California, the eighth richest
world economy, faces a future of economic horror on all fronts, public and private. Remedies on offer from conservatives and liberals fly by each other and stir a dust storm of controversy that obscures the issues before dissipating without any resolution. We seem stuck contemplating austerity for those who have little to give up and compete destitution for those who already gave up what they had. And with the new Congress, our Plan B – federal rescue – evaporated.
This seemingly hopeless situation calls for an imaginative solution – the Green Party’s state bank proposal. That idea comes from Ellen Brown’s Web of Debt
which describes the North Dakota State Bank, a financial institution dating back to 1919.
The State of North Dakota, in part because of its bank (they have oil, too), has remained solvent during the financial meltdown. With this proposal, we have a reasonable response to Election Tuesday that might unite California despite the severe political gulf that lies between the coastal cities and the interior. A radical proposal coming from North Dakota – how more Middle America can you get? That prairie state, with an endless horizon, hardly strikes me as a Bolshevik outpost, though their state bank arose from a vibrant populist movement one hundred years ago.
California as the eighth wealthiest member of a world economy, next to Italy or Brazil, is unfortunately, despite its wealth, not their equal. Let’s imagine California as their equal – as a country – in a fictional way, not as Ecotopia, but more like a country with our population and a central bank: Canada.
What would be the implications? How is California comparable to a country? It has a head of state, a legislative body (a dysfunctional one, but so do other countries), a judiciary (with restrictions – that’s true of nation states also, in theory, because of the World Court) and a military (again restrictions, thankfully). California, the same as countries, has resources – much on federal lands – but not all. It can tax. And on the world stage California governors and legislators periodically travel on commercial trade missions. So there are similarities.
It might be more useful to think of what’s lacking: passports, ambassadors, treaties, postage stamps, and a seat at the UN. None of these things strike me as essential for a thriving country. Our own money system? For years Argentina used the American dollar, until we pulled the rug out from under their economy. We could continue to use the dollar for international trade, and for local trade nothing stops us from creating our own currencies, an option some communities are discussing now.
Thinking like a country challenges us to imagine how best to create a society corresponding to the values of the majority of our citizens. It frees us from the restrictive thinking imposed on us by the troglodytes of tradition and emissaries of expediency emanating from the Damnable Center – D.C.
For example, why not resurrect the noble, though forgotten, concept of citizen diplomacy and incorporate it into a system of informal ambassadorships? These citizen ambassadors, respected individuals from various fields, not political patrons, could seek agreements to increase friendly association and exchange on cultural and civic matters. An ambassadorial visit to Oregon and Washington to explore regional pursuits seems eminently feasible, and it is not impossible to imagine Governor Cuomo in New York welcoming our ambassador.
Such contacts could lead to more cooperation on economic matters of mutual interest, overcoming the shortsighted competitiveness that now prevails. And maybe grassroots diplomacy might spur consideration of more substantial plans such as several states forming a regional investment bank, like the Banco del Sur, set-up by Latin American countries.
Extending this idea of civic participation, how about Citizens’ Cabinets to function as advisors to the Governor and legislature? Many countries have appointed cabinets to assist their political leaders, but California could experiment with a democratic version. The Cabinet of the Arts chosen by the arts community. The Cabinet of Local Agriculture chosen by small farmers. The Cabinet of Alternative Energies chosen by people in that field. The Cabinet of Affordable and Sustainable Housing – the possibilities are endless. And so what if we have fifty cabinets? Even if they contend with one another and issue contradictory White Papers, the civic life of the state could be invigorated, as it hasn’t been since Upton Sinclair ran for Governor.
Thinking like a country raises another possibility to explore in the economic realm, along with the state bank. In Alaska, each citizen receives a yearly benefit from the tax on extracting Alaska’s oil. I am not advocating off shore drilling, but only mentioning the Alaska Fund as an example of citizens sharing the bounty from their natural resources. The Bush Regime even floated this idea for Iraq, until the implications of it as a model scared them.
California’s resources, however, go far beyond oil – we have deserts, for solar energy; water (including tides) and wind; forests that could be sustainably harvested (in agreement with the federal government); minerals of all sorts and the list goes on.
Of course, this means renegotiating with those companies that currently rip off the citizens of California mainly to benefit out-of-state investors. No self-respecting world-class economy should tolerate that. The ultimate aim of creating a state fund like the Alaska model is not to make us all rich, but to begin the process of securing our commons to generate an income for all, separate from jobs.
Until we figure out how to grapple with permanent unemployment, California will continue to decline economically, jeopardizing further the quality of our lives. The prospect of piecemeal private sector employment, which is the best that can be expected with the new Congress, will not ameliorate the impoverishment of many of our communities.
Developing our resources (sustainably) for general benefit recalls the old idea of the commonwealth in a new context. The funds accruing to the citizenry could work as a subsistence income, freeing the state of enormous welfare expenditures, and providing more traditional sources of income to act as a supplement.
Job sharing could be appealing to many to “top-up” their basic, commons generated income. Crafts people, artists, besides hobbyists and DIY enthusiasts, might be encouraged to develop small enterprises that otherwise would be impossible without their basic survival unaddressed. And we should not forget, reintroducing manufacturing to the state has to begin somewhere, the days of massive industrial developments are gone. Rethinking the economy in this way opens the prospect of moving beyond endlessly growing the economy, but actually downsizing it, in terms of its carbon footprint, and getting it out of our way as we can create a richer way of life.
Utopian visions leading to real social experiments, however, need to be grounded in reality and here is where this all began, with a state bank. According to the President of the North Dakota bank, twenty-five states have contacted him to learn more and six state legislatures are actively studying the idea.
All over the California, localism has caught the imagination of communities as they take initiative to develop an amazing diversity of projects. To really get these projects to percolate a financial catalyst that people control is necessary. A state bank, like a central bank of a country, can be that catalyst.