finance

For a while, Couchsurfing had an amazing run, connecting travelers with hosts and helping strangers become friends.  Until around 2011, it was a way-crazy gift-economy for hospitality on a global scale, with more than five million members (now seven million) in 90,000+ cities.  Who would have thought that a loose non-market community could ever get so big while retaining its ideals and ethical stance?

Alas, Couchsurfing’s popularity created some new problems of its own, and the site was plagued by some dubious management decisions, technical challenges, and the lack of funds.  At Medium.com, Roy Marvelous explains what happened in 2011:

Basically, Couchsurfing owed tax money (its tax-exempt status as a non-profit was not approved), it needed far more investment in servers and it needed to hire more engineers to reprogram the site to make it scalable. And apparently, the only viable solution was to become a for-profit, sell a portion to venture capitalists and have it run by professionals.

The problems were real but I’ll be blunt: Couchsurfing was stolen from its members. This was code, content & community built by the members, for the members. None of those volunteers, working for free under the false pretense that Couchsurfing would stay non-profit, received any equity in this new corporation. Why couldn’t there have been another way? I would have donated money. I would have been happy with advertising. They could have moved Couchsurfing HQ to Berlin or Chang Mai or Santiago rather than be based in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the world.

The moment Couchsurfing was sold, it stopped becoming a community and started becoming a service, not unlike Yelp or Meetup or Facebook. And herein lies the problem: Couchsurfing now has an identity-crisis.

After the Internal Revenue Service refused to grant Couchsurfing tax-exempt nonprofit status – formally known as “501(c)(3)” status under the tax code – Couchsurfing decided to become a “Certified B Company,” or “for-benefit” corporation.  As Marvelous points out, this was apparently the only way to move forward.  (But is this true?)  By 2012, Couchsurfing had raised more than $22 million in venture capital money and it was on its way to becoming another profit-oriented corporation in the “sharing economy.”  (The so-called sharing economy, it should be noted, is less about sharing than about micro-rentals of things that previously could not be marketized.)

Now that the City of Detroit has declared bankruptcy, one of the most critical questions will be what assets will be put on the table to pay creditors – and what assets, if any, will remain inalienable, that is, not capable of being sold.  You see, there are moves afoot to sell off priceless paintings and artworks from the Detroit Institute of Arts to pay off the city’s debts.  The stash of assets include works by Bruegel, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and van Gogh. 

Normally the market value of large art collections is not calculated except as needed for blanket insurance policies.  But now that a pack of hungry creditors wants to be made whole, many people are starting to look yearningly at the estimated $2 billion that could come from liquidating the museum’s collection, or substantial portions of it.

The whole scenario is of a piece with other enclosures driven by finance capitalism.  The investor class has gone way beyond privatization; now it wants to use the debt crisis to gain outright ownership of public assets and start charging for the use of them.  As economist Michael Hudson has put it, cities are selling sidewalks and citizens have to start paying to walk on them. 

The fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection will say a great deal about how far we Americans are willing to go in monetizing our cultural heritage.  Museums are supposed to act as permanent trustees of a community’s priceless heritage.  Donors are willing to give works to museums only because they believe that the works will be there forever, and not sold off to satisfy some unrelated financial claim against the city.   In other words, the artworks held in trust for the public by a museum are supposed to be treated as the priceless heritage of the citizenry, beyond any market valuation. That principle may be breached very soon.

Prospects for the Commons in 2012

As we begin a new year, I thought it might be fun – and possibly useful – to try to identify where commons activism might make some breakthroughs in 2012. I won't venture specific predictions, which can easily miss the mark. But I do think we can usefully talk about areas of “quickening innovation” for the commons. Here's my list, along with brief explanations and speculations:

Digital and complementary currencies. As conventional national currencies crater and as digital networking technologies become more sophisticated, new sorts of commons-based currencies are emerging to fill the void. There is quite a bit of innovation going on in this space. Some new currencies are locally based; others are digital systems that can function globally. The rise of Bitcoin is only a hint of what may be coming down the pike. (See the terrific New Yorker profile of Bitcoin on October 10, 2011.) I am particularly fascinated by the Ven, a new international digital currency that is backed by real assets (about which I will blog shortly). In the meantime, a good way to acquaint yourself with the possibilities of alternative currencies is the book, Creating Wealth: Growing Local Economies With Local Currencies, by Gwendolyn Hallsmith and Bernard Lietaer.

Crowdsourcing as a source of capital formation. I see two trends that appear destined to converge: one is the growing use of cooperatives, community land trusts, worker-ownership and social enterprises to democratize wealth and empower communities; and the second is the expansion of crowdsourcing as a way to raise capital for specific projects if not companies.

