In bold move, Vermont adopts Genuine Progress Indicator, dumps “wrong-headed” Gross Domestic Product measure

Because GPI subtracts environmental costs from economic benefits, policy makers can see ecological limits to economic growth

No 1129 Posted by fw, August 26, 2014

“No doubt many of the legislators and policy makers who supported the state’s adoption of GPI as a better accounting system did not and would not embrace the notion that there are limits to economic growth. But the contrast between new-think and old-think, between finite and infinite planet thinking, between promoting sustainable economic activity and continuing the “growth forever, business-as-usual” mindset can only become clearer with time. As awareness of the GPI and its precepts filters into state decision-making processes, Vermont will find itself increasingly led to develop in ways that are sustainable and that do not damage the delivery of ecosystem services to its citizens. That kind of development will give the state a competitive edge in the region and nation, as it lays a foundation for the sustainable, post-petroleum, post-perpetual-growth economy that must come to the entire planet, in one version or another, sooner or later.”Eric Zency

Conceptual frameworks come and go. Vermont’s interpretation and application of the Genuine Progress Indicator will be the acid test of its effectiveness in transitioning the state to sustainable economic activity over the long term.

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Transformative Common Sense in Vermont by Eric Zencey, The Daly News, August 15, 2014

Chances are that when you hear the phrase “Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy,” you don’t immediately think of dramatic change in the established political-economic order of things. The words don’t seem revolutionary. They certainly don’t call to mind images of furtive guerillas toting rifles or of throngs in public squares using chains and ropes to topple statues. Chances are equally good that unless you hang out with economic development officers or land use planners, you’d have a hard time rounding up a dozen people who’d sit still long enough to hear what a CEDS is, let alone why it might be of interest to them. But despite the dry name, the document recently released by Vermont’s Department of Commerce and Community Development portends a quiet, far-reaching revolution in governance in the Green Mountain State–and perhaps on a larger stage.

The potential for this enormous change is signaled in a short, clear statement from the report’s Executive Summary:

…This CEDS sets out a unique, overarching goal: it proposes to not only grow jobs and wages and increase our Gross Domestic Product, but also to improve the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI)…by 5% over baseline over the next five years.

With this language, Vermont becomes the first state to make explicit use of an alternative indicator in setting goals for economic development. The commitment to use the GPI in this way places Vermont in the forefront of a growing national movement to integrate the GPI into social and economic policy. Because GDP-based economic development is so wrong-headed, this commitment is a matter of common sense; and yet, because GDP-based economic development is so deeply woven into the substance and texture of our political economy, using basic common sense here is a powerfully transformative act.

The faults and flaws of GDP as a measure of economic progress are well known and don’t need to be repeated in detail here. It was never intended to serve as a measure of economic wellbeing, and one of the largest problems in using it for that purpose is that it doesn’t subtract environmental damage as a cost of economic development. Instead, it simply ignores these losses as externalities–until and unless money is spent to correct them, at which time the remediation of the cost is transformed, as if magically, into an apparent economic benefit. (This is a macroeconomic instance of what is generally called the broken window fallacy.) Negative environmental externalities occur when economic activity exceeds one of the planet’s local, regional, or global source-and-sink limits and thereby imposes harm, damage, cost or loss on innocent third parties–people who neither produce nor consume the goods whose production damages the environment. (Traditional economists don’t talk of “innocent” third parties when they discuss externalities, but the morally charged language is appropriate. Why should it be acceptable for profit-seekers to impose uncompensated loss on the general public?)

Because these externalities have their origin in ecosystem limits, and GDP treats the externalities as if they didn’t exist, it’s fair to call GDP an infinite planet statistic. Brian Czech has argued recently that what GDP measures best is environmental impact. While GDP isn’t a perfect measure of environmental impact—some of the things we consume cause less environmental damage per dollar than others—it seems a decent proxy, since in general it’s true that the larger the economy in GDP terms, the larger its environmental impact.

In contrast, the Genuine Progress Indicator subtracts environmental and other costs from the ledger, giving a more accurate bottom line. In doing so, GPI applies the principles of double-entry bookkeeping to the economy as a whole. The invention of double entry bookkeeping was a crucial to the growth of capitalism; a business can’t stay in business for long if its managers have no idea how its debits stack up against its credits, how its costs compare to revenues. And what’s true at the micro scale is true, in this instance, at the macro scale: because GDP systematically miscounts costs as benefits, we’re about to go environmentally broke–the entire economy may go out of business as climate change and loss of biodiversity bring dramatic, civilization-threatening change.

