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Fixing America’s Future

 Posted by Alison Singer on December 13, 2012
Dec 132012

In “Fixing the Future,”  a recent documentary on PBS, David Brancaccio takes the viewer on a road trip across America, searching for enterprising individuals and communities who are changing the way they think about the economy.

In what the video terms a jobless recovery, the difficulty is in finding, retaining, and building equity in jobs—essential in developing any sustainable economy. One burgeoning business strategy that the film explores is worker cooperatives, in which the workers own a share of the business, and are thus incentivized to work hard, increase production, and retain pride in their business. There are over 300 worker cooperatives in the United States, employing thousands of workers and generating more than $400 million in annual revenues.

Watch the trailer above or watch the whole documentary here.
While small cooperatives of various sorts have become common across the country, to actually revolutionize the traditional ways of doing business, cooperatives will need to expand their scope. By identifying large-scale needs, and figuring out how to source those needs locally, cooperatives can move beyond the traditional realms of food, and into industry and manufacturing. For example, Evergreen Laundry in Cleveland, Ohio—a LEED Gold Certified cooperative—has taken advantage of the large industries in the city, like hospitals, nursing homes, hotels, and restaurants, and provides affordable laundry to those businesses. By focusing on these anchor industries, the laundry ensures it retains a reliable customer base.

In Bellingham, Washington, Sustainable Connections is going a step further, building a “relationship economy,” based on the accountability that comes with having relationships with others in a community. This idea is nothing new; it is essentially a local-based, environmentally aware economy that seeks to connect consumers with producers, cutting out the often expensive and unnecessary middleman. Brancaccio takes us through a variety of Bellingham businesses aiming at growing the local economy sustainably, including a fishing venture, a restaurant and inn, an architect designing tiny houses, and a pizza oven builder.

In the upper Midwest, Bremer Bank is also helping to build a relationship economy, maintaining personal connections with its customers, and helping them through the hard times, not just the good times. The bank is also majority owned by the Otto Bremer Foundation, a nonprofit charitable trust that uses the bank profits to provide grants in local communities. The rest of the bank is owned by its employees, borrowing from the worker cooperative model. And perhaps most interestingly, unlike most small, community-based banks, Bremer covers a large geographic area; it has over one hundred branches in three states.

The video ends with the most innovative idea–switching from a monetary economy to a time economy. In Portland, Maine, the Hour Exchange is a local initiative in which individuals provide one hour of a service and receive one time dollar. Each time dollar is the equivalent to one hour, no matter the service, so each service is considered equal, whether it is handyman work, providing professional therapy or medical assistance, giving massages, or offering sailing lessons. The Hour Exchange offers a way for uninsured people to receive proper medical assistance, a way to meet and interact with other community members, and to do something that you genuinely enjoy in exchange for another service you need. In seven and a half months, the Hour Exchange has generated  6,300 time dollars worth of transactions—and countless new community connections.

While full of enterprising business models—and an important critique of using GDP as a measure of national economic well-being–the film leaves some important questions unanswered. The focus is primarily on small-scale businesses. Though small-scale businesses are important, particularly in local communities, it is difficult to envision any sort of dramatic shift away from our corporate world towards a more localized one. For example, in Austin, Texas, Brancaccio visits a sustainable home/building supply/department store. He drives the streets of Austin in a tiny car-to-go. He gets lemonade from a locally-owned food trailer. All good-intentioned, but hardly groundbreaking businesses, and it is unclear how this concept of a locally-based economy will productively spread, creating sustainable jobs on the order a sustainable economy requires.

The video argues that if we take a lesson from cell phones, we can in fact alter the face of the economy. Cell phone towers are individually quite limited, serving only a small area, but capable of bouncing signals to the next tower. If we utilize this idea of localized networks sharing information and communicating with each other, then the overall network becomes a large, diversified, and powerful movement. While there is truth to this, it is also a vast oversimplification. The small, individual networks must contend with the already enormous corporate conglomerates, and it may be that no amount of communication and sharing will be able to overcome the status quo.

  One Response to “Fixing America’s Future”

  1. Inertia is certainly a major problem, it may come down to how far people are prepared to go to resist corporate power. Other possible issues: in a society as mobile as the United States, how stable and long term can locally organized enterprises be? Can alternative financial institutions, etc., compete with major banks who want to undermine them? Given the political power of corporations, will legislation be used to obstruct the alternative economy?

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