The first topic, the democratization of capital, has received renewed attention thanks to the re-publication of Gar Alperovitz's book, America Beyond Capitalism (Democracy Collaborative Press). The second topic, crowdsourcing as a new means to capitalize projeccts (and not simply elicit donations or group suggestions), has received less attention, perhaps because any successful equity crowdsourcing project will need to comply with securities law. Still, the efficiencies of equity crowdsourcing are irresistible – and its synergies with traditional forms of democratizing capital are obvious. This may be wishful thinking on my part, but I expect to see some developments here in the coming year. (Here's a great P2P Foundation overview of existing crowdsourcing projects.)

Anthropologist David Graeber could not have timed his new book better. Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a sweeping historical survey of the social meaning of debt – or more precisely, the relationship between debtors and creditors. While many people regard this as a straight-forward moral matter – “everyone needs to pay the debts they owe” – Graeber invokes dozens of instances throughout world history to show how this relationship is highly complicated -- and essentially political.

Debt is not really a freely entered into contract between equals. It is a time-delayed market exchange in which the debtor agrees to be subordinate to the creditor for the duration of the loan. Upon full repayment of the debt, the debtor suddenly becomes an equal to the creditor again.

The subordination of debtors is not only morally fraught, as evidenced by synonyms for the word debt such as “sin” and “guilt.”  Debt is also (indeed, primarily) a political subordination. The creditor has the whip hand – and debtors are vulnerable to all sorts of contempt, abuse and punishment. In Roman times, a creditor could seize a debtor's wives and children as collateral, and make them personal slaves, if the debtor failed to repay a loan.  

The Pathology of Financialization

We all know the story of enclosure as it applies to the commons. The lesser-known story is that businesses are enclosing themselves – aggressively cannibalizing their own internal productive capacities in order to maximize short-term profits.

Harvard business guru Clayton Christensen argues in Forbes magazine that business executives are so habituated to seeing the world through a scrim of financial abstractions that they are blindly undercutting their own long-term productive capacities. The problem is so pervasive, says Christensen, that “whole sectors of the economy are dying.”  (The full column, by Steve Denning, is headlined, "How the Pursuit of Profits is Killing Innovation and the U.S. Economy.")

A good example, he says, is the American personal-computer industry. It slashed costs by aggressively outsourcing to foreign companies the manufacturing of PC components, final assembly and even design. This has reduced costs and improved profitability – Wall Street cheers! – but it has also hollowed out the internal capacities of companies themselves. At this point, Dell Computers is little more than a brand; most everything else is outsourced. The same dynamic is practiced in a range of American industries – steel, auto, oil, pharmaceutical and software.  As if to replicate the Cartesian split of body and mind on a global scale, the "advanced" countries have cast themselves as the "mind" and relegated all the dirty work of production to "the body" in the poorer regions of the world.

Here are two great video commentaries on our screwed-up consumerist society.  The first, by Charles Veitch of the Love Police, is a hilarious performance art piece filmed at London's Canary Wharf.  A man with a megaphone (Veitch) assures passersby that "Everything that you read in the media is true," and "If you don't have a job, you are a worthless human being!"  What might come off as a crank protester haranguing a crowd is in fact an amusing, entertaining commentary that "breaks the fourth wall" of everyday street life.

 

 

 

 

 

Another video worth watching is Annie Leonard's new release, "The Story of Broke:  Why There Is Still Plenty of Money to Build a Better Future."  Leonard is famous for her viral smash, "The Story of Stuff."  In the same spirit, "The Story of Broke" simplifies a problem that is deliberately made more complicated than it needs to be, masking the solutions that will help the 99%.  The video makes the basic point: 

"The United States isn’t broke; we’re the richest country on the planet and a country in which the richest among us are doing exceptionally well. But the truth is, our economy is broken, producing more pollution, greenhouse gases and garbage than any other country. In these and so many other ways, it just isn’t working. But rather than invest in something better, we continue to keep this ‘dinosaur economy’ on life support with hundreds of billions of dollars."  

Leonard urges "government spending toward investments in clean, green solutions—renewable energy, safer chemicals and materials, zero waste and more—that can deliver jobs AND a healthier environment. It’s time to rebuild the American Dream; but this time, let’s build it better."

An illuminating, inspirational video by a master of plain talk.

One of the great achievements of the Occupy Wall Street movement, after only six weeks of protest, has been its unmasking of some deeply entrenched illusions about our rights of free speech, access to public spaces and the meaning of democracy. OWS has done this not with words alone (truth-telling tends to be consigned to the fringes of respectable opinion), but through mostly peaceful public confrontations of Power. 