There is nothing in the Genuine Progress Indicator that says, explicitly, “there are ecological limits to economic growth.” But because it subtracts environmental costs from economic benefits, the GPI is a finite planet indicator that will, if implemented accurately, lead policy makers to this realization. Consistent, accurate compilation of the GPI will make clear that for any given ecosystem, at some point economic growth that is rooted in that system costs more in ecosystem service losses than it brings in economic gains.

This means that there are limits to the amount of economic production the planet’s ecosystems can support. Obviously, that fact has implications for economic development and the policies that promote it. Foremost among those implications is the necessity of abandoning the traditional “jobs and GDP” focus of development policy. As noble as it may be to aim to assure every aspiring worker the dignity of useful work, and as comforting as it is to think that we can continually add to our national stock of wealth by perpetually growing our national income, neither goal can be accomplished forever (or even, arguably, in the near term) through policies that take GDP growth or job growth as their sole and solitary focus. A commitment to perpetual full employment that is not also connected to an effort to limit population growth is at bottom a commitment to perpetual economic growth, a chimerical ideal. And because GDP so badly miscounts costs and benefits, failing to keep them separate, any policy effort that aims solely at increasing GDP is destined to be fatuous.

In announcing a development goal that is couched in terms of the GPI, Vermont has put itself on a path that will lead away from traditional “jobs and GDP” thinking–though the divergence of the two paths is not yet fully clear to policy makers. (Recall that the CEDS document aims not only at improving the GPI but also to “grow jobs and wages and increase…GDP.”) No doubt many of the legislators and policy makers who supported the state’s adoption of GPI as a better accounting system did not and would not embrace the notion that there are limits to economic growth. But the contrast between new-think and old-think, between finite and infinite planet thinking, between promoting sustainable economic activity and continuing the “growth forever, business-as-usual” mindset can only become clearer with time. As awareness of the GPI and its precepts filters into state decision-making processes, Vermont will find itself increasingly led to develop in ways that are sustainable and that do not damage the delivery of ecosystem services to its citizens. That kind of development will give the state a competitive edge in the region and nation, as it lays a foundation for the sustainable, post-petroleum, post-perpetual-growth economy that must come to the entire planet, in one version or another, sooner or later. (After all, the one thing you can know about an unsustainable system is that it won’t last.) Vermont’s policy use of the GPI is transformative common sense that will make that inevitable transition smoother and less disruptive for all Vermonters.

Eric Zencey, an American author, currently teaches for Empire State College of the State University of New York. He is contributing editor for the North American Review. Zencey lives in Montpelier, Vermont, with his wife, the novelist Kathryn Davis, his cat, Finny, and his Alaskan malamute, Lucy.

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Ontario branch of Canadian Federation of Students votes to join boycott of Israel

300,000 students lead the way where cowering federal politicians dare not follow

Ryerson U president calls on Ontario academic institutions not to “remain complicit” with schools that support “Israeli war crimes”

No 1127 Posted by fw, August 21, 2014

Canadian students vote to join boycott of Israel Published by Redress Information & Analysis, August 21, 2014

Canada may be Israel’s closest lickspittle* state  – more than even the United States – but it would seem that Canada’s youth don’t share their government’s slavish attitude towards the world’s only surviving apartheid state. [*lickspittle – fawning, servile]

According to the Ottawa Citizen, the Ontario branch of the Canadian Federation of Students, representing more than 300,000 university students in the province, has unanimously passed a resolution to boycott Israel.

The website quoted a union executive member, Anna Goldfinch, as saying that the resolution to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (or BDS) Movement in support of Palestine received no opposition at its annual general meeting last weekend.

The resolution, which was submitted by the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU), “endorses a number of solidarity tactics that have been called for by Palestinian civil society”, she added.

RSU’s president, Rajean Hoilett, was quoted by the Ottawa Citizen as saying that he was calling for the university and colleges in Ontario not to “remain complicit” through investments and ties with academic institutions that support or profit from “Israeli war crimes”.

Everywhere, from Ottawa to Santiago and from Oakland, California, to London, the people are shouting loud and clear, often in defiance of their corrupt governments: no to Israeli crimes and yes to justice for the Palestinian people.

