numerous small innovations, over time.  In working towards this transformative effort, we should not lose sight of the fact that an ideal form of solidarity is one that builds upon our differences.  We do not seek a homogenous culture, besides being boring it’s inherently oppressive. Creating pathways for each of us to interact with people outside of our immediate views of the world and reality is the highest form of cooperation.  Each new relationship and interaction creates degrees of change in who we are and how we perceive the world. A cooperation nation perpetually fuels our transformation and in doing so, our ability to transform the world.

[1]  The Spirit Level by Richard Wlkinson & Kate Pickett, Bloomsberry Press (2010) (p. 52, 67, 106, 160)

[2] Leaked Emails Suggest DNC Was Conspiring Against Bernie Sanders by Hilary Hanson

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Finance, the Real Economy, and the Progressive

By Ron Rivers,

Improving the economy is a concept that most people are familiar with but likely have different understandings of depending on the circumstances that they find themselves in.  There seems to be no shortage of political pundits, candidates, leaders, and non-specialists provide visions of what’s wrong and how we’re going to fix it.    Strangely one topic that rarely gets any attention is the relationship between finance, that is the management of capital and credit, and the real economy.  Creating the institutional reformation necessary to reorganize society requires Progressives to have a deep understanding of this relationship to better communicate alternative visions of the future within their communities.  I argue that a fundamental objective of the Progressive is to bind financial activity to the real economy.

What is the Real Economy?

The real economy is the productive engine that powers our methods of exchange here in the United States.  A person creates something independently or as part of an organization with the intention of giving the thing to someone else in exchange for compensation.  

Through the structure of our legal arrangements, the privatization of land, resources, and outputs are intended to give people the freedom to help manifest their destiny through exchange with others.  Elements of privatization are part of the constitution, although the definition of property was left vague. [1] The constitutional architects intended for states to act as experiments in ways of living, determining their definitions of what was and was not considered legally ownable.  The Constitution also paved the way for copyright and patent laws and gave Congress the authority to punish piracy. I imagine it would have been difficult to envision the results of their structure through the lens of the present with our ever-increasing wealth concentration [2] further calcifying hard socioeconomic class structures within the United States.

The law allows for profit maximization, obligating firms to maximize value for shareholders.  In many cases, privatization ends up acting as a shield for ill-intentioned actions under the guise of profitability.  For example, Exxon knew about climate change for over 35 years and actively spread misinformation to the public about it. [3]  The CEOs serving during this time have not faced repercussions for actions they were ultimately responsible for. The real economy serves as an engine supporting the innovation of life within United States.  The narrow goal of profit does not serve the larger purpose of social organization outside of the state and restricts our collective potential for innovation. This isn’t a call for the total abolition of privatization, rather a criticism of its limitations and the arrangements that support our singular form of it.

The Value of Finance

In his 2018 Progressive Alternatives lecture series, Roberto Mangabeira Unger discusses research that indicates that over 80% of productive economic activity acquires funding by productivity itself.  This means that instead of investing in new companies, new innovations, and new types of markets that could ultimately produce results that would demonstrate significant value to society the majority of money is risked through techniques whose only intention is to create more capital through financial schemes.  Venture capital is increasingly popular but contributes a statistically insignificant amount towards the total productive agenda. These data points call into question the value of high-finance operations such as stock exchanges, which fail to fund the productive agenda of society as the majority of monies generated is staying within the system.  

When the economy is booming, high finance is invisible to many Americans; in time of crises, it’s destructive.  The 2008 financial crash was caused by the speculative financing activity of for-profit banks which then socialized their losses through government bailouts and the repossession of the very homes that they capitalized on in the first place.   All of these actions were supported and protected by our legal arrangements.

Foreclosure Rate United States – Image Credit:  Statista

We can dismiss arguments that the stock exchange somehow sets a value benchmark for corporations looking to borrow capital from banks, as we know that is just not true.  The biggest firms are stockpiling cash [4] and do not seek loans from banks. We must ask ourselves, how do our laws permitting this storing of cash benefit real economic activity?  The simple answer is that they do not, bringing into question why they still exist.

Redefining the Relationship

We need to break the narrative that markets efficiently allocate capital to the most efficient use.  The statement is only true if you define efficiency as the best returns for the owner of said capital instead of adding tangible value to the real economy.  For those of us who do not share an ownership stake in high finance, the apparent truth is that high finance does not serve the collective public good under its present arrangements.  

Progressive leaders need to be proactive in their market innovations, abandoning historical precedence of reactionary regulations applied after the damage.  This narrative is old, tired, and does not work. Never do we hear visions of alternative arrangements that would prevent the very activity that we seek to regulate in, retrospectively.  A Progressive knows that there is no legal requirement to have markets organized in a specific way and that anything that has been created can and should be improved upon without respect to historical norms.  Change is a universal truth, and no institution is sacred when it comes to innovation for the shared public good. Our purpose is clear: we must focus on changing the relationship between finance and production.  

Pulling again from Professor Unger, we can begin to develop our framework of how to proceed.  First, we create legislation that prohibits financial activities that have no relation to expanding our collective productive efforts such as derivative trading.  We redefine financial speculation, allowing it so long as the purpose is to experiment, innovate, or handle risk. Our goal is not to eliminate instability as some instability can be good, but to ensure that these efforts are towards creating real economic value.  Speculating for the sole purpose of increasing numbers on a balance sheet is akin to gambling and is hindered to reduce dramatic boom/bust cycles.

Beyond restricting, Progressives must begin with imagining how we can better utilize the potential of all of the underutilized capital floating within our economic system.  History and present time provide us examples of how this capital could be used, with the New Deal and the increasingly popular Green New Deal.   The New Deal was the most significant collective investment in the world at the time of its inception and the Green New Deal’s call for national mobilization to create a near-zero marginal cost energy infrastructure could easily surpass historical efforts.   This is a great example of redefining the relationship between finance and the real economy. Imagine if all of the latent capital trading for tradings sake or being held was applied to retrofitting every building in the United States with solar panels, networking those building together, and investing in new storage technologies to maximize the capacity and distribution of the energy created.  The collective benefits of a national infrastructure generating nearly free energy would be immense and widespread in every economic vertical.

The power of the state to should be used to create new directions for asset creation and innovation towards a shared vision of the good.  We can choose to have the state to manage these funds or if we want them independently led by actors under a non-profit structure. Either is acceptable, and the most efficient and effective method should be the primary definer.  Both choices require codifying radical transparency into the process and stricter penalties for potential misuse of resources. Reimagining the relationship between finance and the real economy need not be limited to state controlled programs, we can and should still take advantage of the latent experimental potential of the individual.

This single example of the proposed framework for Progressives proceeding draws from our shared understanding that no natural method exists to connect finance to real economic activity.  It is up to us to create the method. Our design must be consistently scrutinized for new opportunities for innovation in the service of the public. Progressives understand that our clearest pathway towards transformation is addressing systemic deficiencies at their root cause.  By forcing finance to act in the direction of productivity and denying capital holders the ability to speculate for the sole purpose of personal gain, we lay the foundation for a more expansive approach to experimentation and innovation with society.   

[1] The Constitution and Property Rights by Rob Natelson Independence Institute

[2] Inequality gap widens as ‘world’s richest 1% get 82% of the wealth,’ Oxfam says by Sam Meredith CNBC

[3] Exxon Knew about Climate Change almost 40 years ago by Shannon Hall Scientific America


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