As we saw in the Sixties, it takes such direct confrontations to force Power to reveal ugly truths that otherwise must be masked.  In the case of the Occupy protests, it is the truth that public spaces do not really belong to the citizenry; that private powers can curb dissent through procedural pretexts notwithstanding the First Amendment; and that democratic accountability as now practiced in the American empire is mostly a charade.

When an outburst of real democracy emerges, as it has in hundreds of Occupy cities, it sends shockwaves of fear throughout the political establishment and business – because real democracy advances a whole set of interests that are anathema to the elite consensus and pseudo-democracy that now prevails. 

Blogger Namiza Naqvi makes some penetrating points about these issues in a fascinating post about the re-privatization of public spaces.  Naqvi writes:

"An overarching issue is the public versus private ownership in everything from police to politicians to parks to property all over the planet in its cities and its villages. Whether it is a military or it is police the purpose seems to be to serve this end of privatization.

"The reaction by the law enforcement agencies to the [Occupy] protests have proven that people protesting the occupation or privatization of public property are viewed as criminals by the privately owned 21st century state..... In the eleventh hour of the 21st century in Times Square: I watched the police pushing the barricades even further in on the sidewalk cramming the demonstrators even further on an already narrow space and creating a potential crisis if the crowd got jammed in and someone fell or a stampede broke out because of all the police on horseback. The police steadily pushed back the barricades and diminished the space where protesters could stand and it seemed that the cops by doing this were forcing the crowds to overflow onto the street and creating the pretense for arresting people for not remaining within the designated area for the protests.  As I watched this situation at Time Square I thought of all the fences and blockades and barricades in other parts of the world where people are squeezed off of their lands—their homelands—their homes razed to the ground and bulldozed turned into private properties---while the people are forced into dangerous environments—flood basins or coastlands or unwelcoming hostile cities in their own or foreign countries—in the path of disaster—or into cities where they have no chance of incomes—living in ghettos—begging, living on the streets homeless—only to be further abused and harassed by police and militaries.  

The protests of #OccupyWallStreet in lower Manhattan are a refreshing break from the kabuki rituals that now pass for American democracy. Finally! Some unscripted reality of sovereign citizens exercising their freedoms of free speech and assembly, defying the tacit rules of the mainstream media and speaking from conviction, not tactical calculation.  Like its kindred public protests in Cairo, Madrid and other cities, Occupy Wall Street finally broke through to mass consciousness via a citizen-posted video on YouTube that went viral. It showed the NYPD spraying mace on a peaceful, defenseless young woman confined by the cops in a pen of portable orange fencing.

The protesters have done a fantastic job of self-organizing their little community in Zucotti Park (formerly Liberty Plaza). As NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof reported  yesterday, “The square is divided into a reception area, a media zone, a medical clinic, a library and a cafeteria. The protesters’ Web site includes links allowing supporters anywhere in the world to go online and order pizzas (vegan preferred) from a local pizzeria that delivers them to the square.” The protest is a stellar model of civic virtue and self-governance, proving once again the instinctive nature of commoning.

Now that the protests are spreading to Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, among other cities, we shall see if the political classes can contain the pent-up frustrations and resentments that have been ignored, indeed scorned, for the past three years. (Some Wall Street financial types reportedly drizzled champagne on the protesters from their office building windows.)  While corporate profits soar after an unprecedented series of taxpayer bailouts, neither Obama nor Congress have strained themselves to help the millions of people victimized by the banks, oil companies, insurance industry, pharmaceutical industry and their corporate brethren.

Privatization Run Amok

Finally, a bit of great news:  California Governor Jerry Brown is courageously bucking a national trend by refusing to sell off state buildings and then lease them back.  This trend has been the budget subterfuge of choice among many of the nation's governors.  Lease-backs of state assets are a backdoor way of getting a quick hit of money for troubled state budgets (in California's case, $1.2 billion) while saddling future taxpayers with huge additional expenditures (in California, $6 billion over 35 years).

Yes, welcome to the next frontier in the business campaign against government.  First it was the fight against regulation and public-sector spending, both largely successful.  Now business is vying to own the equity assets of government through arcane lease-back and securitization deals. 

These strategies not only hurt us as taxpayers and citizens (through higher expenditures for less value, and through reduced public discretion over public assets).  They fling open the doors to all sorts of other investor schemes to buy and privatize public assets.  Next stop:  the withering of the State and the arrival of the Total Market Order.

There's a reason why the financial dealings of the Federal Reserve are so arcane.  It helps in ripping off the American people.  Don Dzombak of The Motley Fool has posted a very funny homemade video in the style of South Park that explains in a simple dialogue how the American people get ripped off when buying U.S. Treasury bonds. 

Two barely animated cartoon characters resembling stuffed bears are standing in a field talking in robotic, tech-modulated voices about the Federal Reserve Board's asinine policies.  I'll pick up the dialogue midstream:

Syndicate content