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Want to learn how to build an effective counterpower movement? Watch this

These “Rising Voices” provide a role model of collaborative action

No 1090 Posted by fw, July 06, 2014

“There is a long and storied history of community organizing that’s been dominated by groups working independently towards their own separate goals. But in a world where income inequality is squeezing the middle class to the point of oblivion and those with the biggest bank accounts have the loudest voices, two of the nation’s best organizers have decided to turn tradition on its head and join forces.”Moyers and Company

“It’s a transformative experience for people to speak truth to power in a really direct way. And it is about civic engagement and participation. It is about making this country the country that makes everyone visible.”Ai-Jen Poo, Director, National Domestic Workers Alliance

“We’ve started to figure out the strategic moves we would need to put in place to realize the new economy. And for us, that means moving from playing checkers to playing chess.”George Goehl, NPA’s executive director

At a conference held earlier this year in Washington, DC over 500 members of National People’s Action (NPA), a network of grassroots organizations whose diverse members include young people trying to improve public housing in the Bronx to family farmers in the Iowa, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), converged on Washington, DC. Together, the two networks represent nearly 100,000 people and 73 affiliate organizations across the country.

In what sense is this nascent collaboration of Rising Voices a model of building a counterpower movement? George Goehl, puts it this way:

We feel like this [the Washington conference] was a little baby step towards aligning some impressive forces across the country. We are at this point in building a new movement. That we are not quite at take-off, but a lot of the building blocks are being put into place. Big shifts in how we do organizing, strategizing, skills training of volunteers, issue workshops, direct action protests, and big shifts in terms of collaboration. ….

To find out more about what the lead organizers of “Rising Voices for a New Economy” have been up to, watch below an inspirational, embedded 8:09-minute video and accompanying transcript. Alternatively, click on the following linked title to watch the video and access the transcript on Moyers and Company.

Rising Voices for a New Economy produced by Moyers and Company, July 2, 2014

TRANSCRIPT

PROTESTERS: Get up, get down! Corporate greed get out of town!

AI-JEN POO: We’re in a bit of a crossroads. We can continue to go down a path of a low road economy where the fastest growing jobs are all poverty wage jobs. Or we can start to chart a new path.

GEORGE GOEHL: If we’re serious about changing the country and changing who our economy serves, and what values are underneath it, we’ve got to come together in much bigger ways than we have before. So for the conference, we’re training a new generation of activists around how to think differently about how we do organizing.

AI-JEN POO: The conference was called Rising Voices for a New Economy and it was held in Washington, DC, where a lot of decisions about the future of our economy get made. We had 500 domestic workers from around the country meeting for several days. Many immigrant women, African-American women, so almost entirely women of color.

GEORGE GOEHL: Hello NPA!

AI-JEN POO: And then we were joined with the National People’s Action and they represent small family farmers and public housing residents and all kinds of working people.

GEORGE GOEHL: There was a long history in the field of community organizing of different organizations actually not collaborating. Actually kind of running down their own path, building their own power, but not building a movement.

I think there was just a recognition that we were up against such big forces. That we actually don’t have any choice but to collaborate. The same root causes are impacting everybody. So if you’re fighting to save your home from foreclosure, or you’re seeing corporate agriculture come into your state and ruin family farms, you see corporate power. And so people are making the connections. And I think organizing, and organizations likes ours and the domestic workers, help people make these connections.

BREANNA CHAMPION: It’s not that my state is broken, that we can’t afford the things that we so desperately need. It’s just that the people that are making the most money aren’t contributing to our state, and to our country. This is happening all over the country.

Two-thirds of corporations in Illinois pay no income taxes. If they were to pay taxes, that is money that could go to students like me who can’t afford school. And not just my education, this affects everything in my community.

GEORGE GOEHL: If you care about us having a modern social safety net, you need corporations to pay their fair share. If you want to see new infrastructure built so we can create jobs in this country, we need corporations to pay their fair share. I could go on and on. If there’s any issue that we need to unite around, this is one of them. And right now, corporations are sitting on record profits but simultaneously paying record low tax levels.

AI-JEN POO: There is so much wealth all around us. I definitely think that our scarcity mentality is one that can and should shift and is not based on the reality that we have here in this country.

GEORGE GOEHL: We need to go expose those lies, tell the new story, and take our country back.

