• Chelsea Rustrum

Democracy & Economic Confessions

Updated: Feb 21

Last evening, I attended two different book talks in San Francisco (read: intellectual discussions regarding the state of democracy and our economy).

The first was put on by SPUR and featured Gabriel Metcalf, author of Democratic by Design and the founder of Neighborland, Dan Parham, moderated by Scott Mauvais, Director of Civic Innovation at Microsoft.

The points covered, included:

  1. An open city vs. a closed city – the idea of whether most residents should want to leave their city open to new people, increase supply as demand increases, etc.

  2. Who should make major decisions in a democracy? Should all decisions be made by the populous or should technical decisions, such as where to put the railways be made in a methodical, sort of, top down manner that includes trained professionals and a data driven process?

  3. Rather than have unrepresentative discussions at the city level, could platforms like Neighborland provide a means of being more inclusive of those who can’t attend such meetings, but would still like to be part of the political process?

  4. Is there a way, such as by jury, for decisions to be made by a group of people who are economically, socially, geographically, and ethnically representative of the population in question?

Most of what was said was standard and hard to argue with because most of it was well thought out middle of the road or leftist thinking, which I’m akin to.

The next talk, however, was not something I was prepared for.

John Perkins, author of Confessions of An Economic Hit Man spoke about assassination attempts, world leaders who didn’t follow a profit motive being murdered by the CIA, and a whole slew of other unbelievable tidbits. I need to read the book to get into the grit of that to see if I can understand the nuances of these situations. Regardless, he had some important points to make, which were varying degrees of well received.

From Wikipedia: “The book heavily criticizes U.S. foreign aid and the widely accepted idea that “all economic growth benefits humankind, and that the greater the growth, the more widespread the benefits. Perkins describes what he calls a system of corporatocracy and greed as the driving force behind establishing the USA as a global empire in which he took a role as an “economic hit man” to expand its influence.”

Besides railing on our economic system (ahem, crisis), Perkins offered a lot of light and abundance in his words, sparkling eyes, an air of honesty, and yet the cool demeanor of someone who is repeating something he believes without connecting to his own words as he’s saying them.

The audience for this group was none other than The Battery, arguably one of the most economically privileged places in San Francisco, making it crowd who self select based on their income and status. On the one hand there were a lot of smart people in the room, but on the other, I was getting the sense that these people were not going to be happy with someone telling them that profit at any cost is destroying the planet and remains an ineffective strategy going forward. Perkins quoted Milton Friedman a lot and for good reason.

As quoted in Forbes: “No popular idea ever has a single origin. But the idea that the sole purpose of a firm is to make money for its shareholders got going in a major way with an article by Milton Friedman in the New York Times on September 13, 1970.”

Perkins stated that before this groundbreaking piece and what followed, businesses were setup to provide products and services that served their customers and the well being of the people who worked there. The measure of success was not on shareholders, but rather on how well people were being taken care of in the business – not growth (ahem, scalability) at any cost.

I find it interesting that there are an increasing number of leaders are publicly having these conversations, even at places like the Battery, and yet there seems to be a dogmatic resistance to hearing the message. These ideas spit in the face of what many of us were taught that business means, the very definition of success, and behind that, the driving force of what’s supposed to motivate us.

One man stood up in the Q&A session and started openly criticizing Perkins, stating that his message was not going to be heard by people like himself if he didn’t change his vernacular. He characterized Perkins as being fanatical and “radical.” And then of all the ways to handle that, the man asking a question (more like a statement disguised as a question), asked the room to vote on whether they thought Perkins was speaking in a radical tone. One woman in the front row raised her hand and said, “Yeah, you sound preachy and hippie.” Ouch. Yet, no one else spoke up.

I fear that these two are the majority. These two represent the resistance and the fear of change. These two give us insight into the divide we must heal.

The word hippie intrigues me. Why is it that when people speak about love, belonging, and the environment, people get defensive and pass it off as lunacy, but when we speak of profit above people, “killing it” for success, and innovation at any cost, that’s totally normal?

That’s why I call myself a digi hippie. I don’t think we need to change the language, I think we need to be ok with seeing the obvious and waking up to being conscious and conscientious of the fact that the earth is a living organism and so are we.

After reading most of Charles Eisenstein’s newest book, “The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Possible,” I’m inclined to see how my views can either increase or decrease the separation that we all experience in many areas of our lives. If we look at these things as divided and contentious, we’ll get more of that.

Instead, there has to be an invitation… a way to help people see, with grace, that which they already know – we’re connected and how we treat one person as a system or an individuated action, is how we treat ourselves.

Chelsea is a sharing economy speaker and a collaborative economy consultant. You can hire her to speak to your organization, at your next event, or as a facilitator for discussions on how the new economy is disrupting traditional industry.

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