CANVASSER 1: So we are going to be calling targeted voters…

GENEVIEVE LYSEN: 100 folks have come from all across the country to learn a critical organizing skill, which is canvassing.

CANVASSER 2: Right now we have a bill that’s just been passed…

GENEVIEVE LYSEN: Today the group of volunteers are calling about a tax haven bill in Maine that would ask corporations to report the profits that they’re storing overseas right now. ‘Cause currently they’re allowed to get away without reporting that income, and thus not pay any taxes on it, and we don’t think that’s fair.

CANVASSER 3: I’m going to make it really easy for you. I can transfer you right over to where you can either speak with your legislator, which is Senator Langley…

GENEVIEVE LYSEN: In Maine we’ve been able to override the Governor’s veto on our state budget, on a slew of environmental bills, and it was by contacting voters at their homes to call their legislators. So canvassing works.

CANVASSER 4: Do you mind if I turn this computer a little bit?

GENEVIEVE LYSEN: The goal here is that all of these volunteers take back the skills that their learning here today, and bring them back to their communities and their organizations. So we’re seeking to build a big group of powerful canvassers across the country to try to turn things around.

MALE SPEAKER: We’re going to spend some time this morning.

GEORGE GOEHL: At our conference, we do training, we do issue workshops, and then most importantly, we hit the streets.

PROTESTER 1: Time to make some noise!

GEORGE GOEHL: We actually left the conference and went into the streets.

AI-JEN POO: Protests are one of many ways to get a story out there. To us it’s about making visible the many, many voices and experiences that are made invisible in an unequal economy and society like the one that we live in.

PROTESTOR 2: All right, so our first action is a surprise action. Today we’re taking one of the biggest tax dodgers in the country. GE, General Electric…

GEORGE GOEHL: We took 600 folks from NPA and the Domestic Workers to the GE’s lobbying operation here in Washington, DC. And it was to really go directly to the people that are responsible for the tax dodging that GE is engaged in, and bring the message directly to them.

PROTESTER 2: GE, we’re ending your tax dodging today!

PROTESTERS: That’s right. Whoo! Pay your fair share.

GEORGE GOEHL: In a time that they’ve made 30 billion in profit, they’ve gotten 3 billion back in tax refunds. We need to expose them directly and go toe to toe with corporate power.

PROTESTER 2: Once we get off the bus, remember don’t run, walk quietly, calmly, and quickly. Don’t engage with police. I know we have three police liaisons; can you raise your hands? Whoo!

PROTESTER 3: This is where we get off.

PROTESTER 2: Here we go, guys.

PROTESTER 3: Alright, let’s go, let’s move. Let’s move.

SECURITY GUARD: Excuse me, excuse me. No, no, no.

PROTESTOR 4: We are here today…

PROTESTERS: We are here today…

PROTESTOR 4: Because we’ve had enough…

PROTESTERS: Because we’ve had enough…

PROTESTOR 4: We’ve had enough of cuts to our schools…

PROTESTERS: We’ve had enough of cuts to our schools…

PROTESTOR 4: Medicare and Medicaid…

PROTESTERS: Medicare and Medicaid…

PROTESTOR 4: We’re angry.

PROTESTERS: We’re angry.

Pay your fair share! Pay your fair share! Pay your fair share!

POLICE LIASON: They want us to leave, but we’re here until we deliver our message.

PROTESTERS: Pay your fair share! Pay your fair share! Pay your fair share!

GEORGE GOEHL: Wealthy elites have basically and isolated themselves off from the rest of us. They actually don’t have to see poverty. They don’t actually have to see the people that have been made invisible by inequality.

PROTESTER 5: Pay your taxes so our families can live.

AI-JEN POO: It’s a transformative experience for people to speak truth to power in a really direct way. And it is about civic engagement and participation. It is about making this country the country that makes everyone visible.

PROTESTER 6: Above us are the General Electric offices. And up there, they can hear you. They can hear you.

PROTESTERS: Whoo! We’ll be back! We’ll be back! We’ll be back!

GEORGE GOEHL: We are at this point in building a new movement. That we are not quite at take-off, but a lot of the building blocks are being put into place. Big shifts in how we do organizing, big shifts in terms of collaboration. We feel like this was a little baby step towards aligning some impressive forces across the country.

At our website BillMoyers.com, you’ll find cause for hope and creative ways to bring about change in interviews I’ve done with George Goehl, Ai-jen Poo and other activists at our “Take Action” page.

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